Monday, January 31, 2011

Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer still suck


As I learned from a movie by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer earlier this week, vampires suck.

But they don't suck as much as Friedberg and Seltzer do.

I watched Vampires Suck on my last day before the end of ranking my 2010 movies because it was short and I had a block of time to fill after getting home from work. Plus, as stated here, I had the masochistic desire to flesh out the bottom of my rankings.

However, if I had consciously known it was "a Friedberg-Seltzer joint" (Spike Lee, forgive me), I would have definitely avoided it.

But if it walks like a Friedberg-Seltzer movie, and it talks like a Friedberg-Seltzer movie, then it's probably a Friedberg-Seltzer movie.

If I'm losing you with these names, let me tell you about these two guys, who I loosely consider to be two of the worst people in Hollywood. But first, let's take a look at who we're dealing with.

Here are Jason and Aaron:


And oh look! Some kind soul on the internet has already done the work for me. Jason and Aaron do, in fact, suck.

And I'm glad they find themselves so funny, because no one else does. Or no one else should -- but apparently, some people do, which is why Friedberg-Seltzer movies still make money, which is why they get to keep on making them.

After being not-totally-terrible in Scary Movie, where they shared the writing credit with four others, here's what they've gone on to unleash on the world:

Date Movie (2006)
Epic Movie (2007)
Meet the Spartans (2008)
Disaster Movie (2008)

Each of these films has been given one star by the website I write for. And even that might be too generous, except that the website refuses to cut a single star in half. One is as low as they go. That's got to be the lowest number of stars for any four movies in the careers of any writer, director, writer-director or team of writer-directors.

Vampires Suck was given one-and-a-half stars, although no review exists -- in fact, I may be the one who reviews it. Vampires Suck, in fact, is one half start better than the two other Friedberg-Seltzer movies I've seen, Date Movie and Epic Movie. It's nice to know that over the course of almost exactly four years since I last checked in with them (I went to Epic Movie in January 2007, in the theater, because I was desperate to start my new yearly rankings), they've managed to raise their overall aesthetic from an F grade to an F+.

So they still suck -- they still suck big time. They just suck marginally less than they did before.

Why is Vampires Suck "better" than the other Friedberg-Seltzer parodies? For one, at least it manages to stick pretty much to a central plot. The first two Twilight movies are the unambiguous target of this film. Fuckwad #1 and Fuckwad #2 use that architecture to keep the plot, even the jokes, relatively streamlined. Whereas in their other two movies I saw, Date Movie blended the plots of Hitch, Meet the Fockers, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and others, and Epic Movie was so confused, I don't even remember what its plot was (but did you know that Snakes on a Plane and Nacho Libre count as an "epic movies"?).

And that's really the "big secret" about these two -- no matter what goes in the ______ of _____ Movie, all they really want is an excuse to lampoon up-to-the-moment cultural trends. And that's what was my true tip-off that Friedberg and Seltzer were the ones who shat out Vampires Suck. It wasn't the fact that it was a parody -- others have dabbled in parodies during Friedberg and Seltzer's dubious reign, including the Wayans brothers and the Abrahams-Zucker team. It was the moment when a character throws a cell phone and it hits Alice in Wonderland in the head. It was when there was an inexplicable riff on Dear John that lasts about 15 seconds. It was when Lady Gaga makes an appearance. It couldn't have been a Seltzer-Friedberg movie released in 2010 without the requisite cameo by Lady Gaga. (Not the actual Lady Gaga, of course, but a person playing her.)

I've said it before, I'm saying it now, and I'll probably still be saying it in 2017, after they've inevitably made five more movies:

Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer suck.

Unfortunately, I'm not done with them yet. I'll be seeing Meet the Spartans sometime soon. I've already been approved to review it.

I suck.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Retro DVD trailers


As I mentioned previously, Buried was the last film I watched before I closed the rankings on my 2010 movie list.

But when I first put it in the DVD player, you might have thought I was working on my 2003 movie list or my 2006 movie list, rather than 2010.

In fact, I was quite sure I did not have Buried at all, but some impostor wearing the Buried DVD artwork.

See, the first trailer that came on was for Open Water. Not Open Water 2: Adrift, which would have been a slightly more recent movie to be pimping. Even if Open Water 2 came out in 2006, that would have been better than the 2003 release date of the original.

An anomaly? No. Because the next trailer that came on was for An American Haunting, which came out in 2006. It took until the third trailer to get something from 2010, at which point I breathed a sigh of relief.

Can you ever remember seeing DVD trailers for movies that were this old? Usually you can be pretty sure that the movies advertised have only just hit DVD, or, more likely, aren't even on DVD yet. In fact, sometimes they aren't even in the theater yet. You can so take this to the bank, that it can be fun to watch older DVDs just so you can be reminded of the time when this film and these other four films were all current releases. It's like a snapshot of a bygone era, a little time capsule.

The sudden inexplicable hawking of these older movies could only be explained by one thing: that Lionsgate, which released Buried, was attempting to clear out its old catalogue. But only Open Water was also released by Lionsgate; An American Haunting was not. Even if they'd both been from Lionsgate, why these movies? Why now? Did they have 10,000 copies of An American Haunting just sitting around in a warehouse somewhere, because the movie is total crap?

You could also posit a thematic relationship between the movie I came to see and Open Water, at the very least. Being trapped in a coffin is an equivalent impossible situation to being stranded at sea in shark-infested waters. But that just gives An American Haunting a second reason to be an illogical choice for this particular DVD. Or third, if you're counting its lack of a contemporaneous release date, its origins at a different studio and its failure to have anything to do with Buried.

I guess I will just scratch my head and move on.

The Wrong

Friday, January 28, 2011

Banksy's best joke may be on the Academy


There's almost universal agreement, among people who've seen Exit Through the Gift Shop, that it's a terrific film.

Where people don't generally agree is the following: whether it's a genuine documentary or an elaborate hoax.

Which makes it all the more strange that the Academy has bestowed it a nomination for best documentary feature.

Every year you hear about one, or two, or three great documentaries that are not deemed eligible to compete in the documentary feature category at the Oscars. The reasons have ranged from Michael Moore's (overrated) Fahrenheit 9/11 running on TV once prior to playing in theaters, to Grizzly Man being constructed almost exclusively of archival footage (which it wasn't, actually).

But even when meeting the eligibility requirements, you always hear about famous snubs, such as probably the most talked about documentary of this year (Waiting for "Superman") getting left off the short list at the expense of two other films I'd never heard of (Waste Land and Gasland). (I'm actually lying about Waste Land -- it was the other 2010 documentary directed by Lucy Walker, who directed Countdown to Zero, which I wrote about here, while also briefly mentioning the existence of the movie Waste Land. But outside of that little bit of research I had never heard of it.)

Back in the old days, even a goofy voting system led to what is now widely considered the greatest documentary of all time (1994's Hoop Dreams) failing to secure a nomination. According to wikipedia, members of the nominating committee had a system where they would wave their flashlight at the screen to indicate that they no longer considered the film in question to be in contention. Apparently, they gave up on Hoop Dreams before it even reached 20 minutes. The system makes a certain amount of sense on some level -- if a film doesn't grab you in the first 20 minutes, it's done something wrong. My wife uses a similar system when forced to wade through hundreds of entries in screenplay competitions -- she simply doesn't have the time to read each one through to completion, if it hasn't done something interesting in the first 15 pages. I don't remember the first 20 minutes of Hoop Dreams and whether they were good or boring, but clearly that film revealed the flaws in their system.

So considering all this, it's truly amazing that Exit Through the Gift Shop found its spot, because it may not even be a documentary at all. Sure, it wears the clothes of a documentary and calls itself a documentary -- but so did I'm Still Here, which Joaquin Phoenix has admitted was a hoax.

If you've made it this far (the equivalent of the 20-minute rule???) and don't know what Exit Through the Gift Shop is, I think it's time for me to throw you a bone.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a "documentary" by a mysterious British graffiti artist named Banksy, whose true identity and appearance are not known. Over the course of two decades, he's managed to paint graffiti (it's actually more beautiful than "mere" graffiti) in some of the strangest places, including on the wall of the Israeli West Bank barrier -- that particular image included two children digging a hole through the wall, with some kind of tropical paradise visible on the other side. He's known for the high degree of difficulty of his stunts, and the fact that he's never gotten caught. He's a true mystery.

Only, he's not even the original "filmmaker" in this film.

Much of the footage in Exit Through the Gift Shop was shot by a mustachioed man named Thierry Guetta, a French national living in Los Angeles, a man with a passion for video cameras. Guetta originally filmed almost everything in his day-to-day life, from his kids brushing their teeth to whatever he was watching on TV, before eventually latching on to the underground street artist movement, and starting to film the feats of both anonymous artists making basic tags, and near household names such as Shepard Fairey (who designed the iconic images of Obama used in his presidential campaign). This is the most level of access any one outsider has ever gotten to the street art scene, and the moving images he collects are astounding for their sheer lack of precedent.

Except, Thierry Guetta may not actually exist.

Oh yeah, there's a guy who's playing the role. But his name may not actually be Thierry Guetta, and he may not have actually done any of the other things the film claims he's responsible for, of which there are many -- I really should not reveal them here. In fact, Thierry Guetta could be a total fabrication by the great practical joker Banksy. Banksy wants us to believe that Guetta started to make a film about him, but Banksy turned the tables on Guetta and made Guetta the subject of Banksy's own film. And that's all I really want to say about it, because the film's surprises are some of its most exquisite joys.

Exit Through the Gift Shop, if actually an elaborate hoax as theorized, hoodwinks not only numerous real people (famous people) within its own narrative, but may now also be hoodwinking a group as traditionally stringent and stuffy as the Academy.

But will it win? That would be Banksy's greatest victory, wouldn't it? He'd have the last laugh and then some. Heck, he also had the first laugh, so he'd get both the first laugh and the last laugh. You might say he'd "exit" laughing.

But a win is doubtful. It seems much more likely that either Restrepo (a film documenting another kind of unprecedented access -- to military engagement with insurgents in Afghanistan) or Inside Job (Charles H. Ferguon's timely look into the financial crisis) will take home the statue. Exit may be better than both of those films -- I haven't seen Inside Job so I can't say for sure -- but my guess is that the Academy has already gone way out on a limb by nominating it in the first place. Hopefully that will be victory enough for Banksy.

And it occurred to me (in a conversation yesterday with Don -- in fact, I think it occurred to him and he shared it with me) that the Academy could actually be trying to pull one over on Banksy. In throwing his film a nomination, perhaps they are trying to lure him out of the shadows -- to appeal to some kind of vanity, which would make him unable to stay away from the Oscars. And then the mask would finally be removed, right?

Never happen. Banksy's much smarter than that. Regardless of whether the movie is real or fake, his ability to orchestrate these many different interpretations, not to mention make a film that is damn entertaining just at face value, all while remaining an enigma personally, proves how bottomless his smarts are.

If anything, he'd be at the Oscars in disguise. He'd get the job as a seat filler -- you know, the people who sit in your seat when you're in the bathroom, so it doesn't look like there are any empty seats. Or he'd be working the bar outside. Or he'd find some other co-conspirators who would allow him to show up as the 17th collaborator on their best animated short, when only 16 collaborators truly existed. He might be there, even if only he knew about it, even if only he got to laugh about it to himself.

And if Exit Through the Gift Shop actually does win, he'd have the option of rushing up on the stage and accepting the trophy in a maitre d's outfit. That probably wouldn't work -- security would stop him before he got within 20 feet of the stage. But it sure would be a glorious way to crown this achievement, wouldn't it?

Nah. Only by staying in the shadows will Banksy be able to keep thrilling and marveling us in the future.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Solo men in dire straits



Now that I've revealed my favorite movie of 2010, I can freely discuss a recent pattern in my movie preferences.

For the second year in a row, I've awarded my top spot to a movie that's been carried almost exclusively by a single actor.

A single actor up shit creek, at that.

Last year, the weight of my favorite movie, Moon, fell on Sam Rockwell's shoulders. This year, 127 Hours was in the capable hands -- so to speak -- or arms -- so to speak -- of James Franco.

And boy did they knock my socks off.

I'm assuming you know plenty about 127 Hours. Not only is the subject ostentatious enough to have gotten your attention, even if the film was not otherwise on your radar, but both the film and its lead just got nominated for Oscars. (I did a little fist pump when 127 Hours was announced as one of the best picture nominees, because some conventional wisdom had The Town claiming that spot -- which would have been fine with me, if it weren't coming at the expense of the best movie of the year.)

But let me explain to you a little bit about Moon, if you don't know about that one. Moon is the story of an astronaut (Rockwell) who's the only human on a lunar base, with only a computer (voice of Kevin Spacey) to provide companionship. The base is owned by a lunar mining company, which employs humans for three-year stints. Rockwell's Sam Bell is in the final two weeks of his own three-year stint, and is starting to get just a little bit batty. But when he takes a patrol vessel out to examine some damaged mining equipment, things take a turn for the ... surreal. To say anything more than that would be a disservice to those who haven't seen it. (And if you're in that group, by all means, get out there and watch it.)

I'm trying to figure out what impresses me so much about these movies and these performances -- why I'm drawn to them at the expense of other films. I'm sure part of it has to do with the basic commitment shown by the actors. Put another way, I'm impressed by how hard it is for them to do the thing they're charged with doing: keeping us entertained for the better part of two hours, without an assist from any other performers. Both Moon and 127 Hours do have other actors who appear sporadically, but they are mostly either in video transmissions or dreams/hallucinations. At the core, Rockwell and Franco have been given the responsibility of engrossing us, all by themselves, and they each hit the ground running.

But I'm also wondering if this is a broader thing for me, something that stretches back longer than the last two years. Moon and 127 Hours are distinctive for their lack of other actors, but the character type may be something I've been rewarding for longer than that. And once you expand the definition of a "solo man," you can go back most of the last decade.

Each of the films I've crowned as my best film of the year -- dating all the way back to 2002 -- have a strong performance by the lead male, playing a character known for his loneliness and isolation, or more generously, his independence. Shall we take a look?

2008 - The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson is definitely approaching the twilight of his career -- and possibly of his life, if you look at those heart issues -- alone. He lives in a trailer, and his life is comprised of benign but disinterested neighborhood kids, co-workers in the wrestling industry who are more acquaintances than friends, and the occasional stripper who makes the mistake of being nice to him. He's trying to reach out to his estranged daughter as a last-gasp effort not to die alone.

2007 - There Will Be Blood. Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview is a self-made man in every respect of the word. Not only does he not need anyone else, but he imagines it would weaken him to let anyone get close enough to him to take the credit for his achievements. His natural suspicion of others and their motives further alienates anyone who might wish him well. In fact, after bearing at least partial responsibility for the deafening of his adopted son, he sends him away, widening the gap between himself and other human beings.

2006 - Children of Men. Although the quest to safely shepherd the first pregnant woman in 20 years is, in its most essential form, a collaborative effort shared by a handful of dedicated individuals, Clive Owen's Theo Faran is essentially bearing this burden himself. He's carrying the weight of his own dead child, and as the story progresses, the others who have tenuous connections to him start slipping out of the picture as well. In many ways he is the portrait of loneliness, doing his stoic duty in the public eye, but bursting into floods of uncontrollable emotion in private.

2005 - Hustle & Flow. Terrence Howard's D-jay is surrounded by prostitutes of varying levels of loyalty, but he is a fiercely independent man who has carved his own world out of his own raw materials. His quick temper and deep-burning passion make him a lone wolf walking through his own environment and playing by his own rules.

2004 - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Jim Carrey's Joel Barish is painfully shy. He's drawn out by Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), but his essential shyness and alienation are only highlighted by the procedure he undergoes to have Clementine erased from his memory. It's like Clementine's influence was never there, and left to his own instincts, he's cut off from the world, unable even to sustain eye contact without becoming acutely aware of himself.

2003 - Lost in Translation. Bill Murray's Bob Harris is so alienated, he has to go to Tokyo just to symbolize the idea that he's a foreigner in his own life. Like all these other characters, he flirts with making connections, and perhaps Bob succeeds more than these others with his necessarily fleeting connection to Scarlett Johansson's Charlotte. But we can tell that Bob's sadness and isolation cannot be cured by a single positive interaction -- they will reset upon his return to America, which makes this beautiful film a kind of tragedy as well.

2002 - Adaptation. Nicolas Cage's Charlie Kaufman is perhaps a more exaggerated (and less handsome) version of Carrey's Joel Barish, which is appropriate since the real-life Kaufman wrote both scripts. Socially awkward to the point of distraction, Cage's Kaufman stumbles through life sweating, stammering, unable to make eye contact, and living in a prison of his own overactive mind, with the mitigating factor that he's capable of producing absolute brilliance on the page.

At this point we run into a clear exception to the rule. In 2001, I awarded Robert Altman's ensemble film Gosford Park with my top honors for the year. However, even with this there is a bit of an asterisk. Although I stand by the choices I've made with every film I've honored as my favorite, I secretly believe that I was blown away by Gosford Park in a way that was somewhat temporary. The film that had been holding the top slot all year, and is what I sort of now believe was my true #1 of that year, was Christopher Nolan's Memento, which has got isolation and loneliness written all over it. (My actual favorite film of 2001, which I didn't see until two years later, meaning I couldn't rank it, is Donnie Darko. But there's no alienation or isolation in that movie, is there?)

In 2000? Yeah, it was Michael Almereyda's modern update of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke. Has there ever been a character in the history of the world who embodies isolation more than Hamlet?

Okay, the streak officially stops at this point. My favorite film in 1999 was Run Lola Run, whose main character was a woman, a woman not particularly known for her isolation. And then my favorite film of 1998 was Happiness, another ensemble. I think a dozen years is a good place to stop.

(Not only are those 11 different directors -- Danny Boyle, Duncan Jones, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alfonso Cuaron, Craig Brewer, Michel Gondry, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, Christopher Nolan and Michael Almeyreda -- but they're also 11 different talented actors: James Franco, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Day-Lewis, Clive Owen, Terrence Howard, Jim Carrey, Bill Murray, Nicolas Cage, Guy Pearce and Ethan Hawke. Not bad.)

So as I dig deeper into this post -- which is going places I didn't even imagine when I started writing it -- what am I discovering about myself? Am I some kind of loner? Or is there at least a loner part of me that I see mirrored in the cinema that affects me most profoundly? And what does it say about me that almost all of these films are depressing in one way or another?

It's something I'll have to chew over, I suppose. And it's something I will certainly keep in the back of my mind as I start ranking for 2011.

Before I go, I do think I should return quickly to the original idea of a single actor using a brilliant performance to carry a film. I thought I should tell you that I don't consider this an automatic recipe for greatness. The last film I watched before my deadline on Monday night was Buried. You know, the movie where Ryan Reynolds spends 98 minutes trapped inside a coffin. (It says on the right that the last movie I watched was Casino Jack and the United States of Money, but that's because I started watching Casino Jack first and still had about 30 minutes to watch after finishing Buried.)

Buried ranked only 48th in my year-end rankings. Granted, the last film of the year always kind of gets the shaft, as you end up finishing it only an hour or two before you finalize your rankings. We all know it's helpful to let a movie marinate for a bit before you can be sure what you think about it. However, having to rush to judgment can actually result in too high of a ranking -- in fact, I'm not 100% sure that the film I saw on Sunday night, Animal Kingdom, deserved to be ranked as high as tenth.

Ryan Reynolds is good (though not brilliant) in Buried, and the set-up is good (though not brilliant). But where the movie really fails -- relative to the success of Moon and 127 Hours at least -- is that you feel the minutes passing the way you don't in those other films. That's probably director Rodrigo Cortes' point, to some extent. The film is clearly trying to feel claustrophobic, to simulate the experience of time passing interminably in such an enclosed space, and in fact, when at one point it's discussed that Reynolds has been in the coffin for two hours, it feels like it's been much longer. Points to Buried for that. Meanwhile, Moon and 127 Hours are not really trying to make you feel the claustrophobia of their situations, and the passage of time is not a significant detail. (That's a funny thing to say about 127 Hours, whose title involves the amount of time Aron Rolston is trapped by that rock, but Danny Boyle is not that interested in making time seem to pass slowly in the film -- that's my point.)

I should pause here to say that I was also bothered by various narrative choices in Buried -- the petulant reactions Paul Conroy has to the people who try to help him, how wantonly he uses a limited amount of Zippo fluid (before he even knows that there are at least four (!) other light sources available in the coffin -- a logistical necessity of the camera having to see Reynolds' face), and how wantonly he uses his limited cell phone battery, which those trying to help him are using to attempt to track his location.

But why those other two films are great and why Buried is only pretty good is because ultimately, Buried makes you tire of Ryan Reynolds. The feat Sam Rockwell and James Franco achieved is so amazing precisely because it's so counterintuitive -- you should need to see other actors in a film in order to be entertained the whole time. Buried's pretty goodness, then, is the logical thing, while the other films' greatness is the surprise.

And when it comes to films I love, surprising me is a really good start. Especially since few films actually do surprise us these days.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

2010, your hours have run out


Another year, another Oscar nominations morning, another list of my favorite -- and least favorite -- films from the previous year.

If you haven't been present for my several weeks of hype leading up to the big event, I always reveal my list of movie rankings, from first to worst, on the morning Oscar hopefuls wake up at 5:30 our time (it's 5:27 right now) to watch the reading of the Oscar nominations. (I always watch it on ABC, for some reason.) My reward for waking up early is that I have time enough before going to work to make myself a breakfast complete with eggs and breakfast meat. Mmm, breakfast meat.

The reason I deviate from the usual tradition of publishing my list during the week between Christmas and New Year's is simple -- I need a few extra weeks to watch the movies that get released late in the year. The morning of the Oscar nominations has always seemed like a good amount of extra time. Of course, I don't limit myself to just those movies during these extra couple weeks -- I also watch plenty of bad movies released in February, which have been available on DVD since July.

I fell just short of last year's record total, which was 113. Then again, last year, the Oscar nominations were revealed a full week later, on February 2nd. An extra week this year would have netted me an additional ten movies for sure. But since I'm always suffering from major movie fatigue this time of year, I'm just as glad not to have that extra week. Looking forward to returning to business as usual after the big crunch.

Okay, Mo'Nique is coming out on stage right now ... excuse me for a moment as I watch the nominations live.

A best picture nomination for The A-Team? I didn't see that coming.

But seriously, I've seen ten of ten best picture nominees. I'm getting good at this. Particularly glad to see my favorite film of the year nominated ... no better moment to get down to business ...

Without further ado, my top 109 films of 2010, listed in no particular order. (Wait, scratch that last part.)

1. 127 Hours
2. Tangled
3. The Social Network
4. Agora
5. Winter's Bone
6. Mother
7. Rabbit Hole
8. Exit Through the Gift Shop
9. Cyrus
10. Animal Kingdom
11. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
12. Greenberg
13. Kick-Ass
14. The Human Centipede
15. Four Lions
16. The King's Speech
17. Toy Story 3
18. The Town
19. Black Swan
20. The Living Wake
21. Mother and Child
22. Please Give
23. Easy A
24. Lebanon
25. Blue Valentine
26. Inception
27. Date Night
28. Never Let Me Go
29. I'm Still Here
30. The Kids Are All Right
31. The Ghost Writer
32. Countdown to Zero
33. Let Me In
34. The Last Exorcism
35. Restrepo
36. After.Life
37. Piranha 3D
38. Catfish
39. How to Train Your Dragon
40. The Fighter
41. City Island
42. Get Him to the Greek
43. Daybreakers
44. Splice
45. Shutter Island
46. Micmacs
47. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
48. Buried
49. Casino Jack and the United States of Money
50. Extraordinary Measures
51. Hot Tub Time Machine
52. The Square
53. The Book of Eli
54. The Losers
55. She's Out of My League
56. I Am Love
57. The A-Team
58. Saint John of Las Vegas
59. Frozen
60. Ondine
61. Dear John
62. Youth in Revolt
63. Remember Me
64. Babies
65. Creation
66. Knight and Day
67. Tron: Legacy
68. True Grit
69. Tiny Furniture
70. Sweetgrass
71. Somewhere
72. Machete
73. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
74. Holy Rollers
75. Solitary Man
76. The Killer Inside Me
77. Unstoppable
78. Happy Tears
79. Phish 3D
80. The Joneses
81. The Bounty Hunter
82. The Other Guys
83. The Runaways
84. The Last Airbender
85. MacGruber
86. Easier With Practice
87. The Crazies
88. Edge of Darkness
89. Repo Men
90. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
91. Centurion
92. Killers
93. Brooklyn's Finest
94. Just Wright
95. Finding Bliss
96. Valentine's Day
97. Little Fockers
98. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
99. The Expendables
100. Devil
101. Jonah Hex
102. Operation: Endgame
103. Dinner for Schmucks
104. The Wolfman
105. Vampires Suck
106. The Back-up Plan
107. Legion
108. When in Rome
109. Furry Vengeance

Most regret not seeing before the deadline: Another Year, Biutiful, The Company Men, Get Low, The Tempest, Waiting for "Superman"

Okay, I am waiting -- waiting -- with bated breath for your comments. Even if you don't usually comment, I would love to hear your comments today. I know I've outraged you with certain choices, but I imagine I've also pleased you with others. Tell me about it. This is why I do this.

On to 2011. My rankings so far:

1. The Green Hornet

Discuss.

The original version got it wrong


My wife and I attended a performance of the musical Hair on Saturday night at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Since that's her favorite show, I got us a pair of tickets as a Christmas present for her. (Always love the Christmas presents where the giver gets to be an equal beneficiary.)

We really enjoyed ourselves, especially at the very end. After the bows, the cast waved us up on stage, and anyone who wanted to could go up and dance to a reprise of "Let the Sunshine In." (Incidentally, we had a debate about the lyrics of this song -- is it "Let the Sunshine In" or "Let the Sun Shine In"? I actually like the second one better, but the first one is correct. However, the poster you see above lists it the second way. It's a mystery.) Not only was it glorious just to be on the stage, in among the sets and actors, singing this epic song, but we also happened to be dancing next to Kate Beckinsale and Columbus Short, with their respective spouses.

However, just before the very end was perhaps our most puzzling moment.

See, my wife and I are both most familiar with Milos Forman's 1979 film version of Hair, not the stage version, which debuted on Broadway in 1968. I've only seen the film once, about five years ago, whereas she's seen it countless times, enough to know the songs by heart. Neither of us had seen any other version.

And you know what, the original stage version does not have the dramatic punch at the end that the movie has. Nor does it have as strong a narrative spine as the film version, though we're speaking in relative terms here, since neither version is particularly heavy on plot.

Now, this could clearly be an instance of liking the first version of something you're exposed to better than other versions. I discussed that phenomenon at length here. But in most instances of remakes -- or in this case, film adaptations of Broadway musicals -- the essential plot elements are virtually identical. In Michael Weller's adaptation of Gerome Ragni and James Rado's book, there are some big differences -- differences Ragni and Rado were not pleased about, but that's their problem.

From all my previous understanding of Hair, the main character/protagonist is George Berger, played in the film by Treat Williams. He's the first hippie you're introduced to, and he's a touchpoint throughout, kind of like the gravitational pull at the center of all the hippies we meet along the way. The other primary character is Claude Hooper Bukowski, played in the film by John Savage. Claude is also a hippie, and he's got his own song about himself, imagining himself from Manchester, England -- even though he was raised in Flushing, NY. (A sample lyric from the song: "I believe in God, and I believe that God, believes in Claude, and that's me.") In the film version, however, Claude is a country bumpkin just awakening to the hippie movement, fresh into New York City from Oklahoma. Claude and Berger both have feelings for Sheila (Beverly D'Angelo), but keeping with the free love themes of the play, they aren't rivals for her affections, but rather, share each other. (Now that I've seen the stage version more recently, I can't tell you if there's an edge to their relationships in the movie.)

Throughout the course of an admittedly minimal narrative, Claude gets drafted to go to Vietnam. He attends a ceremony in which a lot of other young hippies are burning their draft cards, but he can't do it. In the film, however, when he's right about to show up to the military induction center, Berger takes his place at the last minute, leaving an innocent Claude to explore the new zest for life he's discovered, and possibly his feelings for Sheila. It seems that Berger believes he'd be able to survive Vietnam whereas Claude wouldn't, but that's beside the point, because Berger thinks he'll be able to get "Claude" disqualified from having to go. When it doesn't work out that way, the last thing we see, during the rousing reprise of "Manchester, England," is Berger in uniform, marching onto a plane for his deployment to Vietnam -- where he either actually dies, or where it's understood that he'll die. I don't remember exactly how the film ends, I just remember Treat Williams' scared but stolid face as he marches onto the plane, accepting the sacrifice he's made for Claude. It's a classic hero's sacrifice, one that I'm sure appears in many films -- it's too bad the only one I can think of right now is Armageddon, where Bruce Willis takes Ben Affleck's place at the last minute, as the guy who has to stay behind for the suicide mission of detonating the nukes they drilled into the asteroid.

But Berger doesn't have his Armageddon moment in the original stage play. In the original, Claude is the one who goes off to war. In fact, the last image in the show we saw on Saturday is Claude's still body, in uniform and perfectly straight, lying on an American flag. He went to Vietnam and he died.

It's a striking image, but it doesn't have the same impact as the end of the film. For starters, it means that Berger is basically a glorified bystander. He never makes a sacrifice for Claude, so why is he even picked out as the "main character," the guy we meet first? Berger's role as the main character is only important if he gets to make his sacrifice for Claude. Other than that, he's just another hippie who failed to convince Claude he should burn his draft card.

This is certainly a strange indictment to be making. Hair was a popular musical for 11 years before it made it to the screen, so for those 11 years, the only Hair anyone knew was Claude going to Vietnam and dying. I can understand why Gerome Ragni and James Rado were pissed off about the film version, which essentially says, "The original musical that everyone loves is not good enough as is. It needs to have more dramatic conflict and more of a heroic sacrifice in the third act."

But you know what? It's true. It may have been highly presumptuous for Michael Weller and Milos Forman to come along and change the musical, but their changes work.

But that could just be because a film and a stage show have different needs. On stage, you can get away with going light on plot. You can loosely connect a bunch of rousing musical numbers and lightly sketched out characters, and it's enough for a show. In fact, in a post-show discussion of other live theater we've seen, I told my wife about the musical Fosse, to which I'd gotten free tickets when I lived in New York. The show has no narrative throughline, but rather, is just a collection of stagings of Bob Fosse's most famous numbers (from such shows as Cabaret, Chicago, All that Jazz, etc.). It's no wonder I didn't think very highly of that show. But the point is, you can get away with it. It's theater, and different rules apply.

In a film, you need a strong narrative. In most cases, anyway. The characters need to have characters arcs, journeys. And I think Forman and Weller detected that George Berger needed to have a journey. He needed to start out as a free-loving hippie who's fun to hang out with, but is defined by his lack of commitment. He needs to start out as charismatic but unreliable. Over the course of his journey, he must develop the personal fortitude to stand up for something, do something for somebody else, and suffer the consequences of his new enlightenment.

That's what gives a loose story about the liberal revolution of the 1960s its emotional core. I don't want to call the stage version "unemotional" -- after all, Claude going to Vietnam and dying is certainly tragic. But it's predictably tragic. Berger taking his place is one of those unpredictable things that teaches you something about the capacity for goodness in the human soul.

Because we had such a fun time at the Pantages on Saturday night, with such a joyous climax, this discussion is largely academic. I don't want you to think that we sat there all night, criticizing the choices made by the person who originally dreamed up Hair. The real takeaway from the show was the energy, the rousing production numbers, the soaring vocals ("Aquarius! A-quaaaa-reeee-ussss!") and the cast breaking the fourth wall in such delightful ways, including running up the aisles and occasionally interacting with the audience. Not to mention the fact that were actually up on stage at the very end.

But I do think it's interesting to consider how, at least in the case of Hair, a dramatic work can be a work in progress, possibly not having reached the definitive version of itself in its original form -- even if that original form is staggeringly popular. Instead of being annoyed, Ragni and Rado should have felt proud that Weller and Forman embraced the raw materials they provided, and tried to make Hair the best version of itself it could be.

We should all be glad they did.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Karmic retribution


Over the years, I have stolen exactly 48 movies, by virtue of going to the theater, paying for one movie, and then sneaking in to a second.

Thursday night, the movies stole back.

In fact, they lifted my wallet.

Which didn't actually have any cash in it. As luck would have it, I spent my last dollar on snacks just before the movie -- the first of two movies in one of these illegal double features I mentioned above.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

So I went to the movies on Thursday night, intending to pay for Blue Valentine and sneak into Another Year. The times lined up perfectly, and I'd actually cased the joint earlier in the week to make sure both films were in the same wing of the theater. The Landmark on Pico has an upstairs section and a downstairs section, both of which have a ticket taker at the entrance. Once you're past the taker, you're free to roam from theater to theater. Upstairs, you even have a bathroom that's accessible, so you can do your duty between movies without having to cross the ticket-taker threshold. That's not true downstairs, which is where both movies were supposed to be playing. But I figured, if I really needed to pee between the two movies, I could purposefully march out and purposefully march back in. If I were stopped, I could present a legitimate ticket stub and explain that I was going back in to meet my date. See, she stayed for the end credits, but I had to piss like a racehorse. By this point he or she would scream "TMI!" and wave me through.

I say the films were "supposed to be playing" in the downstairs wing because they pulled a fast one on me. They shuffled which films were playing on which screens. You expect this kind of thing from week to week on a Friday, but they'd done it since I was there to see Rabbit Hole last Saturday. Another Year was still downstairs, but both screens playing Blue Valentine were now upstairs. And since Blue Valentine was my priority out of those two, it meant I'd need to watch Blue Valentine and a second movie playing upstairs if I wanted to pull off the double feature.

So I had to make a quick decision. I saw that The Green Hornet was playing upstairs with about the same start times as Blue Valentine. Normally, I'd buy the ticket to Blue Valentine and sneak into Green Hornet -- if it makes no difference in terms of the start times, you need to schedule the movie you're most interested in first, in case you don't make it to the second. Besides, I'd rather give my money, officially, to a small relationship drama, than a 3D superhero movie with bad buzz. But there was an extra variable in this scenario: the 3D. I needed to buy the actual ticket to Green Hornet (for a whopping $15.50) because I needed to get the 3D glasses. So I bought the ticket for the 7:40 Hornet and lined up a sneak-in to the 9:50 Valentine. Since the Landmark doesn't play commercials -- God bless 'em -- I was actually about a minute late to the start of Hornet, but I don't think I missed much.

[Pause for a moment to recognize the inadvertent theme of this double feature: There's a color in each title.]

Getting into Valentine proved easy. As mentioned, now that my two movies were upstairs, I had a bathroom to hang out in between movies. But I didn't need to hang for long, because one benefit of Hornet's excessive running time is that it shortened the window before my second movie. I spent only about five to ten minutes in the bathroom, enough time to make the ushers forget I'd come out of one movie when they saw me walking into another -- or so I surmised. And it worked. Or if it didn't, at least nobody said anything.

As an added bonus, the 9:50 showing of Valentine was playing in the Screening Lounge, unlike the 7:50 showing. The Screening Lounge -- there are actually two such theaters at the Landmark -- is a theater with only about 30 seats. And they're not just your regular seats. They're leather couches and other comfortable-as-hell accommodations. Given the lateness of the hour, the theater was less than half full, meaning I had a whole three-seat couch to myself.

And this, I think, is where the theater grabbed my wallet.

Losing my wallet was my fault, but it's easier to blame those couches.

Stretched out as I was, I had to remove a number of items from my pockets for greater comfort. I can't be sure, but this seems like where my wallet became permanently separated from me. But because I did have keys and phones and drinks and other items -- like maybe a wallet -- spread out in my available space, I scanned pretty thoroughly at the end. However, we're talking about a dark brown wallet against a black couch, in dim light. I totally could have missed it.

I didn't notice until this morning that I didn't have it, and for that I blame the multiplicity of other items I had with me, which also included my ipod, a pack of gum and a tin of Altoids. (I brought a ton of things to keep me awake, having learned from my experience of the Tron: Legacy/True Grit double feature, when I was fighting sleep the whole time.) In my day-to-day life, it's always when I've got too much stuff in my pockets that I leave something important at home, like my phone or my wallet. See, you don't notice something's missing. Which was the problem last night.

I did a cursory search of my house and the areas next to the driver's seat in the car, before deciding to just head in to work -- driving carefully, of course. Wouldn't want to compound things by getting pulled over and not having a driver's license. I was a bit worried, but not panicked -- I knew the most likely outcome was that I would call the theater's lost and found when the concierge got in, and they'd tell me they had my wallet. Nonetheless, I was clearly worried enough to call every ten minutes, until someone finally picked up at 9:45.

My heart started beating rapidly when the woman put me on hold to check. "Nope, nobody turned it in."

Damn.

"Okay, I'd like to come there to check where I was sitting," I told her.

"Which movie did you see?"

Damn.

"Well, I saw two. I went to The Green Hornet and Blue Valentine."

Busted? Nah. She never asked if I'd paid for both tickets. ("Of course" was going to be my immediate response).

That's the good news. The bad news has yet to come.

Driven onward by my increasingly agitated nerves, and unable to endure the slightest stoppages at traffic lights, I made it to the theater at quarter past 10. (Having left my office without even saying anything to anybody.) The concierge led me first into the couch theater, which I considered the likeliest spot. Nope, nothing. We removed couch cushions and shined flashlights. It was clean.

Now I started to worry.

Next stop was where I watched The Green Hornet. I expected the wallet to be wedged between the seats. It had to be, right?

Nope. Not there either.

I had one more trick up my sleeve -- I would check the bathroom itself. I convinced myself it was possible I'd set down my wallet while I was in the cubicle. (I didn't actually have to go #2, mind you, but I thought sitting in the cubicle was a better way to kill ten minutes than hanging around the sink area, looking suspicious.)

It was not there either.

Flooded by equal parts stress and defeat.

The concierge took my phone number and assured me that their janitorial staff always turns in lost items. I consoled myself, only slightly, with the notion that because there was no cash in it, there would be no incentive to steal it. Heck, because my wife is leading the charge to reduce our credit card debt, I wasn't even carrying any credit cards.

Which was really nice when it came to the things I had to cancel yesterday. I should say "thing" -- only my ATM card needed to kept out of the hands of potential thieves. I'm still in denial over the fact that I'll have to replace my driver's license.

Well, I guess it was just my time. I've narrowly avoided losing my wallet countless times in recent years. In most cases, it's fallen out of my front pocket while I was driving, meaning I'll find it either under or next to the driver's seat. But there is danger in that, because it could fall out when you open the door. Then there are the more concrete narrow misses, most recently, when I left my wallet in my company's suite at the Staples Center for the Roger Waters concert in November. I'd gotten all the way to street level before noticing, meaning I had to be led back up by various security guards, against the flow of traffic, before finding it wedged between the seats. There have also been several incidents at other movies, the most memorable of which was when my wallet fell out during Paris Je T'Aime at the arthouse theater in Encino. I didn't discover it was missing until 15 minutes later, at a coffee shop. I wound my way back to the theater in a near panic, before breathing a sigh of relief upon finding it. The other movie incidents were resolved more quickly, meaning I don't even remember what the titles were.

So you would definitely agree that I had this coming. And that it's a massive failure on Darwin's scale of adaptability. Having nearly lost my wallet all these times, I should know, by now, to be more careful in situations with a high potentiality for wallet loss. Having found it every other time, I guess I got complacent. I guess I needed this wake-up call. Next time it'll be something more important than a wallet.

And fortunately, my wallet really isn't that important a thing to lose. I still have my family and my health. In all seriousness, though, the most excruciating thing in situations like this is not knowing what you lost -- not remembering exactly what cards you were carrying, or what irreplaceable keepsakes may have been hiding in the folds. And on that front I'm covered. Last June -- probably prompted by a similar incident with a better outcome -- I had the presence of mind to do a "wallet inventory." That's right, I made a list of exactly what I was carrying in my wallet, and saved it in a Microsoft Word document. Sure, I won't have that bank receipt on which I recorded the frame-by-frame scores of my best game of bowling. But this is a perfect example of the kind of thing I probably should lose, just to clear out some of my static. Just as forests must burn every once in awhile in order to come back stronger, wallets must get lost, to help us expel the clutter from our lives.

It's just too bad I like my clutter so much.

Ah, well. Maybe those 48 free movies were worth the inconvenience of replacing my bank card and driver's license.

Still, karma's a bitch.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Strings attached - to Portman's Oscar hopes


One of the surest bets on Tuesday is that Natalie Portman will receive her second Oscar nomination for her role in Black Swan. After all, she won the Golden Globe for the role. That's not a guarantee she'll get nominated -- just ask Jim Carrey, whose win (in the musical/comedy category) for Man on the Moon didn't translate to any Oscar love. But it's very close to a guarantee.

In Portman's case, it feels like "her year," so a nomination is one of the best locks for Tuesday morning. Annette Bening will give her the best run for her money, but may settle for second place for at least the third time in her career.

Then again, she may not ... if voters hold Portman's upcoming roles against her when they vote.

Don't think that's possible? Just ask Eddie Murphy.

Murphy was also a Globe winner for his role as James "Thunder" Early in Dreamgirls, and was considered the frontrunner to win his first Oscar in the same supporting actor category. Until Norbit came along and screwed everything up.

There's no way to verify that, of course, but the standard thinking at the time (early 2007) was that voters would have cast a lot more ballots for Murphy if they weren't being simultaneously assaulted by the grotesque Rasputia character from the Norbit ads. That was one of three roles Murphy played in the movie, but either of the other two (the title character and an old Chinese man) would have probably still allowed Murphy to stroll up to the podium on Oscar night. This vile, crude third character, which required every bit of latex in Rick Baker's arsenal, was what did Murphy in. Or so the thinking goes. (The Oscar went to Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine, a deserving choice.)

Now, No Strings Attached, which comes out today, is no Norbit, even if you might alphabetize them consecutively. It addresses a perfect topic for a romantic comedy -- fuck buddies, or "friends with benefits" (there's an actual movie called Friends with Benefits, starring Justin Timberlake and Portman's Swan castmate Mila Kunis, coming out this summer) -- and it looks like it's been made at least half-competently. Let's hope so, because then I won't have to be so disappointed in mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig for "selling out" to be in this movie.

On the other hand, it's pretty far from Oscar material. In fact, has a movie featuring Ashton Kutcher ever been nominated for an Oscar? (The answer is, no, but Emilio Estevez' Bobby did get nominated for a Golden Globe -- a best picture nomination that was about as unjust as this year's nominations of The Tourist and Burlesque.)

But Portman isn't only fighting No Strings Attached when it comes to subliminally influencing the Academy. Her next two features are Your Highness, a Medieval stoner comedy starring James Franco and Danny McBride, and Thor, the ridiculous-looking comic book movie. They release in April and May, respectively, so there isn't much in the way of actual advertising for them just yet. But voters may still be mulling over their ballots around the time of the Super Bowl, when there figures to be ads for at least one if not both of these films. In fact, factoring in Black Swan, that makes this one of the most fertile periods in the career of a woman who once expressed her ambivalence about continuing acting as a profession. It's possible that No Strings Attached would not be enough to sabotage her chances, but the three movies put together could convince Oscar voters that Portman isn't "Oscar material."

Not that there's anything Portman could have/should have done differently. You make the choices you make and you sign on for the projects you think will be fun, challenging, and/or lucrative. Once you're on the dotted line, you're committed, and you have no control over when the studios consider it the perfect time to unleash these films on the world. Unless you decide to play the diva on set just to delay the production -- which is basically career suicide.

In fact, if we'd heard that Portman had stalled the momentum of her own career in order to manage her image in the months immediately following Black Swan, she would instantly drop several notches in our estimation. First off, it would mean she thought she had a good chance at an Oscar -- never a safe thing to assume, and the mere assumption is the kind of thing that seems to jinx it, if you're a superstitious person. But then it would also represent a cold and calculating attempt to finesse the conditions that must be in place for a person to win an Oscar -- which are not only giving a good performance, but also being likable ... and also not tainting your performance by reminding people that you're the kind of person who would consider Norbit an acceptable use of your talents.

Well, there should be a deserving first-time winner come Oscar night, one way or another. If Portman wins for her harrowing performance in Black Swan, she'll deserve it. If Bening finally wins her first Oscar after three previous nominations, spread almost equally throughout a 20-year career, then that'll also be a well-deserved coronation of one of Hollywood's most well-liked actresses. And if someone like Jennifer Lawrence from Winter's Bone manages to sneak in and steal it, that'd be great, too.

As for No Strings Attached ... my affection for Portman and my dislike for Kutcher averages out to me catching this on video sometime in August.

Want to know my name?













Over the time I've been writing this blog, a number of things have come along that threatened to spoil my anonymity, most notably, my posts on the Flickchart blog, where I have been using my real name. These posts have contained links to The Audient, so anyone who discovered my blog that way would know my name before they even got here.

However, in order to prevent avoidable breaches to my anonymity, I've never directed you either to anything I've written on another blog, or to my film reviews. For reasons I can't entirely explain, I've considered my true identity to be sacrosanct.

Until now.

This past weekend I appeared on the official podcast of Flickchart called Flick Fights (link here), hosted by Angelenos Travis Betz and Devin Barry. They're the guys you see above, in their own variations on the posters for Cool Hand Luke and Eraserhead. Travis is a writer-director and Devin is an actor. They both know a shitload about movies, and their podcast consists of playing Flickchart: Getting battles, deciding which movie wins, and arguing about the victor when they disagree. In decidedly humorous ways.

As a tie-breaker, they usually have on a special guest. This past Sunday, that guest was me. The podcast posted online yesterday. You can find it here.

I was a bit nervous going in -- after all, this podcast has had guests as high-profile as Busy Phillips from Cougar Town. But the easygoing ways of Travis and Devin put me at ease right away, and after a beer, I was downright loosey goosey. So if I made any shocking assessments about which films are better (or worse) than other films, I blame the beer. That's right, it's all your fault, Sierra Nevada. (In fact, I have since discovered at least two instances of films I chose as winners, even though I had the other film ranked higher in my own Flickchart.)

So why am I choosing now to reveal my name? (I'm not going to make it easy on you -- you have to go check out the podcast if you really want to know.) Two reasons:

1) Like many of us, I have some narcissistic tendencies. (Why else would I have a blog in the first place?) Pointing you to the podcast feeds those tendencies in a major way. Even if listening to it made me discover that I find my own laugh annoying as hell.

2) Flick Fights is a really good podcast, and I hope to make some new converts. It comes at the discussion of film at just the right intellectual level: 1) smart, but in an accessible, non-pretentious way; 2) funny as hell.

The mask may be off, but I shall remain ...

Vancetastic

Thursday, January 20, 2011

So many movies, so little sex


Samuel L. Jackson has appeared in exactly 100 feature films.

(Wow, what a time for me to check IMDB for his career stats, right?)

I'm talking movies in which he either appeared on screen or provided a voice to the narrator or one of the characters. Those count. What I'm not counting is all the TV shows, TV movies, short films and video games where he is also credited, adding girth to an already impressive IMDB page.

Of these 100 movies, I have seen 43, most recently Mother and Child on Monday night.

Mother and Child also marks the first time I've seen Samuel L. Jackson do a sex scene. Heck, it may be his first sex scene.

In Rodrigo Garcia's film, Jackson and Naomi Watts have sex. I know, that sounds funny, but it works for the characters. It's actually kind of a hot scene, but that's because Watts always gives her all to accurately reproducing the throes of sexual passion. Just remember when we first discovered her in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, ten years ago -- there are several unforgettable sex scenes in that movie. Jackson, for his part, is fully clothed, and basically just lies underneath her -- in fact, she orders him not to move. ("Stay still, old man.") But it counts.

Yep, Jackson is old -- 62 years old now. He's not only been in all those movies, but he's been the lead in many of them. And I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've ever seen him engaged in sexual congress.

When I pointed this out to my wife, she agreed and noted that he's not usually cast as the romantic lead in a film. In fact, probably never has he been cast in that role. And though secondary characters do have sex in films, most often we're talking about the male and female romantic leads. Jackson has never been cast as either.

Which makes him pretty unusual for a mega-star. How mega? He's appeared in the Star Wars prequels, a couple Tarantino movies, a couple XXX movies with another still to come (the XXX action movie series, not porn, as I have spent this post making abundantly clear), and is set to play Nick Fury in a seemingly endless series of Avengers movies, having already appeared in the role in both Iron Man films. And those are just his recurring affiliations. He's also been in as many good one-off movies as anyone -- and as many bad. (Hey, the man likes to work.)

Yet, no sex.

So what is it about Sam Jackson that keep him from getting any?

I mean, clearly he's handsome enough. He may not possess traditional good looks, but it's no doubt he has a smoldering allure, not to mention a million-dollar smile. But it seems to have something to do with his typecasting. It's funny to suggest that a man who has appeared in three digits worth of movies would be typecast -- outside of John Wayne, that is -- but it's true that casting directors almost always want Jackson to be a badass.

But the badass gets the girl in plenty of movies. In fact, there are a number of movies where badasses actually kill people while they're having sex.

And maybe that's why Mr. Blue Balls does finally get to have sex in Mother and Child -- he's not playing a badass. In fact, he's playing the senior partner at a law firm, who hires Watts' Elizabeth Joyce. He may be a badass in the legal world, but I don't think that's what we mean by "badass." In fact, it took him becoming a literal gray-beard and an old softie to finally get a piece of tail. If he'd known that, maybe he would have started toning down the volume in his auditions and dying his beard, years ago.

There's another quick thing I wanted to talk about regarding Mother and Child, another strong film in Garcia's canon, and it relates to sex had by the real-life Naomi Watts. The film is too under the radar to get any Oscar nominations, even though I'd argue that Annette Bening is as good here as she was in The Kids Are All Right. But there's a case to made that it deserves a nomination in the category Best Acting by a Fetus.

If you haven't heard about one of the more amazing logistical details of the film, Watts plays a woman whose tubes are tied, but gets pregnant anyway. And in a case of method acting at its most committed, Watts is actually pregnant in the film. But she's not pregnant for the whole film, and here's where the movie seems like an incredible feat of logistics. Garcia must have cast her based on her intention to become pregnant -- although the fact that she's a great actor probably had something to do with it. In the character's early scenes, you can be absolutely certain she's not pregnant, or if so, only a couple weeks. In fact, in another sign of Watts' commitment to her sexuality, she gives a full frontal flash to a neighbor, showing not only her breasts and pubic hair, but also a flat stomach.

But what if Watts hadn't been able to conceive? What if they shot all those early scenes, and then she couldn't deliver on the back end? Would they have needed to use a fake-looking prosthetic stomach? Would they have scrapped the scenes they'd done and started over with a different actress? Or would they have simply waited for as long as it took?

Where things get really impressive is later on, when she's ridiculously pregnant. There's a shot when she's lying on her bed, and turns on her side. Her clearly-real pregnant belly is exposed. And then, about ten seconds into the shot, the baby kicks. The baby kicks -- on film! Should we be surprised that Watts is such a good actor, the talent seeps over by osmosis to her unborn baby? And was that kick just a happy accident, or did they have to film it a hundred times, hoping eventually to get this result?

I may not want to know. It's one of those magical moments of cinema that are best left unanswered.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Oh yeah - there's a thing called pay-per-view



As I continue homing in on 2010 movies I need to see before my January 25th deadline -- like some kind of heat-seeking missile -- I had a realization over the weekend about a whole channel open to me for acquiring titles, that I'd almost forgotten about.

You can, like, pay for them on your cable bill.

See, I'd forgotten that there was a thing called pay-per-view -- or at least, that's what we used to call it in the old days. Now it's just a part of OnDemand with payments attached, but pay-per-view is still a pretty accurate way to encapsulate what it is you're doing.

I used to entirely steer clear of watching movies in this way. I think that's because in the old days, watching a movie on pay-per-view was the equivalent of paying for a movie in a hotel. It was pretty much straight-up ten bucks to watch movies by clicking on the BUY button on your TV, so it was an indulgence that was strictly forbidden.

In more recent years, the competition for your movie rental buck has gotten a lot more fierce, so only hotels, where you're a captive audience, can still afford to charge that much. (Actually, some hotels charge like $14.99, even for non-porn -- though they offset the extra charge by offering some titles that haven't hit DVD yet.) The pay-per-view on your own TV is down to $4.99 or $5.99, sometimes even cheaper than that. Still, it's not something I do very often. My wife and I occasionally pay for movies like this, but we're talking like once a year.

But as I'm trying to wrap up my rankings for the year, and have some titles I'd still like to get in there, it's a pretty quick and easy way to start watching something immediately -- duh, that's the point -- without waiting for shipping times or even making a trip to the local Redbox.

So I waded into those waters on Friday night when it became clear that my wife was going to hit the hay early. (Do people still say "hit the hay"?) I didn't have anything lined up for the 10 p.m. viewing slot, and my choices for 2010 movies streaming on Netflix were more in the category of "chores" than "fun movies." (Not that the choice I ended up with turned out to be "fun," but more on that in a moment.)

I was surprised by the sheer quantity of movies available, but more than that, it was like a little light bulb went off in my head. It should have been obvious -- I mean, the concept of pay-per-view has existed for something like 20 years -- but apparently it wasn't. "You mean I can have this ... right now?" It was like discovering the capabilities of Netflix streaming for the first time last summer.

So I eagerly clicked through the choices and narrowed it down to four:

Devil
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

The next exciting thing I discovered was that titles whose Netflix release date had been hovering out there in the future -- like Devil and Wall Street -- could be had, today. Devil releases on Netflix tomorrow, but I knew there wasn't a great chance I'd have time to get it in the mail before next Tuesday. And Wall Street doesn't even release until next Tuesday, meaning I had resigned myself to leaving it off my rankings.

As it turns out, Wall Street was the only one I didn't end up watching over the weekend, though I ended up watching Scott Pilgrim on Saturday night on BluRay. And glad I did -- it is head and shoulders above the other two in terms of quality. As for the infamous Owls of Ga'Hoole (whose title I am always picking on), it has decent animation, but nothing special, and its story is as bland and forgettable as can be. The less said about Devil the better, except that M. Night Shyamalan's toxic influence is present even when he's not the one sitting in the director's chair. (That job went to a guy named John Erick Dowdle.) At least Owls of Ga'Hoole came in at the bargain rate of only $2.99 -- some kind of new release special. Devil was two dollars more than that, but probably two dollars shittier.

The takeaway is that maybe I should not fear pay-per-view after all. There are no hidden fees -- only the overt ones. Will my cable bill be a bit higher next month? Sure. But who can put a price on being able to watch an otherwise elusive film, without any trips to the store or prior logistics, in a short window of available time to do it?

Now to get a real benefit out of it and actually watch Wall Street as well.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Getting the gist


Most films you watch, you should pay attention at least 85% of the time if you really want to say you saw it.

With the documentary Sweetgrass, all you really need is to get the gist. Somewhere between 50 and 60% is good enough.

Sweetgrass, which I saw Saturday morning, is a film about sheep. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of sheep. Maybe over a thousand. Heck, maybe over two thousand.

Sheep eating grass. Sheep getting sheared. Sheep baa-ing. Sheep sleeping. Sheep being cooperative and sheep being pains in the ass. Sheep following each other ... like sheep. An hour and forty-five minutes of sheep.

And that's it.

Oh, it can be kind of mesmerizing to watch the sheep flow like water, like a river, in their line of bobbing heads and fuzzy coats. And there's plenty of beautiful cinematography of Montana's Beartooth Mountains to keep you in that dreamy fugue.

But there isn't even any human dialogue until the movie is about 20 minutes old. Actually, that's the best part of the movie. Once the dialogue does start coming in, none of it is directed at the camera and very little of it is anything but what you would call B-roll -- almost incidental to the capturing of the images. Without narration, without any introduction to the humans who are herding these sheep, and without any sense of narrative momentum other than the fact that the whole group is going on a journey that will at some point end, you really only need to get the gist of Sweetgrass.

Which means that while watching the movie, not only did I update my status and play a couple turns of Lexulous, and not only did I keep the baby entertained, but I also wrote yesterday morning's blog post.

There's a bit of a relief to only half-watching a movie and legitimately saying you saw it. We all live busy lives these days, lives where multi-tasking isn't only a handy skill, it's essential. Even if those secondary tasks are as inconsequential as playing your next turn in a game or pontificating about film for the world to see (as I'm doing now). Even if those secondary tasks become primary tasks because the primary task is so mind-numbing.

The one exception in Sweetgrass comes at about the hour-and-fifteen mark, when one of the herders starts swearing up a storm when he gets pissed off at, I believe, his dog, who has lost himself up in some rocks and needs to be fetched. At this point the guy hauls out every profanity in his arsenal, which'll certainly make you snap to attention from whatever you were doing. Perhaps that's why directors Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor chose to include that outburst at precisely that moment -- they realized their viewers would need to snap out of whatever stupor the movie had left them in. Shortly thereafter is the movie's most expository passage, when the same herder calls someone on his cell and complains, in a voice breaking with emotion, about the difficulty of the journey, with its many setbacks and obstacles. After that, you're invited back to sleep for the last 20 minutes or so.

The thing is, I sort of liked Sweetgrass. I initially had it ranked in a decent spot on my list, before reading a review that convinced me I should drop it ten or 20 spots. It turns out, being mesmerized by sheep is not the most unpleasant experience a person could have. And just because the filmmakers don't follow the traditional documentary path of regularly interviewing their human subjects and allowing those interviews to construct a narrative, doesn't mean the doco doesn't have value. It's useful just as a pretty, hypnotic background.

Plus, you can use the time to pay some bills, chat with a friend on Facebook or book a trip online.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

It's okay to laugh during Rabbit Hole


Dead kid movie not getting quite the box office you'd hoped, Lionsgate?

I saw one of the most peculiar attempts at re-branding I've ever seen on Thursday night with the latest TV ad campaign for John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole, starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. The movie is known for the fact that Kidman and Eckhart play the parents of a young boy who died. And among people I've talked with, there's been the pervading sentiment that they didn't want to see "the dead kid movie," even though they knew it was probably quite good.

So the ad I saw on Thursday night emphasizes all the film's lighter moments -- showing Eckhart lifting a child in the air and Kidman laughing, among other heartwarming images.

But the coup de grace is one of the quotes from the ad, which I believe came from a review by Ann Hornaday of washingtonpost.com:

"It's okay to laugh during Rabbit Hole."

Now, I like any critic quotation that doesn't use the same ten glowing words to describe the movie -- vive la difference. But this one just stands out for its awkwardness.

On the one hand, it's accomplishing a couple things that might be very useful to the movie: 1) It's showing that the movie is not unremitting misery from beginning to end, and 2) It's tacitly acknowledging that the movie is, indeed, about a dead child, rather than pretending it's about something else entirely.

However, if you don't interpret the quotation correctly, it almost sounds like the ad is inviting you to laugh at the idea of dead children.

Not good.

And then there's the fact that the ad campaign calls attention to its own agenda -- never a good thing in advertising, which is supposed to manipulate you without you seeing the manipulation. The manipulation comes through loud and clear in this one. If I'm not laughing during the movie, at least I got to laugh at the ad campaign.

I'm sure it's still a good movie. And I'd like to see it, because Nicole Kidman will probably get nominated for an Oscar for it. Even though I've got my own young child at home right now -- a male child at that.

But Rabbit Hole isn't advertising itself for discriminating viewers like me, who don't shy away from content just because I'm not likely to laugh while watching it. So if promising laughter gets a few more butts in the seats, well, I guess that's a good thing, if it's a good movie.

For Rabbit Hole's sake, let's hope this ad campaign doesn't have the opposite effect.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

3D hits January


There may be no greater sign of both the ubiquity of 3D, and the improving profile of January as a release month, than that there is now a high-profile 3D movie being released in January.

The Green Hornet is not the first movie in the recent 3D craze to be released in January. That honor goes to the execrable My Bloody Valentine 3D, which was released on January 16, 2009. But that film doesn't really exemplify the "new 3D" -- it's more of a throwback to the old days, when schlocky horror movies, such as Friday the 13th Part 3 and Jaws 3, were the most likely home for 3D.

The "new 3D" is superhero movies with big stars. Such as The Green Hornet. (Incidentally, I find it funny that the film's biggest star -- or at least best-known name -- is Cameron Diaz, and she's barely seen in the ads.)

In the past, a movie like The Green Hornet would have come out sometime between April and August, maybe not quite blockbuster enough to hold down a key summer release date, but certainly enough to come out during summer's early or late fringes. Nowadays, the calendar has gotten so packed, the studios have gotten so savvy about how to capture the available dollars, and 3D has become so prevalent, that this 3D superhero movie hits theaters on the second available release date of the new year.

The rehabilitation of the month of January may have truly begun in 2008, when, to my surprise, one of the most buzzed about films of the previous six months was released on January 18th. Yep, that's when Cloverfield dropped, and a week later, with a lot less fanfare but plenty of name recognition, came Rambo. The year 2009 reverted more or less to the status quo, with the third Underworld movie not really having the same sizzle as a Cloverfield. But that January produced two really big hits, Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Taken, reminding studio execs why January is not a month just to be sloughed off.

You really saw the difference in 2010, when three rather large-scale post apocalyptic effects movies were released on consecutive Fridays: Daybreakers, The Book of Eli and Legion. (For a longer discussion of that, see here.) None of them fared particularly well.

But The Green Hornet seems like a different kind of step forward. Not only is it 3D, but it's a superhero movie. And not even a superhero movie like Kick-Ass, which had little previous name recognition. No, most of us had at least heard of The Green Hornet, if only because we'd confused it with The Green Lantern. Just wait for that character's upcoming 3D incarnation this summer, arriving on a more traditional release date for such a film: June 17th.

I don't have a lot more to say about The Green Hornet, except that my initial disinterest has now evolved into moderate anticipation. I'm not likely to see it for a couple weeks, since I'm still focused on catching a couple more 2010 films in the theater before they leave. But I'm a lot likelier to prioritize a theatrical screening than I was a few months ago. Of course, the reviews could certainly dampen my enthusiasm if they're negative.

One thing I do want to comment on is this poster I chose above. It's pretty abstract, but with a clear view of it you can certainly tell what's going on.

A clear view of this image is not what's provided on the south face of a building on the 405 freeway, which I see as I'm driving north on my way home from work. (I thought I had a picture of it, but I see that the picture I tried to take on my phone was obstructed by one of those structures that holds the signs out over the highway). For a month now, I've been trying to puzzle out what the image was -- it just looked like a bunch of murky shapes, especially since the exterior of the building has an uneven surface, with raised edges running vertically down the side, which only serve to further obscure and distort the image. In fact, you would scarcely know it was even a Green Hornet poster if the east face of the same building didn't have the clearer ad featuring their car busting through a wall.

Maybe they chose that wall with the ridges because of its third dimension.