Sunday, October 31, 2010

Seeing in black and white


In case you didn't know it, I'm a white guy.

It's true. My first and last name are actually both names that appear commonly in the African American community, so I sometimes wonder if I'm mistaken for a minority in contexts where people only see my name. But I'm definitely not a minority. Well, at least not for another 40 or 50 years, when Latinos are supposedly going to become the largest demographic group in the United States.

But it wasn't until recently that I started thinking about how my race plays a role in what films I like.

You see, I have a relatively new co-worker who is black, though his name sounds a lot more white than mine does. One of the first things I learned about this guy -- on his first day, in fact -- was that he loves movies. Naturally, this was a man I was interested in getting to know better. I stopped short of telling him that I a) write film reviews and b) write a film blog, because I don't talk about either of these things at work -- I don't want anyone to get wind of the fact that I sometimes do both during business hours. (Only during genuine down time, I swear.) I assume people are still generally ignorant about that, or they would have busted me on it by now.

But we did return regularly to talking about films we liked in his first few days on the job, after which the discussion thread kind of faded into the background. This was a good six months ago.

This past week, I stayed late on Monday night, as did he. No one else was around, so we shot the shit about movies for the last hour we were both here. You've been in movie discussions before ... you know how that can happen.

I should tell you that this guy is not a movie fan the way you and I are movie fans. He loves movies, but he doesn't worship them -- or maybe he thinks he does, but he's fooling himself. He doesn't have the commitment nor the breadth of knowledge you and I have. He's not familiar with the names of a lot of directors, he mixes up the names of relatively famous actors, and he hasn't heard of some movies that I thought most people who describe themselves as movie fans would know. In other words, he's an amateur movie fan, not a professional movie fan.

To his credit in this regard, he was bemoaning the fact that he didn't have a good way to get exposed to obscure titles, titles he would certainly seek out if he knew they existed. So I told him I'd loan him movies from my collection that I loved. He seemed excited about that prospect.

Where our different races come in to play is in the movie titles we discussed. And I quickly realized that this guy is not necessarily a fan of all movies -- he's a fan of movies that feature at least one prominent African American character.

This caught me by surprise. Which is probably because I tend to have this idealized concept of what the great movies are, thinking that all people who call themselves "film buffs" would have many of the same films as common references, and would be conversant about the same films that are widely considered to be great.

But just as I probably seek out similarities to my own frame of reference in the films I love, he does the same. I don't know why I should expect him to relate as easily as I do to films featuring all white faces, any more than I would relate as easily as he does to films featuring all black faces.

The problem is, there are a lot more films that feature all (or mostly) white faces, than films that feature all (or mostly) black faces. And therefore, my co-worker inevitably lives in a smaller cinematic universe than I do.

It was when he started to ask me about a series of films with black casts -- a series of films that I hadn't seen -- that I started to feel really bad about this.

"What did you think of The Great Debaters?" he asked.

"I haven't see that one," I responded.

"Okay, what about The Secret Life of Bees?"

"I haven't seen that either."

"What did you think of Ray?"

"You know, I never saw Ray," I admitted.

"Really?" He gave me a funny look.

It was then I started to worry this guy might think I'm a film racist.

Of the 55 films nominated for best picture between 2000 and 2009, there are only two I haven't seen. One is Ray. The other is Capote. So, maybe I'm a film homophobe as well.

What Ray and Capote also have in common is that they are both biopics -- Ray more so than Capote. As luck would have it, I had already told this guy that biopics are not my favorite type of movie. So I used that as my excuse for why I hadn't seen Ray. What the actual reason is, I don't know. I missed it when it was in the theater, and never prioritized a viewing after that. Fortunately, he doesn't know that Ray makes up half of the 3% of best picture nominees from the last decade I haven't seen.

I felt particularly bad because Jamie Foxx was the star of Ray, and I had already mentioned -- twice -- a bad piece of acting by Foxx in another movie he had asked me about. On two separate occasions he asked me if I liked Miami Vice, and I told him I didn't. When he asked why, I couldn't conjure anything meaningful -- in my own head, I know that I thought it was uninspired, long and boring. But I thought I needed to give him a specific, so both times, I talked about the scene in which Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Foxx) are walking away from a building that's about to explode. A split second before the building explodes, Foxx reacts to the explosion. It's like that scene in North by Northwest when the kid covers his ears before the gun goes off. The gaffe is probably as much Michael Mann's fault for not noticing it as it is Foxx's fault, or perhaps Mann was stuck with that one take because they couldn't blow up the building a second time. But my co-worker doesn't know Michael Mann from a hole in the ground. He knows Jamie Foxx, and that's the part of what I said that probably sunk in with him, even when I tried to back-pedal and blame the director. (To make matters worse, I had also previously criticized Collateral, Mann's other collaboration with Foxx.)

My co-worker then helped me out by asking about a different biopic and whether I liked it: Malcolm X. I breathed a sigh of relief and proceeded to heap praise upon Malcolm X, explaining that Spike Lee brought something to it that made it more than your typical biopic. I then told him it was one of my three favorite Lee movies, the others being Do the Right Thing and 25th Hour. He had never heard of 25th Hour and wrote the title down. Unfortunately, as he may soon discover, the cast of 25th Hour is almost all white.

The next day we had another moment that wasn't so great. He asked me about The Hurricane -- another biopic -- and whether I thought Denzel Washington really deserved to lose out to Kevin Spacey in that year's best actor race. When he talked about Spacey and American Beauty, he had a kind of disgust in his eyes and in his tone that suggested American Beauty could not possibly have offered anything to anyone. It was at that moment that I saw the movie through his eyes, and understood how it might not have spoken to his experience.

I tend to be honest to a fault when discussing films, so I told him I didn't think The Hurricane was all that. Which was a shame, because the way he introduced the topic was in a manner that suggested "Here at least is something we can agree on." (Funnily enough, I had a discussion with someone soon after I saw The Hurricane in which I told him I thought it was good. He told me that it was totally standard and not very interesting. I ended up being swayed by his argument.) But I also said that sometimes there's a groundswell for movies that everyone is talking about that year, and that's probably why Spacey won the Oscar. (Even though I probably do think Spacey was better in American Beauty than Washington was in The Hurricane.)

Other movies with mostly black casts he asked about, that I hadn't seen: Hoodlum and Takers. At least with Takers, when he mentioned T.I. and Chris Brown, I was able to tell him that I'd really liked T.I. in ATL. He hadn't seen ATL. So there's that.

The weird thing is that I actually think I've seen more movies with black casts than almost anyone else I know. I've reviewed a ton of movies that fit this description on the website I write for. And one of the reasons I request these movies is that I don't want them to be given the short shrift, just because other white critics at my site are not that interested in seeking them out. I've seen most of the movies directed by Tyler Perry and most of the movies directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans, plus a dozen other directors toiling in relative anonymity. But these were not the films he asked me about. (And by the way, do I sound yet like I'm listing the number of black friends I have to prove that I'm not a racist?)

But even in the previous paragraph there's an unfortunate kind of condescension. I'm basically acknowledging that many white critics who choose their assignments don't seem that interested in reviewing Stomp the Yard or Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns, and I'm positioning myself as some kind of "white savior" who's going to swoop in and make sure these films get reviewed. I'm not, you will notice, saying that I actually want to see these movies because I predict that something about them will speak to me or be especially interesting to me. That's certainly true in some cases, but in other cases, it's just work.

Like anyone, I think I just want to see stories I haven't seen before, executed in an interesting way. And I think the unfortunate problem with Hollywood is that there are few risks taken on unique stories of any kind, particularly with predominantly African American themes. When a movie like Precious does come out, however, I'm first in line. I saw it in the theater and I ranked it third out of all the films I saw in 2009. (There I go, making those "see how I'm not racist?" excuses again.) The reason Precious interested me was because I had never seen a movie in which the main character was a 300-pound teenager of any race. I thought it would/should be interesting, and you better bet it was.

I've strayed a bit from the point, so why don't I get back to it.

So the result of Monday night's conversation was that I said I'd bring in some films from my home collection for him to take a look at. However, I was busy that night and forgot. The next day he said "Oh man, I was looking forward to watching something tonight!" So I made sure not to forget again.

But I had another busy night and had to kind of choose the movies on the fly. I knew he liked action, suspense and sci-fi, but I also knew he liked period pieces (he mentioned specifically the Harlem Renaissance -- sorry, can't help you there). If I had been able to do a full scrub of my collection, I'm sure I would have come up with better choices. But in the interest of not disappointing him two days in a row, here's what I grabbed:

Donnie Darko

Glengarry Glen Ross
Code 46

Not a black character in any of the three casts.

On my way to work, I realized these choices may have made my cinematic world view seem all the more limited to him. So I offered them to him almost apologetically, though I certainly didn't indicate what reason I'd have to feel apologetic. I did tell him I'd chosen them sort of quickly and would do better next time. He hadn't heard of any of them (not even Glengarry Glen Ross?) and so didn't have any reason to think I'd done poorly. Yet. He did notice Al Pacino in the cast of Glengarry Glen Ross and seemed excited about that. I told him not to watch the movie with his daughter in the room, because of all the f-bombs.

While I think the machismo of Glengarry Glen Ross will be enough to please him, it does feature his nemesis, Kevin Spacey. And of the other two films, well, one is about a depressed white suburban teenager in the 1980s who hallucinates rabbits, and the other is about a star-crossed love affair in the near future between porcelain-skinned Samantha Morton and Tim Robbins. At least Tim Robbins is known as a good champion of liberal causes. Then again, my co-worker is a registered Republican.

Given his stated preferences, what do I expect him to get out of these films? They're indisputably good films -- but maybe they're only indisputably good from the perspective of a white film buff who sees the cinematic universe a certain way.

Plus, will I do better next time? I'm ashamed to say that my collection does not get much more ethnically diverse. Ashamed because I don't think of myself as a person who gravitates toward "white" movies. I just gravitate toward good movies. Whether they feature a large quantity of whites is not something I usually think about -- though maybe the point is that it's totally unconscious.

In fact, as I went through my movie library on Wednesday (read that post here), I made some startling discoveries about just how white my collection truly is. Of the 84 movies we own, only two have primarily black subject matter, or even a significant number of black characters. And which ones they are are telling: Get Christie Love!, a blaxploitation movie given to me as a joke (which I still haven't watched), and the aforementioned Precious, which I loved, but which we received as a free screener copy, and therefore didn't choose to own per se. There are a number of black characters in 8 Mile, but tellingly, the main rapper is white, and I actually got this movie through passive means as well -- it was among the leftover belongings of a former neighbor of mine, who skedaddled in the middle of the night because he couldn't pay his rent. (For the record, this guy was white.)

Because I've already gotten myself pretty deep into this soul-searching, let's continue.

Why don't I own the movies I love that star blacks? I love Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, as discussed previously. But I have never thought of buying either of them. (That could be because they are both pretty heavy, and I don't have the desire to repeatedly revisit dark subject matter, no pun intended on the word "dark.") And speaking of movies about rappers, I love Hustle & Flow, which I ranked #1 out of all the movies I saw in 2005. At least half the cast is black, and it's heavy in ways that invite repeat viewings, rather than discourage them. But, I still don't own it.

Just because I'm stopping now doesn't mean there aren't more examples. (Jeez, I sure hope there are.)

I really hope this is coming off as earnest self-examination, and not some kind of pandering to black cinema. I hope it doesn't seem like I think I need to fill some quota of black movies in order to be a well-rounded movie buff. I believe you should watch what you watch because you want to watch it, not because you feel like you should watch it. (Unless you're getting paid, then at least the word "should" has a financial incentive attached.) If you follow my label for "racial politics" on my blog, you'll see that the way race and the movies interact has been an interesting topic to me over the years. I've just chilled on it a bit in 2010, because last year, some people thought I was finding racism against blacks everywhere I looked.

I also don't want to appear to be pandering to my co-worker, who will probably never read this, but who I want to represent fairly anyway. He's a smart guy with good taste. I am specifically calling attention to the films he mentioned that have majority black casts, because a) there were an overwhelming succession of them in this particular discussion, and b) it fits into the thrust of my current argument. But he also talks regularly about other films he loves, such as The Matrix, which just has Laurence Fishburne and a bunch of white folks. (Oh, and a black oracle I guess.) I think he's also probably conscious of trying not to appear too black-centric, the same way I'm conscious of trying not to to appear too white-centric. He has twice told me that he "cried like a baby" at the end of The Notebook, which is about as white a movie as you can get. This is probably his go-to example of his own cinematic diversity, the same way I might tell people how much I like Precious.

I do think it's invaluable to explore these things in ourselves, because all I really want is to live in a world where film fans can find common ground in the movies they love, regardless of what race they are. I just want to know how to get there.

Maybe I'll know a little bit more about the road to that cinematic paradise on Monday, when my co-worker returns to the office, and is sure to have watched at least one of the films I loaned him. Maybe he'll find value in at least one of them. Heck, maybe he'll love all three.

And maybe, to do him the same courtesy, I should do something I should have done a long time ago: Rent a damn copy of Ray.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Number of sequels vs. number of dimensions


Saw VII is coming out today. Marking the seventh straight year -- and last, they tell us -- a Saw movie has been released the weekend before Halloween.

Except it's not called Saw VII. It's called Saw 3D.

I take issue in general with using the word "3D" in the title of a movie, in large part because it will only actually be experienced in the correct number of dimensions by a minority of the people who see it. Some will see it in a theater that isn't equipped for 3D, like the drive-in theater that sends me weekly emails, which had to specify it wasn't in 3D. Many more will see it later on video, where they probably either won't have the glasses or won't have the correct type of TV. Including the word "3D" in the actual title, then -- rather than saying [Title] in 3D!, a marketing campaign that would be limited to the period of time in which the theatrical release was being advertised -- is a kind of permanent deception of the viewing public.

But it looks like we're going to have to get used to seeing "3D" in the titles for movies, so let's not push that particular argument too far.

When it becomes really problematic is when the 3 in 3D is out of sync with the sequel number of the franchise in question. Like the Saw series.

Some series have gotten lucky. Some series -- like Jackass and Step Up -- were timed just perfectly so that the third movie in the series would be the one to take advantage of the current craze. Hence, this year's Jackass 3D and Step Up 3D. Hearkens back to the last major 3D trend, when the third Friday the 13th was in 3D, as was the third Jaws. (We should probably pause here to honor Pixar's restraint in resisting the urge to call their 2010 release Toy Story 3D.)

Or it can be the first movie in a series, like this year's Piranha 3D. I'm okay with that too. (Okay, you caught me -- this year's Piranha is actually sort of a third Piranha movie, as there were exactly two previously. However, Piranha II: The Spawning came out 29 years ago, so I hardly think this year's Piranha counts as a third movie to most viewers.)

But the Saw example is really problematic. Seeing the 3 on the poster may time warp some people back to 2006, when Saw III was coming out. (Though to be fair, they used roman numerals on those posters -- or actually, three uprooted teeth dangling from ropes.) For those expecting Saw VII to follow last year's Saw VI, there's a definite disconnect.

Which brings us back to the argument made at various times previously on this blog, about how studios think their franchises can get a boost if the latest release appears as some kind of a reboot. By destroying the sequel numbering system in the Saw series, they're trying to tell you that this movie could be something new and freshly worthy of your attention -- not just the seventh movie in a series. A roman numeral VII behind any movie title tends to cause snickers, even among its most devoted fans -- it's that point at which continuing on in a series strikes everyone as ridiculous. You might say that point should have logically been reached after a half-dozen, or even five, but the seventh movie really pushes it over the top.

Not so, now. Instead of this being the seventh Saw, it's the Saw that's in 3D. And also, the last Saw.

Or so they say.

I'll believe that when I don't see the next one in 2011. Or 2015. Or whenever they decide it's the perfect time to release Saw VIII.

Or, by that point, perhaps Saw 4D.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A properly functioning library

Knowing what you know about me, how I'm meticulous/anal about keeping movie lists, it may surprise you to know that I don't actually have a list of all the movies I own on DVD.

Or, I should say, didn't, until yesterday.

Upon getting home from work, I piled stacks of DVDs and other disc-sized formats next to me and inputted them into a spreadsheet. It was long overdue, you will agree.

What prompted the project was that I realized I had six different movies loaned out to three different people. Many more, and I'd start losing track of what was where.

And loaning movies to people is one of the primary practical usages I get out of having a film library. Sure, I watch the titles in my own collection from time to time, less frequently than I probably thought I would when I bought most of them. So the value of these movies, in terms of earning their keep by getting watched semi-regularly, is in loaning them out to people, introducing people to (what I consider to be) great works of art they may not be familiar with. I share that mission statement with all the public and private libraries around the country, indeed, around the world.

So I decided it was time to get my library in order, so I knew what I actually had in my inventory (there were some surprises, believe me), and didn't forget which movie I'd loaned to whom. (I created a column to indicate the current status.) There would be no fee for late returns -- I have a friend who's had two of my favorite movies borrowed for going on 18 months -- but at least I'd have a system to help repossess the DVDs in question, at some point in the future.

It actually didn't take very long, an hour all told.

In recent days I had estimated I owned about 100 DVDs. And so I guess I was a wee bit disappointed when there were only 84 titles entered after all the dust had settled. (For the purposes of this discussion, let's exclude the various TV shows, short films, comedy concerts, sports championship videos and other non-movie DVDs that are in our collection.) Hey, I have been trying not to buy so much in the interest of saving money, for going on three to four years now.

The good thing about having only 84 titles means that it's not too many to list on a blog. And so list them I will, guilty pleasures and all. In a way, this could be helping you understand where I'm coming from, cinematically, better than anything I've written here before. What says more about our movie tastes than the movies we've chosen to own? Of course, collections can be diluted by movies that have been given to us as gifts -- we may not love or even like them, but here they are, part of the whole. Also, some movies we love are not necessarily movies we want to own, because their subject matter may have made them difficult enough to sit through the first time.

But I won't bore you with excuses. If you hate any of the movies you see on this list, well, that was probably the one someone gave me as a present. ;-)

Without further ado, here is a complete list of the movies owned by my wife and me, the majority of which are "mine" and a smaller quantity "hers":

300 (2007, Zack Snyder)
The 13th Warrior (1999, John McTiernan)
8 Mile (2002, Curtis Hanson)
Almost Famous (2000, Cameron Crowe)
Amreeka (2009, Cherien Dabis)
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2009, Sacha Gervasi)
Bedazzled (2000, Harold Ramis)
The Bourne Identity (2002, Doug Liman)
Bowling for Columbine (2002, Michael Moore)
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola)
The Cable Guy (1996, Ben Stiller)
The Cell (2000, Tarsem Singh)
Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuaron)
A Christmas Carol (1984, Clive Donner)
Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
Code 46 (2003, Michael Winterbottom)
The Dark Knight (2006, Christopher Nolan)
Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)
Easier With Practice (2009, Kyle Patrick Alvarez)
Election (1999, Alexander Payne)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)
Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996)
Fathers' Day (1997, Ivan Reitman)
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001, Hironobu Sakaguchi)
A Fish Called Wanda (1988, Charles Crichton)
Flirting With Disaster (1996, David O. Russell)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1995, Mike Newell)
The Full Monty (1997, Peter Cattaneo)
Gentleman's Agreement (1947, Elia Kazan)
Get Christie Love! (1974, William A. Graham)
Ghostbusters II (1989, Ivan Reitman)
The Girl Next Door (2004, Luke Greenfield)
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992, James Foley)
The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
The Guru (2003, Daisy von Scherler Mayer)
Hair (Milos Forman, 1979)
Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)
Intermission (2003, John Crowley)
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973, Norman Jewison)
Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003, Quentin Tarantino)
Kissing Jessica Stein (2002, Charles Herman-Wurmfeld)
L.A. Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson)
The Lady Vanishes (1939, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Lives of Others (2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
The Living Wake (2007, Sol Tryon)
Lost in Translation (2003, Sofia Coppola)
Memento (2001, Christopher Nolan)
The Messenger (2009, Oren Moverman)
Misery (1990, Rob Reiner)
Moon (2009, Duncan Jones)
Napoleon Dynamite (2004, Jared Hess)
North by Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock)
Once (2007, John Carney)
The Others (2001, Alejandro Amenabar)
Paprika (2006, Satoshi Kon)
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006, Tom Tykwer)
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire (2009, Lee Daniels)
The Quiet Earth (1985, Geoff Murphy)
Raising Arizona (1987, Joel Coen)
Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008, Darren Lynn Bousman)
The Ring (2003, Gore Verbinski)
Run Lola Run (1999, Tom Tykwer)
The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)
Sideways (2004, Alexander Payne)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
Southland Tales (2007, Richard Kelly)
Superman: The Movie (1978, Richard Donner)
Superman II (1980, Richard Lester)
Superman III (1983, Richard Lester)
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987, Sidney J. Furie)
Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron)
Thelma & Louise (1991, Ridley Scott)
This Is Spinal Tap (1984, Rob Reiner)
Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter)
Up (2009, Pete Docter)
Vanilla Sky (2001, Cameron Crowe)
The Vicious Kind (2009, Lee Toland Krieger)
Wake in Fright (1971, Ted Kotcheff)
Waking Life (2001, Richard Linklater)
War of the Worlds (2005, Steven Spielberg)
WarGames (1983, John Badham)
When Harry Met Sally ... (1989, Rob Reiner)
Where the Wild Things Are (2009, Spike Jonze)
Wonder Boys (2000, Curtis Hanson)

Whew.

Some other stats that may interest you:

Breakdown of formats: 74 DVDs, four BluRays, two HD DVDs and two Region 4 DVDs. That's right, my wife bought an HD DVD player a couple years ago on the cheap as a replacement for our broken DVD player, which is how we ended up with 300 and The Bourne Identity, two films I don't care about all that much. They were sent to us free with the player. Also, we can't watch Ghostbusters II and Wake in Fright because my wife's sister and father (respectively) gave them to her on Region 4, that being all that was available to them in Australia.

Breakdown of "ownership": 57 movies originally owned/purchased/received as a gift by me, 22 DVDs originally owned/purchased/received as a gift by my wife, and only five that are best described as "mutually owned"

Broad genre breakdown: 12 Action Adventure, 5 Animated, 1 Christmas, 19 Comedy, 2 Costume Drama, 2 Documentary, 29 Drama, 7 Horror, 4 Musical, 4 Suspense

Multiple copies owned: Raising Arizona, one standalone and one as part of a three-pack with The Full Monty and Fargo (great three-pack, eh?)

Multi-packs owned: The aformentioned three-pack, and a package of all four Supermen, which is the only reason imaginable for a person to own Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

Director most represented: A tie between Curtis Hanson (8 Mile, L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) and Rob Reiner (Misery, This Is Spinal Tap, When Harry Met Sally ...)

Year most represented: 2009, with 10 (Amreeka, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Easier With Practice, Inglourious Basterds, The Messenger, Moon, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, Up, The Vicious Kind)

However, that's primarily because ...

Movies received for free as screeners because of my wife's involvement with Film Independent: Amreeka, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Easier With Practice, The Messenger, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, The Vicious Kind

Movies we own that I haven't seen: Get Christie Love! (a blaxploitation film given to me by my wife as sort of a joke), The Lady Vanishes (watched two minutes once but was then distracted and never returned -- I saw little enough of it that I didn't feel "committed" yet), Wake in Fright (see aforementioned DVD region problem)

Movies gifted to us as a joke, though in some cases I may actually like them: Get Christie Love!, Repo! The Genetic Opera, Southland Tales

Movies you'd think I'd own, but don't: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, National Lampoon's Animal House, Three Kings, Toy Story 2, Galaxy Quest, Dumb and Dumber, The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Unforgiven (just to name a few)

Oldest movie we own: The Lady Vanishes (1939)

Newest movie we own: Easier With Practice (2009, though the film actually had a theatrical release this year despite being nominated for an Independent Spirit Award last year)

Movies currently "checked out" from the library: Children of Men, Code 46, Donnie Darko, Glengarry Glen Ross, Moon, Run Lola Run

Had about enough of my library for one day? Okay.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on it -- what you're glad to see included, what you think sucks, anything you might want to comment on. After all, this is another practical function of having a film library: sharing its contents with the world. At least virtually, in the cases where I can't do it physically.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

On second reference


As I was writing my review of the Korean thriller The Chaser yesterday, I was reminded of two things:

1) How much I loved this tense, taut, terrifically scripted and acted film;

2) How much I dislike reviewing Korean and Chinese films.

This last is for one particular, stupid reason: I always get all jumpy every time I have to make a second reference to the creative talent.

See, Koreans and Chinese (and Taiwanese and those from Hong Kong) are among the many Asians whose names are not presented in the Western fashion. Whereas we present the personal name first and the family name second, they do the reverse. Korean names give me further pause, because they also have a hyphen in the personal name, and the second half of that hyphenated word is lower case, which defies my expectations of how a name should be presented, on a purely grammatical level. (Shouldn't the second half of the name be "important enough" to get capitalization?)

Take Na Hong-jin, the director of The Chaser. If I were shoehorning him into the rules of the English language, I would refer to him has Hong-jin on second reference. That could also be the easiest convention for the audience reading my reviews in English, because it would conform to their expectations. But it would also be unconscionable, becauase it's not correct. So he is Na on second reference, and every reference after that. (As a side note, calling him Na also strikes me as odd because Westerners generally have longer family names than personal names. Not so in Korea. So if I were writing a long piece, I might be referring to this man multiple times by an "insubstantial" two-letter word. I don't mean that as some kind of critique that would expose me as a xenophobe, just that it's another disconnect we Americans have when reading foreign names.)

So why is it so hard? It's not like I have to learn some new, third, totally counterintuitive rule. It's either last name second (in the West) or last name first (in Korea). You simply adapt to the appropriate convention based on the origins of the film you're discussing.

Except it's not quite that simple, and here's where the nice Chinese folks I mentioned earlier come in to play. If I were referring to the director of Raise the Red Lantern and Hero, I would call him Zhang Yimou on first reference, and Zhang thereafter. Except that doesn't work as a hard-and-fast rule. Take Ang Lee. You would never consider calling him Ang on repeat references, always Lee. Sure, Lee has been making Hollywood films for 15 years now, so molding his name to our conventions would probably have happened organically, even if it was not technically correct. But when he was directing Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), would we have called him Ang? Would we? (In Lee's case, it probably would have been natural for Westerners to refer to him as "Lee," because we have plenty of Lees of Anglo heritage in the western world. Whereas we don't have many Zhangs or Yimous who came over on the Mayflower.)

Oh how I long for the simplicity of the Japanese naming system, which conforms to ours. Or does it? Never for a moment would I consider referring to Akira Kurosawa as Akira on second reference. Yet it's not actually correct to call him Kurosawa -- this is just how the Western convention has developed for referring to Japanese people. They actually have the same system as the Chinese and the Koreans, we just ignore it by convention. Which is fine with me, as long as it's the accepted method of doing things.

What I'm discovering by doing a little research is that it comes down to personal preference in a lot of instances. I downloaded a very helpful PDF from the Asian Pacific American Handbook, which states the following:

"There is one simple, sure-fire way for you to ensure you get the names right, in all references, of Asian and Asian Pacific American subjects: Ask them their personal preferences.

This point is especially important with new immigrants, because some may still list their names in the style of their homeland (often, family name listed first) while others may have already adopted American usages (family name listed last).

But it is also a worthwhile practice to inquire about name preferences of Asians still in Asia who have long-standing associations with this country. They -- or the American media -- may have adopted Anglicized usages. For example, former South Korean President Park Chung Hee (family name of Park listed first) was often named in the American press as Chung Hee Park."

That explains the baseball player Chan Ho Park, who would probably be Park Chan-ho according to the convention I've chosen.

Now I'm more worried. Should I be calling him Hong Jin Na, rather than Na Hong-jin? He's a first-time filmmaker (which makes The Chaser all the more amazing), so he doesn't have any real association with the western world, let alone a long-standing one. And wikipedia doesn't help, because he doesn't even have his own page yet, and he gets only one mention in the page for The Chaser. That helps with the first reference (they, like the website I write for, call him Na Hong-jin), but not the second. That's usually my method, to look up an interview with or article about the person in question, and steal whatever convention that writer used. But with a relative newcomer, it's not so easy.

And it's not something you just want to blow off, either, because it's all about respect. If you get it wrong, not only do you look disrespectful, but you also look ignorant. Discuss among yourselves which sin is worse.

Oh well. I guess my editors will correct me if they don't agree with my interpretation. Since Na is N/A in terms of my ability to ask him about it, he's Na in my book.

And in anybody's book, The Chaser is a movie you should seek out. Mind, prepare to be blown. (Love the poster, too.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On versions



During a recent piece comparing Let the Right One In and Let Me In, in which I stated that the two films were of comparable quality, I also stated that this seemed like one of those situations where whichever one you saw first, you'd probably like better.

I went on to describe my belief that this is a widespread phenomenon in general -- the first of anything you consume is the one you like better. Assuming you like it at all, that is. If you happened to watch Gus Van Sant's Psycho first, and then followed it up with Alfred Hitchcock's, I'd have to assume you'd find Hitchcock to be the superior version.

But not necessarily if you actually liked Van Sant's movie, even though I use it as an example because so few people did. If you liked Van Sant's Psycho, you might think, "What is this old, grainy version of the story that steals all of Van Sant's camera setups?" Ha ha.

But I have a kind of serious point here. I contend that, especially in the case of songs you like, you might attach to one definitive version of it, and not like the other versions quite as much. That might be true whether you were first exposed to the original, or a remix, or a cover.

So I thought today I would put to the test my "first seen, best seen" theory by examining a bunch of movies I've seen, where I've also seen a remake of the same film. Will I like whichever version I saw first, best? I actually don't know, because all I've done so far is identified the pairings. I'm saving the actual judgment for real-time, as I write.

I have to say, right from the start, that it's a pretty inexact science. I'm sure somewhere there will be an example of a pairing where I saw the vastly inferior version of the film first, and will recognize that as such. But will this really blow my theory out of the water? I'm going to say "no," because we're talking about situations where you like the first version you saw. Is that cheating? I don't think so.

I also should mention that my theory does, by its very nature, have the potential to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And by that I mean, a vast majority of us see the better version of a film first, simply because remade films were often classics in their original form, and most film buffs watch the original before they watch the remake. But there are a number of films among the following pairings where I definitely saw the newer version first, and then went back to see the older one. And besides, remakes are not necessarily only of good films, or of films that fully lived up to their potential. In fact, in the piece about the two "Let" vampire movies, I quoted Let the Right One In director Tomas Alfredson, who thought that only bad films should be remade.

Okay, just a little more bookkeeping to take care of before we get started. Which films don't qualify in this discussion?

1) Multiple reinterpretations of the same famous character. I'm not going to consider Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to be a remake of Disney's Robin Hood, any more than I would consider The New World to be a remake of Disney's Pocahontas. We all know that there are characters in our popular consciousness who get regularly revisited in forms that don't constitute remakes of the other films dealing with these characters. (See also: Dracula, Ebenezer Scrooge, The Three Musketeers.)

2) Genre shifts. I don't think I'm going to consider Adam Shankman's Hairspray to be a remake of John Waters' Hairspray, because there was an intervening step in which the story became a Broadway musical, and Shankman's film is based on that. (See also: The two versions of The Producers.)

3) Taking the essential plot and updating it. Courage Under Fire uses the same essential plot dynamics as Roshomon, but I don't consider the former to be a remake of the latter. (See also: O vs. Othello, A Fistful of Dollars vs. Yojimbo.)

4) Multiple versions of the same source material. No new versions of movies based on Shakespeare's plays can be considered remakes of the other versions. There were three Hamlets made within a 10-year period -- Franco Zefferelli's (1990), Kenneth Branagh's (1996) and Michael Almereyda's (2000). None are remakes of each other.

Well, let's not get bogged down in rules. It basically comes down to, I'm choosing the ones I'm including for reasons that make sense to me, and that's that.

Ready? I'll list the film I saw first in each pair. In more or less alphabetical order by one of the two titles:

1) Vanilla Sky (2001, Cameron Crowe) vs. Abre Los Ojos (1997, Alejandro Amenabar)

Winner: Vanilla Sky. Amenabar's film probably didn't stand a chance, because of how passionately I feel about Crowe's film. The visual bombast and great soundtrack are two of the things I love about Vanilla Sky, so Abre Los Ojos felt comparatively quiet on its lower budget.

2) Can't Buy Me Love (1987, Steve Rash) vs. Love Don't Cost a Thing (2003, Troy Beyer)

Winner: Can't Buy Me Love. It was a childhood favorite, and I still think fondly of it. Beyer's modern urban update is actually pretty good, but Ronald Miller (Patrick Dempsey) on his riding lawnmower wins out any day.

3) Chaos (2005, David DeFalco) vs. Last House on the Left (1972, Wes Craven)

Winner: Last House on the Left. Then again, Chaos is one of the most loathsome films I have ever seen, so this violates the rule that states I had to like the first version I saw. (I have not seen the movie Last House is based on, Ingmar Bergman's 1959 The Virgin Spring, nor Dennis Iliadis' 2009 remake of Last House.)

4) Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, Mel Stuart) vs. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005, Tim Burton)

Winner: Willy Wonka, hands down. It's arguable whether Burton's terrible film is a remake of the original or just another version of the book, but I'll include it just so I can shit on Burton's film in a public forum.

5) City of Angels (1998, Brad Silberling) vs. Wings of Desire (1987, Wim Wenders)

Winner: Wings of Desire, but with a big asterisk that kind of proves my point anyway. City of Angels is a very flawed film -- I don't even know that I necessarily give it a thumbs up. But what I couldn't help noticing when I finally saw Wings of Desire last year was that I felt the plot was much more focused in its Hollywood remake. I know intellectually that Wenders' film is obviously the better film, but I did find myself impatient with it because I was expecting the more straightforward narrative structure of Silberling's film.

6) Dawn of the Dead (2004, Zack Snyder) vs. Dawn of the Dead (1978, George A. Romero)

Winner: Snyder's version. I really wish I had seen them in the reverse order, because Romero's movie seemed soooo slooooow to me -- both in terms of the speed of the plot, and the speed of the zombies. So instead of getting to appreciate one of history's seminal zombie films, I was laughing at its corniness compared to Snyder's kinetic and bloody remake.

7) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise) vs. The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008, Scott Derrickson)

Winner: Wise's version. This one is really easy, as the remake is absolutely terrible. Even a good version wouldn't have stood much of a chance, though, because I've always appreciated the original -- it was my dad's favorite movie growing up.

8) The Dinner Game (1998, Francis Veber) vs. Dinner for Schmucks (2010, Jay Roach)

Winner: The Dinner Game. This one actually had the potential to upset the applecart, because although we liked the French original, my wife and I were marveling over how little of it we could remember, even though we saw it within the last couple years. When we both hated Dinner for Schmucks, it was no contest in favor of the original.

9) Point of No Return (1993, John Badham) vs. La Femme Nikita (1990, Luc Besson)

Winner: La Femme Nikita. But again, I hated Badham's film -- hated it -- so this hardly counts in this discussion. Am a bit ashamed that I actually saw the remake before the original, but I was still only in the beginning stages of my film geekdom back then.

10) The Flight of the Phoenix (1965, Robert Aldrich) vs. Flight of the Phoenix (2004, John Moore)

Winner: Aldrich's version. I watched them weeks apart so I could review both for my site, and so the original could inform my review of the remake. I have a slight preference for the original, though the remake has its strengths as well.

11) The Hitcher (2007, Dave Meyers) vs. The Hitcher (1986, Robert Harmon)

Winner: Meyers' version. This was a bit like with Dawn of the Dead, where I thought the newer, radder version was surprisingly enjoyable and had a more streamlined plot, while the original was boring and poorly constructed by comparison. So sue me.

12) Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Segel) vs. The Invasion (2007, Oliver Hirschbeigel)

Winner: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It's a classic, so of course this wins. I should see the 1970s version as well. Though I should say, I didn't hate The Invasion as much as most critics seemed to. I thought it was okay.

13) Lolita (1997, Adrian Lyne) vs. Lolita (1962, Stanley Kubrick)

Winner: Lyne's version. I know, heresy. But here's my theory working again -- I really liked the version with Dominique Swain and Jeremy Irons, and had this as my standard for the definitive version of Nabokov's novel. Even if the original version was directed by the great Stanley Kubrick.

14) The Manchurian Candidate (1962, John Frankenheimer) vs. The Manchurian Candidate (2004, Jonathan Demme)

Winner: Frankenheimer's, though I do like Demme's.

15) Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J. Schaffner) vs. Planet of the Apes (2001, Tim Burton)

Winner: Schaffner's. I don't actually think Burton's is terrible, but it's not good. Besides, how could Mark Wahlberg ever duplicate the inimitable Charlton Heston?

16) The Wages of Fear (1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot) vs. Sorcerer (1977, William Friedkin)

Winner: The Wages of Fear. Sorcerer is actually a pretty good attempt, but it has a lot of excess plot stuff from before the real action begins, which really gets in the way.

17) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper) vs. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003, Marcus Nispel)

Winner: Hooper's. Again the original is of course superior, but I thought the remake was a worthwhile enough effort.

18) Three Men and a Baby (1987, Leonard Nimoy) vs. Trois Hommes et un Coffin (1985, Coline Serreau)

Winner: Three Men and a Baby. At the time I saw both, I would have preferred the former just because it had actors I recognized and was in English. So, not a great example maybe.

19) The Time Machine (2002, Simon Wells) vs. The Time Machine (1960, George Pal)

Winner: Wells' version. Though I may be remembering it that way primarily because I really enjoyed the turn-of-the-century period design on display at the start of the 2002 version, as well as some of its later special effects. Pal's original may be the better version, but I'd probably rather re-watch the Wells version.

20) The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming) vs. The Wiz (1978, Sidney Lumet)

Winner: The Wizard of Oz, of course. It's questionable whether this actually qualifies because The Wiz is based on an urban, Broadway version of The Wizard of Oz rather than on Fleming's movie. But 20 seemed like a good round number, so why not.

And 20 is definitely a good place to stop.

So, prophecy self-fulfilled? I guess so. There definitely wasn't any movie on this list where I felt strongly about both versions, and liked the one I saw second better. Does that prove anything? I don't know, maybe not. Would I write this post again, if I had it to do over again? I don't know, maybe not.

Also, there were some pairings I could have discussed but didn't. Are Last Man Standing and A Fistful of Dollars clearly both remakes of Yojimbo, or are they just the dynamics of Yojimbo reimagined? Same question for The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. Do you consider Red Dragon to be a remake of Manhunter, or are they just two competing versions of Thomas Harris' novel? And what about the only sequel I can think of that might also be considered a remake of the original, Evil Dead 2 and Evil Dead?

Well, one thing I determined during the course of accruing this information from my movie lists is that there are a lot of movies where I've seen one version but not the other. In fact, I identified 61 other movies I've seen that either have an original version, a remake, a competing version or some other film that's sort of the same.

Maybe one of these other versions will finally buck the trend of my apparently iron-clad rule.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Missing parts


I just finished watching Repo Men, and have the DVD's bonus screen music playing on my headphones as I type this. (Mother and baby sleeping in the other room.)

I'm doing a little bit of internetting, and I thought, might as well have one of the bonus features on in the background. An unusual step for me, since I rarely watch extras even with films I like, let alone those I don't really care for. Repo Men falls into the latter category.

But I also kind of dig things like fake commercials made in the style of the movie, you know, advertising some shadowy organization that's part of the plot. I'm pretty much describing the exact extra I thought I'd watch on the Repo Men disc, called "The Union Commercials." The Union being that nasty little organization that sends people out to reclaim your vital organs after you've defaulted on your payment for them.

But when I tried to select the link to "The Union Commercials," this is what I got:

"This disc is intended for rental purposes and only includes the feature film. Own it on Blu-ray or DVD to view these bonus features and complete your movie watching experience."

Um, no thanks.

My guess is that this phenomenon is not limited to Repo Men, that there are other DVDs out there with some of their vital organs missing. But I do wonder why you would go to the trouble of making a special version of the DVD, just so you can deny people who rent it. There has to be an extra cost involved, which should outweigh some of the intangible benefit of this denial.

And it's clearly just denial for denial's sake. You're operating on the theory that someone who rents this movie will buy the DVD only because they want to see the extras -- not because of how much they liked the movie. The latter is the only legitimate reason to ever buy a movie, not so you can see its deleted scenes or watch another feature called "Inside the Visual Effects." (Especially since these visual effects were nothing to write home about.)

And now I'm actually wondering if this is the DVD that is given out to all rental outlets, or just Redbox, where I'm watching Repo Men for the bargain price of $1.10, including tax. (Having seen it, I might have gone as high as $1.25, ha ha.) Could this have been a special burn just for Redbox? Is that the price you pay for getting to watch a movie at a fraction of its rental price from Blockbuster? Or maybe they just think you won't have time to watch the extras if you have the DVD for only 24 hours?

It's just as well, seeing as how I'd rather see less, not more, of Repo Men.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

M. Clint Shyamalan


I am getting a bit of a Shyamalany vibe from Hereafter.

Let's consider:

Central figure who can speak to the dead? Check.

Blue-toned, ethereal poster that suggests the possible involvement of aliens or mermaids? Check.

Bryce Dallas Howard? Check.

Five people trapped in an elevator where weird things start to happen? Well, okay, maybe not.

But I do think there's something a bit "from the man who brought you Lady in the Water" about this movie. Let's hope I'm wrong.

Actually, Hereafter vibes a couple other movies as well. It's multi-story, potentially planet-spanning narrative structure is reminiscent of Babel, while its images of flood (tidal wave, I think) remind me a bit of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Well, those were both best picture nominees, so I guess it could be worse.

Oh, and from an effects standpoint, I kind of want to see that tidal wave.

I do wonder at what point Clint Eastwood's furious pace of 1+ movies per year will finally render a true dud. His recent output has not been universally acclaimed, but people seem to generally appreciate films like Changeling, Gran Torino and Invictus. Well, if IMDB's timelines are accurate, at least he'll take 2011 off before coming back with Hoover, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, in 2012.

Even though Hereafter is only opening nationwide today, we came close to seeing it last weekend on limited release in Los Angeles. On the day my dad and his wife arrived in town last Saturday, we tried to go see The Town, but the rain had driven every single Angeleno to this one particular theater, meaning The Town was actually sold out. (Because the movie has been out for a month, that surprised us. But as we discovered the next day when we bought our tickets in advance, it was playing in one of the 30-seat couch theaters, explaining its surprise sold-out status.)

Playing in a larger theater, Hereafter was not sold out, but because it started an extra 25 minutes later and we didn't want to be gone from the baby for too long, we had to be worried about length. Seeing the massive line for the parking garage, I'd let my wife out on the curb to buy tickets. She called me with the bad news about The Town a couple minutes later. "Yeah, get tickets for Hereafter, as long as it's not like 2 hours and 20 minutes," I said.

Two minutes after that, she called back. I still hadn't entered the garage.

"It's 2 hours and 20 minutes," she said.

Friday, October 22, 2010

$3.99 DVD smackdown



Yesterday was my birthday, but on my lunch break, I found myself buying a card for someone else. It was a thank you card, and it was for my dad and his wife, who have been in town since Saturday meeting their grandson and step-grandson. They're leaving today.

The part of this story that's germane to movies is that the Walgreens where I was buying the card was having a sale on DVDs. A pretty good sale, I thought: $3.99 apiece.

Movies that make it into these sale bins are usually nothing you'd want to see. If you've even heard of the titles, they're things that are 15 to 20 years old, and were considered some of the biggest flops of those actors' or directors' careers. But not yesterday. Yesterday, there were some good pickins. In fact, so good, that when I decided to limit myself to just one, it was a tough choice. I was feeling celebratory enough to treat myself to a $3.99 movie on my birthday, but too fiscally conservative to treat myself to a second.

So, here were the contenders:

1) Shattered Glass (2003, Billy Ray)

For it: A fascinating study of the desperate measures a man will take while trying to cover his tracks. Shattered Glass is the true story of Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen, at his career best), a former wunderkind writer for The New Republic who blatantly fabricated some or all of the details of stories he wrote for the magazine. When rival journalists pick holes in one of his stories, he goes to great lengths to try to retroactively support the existence of sources, events, even entire companies that never existed. It's thrilling and extremely well done.

Against it: Just watched it again about six months ago. When I buy a DVD, I like for it to be something I haven't seen in awhile, so there's at least the possibility that I'll watch it soon after buying it, even if I probably won't.

2) Away from Her (2006, Sarah Polley)

For it: A wrenching and heartbreaking story of a woman (the excellent Julie Christie) whose life radically changes after the sudden onset of Alzheimer's. Not only are the performances great (Gordon Pinsent is also terrific as the husband who is no longer recognizable to his wife), but it's an extremely impressive and mature debut for its director, Polley, who was only 27 at the time of the film's release, and is known to us primarily as an actress (Go, Splice).

Against it: Too depressing. Movies with heavy subject matter fall into that category of films that I may really love, but may also not feel the need to own. I consider Schindler's List one of the greatest films of all time, but I don't really want to own it.

3) The Lives of Others (2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

For it: An exquisite and moving portrait of East Germany under the Stasi, the secret police who monitored artists and other liberal thinkers for signs of political dissidence, told through the eyes of one of the most fervent pro-government surveillance experts (played by the terrific Ulrich Muhe, rest in peace). The ways in which his own world view crumbles are fascinating as this Stasi captain becomes moved by the lives of a playwright and his girlfriend. But even more impressive is his own cat-and-mouse game to avoid being suspected of losing his resolve by his own superiors and former ideological comrades.

Against it: Both copies of the DVD were emblazoned with a sticker that read "Previously Enjoyed," even though it was shrink-wrapped and in all other respects looked new. Even if I'm buying DVDs cheaply, I sometimes think they seem tainted if they're used, although it's a good way not to waste a perfectly good DVD.

So who came out on top?

Winner: The Lives of Others

Even though I have similar levels of affection for all three films, I decided that The Lives of Others was the one I most felt I needed to own. I've seen it only once, which gives it an advantage over Shattered Glass, and even though it's sad in parts, that's not the dominant mode of the film, which gives it an advantage over Away from Her. And at least the DVD looked new, so I felt I could ignore its pre-owned status.

Now I just have to figure out when I'll get to carve out the two hours and 18 minutes needed to watch it again.

So which would you have picked?

The Lives of Others ended up being only the first of three movies I received on my birthday. Here are the other two:

1) Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter). I currently have this classic film ranked #2 on Flickchart, meaning that I should at least own a DVD copy of it already. I owned it on VHS, but never quite found myself in a situation to upgrade to DVD. So yesterday's gift skipped the DVD step and went straight to BluRay, making this the official third BluRay in our new collection.

2) Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008, Darren Lynn Bousman). And then this became our fourth. Even though the friend who sent me this one sent it as kind of a joke, because he hated it, I didn't receive it in that way -- I actually really liked this film (which he knew), and watched it twice when I first rented it two Januarys ago. That means it's just about time for a third viewing.

Unfortunately, I didn't get my other birthday wish as stated in yesterday's post, the Texas Rangers beating the New York Yankees. But that's for me to whine about on a sports blog, not a movie blog.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pleasant surprises
















Warning: The following post contains minor spoilers about
The Town. You may choose not to paahhtake in this one if you haven't seen it.

I finally saw The Town on Sunday afternoon, and almost everything about it was a pleasant surprise. I mean, I knew it was supposed to be good, but I actually think it was better than I thought it was going to be.

But there was one thing in particular about it that really tickled me -- and I had no idea how I couldn't have known it was going to happen.

First things first. I'm a Boston Red Sox fan. Have been officially for 24 years, ever since I got anointed by fire during the 1986 playoff run, which ended in such crushing misery for Boston fans. After that, there was no going back. I was hooked.

The intensity of my feelings has died down some in recent years, which, when you're someone like me, is an inevitable part of your team winning two championships. I describe myself as a "sports socialist," which means I like to see different teams win championships, giving different fan bases something to cheer about. So when the Red Sox ended their famous 86-year drought without a championship in 2004, and especially when they won another in 2007, I hardly felt it was fair that I kept on requiring them to win championships. I'd had my share of good fortune. So inevitably, until my appetite really builds up again, I have been following the team with a little less urgency. Most sports fans would recognize a direct correlation between your hunger for a championship and the amount you parse the day-to-day fortunes of a baseball team.

This is my only explanation for how I couldn't have known that the final heist in The Town was going to take place in Fenway Park, the nearly hundred-year-old home to the Red Sox.

It's presented perfectly in the movie -- hinted at, then grandly revealed in the form of one of many glorious helicopter shots over the city of Boston, this one directly over Fenway Paahhk. That grand reveal gave me goosebumps -- is actually giving me goosebumps now as I write this.

But I don't think it should have, because I should have known that this was coming. It should have entered my consciousness through the Red Sox zeitgeist, either on Facebook through someone posting about it, or through a story on ESPN.com, or some other way. At the very least, one of my friends who's seen it should have leaked it to me.

But no one did. And so, when that helicopter shot swooped in on the park, and Doug (Ben Affleck) and Jem (Jeremy Renner) case the joint from one of Fenway's most elevated perches, during a game against the Toronto Blue Jays, I was hit with a rush of exhilaration.

I don't have any other point than to say that it's just nice to recognize moments when good secrets remain secrets in the movies. Especially when the secrets seem so unlikely to stay secret. Not only has this movie been out a month, and not only do I know a lot of people who have already seen it, but it also has to do with my favorite sports team, the Red Sox. The team who, because of a wonderful moment exactly six years ago today, in which they finished the unprecedented comeback from three games down to beat the New York Yankees in the ALCS, proceeding to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, has allowed me the luxury to not know every little detail about them, and therefore, to be surprised by this scene in The Town.

And how do I know it was exactly six years ago? Because today is my birthday, and six years ago, they gave me the best birthday present a fan could ever ask for.

It's the same birthday present I'm hoping to get today, when the Texas Rangers play these Yankees with a chance to move on to the World Series themselves. (See, it's almost as fun to root against the Yankees as it is to root for the Red Sox.) Texas had never won a playoff series in its 50-year history until last week, so winning the World Series this year would be aces in the book of a sports socialist like me. Let those Dallas-area fans, conservative though they may be, whoop it up a little bit. Especially if it's at the expense of the hated Yankees.

Besides, the Rangers also wear red. So if I squint, I can pretend it's my team out there, giving the Yankees the whupping they so richly deserve.

That's a sentiment with which The Town's director, Ben Affleck, who's making a quick ascent in the directorial ranks, can sympathize.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Movies vs. music

There's a blogger I follow, whom I think I would follow a lot more if it weren't for one thing:

He/she (I know the gender, I'm just being purposely vague) blogs about music in addition to movies.

This is a perfectly valid creative choice for a blog, and I support it in the abstract. But when it gets down to the particular, I don't read his/her blog as much simply because I'm not that interested in sifting through the music posts.

I've been thinking about why this is. It's not because I don't like music. On the contrary -- music always has been and always will be an essential part of my life, even if I listen to more public radio and less music as I grow older. And what would films be without music? Music and movies inform each other intimately. We say that a particular song seems very "cinematic," either because it's grandiose or seems to tell some kind of story; likewise, we refer to films as "lyrical."

It stands to reason that a blog that combines both could be quite a brilliant read. And I'm not saying this blog is not. However, I wouldn't really know, because I don't give the music articles a chance -- I don't even read them in the first place.

Again, I've been thinking about why this is.

And it basically comes down to this: Movies are universal, while music can be very, very subjective.

Let's put it another way. I feel like I could recommend a great movie to anyone who likes movies. Great music? No way. Because my great music could be their crap. Where I hear brilliance, they may just hear noise. And we're listening to the same piece, it's just we're not fans of the same kind of music.

To be sure, movies can have the same kind of subjectivity. One person's brilliance can be another person's crap. I could show you the best western in the world (Unforgiven, for the record), and you might not like it because you don't like westerns. Actually, that's a bad example, because I love Unforgiven even though I don't particularly like the western genre.

But that's kind of my point exactly. Unforgiven speaks to me because I love film, not because I love westerns, and I think it would do the same for most people. I don't have to like that particular genre to like the film.

You can't say the same thing with music -- maybe even with books, or TV, or any other kind of creative endeavor, though I'd have to think about each of those individually before I could say for sure. The best hip hop song that has ever been recorded might sound like insolent fluff to a fan of classical music. Similarly, a hip hop fan may listen to a symphony and be utterly unable to distinguish it as something worthy of his/her time.

And what this leads me to decide is that films have an absolute value that music does not. Very few people will look at the world's greatest films and decide that they aren't at least somewhat good. Whereas, if you don't like U2, you don't like U2, and that's that.

It's for this reason that I have never been interested in the Grammys, the way I'm interested in the Oscars. Sure, some of that has to do with the fact that I'm educated about film and can both write and speak about it intelligently, whereas I'd be speaking in generalities if I tried to write about music on a regular basis. Simply put, I'm more passionate, per se, about movies than I am about music.

But I also have trouble with the Grammys because I feel like they're always comparing apples to oranges, and rarely do the winners have a true hold on the musical zeitgeist, because different people have such different tastes in music. (So, by extension, there may be no true musical zeitgeist.)

I think of the year that Steely Dan won Album of the Year for a record called Two Against Nature. It was 2001, and I didn't know a single person who had heard a single note off that album. But the rest of the nominees were pretty much a grab bag from across the musical spectrum as well: Midnite Vultures by Beck, Kid A by Radiohead, The Marshall Mathers LP by Eminem and You're the One by Paul Simon. You might argue that Steely Dan should be the least likely to walk away with that award, given the musical temperature of the country at that time (though I don't know a word from the Paul Simon album either). If any album "should" have won in terms of its influence on culture, it would be Eminem's album. But there you have an example of an album that would polarize as many people as it would convert.

Not so, really, with the movies. When Slumdog Millionaire wins best picture, it's because that's the movie everyone's talking about. When The Hurt Locker wins best picture, it's because that's the movie everyone's talking about. Those two movies are very different from each other, but the same people can love them equally.

That could just be because movie buzz gets very loud, very quickly. And since that buzz is controlled by a relatively small number of entertainment outlets, it tends to coronate frontrunners pretty quickly, and get us all thinking on the same page. Or it could just be because movies are a smaller universe than music, where it's not apples vs. oranges, but Granny Smith apples vs. Golden Delicious. And where opinions of greatness -- or lack of greatness -- translate better from person to person.

And so to this blogger, who may have determined his or her identity in the course of this piece, but who is really only being used as an example who inspired me to a certain line of thinking: Your decision to combine music and movies on your blog does not work for me as well as it should, for the above reasons. It's hard to read a music recommendation the same way I read a movie recommendation. With music, I need to know where you're coming from; with movies, I don't.

But more power to you for trying. Music and movies do inform each other in more ways than we can even touch on here, and as I said, it's a good idea for a blog if you can pull it off. And I think you can.

I'm just not always going to be your most regular reader, because I like to keep my apples and my oranges separate.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Movies of no importance


We tend to think of the proliferation of movie titles on DVD as absolute. If a movie was made at any point in human history, it should be available on DVD, right? There should be someone, somewhere, who had enough of a relationship with the movie to steer it into a pressing of at least a couple thousand copies. Right?

Well, no.

It makes sense that some of the old, obscure titles from the earliest decades of filmmaking would have been lost over the years, or simply never would have been transferred. They made a huge number of movies back in those days. I doubt that it's an exaggeration to say that there are over a thousand movies made in the United States that are not available on DVD, nor were they even available on VHS. There could be a couple thousand.

But it doesn't make as much sense when this happens with a film from the last 20 years. Like a little film I saw and loved in 1995 called A Man of No Importance, directed by Suri Krishnamma and starring Albert Finney.

Let me set the scene for you a bit, to show you part of why it spoke to me so much. It was the spring of my senior year in college. I went to college in Maine, about 30 minutes from Maine's biggest city, Portland. Portland has an old, nautical history, and one of its most charming areas is call The Old Port, which is a district right near the harbor -- and which I only just discovered in the last semester of my college career, to my great chagrin. This district has art galleries, shops, amazing restaurants and cobblestone streets. Just the experience of being there is highly pleasing to all a person's senses, so going to a movie in the single-screen arthouse theater in the thick of it is like paradise for a person with the right aesthetic sensibilities. A friend and I came down from school and went to see A Man of No Importance in the spring of 1995. To cap the experience, we went across the way and got a coffee in the coffee shop, then called Java Joe's. This was also a bit of a revelation for me, since I was, until this point, unacquainted with the concept of the little coffee shop that supplied its own board games, to encourage you to linger and relax as long as you liked.

The movie itself was wonderful. It's about Dublin bus driver Alfie Byrne (Albert Finney), who is hiding a secret -- he feels "the love that dare not speak its name." In other words, he's gay. He's also a theater lover, and he's trying to mount a performance of Oscar Wilde's Salome, using only the passengers who ride his bus as his cast and crew. In the process of this, he develops a close relationship with a female passenger (Tara Fitzgerald) and a male stud with whom he falls in love (Rufus Sewell). However, when his true nature is accidentally revealed, it remains to be seen how those around him -- particularly his conservative contemporaries who oppose the production -- will react. And whether it will destroy his friendship with one or both of his young friends.

Finney's performance in this film is heartbreaking, but it also sings -- I've never liked him more than here. I was also mesmerized by Fitzgerald and Sewell, falling for both, but in the reverse way from Alfie -- he appreciates Fitzgerald as one would appreciate beautiful art, and Sewell as a love interest. I was the opposite. The film also has good performances from Michael Gambon, David Kelley and Brenda Fricker.

So why in the world can't you get this in any format except for the non-U.S. DVD format? All six actors I've mentioned are known from numerous other roles, and the film clearly played arthouse theaters in the U.S., because that's where I saw it. I even saw it a second time, within the next five years, on VHS.

But the advent of the DVD era was when A Man of No Importance ceased to have all importance outside of Europe. It didn't make the leap to the newer form of technology, which even the most artistically suspect of its cinematic brethren were able to make. It has basically become unattainable, at least for U.S. audiences. Which is quite a shame, because I thought of it over the weekend and wanted to add it to my Netflix queue, so I could introduce it to my wife. Alas, the title search returned no results, nor did a search on Amazon.com. On Amazon, only the non-U.S. format was available -- or else VHS.

This is not the only film where this has happened to me. In fact, I have a half-dozen other titles that I requested to review for the website I write for, only to find out later that they simply did not exist. At least, not unless I wanted to dust off my VHS player ... and find a place that still rents VHS. Or, fly to some other country to rent it.

Last year, I wrote a post called "The unattainables," about films I couldn't get because Blockbuster had excluded them from its catalogue on grounds of indecency. However, I've since seen the two main movies featured in that post, The Brown Bunny and Shortbus -- one rented from a different video store, and one borrowed from the library. The following are the really unattainables, reasonably prominent films that got lost in the shuffle somewhere along the way:

1) Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993, Randa Haines). This film was on my radar as the most recent film made by Sandra Bullock when Speed came out and turned her into an instant star. The film also features Richard Harris, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Duvall, and Randa Haines directed Children of a Lesser God among others. Yet for some reason this was not available on DVD until last year -- in fact, up until about two minutes ago, I thought it wasn't available at all, except I now see it's available for purchase on Amazon. However, Netflix still does not have it, and only recognizes a title called Ernest Hemingway: Wrestling With Life when you search for it. I was approved to review this movie probably seven or eight years ago. I'm almost wondering if I should just buy the movie on Amazon in order to review it.

2) The Theory of Flight (1998, Paul Greengrass). Another prominent cast (Helena Bonham Carter, Kenneth Branagh) and prominent director (Greengrass directed two Bourne movies, among others) get left out in the cold, as this film is available only on VHS and non-U.S. DVD. I've been approved on this one probably only half as long, but it still feels like an eternity.

3) Year of the Comet (1992, Peter Yates). This film was on my radar because acclaimed screenwriter William Goldman wrote about it in his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, as an example of a turkey from his own body of work. I thought it would be fun to see it myself and assess its status as a turkey, so I requested to review it. I'm still waiting for a DVD copy to be released. Oh, it stars the less household-namey combo of Tim Daly and Penelope Ann Miller.

Then there are a couple other movies I've been approved to review whose DVDs exist -- I can see them on Amazon -- but neither Netflix or Blockbuster carries them. For the African tribesmen basketball movie The Air Up There -- shouldn't every six degrees of Kevin Bacon movie be available to rent? -- Blockbuster let me add it to my queue, but then just listed it as Unavailable. On Netflix, those search words only bring up Up in the Air. For It's Pat: The Movie, Netflix gives you the option to save it for when it's available -- even though the DVD looks to have been released in 2003. Then there's What the Bleep: Down the Rabbit Hole, the sequel to What the Bleep Do We Know?, which isn't searchable at all on Netflix. Then again, that could be because you don't know whether to spell it Bleep or #%?@!. What I find strange, though, is that the original is available -- and searchable -- but not the sequel.

It's frustrating to have movies dangling out there that I can't watch, but I don't really give a flip about any of them except A Man of No Importance. I guess one advantage to eventually moving to Australia, where my wife grew up, would be that I'd finally be able to see this little gem again.