Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Supply and OnDemand

The pricing of movies -- from their theatrical release through their ultimate arrival in the cheap bin at the drug store -- is like a lesson in Economics 101.

When the demand is highest for a movie, its cost is also going to be highest. This is why a shitty movie that was just released can actually be $19.99 (or more) on DVD, and maybe even ten bucks more than that on BluRay. The perceived novelty of it drives up the price. A year later, that same shitty movie may be worth only five bucks in either format. It's all a matter of waiting it out.

The same is true for catching a movie in rented format. Earlier this fall, Universal played around with the idea of charging customers $60 to rent Tower Heist the same day it hit theaters (or very soon afterward). The idea was that the price would seem reasonable because the demand is so high for a just-released studio film to be available immediately in your own home. Films that are a month old, but haven't hit DVD yet, can be bought in a hotel room for usually $12.99 or so. Then the price goes down once they've hit DVD, usually to either $4.99 to rent it on pay-per-view (OnDemand), or essentially free as a Redbox rental (just over a buck) or part of your monthly Netflix plan.

Theatrical also works this way to some extent. Within the same theater, ticket prices usually stay the same from the time the movie arrives until it leaves. However, you might get to pay a bit less by waiting a couple weeks, if there's a theater that shows second-run movies near your house. (Too far away, and you're sacrificing your savings on the ticket by paying more for gas.)

What I really want to concentrate on today, however, is rentals. Universal may have scrapped its plan to charge $60 for Tower Heist, but the idea may have been right, especially for someone like me, who can only get out to the theater a finite number of times. Especially when I place a premium on watching the movie before the middle of January.

I've been an unusually high customer of VOD (video on demand) for about the past month, and it has everything to do with getting to watch a movie at home now rather than waiting until it comes on DVD (probably in February or March). See, I try to watch all the movies of significance that I can from a given release year before the morning the Oscar nominations are announced -- which will be January 24th in 2012. That's when I finalize my list of rankings from first to worst, and in order for the list to seem complete, I'd like movies from November and December to be (almost) as well represented as movies that came out in March or April.

But that second group has the distinction of being available to watch on DVD whenever I want. The first group does not.

And so it is that I've been like a heat-seeking missile, focusing on movies currently in theaters that are also available at home on my TV right now. It's this mentality that has led me to pay a combined total of $23.97 to watch Melancholia ($9.99), The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence ($6.99), and most recently (this past weekend), Margin Call ($6.99).

I guess it's better than paying $60 for Tower Heist.

Actually, I've liked all three movies to varying degrees. (Yes, even Human Centipede.) And if I'd gone to see them in the theater, those movies might have cost me more like $40 rather than $24.

But only Melancholia is a movie I might have actually seen in the theater. With the others, it was all about trying to make my list of year-end rankings seem more comprehensive.

I guess I should tell you that traditionally, I'm a bit puritanical when it comes to using pay-per-view, or OnDemand, or video on demand, whichever term is really the correct one. I'm generally not willing to pay the extra couple bucks for the convenience of being able to watch a movie on the spur of the moment, rather than waiting for it to arrive through Netflix or going to a Redbox kiosk to pick it up. In fact, I'm the guy who will go to incredible lengths to be sure I don't pay a late fee for a rental, or don't let my Netflix rentals sit around too long collecting dust on the coffee table. I'm always conscious of the margins, if you will.

But with Margin Call and the others, the demand truly did win out. These movies released theatrically in October (or with Melancholia, November) carry an extra value to me in that they contribute slightly more to my certainty that I've surveyed the complete list of available options from a given release year before determining which movie I like best (or worst). And in each case I was able to watch it at a time when a theatrical screening wouldn't have been possible -- with Melancholia and Centipede, it was late at night, and with Margin Call it was during the day while I was watching my son. (See, I didn't think I should subject him to the grotesqueries of Human Centipede, which certainly has me in the running for Father of the Year.)

However, I should say that I'm glad not all movies are made available this way. It could get very expensive for me very quickly.

Then again, isn't part of being a movie fanatic that you can't count your pennies too much? If you're like me, you've probably made the determination that it just costs what it costs to see movies. If you're determined to see a movie in the theater in 3D, and it costs $16.50, well then that's just what it costs. If we were model train lovers, we might spend $20 on a row of bushes to go alongside the tracks. But our hobby is movies, and so we spend that twenty bucks on a movie and a popcorn instead.

If you are counting your pennies, you can always wait until DVD -- but then what would you talk about at cocktail parties?

However, the characters in Margin Call itself probably wouldn't have been too happy with me. I bought their security at an increased price despite seeing it in a compromised format (at home rather than on the big screen), and don't even have any assets to show for it -- not even the toxic asset of a DVD that'll take up space on my shelf.

Guess it's good that I'm a film critic rather than a day trader.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The uncontrollable slippage of time

Warning - this post contains major spoilers about several films. Proceed with caution.

Given the creative talent behind it, it's hard for me to believe it took me three years to finally watch Synecdoche, New York.

I simply love the work of Charlie Kaufman. Two movies he wrote were my favorite movies of the years they were released -- Adaptation in 2002, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004. Being John Malkovich was also in my top ten of its year, and although I didn't see it in time to rank it for the year it was released, I even liked Human Nature pretty well.

But Kaufman's directorial debut was bad-mouthed by enough people that I just didn't prioritize seeing it. I'd heard it was ponderous, and I didn't necessarily like the footage I'd seen, nor what I knew about the plot. If it weren't for how ponderous I heard it was, though, I surely would have seen it. In essence, I allowed other people to turn me against a man whose entire body of work had spoken to me. Maybe I just wasn't in a ponderous place at that time in my life.

I don't know what came along in the last two weeks that finally changed my mind -- I'm not feeling particularly ponderous now, either -- but I impulsively promoted Synecdoche, New York to the top of my Netflix queue. I guess I imagined it might be fun to watch over Thanksgiving. I quickly learned that my wife was still carrying the same prejudices against Synecdoche that I'd carried, so it was pretty clear I'd be watching it by myself. Which I did on Sunday night after she went to bed.

Oh man. Simply put, I loved this film. It started a bit slow for me, but once it got going, it was bursting with just as many ideas as his previous films. I'm not going to say it was better than Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine, which are both in my top 100 films of all time. But there's a good chance I like it better than Malkovich, which I have not revisited since I saw it in the theater.

I'm not going to go into too many of the particulars of Synecdoche right now, or try to explicate the many fruitful ideas about the creative process, introspection, fear, intimacy, alienation, artistic paralysis and mortality that get bandied about in this movie. However, I do want to talk a little bit about what I've identified in the subject of this post as "the uncontrollable slippage of time."

See, the main thrust of Synecdoche is a playwright (Philip Seymour Hoffman) using his genius grant to write and execute a massive play about his life. His goal is to make a brutally honest piece of art, but in doing that, he loses his filter about what to include and what not to include. The project becomes so big that the set grows to the size of several football fields, actors are rehearsing numerous scenes simultaneously (with no audience anywhere in sight), and the playwright regularly writes scenes based on things that happened in his real life only hours beforehand. It's a clear metaphor for Kaufman's renowned affliction of wanting to cram his entire experience of the world into his work, which was a main theme in Adaptation.

So what ends up happening is that he works on this project for decades, as the lives of he and everyone involved become hopelessly intertwined, and eventually, nothing exists for him (and even them) except this play. What I found fascinating was how Kaufman portrays the passage of time. The characters don't just get older -- they get older in fits and starts, without any of the cues filmmakers typically use to indicate time passing. Hoffman's Caden Cotard struggles with his own skewed perception of time quite prominently, especially when it relates to his estranged daughter, who moved to Germany with his ex-wife (Kaufman regular Catherine Keener). When learning that she has become an exotic dancer whose body is covered with tattoos of flowers, Caden screams "But she's only four years old!" Later, on her death bed, she has become so estranged from him that they literally do not understand each other. They have to wear headsets to communicate, as his headset translates her words from German to English and hers translates his from English to German. This from a girl who had developed a full vocabulary in English before moving to Germany, and has American parents. Clearly, that's not "realistic" -- it's just a metaphor for their estrangement. But it's quite an effective one.

Numerous passages in this film show the march of time as an element Caden can't control. The movie makes evident that Caden was "supposed to" end up with Hazel (Samantha Morton), who seems to be his soul mate. In fact, so clearly were they intended for each other that Hazel ends up getting involved with the actor who plays Caden in the play, and Caden ends up getting involved with the actress who plays Hazel. Yet their relationship is defined by botching these key moments, these opportunities, and then watching helplessly as time hurries them away into other entanglements that keep them separated.

All of this is underscored by the fact that it's becoming the actual future, making everything seem a bit more alien and spartan, mirroring the character's inner life. Not only are there those headsets that serve as translators for Caden and his daughter, but the sky starts to fill with dirigibles -- as though dirigibles are going to be the favored method of transportation of the 2020s and 2030s. (Interestingly, the TV show Fringe offers the same prevalence of blimps in its alternate version of Earth.)

I found the ending of Synecdoche to be chilling. Caden is an old man, and the set is finally empty of people. All these characters in his life have died or disappeared, leaving only an empty set and one actress who came on board late in the process for a very fringe role in his life. (She plays a character from a dream experienced by a character who is, herself, imaginary. Yep, that gets at how much Caden has crawled inside himself.) In the film's final shot, he sits next to her on a bench and rests his head on her shoulder, as the last ounces of life seem to be on the verge of trickling out of him. "Okay, I've figured out how I want to do the play ..." he says as the screen fades to white.

This particular combination of elements really affected me, and made me realize how movies that deal with similar topics of lost time and regret have a special claim on me. After this long preamble, here are a couple others:

Vanilla Sky (2001, Cameron Crowe). I think there's a lot of brilliant material in Vanilla Sky, but the end was the part that really drove it home for me. When Tom Cruise's David Aames finally realizes that he's been cryogenically frozen for 150 years, and his apparent waking life has just been an extended lucid dream, it's devastating. As he's riding up in a glass elevator toward the top of a skyscraper, the future world visible in the background at too great a distance to know it's even the future, the full weight of what's happened to him sinks in -- the idea that all the events he thought were current in his life actually played themselves out a century-and-a-half ago, and everyone he knows has been dead for a century. There's something about that moment I find exquisitely melancholic.

Click (2006, Frank Coraci). I discussed this a little bit in my Double Jeopardy series in the summer of 2010, when I revisited films that I thought I might have liked too much. If you think Click is just a regular old lowest common denominator Adam Sandler movie, think again. The remote control that takes over Michael Newman's life makes literal this idea of "the uncontrollable slippage of time." Early on, Michael figures out the remote control that allows him to pause and fast-forward his life will also save his preferences (against his will) and apply them automatically. So when Michael wants to fast-forward through the mundane elements of life to get to his next promotion -- which he expects to be just a couple months off -- he actually loses years of his life when the promotion doesn't come as soon as he expected. And then again when other saved fast-forwarding scenarios arise. Before long Michael is an old man at the wedding of his grown son, having lost his wife (Kate Beckinsale) to divorce at some time between then and now -- a time Michael can't remember because he never mentally experienced those moments, living through them unconsciously as an emotionally disengaged automaton. These future scenes all take place in the 2020s or 2030s, just as in Synecdoche, lending an additional sense of sadness and loss to them.

Bicentennial Man (1999, Chris Columbus). If you thought I was crazy when I just waxed poetic about an Adam Sandler vehicle, you might think me more so when discussing a Chris Columbus movie that was Robin Williams' follow-up to the much-reviled Patch Adams (and aims similarly at a viewer's soft and squishy parts). Well, let me relieve you a little bit by telling you that I don't think Bicentennial Man is a great movie. However, it sticks with me more than it should because of how the robot servant named Andrew, played by Williams, tries over the course of two centuries to become a real human being. He is the property of one family during this time, handed down from generation to generation, as young children become old men and die, and the future steadily becomes more futuristic around them. Something about Andrew's status as a robot -- essentially immortal as long as he is maintained -- makes the issues of the perception of the passage of time more interesting. For example, how does a robot mark time, if he cannot think or feel precisely as a human does? I suppose, now that I think about it, that A.I.: Artificial Intelligence shares a lot of common story elements with Bicentennial Man -- in fact, when Haley Joel Osment's robot sinks to the bottom of the ocean, I seem to remember him being down there for decades if not centuries. But I actually sort of don't like A.I., so I'm not going to include it here.

You know, when I first had the idea to write about this, I thought I'd be including a) more titles, and b) more titles that I truly love. I've listed these movies in the order that I like them, and by the time you get to Bicentennial Man, it's only a mild and hesitant thumbs up. I'm sure there are a half-dozen other movies that fit this bill that I'm just not thinking of, where a character or characters age into a future world, without being able to stop their progression toward the inevitable long enough to prevent themselves from making life-altering mistakes. They are at the tip of my tongue, but will come no further.

Oh well. You probably don't need a thousand more words from me today anyway. You are either shopping for deals or recovering from yesterday's over-indulgence, and just because I'm at work having a really slow day, it doesn't mean you are. (But if you think of any obvious ones that fit the theme that I missed, I'd love to hear about them in my comments section.)

Today at least, spend your precious time on something other than my blog, before it slips away and is gone forever ...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Holiday family movie scrum

It's no secret I like talking about release dates on this blog. I speculate on the reasons why films are released the dates they are, and either second-guess or applaud the studios for their decisions. I also tend to notice the dates where there are too many movies coming out, or too few, or whether several movies releasing on the same date cater to the same demographic and will therefore divide the available box office to their own detriment.

Today, the day before Thanksgiving, it's this last scenario that's in play: an all-out scrum between movies intended for the young (and the young at heart).

Which has encouraged me to take my first amateurish (very amateurish) stabs at doctoring images in Microsoft Paint. Hey, what do you want, I can't afford Photoshop. Be gentle. (A childlike attempt at playing around with images for a post about children's movies? I see the thematic relevance.)

Can you ever remember three family movies releasing on the same date? Two, maybe, but three?

As The Muppets, Hugo and Arthur Christmas all hit theaters in time for your Thanksgiving box office dollars, one of them is sure to be the loser. The best bet for a hit is The Muppets; the worst, Arthur Christmas. But my guess is that The Muppets will do such business that both the others will noticeably suffer.

Needless to say, I also have a take on each film. So let's get right to it ...

Just another Muppet movie?

I was as excited as the next guy to hear that the Muppets were being revived for a new movie starring Jason Segel and Amy Adams, both of whom I like very much. (A post for another time: Amy Adams may be the most inherently sympathetic actress in decades.)

But then I got to thinking of my excitement as just another byproduct of the reboot trend.

See, there's something about a movie called The Muppets that makes you think they're going back to some essential roots, shifting the Muppet paradigm in some way, or making a be-all end-all Muppet movie whose self-reflexivity is in some way key to what it will be.

Really, though, it may be just another Muppet movie in a series that already includes a half-dozen films over 30 years.

The plot of this movie, as I understand it, has to do with the discovery of oil under the Muppet Theater, and an evil oil tycoon's attempt to raze the theater to get to the oil. But if this movie were called The Muppets Take the Oil Field or Save the Muppets or There Will Be Muppets, it really would seem like just another Muppet movie.

Instead, we've got our hopes raised by the prospect of something shiny and new yet also consummately classic. I don't really know what big difference we're expecting -- the movie is not in 3D, and the format is not changing so that the Muppets will be digital. (God forbid -- the key to their charm is their tactility, and the knowledge that an actual puppeteer is just out of the shot. I remember when the CG movie Flushed Away was made in the style of Aardman's claymation, and it was a disaster.) But admit it, we're definitely expecting something that's extra "big" about this movie, not just another installment disguised as something special because the title is going back to the basics.

In case you've forgotten, the last couple Muppet movies were not received particularly well. And in case you think I'm some kind of Muppet grump, let me tell you that I absolutely love Muppets from Space from 1999. But there's a reason that was the last theatrically released Muppet feature. Even those of you who profess to worship Jim Henson stopped being enamored with the movies sometime around The Great Muppet Caper or The Muppets Take Manhattan. I bet you didn't even see Muppets from Space.

I just think it's convenient that we're all forgetting how we dismissed the later Muppet movies, while telling everyone how excited we are to see this one. We think that it reflects positively on our character that we cherish the Muppets, but really, most of us are fair weather friends. And smartly, The Muppets has convinced us that the weather is fair again. Here's hoping that's true.

It may just be a sign of the times. We seem to be craving nostalgia more than we have at any other time in cinematic history, if you are judging only by the large number of reboots. But it's not like we're so hard up for quality family entertainment. In fact, you could argue that Pixar's run of success, coupled with some beloved films by worthy Pixar imitators, means that our current era is one of the best eras ever for movies aimed at children -- certainly better than the Disney doldrums of the 1970s and 1980s.

So are we really starved for the Muppets, or are we just tricked into thinking we are? Either way, this weekend's box office should prove that the psychology worked on us.

And as a guy who loved Kermit the Frog from my early childhood all the way until I was a 25-year-old when Muppets from Space came out, I'm glad for it.

To the tune of the Kinks' "Father Christmas"

When I was young I believed in Christmas flicks
Though I knew they're mostly bad
I'd stand in line at the movie theater
Give me some cheer and I'd be glad

But the last time I saw a Christmas movie
I found it trite and cheap and lame
I felt like the studio had mugged me
I don't want them to do the same

But they say "Arthur Christmas! Give it some money!
Don't mess around with those other flicks
It'll bomb if you don't hand it over
We want your bread so we don't take our licks
And end up unemployed pricks."

I hope Hugo doesn't get whacked

I actually don't have much of a take on Hugo, except the obvious observation that it's such a departure for Martin Scorsese.

But the "whacking" joke actually has some extra meaning beyond just being a wink at Scorsese's more familiar cinematic milieu. This film really could get whacked at the box office. Not only is the story unfamiliar (I assume) to many kids, but the running time is prohibitively long, a very Scorsese-like 127 minutes. That's a lot of squirming for a lot of parents to have to endure.

In fact, I'd say that the presence of Scorsese's name on this project has everything to do with why many people are interested in seeing it. Without that, it could be just another story nobody's heard of.

I've also heard that the 3D should be great. Seeing as how I can't actually remember the last movie I saw in the theater in 3D -- could it really have been The Green Hornet all the way back in January? -- I'm really looking forward to my 1:40 screening of Hugo this afternoon, after our early release from work.

That's right, I'm carrying on the tradition of seeing a movie on my Thanksgiving Wednesday early release for at least one more year. Ordinarily, my wife might love my help with our son if I were getting out early. But today, he'll be at daycare, since his normal Friday session was rescheduled for the holiday. That'll mean I can see a movie, guilt-free, and then just pick him up afterward.

Hugo has pretty big shoes to fill, if you consider the huge success my Thanksgiving Wednesday screening was last year. Last year on this date I saw Tangled, and it went on to be my #2 ranked film for the whole year.

If I don't post tomorrow -- and please, don't let me -- have a happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Fox, you wily bastard

It's really funny to me how the word "Fox" means different things in different contexts -- and all when we're talking about the same corporate entity.

If you're talking about Fox News, you're talking about an ultraconservative news outlet that basically makes no bones about bashing liberal ideas. This, by extension, includes Rupert Murdoch and everything he stands for, which most recently includes the phone hacking scandals in England.

However, if you're talking about Fox as the regular broadcasting network, you tend not to think about those same political affiliations. It's just one of the four big broadcasting networks that has had some of TV's most iconic programs of the last 20 years, and has consistently pushed the envelope in terms of content. In fact, you might describe it as the boldest of the major networks. That philosophy kind of extends over to FX, whose original programming has included hits like The Shield and Rescue Me.

Then if you shift to the movies, you've got 20th Century Fox, which was made famous to us as younguns as the home of the Star Wars movies, as well as Fox Searchlight, present-day provider of some of our more beloved independent films.

But when something related to Fox comes up and annoys me, I always think of the ultraconservative political aspects of the company ... even if they are not particularly relevant to thing that's bothering me.

A few weeks ago I was watching Win Win, released by Fox Searchlight, on my portable DVD player at the gym. I'd rented Win Win from Redbox, which meant I had only a short timeframe in which to return it (unless I wanted to pay an additional dollar). That meant that every minute was crucial.

So it was especially annoying that I was not allowed to skip the trailers. In fact, I wasn't even allowed to fast forward through them. Both the fast forward button and the menu button were disabled for this particular DVD. I'd press those buttons, and only a red circle with a line through it would show up on the screen -- you know, like the Ghostbusters symbol sans ghost. I eventually got to watch the movie (which I really liked), but only after seven or eight minutes worth of trailers and other bits of business finally ushered me to the title menu.

I considered writing about it on the blog at the time, and was going to call the post, simply, "Prisoner." But other writing priorities eclipsed it and it was forgotten.

Until yesterday, when I went to watch Cedar Rapids under similar circumstances. Cedar Rapids was also released by Fox Searchlight, but I might not have made that connection if it hadn't been for the disabled buttons on my DVD player. And if the Cedar Rapids DVD hadn't included a trailer for Win Win, a trailer I was therefore forced to watch in its entirety. (If you're reading this before Cedar Rapids appears in my Most Recently Watched section on the right, it's because I haven't finished it yet. I've got until Redbox demands it back at 9 p.m. tonight, and should manage to knock out the rest of it on my lunch hour.)

So what gives, Fox?

I googled some relevant search terms and could not find anyone talking about it.

Granted, the purpose of the trailers is to interest you in other offerings from the same studio/production company/what have you. We can't skip through them in the theater, so why should we be able to skip through them here?

But many studios do let you skip the ads. In fact, I think you kind of expect it when watching something in your own home. There are plenty of things you can do in your house that you can't do in the theater, like pause, rewind, talk over it and text. Why shouldn't skipping the trailers be one of those things?

I guess it could be the difference between the rental version of the disc and the version you would purchase. I've written before about how there are special rental-only versions of various movies, and in that instance, the purpose of the special version was to deny you the ability to watch the extras unless you bought the DVD. So one of the differences between the rental version and the purchase version could be the ability to skip straight to the title menu. I'd buy that as an explanation (as opposed to renting it, ha ha).

The thing is, though this pisses me off, Fox has got me by the balls. What am I going to do, stop seeing Fox Searchlight movies? If you're a film fanatic, you can't just boycott a whole film division like Fox Searchlight. And if you could, you wouldn't want it to be Fox Searchlight anyway, since it consistently releases interesting films -- two of which have been mentioned in this post.

Okay, so stop renting Fox Searchlight movies? I can't just vow to see all Fox Searchlight movies in the theater, because that works out even better for them.

Win win, indeed.

Wily, indeed.

And so, when I rent Fox Searchlight movies, if I even notice that they're Fox Searchlight movies, I've just got to factor in an extra few minutes for all those trailers.

And then just grumble impotently about it here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Going outside the marriage for ... movies

I sometimes feel like I'm cheating on my wife.

With the movies.

Oh, it's not the rivalry for my affection you might think I'd be positing in a scenario like this. Like, I'd rather spend time watching movies than with my wife.

Rather, I'm cheating on her in the sense that I'm watching movies she might want to see, without waiting for her to be ready to see them.

Unless you are married to an equally passionate film fan -- and how many of us are lucky enough to have that -- there's probably a disparity between the amount of movies you want to watch and the amount of movies your partner wants to watch. Actually, my wife loves the movies, and has written a number of screenplays. But on any given night, given the choice of watching a movie or watching a TV show, she will choose a TV show almost every time. (And before you think my wife is some kind of philistine who prefers television to the movies, I should let you know that she also likes to keep things clean, and gets worried any time our DVR gets too close to its capacity -- which is pretty much always.)

To continue this analogy between relationships and watching movies, I sometimes feel like asking her to watch a movie is like a hard-up husband asking his wife for sex. The experience is replete with fears of rejection, which would naturally be followed by deep shame.

So I watch as many movies as I can on the sly. You know, after she's gone to bed. When I'm home alone babysitting. When I'm at the gym (on the stairmaster, in case you're wondering about the logistics of that). And I don't necessarily keep her apprised of what I'm watching. I just do my best not to watch things that I'm pretty sure she wants to watch with me. Keeping with the analogy, watching movies by myself, secretly, is the movie equivalent of masturbation. You don't want anyone to know when you're doing it and how often you're doing it, and you don't want to get caught. What's more, the whole experience can involve plenty of shame.

In order to not get caught, I try not to telegraph to my wife what I'm up to. If it's clear she's going to bed and I've already stated I'm going to stay up a little longer, the most practical thing for me to do, to ensure that I'll watch a significant chunk of the movie before I fall asleep, is to get going on it right away, while she's still futzing around on her computer. But then it's clear that I'm trying to "have a little time alone with myself" (still doing the analogy). Because of the corresponding shame, I like to make pretty sure she's off to bed before I start things up. I'm not so concerned about it that I'll hurriedly shut off the TV if she has a surprise return to the living room, but let's just say I like to stack the deck in my favor as often as possible.

Sometimes, however, I do get caught -- not even in the middle of it, but days or weeks later. Any longer than that, and it becomes unclear how recently I saw a given movie -- it could have been any old time. But there was no faking it with a movie like Melancholia, which is only just now in theaters, following a limited pay-per-view run that preceded its North American theatrical release. I had to have recently cheated on my wife on that one ... and if I'd thought about it, I probably would have known it was cheating, which I'll explain in a moment.

"You know what I also want to see is the new Lars von Trier film," my wife said to me on Sunday morning.

Caught. If I pretend I didn't see it, it's a lie. Have to fess up. Only choice.

"Oh, I saw it already."

"You did? When?"

"I saw it on pay-per-view."

This was like double cheating. Not only had I seen it without her, but I'd added extra money to our cable bill in order to do it. Good thing she didn't know that the cost of this movie was $9.99, about double the normal pay-per-view price -- a fee they were able to get away with because the movie hadn't yet hit theaters.

This was a particularly bad movie to see without her, because my wife counts Lars von Trier as one of her favorite directors. She had never said that to me in so many words until Sunday, but I might have inferred it. After all, she was the inspiration behind us watching both seasons of von Trier's Danish TV show The Kingdom, starting last Christmas. Perhaps I didn't make the conscious connection because she and I had never actually seen a von Trier movie together.

So why did I risk her "wrath" and prioritize seeing Melancholia by myself a couple Friday nights ago?

1) I'm a big fan of watching movies on pay-per-view that are currently in theaters, especially at the end of the calendar year. It's around this time that I'm beginning the home stretch toward my year-end ranking of 2011 movies, from first to last, which I finalize in January on the morning Oscar nominations are announced. Movies released late in the year are always at a premium, because you usually have to go to the theater to see them, and there are only so many trips to theater a person can make in November, December and January. The ones available at home, even for the steep sum of $9.99, are like slam dunks for inclusion on the list. Besides, $9.99 is a couple bucks less than I would expect to pay if I actually went to the theater to see it. And I had only a limited window, because the pay-per-view engagement ended on November 10th.

2) I'd watched von Trier's most recent film, Antichrist, by myself under similar circumstances (watched it on PPV, didn't tell the wife right away -- in fact, maybe didn't even tell her until our conversation on Sunday). I knew that Antichrist contained disturbing images you can't unsee, though I didn't know exactly what those images were until I saw it myself. So I didn't think my wife would necessarily ever be interested in seeing it, and certainly not under some artificial time constraints I imposed in order to qualify the movie on my year-end list. Besides, a baby falls out an open window right at the start of that film, and that topic would have made her squeamish right around the time we were trying to conceive for the first time.

3) I just didn't think of it. That's the big secret of being a husband, either a real husband or a metaphorical husband in a metaphor that equates secretly watching movies with cheating -- we're dopey about a lot of things. Sometimes it just doesn't occur to us.

The thing is, if I kept my wife apprised of all the movies I saw, it might exhaust her. She might think that I truly had a problem -- that I'm the movie equivalent of a sex addict. (Just saying "movie addict" doesn't describe the obsession well enough.) Also, she might deduce that I watch a fair number of movies when I'm acting as sole caretaker for our son. While I think this is perfectly fine -- it doesn't distract me from checking out what he's doing, and I'm ready to pause at any moment -- she might view it as me putting my needs before the needs of our child. Also, we're still unclear on exactly how soon we plan to expose him to television that's actually intended for him. Basically encouraging him to watch whatever movie I'm watching in the background could have some nebulous negative impact on him -- an impact that might become more concrete if the movie had images of sex or violence. (So, I wouldn't watch either Antichrist or Melancholia with him there. The indie dramedy Terri, which I saw while watching him yesterday afternoon, is perfectly fine.) He doesn't usually watch for more than a minute or two, but he'd have the option of sitting there and watching if he wanted.

Look, I don't really want to do this. I want to be completely above board about everything. I would love nothing more than to keep her apprised of most if not all the movies I see, and give her the opportunity to be involved in the viewing of each one.

But that's simply impossible. Yesterday I offered to her that I probably watch five movies for every one movie she watches, which means I have to watch a lot of things without her, some of which she may want to see. In retrospect, I wish I hadn't given her a 5:1 ratio like that -- not only does it basically tell her that I'm "sneaking out" to see these other movies more often than she might have thought, but it's also probably an exaggeration -- thereby inadvertently making a bigger deal out of my secret movie watching when I should be trying to make less of a big deal.

On the other hand, the meaning behind my statement is something I feel pretty strongly about. She and I probably watch one or two movies together at home per week, and then we each probably see one more movie in the theater. But while she's comfortable with seeing only three movies I week, I usually have ambitions for six or seven. That leaves three or four movies I have to see without her, and they can't all be movies she's not interested in seeing. Even if there were film genres she consistently avoids, which there aren't, I'm not ready to confine myself to just those genres in the films I see by myself.

So yeah, every once in awhile, a great opportunity to see a movie together -- say, Melancholia -- gets botched. It happens.

The good thing is, the little friction that arises over a situation like this, as it did on Sunday, never lasts long. She knows that I have to see movies on my own to "fulfill my needs," and she's perfectly okay with that. She also knows that if we don't see one movie together, there will always be plenty of others neither of us has seen. It's the price she pays in order to prevent the kind of logistical traffic jam that tends to stress her out. If I always got her approval of the order in which I'm sorting the Netflix queue, or if I mentioned every single time I was planning to stream a movie or watch something I'd borrowed from the library, she wouldn't love that. She wouldn't love it at all.

So we have kind of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy -- she doesn't ask what movies I'm seeing, and I don't tell her. She knows I go outside the marriage for movies, but she just doesn't want to have to hear about it.

Is it rational for me to feel shame about watching movies without my wife? Not really. But when you're a parent, there are other factors involved. For example, if it's clear I stayed up past midnight watching a movie, I've kind of forfeited my right to be tired the next day. If I fail to live up to my full parenting responsibilities, it might be clear that I traded sleep for watching movies. And since I made that choice to sacrifice my own sleep, it could be interpreted as another instance where I'm putting my own needs before the needs of my family.

If this all sounds funny and perhaps a bit alarming to you, I should remind you that I'm really only demonstrating a point through an extended marital/sexual metaphor. And I may be stretching certain points in order to fit the metaphorical scheme.

Look, it's a way to make things work in a "mixed marriage." See, there are some couples who don't watch many movies -- they have movie night together every Friday night, but that's all either of them sees in a whole week. And then there are some couples who don't care much for TV but obsessively watch movies together every occasion they get. And then there are relationships like ours, where I'm an obsessive and she's only an enthusiast. She's excited to see most new acclaimed movies coming out, and she's also excited to see classics and other movies she's heard good things about. Me, I want to see all those, as well as acclaimed movies she hasn't heard of, and then also a bunch of other mediocre crap.

So you have to have a system to make it work. And our system will be to watch movies together where a mutual interest has been established, and leave everything else for me to watch at my leisure.

The semantic key in interpreting this system is when a mutual interest has been established, and when it hasn't, and when a mutual interest should safely be assumed. That, I can get better at.

It's if we stop talking -- about movies, mind you -- that we'll know we really have a problem. If I start saying "I better not talk about this movie with her so I can see it by myself in good conscience," that's when an addiction actually starts to have a demonstrable negative impact.

Fortunately, I don't think that's going to happen. Because one of the reasons our marriage -- both our literal marriage and our movie-watching partnership -- works so well is that we both love talking about movies, and we're both happier if the other has seen the movies we've seen, so we can do just that.

Also, there's a lot less shame and sneaking around.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Seen but not heard

No spoilers ahead!

Ever get the feeling, when watching a movie, that a character doesn't have any dialogue because the filmmakers didn't want to pay the actor more?

It can be distracting.

Got that feeling yesterday, quite distinctly, during a key climactic scene of The Descendants.

See, one of the rules regarding actors in movies/TV/what have you is that the moment they open their mouth, you have to pay them a considerably higher chunk of change for their appearance. You know how I don't like looking things up -- I just did some quick googling but didn't come up with the exact parameters of the rule. In fact, I found one rule that mentions the actor's status changing to that of "day player" after five lines of dialogue. But I know there's also a big difference between zero and one line.

Anyway, I most often notice this phenomenon in television. It often seems to be the "pretty girl syndrome." Let's say, oh, Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) from How I Met Your Mother has a scene demonstrating his fitness with the ladies. He'll have a beautiful woman on each arm, and they may be in the shot for as long as a minute or two. But you'll never see them open their mouths, because even a throwaway line of dialogue will send those actresses' pay through the roof. Essentially, the show can't afford a "casual" line of dialogue that would contribute to the naturalism of the scene and make their presence seem less awkward. So, the use of these actresses is allowed to be slightly awkward -- and in this case, probably slightly objectifying -- in order to save money.

But why did The Descendants need to save money on Cousin Milo?

To establish what I'm talking about here, I need to give you a brief bit of the plot of The Descendants, though it's not anything that wouldn't be available in any synopsis of the movie. George Clooney plays Matt King, the descendant of Hawaii land barons, who is the trustee on a choice parcel of land that his family could sell in order to make millions for himself and about a dozen cousins. Most of those cousins are played by unknown actors; one is played by Beau Bridges. And one falls somewhere in between, a guy I recognized but couldn't quite place. This guy:

When I first saw him, I thought "Is that Art Garfunkel?" Nope. Too young. I then went on to Willie Aames. Rejected that one too. I determined to wait for the closing credits to see who he was, and I recognized the name right away: Michael Ontkean! As in, the guy who played Sheriff Harry S. Truman on Twin Peaks. He plays Matt's cousin Milo here.

So Cousin Milo appears in one scene at the beginning, in a board room, where there's no dialogue at all because Clooney narrates over it. He then appears, quite prominently, in a scene near the end, and this is where the problem came up.

Matt and Bridges' character, Cousin Hugh, are together at a family meeting -- the family meeting where the family is scheduled to decide on one of several buyers, and Matt, as trustee, is scheduled to sign the paperwork allowing the sale to go through. The two get into an intense discussion stemming from a difference of opinion on what to do with the land. Yet there is a third man at the table: Ontkean's Cousin Milo.

Who just sits there.

That's right, even though he is as directly impacted by the decision as Cousin Hugh, and appears in every reverse shot alongside the arguing Bridges, Ontkean is not permitted to open his mouth.

And because his other possible reactions would seem like overacting -- you know, pantomiming shock and disbelief without saying anything -- Ontkean really does just sit there, this look of mild bemusement on his face. I likely noticed it more because this was a person who has achieved a limited amount of fame, not just some no-name extra off the street. But I think even a no-name extra would have been distracting to me if used like this.

Now, I can't say for sure that this decision was motivated by financial considerations. But if not, it represents some really poor decision-making by director Alexander Payne. If you're going to include this guy in the scene, give him some dialogue, even just a random line or two of protest -- something to indicate his emotional investment in the proceedings. And if he really can't have dialogue, at least direct him in some way so he doesn't just sit there like a bemused bird.

Remember when I said I wouldn't give any spoilers in this post? Well, that includes telling you what I thought about the film, whether I liked it and if so, to what extent. Not enough of you have seen it yet, and I'd like you to go in unbiased.

If you think you know the answer to that question based on the fact that I'm choosing to poke fun at it in this post, well, you shouldn't jump to that conclusion. I never know where the minutia I write about in The Audient will come from -- I just know that once I think of it, I have to express it.

Unlike certain actors, who are obligated to stay mum.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Whose comeback excites you more?

I knew I was slipping when one of the movies I'm looking forward to most this fall -- The Descendants -- hit theaters without me even knowing it.

Perhaps because it's got Oscar aspirations, I assumed a December release date -- you know, about the time when George Clooney's Up in the Air became available two years ago. (Clooney did not direct Up in the Air or The Descendants, but he appears in both.) But it actually hit theaters here in Los Angeles on Wednesday, a fact I discovered, oh, the previous Sunday. So much for getting myself psyched up for it over the course of a couple weeks. Now I can and will go see it this weekend.

The reason The Descendants excites me and so many other film fans is not that it features Clooney, but rather, that it marks the long-awaited feature return of writer-director Alexander Payne. Payne had the most acclaimed movie of his career (Sideways) and then promptly went into a seven-year period of inactivity.

Oh, Payne has done things since 2004. He's had a bunch of producing credits, and I was shocked to learn just now that he was one of four credited writers on I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. (Which I haven't seen, but can I just assume it's bad and move on?) He even has a directing credit, having contributed the memorable closing piece to the otherwise forgettable collection of short films called Paris Je T'Aime. But a director with Payne's heat after Sideways should have directed at least two features since then, not zero. Woody Allen has directed like eight features since then.

The one time I intended to look into Payne's absence more seriously in order to write about it on The Audient, I didn't get very far in terms of finding a smoking gun. He did divorce from Sandra Oh, who appeared in Sideways, during that time. But that's not exactly unusual territory for Hollywood types, and they usually keep working right through it.

But Payne is not the only beloved director making a comeback of sorts this fall. The great Cameron Crowe is also directing his first feature since Elizabethtown crashed and burned in 2005. In fact, this will be only Crowe's second feature in the past ten years. I guess 2001's Vanilla Sky, a polarizing film that I happened to love, did more to hurt him professionally than I like to admit. Like Payne, Crowe has not exactly spent the intervening years eating bon bons. In fact, his love of rock n' roll has informed a prolific amount of recent documentary work. Pearl Jam Twenty was a well-liked doco released this fall, and I also see his name associated with a rock documentary called The Union, though I don't know anything about that beyond the fact that a 2011 release year is listed. Oh okay, it's about Elton John and is going to air on HBO starting in January.

So to welcome messieurs Payne and Crowe back to the director's chair, I thought I'd do a little comparison between the two, with the theoretical end result being to determine whether we should be more excited about The Descendants or We Bought a Zoo. (I say "theoretical" because I already know which one I'm more excited about.) On the surface, their careers may not necessarily invite comparison -- many of Crowe's works are informed by nostalgia and popular culture, whereas Payne is much more motivated by the quirkiness of Americana. Still, they are both directors who have made few missteps and have a comparable number of features to their credit. To add to this artificial rivalry I'm creating between them, the two films star buddies George Clooney and Matt Damon, giving the comparison a hint more relevance.

So let's take a look. We'll start with Cameron because he's been around longer.

Cameron Crowe
Age: 54
Total number of features as director (including current): 7
First feature as director: Say Anything ...
Best feature: Say Anything .../Almost Famous (gah, I can't decide)
Worst feature: Elizabethtown
Why we should be excited to have him back: Crowe has a knack for creating a sense of unforced nostalgia in his viewer, even when the subject matter is not overtly nostalgic. For example, when you saw Singles, didn't you kind of think you were already feeling nostalgic for grunge? Certainly this has something to do with his heavy reliance on rock music, which naturally reminds us of the associations we have with that music in our own lives. Crowe's movies are big in a way that doesn't make you feel suffocated by their ambitions. What you might call his most ambitious film -- Vanilla Sky -- likely turned some viewers off because of its dark subject matter, and turned some purists off because it was a remake. Me, I was enthralled by the pastiche of music, memory, states of awakening and existence, joy and melancholy he incorporated into one film. At his best, Crowe has the ability to make films that stay with you for years.

Alexander Payne
Age: 50
Total number of features as director (including current): 5
First feature as director: Citizen Ruth
Best feature: Election
Worst feature: Citizen Ruth (but it's still really good)
Why we should be excited to have him back: Payne is the cinematic equivalent of teflon. Yeah, he's only directed four films that most of us have already seen, and that's a pretty small sample size. But he has yet to make a misstep, and it could be argued that he just keeps getting better and better (if, that is, he didn't make his best film second overall). For awhile I compared him not to Crowe but to David O. Russell, who was making movies in lock-step with Payne and also hadn't make a misstep ... until Russell made I Heart Huckabees and changed all that. Payne's record remains unblemished, and he's got a wicked eye for satire. His career has become increasingly less satirical and increasingly more character-oriented with every film, but each film has a sharp sense of humor as it addresses confused people trying to sort out their lives and relationships. He's also going from more to less rural, as he's traded Nebraska for Santa Barbara and now Hawaii. But with an Alexander Payne film, you know you're getting something that looks deeply into the hearts of human beings while making you laugh, sometimes in spite of yourself.


Although Crowe has made more films that I hold dear, I think that Payne is poised to please us more with his next feature. This conclusion is somewhat unfair, since it's not made in a vacuum -- the early returns are in on The Descendants, and people seem to be through-the-roof enthusiastic about it. But I think I would have said that even three or four months ago, when not that much was known about either film. And I haven't heard any buzz on We Bought a Zoo, but if you can get a gut feeling from a title and a plot alone, my gut feeling is not particularly hopeful. Besides, Payne has at least had a hit in the past ten years -- in fact, he's had two of them. Not the case for Crowe. As I was going through Crowe's wikipedia page, it mentioned that both Vanilla Sky (which I loved) and Elizabethtown ("hate" is a strong word) had Metascores of only 45. Ouch.

Fortunately, going to the movies is not an either/or proposition. Personally, I welcome both of them back, and look forward to what they have to offer me -- starting as soon as this weekend.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

So long, and thanks for all the reviews

This is the way my gig ends.
This is the way my gig ends.

This is the way my gig ends.

Not with a bang, but a whimper.

(With apologies to T.S. Eliot.)

It had to end sometime.

Since December of 2000 -- nearly 11 years ago -- I have been writing film reviews for All Movie Guide, now known as All Rovi. Until now I have not named that site on my blog -- I've been operating under some kind of probably-misguided notion that I needed to remain as anonymous as possible in protecting myself and my employer against some kind of abstract undesirable attention of some sort. I don't know, really.

But just now I finished writing my final review for them, so I figured, what am I still hanging on to?

On Monday night I watched the final film I was going to review, Dia Sokol's Sorry, Thanks. And just now I wrote my review. It was indeed a whimpering end, as the movie is a little indie where almost nothing happens. I'd actually chosen it as my final review a few weeks ago, when I looked over what I had left, and noticed that the title of this movie would make a fitting final film. Symbolically, it's as if my editor at All Rovi said "Sorry we have to let you go ... but, uh, thanks for the 1165 reviews you wrote."

That's right, dear readers, I am, as of this moment, officially a film critic looking for work.

It's been coming for a long time, though I haven't let on to you about it. It was way back on March 10th, more than eight months ago, that I got the email not from my editor, but from my editor's editor. (Seven other freelancers whose names I recognized were also among the recipients, so I knew I wasn't being singled out.)

The long and the short of it was, they would no longer be accepting reviews of older movies. (Older = anything that's not a new release.) Which is almost exclusively how I'd been operating, with about ten screenings of new films thrown in there for good measure. My regular procedure was this: I would submit a list of films I wanted to review that didn't currently have reviews on the site, and my editor would pare down that list by usually two or three titles that were already claimed by someone else. The rest I was free to watch, review and submit at my own pace, for the princely sum of $20 a pop (for about 300 words). I'd work through that list, as well as stragglers from previously approved lists, and send a new list of about 20 titles every two or three months.

Well, no longer. The email said that all titles that had already been approved would still be valid, but no new titles would be approved. That meant that I had something like 30-35 reviews still remaining in my All Movie reviewing career. (By then it was already All Rovi, and the new ownership was certainly behind this decision -- a decision I can't really fault, and I'll get more into that in a moment.) I tell ya, that made my final theatrical screening for them -- The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman, scheduled for the very same night I received the email -- a bitter pill to swallow indeed.

Initially it seemed like I'd have to review these movies as quickly as possible, since there was an uncertain cutoff date looming out there somewhere, after which they'd no longer allocate money to pay freelancers. But it soon became clear that I'd probably have the opportunity to keep reviewing until my list was done. And they were extremely nice about not pressuring me, especially with the lackadaisical pace at which I was submitting my reviews. (Forestalling the inevitable as long as possible, I suppose.) My editor kept on processing my reviews, no questions asked, until about two weeks ago, when he asked how much more time I would need. He said my contract technically expired on November 16th, and if I needed more time, they'd have to draw up some new paperwork. Realizing how much leeway I'd already been given, I thanked him for his leniency and told him that I'd wrap things up by the 16th.

Which was easy enough to do, as it became clear that I had only about five titles left I could actually review. Technically, I had 14 titles still approved. But nine of them were movies I requested -- in some cases, many years ago -- without realizing that they were unavailable to watch in any current format. (Or, at least, not without purchasing them, which I wasn't going to do.) In fact, the nine films I was approved to review but could never see were as follows: Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, Year of the Comet, What the Bleep: Down the Rabbit Hole, The Theory of Flight, It's Pat: The Movie, The Air Up There, Comrades: Almost a Love Story, Centre Stage and The Poughkeepsie Tapes. (I've lived with those titles for so long in some cases that I've apparently memorized them.)

So I strategically loaded up my Netflix queue and wound down with She's the Man, Grace, Get Christie Love!, The Experiment and finally Sorry, Thanks. I timed it out perfectly, finishing that last review on the last day of my contract.

I said earlier that this day was long overdue, but I didn't just mean from the date in March when I learned that my reviewing gig would be coming to an end. In fact, it's rather amazing to me that I was able to do this for as long as I have. (1165 reviews in total, in case you missed the figure earlier -- which I think makes me the most prolific reviewer on the site by a couple hundred reviews.)

See, All Movie and now All Rovi makes its money by selling the content we provide to other sites that specialize in the sale of DVDs and BluRays. As such, my reviews appeared all over the place. But also as such, there wasn't a huge amount of value in my reviewing a movie that came out in 1974, as I did as recently as Monday with Get Christie Love! That's an extreme example, and I was much more likely to review a movie from the last five to ten years. Still, my guidelines allowed me to request pretty much anything, even movies that no one was ever going to buy in any format in the year 2011. (Or whatever year it was at the time that I wrote the review.) And my editors approved pretty much anything, as long as another freelancer had not already requested it. The only real value, then, was the idealized, unattainable goal of being completist. The more movies there were that had accompanying reviews, the more gains All Movie would make with its readership in terms of credibility -- however marginal. But just as any film fan would never be able to see all the movies that exist out there, neither would any film critic, or even a team of film critics, be able to review every film. There would and always will be gaps, so what's the point in paying someone to make those gaps a little bit smaller?

It's for this reason that I hold no ill will whatsoever against All Rovi for deciding to make its policy about freelance writers more realistic. Simply put, it was past time -- especially from a business perspective. For a very long time, All Movie/All Rovi was a business anomaly -- an entity willing to pay people to work toward intangible goals. It's a position they probably got away with because they didn't pay us much for our work. (Though my earnings over 11 years did come out to more than $23,000, which is no small peanuts. I'm just grateful they paid me anything to do something I love so much.) But especially with the economic times we find ourselves in now, it makes sense for them to tighten the belt and trim the fat. New reviews of 37-year-old movies certainly qualify as "fat."

In fact, my career with All Movie seemed to be over back in 2003, the first time I was told that they had changed their policy toward freelancers and were discontinuing the use of them. This lasted until early 2005, which was an especially good time in my life -- not only had I just started dating the woman who would eventually become my wife, but All Movie reached out to me and asked me to come back on board, having reversed their earlier stance.

The apparent end of my reviewing career hit me a lot harder back then, when I was single and a bit sad, and needed my reviewing gig desperately. Nowadays, I'm taking it in stride. However, the difference is that this time, I'm not expecting a reversal. This is probably it.

And I'm okay with that. It frees me up, mentally, to pursue other possible paid writing gigs in film. Granted, with the rise of film blogs and the resulting saturation of the market, paid gigs writing about film are few and far between these days. Then again, I have the advantage of being someone who has already been paid to write about film for 11 years, which gives me experience beyond "just" the blogosphere. Although I do, theoretically, have a leg up on the competition, I also don't have the drive of a 25-year-old, which probably neutralizes that advantage.

But really, it's all okay. For one, this means I no longer have to watch movies I know will be bad. Over the years, I've spent countless hours on absolute dreck, some of which I requested to review specifically because I knew it would be fun to review negatively. In some cases, I was surprised, and not only wrote a positive review, but got a filmgoing experience I came to treasure. Still, it's no exaggeration to say that I've spent hundreds and hundreds of hours watching movies most film fans would never subject themselves to. And as I get older and have a family, that time is increasingly precious to me. Better to spend my limited film-watching hours seeing good movies I haven't seen, and re-watching great movies I love.

In fact, there are enough bright sides to the end of this era that I was originally going to construct this post -- which I've had rattling around in my brain for more than eight months now -- as a list of the top ten reasons it was okay I'm an unemployed film critic. I was also going to include a bunch of stats, like the release year where I reviewed the most movies (2007, exactly 100) and the calendar year when I reviewed the most films (2001, 385 -- I was trying to make my living exclusively as a critic back then. I was there to help flesh out the site when most of the movies didn't have reviews, and I could review things I'd already seen, which explains the high number).

But as the actual day arrives, I don't really feel all that whimsical about it after all. I've had so long to get used to the idea that I expected to submit my last review like any other review, and just go on my way. But I must admit that I did have a heavy heart when I realized that I didn't have much to tweak on the final review, which came flowing out of me in under 15 minutes, and that it was time to submit it. I'd written my last word -- for now, anyway -- as a professional critic.

So what's next? I probably won't try too hard to find anything before 2012. Next week is Thanksgiving, and then the Christmas season just eats up every bit of your intention for the rest of the calendar year. Who knows, maybe I'll do something I haven't done before -- write actual film reviews for this blog.

But I do look forward to the future, to possibly finding a new and more lucrative opportunity, one that would actually be a stepping stone to other things. Or at the very least, just being able to devote all my movie watching to things I actually want to see.

One thing is certain: I will always think and write critically about film. Whether it's here, or elsewhere, or both. Whether it pays or doesn't pay.

That's an era that will never come to an end.

Monday, November 14, 2011

What's wrong with "what if"?

For the past two weeks, I've borne the burden of being one of the only people I know who's seen Anonymous ... and also one of the only critics who seems to have liked it. It's got exactly a 50 on Metacritic, which is, technically speaking, "mixed or average reviews." But the critics who like it seem sheepish about that fact -- those who don't are a lot bolder, buoyed by the implicit support of millions of snarky moviegoers, many of whom have not even seen it.

The reasons not to like Anonymous write themselves. It's directed by Roland Emmerich, an infamous hack responsible for idiocy like 10,000 B.C. It posits the idea that William Shakespeare did not write his own plays -- not a new idea, but also not a widely accepted one. And it includes numerous suppositions about what could have happened with other characters, many involving scandalous things about Queen Elizabeth -- such as the idea that she had several bastard children.

But it's this last point that people seem to be taking the most issue with, and not specifically because it besmirches Elizabeth's name. The doubts that Shakespeare wrote his own plays go back to before such luminaries and skeptics as Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud, and even the critics who didn't like the film can admit that it's an impressive accomplishment for its much-maligned director, who didn't seem capable of tackling such a subject. No, the critics looking to vent their aimless dislike for the film choose the fact that much of its action is imagined, and based only loosely on historical fact.

I say: So what?

Forget the fact that it's a movie, a work of fiction, and that it exists on the most fundamental level for the purpose of selling tickets. Loose interpretations of the facts, the altering of minor details, the rearranging of events in the chronology ... these things are to be expected in the attempt to make it work better as a narrative. And if done well, they contribute toward distilling the essence of truth, if not always literal truth.

So forget that we could allow this stuff for purely artistic reasons. What about the fact that pretty much every historical movie contains a sizable percentage of "what if"?

Since no one was present to record the conversations that occurred between 16th century noblemen, one must make guesses about the content of those conversations. It's the only way to go, unless you are so paralyzed with fears about inaccuracy that you stick to documenting only the things that exist in some kind of public record. And that would make for a pretty damn boring movie.

I guess what sticks in the craw of this film's detractors is how many liberties were apparently taken. To suggest that one of England's most celebrated queens spawned several fatherless children and jumped from bed to bed seems like sacrilege to some.

But if you parse that argument, it suggests that you should only make conservative guesses about things that may have happened with real people. If you play it safe, you are in the clear. But since when does a good drama play it safe? One of my favorite things about Anonymous is how much balls it has -- not only for its depiction of Elizabeth, but for suggesting that Shakespeare may have been just an opportunistic miscreant, wrapped up in unsavory deeds all the way up to and including actual murder. (This last is not stated outright but merely intimated.)

And why can't we take Shakespeare off this pedestal? I just finished listening to a podcast that's new to my repertoire called The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith, where he talks to Anonymous screenwriter John Orloff about not only the incredibly ambitious structure of the script, but plenty of the issues related to the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. Orloff, a so-called Oxfordian (which means he doubts the authorship), and Goldsmith, a so-called Stratfordian (which means he doesn't), go at it pretty well regarding some of the contentious facts about the case. In every instance I thought that Orloff -- who has studied this more than Goldsmith, granted -- scored a point off Goldsmith, convincing me even more than his movie did that Shakespeare was not who history says he was. Without going into too many of the specifics, let me just outline a few: 1) It is known that both Shakespeare's parents and his children were illiterate. 2) No document exists from that period that was written in his hand, making him a total anomaly among his contemporaries. 3) The plays imply a knowledge of French, Spanish, Italian, Greek and Latin, and Shakespeare never went to school. 4) A third of his plays take place in Italy and describe it in great detail, though Shakespeare never actually traveled there. 5) All the conditions that likely needed to have been in place for him to write those plays, were actually in place for a nobleman like Edward de Vere, who's played by Rhys Ifans in the movie.

What's more, there's an actual academic theory that de Vere and Elizabeth were lovers, which gives a scholarly justification to even some of the film's most controversial "what if"s.

But let's dial back down to just the idea of "what if"s. We allow "what if"s to enter into many of the movies we love, in two distinctly different ways: 1) What if it did actually happen this way? 2) What if it had actually happened this way? Let's not forget that one of the most celebrated films of the last few years, Inglourious Basterds, includes an alternate reading of World War II that we know did not happen -- it's simply fantasy. Hitler never died in a rain of gunfire at the hands of a couple American commandos who were also setting a movie theater on fire. Yet that film was nominated for best picture and showed up near the top of a number of best-of lists.

But you don't even have to offer wild examples of alternate histories, and you don't even have to go particularly far into the past. One of the most realistic films of the past ten years was 2006's United 93, which imagines what might have happened on board the doomed September 11th flight when the passengers revolted against the terrorists, bringing the aircraft down in a Pennsylvania field. There are only a few things known about what actually did happen -- such as Todd Beamer saying "Let's roll" -- so the rest is up to the imagination of a screenwriter. Sure, that screenwriter (Paul Greengrass) stayed pretty much within the bounds of what "probably" happened -- he didn't suggest that aliens beamed aboard the plane and took out the terrorists.

But is saying that Elizabeth might have had illegitimate children the same thing as saying that aliens intervened with the September 11th attacks? I don't think it is. I think it's very possible that Elizabeth had illegitimate children, and just because we don't know about them doesn't mean we can't infer their existence based on things we do know ... and that we can't write a script in which they do actually exist.

And let's not forget that there is already a very famous movie -- an Oscar winner, in fact -- that imagines a lot of things that Shakespeare might or might not have done. That movie, Shakespeare in Love, was met with almost universal acclaim. There was no controversy about what was depicted, or at least no controversy that reached the layman -- no one ever had a big problem with the idea that Shakespeare might have shaken a bad case of writer's block at the hands of a muse who won his heart.

And you know why that is? Because it was unambiguously positive toward Shakespeare. If you do doubt that Shakespeare wrote his plays -- which I certainly now do, though it does not affect my appreciation of them in the slightest, because I still find it incredibly impressive that someone wrote them -- what's wrong with suggesting that he may have had some unsavory traits? A man who accepted a deal like that, to be a front for works he didn't write, is morally compromised at the very least.

And if you're saying you only want positive interpretations of Shakespeare on film, then you are just being an intellectually dishonest film fan.

Oh, and remember how I briefly mentioned Sigmund Freud earlier? He too is a character in a film releasing in the fall of 2011, which will have to suppose a lot of things about him: David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method.

Okay, so you can't object to the idea that Shakespeare might not have written his plays, and you can't object to Emmerich's execution of the story, and you can't object to the details of the story -- unless you're simply saying you would have made other choices if you yourself were the screenwriter, and that's kind of splitting hairs.

So, like, what's your big problem?

Go see this thing before it whimpers out of theaters for good, with none of your money. Which it's worked harder than most films to deserve.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

If I have to hear just one more rousing battle speech ...

If you're anything like me, you might have been super psyched to see Braveheart for the first time. In fact, you might have been so psyched, you saw it twice in the theater.

The film had numerous things to recommend it. The great battles. The political intrigue. Several emotionally involving romantic subplots. And don't forget the bagpipes.

But there was no doubt that one of its most memorable scenes involved Mel Gibson spewing forth the following lines:

"I am William Wallace. And I see a whole army of my countrymen, here, in defiance of tyranny. You've come to fight as free men, and free men you are. What will you do with that freedom? Will you fight? Fight, and you may die. Run, and you'll live. At least for awhile. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here, and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take ... OUR FREEDOM!"

That was 16 years ago, but it feels like ancient history.

That speech to the troops, to help them keep their courage in the face of steep odds, has been done so many times since then, it now seems to belong solely in the domain of parody.

Which is why I kind of laughed the first time I saw the Immortals trailer below:

"Fight for honor! Fight for your future! Fight ... FOR IMMORTALITY!"

If this were one of my ordinary posts, I might tell you how the writers of Immortals are total hacks who haven't had an original thought in their lives. (I probably wouldn't say that, actually -- at least not without parenthetically clarifying/undercutting myself, the way I'm doing now.)

But as concept made it to execution, I came to recognize that the rousing battle speech presented in this trailer does not owe a debt to Braveheart any more than it owes a debt to a hundred other movies that preceded Mel Gibson's Oscar winner. In fact, you could go so far as to say this: Is there any more well-worn chestnut in the history of cinema than a field general whipping his army into a fightin' fervor?

It's really a matter of when you came of age. For today's young people, Braveheart may as well have come out in the 1950s. They know Mel Gibson not as a one-time box office superstar, but as a racist, sexist, antisemitic and probably homophobic old bastard. If they note any similarities between Immortals and a film that came before it, they are much more likely to compare it to 300 -- with which it also shares a comical number of common elements. Just as Braveheart may have reminded the generation before mine of Patton or Spartacus or something like that.

But note that I did call this post "If I have to hear just one more rousing battle speech ...", and that sentiment is something I don't have to clarify. My own standards and my own tolerance levels are my business.

And I speak the truth when I say that my eyes rolled when I heard the lines of dialogue above, directed at a legion of CGI soldiers. My own personal saturation point had been reached, and no matter how excellent the visuals looked, how well the action was cut to the trailer music, how much I love director Tarsem Singh's The Cell, and even how epic the 11-11-11 release date is, I knew I would not be seeing this movie in the theater.

Rouse those soldiers to action all you want. Just don't expect it to send chills down my spine like it did a decade and a half ago, when a charismatic antisemite spoke similar words to a bunch of blue-faced men in kilts.

By the way, what kind of noble cause is fighting for immortality, anyway? Sounds just plain greedy to me. Or at the very least, a calculated gamble that results from something so dispassionate as a cost-benefit analysis. Risk dying now for the chance to live eternally later on.

William Wallace would not approve.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Turn that expression back on thyself, Sandler

It's here. Today's the day.

The most notorious film of 2011 is hitting theaters.

That's right, if you are a self-hating masochist, you could actually go out to the movies this weekend and see Jack and Jill, in all its loathesomeness.

But just look into Adam Sandler's eyes. Is he trying to tell you not to?

I'd like to think that. But I don't, really. I think Adam Sandler has nothing but contempt for his audience, and the more tickets he sells to Jack and Jill, the more he will laugh at us.

I can just imagine the theoretical writer's room where this "idea" was hashed out. Imagine the following line of dialogue in Sandler's voice:

"Hey, I got this idea where I'll play twins. It doesn't really matter what happens, I'll just dress up in drag and I'll be my twin sister. It'll be funny. I'll do a funny woman's voice or something. We can call it, I don't know, Jack and Jill. Something like that. It writes itself."

Lazy, lazy, wretched, lazy.

There are lots of ways I could describe this awful train wreck, but today I'd like to focus on that facial expression the male Sandler wears in this poster above.

It's an expression that Sandler has kind of made his trademark. Let's call it the "Why I oughtta" expression. In the "Why I oughtta" expression, Sandler displays his bemused frustration with some kind of instigating factor -- most likely, a person who annoys him, and in this case, his twin sister Jill. He's had it up to here, and it's all he can do to keep himself from hauling off and cold-cocking that person. The "Why I oughtta" expression is usually followed by some kind of muttered threat that's tossed off rather lazily and not written very cleverly.

What's most insulting about this expression is that it seems to give Sandler the moral high ground. It implies that he, Sandler, is above the fray. He's not only the guy we identify with, because we would also be annoyed in that scenario, but he's even better than that guy. He's some cool customer who has the misfortune of being surrounded by idiots.

But Sandler, you're the idiot.

It's tempting to think that you have enough money to stop making the most obvious, uninspired dreck that occurs to you. Funny People was not a perfect film, but it had the benefit of seeming to apologize for your past choices that were beneath what you're capable of doing. And we've seen what you're capable of doing, in films like Funny People and Punch-Drunk Love. I don't recall the actual spoof films your Funny People character supposedly appeared in, but they're ridiculous, and are clearly meant to take yourself to task for your indiscriminate career choices.

By then proceeding to make Jack and Jill, it's the same as if Tracy Morgan actually made Who Dat Ninja? or Sherlock Homie. Those are the fake movie posters that hang on the dressing room wall of his 30 Rock alter ego, Tracy Jordan.

Now, there is one factor I'm not properly considering. It's possible that Sandler is laughing at us, but not in the way we think. It has been suggested that Jack and Jill could be an intentional case of self-parody -- one of those fake Sandler movies in Funny People actually come to life. This could be an Andy Kaufman moment for Sandler, where he is thumbing his nose at the entire film establishment. If so, it's brilliant, because he would have had to dupe a bunch of studio execs into thinking he legitimately wanted to make this movie. Otherwise, they'd never go for a concept that has every chance to make them looking like laughingstocks.

But I don't know, I kind of doubt it. With other recent films like Grown-Ups and Just Go With It under his belt, it's clear Sandler legitimately does not know how to pick 'em.

Still, it could end up being a win-win situation for Sandler, if he's able to write that narrative in retrospect. If Jack and Jill is a success -- and its 24 Metascore suggests it probably won't be -- he can just take credit. If it flops, he can say that it was intentional self-parody, and he'll still have the last laugh ... if people buy it.

Me, I guess I should thank Sandler for making Jack and Jill, because Jack and Jill is directly responsible for my new banner atop the page. About a month ago I put up a new banner, as you probably noticed, and I only know about this image of George C. Scott covering his eyes with disbelief because of Sandler's new movie. If you haven't already seen it -- and can stand to expose yourself to the trailer for Jack and Jill once more -- you should check out this great video of Scott watching the Jack and Jill trailer.

Of course, the actual footage of Scott is from a movie called Hardcore, which I haven't seen, but which I now must. By featuring a frustrated audience member, this still seemed perfect for my blog ... more perfect than a closeup of Ben Wishaw's nose from Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, anyway. (Aha! So that's what that was!)

For the sake of Sandler's soul -- which I really do want to like -- I hope that Jack and Jill is, in fact, self-parody.

Because if you're trying to play that scene with Jill riding a jet ski in a swimming pool for straight-faced laughs ... well, Sandler, all I can say is "Why I oughtta ..."