Saturday, April 30, 2011

There can be only one

Not only one Fast & Furious. Apparently, there can be at least five Fast & Furiouses. (Fast & Furii?)

No, I'm talking about the epic grudge match between Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson in Fast Five, which comes out today. The grudge match I imagine in my mind, anyway.

I have long considered Diesel and Johnson to serve more or less the same capacity in the movie biz. They are both biracial, they are both action stars, they are both usually bald, and they are both ripped.

Except the demographic they represent and cater to is where the comparison ends. Johnson also does comedy and generally makes smart choices. Diesel takes himself too seriously and generally makes dumb choices.

Essentially, the erstwhile The Rock is having the career Diesel should have had.

No sooner did Vin Diesel become famous than we started hearing about all the roles he didn't want to do. The main reason Diesel has only been in the first and most recent two installments of the Fast/Furious movies (and skipped out on the sequel to XXX) is that he thought he was going to do more "serious" and "worthwhile" projects (such as, um, The Chronicles of Riddick). I'm not saying a measure of an actor's career intelligence is how many half-baked sequels he makes. The problem with Diesel -- at least this is the impression I got from an interview I read -- is that he looked down his nose on the projects that made him famous, suffering from an instant case of "I'm better than that" syndrome. There's a healthy balance between challenging yourself and understanding where your bread is buttered, and the main reason Diesel basically disappeared for five to seven years is that he was so spectacularly untalented at finding that balance. (However, one can see how some early casting luck would have tempted him into making better movies -- before the clock even struck 2000, Diesel had appeared in both Saving Private Ryan and The Iron Giant.)

Filling the Diesel void was Dwayne Johnson, known previously to wrestling fans (and most of the rest of us) as The Rock. It was almost like there was an actual baton passing. The year 2002 was when both XXX came out, marking the last time Diesel wanted to be associated with such mindless action drivel, and The Scorpion King came out, marking the beginning of Johnson's rapid ascension toward the A list. (Or at least the B+ list.) Johnson could have easily gone from one role to the next to the next that required only his physique, but he smartly started to mix humor into his roles, such as The Rundown and Get Smart. Okay, I haven't seen The Rundown and I hated Get Smart. So maybe I'm really thinking of his appearance on Saturday Night Live, where he showed such a fitness for comedy. Meanwhile, having struck out with A Man Apart and Chronicles of Riddick, Diesel tried to make a course correction of sorts into comedy with the children's movie The Pacifier. It was a disaster, precisely because Diesel isn't funny.

Johnson smartly followed in Ice Cube's footsteps toward more family-friend fare, starring in The Game Plan, Race to Witch Mountain, Planet 51 and Tooth Fairy. He may have overdone it, in fact, because when he appeared in a straightforward action movie last fall -- Faster -- it caught a lot of us by surprise. You may have had a different take, but to me, it seemed that Johnson had become too good for marginal vigilante schlock like this. (I understand some people liked it. I haven't seen it.)

Meanwhile, after a second sci-fi misfire (Babylon A.D.), Diesel has been racing back to his roots like a cheating husband desperate for forgiveness. Not only has he jumped back into the Fast/Furious movies with both feet, I understand he's also filming the third XXX, subtitled The Return of Xander Cage. Funny, speaking of Ice Cube, Cube was actually Diesel's successor in XXX: State of the Nation. So if Cube was following in Diesel's footsepts, and Johnson was following in Cube's footsteps, but Diesel is generally seen as a failure, how is Johnson possibly the most successful of the three of them? I'm confused.

I do think there is something intentionally cheeky about pitting Johnson and Diesel against each other in Fast Five. It's like the famous first tete-a-tete on film between Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino in Michael Mann's Heat, only on a much smaller and more poorly acted scale. And from what the trailers tell me, they're definitely on opposite sides of the law. So I can see the same kind of semi-civilized sit-down conversation, pregnant with veiled threats, transpiring between these two cinematic luminaries as well. Perhaps it would go something like this:

Johnson: You're going down, Diesel.
Diesel: I've been down. What else ya got?
Johnson: Oh you think you're a real comedian.
Diesel: No, isn't that your job, Mr. Saturday Night?
Johnson: It was one time! I only hosted once!
Diesel: Yeah, you were pretty menacing in your hula skirt. Me, I invented menacing.
Johnson: Menacing like Find Me Guilty? When you wore a bad wig and played a goofball mobster defending himself?
Diesel: Shut up. The great Sidney Lumet directed that film, may he rest in peace.
Johnson: And the great Richard Kelly directed Southland Tales.
Diesel: Um, yeah.
Johnson: Shut up.
Diesel: Face it -- you wish you were me.
Johnson: I am you -- only better. I've had two full careers. So, I've had one-and-a-half more careers than you.
Diesel: But were you ever in a movie nominated for best picture? Hello, I was one of those dudes saving private Ryan.
Johnson: Wasn't Be Cool nominated for best picture?
Diesel: No.
Johnson: Wait, how are you winning this argument? I'm much more successful than you are by any standard. Plus, I actually know how to fight.
Diesel: Please. Professional wrestling is fa--
Johnson: DON'T. YOU. DARE.
Diesel: Alright, listen dude, can we just agree to disagree? I'm always going to have that cool, laid-back thing you have to work so hard at. Which means I'm never going to lose an argument.
Johnson: Okay, but you gotta give me that The Pacifier sucked, and you only did it because you panicked and you didn't know what you were doing.
Diesel: I never panic.
Johnson: (silence)
Diesel: But yeah, The Pacifier sucked.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Subtract two dimensions

I am a big Hoodwinked supporter. I'd even go so far as to say I have a special place in my heart for it. My wife and I saw it together when we were still only dating, and we thought it was cute. Plus, I remember it a bit better than some other movies we saw because it was the only movie we ever saw together in Glendale. (For those of you outside Southern California, there's nothing special about Glendale. I just remember it because it's the only movie we ever saw there.)

In fact, for awhile, I held up Hoodwinked as some kind of example of how you didn't need Disney's or Dreamworks' millions to make a good animated movie. All you needed was a good script, and animation passable enough not to stand out. Hoodwinked had a pretty easy time meeting the former standard, and just barely met the latter.

If the animation was what kept it seeming kind of scruffy back in 2006, you'd figure that would be the easiest way to step forward if the movie is a hit and you make a sequel. I don't know that Hoodwinked was a hit hit, but it was close enough that they thought there would be money in a sequel.

Were they confident enough to put more money into the animation?

Not quite.

In fact, not only is it not a step forward from the original, it may actually be a step backward. The quality of animation you'd see on a movie released straight to DVD.

Perhaps the third dimension will make it better.

That's right, like everything else, Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil (ugh, don't get me started on that title) is coming out in 3D. If it's changing a dimension from 2D, though, it looks better suited to going down one than up one.

Really, doesn't it look terrible? It's like you can see the program they used to make it on their home computers. "Move Character A through Environment B." I mean, that is what they do a lot of the time -- they create a character and then they animate his or her movements against different backgrounds. But it's supposed to seem seamless -- it's not supposed to look like one computerized image moving in its own plane, against another plane that contains the background. Except that is exactly what it looks like.

I mean, just look at that poster. Even the fonts are low-rent.

I hate to poop on Kanbar Entertainment. I mean, they're the consummate little guy trying to play the same game as the consummate big guys.

But it's kind of strange to get a taste of success, and then botch the follow-through. Even with another good script, the animation in this movie looks like it could alienate today's viewers. What earned an A for effort back in 2006 has seen the passage of five years without a significant upgrade. If they'd been able to make Hoodwinked Too the same amount worse than the 2011 industry leaders as Hoodwinked was worse than the 2006 industry leaders, that would be one thing. But a pale, clunky version of 2006 animation in 2011? I don't think it's going to fly.

Which is a shame, because I really have confidence in Cory and Todd Edwards, the brother who are basically the heart and soul of Kanbar. They wrote the script for Hoodwinked, but they also directed it and even provided some character voices. They are DIY at its best, and they wrote a clever movie. They've probably written a clever movie this time, too.

But 2011 kids are already a lot more advanced than 2006 kids. Will they go for the Kanbar animation when they can get better-looking animation in their ipad apps?

We'll see starting tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Completing the Trollogy

I know I did not need to see Troll in order to see Troll 2. The two most famous things about Troll 2 are 1) it doesn't have any trolls in it, and 2) it doesn't have anything to do with the original Troll.

But I thought it would be funny to launch the experience of watching Troll 2 and Best Worst Movie, last year's documentary about the cult phenomenon of Troll 2, by giving the first Troll a whirl. With a few notable exceptions, I like to try to see movies in a "franchise" in the sequence they were released, and besides, seeing Troll would allow me to appreciate just how little it has to do with Troll 2 -- even though "nothing" is as little as one movie can have to do with another.

Boy oh boy.

You can imagine my shock when I thought Troll was easily among the bottom five percent of movies I've seen. How much worse could Troll 2 actually be?

Boy oh boy.

But keeping with my general philosophy, let's tackle these babies in order.

Troll (1985, John Carl Buechler). Watched: Monday, March 7th

I was laughing out loud from the start. Actually, the expulsions of involuntary noise from my mouth alternated between laughter and cries of "What?!"

The story is basically that a family moves into a new apartment, and their daughter, playing in the laundry room, is immediately possessed by a troll. The troll looked so absolutely ridiculous that I couldn't imagine for a moment being "scared" by it. (I believe this was the first time I yelled "What?!") Oh, and the troll has a magic crystal green ring that gives off cheesy sparkles from time to time.

From here the girl begins to act "weird" -- but because the poor little actress is so untalented, her version of "weird" could not help but be absurd. But that's just the beginning of the absurdity. This family (led by paterfamilias Michael Moriarity) lives upstairs from a goofy swinger played by Sonny Bono. Bono gets mad at the family because they make too much noise, and it affects his ability to woo his women. Then Julia Louis Dreyfus is in it as well. I think she is mostly seen in exercise gear.

The girl's brother ends up meeting a woman in the building (June Lockhart) who reveals to him that she's a witch. (A good witch, like in The Wizard of Oz.) Then there's something about the troll world starting to break through into the human world, which involves all the tenants of the building being transformed into mythical creatures, their apartments turning into lush green forests, and a lot of singing and chanting by really cheap-ass-looking trolls. The big finale involves a giant bat creature. The end.

The best thing about Troll is that the main character is named ... wait for it ... Harry Potter. Actually, there's Harry Potter Sr. (Moriarity) and Harry Potter Jr. (Noah Hathaway, the boy). How great is that? There have always been accusations that J.K. Rowling stole the Harry Potter character from someone else, but this is ridiculous.

Troll 2 (1990, Drake Floyd). Watched: Saturday, March 19th

Troll 2 was so bad that I had to start taking notes about ten minutes in, just so I could remember it all. As luck would have it, I forgot those notes at home. That's probably just as well, as I hope that some of you have already seen it, and that those of you who haven't will want to come in with a pristine mind, ready for the awfulness to hit you in a fresh wave.

Then there will be those of you who saw Best Worst Movie but not Troll 2, and will have seen some of the choicest nuggets there. However, I thought Best Worst Movie missed some of the best parts, so I'll mention a couple of those here.

First things first with a little plot synopsis. As we said previously, the movie has nothing to do with trolls. While that's a pretty good single-sentence condemnation of the movie -- "It's called Troll 2, but it doesn't have any trolls!" -- it doesn't represent a complete picture of what was going on here. The makers of Troll 2 -- director Claudio Fragasso (using the "super American" pseudonym "Drake Floyd") and screenwriter Rossella Drudi -- set out to make a movie called Goblin, and there are, indeed, plenty of goblins in the movie. The movie was later associated with Troll merely as an attempt to capitalize on an existing brand (and that explains why the credits look so incredibly shoddy as well).

Okay, so this family goes to do a "house exchange" from "the city" (the city is never named, but it's talked around in hilarious ways) to the country town of Nilbog (It's "goblin" spelled backwards! But I'm getting ahead of myself). When they arrive, it's clear that the townspeople are very strange, starting with the fact that they do a lot of staring and offering of green-colored food. It turns out the town is populated by goblins temporarily assuming human form, who are vegetarians, and want to turn this family (and other humans who stray into the area) into plants in order to eat them. Only the plot is so much more convoluted than that brief description.

What makes Troll 2 so bad is the unique combination of horrible acting, directing, screenwriting, cinematography, special effects, costumes and sets. Everything about this movie is bad and illogical, even down to details that you'd think would be simple. For example, when the family first arrives in town, and there's no one to be found wherever they look, the father surmises that "Everyone must be sleeping at this time of night," or something to that effect. Only it's so bright outside, the actors must actually squint. Night? Indeed.

Think that dialogue is bad? How about when the father (played by George Hardy) continues to try to sell the virtues of "our city" (which is how he refers to it repeatedly), saying that about their house, "It's got a microwave and video, all the other appliances. A refrigerator? Bar?" I may never have taken Real Estate 101, but you don't usually try to promote the fact that a house has a refrigerator to get people interested in it.

A couple other funny bits that I want to mention:

The young boy in the family keeps on being helped out by his dead Grandpa Seth, who appears in mirrors and other locations, as well as sometimes in the flesh. Near the end, Grandpa Seth helps him make a Molotov cocktail to try to use as a weapon against the goblins. Awesome.

At one point, Grandpa Seth tells the boy that he has only 30 seconds to stop his family from eating a bunch of green food that's been laid out for them to eat as a form of hospitality. Time is frozen as each family member has a glass of green juice or a slice of green cake poised just in front of their lips. The 30-second timeframe is entirely blown out of the water when the kid then spends (I kid you not) the next 90 seconds of screen time slowly moving around the dinner table where his family is seated, looking at each one as he supposedly comes up with his idea. It's so ridiculously elongated that you wonder why 30 seconds was given as the timeframe in the first place.

Wait, I found my notes. Sweet. They were in my email.

I'll try to limit myself, but I do want to give you a few more great parts:

The mother discovers what appears to be milk in the refrigerator, but it comes out in gelatinous chunks. She says "It must be a week old!"

"Daddy, they're goblins! Monstrous beings!"

Father, to his daughter's boyfriend: "You give me a bad impression!"

Mother: "Sing that song I love!"
Son: "Row row row your boat, gently down the stream ..."

The father loosens his belt. The son, who has just pissed on the food they were going to eat (his way of preventing them from eating it -- pretty smart actually), naturally feels he is going to be whipped by the belt. Son: "Dad, what're you going to do?" Father: "Tighten my belt one loop so I won't feel hunger pains. And your mother and sister will have to do the same!"

I could go on with the individual moments. But one of the oddest structural things about the movie is that an inordinate amount of time is spent on the adventures of very secondary characters. The daughter in the family has a boyfriend who tags along on the trip in his Winnebago, with three of his friends -- it's a source of constant conflict that he won't make the choice of her over his friends. As it turns out, at least two of these friends go off on long adventures on their own, during which none of the central family is seen for long periods of time. And the one of these friends who stays behind in the Winnebago is seduced by the lead goblin, in the human form of a gothic witch type (the best overacting you've ever seen is by actress Deborah Reed in this role). Her method of seduction? She comes on to him with an ear of corn, and the Winnebago fills with popcorn as they bump and grind. Incidentally, this is the last his character is heard from, even though nothing apparently happens to him during the popcorn incident.

The finale involves a lot of fake -- like, really, really fake -- lightning bolts, a lot of exploding goblins, some kind of magical stone, and a bologna sandwich. I think.

Best Worst Movie (2010, Michael Paul Stephenson). Watched: Sunday, April 24th

We would have watched Best Worst Movie about two weeks earlier if it had still been available on Netflix streaming. In fact, we were all lined up to watch it, then it wasn't there. So we acquired it on DVD and lined it up for this past Sunday night.

Best Worst Movie should be on your radar, but if it isn't, it's a documentary made by the boy who stars in Troll 2, Michael Paul Stephenson. The most featured character in the doc is George Hardy, who played his father, and who has had a successful dental practice in Alabama for 20 years now since the movie came out. The movie is basically about how Hardy and the other actors in the movie (even the bit parts) come to recognize that Troll 2 is considered the worst movie ever made, which means it has legions of devoted fans who love it, throwing watching parties and even putting together sold-out screenings where the cast is revered like rock stars. The movie does a little bit of examining how Troll 2 became such a disaster, and a lot of following of the actors as they negotiate their newfound semi-fame.

There are a lot of interesting things to be gleaned from Best Worst Movie, and if it hadn't existed, I probably would have never known to see Troll 2. However, I have to say that it did not deliver quite the punch I was hoping. For starters, the director, Stephenson, is more a fly-on-the-wall (stealing an observation from the guy who reviewed it for my site) in this movie -- he directs, narrates a bit and appears a number of times, but he doesn't seem to bring that much of himself to the project. In other words, the movie might just as well have been made by someone not associated with Troll 2 as by him, without there being much of a difference.

He's right that the affable dentist is his most colorful character, and it's fun to watch Hardy temporarily trade in small-town dentistry for the cult circuit in which he is cheered and constantly asked to repeat his most famous line from the movie ("You can't piss on hospitality! I won't allow it!"). The movie also contains some interesting info about the life of the movie, which never played in theaters, instead premiering on VHS and HBO -- in fact, many of the actors didn't even know it had been finished. There's also priceless stuff with the crazy Italian director, Claudio Fragasso, who stubbornly insists that Troll 2 is good, not so bad it's good. He appears at many of these Troll 2-related events and shouts down the actors who are trying to go with the commonly accepted narrative about the film, which is that it's only great because it's awful.

Stephenson also gets several third-party observers to make interesting comments about what makes a good or a bad movie. For example, if people want to repeatedly watch Troll 2 -- and the rabid cult following features fans who have watched it dozens of times -- then does it turn our whole idea of what's good and what's bad on its head? Is it really "bad" if it brings so much joy to people? Another interesting observations is that there is no cynicism apparent in the making of Troll 2. One film scholar talks about having seen lots of terrible movies that were thrown together shoddily because the filmmakers were cynical and just didn't care. Only by trying to make a good movie and failing so spectacularly does a film like Troll 2 become possible.

One thing that bummed me out, and I still can't find a satisfactory answer, is why the goblin queen, Deborah Reed, makes no appearance in this movie. Not only does she not appear, but barely any footage of her outrageous acting is sampled in the movie. What's even stranger is that the cast, in trying to reach the recluse Margo Prey (who plays the mother and is arguably the worst actor in the movie), tells her that she (Margo) will be the only cast member who won't be present for a particular screening of the movie, when clearly Reed will also be absent. I would have loved to have heard more about Reed -- even if she had a legal dispute of some sort that led to her not appearing or in fact trying to block footage of herself from the film, I'd have liked the movie to touch on that in some way, instead of just leaving the glaring omission.

Okay, I think I'm all talked out about this Trollogy.

However, I can't leave you without acknowledging that there is, in fact, a Troll 3, which would perhaps make the true third installment in my Trollogy. I just learned about the existence of this movie yesterday. Apparently, it also is directed by Italians, and it also has nothing to do with either Troll or Troll 2. Seeming perfectly true to form, it is also known by other titles -- several, in fact: Creepers, Contamination .7, Troll III: Contamination Point 7 and The Crawlers. I suspect it is not nearly so bad -- so good? -- as Troll or Troll 2, which is why we don't know anything about it. In fact, Best Worst Movie basically does not even acknowledge it exists, as one of the last things Stephenson asks Hardy is if he would star in Troll 3. (He says he would.) In fact, Troll 3, such as it is, was made way back in 1993.

And it's available for instant streaming on Netflix.

Perhaps my troll in the hay isn't complete yet after all.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

I'm getting worse at this

Used to be, just a little bit of smart planning, and I'd be guaranteed to successfully execute a theatrical double feature.

You know, the kind where you pay for the first and sneak into the second. I do it -- I admit it. I've admitted it numerous times on this blog.

Starting at the beginning of 2011, though, I've now had three attempts in a row that were marred by some kind of bad luck or brushes with the law. At least the one this past Saturday was considerably less traumatizing than the other two.

Just to refresh your memory, the first double feature I attempted in 2011 was to see The Green Hornet and Blue Valentine. That one was kind of botched from the get-go, in the sense that I'd been intending to see Blue Valentine and Another Year, but when they switched which movie was playing in which wing of the building, I had to drop Another Year for a movie that was playing in the same wing as Blue Valentine. I successfully saw both movies, but I lost my wallet somewhere in the process. I ended up getting it back, but not for three weeks, and I'd already ordered a new license and credit cards by then, plus suffered about four days of depression related to the loss.

The second botch was at the drive-in, and it also involved The Green Hornet. We paid to see Battle: Los Angeles and The Green Hornet, knowing that we intended to switch theaters after Battle: LA to try to finish with Hall Pass and Red Riding Hood. But the "drive-in cops" (guys in golf carts) stopped us from entering the second theater, and in a panic of indecision, we simply left the grounds and drove home.

This past Saturday night I was supposed to see Water for Elephants and Hanna. I even cased the joint earlier in the day to make sure that the movies were playing in the same wing. This was no certain task because Water for Elephants was actually playing on three screens, only two of which were in the same wing as Hanna. But I timed things out perfectly so that my 8:00 showing of Water for Elephants would have led directly into a 10:00 showing of Hanna. I wouldn't be able to use the bathroom between movies, because the bathroom was on the other side of the ticket taker from me. But as long as I wasn't too desperate after the two-hour Elephants, I should be able to hold on for the 1:50 Hanna, especially since it would be starting immediately, with no downtime in between.

And it should have worked out perfectly. I even snuck in two cans of soda and other snacks in my skateboarder pants -- you know, the ones that are torn, too small and should be replaced, but are still useful because of their large additional pockets. My bladder was in fine shape at the end of Elephants and everything.

The problem was, this is a very nice theater, with lots of very nice but very attentive ushers. The screening room where I saw Elephants was the first in the wing, its door right next to the ticket taker. Perhaps to prevent the very thing I was trying to do, they had extended one of those cordons, the ones that recess back in on themselves like a tape measure, out from the exit of the theater to directly where the ticket taker was standing. So instead of just ducking off to my right as I exited, I would have had to go around the ticket taker, who would see me exiting this screening room and know I was up to something. With no time to adapt to this sudden realization, I just let the flow of the exiting crowd carry me out, and just like that, it was done. No second movie.

For a moment I considered trying to pull some bologna like just flashing a stub and walking back in with confidence, to get down to the Hanna theater. But part of having very nice, very attentive ushers is that you feel a lot worse trying to pull one over on them. It's one thing to see a second movie as a "crime of opportunity" that involves little to no consternation on anyone's part. It's another to actively deceive the theater staff in order to see a movie for free.

The other thing I did wrong was that I reversed my usual philosophy about which movie you're supposed to see first. Because there's always the chance that you won't see the second movie, for one reason or another ("too tired" could always be a reason), you should see the movie you're more interested in first. In order to do that with Hanna, however, I would have had to go to a 7:30 Hanna and a 9:55 Water for Elephants. That would have left me with a good half-hour of downtime, during which I would still have been torturously prevented from using the bathroom. What's more, the extra time would mean I'd have to dodge people cleaning theaters, etc.

Fortunately, I liked Water for Elephants enough that I didn't mind it being the only movie I saw. Sure, the presence of Robert Pattinson sent off some warning flares. But I also know he's trying to move away from Twilight and forge a serious acting career, so I didn't expect this movie would be aimed at teenage girls. At least, not only at teenage girls.

The beauty of Water for Elephants, in fact, is that for the first time in a long time, I didn't know what to expect. I hadn't heard any review of it, in part because there was no new Entertainment Weekly this week after last week's double issue. I hadn't even heard any buzz, positive or negative. All I knew was the footage from the ads, which made me think of three different films for which I have decent to high levels of affection: Moulin Rouge!, Big Fish and Australia. If Water for Elephants could fit into the same category as those films, we'd have a winner.

But I didn't know. It's so strange to go to a movie not knowing anything about whether it's supposed to be good or not. Just by our immersion in the cinematic world, we film fans usually have a pretty good idea whether a movie is getting praised or panned, even if it hasn't come out yet. Therefore, seeing it is always a matter of living up (or down) to those expectations, of exceeding (or failing to exceed) them. It was quite refreshing to come into a movie with no expectations -- except for those I could glean from my own analysis of the trailers.

One thing that struck me about Elephants was that it made me feel like I'd never seen a movie about the circus before. Surely that isn't true -- I can name a few off the top of my head. But one of the things this movie does well is that it gives you a supposed insider's look into the business of circuses, and has a couple compelling storytelling techniques to assist with that. For example, one of my favorite sequences was when Pattinson's character is led through the train carrying the Benzini Brothers circus, by the inevitable salty old character who takes him under his wing. Director Francis Lawrence didn't achieve it all in one take, but it still had a similar feel to Martin Scorsese's famous shot in Goodfellas, where Henry Hill is led through a microcosm of the underworld (you know, the restaurant scene). Did I just compare Water for Elephants to Goodfellas? Yep, I think I did. Another scene involves the wonder and awe of seeing a 1930s big-top erected from the ground up, accompanied by just the right score. In these ways, Water for Elephants is something of a "circus procedural," I guess you could say.

But what I really liked was how grandiose it was. Not only the big-top, not only the menagerie of animals, and not only the amazing titular elephant, named Rosie, who makes you love an elephant like no movie has ever made you love an elephant. But just every piece of the cinematography. There's a scene where Pattinson's Jacob and Chrtisophe Waltz's August climb atop the train as it chugs through the American countryside, and view that countryside while walking the length of the train. The whole scene is bathed in this glorious moonlight and just looks gorgeous. I love seeing someone work on a big canvas like this.

The epic quality of the movie was also mirrored in the central love triangle between the vicious August, his beautiful but fearful wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and Jacob. This is old-world movie stuff, with Jacob as a righteous hero, Marlena as an imprisoned soul desperate to escape, and August as a hissable villain, whose treatment of human beings and animals is equally malevolent. Waltz is brilliant again, after his obvious brilliant turn in Inglourious Basterds, and then taking (the again aforementioned) Green Hornet off. In fact, something about the whole production was so giant and old-world that it reminded me of another movie: Titanic. Similar love triangle, similar story told in flashback from the present day. Similar impact? No, but you're talking about the second-highest grossing film of all time, so that's asking a lot.

Compared to the four films I mentioned, I found it to be not as good as Titanic or Moulin Rounge!, almost as good as Big Fish, and better than Australia. That's not saying much for those of you who didn't care for Australia, but I did, so it's good praise from me.

And a word about the director, Francis Lawrence. I had him pegged as a total genre director, as he'd previously helmed Constantine (which I liked at the time, not so much in retrospect) and I Am Legend (which I liked a lot and still do). Turns out that branching out into epic period stuff looks good on him. He really had the feel for it.

And it's not for teenage girls. It's a movie that should speak to the romantic that exists in most of us, but it also has good substance. Ever been curious about how a fringe circus survived during the Great Depression? What desperation will drive men to do? Water for Elephants wraps that in there, too.

Okay, enough shilling. Let's just say that it was nice to walk away from my single feature, feeling as satisfied as I might have felt if I'd seen two.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Madea's big unhappy self-loathing

There are a lot of haters of Tyler Perry movies out there.

I am not one of them. With most creative talents who have achieved a certain level of success, I like some of their stuff and dislike some of their stuff. Perry is no exception.

I've seen a good half-dozen (of the 42 or so) Tyler Perry movies as a result of my role as a critic. The informal rule I've come up with is that if they feature a sizeable dose of his Madea character, they are not very good. If Madea appears in small doses or is not present at all, they are much better.

I've only seen one Perry movie with the word "Madea" in the title -- Madea's Family Reunion -- and it's my least favorite Perry movie. It's probably why I avoided Madea Goes to Jail, Madea Goes to Camp, and Madea Scared Stupid.

The movies without so much Madea? Not half bad. One of the best Perry movies I've seen is The Family That Preys, and it has zero Madea in it. It's not high art and it engages in its share of proselytizing, but I liked it.

I also liked Meet the Browns, the movie most responsible for helping me formulate this Madea/non-Madea theory. See, Meet the Browns has almost no Madea in it -- and the one Madea scene is entirely out of left field, having nothing to do with the rest of the plot. Meet the Browns is a fairly typical Perry movie in terms of its agenda, where a family of big-city folks (Angela Bassett and her two kids) find their roots and a family they didn't know they had in rural Georgia, where she develops a love interest in former basketball player Rick Fox. There's plenty of heartfelt stuff, as well as plenty of comedy in the form of Bassett's eccentric extended family. However, for some reason -- marketing -- Perry shoehorns in this random scene in which Madea and her brother Joe (also played by Perry) are involved in a high-speed car chase with the police. Madea's character hasn't been previously introduced (at least not in this movie) and the action doesn't even take place where any of the other characters are -- it's just a total anomaly. This one scene is so ludicrous and over-the-top, not to mention such a violation of the traditional rules of screenplay structure, that it curdled my positive impressions of Meet the Browns from a solid thumbs up to a marginal thumbs up.

It's strange to say this because Madea is clearly the "face of the franchise," to the extent that Perry's movies constitute a franchise. Very few of these movies actually have anything to do with each other, overtly, in terms of their plot. But Madea is in almost all of them, and it's certainly this gun-toting grandma -- Perry dressed in drag -- who's responsible for putting asses in the seats. Sad but true.

Even sadder because she reinforces so many of the stereotypes ascribed to black comics, and by extension, to black audiences.

The "big black man in drag" has always been a bit of a hurtful element of comedy directed at African Americans, which other comedies have tried to lampoon (for example, 30 Rock in its usage of Tracy Morgan). However, that's not really what I want to talk about today. (Thought I wouldn't get there?)

What's got bees in my bonnet today is a simple two-word phrase:

"Good afternoont."

About three weeks ago I first noticed, on a bus stop ad for Madea's Big Happy Family (which releases today), that "Good afternoont" was being pushed as the catchphrase from this movie.

I don't know where to start with the problems I've got with this, but let's try to do it numerically in order from least to most important:

1) It's a pretty dubious practice to promote a movie by one of its catchphrases, especially when the movie hasn't even come out yet, meaning people don't yet know the catchphrase. And it doesn't have to be a bad movie for me to have this problem with it. I remember seeing billboards for Inglourious Basterds, where "That's a bingo!" was being promoted as a catchphrase. I guess that's sort of a funny moment in the movie, but it's not even approaching any kind of summary of the many-splendored glory that is Inglourious Basterds. I say, leave it out of the advertising altogether.

2) "Good afternoont" is not particularly funny -- er, funny at all. The entire joke is that she (we assume it's Madea) says the word "afternoon" with an extra "t" grafted on to the end.

3) And this one kind of relates to #2 -- if that is the only reason it's supposed to be funny, doesn't that mean we are being invited to laugh at dumb black people who can't speak English correctly?

Talk about hurtful stereotypes that have persisted down through time.

Look, I have to admit that I find language-related humor funny. Any sign that's poorly translated from Japanese to English (the entirety of the website makes me laugh hysterically. I don't even mind if the joke is related to a black person. I think it's really funny when people do their Mike Tyson impersonations, and they use an impressive four-syllable word in the wrong context. Tyson totally does that. (One of the funniest things about the documentary Tyson, which I otherwise found kind of boring, is that he uses the word "skullduggery" not once, but twice.)

But in the case of Tyson, it's someone misusing a big vocabulary word. Knowing the word in the first place denotes a certain level of intelligence. Who among us can't admit to using words incorrectly from time to time? Even though I'm aware of the problem, my mind still tells me to say "appraise" when I mean to say "apprise." "I'll keep you appraised of my progress." It happens.

But "Good afternoont"? What is it supposed to say about Madea that she says this simple word with an unnecessary additional consonant sound on the end?

More importantly: What does it say about the movie that we are invited to ridicule her and laugh at her for this, and that could be the movie's "best joke"?

Oh, I should tell you -- "Good afternoont" is not the only bad-language catchphrase that's being used to advertise this movie. Some of the outdoor advertisements for Madea's Big Happy Family also have the following catchphrase:


Urban Dictionary defines this as "the Ebonics version of 'Hallelujah,'" and credits it to Perry and Madea.

Okay, so this one has been around longer -- the Urban Dictionary entry is from 2008. But that doesn't change the fact that it's trying to make hay from a character saying a word wrong. To me it seems to represent not only self-loathing on a fundamental level, but desperation in terms of the the actual content they have on their hands.

Okay, okay, time out to catch my breath and see reason a bit. Perry's defenders would say it's all harmless fun. If you can't laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at? Very little about Madea is meant to be taken seriously. Are we really supposed to believe she's carrying a gun around and constantly getting into scrapes with the law? Doubtful. Are we really supposed to believe she thinks being physically violent to children is the only way to "learn 'em"? Let's hope not. Does she really think the word "afternoon" has a "t" on the end? No, of course she doesn't.

Then let's just scale back the argument a bit, and look at that poster up there. If you're driving by a bus stop and you see this movie advertised, and the only thing it gives you other than the title and Madea's smiling face is the phrase "GOOD AFTERNOONT.", do you really want to see that movie?

If I, as a white person, am offended by this, I have to assume there are plenty of black people out there who think that Madea sets them back decades.

Keep making movies, Perry. You have things to say and you make lots of money -- a good combination if you're a filmmaker. It's just time to stop using Madea -- and all the hurtful associations she represents -- as your crutch.

Some people may not agree with me on this, Perry, but you're better than that.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Liking the idea of a person, if not the person

There are few people in the movie industry who've received more scorn on this blog than Tim Burton.

I won't rehash my complaints about him here. If you are a simpatico reader, I'm sure you already know what Burton's problems are without me having to go into detail. (Also, you can follow my timeline of ripping Burton by checking out my "tim burton" label.)

However, apparently there's still something about the idea of Tim Burton that I like.

For several months now we have had a postcard on our refrigerator advertising an upcoming exhibit at LACMA, or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The eponymous Tim Burton exhibit is summarized in the following way:

"On view at LACMA from May 29 through October 31, 2011, the exhibition brings together over 700 drawings, paintings, photographs, moving-image works, storyboards, puppets, concept artworks, maquettes, costumes, and cinematic ephemera, including art from a number of unrealized and little-known personal projects. Many of these objects come from the artist's own archive, as well as from studio archives and private collections of Burton's collaborators."

If I hate this man so much -- or, I should say, I hate what he's become -- then why do I feel so drawn in by the potential of this exhibit?

I guess it's because Burton himself has always had potential, potential that he has been consistently squandering for the past decade -- a lot longer than that, some would argue.

A person's hatred of Tim Burton is always a complicated thing. It's not that he's just some hack who has no talent. It's that he's become a hack from very talented beginnings. The possibility is always there for the Burton we once fell in love with to return. As each new project confirms that this Burton is not returning, at least not yet, our frustration with the man takes on increasingly epic proportions.

But there's something about going back into his old catalogue, when he was more like Edward Gorey and less like a guy trying to make a theme park ride, that excites me. Even just that image of that boy with crazy hair walking up those craggy stairs excites me. It's gothic and minimal and potential quite fulfilling from an artistic standpoint.

Here's another image that LACMA has up on its website:

This images perfectly summarizes what I wish Burton were doing, that he's not: producing original material. Instead of the latest on-the-nose choice from among the gothic literary properties in our collective consciousness, why not make a move about woolly creatures with buildings on their heads? Just a thought.

I guess we'll probably go. Let's just hope the Tim Burton exhibit doesn't make us hate him more -- or hate ourselves for being fooled by him again.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Good (Celtics) vs. Evil (Lakers)

It being the NBA playoffs was probably only a small factor in why the Martin Lawrence vehicle Rebound rose to the top of my Netflix queue.

More important was the fact that I'd been approved to review it a long time ago, and I like to go through and clean house on my older approvals from time to time.

And though I didn't like this movie, I didn't hate it, and one of the primary reasons for my not-hatred was that it served as an allegory for the NBA's greatest rivalry, prizing my side over the other.

You know I live in Los Angeles -- but if you thought I liked the Los Angeles sports teams, you'd be dead wrong. I'm from Boston, and my Boston teams will always be my teams. I have a limited fondness for the LA teams that don't have a natural conflict with my Boston teams (say, the Dodgers), but I hate hate hate the ones that do (say, the Lakers).

And by the end of Rebound, I was quite sure that the movie was on my side, too.

See, Lawrence's disgraced college basketball coach, Roy McCormick (another one of those Irish black dudes, like Shaquille O'Neal), is forced, through a strange set of circumstances, to coach a hapless middle school basketball team. How hapless? We see them lose games by scores of 56-0 and 109-0. That's right, they get shut out in a basketball game. Which, by the way, has never happened, anywhere, in the history of time. But it happens to this team twice. Screenwriting subtlety at its finest.

The team is from Mt. Vernon Middle School, where Coach Roy attended middle school himself, and they are called the Smelters. A somewhat unusual mascot, yes? I thought so too -- and when I realized that they dress in green, I could not help make an association with the Boston Celtics, who also wear green. Smelters and Celtics sound pretty darn similar.

But I actually sort of deduced this in reverse, because the first thing I noticed was the signature purple and gold worn by the Smelters' chief rivals, the Vikings. The Los Angeles Lakers, the chief rivals of the Celtics, also wear purple and gold. And while the words Lakers and Vikings have fewer sounds in common than Smelters and Celtics, they do both have the letter K in the middle of a two-syllable word. (If you want to go a step further, the Vikings are the professional football team from Minnesota, and Minnesota is where the Lakers originated before moving to Los Angeles -- hence their name.)

There are other aspects that enforce the good-evil dynamic as well as the Celtic-Laker dynamic. The Vikings coach, played by Patrick Warburton, is a very tall white man (like Laker coach Phil Jackson) and very evil (unlike Jackson, but then again, that's the kind of assessment a person would make subjectively). Meanwhile, Lawrence is a short black man, kind of like Celtics coach Doc Rivers. Both were coaching their respective teams at the time the film was released, although the chronology was somewhat goofy: Rivers began as Celtics coach in 2004, the same year that Jackson stopped being the Lakers coach. However, Jackson spent only one season out of the Lakers coaching position, before being rehired about two weeks before Rebound hit theaters.

Surely someone else other than me must have noticed this, but the movie was such a dud (it made only $5 million with a plumb July 1st release date) that no one ever really considered it worth writing about. No internet search of relevant terms gave me anything useful.

So I decided to look up the writers, to see if I could find anything in their histories that would have caused them to give the film a blatant Celtics bias. After all, movies are made in Los Angeles, so you'd expect the reverse bias if anything.

It didn't take long to figure it out. The story was developed by Ed Decter and John J. Strauss, who also wrote There's Something About Mary along with the Farrelly Brothers. Never mind the precipitous drop in quality from Mary to Rebound -- the relevant info is that the Farrellys and these two other guys are all New Englanders. Decter went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, at least. It stands to reason that they were Farrelly buddies, since Mary was the first movie gig for both Decter and Strauss, who had previously worked together in TV.

I originally thought I'd found a connection with the third guy who receives a story credit, William Wolff. However, I suspect his IMDB page could be screwed up. His most recent two credits are in 2005 and 1999, but it was his third most recent credit that caught my attention: a TV series called Boston Blackie. However, since this TV series was apparently on the air in 1953, and his older credits are also from the early 1950s, I suspect that two different people may have been morphed into one. I'm sure that kind of thing happens with some frequency with a database as large as IMDB's.

That's a pretty long post for a pretty forgettable movie. But that's what we're all about here on The Audient.

And just as the (spoiler alert! ha ha) Smelters prevailed over the Vikings in Rebound, here's hoping the same will happen in the NBA Finals this year, if my team and my most hated team do in fact meet again.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Movie music in name only

As I have probably not yet had occasion to share with you in this space, my wife and I are watching American Idol this season.

It's something we've never done before, but we figured, in its tenth season on the air, time to try something new, right?

Actually, it's that my wife knows one of the contestants. (We figure "knows" is just barely the correct term -- I believe she's met him once.) She knows his mother much better, having worked with her for about three years. In the interest of my much-ballyhooed anonymity, I won't name any names, but the savvy among you could probably piece it together, if you wanted to, based on my geographical location and the fact that he's one of the five men still remaining on the show.

Well, I have to say I've been really enjoying the show. I'm a sucker for reality shows that use elimination formats, almost no matter what the subject matter is -- if I start watching, I'll keep watching. Which is why I watch only a few of them -- really only Survivor and Hell's Kitchen. I watched a couple seasons of The Bachelor/Bachelorette and Beauty and the Geek a long time ago, and have sampled other formats (we had the fastest "addicted to/lost interest in" cycle in the history of television with The Amazing Race, which lasted about an episode and a half this season).

Idol, however, could be here to stay -- we'll have to see if our interest endures past the personal stake we have in this year's competition. Truth be told, our initial buzz has lost some of its fizz since the season started, as it's become more and more clear that the entertaining panel of judges are unable to deliver the really tough criticism -- with the exception of Randy Jackson, who has inherited Simon Cowell's mantle as "the tough one," though just barely. Even Steven Tyler is not as entertaining as he once was, partly because he's such a softie and you can't expect anything out of him but varying levels of praise.

Yes, there's a tie-in to movies here, just hold on a second.

As even the casual observer will be aware, American Idol has "theme weeks" -- or, I should say, every week is a theme week, where the contestants sing songs according to some overarching theme. This season they've sung songs from the year they were born, songs from Motown, songs from the catalogue of the great Elton John, and songs celebrating rock n' roll. (I may have missed one in there.) I wondered if they were eventually going to get to the obvious theme that had special importance to me, and this week they did -- songs from the movies.

Except, they didn't really.

Each of the eight remaining contestants sung a song that was technically in or inspired by some sort of movie that someone might have heard of once. Few, if any, were what you would call iconic movie songs. Where was the "Eye of the Tiger"? Where was the "Danger Zone"? (For some reason, I can only think of songs from 80s movies.) If Pia Toscano hadn't gotten eliminated the week before, she surely would have sung Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."

But Pia was eliminated, and the remaining group was content to skate by on bending the rules, either by choosing a movie no one had heard of, or choosing a song no one considers to be directly associated with the movie it was supposed to have appeared in. Check it out:

Contestant: Scotty McCreery
His thing: Country singer with a deep voice
Song choice: Title track from the film Pure Country (1992, Christopher Cain), composed and performed by George Strait, who stars in the film
What he should have sung: Producer Jimmy Iovine had him working out Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'" from Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger), but he rejected it
My comment: Scotty is a very engaging country singer whose voice belies his 17 years, but he's very comfortable inside the box -- which seems pretty safe since he apparently has a hugely loyal voting bloc throughout America's many rural regions. One of his most interesting performances, to me, was when he was forced to do a Motown song -- he got his voice around a Stevie Wonder song in a really interesting way. But when left to his own devices, he's gone as safe as possible, and that includes ramming his exact shtick down our throat by ignoring Iovine's suggestion (of a song that would have been in his wheelhouse anyway) and selecting a song from a movie with the word Country in the title (because having the word Cowboy in the title was not close enough).
Result: Didn't make a difference. He sailed through once again on last night's results show.

Contestant: Lauren Alaina
Her thing: A combination of Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson
Song choice: The Miley Cyrus song "The Climb" from Hannah Montana: The Movie (2009, Peter Chelsom)
What she should have sung: "Let the River Run" by Carly Simon from Working Girl (1988, Mike Nichols)
My comment: Am I just an old man? I guess it was a smart move, in some senses, to pander to the young girls and their quick texting fingers by singing a Miley Cyrus song, and I had in fact heard the song before. But even fans of Miley Cyrus probably don't think the Hannah Montana movie is a work of high art, or even something that most people have seen. Why the Carly Simon song? I don't know, it's just one of those songs that strike me as a consummate movie song, and she's the more appropriate of the two women remaining on the show to sing it. Then again, most of the Idol viewers -- and contestants -- hadn't yet been born when the movie came out.
Result: Sailed through. Another strong heartland voting bloc. Like Scotty, she has yet to be in the bottom three.

Contestant: Jacob Lusk
His thing: Big, powerful gospel vocals, often compared to Luther Vandross by Jennifer Lopez
Song choice: "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" -- the Roberta Flack cover that was apparently used in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006, Gabriele Muccino)
What he should have sung: "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" from Cooley High (1975, Michael Schultz)
My comment: "Bridge" is a great song, of course, and who am I to argue with Jimmy Iovine for suggesting it? (Jacob had a really corny first choice -- "The Impossible Dream," which would have been from the 1972 film version of Man of La Mancha -- but Iovine shamed him out of it.) But does anyone really associate this song, even the Roberta Flack version, with The Pursuit of Happyness? I love The Pursuit of Happyness, I just think it's way down the list of possible associations for this song. Yeah, maybe my choice is a bit musty, and more people know it from Boyz II Men covering it for their album (which was a tribute of sorts to the film) Cooleyhighharmony. But Jacob could have sent it soaring.
Result: Good enough to avoid the bottom three.

Contestant: Casey Abrams
His thing: Jazzy vocals, upright bass, a little bit of a growl in his voice
Song choice: "Nature Boy" by Nat King Cole from The Boy With Green Hair (1948, Joseph Losey)
What he should have sung: "Falling Slowly" by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova from Once (2007, John Carney)
My comment: "Nature Boy" actually makes the second song Casey has sung that was used in Moulin Rouge! -- he also sang "Your Song" for Elton John week. Maybe he just loves that movie. And he did a beautiful job on the song. But, The Boy With Green Hair? Who's ever even heard of that movie? (I could be revealing my ignorance, so please scold me if that's the case.) And it came out in 1948, which just shows a stretch to fit the criteria of the theme. Zeitgeist it was not, but then again, Casey's made it this far on making his own choices (remember that he actually performed a screaming version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for "year you were born" week). The Once song would have allowed his mixture of softness (which he's needed to emphasize) and angst (which he's needed to downplay despite it being an essential ingredient in his artistry). Then again, it's a duet on the chorus, so maybe it wouldn't work in this situation.
Result: Safe, as he's been every week since the judges famously saved him from elimination.

Contestant: Sefano Langone
His thing: Big voice with traditional credentials of R&B artists from the last two decades
Song choice: "End of the Road" by Boyz II Men from Boomerang (1992, Reginald Hudlin)
What he should have sung: "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins from Against All Odds (1984, Taylor Hackford)
My comment: I was surprised to discover just now that "End of the Road" was actually written for Boomerang -- surprised because the song was #1 for a record-setting 13 straight weeks and far, far outdistanced any association with that forgettable Eddie Murphy vehicle. In that sense it's more just a really popular song than a song from a movie. He did do it well, however. As for "Against All Odds," well, at least the movie it's from had the same name as the song -- even if that song also outdistanced its association with the movie. In any case, Stefano could have sung it well and it would have been a break from his same-sounding R&B songs week after week.
Result: Stefano is used to just scraping by, and this week he was one of the final two of the bottom three. But he survived again.

Contestant: James Durbin
His thing: Would have been one of the best lead singers ever of a 1980s hair band, and that's a compliment in this case
Song choice: "Heavy Metal" by Sammy Hagar from Heavy Metal (1981, Gerald Potterton)
What he should have sung: "Blaze of Glory" by Jon Bon Jovi from Young Guns II (1990, Geoff Murphy)
My comment: James is probably our favorite contestant -- though he is not necessarily the person we know. (Still being cagey here.) He's never really made a misstep and he's never been in the bottom three. Simply put, he rocks. His decision to bring heavy metal to American Idol has worked every time, and he overran Jimmy Iovine's objections to do this particular song. And he was right. Still, he might have done a slightly better service to his long-term aspirations with the wider voting public if he'd gone just a bit safer here, as indeed, this was a song most people don't know from a movie most people don't know (even my wife hadn't heard of it; I remember being excited to see it when I was younger because it contained cartoon nudity). "Blaze of Glory" would have allowed him to use his astounding rock voice on a song we all know and a lot of us love.
Result: James sailed through again.

Contestant: Haley Reinhart
Her thing: Repeatedly compared to the bluesy quality of Janis Joplin, though she notoriously had a problem "finding herself" with the judges early on
Song choice: "Call Me" by Blondie from American Gigolo (1980, Paul Schrader)
What she should have sung: "Take My Breath Away" by Berlin from Top Gun (1986, Tony Scott)
My comment: I actually think she did a good job with "Call Me," which I do actually associate with American Gigolo now that you mention it -- but you'd have to mention it for me to do so. Strangely, the judges sort of ripped her, even though they were hesitant to do so because five straight women had already been voted off the show (and no men). I admit I've got a bit of a soft spot for her -- appearance-wise, she reminds me a bit of my favorite female artist, Tori Amos. I suggested the Berlin song primarily because I couldn't really think of anything for her, and I must admit I'm using wikipedia's "Academy Award for Best Song" page as a crutch here ("Take My Breath Away" won in 1986). Still, this song can be sung pretty bluesy and has more soul than your standard female power ballad.
Result: Like Stefano, Haley is no stranger to the bottom three, but she squeaked through again.

Contestant: Paul McDonald
His thing: A singer-songwriter type who also has a lively dancing performance style, and reminds me of Rod Stewart (perhaps because he sang "Maggie May")
Song choice: "Old Time Rock and Roll" by Bob Seger from Risky Business (1983, Paul Brickman)
What he should have sung: Even though I don't really like this song, I'm fine with the choice
My comment: There's a reason why I left Paul until last -- he actually followed the spirit of the theme. No, "Old Time Rock and Roll" was not written for Risky Business, but this is not the best original song category at the Oscars. And the fact is, whenever anybody hears the first few notes of that song, they think of Tom Cruise sliding into the shot in his button-down shirt and underwear.
Result: And what did playing by the rules get him? Voted off. That's right, Paul was the first guy to go after paying an honest tribute to the movies, as this week's theme intended to do.

When you come right down to it, the failure of American Idol to have an interesting movie-themed week came from the top down. With the exception of his recommendation of "Everybody's Talkin'," Jimmy Iovine didn't really steer the contestants in the right direction (whether they chose to accept his advice or not). Iovine wanted Casey to sing Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," which I associate a lot more with that urban legend of the drowning victim/Collins spot-lighting the person who didn't help at the concert, than I do with its usage in a number of different movies, including the aforementioned Risky Business. And what was the bit where Rob Reiner came on to talk to the contestants about the value of music to movies? His appearance was consumed mostly by an ill-advised joke about Chariots of Fire, in which Reiner came up with imaginary humorous lyrics to the signature theme from the score. The contestants laughed because they knew they were supposed to, not because they got the reference in the slightest.

Well, maybe I will have to watch next year, to see if they do a better job with this.

And I can pretty much promise you this is the last post I will write about American Idol ... until then, at least.

Regreso de vacaciones

At least I think that's correct.

Yep, I'm back from six days and five nights in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Thought I should give you something brief on the blog, to end my six-day drought and encapsulate the trip.

So not 15 minutes after we'd gotten to our room in the all-inclusive resort did I start to panic about whether we'd brought enough DVDs. We had two rented from Netflix and had brought three from our own collection. However, only two of the three from our collection would play. My wife has an Australian DVD that's from an incompatible region, a movie we've been meaning to see that was given to her by her family, called Wake in Fright. We thought it was possible that the resort's DVD player was some different region, capable of playing both American DVDs and DVDs from other regions (as all DVD players should be, if there weren't some kind of pernicious DVD industry conspiracy controlling everything). But such was not the case.

So we had four movies for only five nights, one of which was our anniversary night. Somehow this did not seem enough to me. When I arrive places on vacation -- especially these all-inclusive places (this is the second one I've visited) -- I tend to spend the first hour or so completely out of sorts, overwhelmed by how to take it all in. During these times I fixate on ridiculous details, like whether we brought enough movies to carry us through our vacation, when we should be spending our time doing everything imaginable except watching movies. Having a small child along with us would restrict us somewhat, sure, and make movie-watching something we might do more than if my wife and I were alone. But we had babysitting lined up for over half the nights we were there, so my worries were irrational indeed.

And indeed, we watched Dirty Work (which I'd already seen) and the first half of The Switch. These were our two rented movies. Neither of the movies we owned (Lost in Translation or Almost Famous) made it anywhere close to the DVD player.

The reason we rented Dirty Work (which I've seen about three times and once owned on VHS) was because my wife showed me a clip of Norm MacDonald's standup on the internet the other week. I didn't realize she thought MacDonald was funny, and when I learned she hadn't seen the Bob Saget-directed masterpiece Dirty Work, I thought it would make great vacation viewing, when we'd stumble back to our room full of free alcohol. She agreed and it was a done deal.

Well, it didn't hold up as well as I'd hoped. I mean, I found it funny, but I recognized it was something that probably didn't translate that well to most women of above-average intelligence. I will say that she ended up loving the last 20 minutes, and I can't tell if that's just because we broke up our viewing between the end of the night of our arrival (when she was falling asleep) and the next afternoon (when she wasn't), or whether it contains genuinely stronger material. Anyway, I was glad that at least some of it clicked with her.

I was reminded of the fact that MacDonald is one of my favorite comedians in terms of delivering a punchline. It's the way he hits the punchline that kills me. He's not among my top ten favorite funnymen, but some of his individual jokes hit with a force that earns him that consideration. If you don't have MacDonald's particular speech intonations in your head when you read this, some of these lines won't be as funny, but here they are anyway:

"There's two kinds of people in this world: Those who get stomped on and those who do the stomping."
"Where'd you come up with that theory?"
"That famous guy said it. What's his name? Uh... Oh, yeah: Jesus."

It's that perfectly McDonald-ian emphasis he puts on the word "Jesus" that makes it so great.

Then there's this one:

"Note to self: Remember to get ass wart cream for giant wart on my ass."

Maybe by itself it's not a line that reeks of comedic brilliance, but when delivered by MacDonald ... c'est magnifique! This is how it comes out, with emphasis in bold: "Remember to get ass wart cream for giant wart -- on my ass."

They can be simple, too:

"Note to self: Learn to fight."

He enunciates each word clearly: "Learn to fight." That's all you need. (And it helps that he's just been thrown out a glass window, in a terrific looking stunt by the stuntman, which alone is worthy of a good burst of surprised laughter.)

And then the part I always loved when I was younger, when he returns from being anally raped in prison (although it affects him in a purely comic way, not in the traumatic way it would in real life). He looks back in the direction of the off-screen prisoners who supposedly just did the raping, and scolds them in a way as though he were disappointed more than traumatized:

"You fellas have a lot of growing up to do, I'll tell you that. Ridiculous. Completely ridiculous. Can you believe these characters? Way out of line. Way out of line. Have a good mind to go to the warden about this. You know what hurts the most is the ... the lack of respect. You know? That's what hurts the most. Except for the ... except for the other thing. That hurts the most. But the lack of respect hurts the second most. Ridiculous."

Okay, enough quoting Norm MacDonald for today.

What else about our trip? We had a really nice time, though it's certainly hard to juggle a baby and trying to relax in a resort. (Not literally juggling, that would be dangerous.) However, we pulled it off pretty well. I consumed no less than six alcoholic beverages per day, and I swam in no fewer than six pools. (Okay, maybe five.) I also went parasailing, which was a first, and which took my breath away. The food was a mixed bag, but more good than bad, and some of it great. The place failed on a lot of the comical little details (we had to ask several times for things, they were pathologically unwilling to replenish our supply of Splenda in our room) but succeeded on the big ones. And my wife did get some good relaxation in, a bunch of little temporary breaks from the full-time job of motherhood. That was the most important part.

I said at the start that we only watched one-and-a-half movies, but I actually watched pieces of others in an attempt to improve my Spanish. One of the first ways I felt out of sorts is that I'd spent exactly zero time boning up on my Spanish before I left, and though it was barely needed because everyone spoke very good English, speaking no Spanish at all would make me feel like a tourist. So when I was having trouble producing certain easy words, I felt no different from a red-faced chucklehead Republican who flew in from South Carolina for a week to go golfing and call everyone "Jose," regardless of his actual name. That's right, even though I was a tourist, I didn't want to be confused with one -- at least not with an American tourist. (Maybe they thought I was one of the number of different Canandians we ran into.)

So I spent a little time doing what I did before we went on our honeymoon three years ago, which was watching movies in English with Spanish subtitles. There are no end to the choices of American movies available on Mexican TV, and though a number of them were dubbed in Spanish (such as Rocky III, of which I saw about 40 scattered minutes), there were also a fair number in English with Spanish subtitles. These were slightly more helpful, because if you're just hearing the Spanish language spoken, the words can get lost in a steady flow of sounds. It helps to see where the words break from each other, and that's what you get in English with Spanish subtitles -- you hear the words you know, and you see them in the other language. That's the best approach if you ask me. (Rocky III also worked a bit, because I've seen that movie about ten times, and remember much of the dialogue.)

What interested me is the random selection of movies that were playing. Movies I watched at least short chunks of included Daisy von Scherler Mayer's The Guru, Raymond de Felitta's The Thing About My Folks and Bernard Rose's Immortal Beloved. (It's best if you do this with a movie you've already seen, so you don't miss out on the plot while you're concentrating on teaching yourself the words.)

Of course, as with everything on the trip, it was a project I could pursue only in short bursts. There was one valuable word I learned in Spanish, however, while watching The Guru: "pelicula." It's a word I should have known before now, or at least remembered that I already knew.

Yep, "pelicula" means "movie."

Adios y gracias, damas y caballeros. Hasta manana.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Hanna and her Brothers

The last six months have seen a number of high-profile musical acts take on the task of scoring a major motion picture.

First it was Trent Reznor, the erstwhile entirety of the band Nine Inch Nails, working with frequent collaborator Atticus Ross on the Social Network score. As you know, they won the Oscar for their work. There may have been no artist better suited to capturing Mark Zuckerberg's alienation.

Then it was Daft Punk tackling the very Daft Punkian-themes of Tron: Legacy. I mean, the guys actually wear space suits when they're performing.

Now it's The Chemical Brothers, scoring Joe Wright's Hanna, which opens today. Seems appropriate for a movie where a teenage assassin is being hotly pursued by shadowy government agents. There may be a lot of running.

However, Hanna is a bit different in the sense that it represents a heightened consciousness of the name recognition The Chemical Brothers bring to the project. Reznor's involvement in the Social Network score wasn't promoted at all in the ads. Daft Punk's involvement in Tron: Legacy was touted in the theatrical trailers, but not in the TV ads. Continuing the evolution, The Chemical Brothers' name appeared in the theaters and is now appearing on TV as well.

It's an interesting approach. Serious film fans and musicians would probably argue that music plays an integral role in films. However, to the average viewer, the importance of music is probably no greater than the importance of one of the lesser-known co-stars, in terms of how much they want to see the movie. It may be crediting the average viewer with more of a sense of purity than the rest of us have, but they just want to know if the story is good. (Whereas, implicitly, we film nuts fixate on details that may ultimately reveal our nerdiness more than they relate usefully to whether the movie is good or not.)

But even Reznor, in an interview about The Social Network, said that he only notices music in a movie if it's really good or really bad. I thought this was a strange comment to make, considering that he's a musician himself, and you'd think he'd always be attuned to what other musicians are doing -- especially since he'd worked on movie soundtracks and scores before. But even to him, the music is usually subordinate to the storytelling. He gets lost in the story and he doesn't notice it.

However, that could also be a criticism of his fellow musicians. Maybe by saying he "never notices" music in movies, he's really saying that there hasn't been much in terms of good movie music recently. Maybe that's what this recent trend -- and it may only be me who's calling it a trend -- is trying to change.

Speaking personally, I love it when a movie has a good score -- but like Reznor, I don't notice it if it doesn't. My favorite movies are the ones that assault me from all sides, visually and aurally. Can you even imagine a movie like Run Lola Run without the techno music? If it had a generic orchestral score, even an orchestral score that hit at all the dramatic notes at all the right times, it wouldn't be the movie it is.

I guess this is also revealing my fondness for electronic music. All the artists I've listed so far are either industrial (Nine Inch Nails) or techno (Daft Punk, Chemical Brothers, and Tom Tykwer, who wrote the Run Lola Run score along with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek). So yeah, it makes sense that I'd be excited about these movies.

And I am, in fact, excited about Hanna. I was excited before I knew The Chemical Brothers were involved, and their involvement only increased that excitement. I have all of their albums, and when I saw them perform live, it was one of the best shows I've ever seen.

I suppose it's not such a new idea anymore, a young girl trained to kick ass and take names -- we just saw Hit-Girl do it in Kick-Ass last year. Now, the training sequences with a bow and arrow in the tundra -- that's new. But it's a new enough idea, executed in an interesting enough way, that I think it has major potential.

I'm also interested to see director Joe Wright drive himself further outside the box. I thought I had him pigeon-holed when I first heard of him as the director of the Kiera Knightley Pride and Prejudice (which I didn't actually see). I figured him for a Merchant-Ivory type. That impression was confirmed when I saw his name connected to Atonement -- until, that is, I saw Atonement, and loved the unconventional things it did within the general constraints of a period piece. In his next film he jumped forward into the current day, but remained in the general realm of drama, with The Soloist, which I quite liked. Now, he's contributing what looks like it could be an exceptional action-thriller to the cinematic universe -- re-teamed with the talented Saoirse Ronan, who received an Oscar nomination for her work in Antonement. (That's pronounced "Sare-shee," and I may steal it if I ever have a female child.) I love directors who seem to be interested in evolving and changing, and Wright definitely fits the bill.

But I won't be seeing Hanna this weekend, because I'm bound for Mexico later today. That's right, five days in the fun and sun of one of those all-inclusive resorts. We're allowing ourselves the indulgence because it's timed to celebrate a landmark birthday for my wife (I won't say which one, but it's not 30 and it's not 50). Her birthday was actually back in February, but who wants to go to a resort when it's cold outside? The weather is supposed to be great in Puerto Vallarta, we got a really good deal, and even if we hadn't, well, her family contributed significantly to our costs, as a birthday present for her. Plus, we're staying long enough to get eight free hours of babysitting as part of our deal. Woo-hoo!

So I'll be back in action next Wednesday or Thursday. If you see me posting before then, please scold me. I should be out enjoying the sun.