Saturday, January 30, 2010

The vigilante


Starring in a film for the first time in eight years -- or, more importantly, the first time since he went on a drunken, anti-Semitic rant -- Mel Gibson decided to return to something familiar.

Something very, very familiar.

In fact, I didn't realize how familiar until a Facebook friend of mine posted a question in his status update earlier in the week. This guy is a working journalist who, I suppose, was trying to come up with a story related to the release of Gibson's Edge of Darkness. I'm only assuming that, because this was the exact phrasing:

"A little pop culture help, please: can anyone think of any other movies in which a dad wreaks bloody vengeful havoc after his child or wife is hurt and/or murdered? A la Taken, Death Wish? What movies am I missing? And no, I am not curating a film festival."

What turned me on to the Gibson angle was the responses to this post. One commenter said "Isn't that the plot of every Mel Gibson movie ever made?"

The answer is, yes, pretty much. With the exception of Bird on a Wire and Forever Young.

(And sorry to steal your idea for a story, if this was in fact what your idea was, o friend of mine. But blogging anonymity prevents me from giving you any more credit than I already have. Besides, you'll never read this anyway. Nor will many other people.)

Let's consider, chronologically, all the way back to when Mel Gibson was just a glint in superstardom's eye:

1) Mad Max (1979, George Miller). Gibson plays a police officer whose family is murdered by a gang in retaliation for the death of one of its members. After this, Gibson's Max becomes mad.

2) The Road Warrior (1981, George Miller). Same Max, still mad.

3) Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985, George Miller & George Ogilvie). Same Max, but not quite as mad anymore. Tina Turner guest stars.

4) Lethal Weapon (1987, Richard Donner). Gibson may have become something of a jolly court jester in later Lethal Weapons, but not here. This deadly serious movie features Gibson as a suicidal, nearly psychopathic cop who is stewing in his own misery after the death of his wife. Will act crazy for food.

5) Lethal Weapon 2 (1989, Richard Donner). Martin Riggs is a lot funnier in the second installment, but he still gets a chance to go fist-swinging, gun-blazing crazy after they deposit his new girlfriend at the bottom of the bay.

6) Braveheart (1995, Mel Gibson). William Wallace becomes a freedom fighter after his intended is murdered, but don't think his eyes don't go into the back of his head in apoplectic rage in a couple slightly less noble moments.

7) Ransom (1996, Ron Howard). This is probably the first one everyone thinks of, though neither his wife nor son is actually killed here. However, Tom Mullen gets so pissed about his son's kidnapping that he actually puts a ransom on the kidnappers. My friends and I were saying "Gimme back my son!" in loud, spittle-filled Gibson rage for several years after that.

8) Payback (1999, Brian Helgeland). In this film, Gibson is perhaps more a strict vigilante than in any of the others -- what prevents it from fitting the terms of my friend's query is that his "payback," from what I remember/can glean from the internet, doesn't have anything to do with a wife or a child. However, I've called this post "The vigilante," so it certainly fits into my own modification of the theme.

9) The Patriot (2000, Roland Emmerich). Gibson's Benjamin Martin is a pacifist until one of his sons is killed by the British during a skirmish at his plantation. After that he gets all angry with his muskets and gunpowder.

10) Signs (2002, M. Night Shyamalan). Yep, this even fits into the theme, sort of. Although Gibson's Graham Hess is a reverend and most certainly a man of Godly non-violence, his wife was killed by a driver who fell asleep at the wheel (Shyamalan), and it's at least implied that Hess wants to do this man physical harm.

11) Edge of Darkness (2010, Martin Campbell). I don't know if Gibson's detective goes all Charles Bronson on anyone after his activist daughter is murdered, but the hopelessness and screaminess of a lot of his dialogue from the ads certainly suggests that possibility, doesn't it?

Okay, so it's not every movie he's in. But 11 movies is more than a trend. And besides, it's not really satire if you don't exaggerate a little bit.

Now, five movies in which Mel Gibson should have played the grieving dad/husband:

1) Mystic River (2003, Clint Eastwood). "Is that my daughter in there? IS THAT MY DAUGHTER IN THEY-UH?!?"

2) Taken (2009, Pierre Morel). "What I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you."

3) A Time to Kill (1996, John Grisham). But he'd need a race change. "YES they deserved to die, and I hope they burn in hell!"

4) The Limey (1999, Steven Soderbergh). "You tell him, you tell him I'm coming. Tell him I'm FUCKING coming!"

5) Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott). "At my signal, unleash hell."

Friday, January 29, 2010

Is quality even the point?














In this case, I'm gonna say "no."

When you've gotten down to the point of just stuffing your list of 2009 movies for the maximum number of titles, that's all you're really doing -- grabbing whatever's most convenient and stuffing away.

Which is why, instead of watching the probably-quite-good documentary Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 last night, I watched a comedy I knew would be terrible. And Year One was, in fact, terrible. But it was nine minutes shorter than Harvard Beats Yale, and it was already 9 o'clock, and I have to be at work at 7 a.m., so that has to count for something.

In fact, the length of a movie is as good a reason as any to see it when you're trying to watch (I wrote it down) 13 more movies before going to sleep next Monday night. Only eight of those are from 2009, mind you. The other five are from earlier in the decade, since I'm coming up with a list of my favorite films of the 2000's in addition to my favorite films of 2009. Both by the time the Oscar nominations come out on Tuesday morning.

It would be a bit different if I were working on just a top 10 list. Then viewing a film like Year One would only hold value if you were looking at it from the most idealistic, egalitarian, naive perspective possible, which would state that every film out there has the potential to be one of the best you've ever seen. Fact of the matter is, I'm glad Year One wasn't any good, because having to include it in my top 10 would have constituted the kind of critical trend-bucking even I'm not comfortable with.

Since I'm ranking all the movies I've seen, however, any particular viewing adds value to the whole project. By ranking these movies, I'm not just trying to draw attention to the top 10, though objectively, that would be considered the most interesting section of my list. No, I'm really trying to make a comment on all the movies. That [name withheld until Tuesday] is my #1 movie of the year is no more interesting to me, theoretically, than the fact that Year One is #71 or #86 or #127.

All you can really do is line up the movies you want to see, and then the others -- movies you can passively pick up at the library for free, three at a time, like Year One -- just end up hitting you as blowback, during the down times between the movies you really want to see.

Because I've said it before: My year-end list is not just a repeated attempt at auditioning movies for the top slot. What it's really trying to be is a definitive look at the year based on the experience a full-time critic would have, watching anywhere from many to most of the films released each year, depending on how many other critics write for the same publication. And since I've only reviewed 10 films that came out in 2009 -- so far -- I've got to build up the rest of that list inorganically. But I still want it to look like a diverse cross-section of the movies released last year.

Which is where a movie like Year One comes in. It was a prominent release, a comedy starring Jack Black and Michael Cera, directed by Harold Ramis, and released in the summer. It was a movie a lot of people saw -- a lot fewer than the filmmakers hoped, but still, a lot of people -- and a lot of people talked about, even if they didn't see it. It's a useful brick when building a perspective on the Year in Film: 2009. And so last night, I added it to the wall, slathered in some mortar to adhere it to the adjacent brick, and smoothed it all out with my trowel. And now I'm ready for the next brick.

Which may be Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 anyway, when it's not 9 o'clock on a school night.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Unoriginal


I was planning to write this post about a year ago.

Last January, two horrors with similar titles were released -- The Unborn on January 9th, The Uninvited on January 30th. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans was also released on January 23rd, making it a very Unusual January, but it's the two straightforward horrors, rather than the werewolf-vampire-fantasy horror, I really wanted to write about.

I didn't write about them at the time, because it was the first month of the blog and my head was practically exploding with things to write about, whether good ideas or not. I guess I'm still in the same boat a year later, as I sit here updating my blog for the sixth straight day. The difference now is that I've seen both of these movies in the past week, part of my mad dash to the finish line of ranking movies before my Tuesday deadline to close off my 2009 list. I'm happy enough to write about films in the abstract, but actually seeing them gives your perspective a bit more validity.

A viewing of each hasn't changed that perspective, though: These movies could both be re-titled The Unoriginal.

The fact that they both have titles beginning with the letters "Un" is really more of a cute detail, the kind of thing that inspires you to write a post like this in the first place. But both The Unborn and The Uninvited could be swapped out for a hundred other generic, interchangeable horrors that come out of Hollywood these days, all with more or less the same look, and many of which follow the same structure for their titles: The definite article (The) followed by some vaguely chilling or abstract concept (Unborn, Uninvited).

Consider, just from the last decade:

The Forsaken (2001, J.S. Cardone)
The Others (2001, Alejandro Amenabar)
The Ring (2002, Gore Verbinski)
The Grudge (2004, Takashi Shimizu)
The Forgotten (2004, Joseph Ruben)
The Cave (2005, Bruce Hunt)
The Fog (2005, Rupert Wainwright)
The Breed (2006, Nicholas Mastandrea)
The Reaping (2007, Stephen Hopkins)
The Invisible (2007, David S. Goyer)
The Eye (2008, David Moreau & Xavier Palud)
The Strangers (2008, Bryan Bertino)

And those are just the big Hollywood releases, the ones that most film fans would immediately recognize. The trend runs much deeper when you go straight-to-video -- not surprising, since straight-to-video takes its cues from (to put it generously) and/or rips off (to put it more truthfully) the Hollywood releases.

Also, this is to say nothing of the horrors that are this kind of movie, but don't fit the title scheme, such as One Missed Call (2008, Eric Valette) and Shutter (2008, Masayuki Ochiai).

Also, I'm listing only American remakes here. Half these movies were originally made somewhere in Asia, and you'd think those versions were a lot better, but in many cases, they're pretty much just as bad.

It's not a very surprising revelation that Hollywood likes to follow successful trends, even rehash cookie cutter versions of earlier movies with different actors and a different title. But it's fun sometimes to accumulate the evidence of just how similar they are.

The movies listed above are, of course, individual movies, some of which have actual merit. All of them, however, have at least one thing that I found in either The Unborn or The Uninvited:

1) Creepy child with voice that shouldn't be coming out of that child;
2) Person standing in the distance, visible to frightened victim looking out the window;
3) Image of bizarre creature that doesn't have anything to do, per se, with the plot;
4) Human body twisted in a way that violates the laws of nature;
5) Startle scare from thing that isn't there when the person looks again or tries to show it to someone else;
6) Image of person momentarily warps and becomes vaguely ghoulish;
7) Wide array of disturbing visual motifs that can't be thematically linked to each other, making them unable to justify their inclusion in the film beyond the director's interest to see what that thing looks like on film;
8) Major plot twist in third act of film.

I could go on.

Even the things that seem like they might be interesting in The Uninvited or The Unborn -- and there are a few -- are blatant rip-offs. For example, the poster I chose for The Unborn was one of three that were immediately available through Google images, and is not the one that's most commonly associated with that film. Perhaps I shouldn't have chosen it, because it gives a false sense of that film's value that flies in the face of the argument I'm trying to make. But it actually makes my argument for me, in a way, because the grotesque human who walks like a spider dates all the way back to The Exorcist in 1973. In fact, maybe we can date this whole trend back to the 1970s, when films like The Exorcist, The Omen and The Brood -- all films that fit the title pattern, in fact -- were released. (I'm conveniently ignoring the fact that titles like The Thing and The Blob came out decades earlier.)

Yet it's funny -- I don't think I watched either of these films just for a laugh. I genuinely thought there was a chance they might scare me. And I'd be lying if I said they didn't, sometimes, give me the creeps. The Unborn was the most effective in that regard, giving me chills on more occasions than I like to admit (some of the images were exquisitely bizarre, even if they didn't amount to a hill of beans). And I saved The Uninvited until late in the night on Saturday, in the hopes of increasing the potential scare factor.

I had my primary reasons for seeing these films -- namely, that they were released in 2009 and were easily available through passive means (The Uninvited through OnDemand, The Unborn from the library). I also had my secondary reasons, arising from an academic curiosity about whether Elizabeth Banks would make an effective villain (The Uninvited), or what the hell an actor like Gary Oldman was doing in such an uninspired genre film (The Unborn), or whether David S. Goyer (who also directed The Invisible, listed above, which I found sort of interesting) might be able to make The Unborn less of an uninspired genre film (only by a smidgen, if at all).

The third reason? Maybe, just maybe, these movies would scare me. As I've discussed before, fear is my favorite thing to feel during a movie, but I so rarely get it that I've become jaded about the very possibility.

Not so jaded, however, that I won't occasionally see a movie like The Unoriginal.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Knocking streaming, trying streaming

I've been playing fast and loose lately with the idea that streaming movies sucks.

So instead of just resting on that general pronouncement, I thought I'd put it to the test. Get some actual evidence to support my claim by watching Big Fan, which I recently discovered is available through Netflix for immediate streaming. My wife has a Netflix account, so I got down to business yesterday after work.

The results were mixed. Some of the problems I encountered had to do with my computer, some had to do with the streaming itself. But since all the problems are germane to the experience of watching a streamed movie -- you need a computer to stream, after all -- they are all relevant in this analysis.

Forthwith:

1) I couldn't get the position of my laptop screen correct for the night shots. Daytime footage in Big Fan was fine, but at night, I couldn't get the right angle to make out the contrasts. I'd angle it either too much past 90 degrees, and the light from the window behind me would wash it out, or too much short of 90 degrees, which meant I was getting my own reflection in the screen. (Why not just do exactly 90 degrees -- ha ha). With the smaller laptop screen, you have to position it closer to yourself to create the same screen size you'd get while watching the TV screen from your couch. But I really don't want a reflected image of myself watching the movie while I'm watching the movie.

2) The image was stuttering and freezing. I kind of knew I wouldn't get actual buffering, where the movie stops while the progress bar shows you how much buffering is required before you can start watching again. The combination of Netflix' product and my internet (to be honest, I don't really know how it works) would ensure that my viewing experience would exceed this minimal standard. But that doesn't mean there weren't problems in the smooth delivery of the movie. In fact, when Patton Oswalt and Kevin Corrigan, the incurable Giants fan of the title and his equally incurable buddy, showed up in the parking lot for some tailgaiting -- and, without tickets, ended up staying in the lot for the entire game -- I thought the quick freezes might have been some kind of hip technique utilized by director Robert Siegel. So I jumped back a minute in the movie just to see if the freezes were in the same spots, which would confirm or refute that theory. They weren't in the same spots, which meant this was purely a shortcoming of the streaming. The fact that you have to check, because it might be a problem with the delivery method, is a big difference from watching it through a DVD player, where you'd be certain it was an artistic feature intended by the director.

3) My laptop overheated. At about the 30-minute mark of the movie, the computer shut down. Given that the laptop was sunken into the comforter on my bed, I shouldn't have been surprised -- cut off the air flow from underneath, and the computer takes evasive action to protect itself. However, I also have a method to prevent this kind of thing from happening, a laptop cooling pad that slides under my laptop and projects cool air through a fan onto the underside of the computer. The actual fan is broken, but the square slab of plastic should still provide a buffer between the computer and whatever surface it's resting on, using the opening for the fan as an airstream that prevents the computer from feeling smothered. So streaming this movie must have really required a lot of effort from my computer, because it still overheated despite the presence of this buffer.

At this point I was feeling pretty pessimistic about streaming. Because the computer needed a few minutes to cool down before it would power back on, I walked around and put away some laundry, sharing my observations about the experience with my wife. Being a strong Netflix proponent and a regular streamer herself -- albeit on a Mac rather than a PC, and here I go again opening myself up to being chastised for preferring the "inferior product" -- she seemed to take the fact that it wasn't working out for me a little personally.

And then:

4) The final hour of the movie went by without incident. In fact, in a happy bit of unexpectedness that I attribute to both Firefox and Netflix, the movie resumed in the exact spot where it was when the computer crashed. Firefox did the job of restoring the session, and Netflix did the job of not canceling my viewing. I didn't dare hope for that, since my wife prepared me for the fact that I'd have to start over and search forward to the spot where I'd left off. What was really strange was that the movie was no longer halting and stuttering. Maybe my computer needed to be rebooted for some other reason, which is why Big Fan wasn't streaming perfectly to begin with. In order to prevent another overheating, I added a second buffer underneath the cooling pad.

So I'm glad I did it. For one, it was really nice just to finish watching Big Fan, and not have to do anything more -- not have to return it to the video store or drop it in the mail to get my next movie, not even have to eject it. Nor did watching Big Fan "count" against my wife's account, either by delaying her access to her next title, or by being one of a limited number of streamed movies she can watch per month. Accessing it instantly is obviously a huge advantage, especially since that's one of the main ways I give Blockbuster props: I credit them with allowing me "instant gratification" by being able to pick out a movie at the store, rather than having to wait for the mail. It goes without saying that picking something out online is an instanter version of instant gratification than that, even if the selection is limited. Finally, there's the fact that I wouldn't even have been able to watch Big Fan yesterday without this method, due to the inability to procure a DVD that I discussed on Sunday.

But I'm still not entirely sold. I can't deny the problems that plagued me -- and really distracted me -- during my first half-hour of watching Big Fan. Whether I need to get a different computer, or have a method to hook it up to my TV, is not really the point. The point is that for me, streaming involves using the tools I currently have, at this point in time. It's only as useful to me, practically speaking, as those tools allow it to be. Watching a little indie like Big Fan on my laptop may work out fine, but if I want to watch a grandiose epic, I'll still vastly prefer a physical DVD that I can slide into my player, for the largest picture and best sound available.

Baby steps, streaming, baby steps. Hey, only two days ago, I was cursing your name.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Napping and waking


I've been quite the diligent movie watcher the last couple weeks, as I try to meet twin February 2nd deadlines for my best of 2009 and my best of the decade lists.

And so it is that I've perfected a late-night movie-watching strategy heretofore considered to be merely science fiction: The "I'll just close my eyes for a few minutes and then wake up to watch the rest of the movie" technique.

According to all our practical understandings of the human body's need for sleep, this technique should be a miserable failure. A late-night nap has another name we're more familiar with -- it's called "going to sleep." You may not sleep the whole night on the couch, but once you've slept three or four hours, you're toast, and the rest of that movie just won't get watched. Not tonight, anyway.

Yet I've somehow managed to do this three of the last four nights.

What's been happening is that my wife has been sick, so she's been going to bed early. Or at least, relocating to the bedroom to fall asleep in front of the TV. I've still had about a movie's worth of stamina remaining in me, so I've eagerly dug into either a 2009 movie, or a movie from earlier in the decade. Gotta get those lists as robust and as accurate as possible. (With the movies from the rest of the decade, I'm only re-watching ones I've already seen in order to decide which ones make the final cut, and where they should be ranked. I don't believe, at this late date, that I'm actually going to see one of my top 25 movies of the 2000's for the very first time).

But as soon as I have that couch all to myself, and I'm stretched out nice and good, I'm way too comfortable not to be claimed by my sleep impulse. However, I'm also way too serious about not missing a moment, so I don't just fall asleep with the movie playing. If I fall asleep for a second or two, I'll snap awake like you would if you'd dozed off at the wheel. Then I'll consciously yield, hitting pause on the DVD player first, expecting to gave my body just a taste of the sleep it craves, then continue watching in maybe 15 minutes.

In the past I would have been down for the count. But the last few nights, instead of napping for three hours, I've napped for ten minutes, then awoken at a still-very-reasonable hour. This method got me through Sugar on Thursday night, through Crank High Voltage on Friday night and through Waking Life last night. And just to show you this sleep impulse has nothing to do with the visual and audio stimuli in question, Crank High Voltage spent 85 minutes assaulting my senses on Friday night -- in a good way, as it turned out -- and I still needed to take at least two, possibly three naps during its running time.

The most thematically interesting of these movies, in terms of what I'm discussing, is Richard Linklater's Waking Life, the one-of-a-kind 2001 film that involves an unnamed protagonist (Wiley Wiggins) walking through a city (a never-named Austin, TX) and listening to the life philosophies of numerous physicists, philosophers, activists, filmmakers and other intellectuals, including Linklater buddies like Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg, playing characters who are also unnamed. Sound ponderous? It would be if not for two important things: 1) Much of the spoken dialogue, while on the verge of being inscrutable, constitutes hugely nourishing philosophies on existence, if you pay enough attention to what's being said; 2) The whole thing is beautifully rotoscoped, which basically means that different artists painted over footage of the actual people with their own unique character designs and backgrounds. The whole thing ends up being like a beautiful moving painting full of dense, but often highly intuitive, observations on time, existence and the human condition. It's a gas.

Aside from all these philosophies, however, the narrative spine is that the main character can't wake up from this dream, where he's having all these conversations with all these people. There are numerous discussions about whether he's having a lucid dream that he can control, or whether he's just subject to the whims of his body chemistry, just acting out a pre-determined set of random actions according to the physical principles of atoms and molecules.

Anyway, it seemed appropriate for what I was going through last night -- watching, closing my eyes a bit, pausing, sleeping, dreaming, waking back up again. Just as Wiley Wiggins tries to control his dream in Waking Life, I was trying to control my sleep -- and succeeding. I started at around 9:30 and finished at the stroke of 12, which means about 50 combined minutes of napping to get through the 99-minute running time.

Want to know what was really surreal? What woke me up from one of my naps was the audio of the TV in the other room, where my wife had probably lost her battle to stay awake. Strangely, I could swear there was something familiar about that audio -- in my only half-awake state, I could swear it was one of the monologues from Waking Life, playing in the other room on the bedroom TV, even as the movie was paused in here. It wasn't -- it couldn't have been -- but the real belief that it was dovetailed perfectly into my experience of watching a movie that's kind of about that very thing.

One more word on Waking Life before I let you go for today ... if you haven't seen it, and have some curiosity from what I've described, but are simultaneously a bit wary because of the highly intellectual content, I urge you to get out there and do it for the beautiful visuals alone. One of the things I've always appreciated about Waking Life, which I own, is the beautiful pauses you get. If the movie itself is like a moving painting, then the pauses are the more traditional kind of painting. A nice thing to greet you when you awake from one of those late-night naps.

I'll leave you with a few of these wonderful pauses ...




Monday, January 25, 2010

Not a big fan of this trend


(Seems like an appropriate poster for conference championship Sunday, doesn't it? Go Saints!)

Yesterday I wrote about being thwarted in my attempt to see a movie, largely due to a comedy of errors. Today it's an institutionalized thwarting I want to write about.

The other movie I tried to pick up two weeks ago, in addition to Hustle & Flow, which I discussed yesterday, was Big Fan, the indie from last fall in which Patton Oswalt plays ... well, plays a big fan of the New York Giants. It's directed by Robert Siegel, the writer of The Wrestler (my favorite film of last year), and involves a nightclub altercation with a player, as well as a large amount of unnerving, obsessive behavior.

There's been awards buzz around Oswalt's performance, though as time goes on, it seems unlikely that enough people will see it to cast a vote for him. Especially if they are relying on Blockbuster. Which, of course, Academy members wouldn't be, but stay with me, I'm trying to make a point here.

I'm hugely interested in this movie. It's one of the ones I knew I'd see prior to my February 2nd deadline for closing out my 2009 rankings, and the reason I've been so confident is that it's already on DVD. Then it's just a matter of prioritizing it over the other movies that are already on DVD.

Or so I thought.

It turns out, it wasn't actually available on DVD two Sundays ago -- I thought it was already out after Oswalt appeared on The Tonight Show to promote it -- but it did become available two days later, on Tuesday, the day of the week on which DVDs are always released.

Of course, "available" is a relative term here.

When I went to Blockbuster this past Friday, my first choice was Big Fan. I hadn't specifically looked for it again since two weeks ago, but its time had definitely arrived.

Except, as you have no doubt anticipated by now, it wasn't there. I thought I might have just been looking in the wrong place, because there was also a special section for the best movies of 2009. But nope. Not there either.

I asked the Blockbuster clerk about it. I could tell she was one of the helpful ones, not one of the ones who "just works here." She looked it up and told me that corporate hadn't sent out any copies, and that it would probably be quite a long wait to get it online. When I asked her why they chose not to stock what seemed like a pretty mainstream film -- and oversold Oswalt's performance, saying he was going to get an Oscar nomination for it, as if the strength of my indignation might prompt her to reach below the counter and produce a copy -- she said she didn't know. She was clearly frustrated, too: "Sometimes I think it's just a bunch of monkeys at keyboards making these decisions." Thus kicked off a head-shaking discussion about where the industry was going, and how neither of us was satisfied with the future prospect of having to stream most movies we wanted to see.

This Big Fan scenario has thrown out of whack my whole understanding of just how much things are changing. When I saw that Blockbuster wasn't carrying Hustle & Flow in stores anymore (only later recognizing that it may have just been out at the time I looked for it), that was something of a shock, but it was nothing compared to this. Until now, the one area where Blockbuster had been beyond reproach was its new release section, which makes a certain amount of business sense. New releases are the only rentals you can count on to fly off the shelves. To meet that demand, Blockbuster will order literally a hundred copies of certain movies for each store. Those copies obviously rent enough to make it worth having to dispose of the extra inventory once the demand dies down. Some of those extras will sell as previously viewed copies, and maybe the rest will be dumped in a landfill, but either way, they made their money on the initial spike of interest.

You'd expect that kind of thing for your Transformers and your Iron Mans and your Dark Knights, but Blockbuster has also been quite good about stocking the obscure titles. There may only be one copy, but they'll have it. At any given time, the new release wall is strewn with random shit you've never heard of -- a lot of it straight-to-video, sure, but plenty of independent or foreign films that had limited theatrical releases.

Like Big Fan. You'd think that would be a slam dunk. Patton Oswalt is not a household name, but neither is he an unknown -- he voiced the main character in Ratatouille, after all. Yet here it was, unavailable -- the first time I had ever seen that. The first time I'd tried to find a new release at Blockbuster, and not even seen the cardboard copy of its poster indicating that it should usually reside in that spot. There was simply no evidence of it, because it didn't exist.

And this is a big deal, because you can't rely on being able to get a new release online. Not surprisingly, new releases often have the words "Short Wait" or "Long Wait" next to them online, because there are so many other people who want to see them the same time you do. "Long Wait" is what it currently says next to Big Fan.

For me, this is traditionally where the store comes in, and it's one of Blockbuster's big advantages over Netflix. The demand for that movie may be high at the store as well, but they seem to have budgeted more copies. Or, failing that, I can just go to a different store. I'm not saying there haven't been times when a particular movie is difficult to get, just that you can always find it with a little elbow grease and persistence.

I tried to use such elbow grease yesterday. I went to a second Blockbuster, to see if maybe it was only that particular Blockbuster that had not been shipped the title. But there was no Big Fan here either -- neither an actual copy, nor an empty spot where it was supposed to be. Infuriatingly, however, there was a copy of a movie called Big Stan -- several copies, in fact, as if taunting me. Big Stan is a comedy starring Rob Schneider as a guy who learns kung fu to defend himself in prison. Not an acceptable substitute. But, ironically, it does demonstrate what I was saying about Blockbuster's deep new release section.

So now I'm faced with an interesting scenario: A movie becomes available on DVD three weeks before my ranking deadline, and, short of buying it, I may have no way of seeing it at all.

Not so fast.

The other trend I wanted to write about in this piece had to do with Blockbuster's primary rival, Netflix. Last week, news broke that Netflix had reached an agreement with Warner Brothers to hold off on offering that studio's new releases for 28 days after they become available for purchase. In exchange, Netflix would get to stream more of that studio's movies. To me, who is still clinging to the physical DVD, this was a step in a direction that made me nervous -- and, according to the article I read, just the first such agreement Netflix wanted to make with various studios. It's all part of the same worrisome trend, and for a moment, I considered calling this post "The DVD new release: an endangered species."

Not having much more hope for the presence of Big Fan on Netflix, especially considering where that company is heading, I nonetheless figured I ought to search Big Fan on my wife's Netflix account, just to be thorough. Maybe I'd find that Netflix has some kind of exclusive rights to the movie, which prevents Blockbuster from carrying it in stores. Maybe at the very least I'd see whether I could expect the same "Long Wait" for a DVD of Big Fan through Netflix. If not, perhaps I'd depend on my wife's kindness in order to see it, and get it moved to the top of her queue.

In fact, I discovered, the thing that I fear might actually be the thing that saves me on this particular movie. Lo and behold, Big Fan is available for immediate streaming. Just like that, I went from not knowing when I'd get to see this movie, to possibly watching it right now.

We're forced to adopt changes in various industries all the time, whether we like those changes or not. Maybe this is one trend I'll end up embracing after all.

I can tell you this: When I'm watching Big Fan sometime this week -- at the exact moment of my choosing, and even on my own laptop as long as my wife is logged in to her Netflix account on it -- I'll definitely be able to see its value. Which, only yesterday, I didn't think I'd be able to see.

That's how things change ... gradually. Then before you know it, you're a big fan of the thing you thought was your biggest rival.

Maybe there's a Blockbuster vs. Netflix lesson in there as well.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

An elusive Hustle


It's starting to look like I may never get in my second viewing of Hustle & Flow.

I already consider it a personal travesty that I have yet to revisit my favorite film of 2005. Now, the fates are conspiring against me as I try to watch it again prior to ranking the decade's best films.

You may remember a couple Sundays ago that I tried to pick it up at a local Blockbuster, leading to shock and disappointment that they didn't carry it. Which devolved into melancholy over the state of the rental industry, that we'd soon be losing physical DVDs and be streaming all the movies we want to watch, buffers and all.

Well, I figured that at least I wouldn't have any trouble receiving it through the mail. Blockbuster the company owns a copy of this movie somewhere. All I'd have to do is list it at the top of my queue, and I'd have it within a couple days.

Having no specific urgency to see it other than the February 2nd deadline I've chosen to finalize my best of the 2000's list, I slotted it around third on my queue, and resumed my normal viewing habits. Hustle & Flow was scheduled to arrive this past Thursday, but here's what I got in the mail instead:


That's right -- just the part of the envelope with my name and address on it, the part you usually tear off and throw in the recycling as soon as you receive it. The rest of it was out there, detached, in some post office somewhere -- or maybe in a puddle, judging by the looks of it. We've had rain for almost a week straight here in Los Angeles, as you probably know -- it's made national news. That certainly accounts for the condition my "movie" arrived in. In fact, given how messed up that remnant is, I'm surprised they could even determine the correct address.

There was something perverse about this mangled and smudged bit of envelope. It was almost like something somebody would send you with a ransom note. To prove they had the object you desired, they'd send along a little piece of it that left no shadow of a doubt. You know, maybe the pinky finger of a kidnap victim. Or, more benignly, the gas cap to your stolen car.

It's hard to tell when, or if, I'll get the object I desire this time. I waited a day and then reported Hustle & Flow missing to Blockbuster. I originally reported that I didn't get the DVD, to which I received an automated response that it had only been shipped on Wednesday, so I should wait two more business days before assuming I wouldn't receive it. So then I changed the reported problem to the next best option that I could find: that I'd received an empty mailer. Of course, it was really less than that I'd received, so I took it one step further and sent them a message to explain what I had in fact received.

I got a very prompt response from the customer care representative assigned to my ticket. However, the response leaves some uncertainty as to whether I will be getting Hustle & Flow again straight away. You be the judge:

"It appears that your report was received on January 23, 2010 and a request for a replacement was chosen. When you report a problem and choose "Resend Same," we do our best to ship a replacement copy to you. When all copies of the title are currently out to other customers and it is not immediate availability, we will ship the next DVD from your queue to prevent any service interruptions. Your DVD issue was reported and the DVD will be resent when it becomes available."

Okay, so either this is a generic response -- I doubt it because of the mistake "not immediate availability" -- and I might be getting Hustle & Flow again right away, or it's a specific response to me, saying that all the copies are currently out. Either way, my queue does not currently list it -- or any other movie -- as shipped. And it makes me wonder if maybe there just aren't any other copies of Hustle & Flow -- not at the location that ships to my house, anyway. I think that's what happens when movies are listed as "Very Long Wait" -- roughly translated, it's "we don't have any, but if that guy who's had it for the last year ever returns it, we'll send it to you." And I don't think they would borrow from a neighboring retail center just to ship it to little old me.

I wonder if this is the universe telling me I should just buy Hustle & Flow. There was a time, not too long ago, when I was trying to come up with a system for adding movies to my collection that I could justify. I would love to have a large movie library -- I probably have 40-50 DVDs right now -- but I usually try to refrain from buying new ones, on the theory that it's not a great use of money to buy something I may only watch once in the next five years. There's an intangible value to having the library itself -- you can impress your friends with it, I guess -- but in most cases you are better off just renting it for that second viewing, then probably not watching it again for five or ten years.

But I do like acquiring movies now and then, just as we all like wasting money on hobbies and other things that have little demonstrable value. So I told myself I would permit myself to buy any film I had ranked #1 for a given year, from when I started doing it in 1996 to present day. That seemed like a good objective standard, without being excessive. Strangely, in those 13 years, I own only four such movies that I ranked #1. And maybe that's why I didn't immediately go out and fill in the rest. If the whole discussion came from a place of saving money, it hardly made sense to go shell out $100 to fill in those gaps.

But maybe now, given what's happened, given my repeated flailing on Hustle & Flow, I have the excuse I need to go buy at least one of those top-ranked films.

You know, sometimes, it can be hard out here for a pimp.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The H-Man at his pointiest


It was not a great decade for Harrison Ford.

Charitably, you could say he just chose not to work very much, a luxury allowed by his massive accumulation of wealth. After all, he didn't have a single feature released in four different calendar years: 2001, 2004, 2005 and 2007. That was definitely his own choice, not any kind of external condemnation of his marketability.

Uncharitably, you could say that he didn't try very hard. That he mailed in a bunch of movies, only the first of which was received somewhat well: What Lies Beneath (2000), K19: The Widowmaker (2002), Hollywood Homicide (2003), Firewall (2006), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and Crossing Over (2009). You could also surmise that he was looking to Crystal Skull to revive his viability as a box office force, and though it certainly made its money, the poor critical reception had to sting.

Well, it's a new decade, and the H-Man is back on the scene in just its first few weeks, doing what he does best: pointing.

I'm not sure if there are actually any moments in the trailers for Extraordinary Measures, which opens today, in which Ford gets all up in someone's face and whips out that famous index finger. But it certainly seems like the kind of movie where he might do a lot of pointing, doesn't it?

Ford lines from the trailer that could definitely inspire a good finger wag:

"You're going to tell me, you're not going to ask me?!?"

"I already work around the clock!"

"No one is gonna tell me how to run my lab!"

And wait! There it is! On that last one, he actually points!

Sweet.

Not that you shouldn't point, as an actor. Just that Ford has made it into an art, and probably, eventually, a crutch. What we're really saying is that he's good at delivering an angry, accusatory pronouncement. And why wouldn't you raise a lecturing finger when doing that?

I knew Ford's tendency to point was something my friends and I were aware of. In messing around a little on Google, however, I've discovered it's a full-fledged phenomenon. I found a bunch of other isolated images of Harrison Ford and his famous index finger -- he uses the left one and the right one alternately -- including:


And, given its own title card:


And, given its own collage:


I'm having a little fun at Ford's expense, but he should have the last laugh, because I've discovered that I actually sort of want to see Extraordinary Measures. Medical dramas about doctors "already working around the clock" to cure incurable diseases are a dime a dozen, but there's something about this one that strikes me.

Maybe it's the A-list cast, if you still want to include Ford in the A-list, along with an A- Brendan Fraser and a B+ Keri Russell. Or maybe it really is that Ford and all his pointing, presumed or otherwise, have given those trailers a little bit of electricity that makes the movie seem like it could be a truly tense experience.

I won't see it in theaters, but don't be surprised if I end up ranking it on my 2010 list about a year from now. If I do, that'll mean only one fewer Harrison Ford film I'll have seen this decade than last.

Point, Ford.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

My favorite director


I'm not going to say James Cameron. I've learned my lesson about even hinting at something that could be interpreted that way.

No, today's post is about another exercise made possible by my involvement in Flickchart (www.flickchart.com).

Let's get the obligatory one-sentence description of Flickchart out of the way for any newcomers. Flickchart is a website that allows you to rank all the movies that you've seen that are also in their database, via a series of random duels, the results of which eventually create a personalized list of films ranked from #1 to ... well, to #2665 in my case. It's not only addictive on a superficial level, but deeply useful on a material level for those of us who devote ourselves to movies.

As an additional exercise that goes beyond Flickchart's ordinary parameters, I have been taking a snapshot of my rankings at intervals of every 10,000 duels. At these junctures I stop ranking long enough to update the rankings in an Excel spreadsheet -- my way of charting a film's performance over time, to see when I'm getting close to a definitive ranking. (Not that I'll actually stop ranking my movies once I believe I've reached that definitive ranking, mind you -- Flickchart is just too much fun.) Those 10,000 duels are also about how often I've been writing about Flickchart on The Audient.

Over the weekend I completed recording my 50,000 snapshot, but didn't immediately think of any new wisdom I'd gleaned from the previous 10,000 that I wanted to pontificate about. Then I remembered a brainstorm I'd had several months back, something Flickchart would be able to help me do once the rankings solidified: not only determine what my favorite movie is, but also, who my favorite director is.

You see, next to the movie titles in this Excel spreadsheet, I have also been recording the release year and the director for each. So it's easy for me to regroup the films by director. And I figured, all I'd need to do is sum the rankings of each director's films, then divide by the number of films, to get an average ranking. Lowest average ranking -- remember, #1 is the best and #2665 is the worst -- would logically be my favorite director.

Now, doing this for every single director wouldn't make sense. A director would need a minimum number of films to his/her credit in order to qualify. I originally thought five would be a logical cut-off, but then I found a number of directors whose work really interests me -- such as Alfonso Cuaron and Alexander Payne -- who had directed only four films that I've seen. So I arbitrarily lowered the qualifying total to four. Hey, it's my idiosyncratic little game, with my idiosyncratic little rules.

Before I tell you who won -- and it was a bit of a surprise -- let me put forth a few asterisks to keep in mind:

1) There are about 250 films I've seen that do not yet appear in Flickchart. However, most of those are on the obscure side. To have directed at least four films that I've seen, your films are probably not too obscure for Flickchart. So I mention this more as an aside.

2) These rankings are highly fluid. Some films on my list are still several hundred spots away from where they should truly be. All part of the process. Films just recently added are especially likely to have inaccurate rankings -- which means even if James Cameron had been in contention as my favorite director, he would have been sunk by Avatar's #2363 ranking, which is far too low, even if I do have my complaints with the movie. And along these lines ...

3) A single bad film can torpedo a director. Cameron wouldn't need Avatar to pull him out of contention, because he already has True Lies doing that quite effectively. I greatly dislike True Lies and legitimately have it ranked at #2211. The way my system works, the points Cameron gets for movies like Titanic (#36 -- way too high, but as you know I still like this film) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (#41) are basically undone by the True Lies ranking. So my method for determining the relative worth of these directors rewards consistency, also knocking out directors like Martin Scorsese (I hate Gangs of New York) and Steven Spielberg (everyone hates Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).

4) Fewer films gives you a better chance. Spielberg and Scorsese would have problems anyway because I've seen 21 films and 15 films, respectively, that they've directed. The more films you've directed, the thinner you've spread yourself, and the more likely it is that you've turned in a couple duds. In fact, the highest ranked director on my list who's directed more than ten films that I've seen was Spielberg at #31. I guess a separate argument could be made that if I have seen more than ten of your films, I must consider you a damn good director. One exception to that argument is the famously prolific, diverse and hated Joel Schumacher, who has directed 16 films that I've seen. And speaking of that ...

5) If I've seen at least four of your films, you are probably a decent director. The people who fill out the bottom of this list have at least been good enough to keep getting work. Some of the worst directing I've ever seen won't be recognized here, because the director may not have been given a second chance after the first abomination he or she turned in.

There are exactly 190 directors who have directed at least four films I've seen. And without further ado, the best of them is ...

John Hughes!

It surprised me at first -- Hughes' name hadn't even popped into my head as a contender -- but he actually dominated, with an average ranking of 206 for the six films of his I've seen. The next closest director, the aforementioned Alexander Payne, was nearly a hundred ranking points behind at 303. And looking at those six titles, it shouldn't surprise me: Ferris Bueller's Day Off (#19), Sixteen Candles (#98), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (#183), Uncle Buck (#244), The Breakfast Club (#294) and Weird Science (#396). Some of these are too high -- Ferris Bueller shouldn't be in my top 20, for example -- and the order of my actual preferences might need to be tweaked. But all the rankings hold a certain legitimacy -- if only because they've collectively gotten through 50,000 duels to reach this point. The thing that really surprised me was that I'd seen only six films he directed. Which, of course, is because he wrote a lot more films than he actually directed, his last directorial effort being Curly Sue in 1991. Rest in Peace, Mr. Consistency.

The rest of my top ten, including average ranking of the films, as well as the order I preferred them, according to Flickchart:

2. Alexander Payne (303 - Election, Sideways, About Schmidt, Citizen Ruth). Never a misstep for this man.
3. Alfred Hitchcock (338 - North by Northwest, Rear Window, Rope, The Birds, Rebecca, Psycho, Vertigo). Can't believe I've seen only seven Hitchcock films. Have actually also seen Suspicion, but it's not in Flickchart yet.
4. Christopher Nolan (379 - Memento, The Prestige, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Insomnia). Have also seen Following, but it's not in Flickchart. This is who I thought might be #1, and he probably would have been if I had Insomnia ranked higher than #1079.
5. John Lasseter (402 - Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Cars, A Bug's Life). Would have really contended if not for the #1283 ranking of A Bug's Life.
6. Quentin Tarrantino (411 - Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Vol 1., Inglourious Basterds, Grindhouse, Kill Bill Vol 2., Jackie Brown). Yes, I counted Grindhouse. It's a gray area.
7. Peter Jackson (450 - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, King Kong, Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners). King Kong should drop to last on this list, but otherwise pretty solid.
8. Robert Redford (478 - Quiz Show, A River Runs Through It, Ordinary People, The Horse Whisperer). Some of these movies may be too highly ranked.
9. Nicholas Meyer (500 - Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, The Day After, Time After Time). Kind of a cheat, since The Day After was a TV movie. For some reason I have always counted it.
10. Jim Abrahams (507 - Airplane!, Top Secret!, Hot Shots!, Ruthless People, Hot Shots! Part Deux). Four of these five titles contain an exclamation point. I've seen a ton of bad parodies in my day -- it's hard to believe Abrahams managed to direct only good ones.

And since I've got you here ... the ten worst, with the lowest listed first:

1. Adam Shankman (2227 - Bedtime Stores, The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember, The Pacifier). Bedtime Stories is actually alright. The rest ... well, you know.
2. D.J. Caruso (2162 - The Salton Sea, Disturbia, Taking Lives, Eagle Eye). D.J. Caruso and Shia LaBeouf are not a good mix.
3. Keenen Ivory Wayans (2132 - I'm Gonna Git You Sucka!, Scary Movie, A Low Down Dirty Shame, Little Man, White Chicks, Scary Movie 2). Without the first title on this list, he'd surely have ranked last. Too bad, because I like him as an actor.
4. Brian Robbins (2104 - Varsity Blues, The Perfect Score, Meet Dave, Norbit). The fact that I sort of like the first two titles shows you how low the last two, particularly the last one, are ranked.
5. Donald Petrie (2100 - Grumpy Old Men, Opportunity Knocks, Miss Congeniality, The Associate, Mystic Pizza, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Welcome to Mooseport). There are seven titles there, and not a one ranked above #1737. That's just consistently bad, though I will say that Miss Congeniality could be 500 higher than its current ranking of #1956.
6. Neil LaBute (2050 - Nurse Betty, In the Company of Men, Possession, The Shape of Things, Your Friends & Neighbors, The Wicker Man). Two interesting films, four films ranked lower than #2000. Not a good average.
7. Les Mayfield (2036 - Encino Man, American Outlaws, The Man, Code Name: The Cleaner). I like Encino Man. The rest? Dreck.
8. Harold Becker (2016 - Vision Quest, Malice, Domestic Disturbance, Mercury Rising). Not much to say here.
9. John Pasquin (1973 - The Santa Clause, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous, Joe Somebody, Jungle 2 Jungle). If you align yourself too closely with Tim Allen, you are bound to get on this list. (Notable exception: Galaxy Quest).
10. Michael Lehmman (1936 - Heathers, The Truth About Cats & Dogs, My Giant, Hudson Hawk, 40 Days and 40 Nights). Heathers is really good.

It'll be interesting to see how much these have changed at, say, 100,000. Meet me back here sometime in May.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Slow down! You move too fast!












I take it all back!


Less than a week ago, I wrote a post called "Why I root for James Cameron" -- a post I very much regret, even if it was designed primarily as an opportunity to tell the story of my first screening of Titanic. Seeing Cameron on the Golden Globes last night -- not once, but twice -- reminded me why I shouldn't root for him, and in fact, in the space of a week, no longer do.

Two shocking Avatar-related things happened over the weekend, actually. I'll list them in order from least to most disturbing.

The first was that Avatar raked in another $41.3 million at the U.S. box office, making that five straight weekends in which it has crossed the $40 million threshold. It blew past Star Wars at the box office, now up to $492 million, and seems certain to eventually pass Titanic ($600 million) as the highest grossing film of all time. (Again, apologies for being U.S.-centric in my box office totals.)

This I can take. Accolades from the public come in famously strange forms. Witness the $146 million box office haul for Paul Blart: Mall Cop, one of the worst movies of 2009. Besides, that $492 million is, as we all know, inflated by IMAX and 3-D ticket prices. Inflation is an argument purists used to identify Gone With the Wind over Titanic as the true all-time box office champion, since it had the most individual tickets sold (rather amazing, given how many fewer theaters there were). The same logic holds true for Avatar.

No, the thing that really bothered me was the second thing that happened: Avatar won best dramatic feature at the Golden Globes. Which may just make it the frontrunner to win the Oscar for best picture.

This is a new piece of information I need to incorporate into my understanding of the phenomenon that is Avatar. Not only public acclaim, but critical acclaim.

I suppose I should put critical in quotation marks. The body that selects the Golden Globe winners, the Hollywood Foreign Press, is a famously lambasted entity. This same body gave a nomination to Bobby, Emilio Estevez' ridiculous ensemble drama about the assassination of Robert Kennedy, a couple years ago. This same body also gave best musical or comedy to The Hangover last night. I like The Hangover fine, but I don't feel like it's the kind of movie that should be winning best anything, do you? The fact that the Golden Globes have a category where it would actually be a logical contender shows you a little bit about the populist standards of the Hollywood Foreign Press.

But the Hollywood Foreign Press does show some predictive ability in terms of which movie wins the Oscar. From 1996 through 2003, the Golden Globes picked the eventual Oscar winner in one of the two available categories, honoring The English Patient, Titanic, American Beauty, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as best drama, and Shakespeare in Love and Chicago as best musical/comedy. All of those films won Oscar's best picture.

It wasn't until 2004 that the streak was finally broken, when Million Dollar Baby lost out (rightly) to The Aviator before going on to win best picture. Since then -- and this is what gives me hope -- it's been kind of a mixed bag. In 2005, eventual Oscar winner Crash wasn't even nominated for a Golden Globe -- and hallelujah to that. In 2006, Babel beat out The Departed -- and though I strenuously disagree with that, it ended up being a happy surprise to see Scorsese's film take the Oscar statue it richly deserved. Then in 2007, I applauded the Golden Globes again when the superior Atonement beat out the overrated eventual Oscar winner No Country for Old Men -- though for true justice, There Will Be Blood should have beaten them both. Last year it was back to the status quo, with Slumdog Millionaire winning both top awards.

The strange thing is that I shouldn't be too disappointed to see Avatar rise to these heights. I did like it, I just didn't love it. And of the two films I considered to be the best picture frontrunners until last night -- Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker -- I like Up in the Air only marginally better than Avatar, and I like The Hurt Locker less. Yes, I like The Hurt Locker less than almost everyone I know, a topic to which I may devote an entire post later this week.

But I guess what happens every year around this time is that I realize some of my favorite films are not going to get any Oscar love, and films that left me feeling more "meh" than I wanted to -- like Avatar -- start gaining momentum. You won't trick me into talking about those films here. I've got two weeks and one day before I post my own year-end list.

Oh, and then there's the issue of Cameron himself. During his acceptance speeches last night -- he also won the best director award -- he reminded me what an ass he can be. In an attempt at magnanimity, he asked the people in the room to applaud themselves for having "the best job in the world." (The camera cut to Leonardo DiCaprio, who was sitting on his hands.) It was the perfect example of how being an asshole is a condition that oozes through a person. Cameron wasn't even trying to aggrandize himself here, or at least not directly. But he did think he'd "have the room" by telling a bunch of highly paid entertainers -- of which he himself is implicitly one -- to pat themselves on the back. (He also went for the most tired joke line in the book, talking about how they better not start the music to hurry him off because he has stuff to say. That might have been funny the first time someone made a reference to the show's internal time management protocols, somewhere around 1983.)

Cameron's attempt to whip up a furor of self-approbation didn't really work -- the applause was half-hearted at best. Here's hoping that the voters sitting in this room, who will cast their ballots for the Oscars in the coming weeks, will remember that icky moment of self-congratulation disguised as peer generosity, when they decide whether to make Cameron "king of the world" again this year.

And maybe somehow I'll get my best picture nomination for [name withheld] after all.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Anti-theater


There are countless reasons a person could/would write a post about Lars von Trier's highly controversial Antichrist.

The one I'm choosing is pretty low on that list.

Antichrist, which I watched on Friday night, was another Vancetastic milestone, the kind that only an obsessive like me would even know had passed: It was the 2,000th film I've seen on video.

I suppose I should define my terminology here. A movie seen on "video" is any movie that I saw for the first time somewhere other than a movie theater. VHS and DVD are the two most obvious subcategories, but "video" also includes the similar subcategories of On Demand, pay-per-view, cable movie stations (such as HBO and Showtime) and even commercial TV -- though that's rare because I try to avoid seeing edited versions of movies. Of course, I will see edited versions of movies on an airplane (the whole "captive audience" thing), which is another subcategory of video, as is movies seen on a bus, of which I saw maybe a dozen on the Boston-New York route I regularly rode while visiting a girlfriend in 1999 and 2000. I've never actually watched a movie on an ipod, but if I had, that would count too. The last, hardest to define category of "video" are those movies presented on a large screen, but not in a conventional theatrical setting -- such as the movies they showed for free (or a very minimal charge) in lecture halls on campus back in college, or movies we've seen broadcast on the side of a building at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. (You sit in the grass on a blanket and bring a picnic dinner. It's a lot of fun.)

It might seem simplest to say that "video" means any film not seen in its initial theatrical run, but that's a bit too restricting, because it doesn't include films you saw in the theater on a re-release. When I went to see Buster Keaton's The General in college, in a theater that specialized in pairing silent films with a live organist, I could hardly call that "video," could I? The real difficult one was when my wife and I went to see Lawrence of Arabia a couple years ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and yes, it was my first time seeing this classic. The "theater" where they screened it was not exclusively used to screen movies, but because it was set up like a conventional theater and had quite a large capacity, I labeled that experience a theatrical viewing. They charged us around $10 for the tickets, so that made the designation a little easier.

So "video" is defined more by what it isn't than what it is. In that way, video is the "anti-theater," making Antichrist an appropriate film for this milestone.

I started keeping track of this theater-video distinction as a "what the hell?" once I had my movie list loaded into Excel, and could easily keep track of additional stats about each movie (such as whether I liked or didn't like them, as I described here). I figured it would be easy enough to remember whether I'd seen a movie for the first time in the theater or on "video," so I went back through the list and marked each film with one designation or the other, and have been doing so ever sense. At the bottom of that column I've kept a running total of how many are in each category, and have been ticking that number upward by one with each new film I see.

When I hit 2,000 videos on Friday night, my theatrical total stood at 913.

Let's consider that for a moment. I've seen more than twice as many movies on video than I have in the theater -- for some time now, in fact. And the number gets even larger when you consider the total number of distinct video viewings -- movies seen for the second, third and sixteenth times on video, regardless of where they were originally seen. (I've also seen some movies more than once in the theater, but that list is less than 20).

This shouldn't be surprising, when you think about it. It's obviously far easier and less expensive to watch movies on video than in the theater. But only 25-30 years ago, it wasn't even possible. Can you believe there was a time in our lifetime -- depending on how old you are -- when the only way to see a movie was to wait for it to get re-released in the theater? I distinctly remember waiting for Star Wars to come back to the theater so I could see it again. And for some reason, I also distinctly remember that Ghostbusters, released in 1985, was one of the last films that made a second theatrical run before video stores, VHS and (back then) laser disc made that practice null and void. The cable movie channels, of course, also played a significant role in limiting the need for theatrical re-releases.

Before video and cable, you did have the one video subcategory of commercial TV available, but you had to be prepared to watch it exactly when it aired (there weren't yet VCRs), and only a limited selection of classics that usually didn't have to be edited for content were widely available that way. As for the movies of lesser quality and sketchier content, once they were gone from the theater, it's like they entirely ceased to exist in any practical way.

Then again, I'm definitely a kid of the video generation, as I probably saw 50 movies at most in the theater before I saw one on video. Strangely, I think I remember what that first one was. My friend Jed's family had the first Betamax player I'd ever seen, and I still remember watching a mostly animated, partially live action children's movie called Water Babies at his house. Water Babies was in theaters in 1979, so this might have been 1980 or 1981 -- but certainly not much later, because Jed and his family moved to Colorado soon after that. We might have seen The Black Hole before Water Babies, but I saw The Black Hole in the theater, so it wasn't my first movie seen for the first time on video. Congratulations, Water Babies, that honor goes to you. Since I was born in 1973, and I'm pretty sure the first movie I saw in the theater was Star Wars in 1977, it might have been far fewer than 50 before Water Babies -- it might have been fewer than 25. It might have been fewer than ten.

Now, 30 years after Water Babies, I've seen my 2,000th. Which brings us back to Antichrist. Which, for the record, was a movie I splurged on, paying $5.99 through On Demand (I guess On Demand and pay-per-view are the same thing these days) in order to get it on my 2009 list.

You know the director of Antichrist, Lars von Trier, for his films Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, if you know him at all. (You may know him from other films. I'm just listing the ones I've seen.) The famous thing about Lars von Trier is that his female characters get used, abused and spat out, which have led to charges that he may actually hate women. It's an interesting line he walks -- as his main characters are most often women, you could actually say the opposite, that he sympathizes them, or that if he does subject them to constant dehumanization and degradation, it's to demonstrate how they get treated in a misogynistic world. But there's nearly a sickness to the way these women get treated in his films, which is why you have to wonder. You also have to wonder if he's just trying to push buttons, which is distinctly possible. The man is known for having an inflated sense of his own greatness, and accusations that he tries to discomfit people just for kicks are easily understood once you've watched a couple of his films.

Antichrist is no different. Following in the footsteps of actresses like Emily Watson, Bjork and Nicole Kidman, Charlotte Gainsbourg takes her turn acting out von Trier's awful fantasies of female destruction. Which is why I could have written a post about how violent is too violent, or how pornographic is too pornographic, to show in a mainstream movie. There are really two moments of mutilation/grotesqueness in the movie that have caused it to gain the notoriety it has gained, and I probably could have spent a whole post just talking about whether it is artistically justifiable to show them. Though, for the record, knowing they were supposed to shock me ended up making them a little less shocking when I finally did see them. That's the opposite of the Suspiria effect, where I spent the first ten minutes watching that movie in white-knuckle terror because I knew something f**ked up was going to happen. And so I could have also written a post called "The anticipation," about how anticipating something you know is going to be horrible is an exquisite experience in itself -- for people who aren't squeamish, that is. (And since I didn't know I wouldn't be as shocked as I thought I might be, the film did have that impact on me.) Lastly I could have written a post about the discrepancy between the beautiful and ugly in a film, as there are many shots and sequences in Antichrist that are delicate and gorgeous.

I like the fact that I spent the majority of this post not talking about those things. Just a little FU to von Trier, the self-stylized enfant terrible, a director who likes having people talk about him for deathly serious reasons rather than utterly trivial ones.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Two years too early/late


If there's even been a movie that's cried out for a gimmicky release date, it's Leap Year.

Yet when the film came out last Friday -- making only $9.2 million while fighting for air among the big year-end releases -- it was either two years too early, or two years too late.

With such an apparently interchangeable romantic comedy/travelogue plot, couldn't it have afforded to sit on the shelf for two more years? Or, I should say, wait two years to start filming?

If the production had begun two years earlier, that would have really been something. February 29th was a Friday in 2008. The last time that happened was in 1980, and the next won't be until 2036. Leap Year missed a golden opportunity to come out on Friday, February 29, 2008. The horror, the horror.

But even 2012 would have been okay for it. The 29th falls on a Wednesday that year, and that's the second most popular day of the week for releasing a film.

I contend that not only was the marketing not helped, but actually crippled by this film coming out in 2010. There's a mental disconnect, I think, about a movie called Leap Year coming out in a non-leap year. People just aren't thinking about February 29th in the year 2010. It would be kind of like Disney's A Christmas Carol coming out in June, or the Gary Marshall rom-com Valentine's Day hitting theaters in October instead of next month.

Somehow, we will all get past this and move on.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A shortened screener season


On Monday, I bemoaned the fact that if you want to see movies released in December in time for your year-end list, you have to pay theatrical prices.

There's actually a second way: Go visit your friend who's in the Writers Guild, and cadge as many of his screeners as you can.

Last year was particularly fruitful in this regard, setting me up with some unrealistic hopes for this year. Not only did I watch Doubt with my friend Phil at his place, but I came away with The Wrestler, Burn After Reading and Changeling, all of which he'd already seen. I also took home Doubt so my wife could watch it, which meant I left the premises four screeners richer. Since sharing screeners is strictly prohibited -- you are actually supposed to destroy them after you watch them -- I have changed Phil's name to protect his identity, though they'll have to figure out my identity first if they want to get to him. (The Wrestler ended up being my favorite film of last year, making it only my second top-ranked film that I didn't see in the theater, the first since Run Lola Run in 1999.)

What happened last year, however, was a fortuitous set of circumstances made possible by the fact that I hung out with Phil a week before Christmas. It was soon enough after he started receiving his screeners that he wasn't yet ready to send them in bulk to his cinephile mother, but not so soon that he hadn't already gone through a good number of them, leaving some available to borrow.

But when you get together almost a month later on the calendar, and the cinematic care package to Phil's mother is just days away from being shipped, you have to adjust your expectations a bit. And so it was last night that I reverted to the conditions established in 2007, when I first watched one of Phil's screeners (The Savages) and then just went on my merry way. That's probably just as well, because I don't want my desire to see movies to outweigh my sense of propriety, and put Phil in a situation of stress. Loaning things to people is always a bit stressful -- not only do you have to worry about when you'll get them back, but you also have to worry about them coming back in one piece. (I should know -- he still has two favorite movies I loaned him, and he says they're packed away in boxes somewhere after their move.)

When it comes to screeners, "I'm just happy to be here," as ballplayers up from the minors are fond of saying. I'll take whatever I can get. And last night, whatever I can get was Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart, which has won kudos for Jeff Bridges' lead performance as a broken down country singer. Phil and his fiancee had not yet seen it, so my wife and I joined them on their couch for a viewing over Thai noodles.

And just let me say: I'm glad I didn't pay theatrical prices for this one. Especially since a theatrical viewing would have prevented the snide commentary we established upon realizing it wasn't working for any of us. You know, it's that moment when one person makes a snarky remark, and everyone else laughs a bit too heartily, relieved that the others are similarly displeased. Then you're home free.

Crazy Heart falls into a distinct category of films, of which we've seen quite a few over the last decade, in which a lead performance gets resoundingly praised, and either the performance or the praise itself dwarfs the rest of the movie. With many of these films, the actor in question ended up winning an Oscar. I'm thinking of films like Monster's Ball (Halle Berry), Monster (Charlize Theron) and Boys Don't Cry (Hilary Swank). Lest you think I can only think of examples involving actresses, The Wrestler might have been thought of as a movie like that if a) Mickey Rourke had won the Oscar like he should have, and b) the movie weren't half as good as it is.

Crazy Heart actually has a number of other surface similarities to The Wrestler -- past-his-prime performer tries to make an undignified buck or two while fighting health issues -- but there's no comparison between the two in terms of quality. Bridges' performance is not even all that good, or at least not compared to his own usually high standards. Whatever you think of Bridges -- a friend of mine alternately calls him "Old Mush Mouth" and "Old Marble Mouth" because of the way he tends to garble his dialogue -- there's no doubt that he usually presents as real, even when playing a fantastical character like his peace-loving military zen master in The Men Who Stare at Goats. So if you're using the standard of how good a performer is compared to that performer's usual work, then Bridges' work here is nothing special. In fact, he sometimes seems to be relying on some showy actorly crutches, one of which I described here in the specific context of smoking cigarettes. Not only does Bridges smoke ostentatiously in Crazy Heart, but he loves any opportunity to eat while speaking his lines, or leave his mouth agape, as both of these seem to him to penetrate to the core of his character. It's a pretty good performance, but any time you notice the tricks an actor is using to manipulate you, it's hard to un-notice them.

The biggest problem with Crazy Heart -- and this post was not meant to be an actual review of Crazy Heart, so I'll wrap up -- is that the narrative is surprisingly light on conflict. His supposed rival (played by Colin Farrel in an unusual casting choice) seems to be an eminently nice guy, and there are few consequences to the bad behavior by the aptly named Bad Blake. That was one of the primary sources of disbelief discussed during our running commentary, how things for this "sad sack" were not nearly as sad as they seemed like they were supposed to be. Add in a patently false performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal, in which she can't decide from scene to scene whether she loves or hates Blake (but without anything in the script dictating these emotional fluctuations), and you have a movie that left us laughing -- often at our own jokes and comments -- rather than feeling Blake's pain.

I say there was no cost to watching Crazy Heart, but I did pay for it slightly -- in personal guilt. I know Phil doesn't care if we watch his screeners with him, and probably would have let me borrow a couple of them had I gotten there a couple weeks earlier. And the four of us had been intending to get together for months, so it's not like this was an inorganic gathering that I'd forced on the schedule. However, I did make a joke in an email last week about this being the time of year I needed to "use him for his screeners," and the get-together did spring more or less directly out of that comment. We like them very much and wanted to see them anyway, but I didn't like my own motivations behind scheduling the gathering for when I did.

And so I did the noble thing, leaving on the table a chance to grab one additional screener. In discussing the titles they had seen and would soon be shipping to his mother -- some of which I'd seen, some of which struck me as golden opportunities sadly missed -- I noticed him mentioning the Coen brothers' A Serious Man. He said in this case his mother had actually recommended it to him, and later the screener arrived. I doubted he'd be sending it to her to watch again. So I probably could have left with it, had I asked.

But I let it go. My 2009 rankings will close without that particular title, and no one will be the wiser.

Besides, I have to keep hidden some of the inner workings of my film-obsessed mind, because there will be more screeners to watch at the end of 2010. (And I'm glad on a day like today that Phil never reads my blog.) I have to avoid suspicion when conveniently setting up a time to see Phil next December ...

... maybe a week or so before Christmas.