Sunday, October 30, 2011

The perils of good Rediquette


In the year-and-a-half I've been frequenting Redbox kiosks, I've had time to develop a series of rules of etiquette that relate to this narrow corner of our collective social contract.

You might call it "Rediquette."

Unlike a video store, where multiple customers can have access to the inventory at the same time, the Redbox kiosk forces you to take turns.

Now, according to the selfish behavioral assumptions of most Americans, when it's your turn, you can take as much time as you damn please. It's your God-given right. We see this mindset in people refusing to relinquish their parking space while fussing around with inconsequential tasks around their car, and with pedestrians who actually slow down once they enter the crosswalk.

I like to think of myself as above these selfish behavioral laws. I try to lubricate our collective interpersonal reactions whenever possible, and Redbox is no exception to that.

Of course, sometimes it gets me in trouble, like Thursday night.

Thursday night, I was heading up to a friend's house to watch a movie. I'd be picking up a movie -- ideally a BluRay -- on my way there, and the plan was for me to text him some choices when I was in the video store.

However, I wasn't going to a video store per se. My idea was to swing by a Redbox kiosk and hope to find a half-dozen palatable choices among its offerings.

But then the Rediquette kicked in. Not once, but twice.

Let's back up a second and talk more about this Rediquette. All the rules of Rediquette basically come down to not wasting another person's time. The most obvious example is when you have no business to transact other than returning a rental. A Redbox return is about the simplest transaction you can imagine -- there's no reason it should take longer than 15 seconds. You just need to hit the button on the screen that says Return, then insert your movie when prompted. The only thing that might elongate the experience is if you've oriented the disc wrong within the case, meaning that the kiosk can't read the bar code to verify your return. But that tacks on another 15 seconds at most.

Problem is, if someone is at the kiosk, hemming and hawing and going through the screens for the third time, you're stuck waiting for them to finish -- even if you just have a 15-second transaction to complete.

Unless that someone is me. I'm not saying I don't sometimes hem and haw at a Redbox kiosk, but if I am involved in an extended hem-haw, and see someone approaching, disc in hand, I'll ask them if they're only returning. If they are, I let them go ahead of me. If they're also going to pick a movie, they have to wait. Seems like a good system, sure to put a smile on the face of someone who never expected to receive that kind of deference (and probably wouldn't give it if the roles were reversed).

Okay, that's a lot of preamble to finally get us to the events of Thursday night.

So Thursday night I pulled into the 7-11 parking lot just after another car, containing two men -- possibly a father and a son. They got to their parking spot first, but I got out of the car first. It seemed pretty clear that they were heading to the Redbox kiosk, but I was in a position to get there before them. It was an ambiguous enough situation that I wanted to avoid seeming rude by jumping ahead of them, even though any dispassionate analysis of the situation would say I had a perfect right to go first.

So I erred on the side of politeness and magnanimously gave them the floor, on one condition: "Do you already know what you want?" I was already running late, and I didn't want to get stuck behind an extended hem-haw. I was also pretty sure they did know, since I heard the word "Transformers" pass their lips as they walked up. Besides, I myself didn't know what I wanted, so I didn't want to subject them to the very same hem-haw I was trying to avoid. (Nor did I want to speed through my options with the added pressure of people waiting for me to finish.)

They finished up their business pretty quickly, meaning my Rediquette had paid off. It was exactly a situation like this for which I devised the rules of Rediquette, and it pleased me to see such social efficiency in action.

So then it was my turn, and I went through the first ten screens of choices, composing to my friend a text of the movies I thought either of us might want to see. For the record, they included Captain America, Attack the Block, the aforementioned Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Your Highness, Cedar Rapids and Hall Pass (the last of which I've already seen, but loved).

Of course, I still had to send the text and get his response, and at this point, another pair -- a man and a woman -- had sidled up to the kiosk.

Rediquette had worked for me the first time, so why not a second time?

I stepped aside and told them they could go, and awaited my friend's response.

It came pretty quickly, actually, and I was pleased to see him identify Attack the Block as the movie that he also wanted to see most. I'd been thinking about Attack the Block all day, and would have asked him about that movie only, except I didn't want to unduly bias him.

In a way, I wish his response hadn't come so quickly, because now I was ready, and the pair I'd let go ahead of me were -- you guessed it -- hemming and hawing.

It wasn't the worst hem-haw I've ever seen, not by a long shot. In fact, they picked out two movies in probably under two minutes. Not too bad, all told.

Except that one of the movies they picked up was the last copy of Attack the Block.

D'oh!

I cursed my stupidity. I didn't realize what had happened at first, and couldn't believe I couldn't find the movie I'd just seen there a moment ago. I decided to search alphabetically, and here it was that I saw the Attack the Block image faded to a dull gray -- meaning they usually had a copy in stock, but not right now. "Reserve online next time to make sure your movie is here!" a chirpy little message told me.

Damn.

There are only so many movies they can stuff into a Redbox kiosk, so at any given time, you are in real peril of losing the one you want. In trying to engage in a social nicety, I'd lost the only movie on that list we were both excited about seeing. My friend had texted me that any of the other choices would be fine, but I sensed he was just being agreeable.

I guess there's a reason the average person is selfish, and looks out for his/her own interests first. When you don't, occasionally, you get screwed.

Epilogue: I just went to the next closest Redbox kiosk, at a 7-11 about a mile away, and rented Attack the Block there instead.

But still.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Everything but a horror movie


It's the Friday before Halloween ... do you know where your horror movies are?

Who'd have thought we'd so notice the absence (for the first time since 2003) of a new Saw movie? Now there are simply no scary movies being released on the Friday before Halloween. How unlikely.

Okay, maybe not so unlikely ... Paranormal Activity 3 and The Thing both came out earlier in the month, presumably to put more asses in the seats before Halloween actually rolled around. Smart strategy.

And perhaps that's why counter-programming is so abundant on the October 28, 2011 release date. Without a perceived front-runner for this weekend's box office dollars -- that is, a perceived front-runner among new releases, as all movies will be grappling with the phenomenon known as Paranormal Activity 3 -- a number of other movies have jumped up to the fore to stake their claim to this weekend's available dollars.

In fact, I now have to laugh at myself for this post, in which I wondered whether March 10, 2011 might be the busiest release date of all time. In retrospect it seems quite funny, especially now that I've seen all the movies that came out on that date, and they were no great shakes. I contended that Battle: Los Angeles, Red Riding Hood, Mars Needs Moms and Jane Eyre (which I later discovered was only opening in limited release) were about as hot as it got for movies releasing on one date. Of course, now I know that only Jane Eyre is actually a really good movie, with Mars Needs Moms being decent and the other two being guilty-pleasure laughable at best.

Clearly, back then, I wasn't expecting a release date like October 28th, 2011.

Roland Emmerich goes legit

The movie I've been looking forward to most for a couple months now is Anonymous, Roland Emmerich's attempt to lift himself out of the bowels of the disaster movie gutter and contribute something thoughtful to the world of cinema. I've discussed previously that I love a genre I've made up called the "wax-stamp movie," which is any movie in which the production design is such that a wax seal either is or could be used. (You know, the kind used to keep a parchment letter from coming open, back in the day.)

Anonymous certainly qualifies in that regard. Which makes it the last movie I would have expected Emmerich to direct.

I'm going to choose not to hold his previous career against him and go in to this movie with an open mind -- especially since it looks fantastic. And Emmerich's most recent film, 2012, is actually my favorite film he's ever directed, so maybe he's finally figured out how to do this job after so many years in the business.

The thing I wonder in a humorous sort of way is whether this will become one of those "issue" movies. I don't know how I started thinking this, but it seems that when a director (or star, or producer, or what have you) makes a movie on a certain sociopolitical hot-button topic, they sometimes try to spread the word about whatever the particular cause is, during rounds of press interviews and (if it works out this way) during award-show acceptance speeches.

I don't think Emmerich will win -- or probably even get nominated for -- an Oscar for this movie, but I do think it'll be funny if he decides he needs to take up the campaign about whether Shakespeare really was a fraud. Which wouldn't be a very popular cause to promote in the same way that, you know, gay rights (Milk) or water contamination (Erin Brockovich) may have seemed like causes their stars or directors needed to promote.

Shirking Shrek

I couldn't find online the one poster that first gave me the idea for my take on Puss in Boots, the spin-off from the Shrek franchise starring the voice of Antonio Banderas. That poster gives my sub-heading a bit more meaning than the poster I've chosen does.

It was actually a billboard, and I started seeing it on my drive home from work a month or two ago. It shows a vaguely expressionistic, purple-colored drawing of the face of a cat with the name Puss in Boots below it.

No reference to Shrek, and certainly no visual call-out to the signature Dreamworks animation style that made the title character in this new movie famous. (Man, really wish I could locate that image.)

But this poster here is enough different from the vaguely bulbous animation style of the Shrek movies, and few if any of the posters make a reference to this film's origins within the Shrek universe.

Curious, right?

Latin American chaos

Speaking of posters that do or don't do what they're supposed to do, I find the Rum Diary posters to be some of the most effective I've seen in a long time.

Pair the posters with the trailers and you get a terrific environs in which to set a movie:

Latin American chaos.

There's something I find primitively exciting about the potential for bacchanalian drunken chaos set in a country where they speak Spanish. Do you get me? ("We get you sir!") (Hmm, don't know where that came from. Starship Troopers, I think. )

Anyway, the trailer put me in the perfect mood to imagine a series of wild adventures, many of them actually or theoretically involving rum, in the vaguely lawless version of Puerto Rico created for this movie.

Granted, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States, and in that sense is not really Latin American. But you get what I'm going for, I think. Anyway, you said you did two paragraphs ago. Let's just say this movie looks really fun and I am very excited to see it. (And it could be the Hunter S. Thompson-ness of this movie, more than its Latin American-ness, that I'm responding to.)

One thing I think will be interesting -- and I really should read more about this -- is that this is the director's first movie in 19 years. Bruce Robinson, a name I vaguely recognized, last directed the movie Jennifer 8 in 1992. Love to hear how he found his way back into the director's chair after all these years -- especially in a high-profile project starring Johnny Depp.

Justin Timberlake, action star

It's rather amazing to me how many films Justin Timberlake has now made -- he crossed over from being primarily a singer to primarily an actor a couple years ago -- and he has yet to appear in what you would call an action role. He's got the features for it, it just didn't happen until now.

And when it did happen, that action role had to be in service of a high-concept science fiction plot.

In Time may not end up being a good movie -- in fact, I'm starting to be worried that it won't be -- but it won't seem like some kind of cash-in for Timberlake either. This apparent update of Logan's Run is clearly a movie with ideas, even if they may not end up getting executed effectively.

Just reminds me again how smart Timberlake's choices have always been. Sure, he's made the occasional dud like The Love Guru, but far more often he's selecting material that is interesting or challenging in some way, such as Alpha Dog, Black Snake Moan and The Social Network.

Okay, okay, so 2011 hasn't been his greatest year on record. I haven't seen them, but I hear that Bad Teacher and Friends With Benefits are nothing to write home about.

Look, I just want to praise the guy. Is that okay with you?

The smart romance

It occurs to me that Like Crazy, as original as it will probably be in many ways, is the latest in a string of similar movies that we hope will be a "smart romance."

It may just be me and I may be just taking a very quick look at it, but doesn't this movie remind you a little bit of things like (500) Days of Summer and One Day?

Which is not to say that Like Crazy borrows from either movie -- it seems to be a far less whimsical affair than (500) Days, and it was made pretty much at the same time as One Day, only One Day happened to release a couple months earlier.

More than anything I'm identifying a hunger for independent movies in which two beautiful young actors -- not too beautiful, just beautiful enough -- are involved in some kind of lyrical, semi-tragic romance. You could probably throw in a movie like Blue Valentine, even though that movie is presumably a lot sadder than this one.

Well, I didn't particularly care for (500) Days and I didn't see One Day, whose negative reviews kept me away. But I admit this hunger in myself, and so I'm hoping Like Crazy is good. If the reaction it received at Sundance is any indication, it will be.

*******

More than anything, this weekend at the movies marks an unofficial start to the cinematic home stretch of 2011. Two weeks ago we got a pair of remakes, and last weekend was dominated by the genre giant Paranormal Activity 3. Next week it's November, and many of the year's high-profile award contenders are going to start hitting the theaters with regularity.

Before I get stressed out about all the things I can't see -- Martha Marcy May Marlene and Take Shelter already in theaters -- I'll just try to focus on which of the above movies I'll see this weekend. As of now, Anonymous is the top contender, with Rum Diary a close second.

One thing I can tell you I won't be seeing this weekend:

A horror movie.

In the theater, anyway. On video? Hell yeah! At least one if not several.

It's Halloween weekend, after all.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The struggle for the soul of Seth Rogen



After watching 50/50 last week, I've seen just about everything Seth Rogen has done.

There are some unwatched stragglers, such as You, Me and Dupree and Fanboys, and a good amount of his voice work (Shrek the Third, Horton Hears a Who! and Kung Fu Panda 2). But I've seen all of his essential roles.

So, I thought I'd accrued enough evidence to struggle with his soul.

See, Seth Rogen almost always plays some variation of himself. He hasn't yet shown up as a marine biologist or a brain surgeon, and in one of his only departures from the comedy genre, The Green Hornet, he plays the slacker heir to a newspaper fortune. Which could very easily be characterized as a variation on himself.

But each time I sit down to a Seth Rogen movie, I don't know if I'm going to get the good Seth Rogen or the bad Seth Rogen.

And there can be such little difference between the two of them, sometimes you have to look closely to know for sure.

Ever since his career went through the roof following 2007's Knocked Up, Rogen has exercised more control over how his characters are portrayed than most mere actors. (Sometimes too much control, if you are to believe the theory that a power struggle between himself and director Michel Gondry led to the failure of The Green Hornet.) Because he has aspirations as a writer and a producer, and because he has already gotten several stories based in some way on his own life brought to the big screen, his fingerprints are usually all over even the movies where he's not a writer or producer. He's just accustomed to that level of influence.

What's useful about this, from an analytical standpoint, is that it allows us to give credit -- or blame -- directly to him, in terms of how his characters come across.

As I've been thinking about this piece, I've formulated alter egos for the two sides of his personality. They're based both on character traits and (sort of) appearance. Just go with me on it and see what you think. The good Seth Rogen is kind of like Shia LaBeouf. He's witty, charismatic, fun-loving, even cute, and he can be a legitimate leading man. The bad Seth Rogen, however, is like Danny McBride. He's crass, mean and ugly.

(Hey, if there were advances in human biology, and LaBeouf and McBride could have a child together, it might look sort of like Rogen, right?)

So come with me as I take a stroll through Rogen's major works, and explore whether it's Rogen's inner LaBeouf or Rogen's inner McBride that comes shining or barreling through.

The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005, Judd Apatow)
Which Rogen? LaBeouf

There may be no better metaphor for Rogen's career than our introduction to him in this movie. We meet him while he's describing watching a woman having sex with a horse in Mexico. Clearly, this guy is sort of a dirtbag, because he went to a sex show involving a horse. But as he describes more, you realize he's sort of horrified by what he saw. Yep, this guy is just like you and me. He's rough around the edges, but he's a pussycat. There may still be no more enjoyable Rogen performance on screen.

Knocked Up (2007, Judd Apatow)
Which Rogen? LaBeouf

Rogen has Apatow and Virgin to thank for his first leading role, and he knocks it out of the park (pun sort of intended). Knocked Up is a notch below Virgin in terms of quality, but it's still fully committed to playing Rogen as a sympathetic shlub. He's not perfect and he will probably say and do some raunchy things, but there's no doubt that he's heeding the advice of the angel on his shoulder, rather than the devil.

Superbad (2007, Greg Mottola)
Which Rogen? McBride

Superbad is the first example of Rogen taking a significant role behind the camera, as he and Evan Goldberg wrote the screenplay based on their own lives. Of course, Rogen does not play himself in the movie -- that responsibility goes to Jonah Hill, already trending toward becoming a mini-Rogen (who could one day eclipse the regular Rogen). Rogen plays a cop who has more in common with a drunken frat boy than with a law enforcement official, and he and Bill Hader (and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) are undoubtedly the best parts of this movie. Rogen gets his first McBride tag, however, because the character based on him is a crass douchebag. They try to make Hill's character more sympathetic, but it doesn't really fly. Also, that joke about the girl's menstrual blood is just gross and mean.

Pineapple Express (2008, David Gordon Green)
Which Rogen? McBride

It helps with the McBride label that McBride himself actually shows up here -- in fact, I think this is when I first became aware of Danny McBride. Now I don't have to retroactively apply the label anymore. Although Rogen's character is supposed to be sort of a nice guy, he's got two big character flaws that significantly hamper his ability to be sympathetic: 1) He doesn't really like the drug dealer. That creative decision never sat well with me. I mean, James Franco's character seems like a lot of fun to hang out with. Yet they decide to make Rogen embarrassed to be seen with him. I'd say it should be the other way around, buddy. 2) He's dating a high school girl. It's weird and random and never satisfactorily justified. Granted, I would also have a hard time not going after Amber Heard. But it doesn't excuse it.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008, Kevin Smith)
Which Rogen? LaBeouf

Welcome back, Shia. Smith harnesses the perfect Rogen in this movie -- crass yet lovable. The character has to vocalize all sorts of filthy words in trying to come up with a variation on a familiar movie title for the name of their porn flick, and he's got a great line where she shouts, full of creative enthusiasm, "We're gonna launch arching ropes of jism all over this motherfucker!" He's got several other great one-liners about sex and human nature. Yet this guy is fundamentally a decent guy; an innocent. For some reason this one line sums him up perfectly: Their water has been shut off, and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) asks him to get some water from the toilet in order to wash the shampoo out of her hair. He peeks under the lid, and reports back to her, with wide eyes and a wonderfully childlike sense of concern: "There's poo in there!" Even more wonderful that he didn't get that she was talking about the back part of the toilet, not the front.

Observe and Report (2009, Jody Hill)
Which Rogen? McBride

Evil Danny returns in Observe and Report, which is appropriate as it's written and directed by McBride collaborator Jody Hill. Rogen plays a mall cop whose every instinct is basically smarmy or misguided. He effectively date-rapes the girl he's been crushing on (Anna Faris) when he has sex with her while she's too drunk. And the movie culminates with a series of increasingly awful choices that are almost too good to spoil here. You might notice I said "too good," and yes, it's true -- through all of this pervasive and sometimes awful McBride-ness, I sort of like Observe and Report. Perhaps that's just in comparison to 2009's other mall cop movie, the horrendous (and inexplicably popular) Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009, Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon)
Which Rogen? LaBeouf

I skipped over one previous animated movie in which Rogen had appeared that I'd seen, Kung Fu Panda, because quite honestly, I can't remember his contribution to that movie. But this one was worth focusing on, because it finds Rogen at his lovable best. The character he plays, B.O.B., is literally a moving pile of blue gelatinous goo. But he's such an innocent, and Rogen brings such enthusiasm to the role, that the character is instantly contagious. It's a very sweet film and I've seen it twice.

Funny People (2009, Judd Apatow)
Which Rogen? LaBeouf

I guess -- right? If I remember this movie correctly, and I'd say I probably don't, Rogen's character is pretty decent here, since Adam Sandler's character is already doing all the McBride bits. But to be honest, his performance in this movie didn't make enough of an impression on me for me to judge it on the admittedly imperfect LaBeouf/McBride Scale. Perhaps that means it's somewhere in the middle.

The Green Hornet (2011, Michel Gondry)
Which Rogen? McBride

McBride comes back with a vengeance in this misbegotten superhero movie. In every other Rogen movie I'd seen, I believe there was an attempt to make something sympathetic about his character. Not here. On the surface we're supposed to think that a slacker-stoner grabbing his destiny to become a crimefighter makes him noble in some way, but really, this is an awful character. He's basically a jerk to everyone, particularly his loyal sidekick Kato (Jay Chou), who not only does all the useful crime fighting, but has all the useful moral scruples as well. Rogen's Britt Reid is basically a yammering asshole who eventually gets into an extremely protracted brawl with Kato, which lasts about 15 minutes -- over a girl (Cameron Diaz) he's done nothing to deserve, mind you. This movie lasted about two hours longer than I wanted it to.

Paul (2011, Greg Mottola)
Which Rogen? LaBeouf

How unlikely that Rogen would return to LaBeouf form in a movie directed by a guy (Mottola) who had not only directed one of his previous McBride efforts (Superbad), but also directed one of the meanest movies I've seen in a couple years (Adventureland). Rogen's role as the titular alien is all heart. I was sure I'd find an alien voiced by Seth Rogen to be insufferable, but just the opposite. From the very first moment he opened his mouth, I knew that his character had been excellently conceived and executed: an alien who crash-landed on Earth 70 years ago, meaning he's had the time to develop the speech patterns and cultural references of a modern American citizen. The thing is, neither is he soft-pedaled -- he's got some rough edges to be sure. But as in every other frame of this movie, the heart shines through.

50/50 (2011, Jonathan Levine)
Which Rogen? McBride

Those who love this film -- and there seem to be quite a few -- may differ with my assessment of Rogen's persona in this movie, which is the second movie (after Superbad) that is nakedly based on something from Rogen's real life. If you don't know (how couldn't you), Rogen is basically playing himself in this movie, as Joseph Gordon-Levitt's cancer-stricken Adam is based on Rogen's real-life friend Will Reiser, who was similarly stricken. Rogen played about the same role in Reiser's life as he does here in Adam's -- which, it would seem, was a horn dog who frequently tried to get Reiser laid as some kind of defense mechanism against fully acknowledging that his friend had cancer. More generously, the role of the real Rogen and his character here was to be with his stricken friend through thick and thin, but Rogen chooses a really unsympathetic way to portray that here. Two moments stand out for the discomfort they produced in me. The first is when Kyle and Adam are out late, trying to put in the time in order to go home with a couple girls they met at a club. Unsurprisingly, Adam is tired and he tries to cut the evening short. Kyle explodes at him and says "Don't waste my time, man!" Maybe you're supposed to peel away that line and get some deeper meaning out of it, but on the surface, it's cold and selfish. Then there's the moment (earlier in the script) when Kyle sees Adam's cheating girlfriend, played by Bryce Dallas Howard (and don't get me started on the mistakes made in portraying her character), and goes off on her at an art gallery to his date, essentially an innocent bystander. "I nailed that c___!" he says, referring to photographing her in the act of cheating. He then later shows up at Adam's house and engages in an embarrassing scene in which he busts her in a way that's just dripping with meanness and schadenfreude. Kyle may be looking out for his friend's best interests, but he certainly has a funny way of going about it.

So which Rogen will we get next?

It's hard to say. But it seems clear that Rogen is acutely aware of never coming across as overly soft, overly squishy. I like that instinct in him, the desire to keep himself rough around the edges in order to never sell out -- the desire to remain essentially a dirtbag, even if that dirtbag sometimes has a heart of gold.

But he's almost pathologically compelled to push the envelope in how unlikable he's willing to be. According to yours truly, he pushes it too far, too often for my liking.

In the fight for Rogen's soul between Metaphorical Shia LaBeouf and Metaphorical Danny McBride, let's hope that Shia is the victor -- but that Danny can continue to get in a few licks from time to time.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Who directed that?, Part II


When Kevin Smith released Cop Out in early 2010, I was inspired to write a post called "Who directed that?," exploring directors who seemed like an unlikely match for the material of one of their films.

I probably should have waited for Smith to direct Red State before writing that post.

In fact, so blown away was I by Red State that at first I was going to write just a single word as my entire post on it:

"Whoa."

But if I did that, it might have left you wondering if I really liked it, or was just disturbed by it in some way.

The answer is, both. But I'm not going to tell you a lot more about the movie, if you've avoided learning anything about it to this point. (This poster hints at certain things, but believe me, it leaves a lot of surprises yet to be discovered.)

See, I knew nothing about Red State before watching it yesterday. We often say we "knew nothing" about a movie, but that's never really true, and indeed, it isn't quite true in this case. "Nothing" in this case is that I knew that Kevin Smith had directed it, and I knew he wanted to hold an auction for the distribution rights to his movie. When that plan fell apart, he ended up self-distributing in a very limited way. Suffice it to say, almost no one who has seen Red State has actually been able to see it in the theater.

All of this led me to believe it was either amateurish (not true) or polarizing (true). But the plot? I knew literally nothing.

Knowing Smith's politics and knowing what (until now) I perceived to be his limitations as a director, I assumed (mostly from the title) that this would be some kind of wimpy liberal whining. (For the record, I'm a liberal -- but that doesn't mean I don't recognize wimpy liberal whining when I see it.)

Uh uh.

And that's all I'm going to say, really, except to repeat that this movie floored me.

If you think you know Kevin Smith, think again, and see this movie.

As soon as possible, please.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

TV's distinct advantage over the movies


Warning: The following post contains very minor spoilers about 50/50 that do not really spoil anything of significance. In other words, something late in the plot is discussed, but it doesn't give anything away. I'm essentially telling you to read on -- but don't be mad at me if you wish you hadn't.

Near the end of the overrated film 50/50, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's cancer-stricken character gives in to a moment of fear and emotion, and shares a cathartic hug with his mother, played by Anjelica Huston. Prior to this, he has clashed with her, considering her to be a bit of a smotherer. Their relationship has heretofore been played primarily for comic effect. This moment works as well as it does because those dynamics shift, becoming those of a son simply needing his mother in a moment when the future looks bleak.

It reminded me of a similar moment on the TV show Six Feet Under. Nate (Peter Krause) is going into surgery to relieve problems related to his potentially fatal brain condition called AVM, which puts him at increase risk of having a stroke. He breaks down and starts blubbering, and his mother -- the batty eccentric Ruth, played by Frances Conroy -- is there to comfort and soothe him, as she did when he was a child. Because their relationship has always involved friction, and she has always been portrayed as a bit of an insufferable loon, the scene has incredible emotional impact. In this moment, none of their prior baggage matters -- all that matters is the unique maternal gift she can give her frightened son.

The scenes are extremely similar -- I've avoided saying that JGL's character was going into surgery, in case you didn't heed my spoiler warning well enough -- yet the impact of the Six Feet Under scene is far, far greater.

Why? Because TV has a luxury the movies do not -- getting you invested in the characters over the course of dozens of episodes and a handful of seasons.

Since I value movies over TV in most cases -- I prefer to watch the former over the latter on almost any given occasion -- it's hard when I realize how much a film can be hampered by how much it has to do in such a short amount of time.

The good films pull it off. Films that aren't as good -- which is my take on 50/50 -- amply demonstrate the difficulties facing a short-form story.

I actually did think the scene between Huston and Gordon-Levitt was effective, but it didn't put a lump in my throat the way the Six Feet Under scene did.

However, the rest of the conditions in place are similar enough that the time spent with these characters becomes the most important variable. Like Conroy's Ruth, Huston's Diane is a very frustrating character. Both characters are the epitome of a certain archetype: the nagging, neurotic mother who tries your patience. In fact, if I'd been given only two hours with Ruth, I'd probably think that's all she was, so determined were they to make her character hysterical and unlikable. With longer exposure to her, I saw the positive aspects of her character. Given this little time with Diane, that's how I felt about her -- that she was one-dimensionally hysterical and unlikable. She asks her son the kind of annoying questions that makes him roll his eyes, and seems to be assessing things on the superficial level of gossip and unsolicited nit-picking. Like I said, the archetype of the nagging, neurotic mother.

Gordon-Levitt's Adam and Krause's Nate, on the other hand, are both relatable protagonists. Adam is a bit nicer and more generous than Nate, but that's only because we got to spend so much time with Nate that we saw him make questionable decisions and hurt people for reasons that revealed his weakness. But Nate was basically a flawed reflection of who we are: people who try to do the right thing but sometimes fail in that regard. Because we have so much less time with Adam, we see only his good side. (Or do we? I'd nitpick some of the ways he handles things. But let's keep it simple and just say Adam is basically a saint.)

And both characters are on a hospital gurney, about to go into a surgery from which they may not emerge alive.

The contrast between these two scenes made me realize how TV allows characters to be fleshed out into real human beings, in a way that movies often strive for but can't quite accomplish. In a movie version of Six Feet Under, Nate would have to be more saintly and Ruth would have to be more one-dimensionally shrewish. But because we had spent two seasons with the characters at this point -- I was surprised to be reminded, in researching it just now, that Nate's surgery comes as early as the end of season 2 -- the emotion of that moment is intensified by seeing the ordinarily strong Nate in a moment of crippling fear, and the ordinarily emotionally needy Ruth in a moment of pure giving. It's because we'd witnessed where these characters have been that we appreciate so much where they are now.

The moment should be equally effective in 50/50, but it's not. I say "should" because a movie certainly should be able to contain a moment of intense emotion like this, and many movies have. Director Jonathan Levine stacks the deck in his favor, using a contemplative pop song on the soundtrack and slowing down the ominous surgery prep scenes to less than their normal display speed in order to allow us to exist in the dread for longer. And both Gordon-Levitt and Huston play the scene in the best way possible to get that catharsis that comes so effortlessly to Nate and Ruth.

Maybe if we'd already had two seasons' worth of Diane's nattering and two seasons' worth of Adam's high points and low points, this scene would have punched me in the gut. Instead, it was more like a tap on the shoulder.

Then again, maybe I just didn't like the movie all that much.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I'm projecting? Damn right I am!


Thursday was my birthday.

It's okay if you didn't remember. You can make it up to me by sending presents to the following address:

Vance Tastic
P.O. Box THX 1138
Hollywoodland, CA 90036

But I don't really need any more presents, because the best one I got was the ability to spend Friday night in a hotel. A damn seedy hotel (my choosing) near my work. It wasn't the seediest one I could have picked -- that would have been the one down the street that was advertising rooms for $44 a night. Seeing that this one had wifi, I opted for it at a price of $73 including tax. Still pretty good for a hotel that's within three miles of LAX.

My wife has done this twice as a treat -- staying over at a hotel in your own city, to get some time to yourself and sleep in. This was my first time, and I chose a seedy hotel in order to save money. I didn't need to be pampered at this hotel -- I just needed it to be a different place to spend Friday afternoon, Friday evening and Saturday morning, a place that would allow me to sleep in without a young boy getting me up at 6:30 on a weekend morning.

Oh, and I needed it to be a place where I could watch movies.

See, when I have time to myself with no other responsibilities, I binge on movies. I look forward to few things more than an uninterrupted stream of whatever movies I want to watch: marathons of my own choosing. And since it has happened so rarely in the days since I've been a) a husband and b) a father, the need to binge is even stronger. So during these times, I barely pause to do anything else.

A key to a movie marathon, however, is that you get to watch the movies you want to watch. You don't want to leave it up to circumstance. So I knew my hotel TV would be playing no role in this marathon. I'd be watching movies on my laptop, either streamed (depending on the strength of the wifi) or on DVD. That was the only way to curate the marathon for myself. (I'd intended to re-watch Trainspotting on Netflix streaming, but had to give up after 30 seconds because it continued buffering. This ruled out streaming as an option for the rest of the evening.)

But watching a movie on a laptop is somewhat less than ideal. The real way to go is to make it special in some way, and about ten days ago, the idea how to do that struck me:

A projector.

Not the kind you see in the photo above, but the kind you see in the photo here:

It's the kind of projector you can hook up to a laptop. People in the business world use it most often for Powerpoint projections and the like, but you don't have to use it that way. It'll project whatever's on the screen.

A movie, for example.

And I knew I had access to a projector like this. Two, actually. My company has two of them, and since I'm a member of the IT department, it's my department that takes custody of them.

The thing is, they're not cheap. If they were, more of us would probably own them, since watching a movie on a projector is gooooood. But I believe both of the ones we have cost over a grand -- possibly over two grand.

My boss would still probably let me borrow one of them. That was my guess, anyway. Especially if I told him it was for "bringing the movies home" -- a treat for my birthday in which my wife and I, who can barely ever go to the movies together anymore, would watch a movie projected on our own wall at home. (Which turned out not to be a lie, as I will get to later.)

However, I thought of the old adage that it's better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. I know where my boss keeps the projector and there'd be little chance he'd come looking for it from Friday until Monday. I seriously considered just snatching it, because this way there'd be no way he could deny me. If I asked and he said "No," then the jig was up.

Ultimately, I decided to give my conscience a break and just ask him for it. He agreed immediately, and only asked why I needed it as a way of making conversation. I told him I'd be very careful with it, though he did not even seem to require that assurance.

Score.

Combine this score with my wife's insistence that I report straight to the hotel after work on Friday, and by about 4 o'clock on Friday afternoon, I was already setting it up in a seedy hotel on Imperial Highway in Hawthorne.

How seedy? When I went next door to the liquor store to pick up some drinks shortly after checking in, I was stopped by a guy on a bike who wanted to sell me a watch. Fortunately, I extricated myself from that situation without incident, and before no time, I was watching movies.

Movie #1: The Girl Next Door (2004, Luke Greenfield)

I had a couple candidates for the first slot on Friday afternoon, but ultimately settled on this movie from my own collection -- which I'd watched thrice before -- as a nice guilty pleasure to usher me into the marathon. I actually consider The Girl Next Door to be better than a guilty pleasure, but if you are judging it only by the poster, you might need to know that it would work on the level of a guilty pleasure for you, if that's what it takes to convince you to see it. (If you're a Timothy Olyphant fan, this is actually my favorite of his roles.) I also thought it would be interesting to see it while fresh off a viewing of Risky Business, because it's basically a modern update of that film. I could write a post about that, probably -- we'll see.

I also wanted to make sure my first movie was something I'd seen, because the hotel presented me with an unanticipated problem:

The walls were not white.

My entire theory of projecting movies on my hotel wall was predicated on the idea that the walls would be pattern-free. But this being a pretty seedy hotel, it had wallpaper, and the wallpaper was interrupted at regular intervals by little gray fleur-de-lises. Not such a distraction that you couldn't watch the movie, but enough of a distraction that the movie needed to be something I was already pretty familiar with.

I considered hanging the sheet from my bed on the wall, but there was no obvious way to hang it. I'd already taken a mirror off the wall to allow me a clean projection surface, and was worried about trying to jerry-rig a system that would put me further down the road toward potentially damaging the room.

Thank goodness I was texting my friend Don at the time, because he came up with the winning solution: thumb tacks. "The holes would never be detected," he texted. "Downside - you probably don't carry thumb tacks around with you."

"No, but I could go out and get them," I texted back.

Which is exactly what I did after the first movie ended, around 6:45.

Movie #2: Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008, Kevin Smith)

Not knowing the area super well (despite its relative proximity to the neighborhood where I work), I did one of those optimistic drives down a main road, where you assume you will eventually hit a larger shopping complex. It didn't happen as quickly as I was expecting, but I did eventually come across a CVS, which was sure to satisfy my push pin needs. (I decided on push pins rather than thumb tacks because push pins are easier to pull out. They don't require finger nails.)

It also satisfied my breakfast needs (a mango smoothie drink, a sleeve of donuts, and a milk to go with the coffee maker in the room) and my needs for the rest of my night (a Mountain Dew, a pint of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream, and, remembered at the last moment, a box of plastic spoons that would allow me to eat said ice cream).

Pinning a sheet to the wall made all the difference. This is the movie experience I had in mind, and I settled in to enjoy Zack and Miri, which I'd picked up at the library on my lunch break.

It's appropriate I was seeing it for the second time in a hotel room, because that's where I saw it the first time as well, when my wife and I stayed in a local hotel to celebrate our first anniversary. (Full story here.) I ended up liking it just as much the second time -- in fact, I think it could be my favorite Kevin Smith film, though Clerks and Dogma are also up there.

Watching Zack and Miri on my newly unobstructed screen did make me realize, however, that I should watch something visually dynamic for my next film. Projection this good should not go wasted on a film whose visuals are essentially secondary to the writing.

Movie #3: Hostel Part II (2007, Eli Roth)

I wasn't sure about the visuals of Hostel Part II, but by this point in the marathon, it was definitely time to watch something I hadn't already seen. If there were any kind of a theme to this marathon going in, it was that I'd try to watch things I wouldn't ordinarily watch at home -- either because my wife didn't really love the movie (The Girl Next Door) or because it involved a subject she might not dig (women being tortured, for example). I'd always meant to see Hostel Part II, but hadn't gotten the chance yet because of my wife's perceived aversion to it. (Which is actually based on nothing but an assumption on my part. She and I actually saw the first Hostel together, and I remember that she liked it.) So I lined it up to arrive from Netflix and received it mid-week.

During Hostel Part II, my pizza arrived. I'd ordered from Domino's -- first time ever ordering delivery from a hotel, if I'm not mistaken, and I was concerned about the logistics. The room key actually had a Domino's advertisement on it, which was perfect -- I'd already wanted to order Domino's after loving the artisan flatbread pizza I ordered from them a couple weeks ago, and the room key gave me the phone number without even having to look it up. I did have to scurry and look up the address online -- for some reason, I thought they'd have the address as long as I gave them the hotel name, given that the ad was printed on the key.

And this is where having a second laptop came in handy. I'd been planning to use my own laptop for the projection, but discovered only that morning that it didn't have a port to hook up an external monitor (the port the projector uses). So I brought my work laptop for the projection, and used my personal laptop for internetting. This allowed me to look up the hotel address without even having to disturb my projector setup.

The Italian salami artisan pizza was mmm mmm good once again. The movie was pretty good as well, though I had a couple issues with it. Still, better than I thought it would be. And for the record, Roth goes to great lengths to avoid accusations of misogyny. Even though it's women being tortured rather than men this time, the most sadistic torturing is performed by a woman as well.

Movie #4: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006, Tom Tykwer)

It was nearly midnight by the time I was ready to start my fourth movie. Perfume, from my own collection, hadn't necessarily been part of the plan going in -- I had it along as sort of insurance. But when I realized just how good the projection looked, I added it to the agenda for my late-night screening due to its amazing visuals. Even though it was over two hours in length, and the beers I'd consumed threatened to put me down for the count long before it was finished.

As it turned out, I fell asleep only in the last 15 minutes or so. Too bad, because one of my favorite scenes in the movie is its climax. But this too was a movie I've already seen three other times, and I own it, so I can watch that scene by itself any old time I like.

Movie #5: The Cable Guy (1996, Ben Stiller)

Think the movie watching was done just because the night was over? Think again my friend.

Despite my stated anticipation of sleeping in, my body had other thoughts. It woke me up at ten past 7, the bastard. Fortunately, I was able to get myself back to sleep eventually, and slept until ten past 9. With a checkout time of 11, I had time to squeeze in one more movie -- if it was something I knew really well, and could clean up the room while watching.

Enter The Cable Guy, which I have seen about seven or eight times (but not in about five years) and is one of my all-time personal favorites.

The perfect comfort food to watch in the morning, alongside the comfort food of coffee and donuts.

Because I had to shower and had to start breaking down the room well in advance of 11, I only watched about an hour of its 95 minutes, and even then I was racing around to get the room back to its former shape by checkout time. I didn't want to take the risk with one of these seedy hotels that they might try to charge me for an extra day if I missed the checkout time by even a minute. (They called me around 10:40 to ask if I was going to stay an extra night).

Unlike the ending of Perfume, I did get to see the ending of The Cable Guy later. And that brings us to the next chapter of my projection weekend ...

Movie #6: Mars Needs Moms (2011, Simon Wells)

What I haven't told you so far is that I'd prepared my wife for a surprise on Saturday night. If my boss was going to loan me the projector for the weekend, might as well take advantage of it. The walls in my living room are white, so I just had to move a few things and get the projector set up, and we'd have that very movie night at home that I'd used as my excuse to borrow the projector in the first place.

Having been the sole caretaker of our son since I left for work Friday morning, my wife was well deserving of a little time off once I got home, so she went out to see The Ides of March. I immediately went to work setting up my surprise, and making sure I had a workable system for both the projector and the laptop that wouldn't jeopardize the safety of either of them -- since both were company property. This was to say nothing of the safety of our own stuff. I temporarily broke a lamp in our living room while trying to move it out of the way of the intended projecting area, but was able to fix it later on.

Once I had the thing set up -- using a breakfast-in-bed table as the platform for the projector, whose feet I wedged between the back of the couch and the wall, and propping up the laptop on one of the arms of the couch -- I figured I might as well take advantage of the fact that my wife would be gone for the next couple hours, and watch another movie.

I said a little bit about Mars Needs Moms in yesterday's post, so I don't need to talk more about it here. I will say that it was one of the movie's I'd picked up from the library the day before, and that although it looked very good when projected, it would have looked even better if the colors weren't all muddied and washed out -- a part of the movie's design. In fact, it was then that I started to realize that the best thing to watch in this format would be something with a lot of color, where the edges of the screen were well-defined -- but I'm getting ahead of myself.

And oh yeah, I finished The Cable Guy after Mars Needs Moms. It really helped that my son went down for an unusual hour-and-forty-minute nap.

Movie #7: Reign of Fire (2002, Rob Bowman)

Now that I'd watched two of three movies I'd borrowed from the library, leaving only The Next Three Days unwatched, I decided it was time to replenish our supply -- to give my wife a whole new set of options for her big surprise. So when she returned from the movie, less than ten minutes after I'd hurriedly broken down the projector, I took my son back out with me to the library, to quickly pick up three more choices before closing.

All three were movies we'd recently talked about: Magnolia (which she loves and wants to see again), Poltergeist (which we both want to see again, especially now that it's Halloween time), and Reign of Fire (which she hadn't seen but I'd recommended).

Unfortunately, a difficult previous night with our son meant that she had to go do something she usually never does: She went to lie down for a nap at 7 p.m. I used the time to get set up again, but when she awoke, she was a tad too groggy to fully appreciate my surprise -- and might have even preferred just to watch some TV that night. She was a good sport, however, and could see the seeds of disappointment in my eyes. She selected Reign of Fire as the shortest of the three options, which would allow us to watch some television after it was done.

It was my third time seeing Reign of Fire, first since 2002, and I definitely did not like it quite as much this time. There was also a nagging problem that I hadn't noticed on any of my other projections, which was that the image tended to pixelate in spots at this level of projection. Nothing that would be a major distraction, but enough that I tried to refocus the lens in our favor.

On the plus side, my wife seemed to genuinely enjoy the movie and the specialness of the situation I'd tried to create. I'd also bought us some creme brulee, which we enjoyed before she retired to bed.

Movie #8: Waking Life (2001, Richard Linklater)

So my big realization in Mars Needs Moms and again in Reign of Fire was that I wanted to watch one final film that was very light (in brightness, not necessarily in subject matter) and colorful. Neither the Mars setting nor the dragon-scorched post-apocalyptic landscape qualified in this respect, and the darkness was constantly bleeding into the side of the frame, leaving the frame itself as very indistinct from the darkness in the room around it.

I had a couple candidates in my collection that I knew would satisfy this need for bursts of color. The three that jumped to mind were Waking Life, Tangled and Paprika. But I'd seen Tangled for the second time only about six months ago, and I don't love Paprika (but have already seen it twice nonetheless). I'd seen Waking Life at the beginning of 2010, but it's a film I love revisiting for its dense philosophical ruminations combined with an absolutely beautiful color palette. I discuss my love of Waking Life in some level of detail here, if you want to read it. (And I also mentioned it in yesterday's post as well.)

It looked as great as I'd hoped -- but somewhere in the middle of the movie, I experienced projector burnout. Not literal burnout, though I'd feared that I would kill the bulb at some point during the weekend, and have a lot of 'splaining to do to my boss. Fortunately, I was pretty good about giving the projector rests of 20 to 30 minutes here and there, when possible, while still managing to keep up my breakneck pace.

No, I just got tired. Tired of watching eight movies in about 32 hours. Hey, watching movies can be exhausting, even for people who would prefer nothing more.

So I didn't set up the projector one last time on Sunday night, even though it might have meant two more movies at full size. It was time to attack some priorities on the DVR ... and for me, time to catch up on some sleep. I was in bed before 9:30.

If you've reached the end of this much-longer-than-anticipated blog post, thank you -- I appreciate it. And now you can finally stop reading.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Pulling back the curtain


Most makers of magic aren't exactly eager to show you how it's done.

Actual magicians are sworn by an industry oath not to reveal their secrets, for the very practical reason that they'd be unemployable without knowing something their audience doesn't. But metaphorical magicians -- like the ones who make movies -- are often bound by a similar code to preserve the mystery of their illusions. Knowing the methods to the madness can detract significantly from its magic spell. Just ask the erstwhile wizard of Oz -- the man behind the curtain you're not supposed to pay attention to while quaking in fear at the large green head enveloped in smoke.

Disney showed no such reservation with Mars Needs Moms.

I didn't enjoy the movie hugely -- more than a marginal thumbs up, but not a lot more. Its dark color palette (which goes with the movie's themes, granted) made it play as sort of muddy and indistinct, and the story didn't feel incredibly original. There were parts I really liked but no parts I loved.

Until the end credits, when I kind of loved their decision to pull back the curtain, and watch snippets of major scenes a second time -- this time performed by actors decked out in motion-capture gear.

Producer Robert Zemeckis' name in the credits should have made me realize this was a motion-capture situation, like previous efforts where he wore the director's hat, such as The Polar Express, Beowulf and Disney's A Christmas Carol. Actually, his name didn't show up until the end credits, and the fact that I didn't immediately identify this as that same phenomenon is probably a tribute to how they're starting to do it better.

So yeah, during the end credits you get all the actors dressed up in suits, their faces speckled with small motion capture diodes -- not sure what the actual term is, but they resemble the world's shortest acupuncture needles. It was surprising to see the filmmakers care so little about "shattering" the illusion they'd just created by giving the layman such a technical introduction to the techniques used. They really risked killing the buzz of everyone who had just liked or even loved the movie. (And maybe they did -- the movie was not a hit.)

But I for one enjoyed seeing this stuff. For me, it made the interactions between characters more authentic to know that the actors were actually doing these things, leaping around a sound stage, acting not only with their voices but their entire bodies.

It was also amazing to see just how far the filmmakers went -- how much they committed. (For the record, I love "commitment" in all its forms when it comes to performance). You'd assume they could have digitally concocted a crowd dance seen at the end of the movie, and we wouldn't have been scrutinizing their motions to see if they looked believable. Yet pulling back the curtain revealed that this scene took a sound stage filled with extras, all covered with motion-capture technology, all dancing the same dance.

The next technical secret I want revealed: How 37-year-old Seth Green can convincingly do the voice for the film's lead character, a 9-year-old boy.

Notice I didn't ask how he convincingly did the height of a 9-year-old boy.

In an interesting coincidence, I ended up re-watching Richard Linklater's Waking Life later that same day. While these movies, on the surface, have nothing in common with each other, they do share one thing -- they are both animated films based on the movements of real people, giving them a certain "realistic" expressiveness that would be absent if they were merely being concocted from an artist's imagination of what a person looks like.

Whereas Zemeckis' thing is motion capture, Linklater's thing is rotoscoping. He's now done it at least twice, in Waking Life and in A Scanner Darkly. In this technique, real footage of real human beings is shot in real locations, and then it is painted over in ways that may or may not be realistic. See, the rotoscoper has the real footage as a starting point, then it is up to him/her to choose how much of that real footage to trace over with his/her paint brush. The technique gives the artist the freedom to remain grounded in believable human movements, then add expressionistic flourishes when necessary -- as in a scene in Waking Life in which a man slowly turns into an alien as he's proceeding through a monologue.

What both motion capture and rotoscoping have that traditional animation does not is a claim to a certain realism -- if not necessarily in the surface-level presentation, at least in areas like the believably jerky body movements of a real human being. The human body is such a complex, intricate organism that we still need these crutches to effectively render it. The human mind is incapable of reproducing the eccentricities of the human body without assistance.

Really glad, then, that we have this technology that serves as our crutch -- and also glad movies like Mars Needs Moms have the guts to show it to us.

By "removing" the magic, they're actually reminding us of a different kind of magic.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

I prefer the candy bar


Last Friday on my drive home from work, I was listening to a piece by NPR film critic Bob Mondelo that was timed in conjunction with the release of two remakes: Footloose and The Thing. The thrust of his piece, which was quite well researched and entertaining (both typical for Mondelo), was that we shouldn't be so quick to grouse about remakes, since they've been with us throughout the history of cinema.

In the course of his discussion Mondelo looked ahead to this Friday's release of The Three Musketeers, which isn't exactly a remake in the sense those other two films are -- it's more rightly considered as yet another adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' (heh heh, you said "dumbass") famous source material.

How famous, and what do I mean when I say "yet another"?

Mondelo concluded that today's Three Musketeers would be the twenty-ninth -- that's 2-9 -- version of the story to hit the silver screen. I'm not going delve into what methods he used to make that determination, whether the movie had to be the full story in order to qualify, or whether it could just be some of the characters; whether it had to be feature length, or if shorts were counted. (If you want to get some sense of the breadth of this phenomenon, wikipedia has a page devoted to versions of the story on film.) The point is, The Three Musketeers is one of the most popular properties in the history of cinema, if not the most popular. Choosing, according to his math, 1895 as the beginning of cinema history, Mondelo noted that one version of Dumas' story has come out on the average of every four years.

Having not had one in about ten, I suppose we were due for another.

Suffice it to say that this is going to be one of those Friday morning posts where Vance is not giving the movie the benefit of the doubt. I hardly think I should, and if I did so, it would only be out of deference to the candy bar.

That's right, the candy bar. That bland, nougat-based bar that makes up for its blandness by tacking on an extra inch or so of length from standard candy bar size. In fact, so bland is this candy bar that I once posited a theory that it's at the earliest stage of evolution among three similar candy bars that should also be familiar to you. You start with your Three Musketeers, with just nougat and a thin layer of chocolate around it. Then you graduate to Milky Way, which keeps the nougat (I believe) but adds a layer of caramel and gives you a thicker chocolate coating. The most fully evolved candy bar in this species is Snickers, which is chock full of peanuts and caramel and may do away with the nougat altogether. (I'm picturing these candy bars cut into cross sections and I think I've got their ingredients right.)

The thing is, I've decided sometime in the last five to ten years that I actually love the Three Musketeers in all its simplicity. Having thought of it as some rudimentary confection that should have been five to ten cents less than the others, for probably over a decade in my life, I've come around on its pleasures in recent years. In fact, if looking for a treat, I'd probably opt for a Three Musketeers over either of the others. Oddly, Snickers would then come second and Milky Way would come third. (Why the aforementioned evolutionary order gets all jumbled up here, I could not really say without giving it some further thought.)

In fact, I'm almost bummed that this candy bar has to be affiliated with a fictional property that has never done anything for me.

Maybe I just haven't seen the right Three Musketeers movies -- in fact, I'm sure I haven't -- but this swashbuckling quartet has never gotten me very excited. Maybe that's because there's this maddening numerical discrepancy right to start out with. The actual three are Athos, Porthos and Aramis. But then you've got D'Artagnan as a fourth, I guess because he was not originally part of their trio, joining them only near the beginning of Dumas' story. I'm exaggerating if I say that this is why I don't care about The Three Musketeers, but it doesn't help.

It's probably that the two Musketeers movies I have seen were such inferior films. The first was 1998's The Man in the Iron Mask, directed by Randall Wallace -- the film expected to get a boost from the fact that it was Leonardo DiCaprio's first release after Titanic made him a megastar. This story involves the musketeers at a point after the chronology of Dumas' original novel. The second was Peter Hyams' The Musketeer (2001), which stars Justin Chambers. If this is any indication of Chambers' charisma, I refer to him as a "blander Chris O'Donnell."

I don't want to go into detail about the strengths (few) or weaknesses (many) of these movies, but I do want to say that they probably suffered from a bit of musketeer overload. See, it was only 1993 when we'd gotten what is probably the most recent completely straightforward adaptation of Dumas' novel, The Three Musketeers, which starred several members of the cast of Young Guns as well as the actual Chris O'Donnell. Didn't see that one -- even then, I was not interested. I guess the 1993, 1998 and 2001 releases of these three films is about in keeping with Mondelo's estimate of one new Musketeers movie every four years.

Even with a ten-year gap since the last one, the movie releasing today still strikes a person with an overwhelming sense of "Why???" Mondelo noted that the new thing this film offers over its predecessors is that it's in 3D. And that may be the only thing, because the wire-work action stunts you see in the trailer were the actual supposed justification for Hyams' 2001 adaptation of the story -- a muddy, murky affair that I ranked as the worst movie I saw in 2001. Hyams' film wanted to capitalize on such phenomena as The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Who knows, maybe that's still what the version releasing today is trying to do.

I guess one perennial justification for more versions of The Three Musketeers is to put that generation's young people in the lead roles. That's why we were fed the likes of Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland in the 1993 version, and why the female lead in The Musketeer was the consummately modern-day actress Mena Suvari from the American Pie movies. The names in the cast of today's movie are less familiar to me, but maybe that's because I'm no longer a member of the younger generation. I've heard of Logan Lerman, who plays D'Artagnan. Milla Jovovich, Orlando Bloom and Christophe Waltz are also around for good measure, though none of them plays a musketeer. (I'm not really qualified to discuss how the older Musketeers films may have been doing the same thing, whether Douglas Fairbanks, Gene Kelly or Michael York were being marketed to the youth in the same way.)

In general, though, the footage I've seen seems pretty unexciting. The film's fascination with visual techniques that seem a decade old -- like the slow-mo spin of Jovovich's character during a sword fight, and her sliding under a bunch of firing guns -- is inauspicious to say the least. (Director Paul W.S. Anderson worked with Jovovich on the Resident Evil movies, which I suppose is why she gets all the "best" action shots in the trailer. His credentials as a director don't make a person any more hopeful about the prospects for this movie -- however, his Resident Evil experience could work as a metaphor for why his Three Musketeers has the feel of a reanimated corpse.)

Maybe they'll get it right when the next Musketeers movie comes out in 2016. When the number of Musketeers movies hits the big 3-0.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the heck out of that candy bar.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Parenthetically


I went to the movies (50/50) for the first time ever at The Grove last night. The Grove is one of those outdoor shopping malls (at 3rd and Fairfax) that is meant to sort of look like a little Disney village. There's frequently music playing (I remember hearing Dean Martin on my last trip), there are several fountains, and there's even a train that runs through. There's an undeniable air of festivity about the whole place.

The complex has one of those ornate throwback movie theaters (possibly a genuine theater from that era, more likely a Disneyfied recreation), and I'd always wanted to see a movie there. Because The Grove is not a geographically logical theater for me, to accomplish the feat I'd need to both be in the neighborhood, and have no child with me at the time. The planets aligned last night when I was in Hollywood for an alumni event for Columbia University, where I went to journalism school.

All of this is parenthetical to what I actually want to talk about.

The full push is on at The Grove to advertise Happy Feet Two, which comes out next month. So I first encountered a poster in the elevator on the way down from the parking garage. I was reading through the names atop the poster, to see if most of the vocal talent seemed to be returning from the first movie -- not that I really liked the first movie, mind you, or could necessarily remember more than a few names. But it was something to do.

And so I noticed that the artist otherwise known as Pink was credited in the following way:

Alecia Moore
(P!nk)

Or actually, if you want to get technical about it:

Alecia
Moore
(P!nk)

There's a comment to be made about the exclamation point in her name, but not today. Today it's all about the parenthetical clarification of who the heck "Alecia Moore" is.

Alecia Moore is of course Pink's birth name, and since Pink is making some strides (I guess) into acting, now she's ready to take the more mature approach to the moniker by which she's identified. We see this thing from time to time, and eventually, the re-branding may actually work. I'm pretty sure I've started referring to The Wrestler Formerly Known as The Rock as "Dwayne Johnson" in almost all contexts.

But I also thought there was something a bit better about the way they did Johnson's transition from wrestler to actor: He started being credited as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. After enough times credited this way, "The Rock" disappeared and he became, simply, Dwayne Johnson. The caterpillar had become the butterfly.

It doesn't seem like there's the same kind of exit strategy with "Alecia Moore (P!nk)." Or maybe they just plan to execute that strategy faster, because the parenthetical reminder of who she is is particularly awkward. I guess in one sense the (P!nk) will drop off the name more easily, because it's at the end, and doesn't even interrupt the flow of the name like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. But in the short term, until that point is reached, it'll make for a lot of indelicate semantics. (I suppose this method of crediting the singer/actress is intended for the poster only -- I doubt she will be credited thus in the movie itself, because the people who would have been drawn to the movie by her presence will have already paid their admission fee.)

What's kind of funny is that on this same poster, there's another one-name recording artist who has yet to return to his birth name, and may never plan to: Common. Maybe Common just isn't that psyched about one day being referred to as Lonnie Lynn Jr. Wikipedia has his full name as Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., so maybe he could just go with Rashid Lynn, which is probably okay. Or even Lonnie Rashid. Although of course, at first he'd have to be either Rashid "Common" Lynn, or maybe "Rashid Lynn (Common)" if Pink's little experiment does not end up being viewed as overly awkward.

Then when I got down inside the ornate theater at The Grove, I saw a poster for Garry Marshall's New Year's Eve -- you know, the movie that was greenlit after Marshall's Valentine's Day was such a commercial and critical success. (I jest.) And here I was reminded that Pink might be stuck with her chosen naming convention for longer than she thinks.

One of a kajillion stars appearing on the poster (including Robert De Niro?!?) was Chris Bridges. Don't know who I'm talking about when I say Chris Bridges? That's because the name still hasn't caught on. More than eight years after he appeared in 2 Fast 2 Furious, audiences still need to know that Chris Bridges is Chris "Ludacris" Bridges. Maybe it's because "Chris Bridges" is a pretty bland name. Then again, so is "Dwayne Johnson." Yet somehow The Rock has shirked his stage name while Ludacris has not.

Maybe there's a reason we need to keep being reminded who Chris Bridges is -- he's making crappy career choices. He's following up a disappointing "black friend" role in No Strings Attached with a role in a sappy chick flick ensemble movie that I can only assume will be disappointing.

Maybe I need to see his actual follow-up to No Strings Attached, Fast Five, to get excited again about Mr. Bridges. Everyone says it's fun. But I'm too anal, and I need to see Fasts two through four before I can see Fast Five.

One sequel I won't be seeing, however, is Happy Feet Two. Pink or P!nk or Alecia Moore (P!nk) or Alecia "P!nk" Moore notwithstanding.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The steep price of art in Iran


When I went to see a little Iranian movie with Australian funding in a little arthouse theater in Tasmania over Christmas 2009, I never expected to hear much about it again.

In fact, I hadn't much wanted to see this particular film, called My Tehran for Sale, in the first place. My mother-in-law knew that my wife and I were movie buffs, and wanted to take us to a theater she loved. That theater was also playing some films that interested me -- I think one of them was A Serious Man -- and I was much more interested in catching something that I thought would have clear relevance to readers of my year-end list of movie rankings. But the time for this one worked out, and my mother-in-law pushed us toward this film in that subtle way that is as close to imposing her will on us as someone as agreeable as her would ever get.

I'm glad I did see it. My Tehran for Sale wasn't my favorite film of the year by any means -- in fact, I ranked it 78th out of the 113 films I saw in time for my deadline. But I was glad to provide a couple dollars of support toward it -- the movie that day was my treat -- because it's a very small film made under very difficult circumstances. By actually filming in Tehran, the filmmakers were breaking any number of Iranian laws. It's hard to believe they came up with something as well-made and compelling as they did, considering the guerrilla methods they must have used to get their footage.

And there was a price, as I learned last week -- a price that made me even more glad I saw it.

Marzieh Vafamehr, the star of the movie (pictured in the poster above), was sentenced to 90 lashes and a year in jail for her involvement in making the film.

You can read all about it here.

And I thought I'd do something I don't usually do today -- re-post my own review of the movie, which I wrote in early 2010 as one of my paid reviewing assignments. I can't say I didn't predict it:

The mere existence of My Tehran for Sale is cause for celebration, especially if you're a champion of free speech and artistic expression. Given an Iranian government that's hostile to both those things, it's amazing writer-director Granaz Moussavi was even able to make her movie, which involved a filming-on-the-sly approach that could have gotten her and her cast arrested. Unfortunately, degree of difficulty is not the only factor on which we judge films, and My Tehran for Sale may leave a viewer wanting in the story department. In fairness, Moussavi has chosen a good character through whom to view the ills of modern-day Tehran, a semi-autobiographical actress/dancer seeking refuge in Australia by any means necessary. The title refers to the sacrifices Marzieh (Marzieh Vafamehr) must make while trying to buy passage -- legal or otherwise -- out of the country, including selling an assortment of her personal items at a fraction of their sentimental value. Moussavi also shrewdly identifies the various ironies of contemporary Iran, with its modern architecture and backward attitudes, its marketing of 21st century video units to children, while denying adults that same freedom to record moving images. Moussavi's mistake is framing Marzieh's story through a device in which she recounts her story to Australian immigration officials. This choice disorients the viewer initially; then, once the narrative has revealed how Marzieh reached this point in her journey, it sheds doubt on whether that was the most relevant way to convey the plot. Still, part of what's unsatisfying about My Tehran for Sale is surely intentional. If Marzieh's story doesn't resemble the traditional narrative arc Western audiences are expecting, it's probably because the repeated disappointments are far too commonplace to seem operatically tragic to people like Marzieh, nor are they likely to culminate in a distinct moment of catharsis.

Back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

For a number of years now I have struggled with the strange series of contradictions that is modern-day Iran. If you think that it's a bombed-out mess like neighboring Iraq, you couldn't be farther off. A former boss of mine was Iranian; he left the country ages ago, maybe in the late 1960s or early 1970s. One day he showed me a slide show on his computer of pictures from Tehran and around the country, and they were some of the most beautiful images I'd ever sen. The city is full of modern architecture, much of it quite outside the box, and it has a thoroughly modern buzz about it. It is landscaped beautifully and feels every bit the first-world western city. I was surprised to see images of people skiing on nearby mountain slopes. This was the country that was supposed to be so backward, such an enemy of personal liberties?

Yep. So tightly does the country control the behavioral pursuits of its people -- like, making movies and drinking alcohol -- that you can be punished severely for doing either. Like poor Marzieh Vafamehr, who only wanted to express herself in the same way as her doomed character.

The article above goes on to discuss other Iranian filmmakers who had been recently arrested, one on his way to the Toronto International Film Festival, as well as a director who was recently arrested, sentenced to six years in prison and banned from speaking to the press for the next two decades.

I'm not really interested in writing a blog post that decries censorship in other parts of the world -- I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir. And I don't think Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is going to be reading my blog anytime soon.

However, I do want to tell you that if you think you know Tehran, the city, maybe you don't. There's beauty bursting to get out of there, ready to show itself to the rest of the world, only it can't.

And with sentences like the one levied against Marzieh Vafamehr, it's doubtful other artists will want to risk bringing that beauty to the rest of the world anytime soon.