Saturday, February 27, 2010

Who directed that?


Cop Out is another one of those movies whose title tells you everything you need to know about it. It does indeed seem to be a cop out for its participants, especially Bruce Willis, who looks so sleepy in this poster, you want to give him a pillow and a blanket. And although Tracy Morgan has rehabilitated his good name on 30 Rock, he still hasn't given me any reason to trust him in movies.

And that's all I'd planned to write about Cop Out until I discovered a third, surprising name under those participants. In reading about his recent flap with Southwest Airlines, I discovered that none other than Kevin Smith -- of Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy fame -- is the director of Cop Out.

That's not who I would have expected. It isn't that Kevin Smith is too good for Cop Out -- he's made his share of duds. Who knows, it's possible Cop Out could even be better than I would expect from Kevin Smith. It's just not the kind of movie I expect from him. Without knowing too much more about it than I've seen in the ads, it seems like another buddy cop comedy in the tradition of 48 Hours, The Man (in which the races are reversed in terms of which one is the doofus, and they're not both cops, but you get the idea), etc. Neither of the lead characters, for example, seems to be a slacker stoner who stands outside of a convenience store. Smith doesn't have to be limited to remaking Clerks for the rest of his career, but I would at least expect the films he makes to be some kind of logical outgrowth of Clerks. Even a movie like Jersey Girl seems like a more logical outgrowth of Clerks than Cop Out does.

And it got me thinking about other directors who have surprised us with the films they've chosen. Naturally, I came up with a list. Such a list, in fact, that I've had to chop it down in the interest of reader friendliness.

So, let's get to it right away. I've done my best to break it into categories, and I've also included a director that should have directed the film in question, followed by the film he/she actually directed that made me think he/she would have been a good choice. (Some of those are kind of arbitrary -- forgive me.) One more note: There is no implied criticism of these movie, some of which were actually great. (And some of which I did not actually see.) They simply struck me as an odd pairing of director and material.

Okay:

The WTF? category:

Wes Craven, Music of the Heart (1999). All those who predicted that a director with over a dozen horror titles to his credit would direct an inspirational movie about music teachers, raise your hand. Should have been directed by: Stephen Herek (Mr. Holland's Opus)

Sam Raimi, For Love of the Game (1999). Similar thing to Craven -- career horror genre director takes the helm of a baseball movie in which Kevin Costner pitches a perfect game. Should have been directed by: John Lee Hancock (The Rookie)

William Friedkin, Blue Chips (1994). Unlike Craven and Raimi, Friedkin was not at the time known exclusively for horror (he directed The French Connection in addition to The Exorcist), but a movie about a Bobby Knight-like college basketball coach, featuring Shaquille O'Neal, still seemed weird. Should have been directed by: Ron Shelton (White Men Can't Jump)

Jim Sheridan, Get Rich or Die Tryin' (2006). What in Jim Sheridan's history of making sociopolitical movies set in Ireland (In the Name of the Father, The Boxer) would have led you to conclude he was a logical candidate to direct a movie based on the life of 50 Cent? Predictably, the results were horrible. Should have been directed by: Allen & Albert Hughes (Menace II Society)

Allen & Albert Hughes, From Hell (2001). What in the Hughes brothers' history of making movies about black criminals (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents) would have led you to conclude they were logical candidates to direct a Jack the Ripper period piece starring Johnny Depp? Unpredictably, the results were quite good. Should have been directed by: Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow)

Sidney Lumet, The Wiz (1978). Lumet made a career of directing gritty, urban, realistic movies about people who could have really existed, so how the hell did he end up behind the camera of a Motown-influenced reimagining of The Wizard of Oz featuring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross? Should have been directed by: Norman Jewison (Jesus Christ Superstar)

David Lynch, The Straight Story (1999). Lynch, who has produced some of the most disturbing imagery in the history of cinema, directed a G-rated movie starring an old man who drives across two states on his riding lawnmower. Should have been directed by: Carol Ballard (Fly Away Home)

The Money Grab category:

Francis Ford Coppola, Jack (1996). Coppola has actually admitted that he does stupid studio movies in order to help pay for his passion projects and to keep him from going bankrupt, and Jack, in which Robin Williams plays a young boy on a growth spurt, seems about the stupidest. Should have been directed by: Chris Columbus (Home Alone)

Michael Apted, The World Is Not Enough (1999). I don't like to attribute such motivations to Michael Apted, but how else to explain the man primarily known for the recurring series of Up documentaries (7 Up, Seven Plus Seven, 21 Up, etc.) directing probably the worst James Bond movie of all time? Should have been directed by: Martin Campbell (GoldenEye)

Roland Joffe, Captivity (2007). Joffe was once an acclaimed director, responsible for films like The Killing Fields and The Mission. Then what crazy set of circumstances led him to get involved in one of the most despicable, irredeemable torture porn movies that's ever been made? Should have been directed by: David Hackl (Saw V)

Burr Steers, 17 Again (2009). Remember that really cool movie starring Kieran Culkin that kind of reminded you of The Catcher in the Rye, called Igby Goes Down? Yeah, that was also Burr Steers. Here he's directing a movie in which Matthew Perry becomes his 17-year-old self in the form of Zac Efron. In this case, though, I think Steers just needed the work, as it was his first directing job in seven years. Should have been directed by: Garry Marshall (The Princess Diaries)

The Crazy Flexibility category:

Ang Lee, The Hulk (2003). We probably already knew at the time that Ang Lee was capable of anything -- in fact, I wrote here about how he's never made the same movie twice. Still, The Hulk seemed like a stretch even for him. Should have been directed by: Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand)

Joel Schumacher, The Phantom of the Opera (2004). I don't want to pay Schumacher too big of a compliment, because he's often a hack, but man is that guy diverse in his movies. This may be the ultimate example, and it's actually pretty good in my opinion. Should have been directed by: Rob Marshall (Chicago)

Tom Tykwer, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006). Tykwer hasn't had a long enough career yet to really qualify, but this movie was so different in style and substance from his other brilliant film, Run Lola Run, that it just had to be mentioned here. Should have been directed by: Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker's Dracula)

Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler (2008). Given that he'd just directed the extremely dreamy, out-there duo of Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, who knew Aronofsky could be realistic so damned effectively? Should have been directed by: Sean Penn (The Pledge)

The I Didn't Expect That From That Actor category:

Sarah Polley, Away From Her (2006). Who would have thought an actress in her 20s, who appeared in such films as Go and The Sweet Hereafter, could have such an uncommon command over the emotions involved with Alzheimer's disease? Should have been directed by: Penny Marshall (Awakenings)

Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone (2007). Just when you thought Affleck was about to have no career whatsoever, he directed this gritty police drama based in Boston, always believable and with great performances (particularly his brother Casey). Should have been directed by: James Gray (We Own the Night)

Todd Field, In the Bedroom (2001). Todd Field, until then, was just a character actor most people would never have even heard of, appearing briefly in Eyes Wide Shut and with a larger role in Walking and Talking. I'd heard of him, which is why he made this list. Should have been directed by: Paul Schrader (Affliction)

Jon Favreau, Iron Man (2008). Made was terrible, Elf was wonderful and Zathura was not very good, but none of those prepared me to see Favreau's name on a summer tentpole superhero movie. Should have been directed by: Stephen Sommers (G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra) Eh, why not?

The I Didn't Expect That From That Non-Actor category:

Fred Durst, The Education of Charlie Banks (2007/2009). As the Limp Bizkit frontman, Durst made a career of posturing on stage, so a generally sensitive film about an intellectual college student was the last thing I was expecting from him. Should have been directed by: Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down)

Davis Guggenheim, An Inconvenient Truth (2006). When he directed Al Gore's movie, Guggenheim's only previous directing credit was on a feature called Gossip, which was one of those interchangeable horror films that came out around the same time as Urban Legend. Should have been directed by: Errol Morris (The Fog of War)

The I Didn't Expect That From That Gender category:

Mary Harron, American Psycho (2000). Given the violence, some of it towards women, of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), I was surprised that this would be directed by a woman at all, though perhaps that was the only way to convince people it wasn't wrong in the head. (It is supposed to be a satire). Should have been directed by: Roger Avary (The Rules of Attraction)

Betty Thomas, Private Parts (1997). Similar rationale as American Psycho, only this time it's about the famous sexist (or is he just playing one on TV?) Howard Stern. The movie actually portrays Stern in an uncommonly sensitive light, if you haven't seen it. Should have been directed by: Milos Forman (Man on the Moon) Eh, why not?

Ridley Scott, Thelma & Louise (1991). Given the macho subject matter of most of Scott's films, it seemed surprising that he'd be able to get inside the heads of two rebellious women so effectively. Should have been directed by: Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof)

The Double Feature category:

Woody Allen, Anything Else (2003)/Match Point (2005). The first was marketed as such a teen comedy, it did not even include Allen's name in the advertising campaign; the second contained nary a joke, existing as purely a thriller, set in England no less. Should have been directed by: Peyton Reed (Bring It On)/Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr. Ripley)

Richard Linklater, The Newton Boys (1998)/The Bad News Bears (2005). Linklater took a break from his normal milieu of philosophizing among talkative bohemian slackers to direct a period peace about bank robbers and a remake of a beloved baseball movie for kids. These could have gotten an honorable mention in the "Money Grab" category. Should have been directed by: Les Mayfield (American Outlaws)/Stephen Herek (The Mighty Ducks)

Okay, that's about enough of that.

I'd love to hear any others you might think of ...

Friday, February 26, 2010

About time for a change


Greetings everyone. Time for the latest update in my regular series of posts discussing my utilization of Flickchart (www.flickchart.com) to rank all the films I've ever seen. To see how Flickchart does it, I refer you to this post -- and then to the six other FC-related posts I've written, which you can find by clicking on my Flickchart label to the right.

I've now made it through 60,000 duels on Flickchart. That's 60,000 head-to-head battles between any two of the 2735 movies I am currently ranking. But just to look at my top 20, which I've isolated for your edification in a special spot on the right, you wouldn't have thought I was making much progress. At 40,000 duels, I discussed my frustration that there had not been a single change in my top 20 during the previous 10,000 duels. The next 10,000 yielded a couple changes, restoring some of my equanimity. But then the 10,000 after that -- the period I just finished -- went back to the status quo. No changes.

The reason for this is pretty simple, when you think about it. When you're pulling randomly from a group of 2735 movies, you get a lot more meaningless duels between the films ranked #1042 and #1311 than you do between films ranked #1-#20 and any other film that has a reasonable chance of beating them. Those 20 films get maybe ten duels every 10,000, and most of the time, they hold serve against some pretender in the low 1700s.

Thus far, I haven't been willing to use one of Flickchart's many available methods for focusing only on higher ranked films. I had decided that I loved the purity of the randomness of the duels. I knew that eventually, over time, even if it took one million duels, all my films would have all the duels they needed in order to reach their proper place in the rankings.

But it takes a lot of patience to wait for one million duels to transpire. At the pace I'm currently going -- not that I can maintain this feverish intensity forever -- I won't hit one million duels until about 2018. There had to be something faster.

There is, but I'd have to sacrifice some of that "purity of randomness" I discussed a moment ago to get it. I'd have to decide I am willing to take control of my duels, make them less random than they've been. And I decided it was about time. I was getting just as sick of looking at those same 20 titles as you were.

So I decided I would utilize a feature on Flickchart that allows you to duel only your top 250 films. Ever flexible, Flickchart also lets you duel your top 100, your top 50 and your top 20, but let's not get crazy here. Baby steps. Baby steps.

I decided I'd devote the first 1,000 of every 10,000 new duels to just the top 250. That would allow for plenty of reshuffling among my favorite films, a faster push toward greater accuracy, a faster push toward permanently removing The Untouchables and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (great movies though they are) from my top 20. And then for the other 9,000 duels, it would be business as usual. Those 9,000 duels would give lower ranked films, films that might deserve to be in the top 250, an opportunity to move into the top 250 in time for duels 70,000 through 71,000. And there still might be changes to the top 20 during those 9,000 duels -- they would just come organically, like they used to.

Did it work? Hell yes. Maybe too well. (I'll explain what I mean by that in a minute).

Here is how my top 20 looked at 60,000:

1. Toy Story
2. Pulp Fiction
3. Donnie Darko
4. Schindler's List
5. Glengarry Glen Ross
6. Dumb and Dumber
7. Back to the Future
8. Lost in Translation
9. The Seven Samurai
10. Toy Story 2
11. The Empire Strikes Back
12. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
13. Dances With Wolves
14. The Princess Bride
15. Raiders of the Lost Ark
16. Children of Men
17. Unforgiven
18. Citizen Kane
19. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
20. The Untouchables

And here's how it looked at 61,000:

1. Raising Arizona
2. Toy Story
3. Pulp Fiction
4. Donnie Darko
5. Schindler's List
6. Glengarry Glen Ross
7. Dumb and Dumber
8. Back to the Future
9. Lost in Translation
10. The Seven Samurai
11. The Iron Giant
12. 12 Monkeys
13. Children of Men
14. When Harry Met Sally ...
15. Unforgiven
16. Toy Story 2
17. The Empire Strikes Back
18. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
19. Citizen Kane
20. Adaptation

Maybe those differences seem abstract to you, but they weren't for me. Those differences represented a whopping ten changes to the top 20 in just 1,000 duels. That's compared to zero changes in two different non-consecutive periods of 10,000.

How did it happen? Well, I'll tell you.

1. The Shawshank Redemption defeated The Princess Bride. This came within my first 25 duels under the new system, and brought a sigh of relief that the process was working as I intended. Plus, I love Shawshank -- it's one of two films (along with Dumb and Dumber) I've told people I must watch to the finish if I come across it on TV. As an added bonus, The Untouchables was finally banished from my top 20. (No offense, Untouchables, but you just aren't top 20 material.)

2. Citizen Kane defeated Dances With Wolves. Another clear victory. Citizen Kane may just be my favorite film of all time -- maybe "the best" is more accurate than "my favorite." Jumping up to #13 marked its high water mark on Flickchart. Plus, although I like Wolves very much, it's been something of a mystery why it's stayed in the top 20 for so long. This duel pushed it one closer to departing that hallowed ground. But because Citizen Kane was already in my top 20 (at #19), nothing was pushed out of the top 20 with this duel.

3. Raising Arizona defeated Toy Story. This is when it started to get real. This one hit me like a ton of bricks. Toy Story had been my #1 movie since my very first Flickchart duel. It was in the first duel, it won, and it had not lost since. Nevertheless, I had started to get tired of it sitting at #1. There's a possibility it could be my favorite film of all time, but then again, I don't actually own it on DVD, which should tell you something. And Raising Arizona felt like the right film to dethrone it, especially since I featured it in the post I wrote after 40,000 duels -- it was the example I gave of a movie I couldn't, for the life of me, get up to a decent ranking. Is #1 decent enough? But because it was such a significant change -- could there be a change any more significant? -- clicking that button in favor of Raising Arizona shook me to the core. With this duel, Ferris Bueller's Day Off also exited my top 20 -- I can safely say for good.

4. 12 Monkeys defeated Toy Story 2. And another Toy Story movie takes a hit. This win for 12 Monkeys might not have been possible if I hadn't seen it again about six months ago, and remembered how great it is. I have also started to mentally turn on Toy Story 2 a little bit. It's a great film, no doubt, but I no longer know if it belongs in my top 20. One sad byproduct of this duel was that Unforgiven was kicked out of my top 20.

5. WarGames defeated The Princess Bride. This change came very soon after the previous one, and started to make me wonder if I could mentally digest all these changes at once. I decided that the constant sense of foreboding that pervades WarGames is more cinematically effective on me than Princess Bride's constant sense of whimsy. Another thing that contributed to my mounting anxiety: The brilliant Children of Men dropped to #21 after this duel. Wait! Stop! Hold on there!

6. When Harry Met Sally ... defeated Toy Story 2. Another duel that came fast and furious on the heels of the previous one. I've stated my case against Toy Story 2 already, so I'll say this felt very right: When Harry Met Sally (I'll omit the ellipses) may just be my favorite romantic comedy of all time. But another unthinkable casualty: The towering Raiders of the Lost Ark was bounced from my top 20.

Here a funny thing happened. I was given a duel between Children of Men, which had just been evicted from the top 20, and The Empire Strikes Back, which was holding strong at #14. I can't tell you how much I love Children of Men, but come on ... it's The Empire Strikes Back. Then again, this would get Children back into the top 20. I agonized over it for about a minute, but then, a deus ex machina saved me: We had a power outage. Every once in awhile, it's nice to be saved from the recurring Sophie's Choices that make up the Flickchart experience.

7. Adaptation defeated Dances With Wolves. The respite was brief. After only another couple rankings, Dances With Wolves was defeated again. This duel also would not have transpired this way if I hadn't just watched Adaptation again in order to rank my favorite films of the 2000's, reacquainting me with its non-traditional brilliance, which I realize is an acquired taste for most people. So long, Princess Bride.

8. The Iron Giant defeated 12 Monkeys. The Iron Giant is one of my top five animated films of all time, so I'm okay with this. But this again came right on the heels of the last decision, making me paranoid indeed about what I'd gotten myself into. WarGames got bumped from the top 20, its taste of the good life ultimately short-lived.

9. Children of Men defeated When Harry Met Sally. Thereby restoring one film that was regrettably purged from the top 20 four duels ago. Of course, for every restoration, there's a counterbalancing loss: The Shawshank Redemption dropped down to #21, it too given only a short furlough in the top 20.

Thus ended an intense period of about six top 20 changes in the course of less than hour of ranking in front of the television. My my.

10. Unforgiven defeated Toy Story 2. I'm really ganging up on Toy Story 2, aren't I? The final change to my top 20 came a couple days later, after a busy weekend in which I didn't have much time to rank. It was a relief to be nearing the end of my self-imposed 1,000 duels among the top 250 films, and to have Unforgiven restored to the top 20. (Though, as I am coming to realize, there are more than 20 films I think should go in my top 20.) The final film booted from my top 20? Dances With Wolves. Which, as I've suggested, is justified.

So how do I feel at the end of all of this?

Exhausted. In fact, it took me longer to get through these 1,000 duels than any previous 1,000.

You'd think I'd be excited to forcibly reshape my rankings to more accurately reflect my tastes, and it's true, the top 20 I have now is certainly more accurate than the one I had before. But in truth, it was scary. Over the course of 60,000 rankings, I've become something of an old dog, wary of new tricks. There has been a certain comfort in plowing through a hundred or two hundred duels in the space of five minutes, knowing that you will have mostly inconsequential duels. And that when a really important duel does come up, it will seem like an exciting moment, a really big deal.

When all the duels are consequential, it's a different story. It's really too much of a mental burden to always be deciding between really good movies. You need a buffer comprised of low-stress decisions. I felt myself actually starting to fear the conditions that I had put in place. It was like I was walking a minefield of really important decisions, and at any moment I could be sent into a panic of indecisiveness. What's more, I found there to be a lot of movement within that top 250 -- every film always seemed to be winning a duel that would jump it 100 spots in the standings. I started to worry whether my decisions were even internally consistent anymore. How could Movie A be better than Movie B, Movie B be better than Movie C, but Movie C be better than Movie A? I don't know, but it was happening.

Logically, I should be excited just to get where I'm going -- accurate rankings -- all the more quickly. But I discovered something about myself during this process: Old dogs can accept changes, but they'd really like them to be gradual. Ease us into the changes -- don't smack us in the face with a two-by-four.

Maybe I'll scale back from 1,000 to 500 next time. I can't take the stress.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

What's enough of a bargain?


I think I made a big step forward today on the difference between whether you can afford something, and whether you should afford it.

On my lunch hour, I was at a low-end Kmart-type store we have out here in Los Angeles called Big Lots, looking for those little paper sleeves you stuff coins in. I've been a fan of the CoinStar machines for awhile, mostly because I like spilling in the coins and watching the machine count them up. (It's the little things.) But in my push to save money, I've decided I no longer want to donate 8.9% of those coins to the nice people at CoinStar, but keep the total amount for myself. This is where the decision to start stuffing coins into coin sleeves and taking them to the bank came in.

I didn't find the coin sleeves, but I was, naturally, lured over to the display of extremely cheap DVDs. Big Lots was selling a bunch of DVDs -- not popular movies, mind you, but not terrible ones either -- for $3 apiece. Even if I don't plan to buy, I'm always attracted to such displays. I'm always curious about what they have, knowing in the back of my mind that if the price is right, there's a chance I'll buy. The price is not usually right, or not usually right enough, so I usually escape the gravitational pull of these movies without taking one with me.

Today I almost caved. Almost.

They had Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep for $3. New, still in its package.

And The Science of Sleep was a movie I liked quite a bit. It was no Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry's masterpiece, but it did enough of what Eternal Sunshine did right that I felt a reasonable fondness toward it, some notable third-act problems notwithstanding.

In the past I might not have hesitated here. I spend three dollars on things with a lot less value than The Science of Sleep all the time. It wouldn't have required a second thought to take it to the checkout stand, bring it home, and insert it between two other DVDs on my DVD shelf.

But it's not the past anymore, and I'm starting to think that just because you can buy something, doesn't mean you should. And I decided right then and there that it was not worth three dollars for me to own The Science of Sleep.

Then the question was, how much would I have paid for it? Would I have bought it for $2? How about at the 99 Cent Store, which was my next stop, where I also did not find the coin sleeves?

I had to tell myself that I probably did not like The Science of Sleep quite enough to buy it at any cost. If I plan to see it even one more time in my life, it might have been worth that $3. But I don't know when I plan to watch it, and do not feel specifically compelled at any time in the near future. Considering that scenario, those three dollars may be better served remaining in my pocket, ready to be spent on an actual necessity. I'll probably watch The Science of Sleep again at some point, but until then, it'll be just one more piece of clutter in my house. And there's an intangible value in avoiding that scenario as well.

Wow, I'm really starting to sound like an adult.

Shit, maybe I should have bought it.

What would you have done?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Anyone but Andie MacDowell


Two of the last three movies I've revisited have been Groundhog Day and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

These are both films I love, but as it happens, they were both chosen by my wife. Four Weddings and a Funeral was her choice from our own DVD collection when we failed to prepare a rental for Valentine's Day. And last night, when I'd carried the taco makings and shells freshly removed from the oven into the living room, she'd tuned the TV to Bravo to watch Groundhog Day. Needless to say, I was more than pleased to watch both. It was probably my seventh viewing of Four Weddings, my fourth of Groundhog Day.

But seeing them both within the space of ten days reminded me of the other, primary thing they have in common. In fact, I've associated these movies in my mind over the years, for one specific reason:

They would both be even better without Andie MacDowell.

Over the years, I've made the argument to whoever would listen that literally any other actress of similar stature could have played these roles better. And most people will listen to that argument. In fact, in my travels, I've discovered that most people have at least a mild dislike for Ms. MacDowell.

On some level this feels uncharitable. She is, after all, a model-turned-actress, and she's only doing her best. Plus, she seems like a genuinely nice person, the kind of old-fashioned Southerner who might believe in old-fashioned Southern hospitality.

But man is she a bad actress.

She seems to be trying very hard, and not succeeding. No matter what expression is on her face, there's always a look of strain behind her eyes. Then again, I guess that could just be how she looks.

And to be fair, I have to admit something a bit sexist here -- I probably wouldn't be quite so critical of her if I were slightly more attracted to her. I think that's the thing that's always puzzled me about MacDowell, as well -- not only did I not understand how she was an actress, but I especially didn't understand how she was a model-turned-actress. In order to do that, you have to first be a model.

And that look of strain, for want of a better way to describe it, is part of her natural appearance. Not only is that a problem for her modeling -- I'd think it would be a put-off to most people, and it certainly is to me -- but it's a problem for her acting, as she doesn't seem to be able to make it go away. Part of being a good actor is that you have total control over your facial features. Andie MacDowell does not.

Yet there's no doubt she has something, something that led her to be cast in Steven Soderberg's sex, lies and videotape (1989). That wasn't her first role -- she had flailed in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) and St. Elmo's Fire (1985). But Soderbergh saw some potential in that flailing, and it was after sex, lies and videotape that she started getting cast regularly. I thought she was particularly overmatched in Green Card (1990). I haven't seen that movie since a couple years after it came out, but I still remember releasing a couple shocked bursts of laughter at how poorly she acted some of her key scenes. I guess I was in the minority on this one, or else it's just another proof of the poor judgment of the Hollywood Foreign Press, because this performance received a Golden Globe nomination.

MacDowell's luck continued when she caught the attention of another maverick director, Robert Altman, appearing in a cameo as herself in The Player (1992), and then as a character in Short Cuts (1993). Even though I saw The Player again only a couple months ago, I don't remember her in it. But if I had to guess, I'd say she was probably not very successful even at playing herself. I'm overdue to see Short Cuts again, and will be sure to be on MacDowell watch when I do.

Then came the improbable peak of MacDowell's career, with Groundhog Day (1993) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) in the space of two years. Groundhog Day is considered to be one of Bill Murray's best movies, which is really saying something, and Four Weddings and a Funeral even received a surprise (but richly deserved) Oscar nomination for best picture.

Even as I've savored ever detail of both these movies, the one thing I've never understood is how Murray or Hugh Grant could have fallen head over heels for MacDowell. There are no specific moments of terrible acting in Groundhog Day, but MacDowell basically torpedoes the ending of FWAAF, which might have been its worst part no matter who played the role. "Is it raining? I hadn't noticed," she says, about as unconvincingly as you could image. Then there's the hilarious line where she puts the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble:

Charlies: Let me ask you one thing. Do you think - after we've dried off, after we've spent lots more time together - you might agree *not* to marry me? And do you think not being married to me might maybe be something you could consider doing for the rest of your life?
Carrie: I do.

Print doesn't do justice to it, but maybe you remember how she says "I do" here -- with all the emphasis on the word "I" and none of it on "do."

Back to our regular timeline.

By the mid-1990s, the market finally corrected itself for Andie MacDowell. She made prominent features for the next couple years -- Bad Girls, Michael, Multiplicity, Muppets from Space -- but by the year 2000 had pretty much stopped showing up on movie posters. It seems hard to avoid noting that this drop in prominence coincided with her 40th birthday. I'd instead like to think MacDowell was just long overdue to be put out to pasture. Oh, she's worked in the last decade, but you haven't heard of most of the movies. Ginostra? The Last Sign? Tara Road? She was part of the ensemble in Beauty Shop (2005), but it's worth noting that the other most prominent role she had last decade involved her voice only, as Etta the Hen in the animated movie Barnyard (2006).

Like I said earlier, it seems uncharitable to take any kind of pleasure in MacDowell's eventual disappearance from the spotlight. Never would I want to root for anyone to fall victim to Hollywood's cruelty toward its aging female stars. My whole point is that I don't know how she got a chance to be one of those aging stars in the first place. Seeming like a nice person should not have been enough.

Well, who would I like to see in Groundhog Day and Four Weddings and a Funeral, to make those films even better?

No one.

That's right, for all she doesn't bring to those movies, she's a part of them. And with movies you love, you love them warts and all. You wouldn't change a thing.

Would I have preferred it if Linda Fiorentino had played Phil Conners' kind-hearted but sarcastic producer, or if Madeleine Stowe had played Charles' free-spirited American love interest?

Not if there was any chance I'd like either of these movies a smidgen less.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Movies without purpose


There is, or should be, a purpose to every movie I see. One of a half-dozen purposes, actually:

1) It's supposed to be a good movie, and I have genuine interest in seeing it;

2) It's supposed to be a hilariously awful movie, and I have genuine interest in seeing it;

3) It's supposed to be a regularly awful movie, but I'll get paid to review it;

4) It's a movie released in the current calendar year, so even if it's awful and I'm not reviewing it, at least I can rank it for that year (this excuses any and all "vacation movies," such as my viewing of Valentine's Day this past Saturday);

5) It's a movie I've already seen, know is great, and want to see again;

6) It's a movie I've already seen, didn't like as much as other people liked it, and want to give a second chance, as discussed in Saturday's post.

That covers quite a lot of movies, and allows me plenty of leeway to see what I want. But then there's a seventh category, the weakest category that encompasses all remaining movies:

7) It's a movie I want to see simply because I want to see every movie ever made.

Each of the past two weekends I saw a movie that fit into that last category. And the biggest problem with that last category is it prevents me from seeing a movie in one of the first six categories, which all accomplish some kind of realistic film-watching goal. That last goal, you'll agree, is quite unrealistic. Therefore, that last category can be summarized as "movies without purpose."

This past weekend it was A Very Brady Sequel. The weekend before that it was Max Payne. Both, you won't be surprised to learn, came to me via OnDemand, the world's greatest purveyor of movies without purpose. HBO OnDemand, in this case -- we recently canceled Showtime, since we finished watching season 4 of Dexter and had Californication taken away from us halfway through watching season 3.

Oh, I wanted to see them both, sort of. I knew Max Payne would be terrible, but I thought it might have some decent special effects (it did not). I knew A Very Brady Sequel would probably not be terrible (it was not) because I really liked The Brady Bunch Movie, primarily due to the delicious mimickry of the actors, who were all back for the sequel (though neither the director not any of the writers returned). But the movie came out in 1996, meaning the moment of its greatest relevance had definitely passed.

If these two movies had been my only options for movies to watch at the time, that would have been understandable. But in order to be seen, they pushed aside movies that had an actual, legitimate purpose. This past Saturday night, A Very Brady Sequel elbowed out The Dying Gaul (which I've seen and liked, and which I was planning to review -- that's two purposes) and Happy Go Lucky (which I've heard is good and want to see -- that's one purpose). And since both of these movies were rented through the mail from Blockbuster, they each carried an additional purpose: Watching them would allow me to return them more quickly for other movies with purpose.

So is having OnDemand as a bad influence on your watching habits a good thing, or a bad thing? That's kind of a biased question, considering that I've already called it a "bad influence." But I'm probably being a bit disingenuous there, because I do like having an assortment of movies randomly available to me, changing all the time, for no additional financial expenditure on my part. And only Max Payne do I fully regret, because last weekend, I had both movies from Blockbuster and movies from the library that I needed to see, and the movie itself ended up having no redeeming value. A Very Brady Sequel, which I liked well enough, was chosen as much for its short running time (90 minutes) as anything else, plus the fact that it was a movie I wouldn't have to feel guilty watching with a fuzzy head: I started watching at 10:45 after a very delayed afternoon nap that started around 8:15. I had the same "fuzzy head philosophy" about Max Payne, which I started watching after midnight. Then I fell asleep after less than a half-hour, but felt obliged to finish watching it the next morning, meaning it ate into my available viewing hours the next day as well.

Oh well. Into every life a couple movies without purpose must fall.

Monday, February 22, 2010

An exception to every rule












Just as I rushed to explain having watched Paul Blart: Mall Cop in this post, I figured I ought to hurriedly explain why you're seeing Valentine's Day listed among my Most Recently Seen movies.

Simple: It was an out-of-town movie. And when the stars align for you to see a movie when you're out of town, the novelty is such that you hardly care what it is.

Especially if the setting is something as cute as the Ojai Playhouse in Ojai, California, about 30 miles from Santa Barbara and 80 miles from LA.

But the Ojai Playhouse isn't just cute. In fact, it's state-of-the-art, which is a true rarity among the breed of financial losers known as the single-screen movie theater. Because I bemoaned the apparent approaching extinction of these theaters in this post, I was glad indeed to find one that doesn't seem to be teetering on the verge.

Which means the owner is probably taking a bath on it. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

From the outside, it looked like it might indeed be one of those theaters -- dumpy, continuing to exist mostly because they haven't spent any money on upkeep since the 1970s. The movie titles (they had a couple features sharing one screen) were displayed in those letters you hang on the sign using one of those magnetized poles. Having stepped inside, I now recognize it as a retro touch, but at first it struck me as a sign of datedness.

I'm kind of surprised we even got to the point of stepping inside. We were only in Ojai in the first place as a quick, low-cost road trip for my wife's birthday, and I expected we'd spend more of our time exploring the small town's offerings than sitting in a movie theater. Then there was the little matter of the movie playing two hours after our arrival, at 1:30: Valentine's Day, the romantic comedy that had been ripped by critics from northern Maine to southern California. But she found there to be something potentially charming about the theater as well, and surprised me by saying she would be willing to venture a viewing of Valentine's Day. I didn't realize she'd be quite as eager as I was to let circumstances obliterate our standards.

Stepping inside, though, we discovered a theater lovingly kept up by its owner. The snack bar and ticket counter were quaintly gathered into one shared area, raised about a foot above the rest of the lobby. The snack offerings were written out tastefully on a chalk board, with different colors of chalk, and a professional level of chalk calligraphy. The lobby had nice new burgundy carpeting, and posters of several movies coming soon to the theater, in shiny new frames.

The man from whom we bought our tickets was almost certainly the aforementioned owner. He was a smiley man with black hair in his late 40s-early 50s, and he had the math skills of a person who certainly didn't have to sweat every penny. When my wife handed him a twenty for two $8 matinee tickets, he handed her back three fives and two ones. Now, we are trying to save money, but she was too honest to let him charge us $1.50 per ticket. When she told him he'd undercharged us, he took back one of the fives. Which still meant we were getting two tickets for the price of one. We didn't feel the need to correct his math a second time.

The theater was simply stunning. The seats were new and comfortable, leading to the conclusion that the theater had been gutted and refurbished sometime within the last three years, maybe even more recently than that. Along the walls were giant, stately black and white portraits of movie stars -- a young Robert Redford, a young Jane Fonda, a young Omar Sharif. It was all extremely elegant and tasteful.

I needed to relieve myself, and the next surprise was the restrooms. I can't vouch for the little girls' room, but the little boys' was astonishing -- marble counters, black and white tile, fancy soap, immaculately clean. The only -- and I mean only -- reason I was glad that Valentine's Day was just over two hours long was that it allowed me to visit the bathroom again afterward.

On my way back into the theater, I saw a framed, oversized screening schedule for the Ojai Film Society, complete with a picture and a blurb about each film. All very nicely done. And good taste, too. It appears that every week this theater gets a new, acclaimed independent feature, which has a single Sunday afternoon screening in addition to the feature that plays regularly. The Maid was the current selection. They may be a couple months old -- films like Broken Embraces and A Single Man were on there -- but if you're a local in this small artsy community, you'll probably tolerate that wait, perhaps not even notice it. My wife told me she'd seen an ad up for the film society while I was in the bathroom. For a yearly investment of $125, you got to see 36 films. That's right, (basically) first-run features in a beautiful theater for an average of $3.47 per movie, all year long.

And what price did we have to pay for all this opulence, and getting to see a newly released movie for only $4 apiece? We had to pretend we liked it. Upon exiting the theater -- with bleary expressions on our faces, caused by 123 minutes of keeping track of 45 different characters we didn't care about -- we found the man in the exact same place, behind the ticket counter/snack bar.

"So, did you have a good time?" he asked, huge smile still on his face. Not did we like the movie -- but did we have a good time.

"Yeah, thanks," I said. And then, more honestly: "Beautiful theater!"

Would that every small theater could be owned by rich people with poor math skills.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Second chances


It's not every day that you felt sort of "meh" about a movie, and then later give it a second viewing. With all the choices out there for movies you haven't seen, never mind the movies you cherish but have seen only once, few of us budget the time to give a so-so movie a second chance.

So that's why receiving one of these movies as a gift really comes in handy.

For Christmas, my sister bought me Up and Inglourious Basterds. My wife had told her I was interested in adding to my DVD collection, which is true -- with the new asterisk that I may have to back off for awhile in anticipation of switching to BluRay. Whatever the format, though, I do want my collection to grow. I've mentioned in this space that for reasons of personal financial restraint, I no longer want to buy movies myself, but exclusively receive them as gifts. However, what I really mean is that I want a little person in my brain sending smoke signals to the giver, telling them exactly what I want -- I don't want them just blindly selecting movies they think I'll like, if they don't discuss film regularly with me and have a good sense of a) my tastes and b) what I already own. I'll risk saying this because my sister doesn't keep up with my blog: It's kind of like a grandmother who says "Oh, I hear little Johnny likes those newfangled action figures," and proceeds to buy you toys from whatever line of toys she thinks is popular, even if those aren't the toys you play with.

But I'm really being too critical, because my sister actually did a very good job. Objectively, she did an excellent job, in fact, as both Up and Inglourious Basterds ended up being nominated for best picture. But for me personally, it was only a 50% success rate, with Tarantino's movie the only one I was actually looking forward to inserting into the DVD player.

Until last night.

Last night was my wife's birthday. She was always on board with Up -- not 60% on board like I was, but most of the way to 100. So I magnanimously suggested that we watch it for her birthday, and she was excited by the idea.

I had my arms metaphorically crossed, though of course she saw nothing but smiles from me. It takes a heartless basterd indeed to openly oppose the wishes of one's wife on her birthday. But as the movie rolled along, I mentally uncrossed them -- not grudgingly, but willingly. And though it's still not in my top five Pixar movies -- which, you will agree, is acceptable, given the overall quality of Pixar -- I think it may have leapfrogged Ratatouille and Wall-E to take the seventh spot. (See here for my original Pixar rankings, posted the day after I saw Up, which, granted, didn't give it much time to stake its claim.)

Then again, that could be because I've given Ratatouille and Wall-E only one chance as well.

What troubles me about my initial impression of Up was not so much where I ranked it relative to other Pixar films. Pixar films are a top-notch breed, so even if you call something the ninth best Pixar film out of ten, you could still think it's a terrific movie. No, what troubles me is where I ranked it compared to other 2009 films. In fact, I ranked it #62 for the year -- out of 113 films. That means comfortably in the second half of films I saw this year. To give this mea culpa the full qualify of a confessional, in which I flagellate myself with all I've got, why don't we look at a nice little list of the inferior films that I ranked higher than Up, just under three short weeks ago. And keep in mind, I'm listing the funniest ones only:

Surrogates
Knowing
Crank High Voltage

The Proposal

He's Just Not That Into You
Old Dogs


(Okay, kidding about that last one -- I did not actually see Old Dogs, and hope never to, for reasons stated here.)

Granted, those are all movies that I like more than I thought I would for one reason or another. But better than Up? In just a few short weeks, that seems like a very short-sighted decision.

And yet that's the power of a second viewing. My judgment about Up was based on how I really felt after one viewing: disappointed, relative to how I wanted to feel. But the second viewing theoretically eradicates the environmental factors that might have influenced you the first time around. When I first saw Up, there were two in particular that bothered me: 1) I was running late to meet my wife for the movie, so instead of the proper dinner we hoped to eat, we wolfed down a gyro from a street fair, and the rushed frustration of the scenario lingered with me; 2) The 3-D glasses happened to be really bothering me, especially since Up does not appear to have been designed to optimize 3-D (unlike, say, Monsters vs. Aliens or Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs). With neither of those factors in play last night, I was more free to concentrate on the story and appreciate the visuals, without expending mental energy on cursing the traffic, or wondering why the 3-D wasn't popping off the screen more than it was.

Of course, I still have concerns about the actual story. I still would have spent more time in the air before reaching Paradise Falls. I still would have spent less time with the characters carrying the house around like a balloon in the Thanksgiving day parade. I still think the talking dogs are a little silly, especially since the guy who invented the technology could have gone home and been heralded for that achievement instead of getting murderously obsessed with proving himself by locating a rare bird. And I still find that bird a little silly as well, though I was more charmed by Kevin this time around. But on my second viewing, I allowed myself to become more invested in the human characters than I was the first time, and more importantly, I was able to put the complaints listed above in their proper place: minor quibbles within an otherwise highly entertaining and aesthetically beautiful movie.

Up still would not have cracked my top 20 for 2009, but top 30 shouldn't have been a problem.

Up has also inspired me to wonder what other films I should give second chances. Writing about Gangs of New York yesterday made me think I needed to give this one another watch. At 168 minutes, that's a significantly tougher one. A History of Violence is another movie I hate that other people love.

And even though it could siphon off my other viewing priorities, it's exciting to have developed a new enthusiasm for giving movies second chances. It's all part of the fabric of being a film fan, a fabric that has been on a steady path toward greater dynamism for me. Once I was just interested in seeing as many new movies as I could. Then in the last couple years, I've placed a greater emphasis on re-watching movies I love, to deepen my familiarity with them. This, it would seem, is the next logical step.

And not only is Up getting a second chance, but I'm getting a second chance as well. A second chance at credibility, with you guys, my readers. I have the blog to thank for that. Actually, I have the blog to thank for needing the second chance in the first place, as it was here that I first said I rooted for James Cameron, and here that I first said Up came up short for me. With the benefit of time, I've now been able to repudiate both of these misinformed perspectives. It's like a newspaper printing a correction -- they are both now part of the official record, each adding to the total story.

Because that's part of being a film fan, too -- re-watching, reconsidering, making market corrections, changing your mind. Cinema is a living entity, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Even if it means I have to screw Up every once in awhile.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Fruitful partnerships -- and those that aren't


I had a couple different possible approaches to discussing Shutter Island, first and foremost being that it seemed like an unusual movie for Martin Scorsese to be directing. So unusual, in fact, that the studio didn't hesitate to bump it out of the fall release date it was plenty ready for, a release date enjoyed by every Scorsese fiction film since The Last Temptation of Christ in August of 1988. You have to go all the way back to The King of Comedy in February of 1982 to find a Scorsese non-documentary released in any of the months between January and July.

Simple reasoning: Movies released in the fall get considered for Oscars; those released in the winter, spring and summer usually don't. Scorsese has been nominated for six Oscars as director, but Paramount was reasonably confident there wouldn't be a seventh in the offing for Shutter Island. Not that it's bad, probably -- I hope to find out for myself this weekend. Just that it's a genuine genre picture, something that might usually go to a hot young foreign and/or music video director, not someone of Scorsese's stature and career achievements. In fact, in ways, it doesn't look like a Scorsese picture at all.

Of course, in other ways, it looks exactly like a Scorsese picture, and that's what I want to talk about today. Specifically, the presence of Leonardo DiCaprio has become almost a direct tip-off that Martin Scorsese was behind the camera. Scorsese hasn't made a movie without DiCaprio since Bringing Out the Dead in 1999. More tellingly, DiCaprio -- who, as an actor, works more regularly and promiscuously -- has worked with Scorsese in four of his last eight films.

It's pattern behavior for Scorsese, who made Robert De Niro his muse in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. And it's a successful pattern. Just as we never got sick of seeing De Niro appear in Scorsese films, even people who don't generally like Leonardo DiCaprio have to admit he's been a force working alongside Scorsese. In fact, you could almost say that DiCaprio has Scorsese to thank for gaining a reputation that exceeded "Titanic pretty boy and generally decent actor." Of course, the mainstream quality of Titanic was really the exception rather than the rule for DiCaprio, but those unfamiliar with his early work knew him only from James Cameron's recently dethroned box office champ. The triumvirate of Gangs of New York (which, for the record, I did not like), The Aviator and The Departed established DiCaprio as someone who deserved to be compared to De Niro, and in fact helped refocus Scorsese into a new stretch of highly effective filmmaking, after he'd meandered off the path with Kundun and Bringing Out the Dead.

But we all like variety -- me especially -- so it would be fair to greet Shutter Island with proclamations of outrage over their apparent mutual artistic laziness. "Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio together again?" Maybe you're saying that, but I'm not. I'm looking forward to both this and the next two collaborations they've announced.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing for a different set of collaborators, who have truly come to define what it means to be artistically lazy. And they are -- you may have guessed it by now -- Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

With the release of Alice in Wonderland two weeks from now, Depp will have appeared in seven films directed by Burton, and Bonham Carter will have appeared in six. Both actors will have appeared in four straight Burton movies. As it just so happens, those are four straight terrible Burton movies. Okay, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride wasn't terrible (but it was pretty bad), and the verdict is still out on Alice in Wonderland. But I can say with absolute confidence that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd were both rotten, rancid abominations. It's those two movies in particular that make me wonder why any of the three of them keep going back to the same poisoned well. It's like Tim Burton is doing his best M. Night Shyamalan impersonation -- he keeps making bad movies (with many of the same actors), and they keep giving him more money to make more bad movies, in which those same actors participate.

But I'm going to save most of my vitriol about Alice in Wonderland for two weeks from now. That kind of thing deserves its own post, don't you think?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Eisenberg vs. Cera













A couple months ago I first developed a feeling of defensiveness on Jesse Eisenberg's behalf, and when the Eisenberg defensiveness came up again during a second screening of Zombieland, I decided it was time to write about it.

See, I have a friend who thinks Jesse Eisenberg is getting Michael Cera's sloppy seconds. That Eisenberg may, in fact, be "a poor man's Michael Cera."

Allow me to use this space to suggest otherwise. (And to thank that same friend for the Photoshop work on this image, which came out great.)

It all started innocently enough last fall when my friend wrote in an email, after seeing Zombieland, "I thought the Michael Cera kid was good." My recent disenchantment with Cera had already started to build by then, so I felt my hackles go up at this comment, in part because I had appreciated the work of Jesse Eisenberg for years, and thought that was a rather dismissive way to refer to him. My friend clearly did not have the same history with Eisenberg's work, and it was just a throwaway comment, so I didn't say anything. Then he and I recently saw Zombieland again together, and he wondered aloud if Eisenberg's role had originally been written for Cera. That prompted me to action.

I can see where he's coming from on this. Both are rail-thin pipsqueaks who are attractive to women despite not having a single stereotypically macho thing about them, and both generally express themselves in halting, stuttery, neurotic bursts. Both actors are clearly intellectuals, and both most often use their shtick to comic effect.

But give Eisenberg his due. He's been around the block and back.

The first feature for the 26-year-old actor was back in 2002, when he was an 18-year-old playing someone who was supposed to be three or four years younger than that. It was Roger Dodger, in which he played the nephew of Campbell Scott's self-described ladies man. Eisenberg's character ends up punching holes in Scott's philosophies of courtship and male-female dynamics over the course of the narrative, which transpires during one evening in New York City. It was a genuine co-starring role, though the movie was probably not widely seen.

Eisenberg was then part of an ensemble in The Emperor's Club, a surprisingly effective film in which Kevin Kline plays a private school teacher, later that same year. In 2004 he had a small role in M. Night Shyamalan's disastrous The Village. But 2005 was probably his big coming out party, when he was the older son in Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, another film that demanded huge things from him in another not-entirely-comedic situation.

Eisenberg next appeared in two small films that I love, but that most people haven't seen -- The Education of Charlie Banks, which Fred Durst directed in 2007 but which only got a theatrical release in 2009, and The Living Wake, which may have actually just gotten a limited theatrical release in the last month or two, though I saw and reviewed it probably two years ago. He was also in a movie called The Hunting Party, which I didn't see. Two thousand nine was the year of two lands for Eisenberg -- Adventureland and Zombieland, only the second of which I actually liked. He has the lead role in David Fincher's The Social Network, playing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. That's due out this year.

Michael Cera is nearly five years younger than Eisenberg, not yet 22 years old. However, my friend's philosophy that Eisenberg is getting Cera's rejected roles could still be correct, because Cera is indisputably more famous than Eisenberg. But does he deserve to be?

Despite being younger than Eisenberg, Cera actually came on the scene earlier, busily working in the years 1999 through 2002 playing kids on TV shows, and even in movies (Frequency, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). His actual breakout was later than Eisenberg, however. If you want to consider Eisenberg's breakout to be Roger Dodger in 2002 -- and I admit that's being generous, since the film had a limited release -- then Cera didn't really register himself with most of us for a year after that, appearing as George-Michael Bluth in Arrested Development in the fall of 2003. His character was an instant hit, for all the reasons most people still love him.

Even though the show was a commercial failure and constantly struggled to stay afloat despite heaps of critical praise, Cera's persona became hugely marketable, and a busy film career soon followed. This is where Cera has lost me.

It started when Superbad was considerably less than I was hoping for, especially given the hype. For most people, though, Superbad was an unqualified success, and things only got better for Cera with Juno, released a couple months later at the end of 2007. I too loved Juno, though I'm wondering if it would already not hold up just a couple years later. The Juno backlash has come in the form of retroactive criticism of Diablo Cody's hyper-stylized dialogue, in which every other phrase was cutesy slang like "home skillet."

Since Juno, my personal belief is that it's been nothing but bad decisions for Cera, and the accumulated effect of those decisions has been that I'm over him. Even in just a few movies, his shtick has become over-exposed for me. The first bad decision was Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, a bogus contraption which is supposed to speak for the ipod generation, in which his character is actually unlikable. Then there was last year's Year One, which I've already dissed several times (time 1, time 2) on this blog. But perhaps the most singularly annoying of Cera's recent films was last August's pseudo documentary Paper Heart, which I wish I had dissed more than one time, but I only just saw it six weeks ago. In this so-called documentary, Cera plays himself dating unfunny stand-up comedienne Charlyne Yi, but it's a bullshit, constructed version of their real-life romance. It's meant to be indie sweet, but it actually implodes in excess preciousness. Michael Cera playing Michael Cera was one of those saturation-point moments for me, when I realized that his shtick had been commodified almost to the point of parody. Yet they didn't play it that way -- the film was serious and achingly self-indulgent.

I didn't see Youth in Revolt, which came out a couple weeks ago, but I see it's just the first of a slate of films he's scheduled to release this year. So for those of us who are sick of him, we have the chance to become a lot sicker in the coming months.

And it's hard for me to say this about Michael Cera, because he first came to us so adorably, with such a fresh-faced approach that was so effortlessly sympathetic. I think part of the reason I've turned on him is that I've decided he's become disingenuous. Around the time Juno came out, I read an interview in which it sounded like he was talking about getting out of acting, about how he never wanted to be famous and wanted to lead a regular life. I suppose it's possible he really meant that, and then later just decided that fame and money did, in fact, suit him fine. I can't blame him for that, but in retrospect, I feel like there was something intentionally calculating about that supposed disinterest in the trappings of fame, designed to shape his image for us and make us think he was above the fray. To then proceed and make a brainless movie like Year One is the very definition of being in the fray.

Many of you reading this are now wondering what Michael Cera ever did to me, to be on the business end of such a dumpfest. You've probably also noticed that I've spent very little time, relative to that, talking about why I like Eisenberg. And my friend, if he's reading this -- the guy who Photoshopped the image I'm using for this post, mind you -- is probably wondering how an innocuous observation about the similarities between Cera and Eisenberg has inspired me to eviscerate poor Cera on my blog.

Maybe it really is true that you're only as good as your last movie. Or in this case, your last three movies.

I think the ultimate point is that it's not the shtick you're able to develop and market, but what you choose to do with that shtick. If Jesse Eisenberg is, in fact, modeling himself after Michael Cera, he's doing it a lot more smartly. Even though I didn't like Adventureland, I found it to be a better risk and a smarter decision than, say, Year One, which seems like a soulless money grab. And, by the way, Adventureland is only the second of eight Eisenberg films I've seen that I haven't liked, the first being The Village, in which he had a very minor role. The reverse is true for Cera, with Juno dangling out there as the only one of five films I can say, without reservation, that I liked. His percentage goes up when you include Frequency and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, where he appeared briefly as a younger version of one of the characters. But those don't really count, do they?

And, to my Photoshop friend: That'll teach you to ever make an innocuous comment about something in my presence.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Great poster, terrible movie (I assume)


I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Pierre Morel's From Paris With Love sucks.

With John Travolta, it's all about the hair (or lack thereof, in this case). If Travolta's hair sucks in a movie, so will the movie. Remember Swordfish? I don't. (I actually didn't see it.) Travolta is a ridiculous kind of bald in this movie, and the movie, I've heard, is terrible. And his goatee isn't helping.

But that doesn't mean I can't spare a few words for this poster. Great concept, marvelous simplicity. Plus, I love its spartan refusal to show pictures of the stars.

With Travolta's bald pate, that can only be a good thing.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Limits of the bird-in-the-hand theory

Some movies are just destined never to be watched.

I usually subscribe to the "bird in the hand beats two in the bush" theory when it comes to movies. Or, "possession is nine points of the law." (That phrase is alternately misunderstood as "possession is nine-tenths of the law.") In other words, when I have a movie in my possession, that is reason alone to watch it, even if it came into my possession by accident.

Take, for example, the 2000 movie Sleepover, directed by John Sullivan. I never meant to have this movie. I meant to put the 2004 movie Sleepover, directed by Joe Nussbaum, on my Blockbuster queue, in order to review it. The first is a low-budget coming of age story, the second is a pastel-colored tween movie that (I just noticed) happens to feature Steve Carell and Jane Lynch among a cast of mostly 14-year-old girls. And it's really too bad there was this mixup, because a movie my wife might not ordinarily want to watch seemed just the ticket when she was feeling sick one of the nights last week. When I removed it from the mailing sleeve, however, I saw my mistake. This other Sleepover did not seem like cinematic comfort food for the sick -- just look at that washed out poster.

But it wasn't reviewed on my website either, so the thing that made the most sense to me was to watch it anyway, some other night. Then I would put in to review it later on. You know, a bird in the hand beats two in the bush. Or something like that. All part of a stupid philosophy that if you rent something from Blockbuster as part of a monthly unlimited package, which means the cost of any one rental is quite intangible, you are losing some intangible quantity of value if you return a movie unwatched. A stupid philosophy that I, in fact, already picked apart in this post.

So I tried to start watching the movie last Monday night. You know, the same night I missed work because I'd scratched my cornea the day before. I wanted to rest my eyes, but I'd already slept a ton that day, so I thought I'd have a better bet of sleeping through the night if I extended my evening's activities past, say, 9 o'clock. I turned off all the lights in my bedroom and put Sleepover on my portable DVD player. I watched about 20 minutes of the movie this way -- with my sunglasses on -- before finally deciding it was too much. The subpar quality of the movie couldn't have helped.

I tried to do the same thing going to bed on Tuesday, figuring I'd make it a little further into the movie, and might eventually watch the whole thing this way. But I guess I was more tired than I thought, having strained my eyes throughout a full workday, so I literally watched about one more minute of the movie before shutting it off.

I figured for sure I'd watch the remaining 70-80 minutes on Thursday when we went to see our tax guy. Our tax guy is notorious for making us wait sometimes as long as 90 minutes from our scheduled appointment time -- good thing he gets us such a good return. Last year, in fact, I watched almost a whole movie (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, for the second time) in his waiting room. That was a quality way to pass the time -- Sleepover, however, seemed to be quite the opposite. Instead of even powering on my DVD player, I entertained myself with Entertainment Weekly, and checking emails and facebook on my phone.

When yesterday afternoon rolled around, meaning it was almost six days since I'd started watching the movie, I decided it was time to give up on it and at least use it as a trade-in for another movie at Blockbuster. My wife and I were in need of something to watch on Valentine's Day, having failed to plan for that like we did last year. So I brought Sleepover with me to the Kia dealership, where we bought her a new car -- the first new car she's ever owned. Quite ridiculously, I stuffed the DVD in my shorts pocket while we were working out the whole transaction. (Couldn't leave it in the car, because my wife was trading it in.) Naturally, we ended up being so tired from an afternoon of nerves, second-guessing, self-loathing, and ultimately glee, followed several hours later by more self-loathing and the inevitable remorse at having spent too much money, that we didn't even stop at the Blockbuster on the way home.

So today, I just dropped Sleepover in the mail, its envelope all effed up from spending the afternoon in my pocket.

Sorry, Mr. Sullivan. Someone else will have to review your movie, in some other lifetime.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Truth in advertising

The first time I heard there was a movie called Valentine's Day scheduled for release (when else) this February, I thought, Hollywood has finally done it: Removed all pretense of trying to make us think we're buying a piece of art rather than a commodity.

This is the first movie I can remember being quite this naked about wanting to top the box office on Valentine's Day weekend. It would be like calling a movie Christmas or Fourth of July. They'll get close -- like Independence Day or A Christmas Carol -- but never just the name of the big box office weekend in question, flapping around there in the nude for all to see. Last year's I Hate Valentine's Day is a good example of dressing the title up with even one layer of irony/artifice/removal.

But nope, Valentine's Day it is. I should mention that it's far from the first movie to be called Valentine's Day. In fact, IMDB cites half a dozen examples from the last decade alone. But those movies were either made for TV movies, short films, or foreign films.

So Garry Marshall's Valentine's Day, the one coming out today, is the first one we can actually call out for being so blatant about its intentions. It basically says, "Look, honey, you don't even have to think about it. This is where you should plop down your thirteen bucks on Valentine's Day weekend."

It's even got the "a little something for everybody" approach mastered by He's Just Not That Into You last year, with a record fifteen (15) different familiar faces on the poster. (I have no idea if that's a record, but it should be.) If I didn't know this movie was supposed to be a Robert Altman-style look at a single Valentine's Day in the lives of a half-dozen couples, I might be tempted to call it He's Just Not That Into You 2. That number 15 worries me, though -- it's an odd number, so somebody's getting left out in the cold.

What's even funnier is that there are four additional names listed on the poster, who didn't make the cut for the finite real estate within that heart-shaped enclosure. That's a total of 19. We shouldn't be surprised to hear three of the four names that were excluded, as they are all over 60: Kathy Bates, Shirley MacLaine and Hector Elizondo, who may have appeared in every single one of Garry Marshall's films. (Jesus Christ, I wasn't kidding -- I just looked it up on IMDB, and they have sixteen (16) joint ventures.) The fourth name, Eric Dane, has reason to be pissed -- he's only 37, and is attractive enough that they nicknamed him "McSteamy" on Grey's Anatomy. His rivalry with "McDreamy" (Patrick Dempsey) just got a notch more serious, as Dempsey made the poster.

Other funny inclusions in the cast:

1. Julia Roberts. Damn, she must really have a soft spot for her Pretty Woman director. You'd think it would be Marshall who would owe her after Runaway Bride.

2. Anne Hathaway. Funny, because I likened her to a young Julia Roberts in my review of The Princess Diaries nine years ago.

3. Jamie Foxx. Really Jamie Foxx? I thought you were a serious actor now.

4. Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner. This movie is crackling with immediacy ... except that the two Taylors are now broken up.

5. Jessica Biel and Jessica Alba. THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE.

6. Bradley Cooper. Hard to believe, but he's apparently the only one who appears in both He's Just Not That Into You and Valentine's Day, though doesn't Emma Roberts (bottom) look a lot like Jennifer Connelly in this picture?

7. Ashton Kutcher and Topher Grace. It's a That 70's Show reunion! By the way, I never like to pass up an opportunity to say that I hate Ashton Kutcher.

8. Queen Latifah. Since there are exactly two black actors in the cast, does that mean she's getting paired up with Jamie Foxx? Talk about tokenism.

9. Jennifer Garner. Wasn't there a time when Jennifer Garner didn't take every crappy romantic comedy that was thrown her way?

10. George Lopez. I just figured out which of the 15 gets left out in the cold. There's no Latina in the cast, so Lopez must be the lovable, asexual clown. Unless he's gay and getting together with Elizondo.

Anyway, I'm not going to see it.

Not until November, anyway.

Ha! Joke's on you, Valentine's Day.