Saturday, December 31, 2011

Seeing the future


We all know that wikipedia is good for almost everything. Well, you can take the "almost" off of "almost everything."

One of my favorite areas of wikipedia is the "year in film" pages. Like, if you want to know the (North American) release dates of all the films that came out in 2011, go to "2011 in film" and it's all there for you. And, since I frequently do want to know the release dates of all the films that came out in 2011, organized neatly in a chronological chart, I do frequently go to this page. It's really useful for tasks like figuring out which movies I still want to see before I close my year-end rankings (on January 24th -- I know, I know, I mention it in every post).

But wikipedia doesn't stop at 2011. The film page for 2012 is almost entirely filled out. And there are significant entries for 2013 and 2014 as well.

It makes sense that these future release dates would be known. Everyone's talking about the May 2013 release date of the next Star Trek movie, for example. But it kind of amazed me that the good people at wikipedia have dutifully entered all known release dates for all movies in post-production, production, pre-production or even still in the typewriter of some malnourished screenwriter. Consolidated in a couple of exhaustive pages.

So I thought I'd take you through the trip I recently took down this rabbit hole into the future, to discuss some notable release dates of movies that are all just glints in our collective eye right now. So we don't have to dutifully blow through the John Carters and Loraxes due out in the spring and all the Batmen and Spidermen due out next summer, let's skip ahead and start next fall.

September 14, 2012: Resident Evil: Retribution. I guess this answers my question from this post. Hey, if there are going to be four Underworlds, why not five Resident Evils?

September 28, 2012: Looper. A sort of Inception-like thriller from Brick director Rian Johnson. Another blogger I read mentioned this movie in something like the summer of 2010, so it blows my mind that it's still this far from coming out.

October 5, 2012: Taken 2. Liam Neeson's daughter gets kidnapped again -- I guess. Maybe this time it's by the Taliban. Go America!

October 5, 2012 and October 26, 2012: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D and Halloween 3D. My my. More unnaturally fast reboots of horror series that had already been recently rebooted. But this time -- 3D!

November 2, 2012: Red Dawn. Another much-discussed remake. Another miniscule box office haul.

November 9, 2012: Skyfall. Doesn't it feel very recent that the James Bond franchise was in serious jeopardy of not continuing?

November 16, 2012: Twilight - Breaking Dawn: Part 2. It will be over. Finally.

November 21, 2012: Gravity. Alfonso Cuaran directs his follow-up to the masterpiece Children of Men. Finally.

December 14, 2012: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I have to say, we sort of expected it. (But I'm looking forward to it.)

December 21, 2012: Life of Pi. I read this book. I remember like five years ago when they were talking about M. Night Shyamalan directing this. Now it's Ang Lee.

December 21, 2012: World War Z. I did not read this book. I tried. I really tried. I just found it too boring to read interviews with people talking about a zombie war that had already happened. Where's the immediate danger?

December 25, 2012: Django Unchained. Quentin.

December 25, 2012: The Great Gatsby. The prestige picture of next holiday season. Directed by Baz Luhrmann! In 3D!

Okay, 2012 release dates are not that impressive. But when we hit the year 2013, it starts to feel spooky. Who knows what the world could be like two years from now? (Okay, just over a year, but go with me -- it sounds futuristic.)

March 8, 2013: Oz: The Great and Powerful. Did you know Sam Raimi was directing this?

March 15, 2013: Ender's Game. Read this too. The kid from Hugo is starring. Let's hope he's not too old by then. (Well, they're filming now, so, I guess it should be okay.)

March 27, 2013: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Sea of Monsters. Really.

March 29, 2013: The Host. American remake.

April 12, 2013: Evil Dead. Not directed by Raimi -- he's busy on some Wizard of Oz sequel/prequel -- but at least he's producing.

May 3, 2013: Iron Man 3. So I guess he doesn't die in The Avengers.

May 10, 2013: Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro's horror movie that I actually think might be sort of like The Host. Have been hearing about this since 2009, it seems like.

May 17, 2013: Untitled Star Trek Sequel. And we get to the untitleds. (Actually, there were already some that I skipped over.)

May 24, 2013: Fast Six. Of course there is.

May 31, 2013: The Lone Ranger. Johnny Depp as Tonto.

June 14, 2013: Man of Steel. Superman reboot. I originally thought it was coming out next summer. But maybe one summer couldn't handle one movie each for the holy triumvirate of superheroes: Superman, Batman and Spiderman. (Or, more realistically, they aren't on that shooting schedule and never were.)

July 3, 2013: Despicable Me 2. Does there? Have to be?

July 3, 2013: Robopocalypse. Spielberg.

July 26, 2013: Dirty Dancing. And why is it taking them this long to churn out this film?

August 2, 2013: The Smurfs 2 and Red 2. Red will fight blue in an epic battle to the death.

November 15, 2013: Thor 2. I guess he doesn't die in The Avengers, either. Aren't these interweaving plot lines going to get messy?

December 13, 2013: The Hobbit: There and Back Again. Keeping with the previous Tolkien release schedule of coming out in consecutive Decembers.

2014? Could there be?

April 4, 2014: Untitled Marvel Studios Film. They don't know what it will be about, but they know there will be one and they know it will come out on this date.

May 2, 2014: The Amazing Spider-Man 2: First sequel to a movie that has not come out yet. Bold.

May 16, 2014: Untitled Marvel Studios Film. They also don't know what this will be about, but they also know that this will be the date it's unleashed on the world. Aren't they supposed to eventually make Ant-Man?

June 20, 2014: How to Train Your Dragon 2. Not, apparently, "How to quickly follow up a successful movie with a sequel."

December 2014 TBA: Avatar 2. At last, a release date that is not apparently set in stone. My contention: No one really cares about seeing what happens next with these characters.

What? 2015? Is that even the name of a year?

December 2015 TBA: Avatar 3. See previous comment.

And that's where the projections end, at least. However, I should say that wikipedia offers visible, functional hyperlinks to the years all the way out to 2023. (They all redirect to the page called "2013 and beyond in film." Which itself is probably a short-timer, since 2014 will soon have enough entries to stand on its own.)

I just find it interesting that there are established release dates for movies that are coming out two-and-a-half years from now. Of course they aren't set in stone, but I do think it's funny. I suppose you want to get in early, stake your claim, not lose the release date to another movie intended for the same target audience.

If it isn't obvious, seeing the future like this gives me a bit of a thrill (even as I tease). So as we say goodbye to 2011, I'm already ready to say hello to ... 2016.

I mean, it can't be long before "2016 in film" is up and running.

A thousand trips to the movies


I keep track of a lot of personal movie-related statistics, many of which I've discussed here before.

One of these is the number of movies I've seen for the first time in the theater.

Last night, that number hit 1,000.

The movie that took the title was David Fincher's Hollywood remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It narrowly edged out Albert Nobbs, which has garnered buzz for Glenn Close's portrayal of a 19th century woman passing as a man. Of the two of these movies, Tattoo was the one that interested me more. But Nobbs was finishing a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles last night, and I thought it would be fun to take my opportunity to see it in time to rank it with this year's films. (It doesn't open wide until January 27th.)

I have actually been to a movie theater more than 1,000 times in my life. There are 20-25 movies I've seen in the theater more than once. But as of last night, it's 1,000 different movies seen in the theater.

What's interesting to note is how that number compares to the number of movies I've seen total, which is 3,422. Movies seen on video outnumber those seen in the theater by nearly a 2.5 to 1 margin. I guess for the average person, it might be much higher, since I prioritize getting out to the theater more than most people do. (Then again, I also watch more movies at home than most people do, so maybe the ratio would be about the same.)

But my 1,000th theatrically screened movie was only one of several blog topics that came to mind about seeing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo last night. Here, I've created subheadings to discuss the others.

Setting the mood

I picked a perfect night to see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I suppose it might have also been a thematically appropriate night for Albert Nobbs, if Nobbs were set on the Scottish moors rather than in Ireland.

See, we had perhaps our foggiest night of the year last night. When I walked out of the house to leave for the movie, the landscape was suffused by fog. Not just a mist, but thick, mashed potato fog. Something that seemed to be a perfect complement to the wintry Swedish atmosphere I'd seen in the trailers for Tattoo.

This was the scene as I drove to the theater, listening to the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo score on my ipod, hooked up through my car stereo. (I don't have the Albert Nobbs score -- strike two, Albert.)

I'm a huge Nine Inch Nails fan (as I've discussed ad infinitum, it feels like), so Trent Reznor's scores (composed with Atticus Ross) for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo have been right up my alley. Except I was having an extremely difficult time getting into the Tattoo score, seeing as how it is a whopping 39 tracks in length, and actually exceeds the movie's 158-minute running time. In fact, I'd been trudging through a bunch of atmospheric ambient noise for 26 tracks in the week before Christmas, before I stopped listening and failed to continue. Last night I finally picked back up, and it was just the right time to do so -- the last ten tracks or so of the score are phenomenal.

The car ride to the theater was only long enough for one or two of those tracks, but then I switched from car speakers to headphones as I listened to the rest, walking up Sepulveda Blvd. to the Howard Hughes Center, where my 8:15 show of Tattoo was scheduled to start. The fog enveloped everything in a surreal quality that was matched by the ethereal music pouring into my ears.

How to shave $3 off the price of your ticket


And why was I walking up Sepulveda to get to Rave Motion Pictures, the theater in the Howard Hughes Center? Because I've decided that the $2 surcharge to see movies at this theater is no longer something I want to pay.

Rave Motion Pictures -- nee The Bridge, or Cinema du Lux at The Bridge -- used to be the crown jewel of the Los Angeles theater scene. When it opened in I wanna say 2003, it was state-of-the-art in modern adult theatergoing, with fancy screening rooms and a fully stocked upscale bar. However, since then, it has been eclipsed by other new crown jewels, making it sort of the Skydome of new theaters. (That's a baseball reference, referring to the state-of-the-art stadium in Toronto that was initially heavily praised for being new and modern -- before a slew of cozy postmodern stadiums made it seem archaic.) But even though it is no longer a destination that would bring in moviegoers outside of the local area, it still has great screens, and is still one of our top few choices for where to see new movies projected in grand scale.

The only nuisance is that the ticket prices are bumped up by $2 for the flat parking fee you have to pay to park in the Howard Hughes Center lot.

And you pretty much have to pay it, because there's no free lot within what most people would consider easy walking distance.

However, I am not most people.

Last night I parked down the hill on a side street, leaving me a 10-12 minute walk to get to the theater. Honestly, I don't know why this hadn't occurred to me earlier. I guess it's not possible to do this when you're rushing to get to the movie on time, but the 8:15 showtime of Tattoo was timed perfectly to allow me the luxury of a gradual arrival. It allowed me to put our son to bed just before 7 and eat a quick dinner, and still have time to get to the theater early enough not to pay for parking. In fact, I hate that more movies don't start between 8 and 9 o'clock. In this case, Tattoo was playing on two screens, meaning there was a much greater likelihood of a starting time in this range. That's really the way to go -- see a movie at a theater where it's playing on multiple screens, and you can find that elusive start time.

However, it was a calculated risk. Although Rave Motion Pictures does have some theaters with assigned seating, the lion's share of them are old-fashioned free-for-alls. You have to get there early if you want to avoid sitting in the front row. And because I couldn't select my seats online -- a great way to tell what percentage of the seats have been sold -- I had no way of knowing, when leaving the house, whether I'd be walking into a near sold-out situation. (That's where I shaved off the other buck -- not buying the ticket in advance, and therefore saving the $1 handling fee. If you aren't buying an assigned seat, what's the point of purchasing in advance?) And since this was a screening of a much-buzzed-about movie that had only been out for eight days, during the prime evening hours in the week between Christmas and New Year's, there was a good chance I was setting myself up to fail.

Fortunately, when I arrived at 7:45, there were not large numbers of people teeming outside the ticket window. Shortly afterward, I discovered that the movie was only 6% sold at the time. Score. It might have been a bit sad to see the movie with less than 10% of the seats filled, so I'm glad to say that they were at least a third occupied by the time the movie started.

What's more, I really enjoyed that walk. Not only did I continue to listen to the score on my ipod, but I approached the Howard Hughes Center from a different angle than I ever approach it. It was cool to see the building's various neon features glowing behind a haze of fog, and I even got to take it all in while riding an external escalator. (It's the simple pleasures, you know.) If I'd parked in the lot, I would have been pretty much inside the building the whole time.

So, did I like it?

Yes indeed. It was by far some of my favorite cinematography of the year, and Fincher created exactly the mood I was hoping for. And as you've heard, Rooney Mara is a revelation.

Still, I have some complaints that may be inextricably linked to the source material. Both in the original Swedish version and in this version, there are story aspects that I think don't have the affect Stieg Larsson intended them to have. (A strange comment to make about one of the most popular books of the last decade.) I'll leave that comment vague for those who haven't seen it, but I guess I will never be a truly devoted fan of the story that's there, meaning that the potential impact of any film adaptation is going to be somewhat limited from the start.

For what it was, though -- quite impressive.

Now, bring on the next 1,000 trips to the movies. I just hope that 1,000 theatrical visits from now, people will still be going to a thing called a movie theater.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Um, Blockbuster? This is why you're bankrupt.


If you've read any of my posts on Blockbuster (check out the corresponding label if you're interested), you know that I broke with the company in September of 2010 and have been exclusively a Netflix customer since then. (Bad timing, Vance, as this was about Netflix's worst year on record.)

Okay, not exclusively. I also frequent Redbox, the library and OnDemand. But also not exclusively Netflix because I've had two additional Blockbuster experiences. One when I rented the BluRay of Disney's A Christmas Carol from a store last Christmas, because I couldn't find the BluRay available elsewhere, and one when I rented Everything Must Go from a kiosk back in October, on a lark.

The Blockbuster kiosk had me kind of intrigued. Yeah, it was Blockbuster coming late to the party once again, this time competing with the Redbox business model the way it tried to compete with the Netflix model with DVDs through the mail. But as with the through-the-mail option, there's at least one advantage over its competition that Blockbuster brings to the table. Unlike Netflix and Redbox, Blockbuster does not have a deal with the studios to delay availability of most new releases by 28 days. This means that if I'm absolutely jonesing to watch a movie that just became available on DVD for the first time, I can visit a Blockbuster kiosk and scratch that itch 28 days earlier than I could scratch it at a Redbox kiosk. A particularly valuable advantage at this time of year, when I'm trying to cram in 2011 movies before I finalize my year-end rankings on January 24th (the morning the Oscar nominations are announced).

So I used that logic to make my second trip to a Blockbuster kiosk last night. Unlike with Redbox kiosks, which seem to be everywhere, I know of only one Blockbuster kiosk near my house. (Another sure sign of the company's ailing fortunes.) Fortunately, it's pretty near -- only a longer drive than the closest Redbox kiosk by a minute or two.

The goal was to see The Hangover Part II. My wife and I have had a downer couple of days since Tuesday, when we discovered that we had lost out on an amazing house we bid on last week. (I don't think I've mentioned it before, but we're house hunting.) We wanted to laugh last night, and she thought the best way to do that would be to see the second Hangover. Even though my own personal understanding of the film's quality is that we will cringe more than we will laugh, I also wanted nothing more than to deliver her the movie of her choice. Especially since at this time of the year, I don't discriminate -- I just want to consume 2011 movies where I can, when I can.

Pretty soon after getting to the kiosk, I determined that The Hangover Part II was not one of the movies resting inside its belly. I scrolled back through the screens chronologically, then searched by name just to be sure. I found it with a Coming Soon banner painted across its poster.

So this was my first warning that Blockbuster wasn't offering the advantages I thought it offered. I knew for a fact that The Hangover Part II would be available from Netflix (and presumably Redbox, which seems to be on the exact same schedule) on Tuesday. Well, this was also its Blockbuster availability date. What happened to that 28-day window, where Blockbuster finds most of its competitive advantage? Nowhere to be found.

Nor was that window to be found for our second choice: Cowboys & Aliens. My wife knows the film's screenwriters, and we had originally intended to see it in the theater. As with The Hangover, Cowboys & Aliens becomes available on Netflix and Redbox on Tuesday January 3rd. Which is also the day it will magically appear in this Blockbuster kiosk.

Strike two.

So I texted my wife some other options -- options which, on the whole, were things I could have just as easily scored in a Redbox kiosk. But I was here now, so it was easiest just to continue down the road with Blockbuster. She didn't like most of the options, but we did decide on one movie that we both (at least sort of) wanted to see: Mr. Popper's Penguins. And here I felt a momentary surge of renewed confidence in the Blockbuster kiosk, because I also knew for a fact that I'd have to wait until next week to get Mr. Popper's Penguins from the aforementioned two competitors.

That surge of renewed confidence lasted all of 30 seconds.

When I went to check Mr. Popper out, I saw that the rental fee was not $1 or $1.50, the going Redbox fee. (And the fee I'd paid for Everything Must Go at this very kiosk two months ago.) In fact, Blockbuster wanted a whole three bucks for me to take home Jim Carrey and a bunch of waterfowl.

Okay, now Blockbuster has sacrificed its entire advantage. Blockbuster does carry certain titles its competitors don't carry until later. But it charges a premium for that service -- two to three times the price of a regular rental. And now I understood what it meant when I'd been going through the screens of available movies on this kiosk, and certain titles, which have been available on DVD for three or more months, were advertised as being $1 rentals. My brain saw that, but if it made anything of it, my brain assumed that the $1 rental was being advertised as an alternative to a $1.50 rental, or something like that. My brain never assumed that the regularly priced rental was a whopping three bucks -- and that was even for a number of movies currently available from Redbox.

Look, I get it -- Blockbuster has its financial realities it has to deal with. If the past couple years have made anything clear to Blockbuster, it's that financial realities dictate almost everything about how you do, or don't do, business.

But if it can't even position itself as a viable alternative to Redbox with a few distinct and meaningful advantages, what hope does it have? The battle against Netflix has already been lost. The battle against Redbox could be over before it even begins.

I grumbled and paid the $3 and rented Mr. Popper's Penguins. I see everything Jim Carrey makes, but this movie had only a few scattered cute moments amid a sea of Hollywood conventionality. In fact, as my wife pointed out, it's basically the same story as Carrey's own Liar Liar, where the career-oriented jerk has to learn to be a better father and husband. (In this case, ex-husband -- he's trying to win back his ex-wife. Does he succeed? Um, yeah. Of course he does.)

As one final note about Blockbuster's cluelessness, even the packaging for the DVDs is deficient. Whereas Redbox delivers its DVDs and BluRays in these nice plastic containers that snap tightly shut, keeping the disc nestled safely inside, Blockbuster uses these odd black sheaths made out of some kind of military grade plastic, which are open on one end. You'd think that the discs should snap in to some inner part of the sheath, so that they don't fall out. But they only seem to stay in by the pressure exerted on the disc by the walls of the sheath.

And they don't really stay in at all. Soon after I'd brought Mr. Popper home, he fell out onto our living room floor. Who knows what kind of trauma that might have caused the disc, if it fell on a different surface, or even if it landed wrong on our hardwood floors. I can only imagine what kind of impact this packaging has on the life of the disc, and when Mr. Popper started to go haywire halfway through -- pixelating and skipping -- I feared that either its previous rentals had scuffed it, or it had suffered damage from the fall in our house. Fortunately, stopping and restarting the disc cleared up the problem, and there was no recurrence.

So I'll have to think long and hard about whether I'll be using the Blockbuster kiosk in my neighborhood this January. Cramming in movies before the deadline is a goal about which I care deeply, whether rightly or wrongly. And cramming in movies that are unavailable elsewhere is an even more rarified feat.

But at what cost? The difference between $1 and $3 for a rental may be that imaginary dividing line in my mind -- or it may simply be the arbitrary detail that justifies my declining to support a company I once loved, which has lost its way.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Stealing storylines from future movies


Star Wars long ago ceased to be a universe whose timeline begins and ends with what we see in the movies.

Even when I was a kid growing up, I had a piece of Star Wars-related fiction called Han Solo and the Lost Legacy, which had to do with the adventures of Han Solo and Chewbacca either before or after the events of the original trilogy. (I'm gonna say before, since it didn't feature any of the other characters -- though maybe it would need to be after, to preserve the possibility of life-threatening danger to our heroes. I could look it up, but since it's one of those half-remembered things from childhood, it's more fun to speculate.) Anyway, that was the 1980s, and divergences from what we knew about the official Star Wars timeline were already in full swing by then.

Since then, there have been more adventures tangentially related to the Star Wars universe, both "officially licensed" and not, than probably even the most devoted geeks can keep up with. It only worried me enough to write about when I saw the poster for what seems to be the most recent of the dozens of Star Wars-related video games that have been produced in the last couple decades.

Quite arrestingly, the poster for Star Wars: The Old Republic is done in the style of the famous Star Wars posters by Drew Struzan -- you know, the ones with the head shots of various characters and action shots of various others, all combined together into a single iconic image. (Struzan also did the posters for Raiders of the Lost Ark and other films.) As far as I can tell, this poster is a theft of/homage to Struzan's work and not done by him personally. But it's still pretty impressive at getting the Star Wars juices flowing in an excited fan.

And because this poster reminds me so much of an actual movie poster, it made me wonder how much unfamiliar material there will/could still be remaining for future Star Wars movies.

Thought we were done? Thought George Lucas was content to continue riding the coattails of currently existing films, as he is doing by releasing the existing six movies in 3D, starting this February with The Phantom Menace?

As the movie industry has, in recent years, become even more reliant on existing brands than it has ever been, it stands to reason that episodes seven, eight and nine of the original nine-part series would still come to the big screen at some point in the future. At one point it seemed certain that George Lucas himself would have to be involved, but maybe that's not the case. It now seems unlikely that Star Wars will have faded into obscurity even a hundred years from now, and only rebooting/remaking the original movies -- something that seems certain to happen within 15 years -- is not enough for a century's worth of new Star Wars-related adventures.

What I'm really wondering is more broad, and it certainly doesn't relate specifically to The Old Republic, since that clearly seems to take place before any of the events we're aware of -- meaning it would have no bearing on episodes seven, eight and nine. What I'm wondering, in general, is how much of what we officially know about Star Wars has to jibe with the other things we officially know about Star Wars, or whether what happens in the movies is the only stuff that's really "on the record."

Again I'm not inclined to look this up, but mustn't there already be people out there who know how Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Leia (shit, does she have a last name? Organa? Skywalker?) meet their demise? Hasn't this already been written in some semi-licensed graphic novel that tried to fill the Star Wars void between Return of the Jedi in 1983 and The Phantom Menace in 1999?

I guess it's best not to think about it. I might drive myself crazy. Well, probably not. Since being a hugely devoted fan of Star Wars growing up, I've allowed myself to find a comfortable home in the middle ground of Star Wars fans. You know, the kind of fan who is not sure whether he's going to see the movies rereleased in 3D. See, the most passionate fans already know for sure whether they're seeing it (of course, it's Star Wars!) or not seeing it (blasphemy of the highest order!). It's the less intense fans, of which I am now one, who haven't made up our minds yet.

I do know that thanks to this poster, I'd now like to play Star Wars: The Old Republic -- or at least watch someone else play it. (I've never been very good with a game controller.)

Whether the events, characters or timeline of The Old Republic, or any of the other countless Star Wars branches, ever become "legitimized" by appearing in a movie? That's a concern for another day.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Wonderful


I'm in the midst of watching It's a Wonderful Life on NBC.

Pretty cliche Christmas Eve activity, I know.

But it's only my second time seeing it. And it doesn't count, since we started watching at 9 p.m., even though it started airing at 8. (We were watching Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol before that.)

I'm usually against coming in halfway through a movie, even if I've seen it before. Movies I've seen lots of times can function as sort of an exception to that rule. With movies I'm seeing only for the second time, however, I need that first half to orient myself again.

I'm making the exception with It's a Wonderful Life, which I only saw once during the 2002 Christmas season, because I'm looking for a good dose of "normal Christmas" tonight. I'm currently in a hotel room in Palm Springs, which is not very "normal," Christmas-wise.

It's actually a pretty special Christmas, because members of both my wife's family and mine are here with us, having traveled from cities in three different countries to be here. My mom and her boyfriend flew here from Boston. My wife's aunt and uncle, cousin, and cousin's family flew here from Toronto. And my wife's sister and mother both came from Australia -- Melbourne and Hobart (Tasmania), respectively.

But the things we've done haven't been very Christmas-oriented. We did see snow today, having ridden the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to its peak. (Which is considerably frostier than the temperatures at the base, which allowed us to actually go swimming in a heated outdoor pool this afternoon.) But as soon as the 14 of us returned to the hotel, having had a great time, we dispersed at about 6 p.m., and didn't see each other again.

See, I'm accustomed to Christmas Eves where people share food and laughs, and probably get a bit tipsy on wine, and you have a warm feeling inside you as you return home to bed, maybe wrapping one last present or two before you close your eyes for the night. Not where you run out to the grocery store at 7:30 to get a pasta dish and garlic bread to make in your hotel room's kitchenette.

But as I was starting to feel a bit down, pondering what was missing from this December 24th, my wife convinced me that this would be one of those Christmases we'd remember and talk about -- where both sides of our families got together and met us in the same hotel where we'd all stayed when my wife and I got married three years ago, just a stone's throw from here. So what if we didn't get the room decorated, or pick up a two-foot-tall tree like we'd talked about. It's a special Christmas where an extended family spread across the globe is now just separated by a couple rooms at an inn.

And so what if I've now typed through most of the second half of It's a Wonderful Life. It has served it's function, which is: to remind me that life is wonderful, when you're surrounded by family who have all traveled great distances to be together. Improbable distances, really. If it doesn't resemble some prototypical past Christmas experience in my mind, that -- precisely -- is the wonderful part.

Merry Christmas, and to all a good night.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why can't Nicole Kidman always be awesome?


Tom Cruise got his post yesterday, and among the settlements from their divorce many years ago is that Nicole must be given equivalent coverage whenever Tom is mentioned in the public domain.*

(*not really)

Well, I don't know if Nicole will be too happy with this one.

But let me start by buttering her up. Nicole Kidman is, for my money, quite possibly the most talented actress working today. Oh sure, you could offer plenty of other compelling choices and you'd probably be right. But when Nicole is on, she's on. And in those times (Rabbit Hole, Birth, etc.), no one does it better.

Unfortunately, Kidman is showing about as much selectivity when it comes to scripts as her famously undiscriminating Trespass co-star, Nicolas Cage.

I watched Trespass Tuesday night, knowing full well that it was a generally reviled film. It barely had a theatrical release and was on DVD almost immediately, even with the names Kidman, Cage and Schumacher all attached. (Say what you want about Joel Schumacher, but his films at least get theatrical releases.) I didn't see much promise in the names Cage and Schumacher, but Kidman had me interested.

So I watched.

Ugh.

Trespass
is one of the most poorly conceived, poorly written, indifferently acted and just plain cliched home invasion movies you will ever see. It doesn't contain the slightest bit of nuance, and for large periods of time it doesn't make any sense, either.

What's worst is that Kidman is bad. She doesn't elevate the material, not even a little bit. She acts down to it, almost like she's got an on-off switch and it's currently switched off. She's still the same actress -- she still does those little facial twitches and other expressions that remind me who she is. But the movie is still absolutely terrible.

Part of what should make an actress good is her willingness to hold out for the roles she wants. Clearly, Kidman isn't doing that. You could list a number of her famous duds (Bewitched, The Stepford Wives, etc.), but you really don't need to go outside the year 2011 to wonder what the hell she's doing. Her most mysterious appearance this year -- which originally gave me the idea to write a post about her choices -- was the awful Adam Sandler-Jennifer Aniston comedy Just Go With It. Didn't think she was in that? Yeah, neither did anybody. She's some kind of rival to Aniston's character, and it's a thankless role that involves embarrassing dance sequences and other pratfalls. What were you thinking, Nicole? (I'm guessing she's friends with Sandler or something.)

We have to pause now to regrettably acknowledge the reality that Hollywood is not brimming with satisfying roles for actresses. For every grieving mother of a deceased child (Rabbit Hole), there are ten roles for bad romantic rivals (Just Go With It).

Still, this is Nicole Kidman. She's been nominated for three Oscars and won one. And should have been nominated for an Oscar for Birth. Here's a quick scene from Birth that summarizes everything of which she is capable. Unfortunately, embedding is disabled on youtube, so you'll just have to follow the hyperlink above. The blow-your-mind acting begins at about 1:20, but the first 1:20 is useful for establishing Kidman's emotional state during the ensuing scene.

But the problem is, if you want to work -- and it appears that Kidman does -- there's pretty much no way to keep your record totally unblemished. There are very few actors or actresses who don't have at least a couple duds to their credit.

Here's hoping that Kidman has gotten her couple duds out of her system in 2011, and her 2012 will be more like her 2010.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tom Cruise can run


You know what a lot of actors can't do very well?

Run.

Lately I've been noticing it a lot. Scenes in movies or TV shows that are supposed to be tense, that feature the main characters running. Except most of the time, they look like they're more worried about tripping on a loose object and stumbling face first -- the kind of fall that would risk scratching up their money-makers. I can't believe the number of directors who let actors get away with these slack-faced, controlled trots, which are all the more ridiculous because you can't look intense while running cautiously.

But not Tom Cruise.

Tom Cruise can run.

In fact, Tom Cruise running is one of the main reasons I look forward to a Tom Cruise movie. That guy runs like a bat out of hell. He runs like he's being chased by a pack of wolves that haven't eaten in two weeks. He runs like there's a finish line and he needs to blow past a hundred other runners before he can get there. He runs like he's running away from a bomb. (Which in movies, he usually is.)

If you don't believe me, just check it out. I'd hoped to find a single still that perfectly encapsulated the Tom Cruise Run. Fortunately, Youtube has got me covered. (Which also means that "Tom Cruise can run" is not a particularly original observation).

Here:



Even still this does not capture the quintessential Tom Cruise Run in my mind's eye.

Where other actors hesitate, Cruise commits. Where other actors demonstrate a me-first attitude, he puts the drama first. And you know it's not a double, because they usually shoot him head on. How else to capture that slightly crazed, slightly desperate, slightly shocked look in his eyes?

Anyway, it's one of the reasons I'm now looking forward to Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. (Damn, that's too much punctuation for one title). Which opens wide today after raking in the dough while opening on just a couple hundred screens last Friday.

I mean, I knew Cruise could run and I knew he would run in Ghost Protocol. The difference is that I have seen a lot of bad running recently in movies and TV, so it has whetted my appetite for an actor who can actually do it effectively.

I'm also looking forward to it because the critical raves are in. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, one of the critics I read most, even put it in his top ten of the year. (At #10, but still.) And unlike such series as The Fast and the Furious, where Fast Five has gotten a lot of positive word of mouth, I'm actually caught up with the M:Is. So I can watch this one without wondering if I'm missing some of the story (he says while stifling a bit of laughter at his own ridiculous rules).

The problem is, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Adventures of Tintin also release today, and the list of movies I'd like to see before January 24th, when I close my 2011 list, is currently 40 titles long. (Exactly 40 -- I just checked on my blackberry.)

If I want to see all these movies, I'd better run.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Fun fact



Did you know?

Sixty-six percent of the documentaries I've seen this year feature Eddie Vedder covering The Who's "Baba O'Riley."

Get with the program, Bill Cunningham New York.

(It's been a terrible documentary year for me so far, something I intend to remedy in the next month before I close my list of 2011 rankings.)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Great pauses in movie history

The exact moment we pause a movie -- to go to the bathroom, to answer the phone, to get a drink -- is usually somewhat random.

Unless you're trying to wait until the end of the scene, you usually just choose a moment and press pause. There's little to no premeditation.

And so I think it's kind of funny when you happen to get a really good one.

In fact, I've taken pictures of funny pauses before. After the one I got last night during Gnomeo & Juliet, I think it's time to start an unofficial, sort-of series on my blog.

I'll show it to you first, then I'll explain why I think it's so great.

Juliet (left, voice of Emily Blunt) has just told her faithful frog sidekick Nanette (Ashley Jensen) that she has just met a boy, and he's "a blue." Believing that she's kidding, Nanette, whose real life function is a plastic, water-squirting toy, bursts out in laughter, spraying water everywhere.

However, at the moment I picked up the remote, Nanette had not yet had her reaction. Right as I hovered my thumb over the pause button and pressed, she exploded into laughter, leaving water droplets floating in the air, and Juliet closing her eyes to avoid the spray.

Just struck me as funny. Nothing more profound than that.

To give you a little more of the background behind Great Pauses in Movie History, I took a picture of a paused Angela Bassett a couple months ago during Jumping the Broom. I can't actually remember what's going on in the scene, but this pause just struck me as very funny:


I am pretty sure she had not just taken a bite out of an onion, but beyond that, I don't remember.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Silent means silent. That means you, old lady.


After seeing The Artist Tuesday night, I posted on Facebook that an audience talking during the movie was even worse when it was a silent movie. Some people tried to offer me the glass-is-half-full perspective: At least the noise pollution wouldn't be preventing me from hearing the dialogue.

That's a good idea in theory, but not in practice. Sure, it's possible you would miss some key information if some jerk were talking over the dialogue, but the worse problem created by audience chatter is that it functions as a distraction. If it happens enough, it takes you out of the movie. And with only music playing -- no dialogue, and not even any sound effects -- you can't help but focus on the content of the surrounding chatter. You could look at it this way: In a Michael Bay movie, the talking of other people is not such a distraction, because the explosions tend to drown it out.

Fortunately, I was not taken out of The Artist. But there were a couple of yammering old ladies behind me whose occasional failures of impulse control were downright comical. The thing is, they weren't really that old, even -- mid-50s maybe. I'm calling them "old" because a) they were older than me, and b) their tendency to blurt out whatever thoughts were in their head is trademark old-person audience behavior.

I knew we were in trouble when they came in late, during the trailers, and carried in whatever hilarious conversation they were having outside. Something quite funny had just happened to them, or so they believed, and they had to laugh about it for another two to three minutes after they sat down. Sure, I didn't care that much about the War Horse trailer, but I knew this would be a preview of things to come.

Here were the highlights, all spoken in a regular speaking voice rather than a whisper. They'll make sense to you if you saw the movie, and will not ruin it if you didn't. (Though I'll try to keep it abstract.)

During the dream sequence: "I don't get it."

Later on: "That's all his furniture!"

A little after that: "He shot his dog?"

Then the most mysterious verbal expulsion: What sounded like halfway between a groan and scoff during the film's indisputably effective emotional climax.

At least my wife and I got a good laugh out of it later on.

And speaking of that ... Tuesday night was our first real experience with how expensive a good old-fashioned dinner and a movie can get when you are also using a babysitter. Even a reasonably priced babysitter ($10/hour) like the one we've just started using.

Here's a breakdown of our costs:

Two tickets to see The Artist, including the $1 surcharge for purchasing online: $27
Two Cokes and two bags of Smart Fries: $15
Dinner afterward of gourmet sandwiches and one cocktail each (including tip): $66
3.5 hours of babysitting (including tip): $40

So yeah, we spent $148 on our evening.

Ouch.

We could have saved a couple bucks if they ever started a movie at a convenient time to get dinner first. We went to a 7:50 show, but even an 8:30 or 8:40 show would have allowed us to eat beforehand and prevented our desperate need for some pre-movie sustenance in the form of the theater concession stand.

Dinner also would have been cheaper if we hadn't gone to a place that charges $14 for sandwiches (but oh, they're so good) or if we hadn't gotten cocktails. But what's a rare dinner date with your wife if you don't have a cocktail?

At least we didn't have two. I'd have had to take out a loan or something.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A curious literacy strategy


You can imagine I was surprised to see this familiar image on information kiosks this holiday season, since Disney's A Christmas Carol came out a full two years ago.

Turns out, they're just using the image of Jim Carrey's Ebenezer Scrooge to convince people to read books.

On the one hand, I get it. But on the other, isn't it kind of a contradictory impulse, to tell people to "Explore New Worlds," but then to spoon-feed them the images upon which to base that exploration?

The supposedly wonderful thing about reading is that you get to create the world in your head. You can imagine what every character looks like, and you get to conjure your own appearance for the houses and towns in which they live. Your brain gets a special boost if it's a fantasy world, something for which you may have no previous frame of reference.

And so, presenting someone with a fixed image of what a character, such as Ebenezer Scrooge, looks like, is kind of counterproductive. Not only that, but it's a fixed image from a movie. Aren't movies supposed to be the enemy of books, at least for hardcore bibliophiles?

Never mind the nit-picky detail that the setting of one of the world's most famous and celebrated Christmas stories is hardly a "new world" to explore.

I guess the bibliophiles responsible for this campaign, at least, must acknowledge that they need celebrity to sell the idea of reading. Only by using the likeness of Jim Carrey on a poster about reading will they get our attention enough to bring home the message. Advertising is a visual medium, so you need something to catch our eye. Might as well be something familiar, something that makes us look twice -- as I looked twice, enough that I stopped to take a picture and am now writing about it here.

Well, it's for a good cause in the case of A Christmas Carol. Not only should everyone see Robert Zemeckis' movie, which is truly creative and visually arresting, but they really ought to read Charles Dickens' novel, which brings the Christmas spirit like no other.

Literally. Three spirits, actually.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

This screener will self destruct in 10 seconds


We got to watch Young Adult last night, but it was a close call. For a moment there I thought the screener had destroyed itself.

As I've written about several times in the past, I have a friend who's in the Writer's Guild, who tries to either loan me one of his screeners, or watch one with me, every Christmas season. I was over at his house the other night, and I thought it would happen then, but the topic never came up. Then a couple days later he texted me and asked me if I'd seen Young Adult yet. A strange question, because it was the very day the movie was opening, and not even all that late in the evening. He said that he'd loan it to me when he saw me at one of two parties we were both planning to attend this past weekend.

Since my wife and I were both eager to see it, the DVD made its way into our BluRay player the very next night.

And was quickly ejected. Forcibly ejected.

The BluRay player attempted to read it, then spat it out. The screen flashed "Disc Error."

Uh oh.

Now, this has never been a problem in the past with his screeners. In fact, I know for a fact that his screeners have the potential for multiple viewings, because I've watched several of his movies that he'd already watched. In fact, I've even come into possession of one from about five years ago, and have watched that particular copy twice myself.

But there are warnings all over the disc that talk about prosecuting the person if the disc is found to have been uploaded to the internet and traced to this copy, and there are explicit instructions given for returning the disc to the studio if the recipient cannot agree to the viewing terms. (So let's hope no one is reading this who would have the motivation to trace things back to my friend. And if you are, hey, I'm a film critic, which means I might see an advanced free screening of this movie anyway.)

Plus there's an actual request for the recipient to physically destroy the movie by February 26, 2012. Yeah, like anyone actually does that.

Since I can't ever remember our BluRay player rejecting a disc, we thought there was a pretty good chance the disc had been designed to compromise itself once the film had already been screened once. But we tried to play it in my laptop anyway.

At which point it played through without a problem. Whew.

Well, there was one problem: I couldn't seem to get the DVD control menu -- which includes the volume, pause button, etc. -- to exit the bottom of the screen. I even took the disc out and reinserted it. That menu came on after I paused to adjust the volume, then it just wouldn't leave. For a second there we thought we'd have to pay this smaller price -- a distraction at the bottom of the screen for the duration of the running time -- for the right to watch this movie.

Turns out I just needed to move the cursor to anywhere on the top 80% of the screen.

Shows you how many movies I watch on my laptop.

As for the movie itself? Well, I know some of my readers are excited about this movie and would not want me to either confirm their excitement with a positive appraisal or curdle it with a negative one. Besides, as I learned from watching Charlize Theron on Jay Leno last night, the movie is only in limited release right now -- it doesn't even open nationwide until Friday.

So if I'm not going to give Paramount the money to see Young Adult in the theater, at least I'll help them out by maintaining a self-imposed reviewing embargo. You've probably heard about reviewing embargoes recently with regards to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, where Columbia Pictures was furious with David Denby of The New Yorker for posting his (positive) review in the magazine too many days before the movie was set to release.

Where that ranks as an offense next to unauthorized viewings of awards screeners, I'm not so sure.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mainstream, but not too mainstream


I often beat myself up over the fact that I don't always get as far outside the mainstream as I like in terms of the movies I watch. Oh, I'm aware of and see my share of foreign, independent and just plain weird titles. But a film snob would probably scoff at the overall commonness of what I watch.

So it was pleasing the other day when I was looking at the "2011 in film" entry on wikipedia, and noticed that I had seen only one of the top ten grossing films so far this year.

(I saw a second -- Transformers: Dark of the Moon -- last night, so I figured I better write this post before I get any further down that inevitable road.)

That's right, only the highest grossing film of the year -- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 -- had crossed my eyeballs before last night.

And that's out of nearly 80 films from 2011 that I've already seen.

Here's how the whole list stands, with the worldwide grosses listed afterward. (I usually have a local bias and consider grosses domestically, but wikipedia is more fair and lists the grosses worldwide, so I will go with that system for today.)

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 - $1,328,111,219
2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon - $1,123,196,189
3. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - $1,043,871,802
4. Kung Fu Panda 2 - $663,024,542
5. Fast Five - $626,137,675
6. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 - $596,383,267
7. The Hangover Part II - $581,464,305
8. The Smurfs - $562,044,359
9. Cars 2 - $551,846,625
10. Rio - $484,635,760

I assume I'll end up watching maybe half of these before I close my 2011 rankings in late January, and most of the rest over the next couple years. (Not sure if I'll ever get that far in the Twilight series -- we'll have to see.) But those I do watch between now and January, I'll be watching more to be completist than anything else -- more to be sure I've seen a truly representative sample of the films that came out in 2011, for ranking purposes. The others will make good candidates to watch with my son when he gets old enough. (I'm stockpiling animated movies I haven't seen now, so I'll have plenty later.)

And I take some pride in the fact that only one of these is a movie I went to see in the theater. I'm not such a sheep after all, am I?

However, the reverse conclusion is also somewhat discouraging. It means that a lot of other people saw a lot of movies in the theater that I, as a general film fan and critic, did not deem worthy of my theatrical dollars. Which, if you trust my judgment at all and extend this line of thinking outward, means that popular films are getting worse and worse in quality. Or simply that people are demanding less and less of them.

Well, for today I'll just dwell on the positive. I'm selective in what I expose my eyes to.

At least until I inevitably see the fourth Pirates and the fifth Fast and the Furious.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

December movies I can safely avoid


This time of year, it feels like we're being assaulted with new releases that demand our attention in the form of a theatrical screening. (Last week notwithstanding.) That is, they demand our attention if we want to be up on what may be getting Oscar nominations a month from now.

So it can be a real relief to make a determination about certain films that you just aren't going to prioritize -- whether they are Oscar contenders or no.

Two such movies are coming out next week -- Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. Neither of which are Oscar contenders, really. I might have been a candidate to see Holmes in the theater, except I still haven't seen the first one. (Call me old-fashioned, but I do my best to see these things in order.) And with Alvin and the Chipmunks, well, I think my disinterest in that goes without saying.

But next week's low-priority December releases are not, well, the priority for this post, because there are three coming out today as well.

Entertainment Weekly stole my idea!

You could look at it one of two ways:

1) Entertainment Weekly took a really good (if somewhat obvious) joke out of my hands, or

2) Entertainment Weekly saved me a heckuva lot of work.

See, the sheer quantity of celebrities on the posters for Garry Marshall's last two films -- Valentine's Day, and now New Year's Eve, which releases today -- gave me an idea a couple weeks back. Like I said, it wasn't a particularly original idea. But I wanted to mock up a poster for an imaginary movie called St. Patrick's Day, which would feature a grid of pictures of so many movie stars, the pictures would be too small to even identify them.

Then EW gets out ahead of me by making a parody poster in last week's issue for a fictitious movie called Arbor Day -- and for suggesting a half-dozen other holidays that Garry Marshall could make into movies, including plot outlines for these theoretical movies, a couple of the many stars who would appear in them, and a role in each movie for longtime Marshall collaborator Hector Elizondo.

There was some disappointment that I couldn't go ahead with my idea once I saw theirs, but the more dominant feeling was one of relief. I mean, if you saw this fledgling first attempt at manipulating images on Microsoft Paint, you'd know that I'd have to spend a really long time on this to make it look good. And come on, it's the holidays -- who has a really long time to spend on anything?

Regarding New Year's Eve, the jokes make themselves. I will say that I think it looks like a slightly better movie than Valentine's Day, if only because New Year's Eve is a slightly more exciting, cinematic holiday. (Even if Hollywood has failed to realize that by making more movies about Valentine's Day than New Year's Eve -- which has entirely to do with box office viability, since there's less competition in February than December.) When you come right down to it, though, all of the numerous plots in both films are probably about love, which limits their potential to really surprise us.

The interesting thing about these movies is that the casts are so large, every film fan should be able to find at least one cast member whose participation in this movie is disappointing. For me it's not Robert DeNiro, who jumped that shark a long time ago. Oddly, I'd have to say that Seth Meyers disappoints me the most. Not because he's got some stellar film career going -- in fact, he rarely appears anywhere outside the Weekend Update desk on Saturday Night Live. It's because as a funny guy who both writes and delivers funny lines, he should know better.

Stinker, Failure, Moldier - Why?

You can disregard any meaning in that subheading. I just thought it was a funny play on words. I'm sure Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a good movie, especially since it's directed by Tomas Alfredson, who brought us Let the Right One In.

But I'm down on the movie nonetheless because I've decided in the past couple years that I don't like spy movies. And I'm using the release of this film to tell you about that.

I didn't necessarily know I had a problem with spy movies, until I recognized a pattern of feeling dissatisfied upon finishing a spy movie. I won't go through a list of examples, but I will tell you about one in particular that helped bring home the realization: The Good Shepherd, directed by Robert DeNiro (making his second appearance in this post, in two totally different contexts). The movie is a semi-fictionalized take on the origins of the CIA, and it just left me cold.

What I realized during The Good Shepherd is that narratives involving double or triple crosses and people who speak 14 different languages just don't interest me. I don't find anything relatable in them.

You might think that's ridiculous -- how do I relate to a mob movie, a superhero movie or a political thriller? Well, I have actual answers for those questions. Mob movies interest me because they are all about the bottom line -- achieving an end by whatever means necessary. There's something primal about that. Superhero movies usually involve regular people who are suddenly bestowed with irregular powers. I'm a regular person, so that could happen to me. And a political thriller is interesting because I find the machinations of politics interesting, if often frustrating.

But I don't really care about characters in spy movies, because frankly, spies don't seem like real people to me. Especially movie spies, who are almost incapable of making mistakes -- they are preternaturally talented at what they do. While this should fascinate me, it sort of doesn't. They seem more like narrative constructs than real people.

Another thing is that spy movies often seem to revolve around periods in history from which we have already emerged unscathed. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is supposed to give us a sense of tension and urgency in its drama, but it takes place during the Cold War -- a conflict we have already satisfactorily resolved. We are supposed to gasp the way Gary Oldman gasps in the trailer, when he says "Tinker ... tailor ... soldier ... (gasp!) ... spy!" As if a spy is the most unholy abomination you could imagine, and should fill you with dread. The violins that kick in at that point of the trailer are meant to underscore that feeling. But I don't feel unsettled by a spy. I just feel frustrated.

In case you were wondering, James Bond gets a pass. He's a different story. He's more like an action hero than a spy. But I wouldn't be surprised if he does speak 14 languages.

The latest rehash of After Hours

They keep remaking Martin Scorsese's After Hours, don't they?

This time it's with Jonah Hill as a babysitter who takes his charges out on an ill-advised booty call that ends up involving all sorts of criminal enterprises and other shenanigans.

Meh.

Then again, I did end up really liking the most recent remake of After Hours, which was last year's Date Night, starring Tina Fey and Steve Carell. Against all odds and all prejudices I brought into it, I laughed a lot and really liked it.

Note -- The Sitter may be your last opportunity to see the Jonah Hill you've come to know and love. From here on out, he may be waaay too skinny for his body, and continue to look as weird as he looks in anything filmed in the last couple months.

How did that work out for Seth Rogen, Jonah?

However ...

I definitely do have one of this week's new releases on my priority list.

You can't look at this picture of Charlize Theron in Young Adult and not get your hopes up for a gonzo comedic performance, equal parts bitchy and pathetic. The trailers seem to promise as much.

Also looking forward to Young Adult as the fourth feature from Jason Reitman, who seemed like he might veer off toward serious material with Up in the Air. Even Juno and Thank You For Smoking dealt with hot-button issues (teen pregnancy and the tobacco industry). I like that this movie seems content to be just a comedy -- a smart comedy, but not necessarily an important one.

And come on, Diablo Cody doesn't deserve the crap everybody gives her. You liked Juno when you first saw it, admit it. Only in retrospect has her dialogue taken on the reputation of being too cutesy.

But I probably won't actually be getting to the theater at all this weekend. It's a busy one for me. Next scheduled theater trip will probably be Tuesday, when my wife and I plan to make use of a newly discovered babysitter (not Jonah Hill) by going to dinner and then The Artist.

However, don't be surprised if Young Adult sneaks in and steals The Artist's spot.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Harry's Return of the King?


For most people, the word "consider" means ... well, exactly what you think it means.

For Hollywood types, it connotes something very specific: an Oscar campaign in full swing.

Which is why Los Angeles is the only town where there could be billboards all over the city, featuring grandiose stills from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and the word CONSIDER in big letters, and there would be no explanation necessary about what was going on.

Simply put, the push is on by Warner Brothers to get the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize the final installment in the Harry Potter saga, the same way they recognized the final installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy eight years ago.

And I guess they might have a shot.

On the surface, it would seem like an uphill battle. There are a number of important differences between Potter and Rings. For starters, Rings featured three films released in consecutive years from the same director, which were filmed concurrently, so they benefited from the same look. What's more, each of the previous two films was nominated for best picture before Return of the King finally took home the statue.

With Potter, there had been seven previous films over the course of a decade, none of which have been nominated for best picture. (Neither have there been any acting nominations, and overall, not as many technical nominations as you might think.) What's more, these movies represented the creative vision of four different directors, whose approaches sometimes differ sharply from one another. (And whose backgrounds in film are quite different as well.) It's not so easy to re-frame the Potter movies as one holistic viewing experience that maintained a consistent tone and quality from start to finish.

But Deathly Hallows Part 2 does have certain things going for it. For one, 2011 has yet to produce an obvious front-runner for best picture. I'd say The Descendants probably has the best shot right now, but it doesn't have nearly the heat other front-runners have enjoyed at this point in the campaign. (Of course, being the front-runner in early December doesn't usually work out well. Just ask The Social Network.)

Before it would have the chance to vie for top honors, the film would have to first get nominated -- a feat none of its predecessors has accomplished. Here too there is some hope. Most of those predecessors didn't have the advantage of a field of possibly as many as ten nominated pictures. Given the love Part 2 has gotten, it shouldn't seem like a stretch that it would finally score the series' first nomination. However, cancel some of this advantage because of the change in rules this year, which will allow as few as five films to get nominated if only that many films get a certain minimum percentage of first-place votes from Academy voters.

The thing that's noteworthy about this push by Warner Brothers is that a typical CONSIDER campaign is found in the pages of trade magazines, not on billboards around the city. If you were not previously familiar with the indelicate machinations involved in getting an Oscar nomination, you may remember that Melissa Leo was widely chastised last year for funding her own crass yet ultimately successful CONSIDER campaign for best supporting actress, which was a full-page glamor shot of her wearing some kind of animal fur. (Her awful acceptance speech at the Oscars only compounded the sense of tackiness that started in that campaign.)

So taking the campaign beyond the insiderish world of industry types and bringing it to the masses could indicate two things: 1) A skepticism that people are reading the trades as much as they used to, and B) A sense that this year's best picture statue really is there for the taking.

It could also represent a growing acknowledgment of the power to create buzz that's now in the hands of everyday citizens. With the ways people can reach each other through Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere, maybe your average citizen really does have the ability to influence the way industry people fill out their Oscar ballots. It's all one powerful interwoven force known as "hype."

Well, we'll know if all the money Warner Brothers is spending was a success on January 24th, when the nominees are announced, and then again on February 26th, when some movie will take home that coveted statue.

Only with a victory on that second night will Warner Brothers "consider" its mission accomplished.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Adding value


Next June, I will have been in IT for ten years.

It wasn't a career I planned. In the spring of 2002, when I decided I couldn't make a living as merely a freelance film critic, I reluctantly signed on with a temp agency. About my third job for the agency ended up being in an IT department. The rest, as they say, is history.

And though I've thrived at times, there have also been times when I've skated by, and never have I felt I was giving my all to IT. In the back of my mind I have always wanted to make inroads at having a full career as a film critic. Unfortunately, I've also known that this kind of career, even if possible, would result in a pay cut for me. And as my family responsibilities have increased, that kind of dream work has seemed less and less likely to ever transpire. I can't afford to make significantly less money than I'm making, especially on a permanent basis. Which basically puts me in the same boat as everyone else who's had to permanently defer their dreams.

Little did I know that my love of films would actually help keep me in my current job, even when I'm not giving it my all.

You see, my boss -- the same boss from my first IT job, who recruited me to my current job -- loves movies. He might not have the sophisticated, well-rounded love of movies you and I have, but he's gaga for new movies from his wheelhouse genres (mafia movies, crime dramas, thrillers, suspense). Yet he also doesn't really have a way for discovering movies other than what the Hollywood mainstream feeds him.

That's where I come in.

Particularly over the past six months, I've been recommending movies that my boss would never otherwise have known about. (At his request, of course.) My recommendations aren't always a success, but they hit with him more than they miss. And just recently he's begun to characterize this as a "value" I bring.

"I just wanted to let you know how much value you have to me," he told me on Monday. "Last night, I was flipping through the channels and I saw that Animal Kingdom was on. If it hadn't been for you, I would have thought it was some kind of Animal Planet show."

As luck would have it, he'd just rented Animal Kingdom from Netflix a few days before, on my recommendation. The channel surfing example was merely given as an indication of how he feels more in the know, now, thanks to me. (The example would have been slightly cooler if he'd been planning to see Animal Kingdom, but hadn't yet, and was able to get in a random viewing as a result of me making him a better-informed channel surfer.)

It turns out he really liked Animal Kingdom. I've had luck with him with the recent Australian crime dramas, as he also liked the Edgerton brothers' The Square. In Bruges was another recent favorite. These three hits really make up for a recent miss. Just before Thanksgiving he texted me, "Winter's Bone was winter's boring."

And so I've started to think of my ability to keep my job as a function of my ability to recommend good movies.

Before you worry about my actual employment status, I should tell you that I'm exaggerating here. My boss feels very endeared to me, having known me significantly longer than anyone else we work with, and having actually recruited me away from my old job.

But I'd be lying if I said I didn't take advantage of that. Not only do I not worry so much about occasional bouts of semi-indifferent work performance, or occasionally being a bit "mean" to one of the users (I've been accused of this, much to my chagrin), but I also take advantage in terms of goofing off more than I probably should. (Like, I am currently writing this blog post on company time.)

So sometimes I get paranoid that I've been abusing his good will, and that one day he'll learn I'm not half as valuable an employee as I am a cineaste. And whenever that paranoia sets in, I want to come through with an especially great recommendation -- to keep him confused about my actual value for as long as possible.

For awhile there, I could do no wrong. First I turned him on to Lebanon, Samuel Maoz' 2009 film that takes place entirely inside a tank, after we had been talking about Das Boot. (Which I haven't actually seen, so the conversation must have been pretty generic.) He really liked it. Then it was the Wachowski brothers' directorial debut, the masterful film Bound. He was in love with that one, as am I. "Five stars," he told me. I also loaned him my copy of the New Zealand post-apocalyptic film The Quiet Earth, which seemed to give him a charge.

But my footing started to slip after that. He liked Timecrimes, but I could tell he had some concerns about it, that it might have thrown him a bit. He thought Donnie Brasco was okay, but it caused him to comment that I might have mis-identified him as "the mafia movie guy." The Wages of Fear, a classic, left him non-plussed. And in a text he described the Coen brothers' great Miller's Crossing as "so-so."

As luck would have it, this coincided with a period in which my boss seemed distant and unreachable. It was a general thing and it was likely the result of job turmoil that wasn't related to me, but when you're already concerned you might not be performing up to your capabilities, you tend to take these things personally. Besides, we'd had a bit of a difference of opinion on a work-related issue, and I felt like we'd never satisfactorily buried the hatchet on that particular disagreement.

So suddenly I was panicking: "My boss is pissed at me, and I'm not winning him over with my recommendations? What if he decides I no longer have any value?"

Fortunately, this "dark period" was over in a matter of weeks, and the recommendations seemed to get back on track as well. He quite liked Unknown (the one from 2006, not the one from this year), and the successful triumvirate of In Bruges, The Square and Animal Kingdom soon followed (with the one inconsequential Winter's Bone blemish thrown in for good measure).

Now that he's twice referred to my services as a "value" (the first time with In Bruges), and doesn't seem to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, I feel like I'm probably pretty secure. Not that I ever really wasn't.

Unfortunately, now I've got a new challenge ahead of me: How to keep them coming? I already scoured my highest ranked films on Flickchart to find movies that a) I thought he would like, and b) I thought he probably hadn't seen or heard of. I still have a few titles I'm saving for a rainy day, but pretty soon I'll have to start going out on more limbs. And keep in mind that I've already strayed from his wheelhouse with such recommendations as The Wages of Fear and Winter's Bone.

So when you see me start watching movies specifically so I can curate a list of recommendations for my boss, that's when you know I must be really in trouble.

Until then, please assume that I'm maintaining at least a minimum level of actual job performance.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Getting acquainted with ... Roger Corman


This is the latest in my series called Getting Acquainted, where I, um, make myself acquainted with cinematic icons with whom I wasn't previously familiar. I watch three of their films during the month in question, then write about them here.

"It's like a Roger Corman movie." That's what I knew primarily about Roger Corman before last month, that he's known for making movies with a certain set of key components that makes people compare other movies to them. I'd heard his name most often in connection with films that had some kind of tawdry, exploitation quality to them. But I didn't know, just from that context, what flavor of tawdry they were, if you follow me.

I also didn't know if Corman was primarily a director or primarily a producer. The answer is "Yes." While has an astounding 398 producing credits listed on IMDB (and I'd have to really comb them to see what they constitute), he also has 56 directing credits. So let's just say he's been a busy man and he's done a lot of things. (He also has 34 acting credits and even six writing credits.) And he's still going today.

So I chose to watch two movies he directed and one he produced, all of which seemed to speak to some aspect of this man. And when I saw the following title, I just had to make it my first Corman movie of November ...

The Wasp Woman (1959, Roger Corman). Watched: Monday, November 7th

I wanted to immerse myself in the apparent B-movie glory of Roger Corman, so what better way to do it than a movie called The Wasp Woman?

As it turns out, this movie is pretty damn prescient. It's about the founder/president of a successful cosmetics company who has also been the face of the company throughout its years of success. However, she's getting long in the tooth -- in other words, she's in her early 40s -- and she wants a youth serum that will help keep her the face of the company without having to accept the compromise of her being an "old lady." As luck would have it, she is solicited by a mad scientist who has been working with bees, and has developed a way to reverse the aging process by extracting enzymes from the royal jelly of a queen wasp. Of course, there's a side effect -- from time to time, you develop the physical characteristics of a wasp. Or a sort-of cheap-looking wasp mask, at least. And then you start murdering people.

As I was watching, I was immediately struck by how well this movie might be remade in a Botox-obsessed culture like ours. (Well, we're obsessed with making fun of Botox, at least.) The desire for a fountain of youth has, of course, been an age-old defining characteristic of human beings, but somehow I found this serum -- which, like Botox, gets injected -- to seem a particularly timely form of commentary by the writers and director, even though they couldn't have anticipated the advent of something exactly like Botox. (As it turns out, the movie was remade in 1995, but that was also before Botox -- before we were culturally aware of it, anyway.)

The movie itself is pretty cheesy and is fairly minimalist in most respects. It's a scant 73 minutes in length, and only achieves that running time thanks to a prologue that was added by director Jack Hill when it appeared on TV two years later. (It's come to be part of the official version of the film, and features the scientist getting fired from his job as a beekeeper because he's interested only in experiments and not what he was hired to do.)

But damn it if this movie isn't also fun. As I was watching this movie, an impression of Corman started to form. Namely, that he's capable of giving audiences what they want (B-movie popcorn thrills that don't require too much mental capacity) on an exceedingly low budget (the wasp mask is pretty cheap looking and is only used in small doses). Still, this is not simply a monster movie -- it's got some sly social commentary woven into its fabric, and perfectly fine performances by Susan Cabot in the lead role and a variety of others who try to piece together Janice Starlin's secret, which relates both to her mysterious age reversal and the disappearance/death of several characters who try to get in her way. What isn't entirely clear -- though it probably doesn't need to be -- is how her face transforms into a wasp and back without any signs of the trauma of such a violent conversion.

The only way The Wasp Woman would have been more satisfying to me -- given my realistic expectations of what it was likely to be, that is -- is if it had had a bit more of the outrageousness implied by the poster. However, having watched a month full of Hammer movies in October, I was well aware of the huge gulf between what these pulpy movie posters promise and what the films are actually capable of delivering. (It's also interesting to note that the creature shown in this poster is pretty much the opposite of the wasp woman we see in the movie, who has a human body but a wasp head.)

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961, Roger Corman). Watched: Saturday, November 12th

When I was doing some quick research about Corman, the first thing I learned about him, after having his B-movie reputation confirmed, was that he also had a period of some critical acclaim that was very important to him. This was during the 1960s, when he was adapting Edgar Allan Poe movies. Speaking of Hammer movies, I feel like he should have been working for Hammer during this period.

Choosing The Pit and the Pendulum allowed me to a) familiarize myself a bit more with Poe's story, and b) see Vincent Price back in his heyday. However, I soon learned that the plot of this adaptation has more in common with Poe's The Premature Burial (an actual adaptation of which Corman directed the following year).

The story takes place in 16th Century Spain, where an Englishman named Francis (John Kerr) has come to the home of his brother-in-law Nicholas (Price) to inquire about the circumstances of his sister's recent death. He gets a variety of different stories before learning what appears to be the truth -- that his sister Elizabeth died of fright after becoming obsessed with the torture devices housed in the bowels of the castle, which once belonged to Nicholas' father, a notorious figure in the Spanish Inquisition. However, Nicholas himself has come to believe that his wife was not dead, that she may have been buried alive -- and that her ghosts walks the corridors of the castle at night. The only way a pendulum actually figures into the story is that its climax involves one of the characters (I won't say which, in case you want to see it) tied up underneath a swinging pendulum blade that is getting closer and closer to his torso. (Honestly, I think Corman just ripped this off from one of the Saw movies.)

I was suitably impressed by this movie. Although it too was likely made on the cheap, it seems to have a significantly higher budget than The Wasp Woman, and that presents itself in the form of some creepy atmosphere and decent sets. (In fact, the better comparison for this movie than The Wasp Woman is the Hammer movies, which also featured period stories and had period sets and costumes -- and I think this stacks up very well with those.) I was also impressed by how Corman didn't shy away from making it as scary as he knew how to. There's one corpse discovered in the movie that's frozen in a final primal scream, indicating that a certain character (I won't say if it's Elizabeth) indeed has been buried alive. The movie was made 50 years ago and it still gave me a chill. (Then again, I guess Alfred Hitchcock got there a year earlier with the reveal of the corpse of Norman Bates' mother.)

I found that Price gives a good performance. He has to experience quite a lot of anguish during the course of the narrative, and fears of losing his sanity, and that sort of thing. He goes big but not too big, and it never seems to be hammy. Not having seen much Price, I assumed he was a ham, but he seems here to have had real ability.

I also noticed that Corman had a good eye for detail in this movie. There was this one scene where Price is creeping down a winding stone staircase, and there's a rat standing on one of the stairs. I don't know why that moment stuck with me, but it reminded me positively of the effect created by Tod Browning in Dracula (which was another three decades earlier than this), where Dracula's castle is filled with all kind of odd and unsettling critters around the periphery of the action. It's not that seeing a rat is so odd and unsettling -- it's that someone had to think to put it there. (I can't describe the moment well enough -- you probably think I'm crazy for devoting a whole paragraph to it.)

Death Race 2000 (1975, Paul Bartel). Watched: Monday, November 28th

Now this is what I was thinking of when I thought of Roger Corman.

The idea I had of Corman was more based in the 1970s and more focused on exploitation. And thus begins the producing segment of my new acquaintance with Roger Corman: a science fiction film about a popular game/sport that involves killing people with automobiles, which inspired everything from Mad Max to The Running Man.

If you are currently balking at the notion that a low-budget Roger Corman movie could have been the inspiration for Mad Max (which is also low-budgeted, don't you forget), consider their release dates. Max didn't come out until four years after Death Race 2000. In fact, I finished watching the movie before I was done with my workout at the gym, so I watched an interview between Leonard Maltin and Corman as one of the DVD extras. Corman, sounding proud yet sweetly humble, said that George Miller basically credited Death Race 2000 with helping him create Mad Max.

The action occurs in the year 2000, when the United States is ruled from foreign shores by a malevolent figured called Mr. President, who is in the midst of a constant campaign to make boogeymen out of the French. (The satirical elements of this movie -- you could say that all its elements are satirical -- hit you from the first moment.) The most popular sport is a cross-continental car race where the drivers get points for killing pedestrians along the way. Oh, the pedestrians are duly aware of the danger -- they actually make games of trying to flirt with death and even take out the cars if they're able. The race is usually fatal for most of the drivers -- there are only five, and each has a navigator as well -- but the one who makes it to the other side (to "New Los Angeles") is richly rewarded and heralded as an international sports hero.

David Carradine plays the lead, a several-time winner and one of the only surviving drivers to win multiple times. He wears a full-body black rubber suit (a bit like The Gimp in Pulp Fiction) and is called Frankenstein, because his body has been pasted back together so many times. And guess who plays one of the other drivers -- Martin Kove! (You know, the evil sensai in The Karate Kid.) Or maybe you'd be more excited about this other driver: a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone! In the piece with Maltin, Corman talks about how this movie catapulted Stallone toward the stardom he has today. Carradine was contractually promised top billing, but since the film's release they've been able to credit Stallone with equal weight in subsequent advertising.

Simply put, this movie was a joy. It's everything you'd want from a great exploitation movie, with fast cars and violence, and a terrific B-movie quality despite its high-concept premise. I hadn't known for sure that this movie would have a sense of humor -- after all, what footage I've seen of the remake from several years ago starring Jason Statham, called simply Death Race (and also produced by Corman), makes that seem like a much more straightforward exercise in brutality and nihilism. There's plenty of violence here, as bodies squish magnificently in bloody messes under the front tires of speeding cars. But the satire comes first and foremost, as right from the start you meet a bunch of ridiculous talking-head media types, whose celebrity has derived entirely from the glee they get over the race and their apparent personal relationships with the drivers. (One awful female analyst refers to every single driver as "a close personal friend of mine.") The bloodlust for this sport is lacquered on thick, and it works terrifically.

And although Carradine and Stallone are both great -- funny to see Sly with such a baby face, and in the role of the villain -- the stars of this movie are the cars. It's the cars that made me feel most sure that George Miller must have been inspired by this film, even before Corman stated that in the interview. (Especially The Road Warrior.) Here, have a look at some of these babies:

(That includes Frankenstein's car twice, because you really had to see that one from the side.)

The speed at which they drive these things is truly phenomenal -- it almost seems like it should be digital -- and gives the film an extra sense of kinetics.

The film has this hell-for-leather attitude from start to finish. It's definitely crass, as most of the drivers are egotistical narcissists who will do anything to win, and there's a fair amount of nudity as well. This is of course in addition to numerous shots of people being run over by cars, with varying degrees of gore. But the great thing is that you don't have to feel guilty about enjoying the movie, because the exploitation is delivered with a brain on its shoulders. This is full-on satire of the thirst for violence inherent in many American sports, and of the logical future totalitarian incarnations of American jingoism. And by making the French the personification of all forces that oppose the United States, the film actually anticipates George W. Bush and Freedom Fries. (Favorite part: When Mr. President lists the crimes allegedly perpetrated by the French, and one of them includes "completely destroying our telephone system." I spat out laughter on that one, even as I was out of breath on the stairmaster at the gym.)

Okay, Roger Corman -- thanks for a fun month.

I was going to end 2011 with a final installment of cheap and tawdry cinema, but it turns out, almost none of the films of Russ Meyer are available on DVD through Netflix. (In fact, I could find none -- not even Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.)

So instead I'm going to end 2011 with a cinematic icon who will help even up the gender balance in the heretofore male-dominated Getting Acquainted series. The lone female thus far has been Elizabeth Taylor in June, but she'll have company after December.

See you back here after New Year's to discuss ...