Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A traveling travelogue

If you looked over at the right column on my blog and saw which movie I've most recently revisited, you might have said to yourself:

"Octopussy? Really?"

Yes, Octopussy. The James Bond movie. The 13th James Bond movie, to be precise. The sixth to star Roger Moore.

"Why the hell are you rewatching Octopussy, Vance?"

Well, I'll tell you.

On the Flickchart blog, a friend of mine is hosting a year-long series in honor of the 50th anniversary of James Bond in the movies. Dr. No, the first Bond movie, came out in 1962. It's 2012. I've checked the math -- it's correct. As such, there will be one post per month about something related to the Bond franchise. I'm writing the February one.

"But why are you rewatching Octopussy in particular, Vance?"

Ah, yeah. That.

The thesis of my piece is that because there are so many Bond movies, it's hard to have a consensus opinion about a) who the best Bond is, and b) what the best Bond movie is. Sure, the "right" answer about who the best Bond is is Sean Connery. But a large percentage of today's Bond fans don't even know Sean Connery from his later work, so why should they know him as Bond?

So the essential idea behind my piece will be: "Why not Octopussy?"

"But Vance, why not The Man With the Golden gun instead of Octopussy? For example?"

Well, because I watched Octopussy about ten times when I was a kid. In fact, I believe it's the only Bond movie I've seen more than once. I must love really love it if I've seen it ten more times than any other Bond movie.

That, or it was the one Bond movie I had on VHS. When I was a kid, I had a rotation of about a dozen movies we'd recorded off cable that I watched repeatedly. They included such titles as Superman II, Star Trek II, The Secret of NIMH, Time Bandits, Rocky III and The Goonies.

And, oh yeah, Octopussy.

But I like to think it wasn't just its availability that made me watch Octopussy repeatedly. It wasn't just that Octopussy was the only Bond movie that played during that finite period (2-3 years) when we had The Movie Channel, when my mom recorded almost everything that played.

I like to think that Octopussy was really better than other Bond movies -- other Roger Moore Bond movies in particular, but Connery Bond movies too. (I've still seen only two Connery Bond movies -- Dr. No, and the pretender Never Say Never Again, in which Connery returned to the role in an unauthorized version of the character, which was released the same year as Octopussy. Yes, I should be heavily berated for this gap in my filmography.)

I know it's better than Moonraker, which always struck me as very weird -- James Bond in outer space? I'm pretty sure it's better than For Your Eyes Only, the only part of which I really remember is that there's an extended skiing sequence. And I know it's better than A View to a Kill, despite the presence of Christopher Walken and Grace Jones. And I'm ashamed to admit I haven't even seen Moore's first three outings as Bond, all in the 1970s.

Anyway, enough about why I watched the movie. Watching it was a highly enjoyable trip down memory lane. So glad I did.

I won't write too much more about it now, because I'm going to save that for the other blog post. However, I did notice one thing about the experience that I wanted to talk about (now that we're nearly 20 paragraphs in):

I don't know if I've ever previously watched a movie in so many different locales. Appropriate for a movie that's essentially a travelogue, and takes place in many different locales.

I started watching it at the gym on Friday after work. I'd had a rough couple nights in a row of sleep (my son is teething), so I didn't have the energy to go my full 45 minutes on the stairmaster. I paid attention to what my body was telling me and cut out after 25 minutes. But then I watched another ten or so downstairs in a comfy chair in the lobby before leaving.

That night at home, after my wife went to sleep, I watched another 20 minutes or so. But remember what I said about having a couple bad nights' sleep in a row? (I hope so -- it was only one paragraph ago.) So yeah, I didn't last too long on that viewing before the couch got me.

Then I watched the last hour Sunday morning at my office. I've found my office conference room to be a good place to take my son on Sundays, when the office is empty. (Except for the security guy, who is used to seeing me by now.) There's a TV and DVD player all set up. And he can run around the room and play with his toys for awhile before he gets bored. There are very few things that he can break, or that can break him.

That's not only three locations, but three different players: my portable DVD player, my home BluRay player and the DVD player at work. (You can also say this movie has traveled, because I received it through the mail from Netflix.)

It matches the movie's three locales: the "cold open" that has nothing to do with the rest of the story, which is set somewhere in Latin America; the bulk of the action in India; and Germany, where slightly less of the action takes place.

However, I guess Bond really has me beat. The movie also contains a short couple scenes at Secret Service HQ and an auction house in London, as well as a Russian war room scene that, presumably, takes place in the Soviet Union.

Then again, the British Secret Service has a bigger budget than I do.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Friday, January 27, 2012

Will we be raunchy old people?

Random thought that occurred to me the other day:

"If elderly movie fans still cherish the movies they loved when they were kids, does that mean we're going to still have a raunchy sense of humor when we're elderly?"

Think about it. If you came of age loving American Pie or the Farrelly Brothers, or worship at the altar of Judd Apatow, how do you think you'll feel about these movies when you're in your seventies or eighties?

I'd be tempted to say that I'll still laugh at Ben Stiller getting his balls stuck in his zipper when I'm decrepit and using a walker. But part of that is pie-in-the-sky, a willful denial of the fact that I'll ever be anything less than the jaunty picture of youth I am today. "I'll never be square, will I? Of course not."

But I wonder.

There's something untoward about the idea of an old person who thinks that dick jokes and poop jokes are funny. I mean, we'll still be us -- we'll still have the essential personalities we've always had. But doesn't some kind of sophistication have to overtake us eventually? Or will we just have to pretend to be sophisticated in polite company?

People who are old now have not really had to confront this. They came of age in a cinematic era when things were simpler. Sure, there was that era's version of raunchiness in some of the movies released before the Hays Code made everything prim, proper and innocent, a period that lasted from the mid 30s to the late 60s. But nothing like the raunch we see today. And those who came of age after the MPAA ratings began in 1968 are too young to be considered elderly yet.

When we sit a grandchild on our knee for a great lecture on the cinema of yesteryear, which will inevitably begin with the words "In my day ...", we'll definitely have plenty of appropriate movies to talk about. Star Wars will be an ancient relic, but it'll be just the perfect kind of thing to bring up here. The animation of Toy Story will look positively primitive, but the story itself will still be a classic. There will even be some great comedies that'll be pretty safe to talk about. Ghostbusters is pretty tame, all told, isn't it?

But maybe, just maybe, we won't bring up the fact that we all loved a movie where a guy has sex with an apple pie.

Out of propriety, maybe we'll just keep that one all to ourselves.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

This Critic Was Wrong: Mistakes from 15 Years of Ranking Movies

This January marks 15 years since I started ranking all the movies I've seen in the previous year, from first to worst. I started the practice in January of 1997, and here it is, January of 2012. (Technically, that's 16 lists, because there are two lists bookending that 15-year period. But it's still 15 years. If you are for some reason coming to my blog for the first time during this very post, my 16th list went up yesterday.)

So to celebrate this milestone -- because you know how I love burdening you with my milestones -- I thought I would take a look back at where I've been and how far I've come.

But I'm not going to do something boring like give you a list of my favorite movies from those 15 years. Especially since there were plenty of great movies I saw during that period that I didn't see within their release year, meaning they never appeared on any year-end list, meaning talking about them here would be a strange way to mark the occasion. (No movie I see after the morning of the Oscar nominations is eligible for ranking.)

Instead, I'm going to look at what I got wrong. Those rankings are and will always be part of the "official record," but clearly my feelings about the movies I ranked have changed over the years. Some, I like a lot more than I did when I first saw them; others, a lot less. And so I thought I'd give you a list of the top ten movies I misranked when they came out, at least, relative to how I feel about them today. And in some cases, as you'll see, I even wonder what the hell I could have been thinking at the time.

But before we get into that, I want to lay the groundwork, to give you some idea about my tastes over the years. For each year from 1996 to 2010 (see yesterday's post for 2011), I want to tell you three things: 1) how many movies I ranked by my deadline, 2) the movie I ranked #1, and 3) the movie I ranked last.

Here they are:

1996 - 43 movies. #1 - Looking for Richard (Al Pacino), #43 - Before and After (Barbet Schroeder)
1997 - 39 movies. #1 - Titanic (James Cameron), #39 - Speed 2: Cruise Control (Jan de Bont)
1998 - 58 movies. #1 - Happiness (Todd Solondz), #58 - Almost Heroes (Christopher Guest)
1999 - 57 movies. #1 - Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer), #57 - Wild Wild West (Barry Sonnenfeld)
2000 - 58 movies. #1 - Hamlet (Michael Almereyda), #58 - The 6th Day (Roger Spotiswoode)
2001 - 73 movies. #1 - Gosford Park (Robert Altman), #73 - The Musketeer (Peter Hyams)
2002 - 80 movies. #1 - Adaptation (Spike Jonze), #80 - Bad Company (Joel Schumacher)
2003 - 58 movies. #1 - Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola), #58 - Dreamcatcher (Lawrence Kasdan)
2004 - 59 movies. #1 - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry), #59 - Troy (Wolfgang Petersen)
2005 - 73 movies. #1 - Hustle & Flow (Craig Brewer), #73 - Saw II (Darren Lynn Bousman)
2006 - 77 movies. #1 - Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron), #77 - Lady in the Water (M. Night Shyamalan)
2007 - 82 movies. #1 - There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson), #82 - Captivity (Roland Joffe)
2008 - 87 movies. #1 - The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky), #87 - An American Carol (David Zucker)
2009 - 113 movies. #1 - Moon (Duncan Jones), #113 - The Final Destination (David R. Ellis)
2010 - 109 movies. #1 - 127 Hours (Danny Boyle), #109 - Furry Vengeance (Roger Kumble)

Come to think of it, I don't know what this actually tells you. One thing of interest to me, though, is that never have I awarded the same director top honors twice, nor have I hung the dunce cap on any director more than once. (Though I think M. Night Shyamalan came close, and Joel Schumacher came very close yesterday when I ranked Trepass second lowest of 2011.) However, Charlie Kaufman did write two of my #1s, those being Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Okay, enough preamble. I found 25 contenders for my biggest mistakes and pared them down to ten. I've also given you their ranking, and some better films they finished ahead of or worse films they finished behind. In reverse order of their severity ...

10. Napoleon Dynamite (2004, Jared Hess)
Ranked: Too low, 27th out of 59
Below such films as: Fahrenheit 9/11, The Forgotten
Explanation: This must be a case of the film not having achieved its eventual beloved status until well after it was released. (In fact, the movie is apparently so beloved that Fox decided to revive it this year as an animated show.) One of the other contenders for this list was Office Space, which I had ranked fairly low at the time it came out, but has since become a common reference point for numerous film fans by playing regularly on cable. The same could be said for Napoleon. Still, I knew that I liked it at the time and I also knew that Michael Moore's 9/11 polemic annoyed me, so how did I get this wrong?

9. High Fidelity (2000, Stephen Frears)
Ranked: Too low, 37th out of 58
Below such films as: Red Planet, Mission to Mars, The Perfect Storm
Explanation: I wouldn't say I was a huge fan of Frears' movie, prefering Nick Hornby's book (as people who have read the book first are wont to do). But I must have really thought it trod wrong if I ranked both of the Mars movies, neither of which was very good, ahead of it, not to mention The Perfect Storm, which I found even more problematic than the Mars movies. Or perhaps it's just that over the years I have conflated the film with the book, and just see them as a single entity that I love.

8. Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002, George Lucas)
Ranked: Too high, 14th out of 80
Above such films as: About a Boy (speaking of Nick Horby), Blue Crush, Signs
Explanation: Yes, I loved seeing Yoda bust out that lightsaber. And yes, I saw it twice in the theater. (An honor the inferior Phantom Menace can also claim.) But I think I must have had a case of serious Star Wars blindness, or perhaps just relief to move on from the narrative inertness of Episode I, in order to rank it ahead of the movies listed above. I know Signs has its detractors and Blue Crush may just be a guilty pleasure, but Crush is a guilty pleasure I felt fervently about at the time. Then again, none of us could know the extent to which the prequels would backlash on George Lucas until they had all been released and they were all sub-par.

7. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004, Alfonso Cuaron)
Ranked: Too low, 24th out of 59
Below such films as: The Manchurian Candidate, Before Sunset, Million Dollar Baby
Explanation: Although I was enchanted enough by the Harry Potter movies at the time -- I'd legitimately liked two of the three -- it wouldn't yet have been possible to know that this movie would become the crown jewel of the series, looking better and better as each new movie disappointed me (until the final one, that is). It certainly helps my current appreciation of Azkaban that Children of Men would elevate Cuaron to the status of a god in my mind two years later. Still, I knew I really enjoyed this at the time, so I don't know how I would have ranked it behind a serviceable if unspectacular remake, a somewhat frustrating sequel (that's beloved by some) and a best picture winner I didn't find worthy of that honor, even if I couldn't have known it would win best picture at the time.

6. Wag the Dog (1997, Barry Levinson)
Ranked: Too high, 18th out of 39
Above such films as: Air Force One, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
Explanation: Even at the time, I'm pretty sure I found this an overly smug satire that didn't make me laugh the way it considered itself so clever for doing. I actually remember resenting the critical praise directed at this movie. Yet as I looked back at my lists, I found it in the top half of the films I saw that year. I blame that decision on the fact that I had not yet honed my current sense of independence from what others think. I must have thought I "should" like this more than I did, and elevated it accordingly. Granted, the original Austin Powers is also a movie that's become significantly more beloved (by me, and in general) as the years have passed.

5. The Matrix (1999, Larry and Andy Wachowski)
Ranked: Too low, 22nd out of 57
Below such films as: Magnolia, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Dogma, Sleepy Hollow
Explanation: Oh, the perils of being a movie made in 1999. As I looked back on these lists, I found that 1999 had far and away the greatest concentration of excellent movies. In fact, all the movies I've listed above are movies I either like a little or like a lot. So the inclusion of The Matrix on this list, in this spot on the list, says more about just how much of a cultural institution that film has become in the intervening years -- even though it got plenty of attention as the surprise hit of the year it was released. And the funny thing is, I remember how much of a good time my friend and I had when we first saw it, coming in with no expectations. So it shouldn't have even needed that second viewing to help elevate it toward how I currently think of it, as probably one of my favorite 200 films of all time.

4. Disney's The Kid (2000, Jon Turteltaub)
Ranked: Too high, 12th out of 58
Above such films as: The Cell, American Psycho, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
Explanation: Rule of thumb when it comes to movies: Always watch the ending. I watched The Kid on a plane ride to Los Angeles (I lived in New York at the time), and it charmed the damn pants off me. But it was the second film they showed on the flight, and the pilot had to shut it off before the actual ending in order to land. I thought we were close, so I counted it and ranked it and moved on. I mean, how much can really go wrong in the last 10 or 15 minutes of a movie? (Ha.) Well, I finally watched the end in 2010, and, well ... you can read about it here. (And for the record, it was more like 25 minutes that I missed back in 2000.)

3. War of the Worlds (2005, Steven Spielberg)
Ranked: Too low, 30th out of 73
Below such films as: Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Cache, Aeon Flux
Explanation: Sometimes you just never know which films will take hold and become favorites. I own War of the Worlds and have seen it probably four times now. No other film from that year have I seen more than twice, yet I ranked 29 films ahead of it. I don't know what I saw in my second viewing of War of the Worlds that catapulted it so far forward, but that's where it is, and it certainly should have been ranked higher. Darn, now I kind of want to see it a fifth time. (I know, I know, you don't like the ending. Get over it.) For the record, that doesn't mean it's now my favorite film from 2005 -- just that you never know why you'll want to repeatedly watch certain movies, even if they are not "better" than other movies that you don't care to watch repeatedly.

2. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, Nicholas Stoller)
Ranked: Too low, 18th out of 87
Below such films as: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Taxi to the Dark Side
Explanation: Okay now, you might be saying "What?" It's safely in the top 25% of a year in which I saw 87 movies, and besides, both of the movies I listed above are pretty good. No, this one is again to show you how much this movie jumped up after two more viewings. When I ranked my top movies of the decade a mere year after publishing these rankings, I'd become so smitten with this film that I ranked it 18th again -- out of the whole decade. Granted, I may have been under the undue influence of an extremely heightened sense of appreciation for this film, one that probably doesn't translate to reality. (On a movie podcast last year, I actually said I preferred this movie to Jaws. Why those two movies were being compared, I won't get into right now.) But the fact remains that there's no movie I've seen more than this since I first saw it in November of 2008, having just watched it for the fourth time on New Year's Day.

1. Scary Movie 2 (2001, Keenen Ivory Wayans)
Ranked: Too high, 39th out of 73
Above such films as: The Princess Diaries, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Blow, The Fast and the Furious
Explanation: Did I have a brain embolism when I was making out my 2001 rankings? Or have I just completely forgotten the things about this movie I might have once found funny? The reason this movie is my #1 ranking mistake is because I currently think of it as so loathsome, so puerile, and so inept, that I have it ranked #3289 on my Flickchart -- out of only 3329 films total. That means that according to my current understanding of Scary Movie 2, there are only 40 movies that I've ever seen that I hate more. Yet in the year 2001, I thought it was better than nearly half of the movies I saw -- 34 movies in that year alone. What's the real truth? And could I possibly be so intrigued by this odd disconnect that I would actually watch it again? Eh, probably not.

Was this exercise interesting to anyone but me?

Eh, probably not.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Separating from 2011

It's that time of the year again ... the time to leave the year behind and release my rankings for the best -- and all the way to the worst -- films of the previous year.

I do it every year on the morning the Oscar nominations are announced, and this year, I set a record for movies seen in the previous year: 121. That beats my previous record (set in 2009) by eight. Funny, I don't necessarily feel like I put my mind to it much harder than before -- maybe I got in more movies "casually." (Define that as you will.)

I'll continue to see movies from 2011 -- not for a couple weeks, but I will. However, I will not continue to rank them. These are the rankings that will go down in the annals of my personal record book.

Let me just start by saying that 2011 was a weird year. A friend and fellow film critic characterized it as a year where there were many very good but few great films, and I kind of agree with that. Only my top three films are films I would not change a single thing about. However, it would not be a stretch to say that I love my top 30 films, and that I agonized each time a film I loved inevitably inched downward on the list. (In case you are puzzling over the semantics of this paragraph, apparently you can "love" a film without it qualifying as "great.")

On mornings like this, I usually like to let the list itself do the talking. So, here it is:

1. A Separation
2. Red State
3. Take Shelter
4. Another Earth
5. The Arbor
6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
7. Anonymous
8. Moneyball
9. Melancholia
10. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
11. Shame
12. Hall Pass
13. The Artist
14. Crazy, Stupid, Love
15. A Good Old Fashioned Orgy
16. Paul
17. Rubber
18. Water for Elephants
19. Meek's Cutoff
20. Cedar Rapids
21. Win Win
22. A Better Life
23. Captain America: The First Avenger
24. The Guard
25. Certified Copy
26. X-Men: First Class
27. Hugo
28. The Ides of March
29. The Future
30. Margin Call
31. Warrior
32. Bill Cunningham New York
33. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
34. Buck
35. Senna
36. Young Adult
37. J. Edgar
38. Everything Must Go
39. Surrogate Valentine
40. Bridesmaids
41. Martha Marcy May Marlene
42. Contagion
43. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
44. The Tree of Life
45. Terri
46. Beginners
47. The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence
48. Weekend
49. Rango
50. Higher Ground
51. Our Idiot Brother
52. Jane Eyre
53. Tabloid
54. Like Crazy
55. Super 8
56. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
57. Midnight in Paris
58. The Help
59. The Adventures of Tintin
60. Take Me Home Tonight
61. Jumping the Broom
62. The Lincoln Lawyer
63. Hanna
64. Limitless
65. The Trip
66. The Descendants
67. I Saw the Devil
68. Insidious
69. Super
70. Attack the Block
71. Madea's Big Happy Family
72. The Devil's Double
73. Gnomeo & Juliet
74. Pearl Jam Twenty
75. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
76. The Sitter
77. Bellflower
78. Your Highness
79. Horrible Bosses
80. The Beaver
81. Drive
82. Hobo With a Shotgun
83. Green Lantern
84. Mars Needs Moms
85. Skateland
86. In Time
87. Circumstance
88. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
89. Submarine
90. The Adjustment Bureau
91. Sucker Punch
92. Conan O'Brien Can't Stop
93. Carnage
94. Battle: Los Angeles
95. Friends With Benefits
96. Mr. Popper's Penguins
97. War Horse
98. The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman
99. Apollo 18
100. Trollhunter
101. Red Riding Hood
102. 50/50
103. Thor
104. Source Code
105. The Perfect Host
106. Miral
107. We Bought a Zoo
108. The Thing
109. From Prada to Nada
110. Fright Night
111. Just Go With It
112. The Green Hornet
113. Beastly
114. No Strings Attached
115. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
116. Cowboys & Aliens
117. Drive Angry
118. The Hangover Part II
119. The Change-Up
120. Trespass
121. 30 Minutes or Less

Movies I most regret not getting to see before the deadline: Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Margaret, Project Nim, Rampart, The Skin I Live In, We Need to Talk About Kevin

And I've never done this before, but here are a few "notables" to give my list a little context:

Film that kept getting better the more I thought about it: Melancholia
Film that kept getting worse the more I thought about it: The Ides of March
Film I was really too tired to be watching: Martha Marcy May Marlene
Film I will probably like the most better on second viewing: Martha Marcy May Marlene
Film I wish I could have ranked higher, but it felt wrong: A Good Old Fashioned Orgy
Film I wish I could have ranked lower, but it felt wrong: Drive
Similar sins, (almost) the same ranking: Apollo 18/Trollhunter
Biggest surprise, director: Kevin Smith, Red State
Biggest letdown, director: Alexander Payne, The Descendants

I could probably write up a few more, but let's just get this out on the interwebs, shall we?

This is the only time of the year that I really beg for you to comment. On the day I finish my rankings, I'm giddy to discuss what I've done and compare and contrast it with your own impressions of the previous year. So please, stop in for a comment or two, won't you?

Monday, January 23, 2012

They made BluRays of these movies why, exactly?

We all know that prices for movies on physical media are seriously in the tank. Generally speaking, the only movies that can be priced at top dollar have been released within the past six months, maybe a year. (And special collections like Criterion, of course.)

Everything else -- even the good movies -- can be had for under $15, and usually under $10. That's both DVDs and BluRays. In fact, one of the most interesting parts about this phenomenon is that stores are observing less and less of a distinction between these two formats when pricing them.

Sure, there are the exceptions, like the clueless grocery stores that are still selling DVDs of four-year-old movies for $20. My guess is, they're not selling many of them.

So it's very common to walk into a store that sells movies and find a discount shelf with tons of decent titles on it. Just recently I walked out of Target with a $5 BluRay of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Never mind that I had an unopened DVD at home I had obviously never watched -- the $5 BluRay was attractive enough that I now have two T2s. In fact, I've decided I need to stop looking at BluRays at Target, period. I could walk away with several each time if I'm not careful.

But this piece is not about an idiotic chain that violates these BluRay pricing guidelines. It's about the idiotic companies that release the dregs of their back catalogue on BluRay in the first place, when their only possible destination is the bargain bin.

When I went shopping at Fry's on Wednesday to pick up a hard drive for work, I came across such a $5 BluRay wall, and because I can't help myself, I scanned it to see what BluRay I would buy if I were buying one. (For me, this is like the problem gambler who makes gentleman's bets to feed his addiction without letting it destroy him.)

I couldn't find a single BluRay on this wall that I would actually buy, regardless of price. And it's not just because they were bad movies from the past couple years that I wouldn't want to own. It's because they were bad movies from the 1980s and 1990s that I wouldn't want to own.

Which got me thinking: Why the hell would they have brought these movies to BluRay in the first place?

As a sometimes-anal guy and a self-described completist, I understand and philosophically agree with the idea of making all movies, however obscure, available on the physical media platform that's the current standard bearer. (That's in part because I'm old-fashioned and still love physical media.) But from a business perspective, I don't get it at all. When someone said "Yeah, let's do a BluRay press of The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag," did they really expect to make money on it? What buying public out there was frothing at the mouth for a forgotten 1992 comedy starring Peneleope Ann Miller? (I guess I shouldn't diss on Miller -- she does appear in The Artist.)

I haven't actually seen The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag, but I just noticed a hilarious indicator that it might not be a very good movie. The lead "critigasm" on the poster above is "A screwball comedy!" See, the word "screwball" is not just an adjective modifying the word "comedy." "Screwball comedy" is an actual film genre. So this is the equivalent of a poster for Die Hard proudly proclaiming: "An action movie!" Which tells me there weren't many other options for critics praising Betty Lou. (In fact, it's very possible that this critic was not praising the movie, either. He might have been merely listing the film's genre in his review. But it's common practice for a studio's marketing department to excise any piece of any review for any reason, twist it to sound like praise, and add exclamation points at their discretion. Careful what you write, film critics out there.)

But this was just one of a bunch of hilarious titles, a sampling of which I emailed myself in order to refer to them later. A number of them were terrible straight-to-video movies (Sharktopus) or mockbusters (The Day the Earth Stopped) from recent years, but I get those, because at least BluRay existed at the time those movies were released. It's the ones that are genuine relics that made me laugh the most.

Instead of listing them and telling you why each one is a poor fit for BluRay from a profit perspective, I thought it would be more fun to just show you their posters and leave the conclusions up to you. Forthwith:

For the record, I've seen Consenting Adults, The Marrying Man and V.I. Warshawski. If forced to choose between these, The Marrying Man has a funny moment or two, if I remember correctly.

Of course, if forced to choose from the entire wall, I'd have chosen Betsy's Wedding, a 1990 comedy starring Alan Alda and Molly Ringwald. I remember it primarily as the other movie I saw in an illegal double feature the first time I saw Total Recall. But I also remember finding it pretty enjoyable.

So why didn't I include the Betsy's Wedding poster in my list of humorous posters?

Well, like the marketing departments of movie studios, I like to pick and choose only the evidence that actually supports my case.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The battle for the biggest output

When a director releases two movies in quick succession, you tend to take notice. It usually says something about how prolific he or she is.

Not every director, mind you. Steven Spielberg had two movies come out a week apart in December, but they were his first two movies as director since the disaster known as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008, so in that case it really was just an accident of timing.

With Steven Soderbergh, it's pure volume of cinematic output.

Soderbergh had a movie in September (Contagion, which I just watched last night) and now one in January (Haywire). He's clearly making them as fast as his body will allow. (Without the content itself suffering, apparently.) It's not the first such period of intense activity of his career, either. Remember, this was the guy who got nominated for best director for two different films in the year 2000 (Erin Brockovich and Traffic, the latter of which netted him the Oscar).

Soderbergh's frenzied moviemaking rate made me think of other directors who are constantly going behind the camera, and three other names immediately jumped to mind: Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood and Michael Winterbottom. Allen's and Eastwood's movies usually make headlines; Winterbottom's don't necessarily, because they're a bit more out of the mainstream. But these are three guys who are constantly delivering new features, presumably on or ahead of schedule, since that would be the only way for them to keep pace with themselves. True to form, each had a film in 2011 (Midnight in Paris, J. Edgar and The Trip).

So I thought it would be interesting to see who's truly the most prolific of the foursome, and I'd love to hear your suggestions for which others might belong in the conversation. (Current directors only, please -- that eliminates all the hacks who made four or five movies a year back in the studio system days.) I have my suspicions, but as I write this, I really don't know who will take the prize.

In order to do this, we'll need to examine each director's career, starting with the year that the least experienced director in the group released his first feature. We'll look at their filmographies from that moment onward, and may have to make some judgment calls if there are films whose status as a feature is borderline. For our purposes, documentaries are considered features because they run at feature length. Before we even start I know there's an asterisk with Winterbottom's The Trip, which was a TV series edited into a feature. However, you could argue that a TV series might take even longer to film than a feature, so Winterbottom should get credit for it and then some.

It turns out that the newest to the game is in fact Winterbottom, whose first theatrical feature was 1995's Butterfly Kiss. (Or 1995's Go Now -- I'm having a hard time telling which one was released first.) He'd made TV movies before then, but his first feature wasn't until 1995.

So starting with the release year 1995 and onward, here's how it looks for each of our contenders:

Michael Winterbottom

Butterfly Kiss (1995)
Go Now (1995)
Jude (1996)
Welcome to Sarajevo (1997)
I Want You (1998)
Wonderland (1999)
With or Without You (1999)
The Claim (2000)
24 Hour Party People (2002)
In This World (2003)
Code 46 (2003)
9 Songs (2004)
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006)
The Road to Guantanamo (2006)
A Mighty Heart (2007)
Genova (2007)
The Shock Doctrine (2009)
The Killer Inside Me (2010)
The Trip (2011)

That's 19 titles in 17 years, nine of which I've seen. It appears he has two movies due out in 2012, one of which premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival (Trishna), one of which is about scheduled to shoot (Bailout), I guess with the intention of getting released this year. But he loses out due to the timing of this post. (Sorry, I'm not counting the film festival premiere.)

Steven Soderbergh

The Underneath (1995)
Gray's Anatomy (1996)
Schizopolis (1996)
Out of Sight (1998)
The Limey (1999)
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Traffic (2000)
Ocean's Eleven (2001)
Full Frontal (2002)
Solaris (2002)
Ocean's Twelve (2004)
Bubble (2005)
The Good German (2006)
Ocean's Thirteen (2007)
Che Part 1 (2008)
Che Part 2 (2008)
The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
The Informant! (2009)
And Everything is Going Fine (2010)
Contagian (2011)
Haywire (2012)

And Soderbergh takes the lead with 21 films since 1995, 15 of which I've seen. I'm glad he didn't pull ahead of Winterbottom by only one, because I had to make the judgment call to split Che into two films. They were released that way, with separate admissions in most cases, and they contain over four hours of content in radically different styles. If that's not two movies, I don't know what is. (Though since they were filmed at the same time with the same crew, you could just as compellingly make the argument that they should be one film, if in this context you are quantifying a "film" as a distinct project in a distinct location that requires a certain amount of the director's undivided attention. So many ways to interpret the same information.) Incidentally, Soderbergh's Magic Mike is also expected later in 2012, with something called The Side Effects due in 2013.

Clint Eastwood
The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
Absolute Power (1997)
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)
True Crime (1999)
Space Cowboys (2000)
Blood Work (2002)
Mystic River (2003)
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Changeling (2008)
Gran Torino (2008)
Invictus (2009)
Hereafter (2010)
J. Edgar (2011)

Well, Eastwood has let me down. I guess he has only been hugely prolific since 2008, releasing five films since the fall of that year. His 15 movies in 17 years -- 11 of which I've seen -- leave him at a pace of less than one a year. Still, not bad for an 81-year-old, especially when many of his films are painted on a huge canvas and seem to require a great deal of logistics. IMDB doesn't list a 2012 movie for him, so either someone charged with updating his page is slacking, or the man is finally giving his weary bones a short rest.

Woody Allen

Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
Celebrity (1998)
Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Small Time Crooks (2000)
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)
Hollywood Ending (2002)
Anything Else (2003)
Melinda and Melinda (2004)
Match Point (2005)
Scoop (2006)
Cassandra's Dream (2007)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Whatever Works (2009)
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
Midnight in Paris (2011)

My suspicion was that Woody would be the most prolific. That's why exercises like this are great. Turns out he's only third most prolific, with 17 movies in the 17 years, 13 of which I've seen. But Woody does get a special commendation for being the only one on this list to make at least one movie (exactly one) in every year since 1995. If I were going only by U.S. theatrical release dates, Cassandra's Dream was released in January of 2008, leaving him with two movies in 2008 and none in 2007. But it played a number of places around Europe in 2007 and is generally credited with that release year. And sure enough, Allen's 18th film in the last 18 years (Nero Fiddled) is due out later this year. If you want to know how far back this streak goes, you have to go all the way back to 1981 to find a year in which Allen did not direct a film.

So our champion is: Steven Soderbergh! The guy who inspired the topic in the first place.

Take a vacation, will you, Steven? You're making everyone else look bad.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Wake up! Quiz time.

The part of the title that comes after the colon is something I've written about numerous times on this blog. It's an increasingly common crutch, which we seem to think of as dumbing down the movie title, or at least the studio hedging its bets to include the name of the franchise for easier recognition.

Funny, though -- couldn't you say that the post-colon part of the title actually has a proud tradition in academic journals and books of great intellect? The title of almost every non-fiction book these days is constructed in the following way:

[Short clever phrase that hints at what the book is about]:[Longer detailed explanation of what the book is about]


Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People is Greater than the People in Power, by Wael Ghonim.

(This just happens to be a title I heard discussed earlier this week on NPR. The author is an Egyptian Google executive who created an anonymous Facebook page that helped lead to the protests in Tahrir Square. His book is not actually a perfect example of the phenomenon I'm discussing because a) the part after the colon is still somewhat abstract, and b) the full title, as listed on Amazon, actually has yet another colon and the words A Memoir at the end. But you get the idea.)

Wow, I'm already off track.

And the book example doesn't actually make much sense anyway, because especially in the case of non-fiction writing, the pre-colon part of the title is rarely the name of a familiar franchise.

Jeez, I am about to lose you. Please continue reading.

Anyway, that post-colon part of the title is now prevalent in Hollywood movies, with the latest example -- Underworld: Awakening -- coming out today.

So I thought, to mark the occasion of the release of the fourth (yes, fourth) Underworld movie, I would quiz you to see if you can match the post-colon part of the title with the appropriate franchise. (Fair warning: Just about every synonym for "revenge" has been used at least once, leaving many of these things feeling completely interchangeable.)

You can easily cheat, but there are no prizes, so it's hardly even worth it. To make it a little harder, some of these movies may not have actually come out yet.

(For those of you who live and die by the latest developments in the Underworld mythology -- all two of you -- please forgive me for making light of your obsession. I'm sure this movie will be, like, really important and good.)

Shall we begin? We'll start easy ...

1. Rise of the Silver Surfer

a) The Fantastic Four
b) X-Men
c) Blue Crush
d) Watchmen

2. Apocalypse

a) Underworld
b) Dawn of the Dead
c) Ultraviolet
d) Resident Evil

3. Book of Shadows

a) Sherlock Holmes
b) The Blair Witch Project
c) National Treasure
d) The Spiderwick Chronicles

4. The Lightning Thief

a) Percy Jackson & The Olympians
b) Thor
c) The Chronicles of Narnia
d) Clash of the Titans

5. Europe's Most Wanted

a) The Pink Panther
b) Deuce Bigalow
c) Agent Cody Banks
d) Madagascar

6. Retaliation

a) Resident Evil
b) G.I. Joe
c) Taken
d) The Punisher

7. Monsters Unleashed

a) Monsters Inc.
b) Monsters vs. Aliens
c) Scooby Doo
d) Pokemon

8. Armed and Fabulous

a) Miss Congeniality
b) Legally Blonde
c) Rupaul
d) Zoolander

9. Cruise Control

a) The Fast and the Furious
b) Speed
c) Speed Racer
d) Crank

10. Retribution

a) Ghost Rider
b) Resident Evil
c) Max Payne
d) The Crow

11. Texas Blood Money

a) Texas Chainsaw Massacre
b) From Dusk Till Dawn
c) Natural Born Killers
d) Deliverance

12. Marauder

a) Lara Croft
b) Starship Troopers
c) G.I. Joe
d) The Punisher

13. When Nature Calls

a) Over the Hedge
b) Open Season
c) Ace Ventura
d) Ernest

14. Back in Business

a) Barbershop
b) Daddy Day Care
c) The Santa Clause
d) Wall Street

15. Fully Loaded

a) Crank
b) Inspector Gadget
c) Herbie
d) Ghost Rider

16. The Far Side of the World

a) Pirates of the Caribbean
b) The Hobbit
c) Master and Commander
d) Prince of Persia

17. Bloodline

a) The Omen
b) Bloodrayne
c) Children of the Corn
d) Hellraiser

18. The Movie

a) Star Trek
b) The Brady Bunch
c) Garfield
d) All of the above

19. Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

a) Bruno
b) Borat
c) Ali G
d) Corky Romano

20. Chipwrecked

a) Alvin and the Chipmunks
b) Alvin and the Chipmunks
c) Alvin and the Chipmunks
d) None of the above

Okay, how many did you honestly -- honestly -- get?

I don't have the ability to write these upside down, so don't cheat:

Answers: 1 - a, 2 - d, 3 - b, 4 - a, 5 - d, 6 - b, 7 - c, 8 - a, 9 - b, 10 - b, 11 - b, 12 - b, 13 - c, 14 - a, 15 - c, 16 - c, 17 - d, 18 - c, 19 - b, 20 - a, b or c

Bonus poll question:

1) Which of these post-colon titles is the most ridiculous?

a) Port of Call New Orleans
b) Voyage of the Dawn Treader
c) The Owls of Ga'Hoole
d) Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

Friday, January 20, 2012

$2 popcorn? It must be the end of days!

I sure picked the right day to see Take Shelter.

Because of Martin Luther King Day, my son's first of two trips to daycare this week was on Tuesday instead of Monday. The days he goes to daycare are the days I have some freedom with how to spend my time after work, because my wife doesn't need me to relieve her after a day of parenting duty. I usually use that time to go to the gym, but in the final week before I finalize my 2011 movie rankings, the call to the movie theater was much stronger.

A few days earlier I'd learned that Take Shelter, a movie I'd given up as not being able to see before I finalize my rankings (because it doesn't come to DVD until Valentine's Day), was still playing at exactly one theater in Los Angeles, at exactly one time of the day (5 p.m.). That worked well with my 3:30 release from work, even if I had to drive up to Beverly Hills to see it at the Laemmle Music Hall. So I hatched a plan to go, and my wife endorsed it. She probably would have anyway, but she was especially inclined to do so because I'd had a miserable night's sleep on the couch with a cranky child who could never get into a comfortable sleeping position.

I expected to pay $11 for the ticket and not buy any popcorn, but those plans soon changed when I reached the theater.

I did a double-take when the woman at the ticket window told me how much I owed for the ticket. I thought I'd only heard the last two syllables of the word "eleven," but in fact she'd said "seven." I can't remember the last time I paid only $7 for a movie ticket, even if this probably does qualify as a second run theater. (Take Shelter came out on September 30th, while The Skin I Live In, which is also playing there, came out two weeks later. Midnight in Paris is still playing there even though it's already out on DVD.) I soon learned that this is part of a special Tuesday deal, where tickets are $7 all day, and entered the theater with a spring in my step.

No sooner had I seated myself for the trailers than I felt a hunger in my belly. I hadn't planned to get popcorn, but the $7 ticket made that option seem more palatable. The lobby had been deserted when I walked in, but when I got back out there, there was one person ahead of me in the snack bar line. I worried that his presence would make me miss the start of the movie, but the trailers had only just started, so I stayed.

Thank goodness I did and thank goodness he was there, because I heard the words "special Tuesday deal" pass his lips. I'd been planning on spending $3.50 for a small popcorn, but his words caused me to examine a little placard that sat on the counter, mentioning their Tuesday specials. Even the largest tub of popcorn was a mere two bucks on Tuesday. I think that much popcorn might cost two bucks even if you bought it from the grocery store.

So I got to watch a damn good movie in the theater, with a large popcorn, for less than $10.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did have to shovel six quarters into the parking meter outside to cover the remaining hour before you could park for free. So that did bring the total experience to $10.50, plus the intangible cost of gas.

Still, when was the last time you went to the theater and felt you'd gotten a bargain?

Next thing I know, birds will start flying through the sky in strange formations.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Today's normal Audient post has been preempted in protest of the U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA). These bills would give the government new powers to block Americans' access to websites that corporations don't like, censor entire websites, and cut sites off from advertising, payments, and donations. This legislation would stifle free speech and innovation, and threaten popular web services like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Learn more about how you can help at

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Still a sucker for Titanic

Hello, and welcome to my second straight post about trailers I saw while at the movies last week.

Looks like I still have the potential to weep like a baby at Titanic.

I saw my first theatrical trailer for the 3D re-release of Titanic before my 3D screening of The Adventures of Tintin. I have to say, the way it was cut to Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" made me ready to well up with tears all over again. (Whether you can be "ready" to well up with tears or not is open to debate. I'd say, you either well up or you don't. I guess I'm being vague in an attempt to maintain my credibility as a high-minded film fan.)

I was genuinely surprised by my own reaction. Now, I have never thrown Titanic under the bus, and remain a person who argues ardently for its importance as a film and the uniqueness of its achievement. But did I expect that it would still be able to tug at my heartstrings, a full 14 years after I first saw it?

No, I did not.

I believe I've seen Titanic three times -- twice in the theater, then once on video. They would have all been within the first year after it was out. During the intervening 14 years, my affection for it has been only slightly muted, since I still consider it to be one of the most overwhelming and involving theatrical viewing experiences I've ever had. The unique combination of awe-inspiring visuals and human drama left me babbling incoherently when I left the theater.

I'd expect the visuals to still inspire awe in me, but shouldn't the human drama have lost some of its potency over the years? Especially as Titanic has been repeatedly parodied, as its iconic scenes have become so familiar to us, and as it has been the recipient of some of the greatest backlash of any film in history? As it's become downright shameful to admit that the justifiably reviled Celine Deon could have sung a song you even liked, let alone one that moved you to tears?

Yet despite all the factors that should work against Titanic still having an emotional impact on me, the way that trailer is cut brought me right back to December of 1997, to that theater in Massachusetts where I first saw James Cameron's film. (For the record, it's the old couple lying on their bed as the water rushes under them that devastates me the most.)

I'm going to blame it on the big screen. And the 3D. Yeah. Definitely the 3D. The 3D got me all verklempt. That's it.

But am I ready to pay $15 to see it again in 3D?

I don't know, maybe I am.

Now to figure out the alibi I'll use with my wife, a strident Titanic hater ...

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

John Carter had me at "hello," lost me at "how are you?"

When I hunger for new cinematic visions that seem to represent a clear departure from things I've seen previously, John Carter is the kind of movie I think of.

Or so I thought from the first trailer, anyway.

Here's that first trailer:

Of course, everything that was minimalist, ominous and visionary about this first trailer felt pedestrian in the trailer I saw last week, before either Tintin or War Horse.

Here's that trailer:

Now I think it just seems like any other gladiator movie, any other ripoff of Star Wars, with one shot that seems like a ripoff of Avatar (which itself was a ripoff of oh-so-many things).

So I don't know where I stand with respect to John Carter. Am I excited to see it? Watching that first trailer again just now, I felt so. Watching the second trailer again reminded me that I might not be.

I think it gets at the difference between a teaser (which, even at 1:45, the first trailer essentially is) and a trailer (which tells you more of what the movie is essentially about). And so that explains the title of this post, which you thought was just a clever riff on the oh-so-current cultural reference, Jerry Maguire.

See, the teaser is kind of a "hello." It says "Hi, I'm a thing. You may or may not have known I was a thing, but this footage is designed to give you that knowledge and get you a little excited." A teaser is great, because it leaves open the possibility that the movie could go in so many different directions from what you're seeing. How skillful, for example, to give us the detail that this man started in 19th century England before ending up on Mars. That bit of information is meant to give you the Keanu "Whoa" reaction.

However, once the full trailer is revealed, it can no longer hide what it's about. That's the "how are you" -- literally, how is the movie. How do those images we've seen coalesce into a story.

And that's where John Carter appears to trip. Clearly, Disney thought its best bet to get a big audience on the first weekend (still almost two months off) would be to highlight the movie's action. You'll notice that 19th century London makes no appearance whatsoever in the second trailer -- that only confuses people who came for an action movie.

But what we're left with is a bunch of lame Star Wars prequel stuff, including gladiator footage that seems to be right out of Attack of the Clones (that was the movie where they fought in an arena while chained up, right?). Then there's a bit of warmed-over Braveheart ("He will fight for us!") or any of the countless movies that involve a rallying speech to an underdog army.

I guess I'm giving away the change in my excitement level by the poster I chose to accompany this post. If I'd still been in giddy-teaser-phase, I might have led with this poster, which is even listed as the "teaser poster" in the file name (I hadn't consciously realized there was such a thing, but it makes as much marketing sense as a teaser trailer):

Oh, how I long for those days when John Carter could still have been about anything.

John Carter seemed to have the cross-genre potential of a movie like Cowboys & Aliens, where elements of our past and elements of a science fiction future fit together naturally in a way that both expands and blows our mind.

Oops, except Cowboys & Aliens didn't pull that off, either.

Here's hoping John Carter pulls it off better than Cowboys & Aliens. If it doesn't, not only will it fail to be the first awesome movie of 2012, but it may not even be worth watching on video.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The King is Staying Alive

There's a video store near my house called Movies & More. Maybe the "more" is what's keeping it afloat, since most walk-in video stores are having a really hard time these days.

I've never been inside, but I walk by it when I go grocery shopping at the supermarket nearest my house.

In the front window there are six posters. Four flank the door, two on each side, and two are above door level, one each above the two pairs of lower posters.

Four of those posters you would expect. Two have no business being there whatsoever.

The four lower posters, right now, are Abuction, Conan the Barbarian, Final Destination 5 and Dolpin Tale. All movies that hit theaters in August or September, all movies that must have hit video in the past week or two. All movies you would expect to see there.

The two upper posters?

The King and Stay Alive.

The King was released in U.S. theaters on May 5, 2005. Stay Alive was released in U.S. theaters on March 24, 2006.


They say that the video store is a relic of yesteryear, but this is ridiculous.

The King is a title I vaguely remember. It probably caught my attention because it stars Gael Garcia Bernal. I now discover it was also directed by James Marsh, who has since gained a reputation as a successful documentarian (Man on Wire, Project Nim).

Stay Alive I remember as an anonymous slasher movie.

What in God's name either of these posters is still doing in the window of a video store is beyond me.

Why is Stay Alive still stayin' alive? Why is The King still king?

The only possible explanations I can imagine are:

1) The creative teams involved in these films have a personal relationship with the store's owners.

2) Being the two upper posters, they are somehow too difficult to reach.

The really funny thing to me is, it could be a case of false advertising. One of the knocks against brick-and-mortar video stores is that they have a finite amount of shelf space. As such, they must make decisions about what to stock and what not to stock based on potential profit. I remember one of my complaints about Blockbuster in the dwindling days of its dominance is that it stopped stocking even some titles that I thought would be slam dunks -- the specific example I wrote about at the time was The Full Monty. The explanation I got? "If it doesn't rent once in a year's time, we stop stocking it."

This may not be such an issue for the mom-and-pops, who don't have to devote an entire wall to copies of Transformers 3 when it comes out on video. But let's say they do follow the same guidelines. How many times could The King and Stay Alive possibly get rented in a year? Well, maybe more than otherwise since the damn posters are still up. But even then, it can't be much. What if I walked into that store and couldn't actually get either of those movies?

But as I said, I've never walked into that store. I probably should support the neighborhood video store, just because video stores are an institution I would not like to see vanish from the face of the earth. And by sticking with the giants (Netflix, Redbox), I am surely contributing to their demise.

What a shame that the most compelling reason for me to go inside that store is to scream:


It's Friday the 13th ...

... so where's my crappy horror movie?

The Devil Inside couldn't have waited one more week to come out?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Steven Spielberg Today: A Portrait in One Evening

Which is a fancy way of saying: I did actually manage to complete the Steven Spielberg double feature last night.

It's my second straight year with a themed double feature at the end of the year. (Yes, I know it's January -- we're talking about "end of the year" in terms of the previous year's films.) While last year I attended a Jeff Bridges double feature -- Tron: Legacy and True Grit -- in the week between Christmas and New Year's, this year I managed two Spielberg films -- The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, though I should hardly need to name them -- a couple weeks later. (Both at the same theater, Pacific Theaters in downtown Culver City, where the staff is so skeletal that you buy your ticket at the snack bar and no one even rips it as you walk back to the screening rooms. After that, you're free to sneak in to a second movie without any fears of discovery.)

And naturally, I thought of a lot of different things to talk about. In fact, I've got four subheadings: One about the general experience, one about Tintin, one about War Horse, and one about both.

So let's get right to them:

Candy stimulation

If I were going to watch the 146-minute War Horse starting at 9:30 p.m., I knew I needed to come stocked with candy to stimulate me back into consciousness. I'm not as young as I used to be, and I get up a little after 6 every morning.

Last night's haul: A big resealable bag of Reese's Pieces, a box of Hot Tamales candy, a bag of sour gummy worms, a Cadbury Peanut Butter Egg and two small Redbulls. (Don't worry, I didn't finish it all.)

But last night's foods were chosen not for any preference I have toward them -- they were chosen merely for their potential efficacy. And in some cases they were testing a philosophy of what foods had a better chance to keep me awake when everything in my body said "sleep."

Let's start with the Red Bulls. This is actually my third time bringing Red Bulls with me to the theater in the last couple weeks. I started two weeks ago with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and continued last week when I took in the double feature of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Carnage.

To be clear, I'm not a Red Bull guy. I definitely had a period in my life when I thought Red Bulls were sort of cool, and I sort of liked drinking them. But they were never a natural fit for me, and it's debatable how much they actually do to keep me awake. I've been bringing them to the movies because the theory is solid, but after three trips to the theater with Red Bulls in jacket pockets (and jacket bunched up in my arms as I enter the theater), the jury is still out. I will say that I haven't more than nodded off in any of those movies, but I can't be sure the Red Bulls were responsible. However, when I brought two cans the last two times, each time I drank only one -- which means either that it worked so well that I didn't need a second, or that I didn't think a second would accomplish anything that the first hadn't been able to accomplish.

Now, the candy. The Reese's Pieces are a good energy crutch because there are a lot of them, and you can eat them regularly like you'd eat popcorn. (Plus, I really like them, and plus, they make an appropriate accompaniment to a Steven Spielberg movie.) Chocolate is supposed to stimulate you plenty. The problem is that I opened them too soon in the grand scheme of the evening. I didn't want to save all my food until the second movie, so I chose the Reese's Pieces to eat during Tintin. I hadn't intended to eat them all, but I have a hard time saving my concessions once they're open. A popcorn never lasts longer than the first 15 minutes. And I apparently hadn't learned my lesson from eating my Reese's too fast in a 9:50 showing of We Bought a Zoo just before Christmas, then fighting sleep for most of the movie.

So that left me with only non-chocolate candy stimulants for War Horse. Except, of course, that peanut butter egg, as my emergency "nuclear option."

The Hot Tamales and the sour gummy worms were both tests, as neither of them were things I'd normally pick out from a concession stand. (Gummy worms, maybe; Hot Tamales, no.) I figured the bursts of sour and cinnamon would be just what I needed to get my endorphins pumping a little bit, send some energy out to my extremities. I had to hope they would work at least as well as the chocolate, because I knew there was a chance the Reese's Pieces would be gone by the end of Tintin. (The philosophy was that they'd operate in a similar fashion to my Altoids, which I always have with me, and which serve as an emergency final option if all else fails and if I need some repetitive eating just to keep me awake. They're marketed as "curiously strong," so each has the ability to give me a little kick in the head.)

The cinnamon bursts did the trick. In fact, I didn't even finish the box and never opened the gummy worms, in part because a whole bag of Reese's Pieces and 2/3 of a big box of Hot Tamales leaves you feeling pretty oogey. But I did indeed feel like each one lit a little flame in my palate, temporarily warming my skull and keeping my eyes wide open.

The nuclear egg option was not needed.

Andy Serkis as a ... human?

It's been a good ten years for Andy Serkis. An actor capable of getting only bit parts in live action, Serkis has turned himself into the very face of motion capture technology, starting in 2002 as Gollum in two Lord of the Rings movies, then continuing on to King Kong in 2005 before again garnering awards buzz as another primate, Cesar, in last year's Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

And so it's funny to see him just playing ... human.

That's what he does in Tintin, playing Captain Haddock, who functions as the title character's boozy sidekick. He gives a good performance as usual, but it was his first motion capture role that made me ask ... why Serkis?

The captain doesn't look at all like Serkis really looks, but that's hardly an issue -- of his previous "mocap" roles, only Gollum is actually based on his own physical traits. Serkis is lauded for both his exceptional vocal work and his uncanny understanding of how to move his body. However, neither of these seem to be put to maximum use in Tintin, either. His Scottish brogue could have just as easily been done by Gerard Butler; in fact, I even checked the credits afterward to see if it was Butler, before remembering that duh, of course it was Serkis. And I don't necessarily see what special body movements he's bringing to Haddock, since all the other actors (most prominently Jamie Bell and Daniel Craig) are playing humans as well and doing the body movements just fine.

Good job, Vance -- the first time you write about the great Andy Serkis on your blog, you're dumping on him.

That's not it, actually -- I do think he's great. I guess my point is, not every motion capture role can be a role that needs an Andy Serkis.

Then again, even if you don't need an Andy Serkis, why not hire Andy Serkis? At least you know he doesn't command the same salary as some of the bigger stars, and there's got to be some benefit to the fact that he's used to having those little ping pong balls attached to his body.

And oh yeah, you know he'll give a great performance every time out.

I don't understand movie bidders

There are any number of scenes in War Horse that are supposed to remind you of scenes you've seen in other movies -- in fact, War Horse is as much an exercise in homage as it is its own entity.

The ones I found most frustrating, however, were the two different scenes devoted to people trying to outbid each other at auction for an item that holds great value to them -- in this case, the titular horse.

How many movies do I have to see where the two bidders are wincing over each higher bid as the crowd gasps behind them, unable to be sure if they can afford the price they're paying -- and then one of them submits a bid that is, like, three times the amount of the previous bid?

I guess it's the only surefire way to make a movie bidding war dramatically interesting. I mean, otherwise you're left with the winner having been the guy who outlasted the other, who kept submitting higher bids in the smallest possible increments until the other guy decided he'd reached his limit. After all, this is how every single bidding process in the real world goes down.

But in a movie, nothing could be less interesting. Which is why the first bidding war goes in increments like this:

"One guinea!"
(Crowd gasp.)
"Thirty guineas!"
(Another crowd gasp.)


Couldn't these two men have worn each other out in the late teens? Maybe. But I guess it would have been boring.

So then (spoiler alert) the horse is for sale again later in the movie. This time, the ridiculous topper bid is 100 guineas. (The previous bid had been 25). Major crowd gasp there. Not only that, but the winning bidder tells everyone that he'd sell the jacket off his back to bid higher, then sell his entire farm to go to 1,000 if need be.

Ah, movies. So much suspension of disbelief required.

Two different Spielbergs have much in common

On the one hand, people are saying that The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse showcase two different versions of Steven Spielberg -- the old-fashioned director unashamed to make an homage to old-fashioned filmmaking (War Horse), and the technologically innovate director ready and eager to embrace the latest techniques (Tintin). (Funny, I feel like we were just having this discussion about Marty Scorsese.)

But seeing these movies back to back made me realize how much they have in common, in really funny ways. Forthwith:

1) Both movies prominently feature a drunkard who's trying to quit drinking. (Or at least theoretically wants to.)

2) Both movies include references to unicorns.

3) Both movies feature an incredibly heroic animal capable of incredibly improbable feats. (Not sure how they got the horse to do some of the things he did in War Horse.)

4) Both movies clearly hearken back to earlier points in Spielberg's career. (Numerous scenes in Tintin seem right out of an Indiana Jones movie, while I suspect Jeremy Irvine was cast as the lead in War Horse because he is a dead ringer for E.T.'s Henry Thomas.)

5) Both movies include a bidding war for a desired object (a model ship in Tintin) that eventually comes down to a "name your price" scenario.

6) Both movies feature a large amount of gun violence with little actual blood, keeping them family friendly. (Hilariously, in Tin Tin, a man gets machine-gunned down at a door, but doesn't have a single entry or exit wound when he falls through the doorway.)

7) The animals in the movies are named Joey and Snowy.

8) Both movies are largely unable to develop their human characters beyond the level of archetype.

9) Both movies were released in December of 2011. (Okay, I'm running out of legitimate comparisons so I guess I'll stop there.)


Tintin = Innovative storytelling and visuals, no soul
War Horse = Plenty of soul, even more cheesiness