Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cluster-clock


So as discussed on Thursday, I went to LACMA on Thursday night to watch part of The Clock, Christian Marclay's compilation of thousands of moments featuring clocks from the history of cinema, comprising a 24-hour, real-time film. It started at 5 p.m. on Thursday and finished at 5 p.m. yesterday.

I'd talked about going at some ungodly hour, like 3 a.m., just for the surreal qualities of being in a museum, watching a movie, at 3 a.m. Traffic would also be non-existent, and as a third benefit, the screening would probably be pretty sparsely attended.

But my wife said she'd prefer it if I went earlier, explaining that she'd feel less bad about having me baby-wrangle before work if she knew I hadn't just come home an hour earlier. We settled on midnight to 1 as a compromise. I didn't care, really -- I just wanted to go.

As I was driving over, I projected my arrival time to be about quarter to midnight. I remember consciously wondering whether I should wait to go in, so I could do exactly one hour's worth of the movie, from midnight to 1. One hour was all I needed -- after that size sample, where do you draw the line between one and 24? And I thought I'd have the luxury of being anal, of walking through the doors at 12:00:00 and leaving at 1:00:00. But then I decided that if Marclay used New Year's movies as his midnight clock, it might be fun to see the minute or two leading up to that.

Um, yeah, right.

When I got there, I could tell almost immediately that it was a clusterfuck. I expected the streets near the museum to be devoid of cars, making parking easy. I did park on the street, but it was in the only available spot I could see. And looking over at the museum, I saw not one but two large crowds of people waiting -- one along an interior courtyard wall of the museum, and one on the wall that runs along the street. In between there was a gap and a security guard managing the flow. I estimated the number of people to be around 200. I shouldn't be surprised -- KCRW was advertising it pretty much every hour of the day for at least a week leading up to it.

So the entry process seemed pretty straightforward -- someone leaves the theater, someone else gets to go in. But in the five minutes I was waiting there, I didn't move forward once. I discussed the prospects of our admission to the group of twentysomething hipsters standing in front of me, and they guessed it would be a 45-minute wait. I thought they were crazy. My own estimate was more like three hours.

"I guess we should have come at like 4 a.m.," I said.

"Oh, I hear that 4 a.m. is the best part of the movie," said one of the women in that group.

Darn it.

So I was back at my house inside of an hour after I'd left. I didn't see any of The Clock, but I probably had a better day at work yesterday than I would have if I had.

Last night my wife and I discussed our prospects of ever getting to see The Clock -- any part of it. And in fact they seem somewhat grim. I'm sure it will play again in Los Angeles, perhaps multiple times, perhaps annually. But if it draws this kind of interest every time, a dead-of-night screening would really be the only way to do it -- and even then I bet the wait would be at least 15 minutes. Also, normal people like us would be competing with all the actors and other industry folk with irregular schedules, who don't really care what time they're awake and what time they're asleep. Perhaps the line would have been just as long at 3 or 4 a.m.

I figured if there's a phenomenon like this, someone someday will try to capitalize on it through a DVD release, a 12-disc set or something. Ah, but there's a problem with that too. Marclay uses so much copyrighted material in this movie that trying to get clearance on it would be a nightmare, if not actually impossible. Only by showing it for free, as LACMA did, are the copyright violations acceptable. Try to make a profit, any profit, on it, and suddenly you owe a lot of studios a lot of money.

Well, at least now I'm ready -- I know what to expect next time.

I've still got you in my sights, Clock. We'll have our date with destiny.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Straight to the point


I thought up the idea for Cowboys & Aliens about ten years before producer Steven Spielberg, director Jon Favreau or the seven credited writers ever did.

(You don't have to mention this to them. I'm not planning to sue or anything.)

Except in my version of the story, the aliens were attacking during Revolutionary War times. There was something about the image of early Americans frantically reloading muskets while aliens wiped them out that appealed to me. Of course, the Americans would have to win in the end, but in the meantime, there would be a lot of powdered wigs blown off of a lot of heads.

Of course, their idea is better. By using cowboys, not only do you have better weapons that are easier to load, but you've also got an actual established genre: the western. Besides, Cowboys & Aliens is a much catchier title than Minutemen & Aliens.

"Catchy" may not be the word for Cowboys & Aliens as a title, actually. "Straight to the point" might be a better way to describe it.

That's right, the title of today's big release is all concept and no poetry. This is not necessarily a bad thing -- it's just funny. It tells you exactly the idea behind the movie without any pesky metaphors or abstractions to get in the way. "If cowboys and aliens occupied the same territory in the space-time continuum, this movie is what you would get." Almost like the title was a placeholder until they came up with the real title, and they just ended up keeping it. If all movies followed this bare bones title philosophy, a movie like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would be called Memory Erasers. And many of us wouldn't have gone and seen it.

But it really works here, I think. It gives the movie a bit of a kitschy, B-movie feel, one that helps rather than hurts its cause. It tells me about what to expect from Cowboys & Aliens -- a fun summer ride that isn't going to be too deep. But not in a bad way.

So it got me thinking of other titles that leave no room for nuance, that get straight to the point of what the movie is about. Now, in a way, that's the primary goal of any title -- you want something memorable that will give the viewer a good idea what they have in store. And so a lot of movies do this in some way or another. But not that many of them do it in such funny, obvious ways as Cowboys & Aliens. Sure, the title Nixon is straight to the point -- you're seeing a movie about Richard Nixon. It works a lot better than Not a Crook or Corruption or Impeached or any other title they could have come with for a movie about Richard Nixon. But it's not funny, and that's the big difference.

So, I've come up with a list of titles that do strike me as funny in some way, because they totally eschew any sense of subtlety in communicating what the movie is about. Ten seems like a nice round number, don't you think?

10. Hot Tub Time Machine. "This movie involves a hot tub that functions as a time machine." Yep.

9. Four Weddings and a Funeral. And all the action will take place within the course of these five events.

8. Three Men and a Baby. "There are three men taking care of a baby, and shenanigans ensue."

7. Walking and Talking. I almost didn't include this one because it's actually sort of abstract -- you don't necessarily know what it's about just from the title. However, once you've seen the movie, you realize it distills the essence of an independent movie: people walking around and having conversations.

6. Monsters vs. Aliens. I sort of think of this as the template Cowboys & Aliens used.

5. Zombie Strippers. "Strippers become zombies, and shenanigans ensue."

4. Love & Basketball. "This movie is going to have some love, and it's going to have some basketball. If you like those two things, you should see it."

3. Hobo With a Shotgun. "A homeless guy has a shotgun, and shenanigans ensue."

2. 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag. What more do you need to know? I guess how they got there might be of interest.

And of course, #1 ...

1. Snakes on a Plane. Yep.

Would love to hear any you might like to add ...

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The spirit of Andy Warhol is alive and well


For the second time this year, I'm going to miss my chance to see the longest film ever made.

I don't know if I'm correct in calling it that, but Christian Marclay's The Clock is playing tonight at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), starting at 5 p.m.

And finishing the next day at 5 p.m.

That's right, it's a real-time, 24-hour movie, which charts the passage of time as captured in cinema over the decades. If I'm understanding it correctly, it's a pastiche of thousands of moments from film in which a clock is captured in the frame, and given how many movies there have been with clocks in them, Marclay has managed to find images that contain every single minute of a day -- all 1440 of them. And no, I don't think he cheats by having a 3:37 p.m. stand in for a 3:37 a.m. That wouldn't be sporting, would it?

What's more, the film is synchronized to local time, meaning that if you drop in from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. of the screening time, you're seeing 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. of the film. That's one feat the TV show 24 could never pull off.

Because very few people are likely to watch the whole movie, and the event by definition depends on people dropping in for an hour here or an hour there, LACMA is not charging for it. The only potential limitations are on the ability to find seats. LACMA screened The Clock for the first time a couple months ago, and it must have gone well, as this is an encore screening.

I would truly love to see this movie. Or some of it, anyway.

It reminds me very much of something Andy Warhol would have done, though perhaps it would be a bit too on-the-nose for Warhol. Still, I think about Warhol's screenings of such films as Empire, the eight-hour-and-five-minute 1964 film which just shows continuous footage of the Empire State Building. He would never allow it to be shown abridged, and if you had a whiff of artistic integrity, you would watch the whole thing.

LACMA is not holding us to that same standard. I was never going to watch the whole thing -- I don't know that I could, even if I had no responsibilities, no job to go to, and a direct intravenous pump of Mountain Dew into my veins -- but I'd sure like to watch some of it. I floated the idea yesterday to my wife in the guise of a joke. You know the strategy -- you bring up something you actually want to do, then laugh afterward, to see if perhaps it will turn into a real conversation about how you actually might want to do it. She didn't bite, and instead started talking about the similarly themed Life in a Day, Kevin Macdonald's documentary culled from footage people took of themselves around the world on July 24, 2010. Which is also in theaters now, but is only 95 minutes long.

I thought this was the end of it, but as I'm sitting here now, writing this, I'm wondering if it might be worth it to take a wild stab at seeing some footage in the middle of the night tonight. If I were to go watch some of this film from, say, 11 to 1, it might not impact either my responsibilities (the baby slept very well last night) or my job (it's Friday tomorrow, so if I'm a bit sluggish, I can probably push through, with the weekend waiting on the other side as my reward).

Because I don't know if LACMA will schedule a third screening. And this is the kind of novelty any film fan should want to experience. Not only does it have the virtue of being a film itself -- a film that, if watched conventionally, would set length records -- but it also celebrates our collective love of film. You'd never know when a moment from your favorite movie might appear.

Then add in the fact that I just love participating in kooky experiments, and the wheels are really turning in my brain now.

So tune in tomorrow -- or more likely, Saturday, since I've already got tomorrow's post planned -- to see if I was able to fit in a couple seconds, minutes or hours of The Clock.

Here's hoping I find the time, as it were.

Another Moon?


A little over two years ago I saw Duncan Jones' Moon for the first time. Since then, you could say I've been trying, in vain, to recreate that experience -- the experience of modestly budgeted sci-fi that has a brain, and an expansive understanding of the human condition.

Could Another Earth be another Moon?

That's what I set out to discover yesterday, when I caught the film on the back end of some errands I was running for my wife -- errands that earned me the right to cap off my evening with what turned out to be a double feature. (And in an unprecedented move that would ordinarily qualify as its own post, I actually paid for both movies -- I decided that having the opportunity to see Mike Mills' Beginners, only moments after Another Earth ended, was more important than being able to sneak in for free, which I couldn't do because the films were on different floors in the theater.)

And if I'm going to recreate the experience of Moon, I'm really going to do it right. Not only was it the same month on the calendar, but it was also the same theater, the Arclight in Hollywood, which I don't get to very often because it's not geographically convenient. Additionally, the Moon screening was even part of a separate-entrance double feature -- before watching Moon, I'd just gone to a critics screening of the documentary Soul Power, down the road in a separate theater. Yep, I was making sure these experiences mirrored each other the same way that the doppelganger Earth mirrors our Earth in Mike Cahill's debut film.

And?

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

The plots of the two movies are not ultimately very similar. Moon deals with a lone astronaut on a moon base, overseeing a mining operation for a multinational company back on Earth. Another Earth deals with an astronomy lover on Earth, racked with guilt over her role in a terrible accident, who obsesses over the discovery of a new celestial body that seems to be an exact duplicate of her planet. But the films definitely share a mindset, as well as a couple thematic elements. For example, in both films, the isolated central character stares at the skies in yearning, and in both instances, it's Earth they're yearning to reach -- the actual Earth in Moon, and so-called "Earth 2" in Another Earth. There's something they're trying to discover about themselves on that other planet, close enough to touch, but distant enough to seem impossible. In both cases, particularly in Another Earth, the main science fiction hook is something of a red herring, a means for the character to examine something about him or herself, about the very nature of identity.

They also share the same high level of quality. Not exactly the same -- Moon is the superior effort. But not by a lot. Another Earth pulls off the nifty trick of blending a high-concept sci-fi hook -- the discovery of a second Earth that's close enough to appear massive in the sky -- with what most of the story really is: a study of the way people cope with loss. In order to do that part of the story well, you need good actors, and the two leads -- Brit Marling and William Mapother -- do not disappoint. Since I don't know Marling from a hole in the ground, I was not as surprised by her performance as I was by Mapother's. He doesn't nail every scene, but he nails enough of them to make you forget that he's just Tom Cruise's cousin, a sort-of funny-looking guy who hasn't ever really had a leading role. And as for Marling ... wow. Her character experiences plenty of emotional situations in this film, and she consistently underplays every one, to great effect. However, she's also luminescent -- a fact we tend to forget, because most of the time she's overwhelmed by self-loathing. One more feather in her cap: She co-wrote and produced the film.

Points also to Cahill for giving the film a snappy visual liveliness in almost every respect, from the interesting camera angles to the thought-provoking cutaways. He really establishes a mood here, a mood of introspection and low-level scientific inquiry, and his limited use of narration and voiceover by poets and scientists really enhances it. The score, a combination of electronic music and more traditional orchestral pieces, works to keep this going. Plus there's that chill that goes down your spine, that sense of awe, every time you see that second planet Earth hanging there in the sky.

Is Another Earth another Moon? Well, I ranked Moon as my favorite film of 2009. You'll have to stay tuned until January to see if Another Earth can mirror that feat as well.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

My real top ten "real" films


Thank you for joining me for another edition of Flickchart Tuesdays, where I examine my favorites in some category of film, based on how I have those films ranked on Flickchart.

This week I wanted to look at documentaries. The main reason for that is that my wife and I have been watching documentaries on Monday nights this summer. Last night, however, we watched a slasher film made for about 12 cents called Murder Machine!, which my wife is vetting for a film festival where she serves as a judge. Let's just say in the absence of watching a doco last night, and in order to get the taste of Murder Machine! out of my mouth, I'm writing about documentaries today.

Also, I was interested to see how my official Flickchart rankings of documentaries stack up next to the top ten and honorable mentions I came up with organically in this post, written a little over a year ago. What truer measure of the effectiveness of Flickchart at distilling my true feelings, than to compare a list I produced from my brain with one produced from Flickchart's algorithms? Then again, Flickchart might also help me identify a movie I didn't realize I loved as much as I do.

In case you are bad at clicking on links in posts, here's the list I came up with on June 30, 2010:

10. Madonna: Truth or Dare
9. Religulous
8. Super Size Me
7. Man on Wire
6. American Movie
5. Sicko
4. Microcosmos
3. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
2. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
1. Looking for Richard

Honorable mentions: Bigger Stronger Faster*, Bowling for Columbine, The Cruise, Dig!, Dogtown and Z-Boys, Jesus Camp

I'm also interested to see how far down in my rankings I'll have to go to get 20 films (since I talk briefly about the first ten, then just list 11-20). Last week, when I wrote about foreign films, film #20 was ranked just over 200th overall. However, I also argued in the post linked above that there is a "documentary ceiling" -- in other words, for me, a documentary can be only so good, and can never quite approach the impact of a fiction film.

As a side note, the comparison can't be truly accurate because I've seen possibly as many as 20 more documentaries in the year since I first wrote that post. But I'm not sure if I've seen anything that was so great that it would jump into my top ten.

But we're about to find out, aren't we? That's one of the rules of this series on my blog -- I start writing before I know what results I'll get. So let's see where the day takes us ...

1. Looking for Richard (1996, Al Pacino). And #1 is the same, as I knew it would be. I counted this as my favorite film of 1996. A potentially great Shakespeare teaching tool, Pacino's movie interweaves interviews with average people about Shakespeare and an informal staging of Richard III using fellow film actors (Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Winona Ryder). It's totally captivating. Flickchart: #127

2. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010, Banksy). And here comes the first movie I've seen since last year's list. How could I forget about Exit Through the Gift Shop? Wherever the film falls on the spectrum of truth, there's no other way to categorize it than as a documentary. Not only is it an amazing and unprecedented insider's look into the community of street artists, but it also plays with the traditional documentary structure in ways it's almost impossible to describe, as each of the two main characters end up making a film about the other one. Flickchart: #164

3. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007, Seth Gordon). The second-ranked documentary on my original list ends up third here, but it's still second among movies I'd seen at that time. Gordon uses the world of competitive video gaming to give us a classic story about a hero you can cheer and a villain you can hiss, and it's also just a wonderful tale about human aspiration. No wonder they're supposedly making a fiction film version of the story. Flickchart: #177

4. American Movie (1999, Chris Smith). And now we start to see some variation in the rankings. What was sixth on my original list is fourth here -- or third, if you take out Exit From the Gift Shop. However, the ranking is appropriate -- this story of two deluded dreamers trying to make a low-budget horror movie in the dead of a Minnesota winter is both funny and heartbreaking. Flickchart: #322

5. Man on Wire (2008, James Marsh). And Man on Wire came in just behind American Movie on my original list as well, meaning that both were displaced a couple spots by movies I don't actually think of as highly. The most amazing thing about this entertaining movie about a French tightrope walker trying to illegally cross between the two towers of the World Trade Center is that it does not evoke 9/11 -- not once. Marsh knows he has a great real-world spy thriller on his hands, which would only get bogged down by discussions of the terrorist attacks. Flickchart: #345

6. Microcosmos (1996, Claude Nuridsany). A middle-lister on both lists. Nuridsany's look into the microscopic world of insects is fascinating and alive, making the tiny titanic, and the insignificant significant. Possibly the best nature film of all time? Anyone who watched the Earth series might beg to differ. Flickchart: #362

7. Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991, Alek Keshishian). I saw this movie at the height of my interest in Madonna as an artist and a public figure, and I loved the way Keshishian captured her and showed us the "real" Madonna -- even if she was carefully controlling exactly what she wanted us to see. Which I assume she was. Apparently, I liked it a lot better than my tenth favorite documentary, as it was listed previously. Flickchart: #438

8. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2009, Sacha Gervasi). My third-ranked film on last year's documentary list has fallen since then because I've heard some people make convincing arguments that this wonderful rock documentary had to have been at least partially staged. But this real life Spinal Tap is such a goofy delight, and also so touching, that I don't know if I care that the narrative might have benefited from some manufactured conflict. The movie left me feeling great, and that's what I still take away from it. Flickchart: #443

9. Bowling for Columbine (2002, Michael Moore). I guess I chose to honor the wrong Michael Moore film in my original top ten. I had Sicko, but Flickchart informs me that I like Bowling for Columbine better. Which is probably true. I remember getting emotional at the end of Sicko, but the gun rights debate in Bowling is funnier and probably more consistently astute. However, I still don't love him brow-beating a sickly old Charlton Heston at the end. Flickchart: #456

10. Sicko (2006, Michael Moore). Okay, now Sicko gets its turn after all. Flickchart: #543

I expect Religulous and Super Size Me, the two documentaries that showed up on last year's list but not this year's, as well as most if not all of my honorable mentions, to show up in 11-20:

11. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001, Stacy Peralta). Flickchart: #544
12. Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (2008, Chris Bell). Flickchart: #567
13. The Cruise (1998, Bennett Miller). Flickchart: Flickchart: #592
14. DiG! (2004, Ondi Timoner). Flickchart: #617
15. After Innocence (2005, Jessica Sanders). Flickchart: #630
16. When We Were Kings (1996, Leon Gast). Flickchart: #673
17. 51 Birch Street (2006, Doug Block). Flickchart: #688
18. Super Size Me (2004, Morgan Spurlock). Flickchart: #704
19. Jesus Camp (2006, Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady). Flickchart: #722
20. Eddie Murphy: Delirious (1983, Bruce Gowers). Flickchart: #738

I was hoping to avoid the appearance of any standup comedy movies to avoid the debate on that particular topic -- is it a documentary or is it "something else"? -- but Eddie Murphy's first concert film snuck in there at #20.

So Religulous, which I ranked #9 on last year's list, does not even make it onto my Flickchart rankings until #1184 overall. I've definitely revised my stance toward it a little bit -- in the same way I don't think it was all that nice for Michael Moore to bully Charlton Heston, I also don't think it was all that nice for Bill Maher to bully the people he bullies in Religulous, both of which occur in the name of a liberal agenda with which I agree. But it's definitely lower in my rankings than I would have thought. I'm sure the dueling process will take care of that over time.

So the lists compared pretty well to each other, with all the honorable mentions and all but one of the top ten accounted for in my first 20 on Flickchart. It is interesting to note how long it takes to get to my 20th documentary, all the way down at #738 overall. Which is consistent with what I've said about fiction films having an advantage over non-fiction.

Back next Tuesday with more scintillating investigations of my personal Flickchart.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Never underestimate the patriotism of Republicans


Remember on Friday when I talked about Marvel's "possible miscalculation" in releasing Captain America on Comic-Con weekend? Like the opening weekend of the movie could depend on the money the geeks would not be spending on the movie, because they'd be otherwise occupied?

Yeah, so much for that.

I was mostly just making a humorous observation, but my basic thesis was something I believed in: that the movie would need all the help it could get.

But there were plenty of others out there who were more than willing to provide that help.

While I assumed that many people shared my "eh, so what" attitude toward the movie, I wasn't considering the number of other people who love any opportunity to celebrate the role of America as a force for international justice. I'm speaking of Republicans here.

Captain America made $65 million on its opening weekend, making it seem awfully likely to end up as a hit. That's got to be the biggest non-sequel opening in, like, forever. That $65 million knocked record-setting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 out of the #1 spot at the U.S. box office in only its second weekend. In fact, it beat Potter by a whole $17 million. (Wow, I'm really out of it. I just looked and saw that Green Lantern made $70 million in its opening weekend before tailing off. But I think my point still stands.)

While on the one hand I am happy for Captain America, on the other hand I am a bit scared by that "silent majority" out there that turned out to see a metaphor for America kicking ass. These are the people who usually turn their noses up at the movies I'm looking forward to. These are the people who are giving the Republican party confidence as it tries to derail our economy.

I'm not saying you had to be a conservative flag-waver to buy a ticket to Captain America this weekend. But I do think there wasn't much buzz about this movie among my friends, who I consider to be a representative sample of moderately liberal movie lovers out there. Captain America seemed like the umpteenth movie in an absolute binge of superhero movies, a trend I have hoped is kind of petering out, lest it makes a total mockery of itself.

But not for this "silent majority," whose display of support for Captain America scares me the way many people were scared when they watched the awesome display of machine-like synchronicity demonstrated by the Chinese during the opening ceremony for the 2008 summer Olympics. Republicans don't get together to support a movie very often, but when they do, the results can be staggering. Remember The Passion of the Christ?

Well, here's hoping I just misinterpreted the level of excitement that existed about this movie. Because if this many Americans want a human personification of America's most arrogant philosophies about its role on the world stage, then Barack Obama's going to have to watch his back the end of next year.

I'm sure that's not what Captain America is really about -- it would have to be more sly, subtle and liberal-minded than that, wouldn't it? If only because Hollywood is liberal, and most products that come out of it represent that mindset to some degree.

But the people who paid the money didn't care what it was about, probably -- they just liked the idea of a bio-engineered super-soldier running through the battlefield with an American flag emblazoned on his chest.

And I guess there will always be people like that. I'm just glad I don't know too many of them.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A possible miscalculation


Remember last Friday, when I tried to discuss the effect of a geographically limited real-world phenomenon -- LA's closure of the 405 freeway -- on possible box office for the movies opening that weekend?

Well, I'm back for Week 2 of that kind of flawed cause-and-effect thinking. Ready?

I'm sure that Marvel would have loved nothing more than to open Captain America on 4th of July weekend. The thematic tie-ins are obvious. But in terms of cinematic scope, Captain America is less like America than, say, Italy -- a solid mid-level producer, but not a giant on the world stage. There was already an American-sized movie, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, opening on 4th of July weekend, and who wants to go up against a movie like that?

If they didn't get their first choice of a themed release date, perhaps they got their second: the Friday of Comic-Con. What better time to release a movie based on a comic book?

Except, it isn't a great time, really. Because all the geeks are busy in San Diego.

As much as Captain America will be getting a push at Comic-Con because it's opening right now, it'll be getting held back by the fact that its intended audience will be otherwise occupied.

Only geeks from Southern California, Vance. Which is only a small percentage of the geek population.

Not true. Comic-Con has risen in stature to the level that people travel from all over the country -- probably all over the world -- to soak in the sights of that convention center over the course of a long weekend, to wend their way through the Spock ears and the stormtrooper helmets, to rub elbows for a few days with their brethren.

That will still leave plenty of other geeks and non-geeks available to see the movie. Many geeks lack the necessary resources to travel to Comic-Con -- they have enough money to spring for an opening night movie ticket every week, but not enough to fly to San Diego. And besides, if there's any comic book movie that is attempting to push itself outside the normal geek demographic, it would be this one, with its inherent patriotism bordering on jingoism -- not a characteristic you normally associated with your average disenfranchised nerd.

But a movie like this is borderline enough, in terms of summer blockbusters, that it needs every dollar that opening weekend to create the buzz necessary to carry over to weekend #2 and weekend #3. Captain America was a bit of a fringe superhero in terms of my superhero world view when I was growing up -- there was something too earnest about his persona. Even then, when I was unacquainted with politics, there seemed something too unironic and conservative about a superhero wearing a spandex American flag. So this movie is no guaranteed success -- far from it. In fact, it could face the same type of struggles to reach an audience that Green Lantern faced.

So if tens of thousands of those available box office dollars are being spent on X-Men t-shirts and replica lightsabers in San Diego, they won't be going into Captain America's coffers when it needs them most.

As for Comic-Con itself ... I'll get there, some year. I'm only two hours away by car, so travel is not a consideration. I've got some friends who go every year, and the tales they bring back are always entertaining.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

La creme de la creme of foreign films


Welcome to my second edition of Flickchart Tuesdays. In this series I will examine some movie proclivity I may never know I had, based solely on how I've ranked my favorite films in Flickchart. See my "flickchart" label at the bottom of this post for all previous references to Flickchart and a description of what it is.

Today I'm going to explore my top ten foreign films, based only on my current rankings in Flickchart. (For the purposes of this post, I'm observing the same rules as the Academy does -- they have to be foreign language films.)

The rules are that I'm not even going to vet out my topic before I start writing. I'm just going to choose a topic, then go into Flickchart and see what comes up, however embarrassing the results may be.

Without any further ado:

1. Run Lola Run (1999, Tom Tykwer). I believe this movie actually came out in 1998 in Germany, but my first opportunity to see it was 1999, where I ranked it the #1 movie I saw that year, so I continue to list that as its release year. This choice should not be such a surprise for anyone who read last week's post containing my top 20 overall. Nothing but love for this movie: wild, passionate, devoted love. Flickchart: #16.

2. The Bicycle Thief (1948, Vittorio di Sica). A classic, for good reason. I am now kicking myself that I've seen this only once, and it was a good 20 years ago now. Every time I see The Player I'm reminded that I needed to see this again. And every time I see Reality Bites. (Let's see if anyone gets that reference.) Flickchart: #26.

3. The Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa). This was in my top ten overall in my previous incarnation of Flickchart, before I re-ranked my films based on a new ranking system. The current ranking is probably more accurate -- but never fear, Seven Samurai, being in my top 40 overall is massive praise from me. It's just a shame I can't sit through it more often, it being a girthy 204 minutes. Still, I've watched it twice, and am immeasurably richer for it. Flickchart: #38.

4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007, Cristian Mungiu). I love movies about abortions! Actually, I love movies made with unforgettable technique (every other shot in this film is an impressive long take), brilliant acting and plenty of substance, and the so-called "Romanian abortion drama" qualifies. So much so that it's my fourth favorite foreign-language film of all time. Flickchart: #65.

5. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007, Julian Schnabel). More incredible technique and an incredible, moving story. There's so much life in this film about a man who can only move one eye. And so much great acting by that man (Mathieu Amalric). I'd watch this movie again and again ... even if I had only one eye. Flickchart: #69.

Can I just pause here for a moment to note my diversity? Five films, five languages: German, Italian, Japanese (hey, those World War II Axis powers can make movies), Romanian and French. There should be a Spanish film coming soon ... maybe next? Like I said, I don't know -- I'm figuring it out as I write!

6. Let the Right One In (2008, Tomas Alfredson). Okay, not Spanish, but how about Swedish? My favorite vampire movie of all time may be slightly inflated at this ranking, but my oh my is this filmmaking at its best. If you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about. Flickchart: #71.

7. Cinema Paradiso (1990, Giuseppe Tornatore). Okay, Italian repeats before we get our first Spanish-language film. There are few movies out there that celebrate the love of cinema more wonderfully than Cinema Paradiso. A simply joyous film. And the ending always gets me. Flickchart: #87.

8. Waltz With Bashir (2008, Ari Folman). Wow, I did not expect an animated film to make the list ... though now that I think about it, there could have been a couple contenders. This visually trippy memory piece, where Folman (as himself) interviews veterans about their remembrances of the night 3,000 Palestinian refugees were massacred in Beirut, is simply outstanding. Sounds heavy, but the animation is so wonderful that it leaves you feeling lively. Flickchart: #108.

9. The Wages of Fear (1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot). This should count as multiple languages, because multiple languages are spoken in this film about the impossible task of transporting tons of sensitive explosives across rough terrain in Central America, via truck. Just saw this for the first time about two years ago, and it floored me. Flickchart: #133.

10. Mother (2009, Joon-ho Bong). I've simply never seen a film quite like Mother. Terrific technique, terrific acting -- I still don't know how they got some of the shots. See it. Flickchart: #139.

Still no Spanish-language films. Well, I'm going to make it my habit in these posts to list 11-20, without any commentary. Maybe we'll find one in there.

11. The Professional (1994, Luc Besson). Flickchart: #147.
12. Lemming (2005, Dominik Moll). Flickchart: #148.
13. The Lives of Others (2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck). Flickchart: #163.
14. Delicatessen (1992, Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro). Flickchart: #174.
15. Oldboy (2003, Chan-wook Park). Flickchart: #176.
16. The Seventh Seal (1957, Ingmar Bergman). Flickchart: #179.
17. Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001, Alfonso Cuaron). Flickchart: #187.

Praise Jesus. Finally a Spanish-language film.

18. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006, Clint Eastwood). Flickchart: #188.

Does this count? Hell yeah. It was in Japanese.

19. The Sea Inside (2004, Alejandro Amenabar). Flickchart: #199.
20. Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman). Flickchart: #202.

Most surprised not to see on there: Amelie (2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet). I know I've backlashed some against this movie in recent years, mostly because Audrey Tatou has kept playing Audrey Tatou year in, year out in the decade since Amelie was released. But I still predicted it would be in my top 20. (I looked ahead, and it would have been #25.)

Breakdown of languages in top 20: French five, Swedish three, German two, Italian two, Japanese two, Korean two, Spanish two, Hebrew one and Romanian one.

Only repeat director on the list: Ingmar Bergman.

Would love to hear your thoughts on my choices. See you next Tuesday for more Flickchart fun.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I made it


WARNING!

WARNING!


WARNING!

The following post contains major spoilers about
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2! Read at your own risk! (But mostly about the story, not the movie itself.)

Over two years and four months ago, I wrote a blog post discussing my amazement at the fact that the end of the Harry Potter series had yet to be spoiled for me. The film of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince had not even been released yet, so I still had a ways to go.

Well, I did it. I made it through to the end. I walked into the theater on Saturday afternoon, for the 1 p.m. IMAX 3D show of The Deathly Hallows Part 2, and I still did not know whether Harry Potter would live or die at the end. (As it turns out, he sort of did both.)

Miraculous.

It's just amazing that in this day and age, I would be able to go so long without having such a big secret spoiled to me. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the novel, was released four years ago this Thursday, meaning that J.K. Rowling's series of seven books had the same decade-long span (1997 to 2007) that the eight films had (2001 to 2011). The world has known for almost four years whether Harry would live or die.

I have only known for two days.

So thanks to everyone who helped make this possible by keeping your traps shut. You are a credit to your species.

Now that I've learned the secret, however, I guess I have a better idea why I never learned it before. Namely, the thing most likely to happen actually happened: Harry beats Voldemort in the end, and no other really major characters die. Yes, Snape dies, but you could sort of see that coming. And Bellatrix LeStrange dies, but duh, she's one of the main villains. I already knew that Dumbledore dies -- I allowed my wife to reveal it to me after she finished reading the book -- but that happens at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. So the series does not end with any really major surprises. If Harry had died in the process of killing Voldemort (the only way he could die, because there was never any way Voldemort would win), I probably would have found out. But the big surprise, really, was that there was no surprise.

Okay, I take that back. As I was watching on Saturday, I didn't know the true dimensions of how Harry was connected to Voldemort, that he had a horcrux embedded inside him that contained part of Voldemort's soul. And that both Dumbledore and Snape knew about this, and that perhaps Dumbledore had been manipulating Harry all his life. Well well. I was chilled by the revelation.

Then again, I didn't even really know what a horcrux was as recently as Friday night -- I had to ask my wife about it when we were watching Part 1. And that gives you an idea of how sketchy my understanding of the whole Harry Potter mythology has been. I've watched all the movies, the first four in the theater, followed by three on video before returning to the theater for the grand finale. But the saga has dragged and plodded for much of the time, as I felt like there was a lot of killing time to get to the "good stuff" -- stuff we've finally been seeing in the last movie or two.

For example, as I sit here now, I could not tell you what the significance was of the sorcerer's stone, what was hidden in the chamber of secrets, who drank from the goblet of fire, what the order of the phoenix was, or who the half-blood prince was. I know that Sirius Black was the prisoner of Azkaban, mostly because that movie was head and shoulders above the others. And I know what the deathly hallows are, mostly because I've just seen those two movies.

So "I made it" has a secondary meaning as well. I mean that I made it to the end, all eight movies, to finally get my reward.

And what a reward it was.

I absolutely loved Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Where I thought the other movies continually introduced characters and subplots of questionable relevance, and I never remembered what happened from movie to movie, the final part felt streamlined and accessible. Not only that, but when it goes big, it goes BIG. The movie has easily some of the best action set pieces of the series -- love the entire Gringott's break-in -- and the epic final battle at Hogwart's does not disappoint. And part of the reason I felt so enthralled to see the good Hogwart's instructors fighting the bad was because it was an end to all the gentility and politics that had consumed many of the previous installments. The cards were finally on the table -- now it was time to just shut up and fight it out.

I think I loved this movie as much as I did, in part, because it reminded me of a Lord of the Rings movie more than any of its predecessors. But also because it reminded me of the best Star Wars prequel, Revenge of the Sith. Why Revenge of the Sith? Because in Deathly Hallows, something finally happens. A part of the plot you've long been anticipating has finally arrived.

And that's what's really interesting about the Harry Potter series, taken just as movies. There's a whole lot of nothing going on for most of the series. Dress it up however you like, but in retrospect, it kind of looks like a TV series where they didn't figure out what their endgame was until season five of an eventual eight seasons. I think the reason most people tolerated this was because the books prepared them for it. Without having read the books, I just spent most of the series feeling impatient. In what other series of movies does your primary antagonist not even make an appearance on screen until the fourth movie? Just to be sure I'm right about this, I checked Ralph Fiennes' credits on IMDB, and true enough -- 2005's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is his first appearance in the series. And apparently, the appearance of Voldemort didn't even interest me very much, since I consider that the weakest film in the series (followed closely by Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).

The transformation that occurs between Part 1 and Part 2 of Deathly Hallows astonished me, however. Even as I was watching Part 1 on Friday night, I still felt a bit of a sense of ho-hum about the whole thing. I had to keep asking my wife (during breaks) for clarifications on things that I thought were not sufficiently explained, and who this person was, and who that person was, and why were they going off on this tangent so late in the story.

But I guess that's what a little plot resolution can really do for a movie. I was wide-eyed and excited from the first moment of Part 2, and the ride never let up.

I must pause also to wonder about the potential impact was of seeing the movie in the theater -- not just the theater, but in IMAX 3D. I know 3D wasn't an option until this movie, so I'm not comparing apples to other apples, but would I have felt more enthusiastic about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 if I had seen them in the theater? Maybe you, who saw them all in the theater, can answer this question for me: Is the last Potter movie as much better than the previous seven movies (except Azkaban) as I seem to think it is, or was I just really impressed by some quality 3D and a very large screen?

I'm just glad that I prioritized a theatrical screening of the last movie. I felt like I owed it to the series, a series that has brought me occasional joy alongside that occasional frustration. And like I said, I was rewarded big-time for making it to the end. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 delivers, and the add-ons (IMAX, 3D) are most certainly worth it.

So now we enter a world entirely post-Harry Potter, and even though I was never an ardent fan who consumed the novels within a week of them being published, I'm feeling a bit of the melancholy they're feeling.

So what's next, Hunger Games? I haven't read any of them and the first movie comes out next year. Maybe I'll get reading, so no one has the chance to spoil the ending of this one for me.

Then again, sometimes the humans surprise you, by keeping the surprises to themselves. In the case of the Harry Potter series, the humans who conspired to not spoil it for me gave muggles a good name.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fahrenheit's 451 influences


You won't believe what an hour-long nap at 6:30 p.m. can do for your evening's longevity.

Not only did I never succumb to sleep during the 2-hour-and-26-minute running time of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, but I fancied myself up for an entire other (short) movie, starting at just before midnight. I didn't finish it, but did watch a whole hour before finishing up this morning.

It was totally unpremeditated: Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, for the second time. I can't remember whether we had it in our streaming queue because I put it there, or because my wife did and wanted to watch it with me. But there are lots of movies out there, and I decided there were other movies I could watch with her.

As I was watching, not only was I reminded of how great it is, but of how many other films it may have influenced in one way or another. (Topic: Were these other films influenced by Truffaut's movie, or Ray Bradbury's original book? Discuss.)

Okay, so there aren't 451, but there are 4 or 5:

1) The Lives of Others (2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck). The 2006 best foreign film Oscar winner concerns an Eastern German Stasi captain who's charged with ferreting out suspected traitors who may threaten the state. His dogmatic principles are ultimately thawed when he spies on a pair of artists for an extended period of time. Although the activities of the firemen in Fahrenheit 451 are much more overt -- they arrive at domiciles with plenty of pomp and circumstance, openly seizing and burning the contraband books -- Fahrenheit's central figure is also an operative of the state who loses his belief in the big-brother methods of his government, in large part due to his interactions with a woman he suspects of being a book owner.

2) Equilibrium (2002, Kurt Wimmer). Wimmer's film consists of a more direct homage to Fahrenheit 451, as it portrays a future world where emotions are forbidden. In fact, law-abiding citizens take a regular regimen of mood-controlling drugs, hence the title. In this society, anything that inspires emotion, which includes works of art of any kind, is banned. That's the reason given for why the books are verboten in Fahrenheit -- that they agitate people too much emotionally. In Equilibrium, Christian Bale plays an enforcement agent who's charged with rooting out those who oppose the state, must like Oskar Werner's Montag in Fahrenheit. He too sees his resolve crumble due to his interactions with a beguiling woman (Emily Watson).

3) The Book of Eli (2010, Allen & Albert Hughes). If you don't want a "surprise" near the end of either Fahrenheit 451 or The Book of Eli revealed, skip this one and go on to the next. For those citizens who oppose the book banning in Fahrenheit, but also want to stay out of jail, they have a novel (no pun intended) method of keeping books alive in a form other than physical: They commit them to memory, and "become" the book. Love that concept -- in fact, Eli screenwriter Gary Whitta seemed to love it too. The big secret (one of two, actually -- I won't reveal the controversial and somewhat dubious second secret) of Whitta's mysterious protagonist, Eli (Denzel Washington), is that he has committed the Bible to memory, in the hopes of reciting it for eventual republishing in this post-apocalyptic world devoid of the written word.

4) Don't Look Now (1973, Nicolas Roeg). When I studied Roeg's masterpiece Don't Look Now during my first film class in high school, my film teacher emphasized the fact that this odd mystery set in Venice has at least a small amount of the color red in every single shot. I'd have to watch it again, but I think that's correct -- every single shot. It's the main detail about the movie that's stuck with me in the probably 18 years since I last saw it. Well, when I watched Fahrenheit 451 this time, and herd Roeg's name in the cast as the cinematographer (marvelously, the written word is banned even in terms of the film's credits, which are read aloud), I put two and two together. Fahrenheit 451 is a film with a ton of red in it, most notably the ominous truck that carries the firemen on their calls, as well as the firehouse from which they originate. As Roeg's film came seven years later, I have to wonder if his use of the color red in Don't Look Now was a seed that had been germinating since he shot Truffaut's film.

Okay, there were four, not five. Actually, I'm sure there are a ton more. But this is already more of a blog post than I ever thought I'd get to write on a Saturday morning while on daddy duty.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Instant carmageddon's gonna ... help you?



If you live in Los Angeles, there's only one word on your lips this week:

Carmageddon.

If you live elsewhere, it's possible you need an explanation for what's going on.

A section of the most heavily used and traffic-filled freeway in the country (citation needed), the 405 freeway, also (never) known as the San Diego Freeway, is closing down from midnight Friday night to 5 a.m. Monday morning. It's so they can blow up a bridge that runs across it, widen some lanes, and set a record for the most amount of work ever accomplished in a 53-hour period. In fact, so much emphasis is being placed on getting the work done in a timely matter, the contractor is being charged $6,000 for every ten minutes the freeway reopens late. They've been warning us about it for months, and about six weeks ago I started hearing it referred to as "Carmageddon." (See, we love our cars in L.A., so if you take them away from us, it's the end of the world as we know it.)

This means that the hundreds of thousands of cars that usually run along the freeway on a given summer weekend are going to be doing other things, if they're smart. The authorities are encouraging us to stay home -- not literally in the house, but in our home neighborhoods. In fact, it's being used as an excuse to promote local businesses. We are being encouraged to explore our local neighborhoods and see what they have to offer.

And when we explore them and decide that they offer nothing of interest, we will go to the movies.

I know my wife and I are planning to go to the movies, anyway. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part II opens this weekend (duh), and after we see the penultimate Potter movie tonight, we're going to divide and conquer for the rest of the weekend: She'll see the final movie one day, I'll see it the next. Or vice versa. We haven't gotten that specific in the planning yet.

Of course, we're not the only ones who have this idea. It stands to reason that this could be the biggest opening for any Potter movie since the first one. What I'm wondering is: Will it be even bigger because of Carmageddon?

Let's think about it. Los Angeles is basically the largest metropolitan area in the country, in part because the borders of what people consider to be Los Angeles are so sprawling. Not to mention that Angelenos tend to be more movie-crazed in general, because so many people who work in the industry also live here. Add in the fact that we're spoiled by summer weather for most of the year, meaning we don't care about sacrificing some prime afternoon weather on a summer weekend to go to the movies, and then add in Carmageddon, and you could see the overall box office of Harry Potter rise slightly just because of a highway construction project.

Of course, it's very difficult to measure the impact of a real-world event on box office because you don't have a baseline. Not until a movie opens can you really be sure how successful its advertising campaign has been. With box office, you're never in a position to say "Harry Potter would have made $117.2 million this weekend. Because of Carmageddon, it made $118.6 million."

But I do think it's interesting to ponder. And with a movie like Winnie the Pooh, the only major movie brave enough to go up against Potter, you can posit a bit more of a relationship between the real-world event and the box office. I mean, over 90% of the available seats for Potter were going to be taken this weekend anyway. Carmageddon might mean this number goes from 93% to 98% in LA.

Pooh? It's hard to say. I mean, I'm not in the 0-3 age demographic it's targeting, but I can't really say there's much anticipation out there for this one. Past Winnie the Pooh movies have been notable for being five years behind the current standards for both animation technology and pop culture references inserted into the script, and in keeping the exact same animation style for this one, it doesn't feel like any kind of earth-shattering reboot of the concept.

So if Pooh rakes in more money than we think it will, is it possible we could blame LA's automotive outage for that one? Or will it just be that younger kids who didn't get tickets for Potter will accept Pooh as a (distant) second choice?

I suppose, before any of my readers take me too seriously, I should insert a paragraph referencing the fact that I'm being a bit disingenuous here. I know the LA market is such a small part of the overall domestic box office that any difference made by Carmageddon wouldn't even be felt. Besides, adults are the ones who are not going to be driving. Many adults without kids will not be seeing Potter, and most if not all adults without kids will not be seeing Pooh.

Still, though -- if you're like me, and you live in LA, and are planning to go to the movies this weekend ... plan ahead. Even movies like Bad Teacher and Green Lantern may be selling out.

Forget the movies, though -- the best show this weekend might be getting to watch them blow up the Mulholland Bridge. I'd pay movie ticket prices to see that one.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Origins of a band name


My son got me up at 5:30 yesterday morning, at least a half-hour earlier than he usually gets me up. Since the previous night was the first night in ages we hadn't taken him into bed with us, I was fine with it.

But it meant I needed something to do for the hour-and-a-half before I had to go to work. Really more like an hour-and-fifteen.

I thought of watching a movie, but it would have to be a really short one, like, under 75 minutes. As I was scrolling through the Netflix streaming options, I saw one that would qualify quite nicely: the 66-minute White Zombie from 1932. In fact, it was even better because I only needed to watch 58 minutes of it. I'd watched the first eight minutes of it something like three months earlier, and Netflix hadn't forgotten that fact.

And so it was that I watched a 1932 horror movie starring Bela Lugosi before work on an average Wednesday.

But the reason I started watching it two months ago was because of the band White Zombie.

I'm not a huge fan of White Zombie. I bought their album Astro-Creep: 2000 primarily because of my affection for the song "More Human Than Human," which I couldn't get enough of back in the late 1990s. Back then, if you wanted a song, you often had to buy the whole album. Sometimes you'd be fine about this, if you wanted to take a gamble on the band, based on your feelings toward the song you know. That wasn't the case for me with White Zombie. I was familiar enough with the rest of their stuff that I knew I wouldn't become an ardent fan. I don't dislike the rest of the music, but suffice it to say I've probably only listened to that album all the way through once, nor did I expect to listen to it more than that. That's how much I liked that song.

Still, I'm quite interested in Rob Zombie as a person, probably because he's also a director. Musicians make the transition to being actors all the time, but directors? Doesn't happen nearly as often. I have a surprising amount of affection for the two Zombie movies I've seen, The Devil's Rejects and House of 1,000 Corpses (I saw them in that order, not realizing the first was actually a sequel to the second). There's something about his violent, twisted, go-for-broke sensibilities that makes me deliciously frightened to see what he might imagine next. And I like the guy as a solo artist -- well, I like him exactly as much as I like his former band, which is to say that for a period of time, I couldn't get enough of one song in particular ("Dragula").

It was much more recently that I realized that the band White Zombie was preceded by a movie called White Zombie. Preceded by over five decades, in fact. For some reason, if Rob Zombie (born Robert Cummings) named his band after a horror film, I think he'd call it Leatherface or Chainsaw Massacre or Last House. (He couldn't go for the full titles with those films, it would be too on-the-nose). A black-and-white horror from the 1930s -- now that surprised me.

So I wanted to see what this movie was all about, this Bela Lugosi movie from 1932 that was instrumental in shaping Robert Cummings' very identity.

Let me start by saying that White Zombie reminded me a lot of Dracula, which was released the year before. Not just because both movies star Lugosi, and because both directors (Victor Halperin for Zombie, Tod Browning for Dracula) use the same effect of shining a light on Lugosi's intense eyes to make him seems more fearsome.

No, it's because both movies had much more of a capacity to be chilling than I gave them credit for. (I described the creepy aspects of Dracula here if you want to read them.) While I was creeped out by the visual touches Browning brought to his film, it was the sound design in White Zombie that really made me take notice. But let me give you a little bit of a plot synopsis first so you know what I'm talking about.

The movie concerns a couple who travel to Haiti to be married. I can't right now remember the reason they go to Haiti, since that was in the eight minutes I saw three months ago. But they're staying in the home of a man who longs for the bride-to-be -- so much so that he visits a witch doctor (Lugosi) to see if he can figure out how to make her "disappear" long enough that he can have her to himself, without interference from the groom. The witch doctor gives him a substance so potent that only a "pin prick" (Lugosi uses this phrase a couple times) will make her appear dead, only to revive later on. Of course, when she revives, she's a zombie -- you'd think this other suitor would have realized that when he visited the witch doctor's lair and saw a team of zombies working in assembly line on some kind of wooden machine with a large wooden wheel that makes it go.

It's this scene at the witch doctor's lair that features the first sound effect that really chilled me. It's the only sound in the soundtrack for a good minute, the grotesque squeaking of this wooden machine as it goes about its business. The zombies themselves are utterly silent.

A later effect really got me, too. A vulture factors significantly into the plot, yet the vulture doesn't make ordinary vulture noises, whatever they may be. It makes a noise that seems to be a blend of a bird squawking and a human screaming, and just thinking about it is making my flesh crawl as I type this.

But I don't intend this post to be a review of the merits of White Zombie, which were considerable for a movie made in 1932. Rather, what I really want to know is the effect it had on Robert Cummings, to cause him to name himself and his band after the movie.

And I'm ashamed to say that nothing is jumping out. For its time, I think the movie is quite an incredible achievement -- it's got some great camera setups, and even the beginnings of some legit special effects. But it's also of course dated in many ways, and it only hints at the kind of violence and gore that would become Zombie's trademark as a director. Alas, I've googled, and I can't immediately find any comments from the man himself that shed any further light on the subject. (Okay, I read the wikipedia pages for the band and the man, and scanned the first page of google results using only one pair of search words.)

Anyway, I'm glad I saw it. And having now seen two horror films from the 1930s that were more effective than I thought they had any chance of being, now I'm eager to delve a bit further.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

An unintentional Flickchart hiatus

Remember how I used to write about Flickchart twice a month?

You know, the website where you rank all the movies you've ever seen (as far as you care to go toward that goal, anyway), via a series of one-on-one duels to decide which film is better?

I'd have been writing more, but I took an unintentional hiatus.

When we last left off, I was involved in a project to re-add all my films to the database using what I considered a more accurate way for giving them an initial ranking -- the "by title" method, which ranks new films against films in the database until it lands in a position directly above a movie it beats and directly below a movie that beats it. The "by title" method of ranking was a new feature that trumped Flickchart's previous method of ranking new films, so I felt it was important for me to start over from scratch.

That project was satisfying and yielded interesting results. I still had movies that seemed out of place, but I think that's just because of the variability of how we'll apprise a film on a given day of the week. It's also inevitable when your personal database consists of more than 3,000 films.

It was a much more rote and banal project that actually got me hung up, leading me to go nearly four months without ranking a single film on Flickchart.

See, one thing I like to do with my Flickchart is to take "snapshots" of it -- pause at certain junctures and copy the results into an Excel spreadsheet. I guess this is my way of making sure that the work I've put into this never gets lost if Flickchart's servers one day go off line. But it also helps me track changes over time to see how much closer I'm getting to my "definitive" list. I've now got a new method for doing that which will make the snapshots easier, and use them to better determine how much closer I'm getting to Ranking Nirvana.

I won't bore you with those details right now -- I suspect the non-initiated among my readers are already growing impatient -- but I did want to say that the actual process of typing the films into the Excel spreadsheet felt very tedious this time, and led to really long periods of inactivity. Oh, and I guess I can use the excuse that I also went on two vacations during this time, one in April and one in June. See, I can't start ranking anew until I've finished the snapshot, because then the spots of the movies shuffle again, and the snapshot itself becomes meaningless. So finishing this tedious Excel project was paramount to resuming my Flickchart activities.

Anyway, the point is, I'm ranking again. And it feels great. And I want to write about it on my blog.

So this will be the first in a series called "Flickchart Tuesdays," where I analyze some aspect of my personal movie rankings and write about it. If you aren't into Flickchart, don't worry. I won't be talking archaic minutia about how the site works, at least not much. More likely, I will use the process of Flickchart as a background, to help me write posts like "My top 10 comedies." The nice thing about Flickchart is that it takes away some of the agonizing that arises when you try to make best-of lists just from your noodle alone. You know you'll forget certain movies that belong on the list. But if you've done your rankings properly on Flickchart, you don't have to worry about that -- you've arrived at big decisions, accurate decisions, over the course of thousands of small decisions.

Anyway, enough about the machinations of this website. It seems appropriate to start with the 20 films Flickchart has determined are my favorite, as a result of this painstaking process of reloading. They've been listed on the side of my blog, but time to delve into them (very) briefly and determine if where they ended up feels accurate.

I will start by saying one thing: Of these top 20, only seven are films I've actually watched within the last five years. I don't mean watched for the first time -- I mean watched at all. What this tells me, and the following will bear this out, is that I can absolutely love a film but not be compelled to watch it at regular intervals. Sometimes its greatness is just so obvious that it barely even requires additional viewings. You'd think this would make me doubt the results, but it doesn't. It just made me realize that we revisit films for different reasons, irrespective of their absolute quality.

Vancetastic's Top 20 Films, According to Flickchart:

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg). Example #1 of the previous phenomenon would be Raiders. Soon after I started this process, I realized that Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of only a few real contenders to end up as my favorite movie of all time. The thing is, I haven't seen it since 2005 or so, and even then I'm not sure if I saw the whole thing. I'm also not the type of guy who goes around gushing about Raiders, though I have a couple friends who do. Even more noteworthy is the fact that I don't own it -- repeat, I don't own my favorite film of all time -- and when given the opportunity to ask for it for Christmas, I asked for other movies instead. It would be very easy to have no idea that it was my favorite film of all time. I only know because of Flickchart, which made me realize that its just part of the fabric of my being. Its greatness does not even need to be discussed.

2. Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis). The other most serious contender for my #1 spot. Perfect script, perfect escapism, perfect movie. My only quibble: Why, oh why, didn't Marty just go back more than ten minutes early at the end? Good thing Doc was wearing that bullet proof vest. Again worth noting: I don't own this movie.

3. Raising Arizona (1987, Joel & Ethan Coen). And at #3 we finally get to a movie that not everyone in my generation would have in their top 5. This has always been my favorite Coen film, and it held my top spot under the old ranking system. It was worthy of it ... just not as worthy as Raiders or BTTF.

4. Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino). I have long thought Pulp Fiction was the best film of the 1990s, and this confirms it (for me personally, anyway). It feels a little cliche to have it this high, but come on -- it redefined cinema in many ways. It's also the movie I've seen the most number of times in the theater: four. Given that, #4 seems like an appropriate spot.

5. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner). In a way it feels wrong to have my first Star Wars movie be this low, because I ate, drank and breathed Star Wars when I was a kid. But if I'm ranking right now, which I am, I have to put these other four films ahead of Empire. If I get a duel between Pulp and Empire tomorrow, who knows?

6. Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter). This was the other film that spent a significant amount of time at #1 in my old rankings, until it was unseated by Raising Arizona. Clearly my favorite animated movie of all time, Toy Story has probably only "suffered" (#6 is "suffering," apparently) by my not having seen it in awhile, and the fact that I didn't love (but liked a lot) Toy Story 3. Unfair? Perhaps -- but this is still a lot higher than it would be ranked for almost anyone else I know.

7. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles). I just couldn't make "the greatest film of all time" my greatest, though there was a time when I wondered if I would. It's that good. Watched it two years ago and fell in love with it all over again. One of the rare times when a film being excessively hyped -- I always knew of it as "the greatest film of all time" -- didn't mean I'd like it any less.

8. Star Wars (1977, George Lucas). Is Citizen Kane better than Star Wars? I don't know. According to me, it's one better.

9. Fargo (1996, Joel & Ethan Coen). And the Coens make their second entry into the top 10. Bow down.

10. A Fish Called Wanda (1988, Charles Crichton). Charles who? Most obscure director in my top 10, but wow. I'd call this my favorite comedy of all time if Raising Arizona and (depending on how you want to categorize it) Toy Story weren't making a liar of me. Absolute genius from start to finish. Apparently this is also my favorite "foreign" film.

11. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992, James Foley). James who? I usually dislike David Mamet, but this is just a tour-de-force in every way you can imagine -- writing, acting, and yes, directing. Least expensive movie on the list so far, to be sure. I just got this back from a friend who had borrowed it, and I'm looking forward to watching it again -- soon.

12. GoodFellas (1990, Martin Scorsese). Come on, people. It's GoodFellas.

13. Ghost (1990, Jerry Zucker). I never would have guessed I'd rank this so high -- it felt like the equivalent of having Titanic in my top 20. But watch this movie again. Not only is it absolutely transporting from an emotional perspective, but the script is so ... damn ... tight. And it's got that incredible Whoopi Goldberg performance. I was in love with this film when I first saw it, and after a number of years when I didn't think much about it, the love is rekindled.

14. Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly). Would have probably been higher if I didn't love it slightly less on my last viewing. Still, an absolute cinematic mindfuck that also gets you emotionally. My favorite movie of the 2000s. Richard Kelly, what has happened to you since?

15. Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuaron). My newest movie in the top 20. I've seen it four times since I first saw it in January of 2007, making it my most watched film during that period. For good reason. Great story and some of the most ridiculous camera work you've ever seen.

16. Run Lola Run (1999, Tom Tykwer). See here. I cry when I watch it, and not even during the parts that are supposed to be emotional. That's how much I love this movie. Highest ranked foreign language film. Its five labels on my blog may also make it my most discussed individual film on my blog, even if some of the references were fleeting.

17. When Harry Met Sally (1989, Rob Reiner). Best romantic comedy of all time, even if I did recently discover that it's at least an homage and possibly a ripoff of Annie Hall, when I watched Annie Hall again.

18. The Princess Bride (1986, Rob Reiner). Second Rob Reiner in a row. Yep, this ranking is quite "conceivable."

19. The Shawshank Redemption (1994, Frank Darabont). One of only two films (the other being Dumb and Dumber, which is currently at #36) that I tell people I watch all the way to the finish if I come across them on TV. I don't know if that's true, but Shawshank has roped me in more than once. Recently bought it but haven't watched my copy yet.

20. Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood). Best western of all time. Just got the BluRay for Christmas. Must watch. Soon.

And in case you're wondering what just missed:

21. Time Bandits (1981, Terry Gilliam)
22. WarGames (1983, John Badham)
23. Lost in Translation (2003, Sofia Coppola)
24. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicholas Meyer)
25. The Iron Giant (1999, Brad Bird)
26. The Bicycle Thief (1948, Vittorio di Sica)
27. Bound (1996, Larry & Andy Wachowski)
28. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, Terry Gilliam)
29. National Lampoon's Animal House (1978, John Landis)
30. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994, Mike Newell)

Thanks for indulging me. Back next Tuesday with more exploration of my movies. But back before then with other stuff, of course.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Wish we'd seen this a month ago


Last night my wife and I watched Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Of all the movies we've never seen, we considered this to be the most pressing.

Actually, we'd seen the original in the theater as a necessary break from a frantic Christmas season back east, and found it quite charming as the movie went on -- the rare case of a movie that got better as it progressed in the act structure. We'd had Battle of the Smithsonian on our radar as a good candidate for some mindless fun when our minds needed it. I don't know that our minds needed it especially last night, but I borrowed it from the library on Friday, so circumstance put it in our path.

But I really wish we'd watched it sometime in early June.

See, in mid June, we visited the Smithsonian. That's right, we allotted about two hours on our last day, after which we needed to leave for the airport, to take in the whole Smithsonian.

I will pause for a second while you finish laughing.

See, the way the Smithsonian is referred to, it makes it sounds like it's one museum. One building that has everything from Fonzie's jacket to dinosaur bones. Definitely a museum worth checking out if you're in D.C., right?

Ha. "The" Smithsonian is actually 19 separate museums, a fact we would have realized if we'd seen Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian before our trip to D.C. At about the 15-minute mark of the movie, it's spelled out in no uncertain terms. And then of course becomes a major part of the narrative.

Now, I knew there were a lot of museums in D.C. This was on my radar from when I was a child, when I visited a number of them, and my family always made a big deal out of the fact that they were free. (They're not free anymore, but we happened to be there on a "Free Tuesday," so we lucked out -- which also explains why the place was packed.) But I thought one of them was called The Smithsonian, and the rest were their own other things. And in fact, my delusion lasted all the way up until we arrived, since our GPS also gave us a single address for "The Smithsonian."

It was only once we'd gotten there, circled for awhile and then shelled out a ridiculous amount for parking (something like $18) that we realized "The" Smithsonian was a massive campus of buildings stretched down the mall. Our parking fiasco had already eaten up a good 45 minutes, leaving us only about 90 minutes to consume the entirety of this place, to somehow find Fonzie's jacket.

My wife's interest was in the Natural History portion of the Smithsonian, since that's where Bones works. She watches Bones, and the forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) has an office on campus. (I guess the true massive scale of the Smithsonian was not made clear by the TV show either.) So that's where we made a bee-line.

And actually saw a decent amount of stuff in what had basically become a condensed hour. We saw the Hope Diamond and a statue from Easter Island and some spiders and some animal skeletons. However, the real coup was stumbling across an exhibit devoted specifically to forensic anthropology. It was a pretty interesting exhibit, tracing the lives and deaths of the earliest settlers of the Chesapeake Bay by where their bones were found. There was even a mockup forensic lab to study bones. I'd say we got our money's worth, especially since it was free.

Fonzie's jacket will have to wait for next trip.

As for the movie? It was cute. Neither Night at the Museum is great, and I think I like the first one slightly better, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that I laughed a number of times during this film. The character overload didn't bother me quite as much as I expected it to, and there were some interesting visual things done here, such as the characters jumping into moving paintings, and the statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial (which we spent the first part of our Smithsonian day seeing) coming to life in a way that looked pretty darn good. Oh, and a giant octopus.

So what's next for Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) and his crew -- the Louvre?

Already been there, at least.