Wednesday, February 29, 2012

New rules for watching comedies

I watched Bridesmaids for the second time on Saturday night.

It wouldn't have ordinarily been a movie that jumped to the top of my re-watch list. I ranked it only 40th out of the 121 movies I saw in 2011. But my wife hadn't seen it, and desperately wanted to remedy that before more of the movie's surprises were ruined for her. (She knew pretty much everything that happened at the bridal shop, for example.)

I liked it quite a bit -- I don't consider 40th to be a particularly low ranking last year -- so I was happy to watch it again.

And as it turned out, if I'd watched it this way the first time -- at home, with my wife -- it might have ended up closer to 20th.

See, I was laughing my fool head off this time around. It wasn't that I hadn't found it funny the first time around, because I did. But I don't recall going into fits of laughter as I did this time. What makes that all the more unusual is that a movie is supposed to be its funniest the first time you see it. Even with a movie that's hilarious, there are diminishing returns on repeat viewings because nothing that happens is a surprise to you.

I attribute my reaction to one of the following two things:

1) Comedies are best when watched with someone else.
2) Comedies are best when watched at home.

Until recently, I'd considered the first to be the primary factor. My go-to example had been the Judd Apatow comedies The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, both of which I saw in the theater. I saw The 40 Year Old Virgin with my wife (then girlfriend) and one other couple, and I saw Knocked Up by myself. I suspect that The 40 Year Old Virgin is just a funnier movie in general, but since these movies are both from the same director and are both well-liked, they seemed like good apples to compare to each other. When the fits of hysterical laughter from Virgin didn't travel over to Knocked Up, I concluded that the difference in company was to blame. (I shouldn't rule out that we saw Virgin at night in a packed theater, and I caught Knocked Up after work in a theater that was less than half full.)

I may never know how much of a difference it would have made if my wife had seen Knocked Up with me. But I can say that I watched Bridesmaids under very similar circumstances -- on a weekday afternoon, by myself.

The mandate to see funny and popular movies in the theater is a strong one if you're a movie buff. But the problem is, my wife and I have rarely gone to the theater together since my son was born -- maybe only a half-dozen times. She's my primary movie-watching partner, but she's not my only one. I do still go to the movies with friends from time to time, but that has gone way down in recent years.

I think I've determined that if I'm going to see a popular comedy in the theater, I need to go with a friend. If I go by myself, I'm just setting myself up to fail.

The last time I remember really laughing out loud in the theater by myself was when I saw Tangled, the day before Thanksgiving in 2010. There was this one line that hit my funny bone so hard, I hadn't fully calmed down for about a minute afterward. But the reasons I loved Tangled had little to do with it being funny. So this is not a pure example.

It's hard to determine what should be the minimum threshold for how funny I thought something was in order to qualify for this discussion, but going backward through my list, the previous movie I thought was really funny that I watched by myself was Woody Allen's Whatever Works, all the way back in January of 2010. But I watched that one at home, not in the theater.

So that makes a good transition point to the other half of the discussion: the venue where you see the movie.

The funniest four movies I saw in 2011 -- Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Hall Pass, A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy and Paul -- were all movies I saw in a home setting, with at least one other person. The first three I saw with my wife, though one of them was in a cabin where we were staying, which just felt like a home. The last was with two other friends at one of their homes.

Is it really possible that comedies are best when watched at home?

I'm starting to think that one of the keys of watching a good comedy is feeling comfortable. When you're at home, you usually sit in a comfortable chair, and you have whatever food or drink you may want at your disposal. And if you're watching with friends -- as I think we've determined you should be -- then you are in a good mood because it's all part of a fun social experience. What's more, you can laugh freely and as hard as you want without being self-conscious about how strangers are perceiving you.

Of course, there could be other factors involved -- namely, that comedies represent a greater risk to us, so we don't want to spend the money to see them in the theater. I can tell you that of the movies listed above, none of them were movies I thought would be good, so there was never any question of whether I might see them in the theater. The fact that they ended up being good is probably part of why I enjoyed them so much, since we are always happy when a movie pleasantly surprises us. But the point is, maybe we see more comedies at home in the first place, because paying theater prices for something that ends up being unfunny is more of a disappointing experience than paying theater prices for a blockbuster that doesn't deliver. With that blockbuster, at least we were probably impressed on some level by a special effects spectacle, one that was all the more grand because we saw it on a big screen. Comedies don't have the lure of spectacle to fall back on.

Whatever the true factors may be why we laugh or don't laugh at the movies, I've reached a point where I'm going to set myself some new ground rules.

1) If I feel compelled to see a comedy in the theater, I should find someone to see it with. This will be nice, because it'll get me back into seeing movies as a social experience with friends. If I feel self-conscious about this for whatever reason -- though I don't know why I should -- I can always explain to that friend that I've got a new policy for watching comedies. As if I should need an excuse for getting together with friends at all.

2) If I can stand to wait, I should watch the comedy at home with my wife. The conditions to laugh will be much better. After all, our senses of humor are so similar that we tend to build off each other, so that the movie gathers steam and becomes funnier and funnier as we watch. Not to mention that we can then quote the funny lines to each other later on, something we would be less inclined to do if we saw the same movie separately, even if we found the same lines funny.

So the next time you hear me talking about taking advantage of an early release from work to sneak off to the theater and watch the next Will Ferrell comedy, remind me of this post, will you?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Another Oscars ceremony comes and goes

I don't have a lot to say, one way or another, about this year's Oscars.

And don't take that as some kind of passive-aggressive complaint about it. I mean exactly what I say: I don't have a lot to say.

But I believe philosophically that it's the responsibility of a film blog to at least stop and acknowledge the Oscars once a year on the morning afterward. Even if your postmortem doesn't amount to much more than this post will amount to.

That's a fairly big change from the way I handled the Oscars on this blog just two years ago, when I built up to the telecast with a week's worth of Oscar-themed posts. I even used a little Oscar logo at the top of each piece, to denote its status as part of a series.

But I think that year may have been the aberration, rather than this one. For some reason, that year I felt an unusual amount of pre-show enthusiasm. I didn't particularly care about either of the films vying for best picture (Avatar and The Hurt Locker) and I knew the top two acting awards were going to go to performances from movies I didn't think were so great (Crazy Heart and The Blind Side). For some reason, though, that year I had a lot to say.

But I think this year is more the norm, or at least the new norm. One big difference is that 2010 was the last year I didn't have a child. There was nothing to impede watching the show in real time, and there were fewer distractions in general.

This year? We didn't start watching the show until other people had been watching it for more than two hours. The show starts at 5:30 in LA, and that's when we start feeding our son dinner. After that he's got a bath and story time -- not to mentioning pooping time, which is a period of unspecified activity that lasts maybe 10 minutes in between dinner and bath time, in the hopes that he will not poop in the bath. (Something that has happened less than five times, but has traumatized us enough that we've added pooping time to our regular evening routine.) I was just relieved as hell that the DVR was faithfully recording it when we turned it on two hours later.

However, last night we did rise to the occasion of making up some homemade appetizers to eat with a yummy cocktail that involves pear liqueur and rum. I made some chicken strips covered with bread crumbs and my wife made some chorizo empanadas. After the difficult day we had (some unwanted gardening busted our water pipe, leaving us without water for about five hours), we couldn't believe we actually pulled it off.

I guess that's a moment every parent who loves the Oscars reaches -- at some point, real life just forces itself to take precedence.

But now that I've wasted your time on a bunch of preamble, I will make a few isolated comments about the show. These are not in any way intended to compete with the hundreds of other Oscar postmortem pieces that were written last night and today, so don't come away disappointed.

1) I was glad that The Artist won best picture. It was the nominee I had ranked second highest out of the eight that I saw, and the one I ranked higher (Moneyball) didn't have a snowball's chance. If I had been on the losing end of the head-to-head duel among the top two contenders, as I have been numerous times in the past (including last year), The Descendants would have won. So I'm glad it didn't and that I could have one of my alternating years of feeling satisfied by the film that won.

2) I don't care if the show was a bit boring, I was overjoyed to watch Billy Crystal for three hours. The great thing about Crystal is that even when a joke doesn't work, he's such a professional that it doesn't throw him, and he always manages to pass it off in a jovial way. I just loved his enthusiasm, the fact that he did his usual song, and the fact that in a year of nostalgia-themed movies, he gave us a dose of nostalgia for Oscars past. I'm writing this before I've even read any comments about how he acquitted himself, and for this I am glad -- he will at least be untainted for a bit longer in my mind. And so what if he were riffing on songs that the youngest people in the audience didn't know -- if any year at the movies has tried to tell young people to learn their history, this was it. (Possible favorite moment: Realizing, a few moments later, that "Hanks ... is a memory" was the only reference to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in the opening number.)

3) As much as it kills me to say anything positive about her, Angelina Jolie has really nice legs.

See you back here tomorrow with our regularly scheduled Audient piece.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

I might prefer to die first

On that same trip to Barnes & Noble I discussed Thursday, I saw that they've released an updated version of the seminal movie lover's tome 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

I understand the need to keep a volume like this fresh, since the list of movies is theoretically always changing. (Unless you're the kind of curmudgeon who thinks that all new movies are crap, but that's the kind of obstinate perspective that just shuts down discussion.)

Still, I can't help but feel like this book has been dumbed down for a generation of teenyboppers.

I can't speak to what all the changes were -- I can only judge this book by its cover. By three covers, actually. Those three covers being the front cover, the back cover and the spine.

The front cover shows a bust of Natalie Portman in her Swan Lake makeup from Black Swan, as seen above.

The back cover shows a scene of the crumbling dream city from Inception.

And the spine shows this:

It was that spine that first caught my eye, since it was that spine that peered out from the shelf. And it was that spine that pushed a guffaw up through my lungs and into my throat.

There doesn't seem much point to tell people that they "must see" a movie that almost everyone who might buy the book has already seen. I mean, with Avatar, you're talking about the movie that grossed more money at the box office than any other movie in history. That's not what I thought this book was supposed to be about.

When I've perused through the copy that we own, which was published in 2003, I've been impressed by the obscure titles I'd never heard of it. In fact, I've watched a couple movies based purely on their inclusion in the book -- and would never have known about them otherwise. The point of any guide of movies you must see is to expose you to movies it would not otherwise occur to you to see. Right?

But the real point of a book like this is to sell copies of itself. And the way to do that is to emblazon it with three of the most talked about movies of 2009 and 2010. Even if one of them, Avatar, has seriously fallen out of favor in many cinephile circles. If it was ever in favor in the first place.

To be fair, I have to ask myself what I would put on instead. After all, Black Swan is a reasonably "cool" option for the front cover. I didn't love that movie as much as some people did, but I had a very healthy respect for it. And although Portman did win the Oscar, I suspect there are some people who didn't see it because they thought it was scary and/or confronting. In any case, it's not the kind of movie you would call "easy."

Inception is a bit more of a move toward the mainstream. In fact, you could say it was as mainstream as Avatar, except that it obviously did not do the box office Avatar did.

Avatar? Well, Avatar grossed $760 million in the U.S. and $2 billion worldwide. And is highly suspect in most areas not directly related to its technical achievements.

Maybe I'd go for something like The Social Network. Yeah, this is hardly some little indie that snuck through theaters without getting its proper due. But I could get behind it as an example of vibrant filmmaking that challenged norms. (As though Inception is not. I guess I'm working myself into a corner here.) But really, it wouldn't work from a marketing perspective. There's no image from The Social Network that's as arresting as Portman's face as you see it above.

I guess what I'm really struggling with is the idea that you have to appeal to people with movies they already know and love, to get them to discover movies they don't yet know or love. I probably shouldn't be struggling with that, though. It's a fairly basic marketing strategy, and beyond that, it just makes sense. Are you really going to use images from a genuinely overlooked gem, something most people don't know about, for any of your three covers? If you do, that's simply foolish.

I guess what I'm really saying is "Wahh! Avatar is not that good!"

Yep, that works.

But more to the point I'm trying to make, I can draw a direct contrast between the marketing strategy they used this time around and the one they used in 2003. Back then, Janet Leigh screaming during the shower scene from Psycho -- a movie that came out 43 years before the book was published -- adorned the front cover. That's a movie there is no question everyone should see before they die. It has stood the test of time and earned that designation through its durability. And it certainly seems to be iconic enough and attention-getting enough to have sold copies. (It sold a copy to us, anyway.)

The back cover? A picture of Groucho Marx. You can't tell what movie it's from, but does it really matter?

To show their savvy, however, the editors also included something current. The spine showed a picture of Catherine Zeta-Jones from the then-current best picture winner, Chicago. Will Chicago always belong in the list of 1001 films? I'm not sure, but I hope so. If they were committing themselves to some sense of permanence within movie history, at least they were only gambling on one movie, not three.

So couldn't they have at least given us one classic of the three this time around?

Here's something else interesting to consider: Since the number of movies in the book must always remain at 1001, what movies do they kick out with each new installment? And who decides that? What poor movie is Avatar sending to the showers?

You could take two different approaches to this question. On the one hand, if these movies are really considered to be required viewing, they can't be completely quirky choices. They have to have reached some level of commonly acknowledged achievement, or else it could be absurd to suggest that a cinema lover would die incomplete without watching them. So you could drop some titles that were submitted by a snobby contrarian who hasn't had any role in this book for two decades.

But then you go back to the argument that there are certain movies that are so well known, like Avatar, that they don't need to be trumpeted in a setting like this. Their reputation precedes them, whether that reputation is positive or negative. (Avatar has its share of people in both camps.) At what point does a best picture like Gladiator, which certainly seems to have lost its luster over the years, continue to have residency in this book?

Maybe the real point is that the most recent entries in a book like this are always a bit of a waste. People who already love cinema, or have vowed to use a book like this to become film lovers, are the only real logical candidates to own this book. And most of them should already be aware of most of the recent entries.

Maybe the real value of Avatar in a book like this is not for the 2012 edition, but for the 2042 edition.

By 2042, most of us will have forgotten how much of a disappointment it really was.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Movie? Recruitment video? You decide

One of the strangest cinematic risks in a long time is hitting theaters today.

It's not a risk because it has little chance to find an audience. In fact, there are certain segments of this country where people may line up outside the theater.

It's a risk because, well, it's not really a movie, the way you and I have to come to think of a movie.

In case you haven't heard, Act of Valor stars real Navy SEALs playing, basically, themselves. They hedged their bets by filling in the edges with a few actual actors -- Roselyn Sanchez and Nestor Serrano were the names I recognized -- but most everyone else was actually in actual trenches the week before filming started. (Actual metaphorical trenches. I don't think U.S. military combat has involved real "trenches" for decades.)

On the one hand, this could make for unprecedented verisimilitude. There will be no doubt whether the actors look, feel and behave like real soldiers, because, well, they are real soldiers.

But the drama is likely to suffer significantly. And I don't think Sanchez and Serrano are going to be able to totally bridge that gap.

Even if I hadn't known about the casting stunt at the heart of Act of Valor, I might have sensed something was off from the trailers. The lack of visible stars among the soldiers might have been a tip-off, but movies get made with casts of mostly newcomers when the studio is trying to produce the thing on a shoestring. With a movie like Act of Valor, might as well put the extra money into explosions and location shoots, rather than getting a modest-sized star who probably wouldn't make much impact on the box office.

No, what would have tipped me off is that everything that happens in the ads is so bland. And by "bland" I mean "unspecific." There are plenty of shots from these ads that are exciting in the abstract sense -- things blow up, soldiers drop in to hostile territory, innocent people are saved. But no kind of plot takes shape from the images we see. Here, take a look at the trailer yourself, ignoring the release date at the end, which was since moved up by a week.

See? Any idea what that movie is about? Other than people doing what needs to be done and trying to get home?

I'm sure the producers of Act of Valor will tell you that this is the point -- these are the two essential goals of any soldier in the military. Do what is right, try to get home.

Whether that will work as the thesis/excuse for a whole movie, I'm not so sure.

You know what else is bland and unspecific?

Recruitment videos.

And if you are inclined to be cynical about the intentions of Act of Valor, that's where your mind goes.

Is this thing just some kind of right-wing propaganda? Is this thing designed to "motivate the base" in an election year?

With Barack Obama specifically, that may not be so easy to say. If there's one thing most people, even conservatives, can agree on, it's that Obama has not been weak on foreign policy. In fact, it's why some liberals are pissed at him. Oh, for the purposes of political theater, Republican presidential candidates will say that Obama's willingness to talk to other countries "without precondition" (this was a phrase that was thrown around a couple years ago) makes him a weak foreign affairs president. But his military successes are pretty much indisputable, and that's not just limited to the covert mission that took out Osama bin Laden.

However, the strength of the military is obviously more of a Republican ideal than a Democratic one. You could theorize that this movie came out when it did to subtly try to influence the presidential race.

But I'm not that paranoid. Especially not after reading this bit from wikipedia, which says everything pretty concisely, so I will just steal it and use it here in total:

"In 2007, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh of Bandito Brothers Production filmed a video for the Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen, which led the United States Navy to allow them to use actual active duty SEALs. After spending so much time working closely with the SEALs, McCoy and Waugh conceived the idea for a modern day action movie about this covert and elite fighting force. As Act of Valor developed with the SEALs on board as advisors, the filmmakers realized that no actors could realistically portray or physically fill the roles they had written and the actual SEALs were drafted to star in the film. The SEALs will remain anonymous, as none of their names will appear in the film's credits."

That's really interesting to know.

As for it being a recruitment video ... well, there's still that possibility, and something like that still feels kind of gross to me, just because I'm for a smaller military rather than a bigger one. And by seeming like a pastiche of scenes rather than a narrative throughline from beginning to end, it definitely seems to function that way. With recruitment videos, it's all about iconic images, not so much about the narrative that links them together.

But really, the Navy probably doesn't really want just anyone trying to become a SEAL. You have to be (just throwing out a number) among the top 5% of all military personnel to even be a contender. So if you don't already know you want to serve your country, chances are you don't have the physical prowess or the drive to be a SEAL in the first place. Watching a movie about it is not likely going to change that.

I won't be seeing Act of Valor in the theater, but you better bet I'll see it before the year is out, just because cinematic experiments of any kind usually interest me. The main gimmick of Act of Valor will make it that much more interesting than if the same movie were filled with bit players hanging around the margins of Hollywood.

I mean, if it's bad, at least they'll have a good excuse ...

Friday, February 24, 2012

Priced to (never) sell

Barnes & Noble is smoking crack.

They're pricing DVDs like BluRays -- expensive ones -- and they're pricing BluRays like video games.

I couldn't believe my eyes yesterday when I happened to stroll into the DVD/BluRay section of the store closest to my work. I wasn't necessarily in the market for any DVDs or BluRays, but movie sections pull me in like the Death Star tractor beam.

I randomly went over to a DVD that I knew was a new release -- The Rum Diary -- and nearly fainted looking at the price:


My first thought was whether the price was actually listed in American currency.

$30.99? That's ridiculous. That would be high even for a BluRay. I can't say for sure what Target is charging for this same new release, but I'd bet they'd be afraid to go any higher than $19.99.

The price of a new release BluRay -- Real Steel -- didn't stagger me quite so much, but it was still high: $39.99.

Are they actually moving any of these units?

There has always been a price divide between boutique retailers and discount retailers, and I guess for these purposes we'll consider Barnes & Nobles to be the former and Target to the latter. You wouldn't expect to see the exact same prices in both stores. Barnes & Noble's movies are priced to snare people who would never set foot in a Target, considering it full of commoners.

But this is a pretty significant price divide, especially in an age when many people are buying their movies on the internet -- if they're buying their movies in physical formats at all. Barnes & Noble can never compete with online prices, but you'd think they'd come closer to competing with Target. If Target is charging $19.99 for a new release DVD -- which is still more than most people want to pay -- then you'd figure Barnes & Noble wouldn't dare go any higher than $23.99 or $24.99. That should still get them the couple additional dollars of profit margin they need to stay afloat, without sending a savvy consumer running away screaming.

In fact, I almost did just that. When I set down the Rum Diary DVD, the words "That's absurd" escaped my lips. Not loudly, but loudly enough for the salesman behind the nearest counter to look up. I almost hoped he'd take my involuntary expulsion of language as an excuse to interface with me, ask me if he could help me. I don't think I would have been able to resist telling him what exactly it was I found so absurd.

And here's another absurd thing: Barnes & Noble isn't even adhering to the basic principles of Pricing 101. Everyone knows that if you want a supposed psychological advantage over the consumer, you price a retail item as close as possible to the next price threshold without actually getting there. Like that BluRay of Real Steel -- I'm that much more likely to buy it at $39.99 than if they increased the price by a single penny. "Oh, it's not even forty bucks" I'd theoretically tell myself.

And I think that's what struck me so much about the $30.99 DVD price for a movie most people didn't even think was very good. It crossed the $30 threshold, which just seems totally out of bounds for a DVD in the year 2012. But it only just barely crossed it, which makes you wonder why it was even worth doing. I might not have noticed it if they'd just shaved off a dollar and charged $29.99. In fact, I might not be writing this post at all.

I should mention something here: Almost every movie Barnes & Noble carries has a sticker on it that discounts the price, either by 10 or 20%. If you cut the price of The Rum Diary by 1/5th, you're starting to get down into the industry standard range. I guess that's kind of a Pricing 101 trick in and of itself. Still, the listed price is what registered with me, what gave me the necessary sticker shock to come write this post immediately, a day before I planned to actually post it. If that was the takeaway for me, it's likely the takeaway for a number of other prospective customers as well.

I guess they have to jack up the prices for movies, because it's one of the few areas where they can actually control what to charge. Books very impertinently tell you exactly how much they cost, right there on the jacket. I've always wondered why that is -- must have something to do with publishers desiring to control the economics of their own industry. I'm sure the internet would tell me why if I looked. I always find this kind of annoying because it tells you exactly how much someone spent on a present. Why even bother with a gift receipt? Might as well give the actual receipt.

Unfortunately, we may be able to conclude something rather sad about this whole incident: Barnes & Noble is in trouble. They survived the initial industry correction that took down their primary competitor, Border's, by pioneering a popular e-reader. Border's had bupkus, and closed its doors. Those of us who like the idea of physical book stores breathed a sigh of relief and said "Okay, I don't have to worry about Barnes & Noble for another ten years."

But that may not be the case. In fact, a three-story Barnes & Noble adjacent to one of my favorite movie theaters just shuttered in the last couple months. This saddened me, as having the store right next to the theater made for a highly satisfying and enriching concentration of culture. You could even see into the book store from the lobby of the movie theater, and vice versa, through the glass walls that separated the two businesses. In fact, it was common for us to stroll through the book store while we were killing time before a movie. This theater is pretty progressive, and they used to even allow you to buy snacks in the Barnes & Noble Cafe and bring them into the theater. And we used to regularly avail ourselves of that option.

Now, every inch of those glass walls is covered with brown butcher paper.

It could just be that the rent was too high in this particular location. National chains make decisions all the time on which stores to close and which to keep open, based on such factors as the desirability of the location and the price to rent the space.

Still, I can't help but think that this could be a bad sign for the bookseller, and that their movie prices are a sign of their desperation. If they don't start making more profit, maybe all their stores will end up like the one next to the Landmark Theater on Pico.

Maybe I should have bought that $30.99 Rum Diary after all.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A very successful birthday present

You know you've bought the right movie for someone when they watch it two days later on their own ... and then tell you they'll watch it again with you in "maybe three weeks."

Yeah, a movie you're willing to watch twice in a month is something you should own.

I knew as much when I bought my wife Idiocracy for her birthday, which was this past Sunday. In fact, when it came up maybe six weeks ago in some other discussion, she said "I love that movie so much, I feel like I should own it." She wasn't dropping hints -- she was just expressing her love for the underrated Mike Judge gem from 2006.

But because I'm an observant person and a good husband (Ow! My arm hurts from patting my own back!), I took that nugget of information and ran with it, ordering a copy from Amazon a week or two later. It arrived in plenty of time for her birthday -- shipped to my work so she wouldn't get wind of it.

I presented it to her on Valentine's Day as an early birthday present, since she'd be leaving down the next day for three nights away as another early birthday present. I knew she'd need things to watch on her laptop at the end of the night. And I knew she'd watch Idiocracy -- which she did last Thursday night.

Can I pause for a moment to say just how awesome it is that my wife loves Idiocracy? Some wives love Twilight or The Vow. My wife loves Silence of the Lambs and Idiocracy. I think I married the right person.

Idiocracy came into our lives in early 2007. It was the final movie I watched before I closed my 2006 rankings in late January, which meant I was watching it at some ungodly hour when she was already asleep. I was sitting there, late at night, like (appropriately) an idiot, laughing quietly to myself. I had to show it to her.

That second viewing -- my last complete one to date -- transpired not too much later, maybe a couple months. It was love at first watch for my wife. She was laughing up a storm, and she has since watched it twice more on her own, both times happening to catch it when it came on cable. Both times unpremeditated, I believe -- which can be an even better indication of the power a movie has over you.

We don't pay for movie stations anymore, so that particular scenario was not likely to arise again. And it's been a couple present-giving occasions since I'd bought her a movie, so I thought it was perfect timing.

The reason we love Idiocracy is not only because it's so funny, which it is. If you don't know the concept, it stars Luke Wilson as a below average soldier in present day, who is cryogenically frozen for (I believe) 500 years -- awaking to discover that he is now the smartest man in the world. That idea is rich with possibilities, and Judge mines them for gold. Throw in a hilarious performance from Maya Rudolph as the present-day prostitute who is also cryogenically frozen, and walks through the future fearing the vengeance of a pimp who has been dead for 450 years, and you've got terrific material.

But part of the reason we love it is that it needs our love. The studio unceremoniously dumped this movie in late August/early September, with nary an advertising campaign. In fact, as an indication just how little this movie registered, even on the day of its theatrical release it was listed on as Untitled Mike Judge Project. I remember that quite clearly, and am not sure if I had seen that phenomenon before or have seen it since.

In the intervening years the film has gained a cult appreciation, but it's still not as widely seen as it should be. So if you are among those who haven't seen it, change that today. If you have your doubts, just consider the pedigree of the film's director. He created Beavis and Butt-head and Office Space -- if one of those two doesn't interest you, the other should. (I might as well pause here to also pimp Beavis and Butt-head Do America. You'd never guess it, but that movie is not only funny, it's also smart.)

Besides, then you'll have something to talk about with my wife the next time you see her.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ten terrible trademarks of found footage films

Okay, it's finally time for me to say it:

I think I hate found footage movies.

This was not always the case. Awhile ago, I absolutely loved them, and as recently as a few months ago, I still found them fresh. But like any cinematic trend that gets overworked, this genre has grown tiresome.

I loved the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense just as much as the next guy. But when three dozen high profile releases that came out in the next five years also had a big twist, it broke me. You can say the same thing about the origins of found footage -- or at least the origins of its current popularity -- in The Blair Witch Project. A decade later, I'd be fine if I never saw another one. (The fact that both The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project came out in the same year is just another indicator that 1999 was the best year for film in the last 20 years.)

After Chronicle, I have officially had enough. (And what a shame -- that's such a great poster.) This genre has become bastardized within an inch of its life. And yeah, I can also blame disappointments from last year such as Trollhunter, Apollo 18 and Megan is Missing for the current state of affairs. But it's Chronicle that's going to bear the brunt of my "chronic" fatigue.

In part because the movie is getting such praise. It's got a 69 Metascore. But what really alarms me is what you get if you parse that 69 score. Metacritic shows you the number of positive, mixed and negative reviews it uses to arrive at this score, and according to the Metacritic metrics, Chronicle has only one negative review.


Did they see the same movie I saw?

If you want to go into Chronicle with an open mind, well, I should have given you this spoiler warning earlier. Get out now, because I'll probably spoil some actual plot details later on.

The thing about found footage movies is that they are making a contract with the viewer that they will obey certain rules. There are a number of these rules, but the most important one, the one they simply must obey, is that all the footage has to be captured by a cameraman who is in some way part of the story, or an unmanned camera that is witnessing it. There should be no "omniscient camera."

Like most of the weaker found footage movies, Chronicle violates this rule a couple times. But that doesn't bother me as much as the lame ways it tries to obey certain other rules, which are really more like stylistic trademarks of the genre. And it got me thinking about the frustrating aesthetic characteristics many of these films have in common, which become all the more annoying once you identify them.

So let's just get started ... the following list is kind of a mishmash of cliched techniques and pet peeves. But if you've seen enough of these movies, you'll know what I'm talking about.

10. Found footage films are always trying to explain away the presence of the camera. Even if they violate the rules of their genre, found footage movies are usually at least aware of those rules, and know the viewer is naturally suspicious of their commitment to them. So there's almost always a significant percentage of the dialogue devoted to talking about how and why a person is able to film/choosing to film what they're filming. In Chronicle, the characters are so conscious of the camera that their discussion of it becomes a distraction. Which makes it all the more absurd when the rules are violated, most notably in the film's climax.

9. Found footage films want to mimic a human's randomness about when to start and stop filming. The next found footage movie you see, watch for this effect: A line of dialogue is cut short because the cameraman randomly stopped filming before a natural pause in the conversation. It happens at least once in every found footage movie, and it always happens when something unimportant is happening. I can think of a couple clear instances of this in Chronicle, and it's a purely aesthetic effect designed to remind you that you're not seeing everything that happens. Except, in most found footage movies, you see precisely every piece of exposition you need to see, any and everything needed to move the narrative forward in a basically conventional way. Apparently, itchy video fingers only strike in banal moments.

8. Found footage movies want to remind you that a distracted human does not always hold a camera perfectly. Another pernicious trick to remind you of the video medium is to have the cameraman shoot the action off center. In a scene that otherwise doesn't matter, you see the subject wandering toward the side of the frame, meaning that the cameraman is not training the lens perfectly on what he/she is shooting. This is again trying to ram the video aesthetic down our throats. But again, wait until an important moment comes up in the narrative. That camera is miraculously trained perfectly on whatever the audience needs to see, no matter how improbable it would be that the cameraman would have the presence of mind to capture it. A terrific example of this in Chronicle occurs when the characters drop out of the clouds, where they've been throwing around a football after learning to fly. The camera lands (unharmed) on the ground in exactly the spot it needs to be to catch the other three characters all hitting the ground, less than ten feet away. Improbable at best.

7. Found footage films make small jumps forward in time that don't make any sense. It's a stylized but occasionally effective form of fiction filmmaking to have the same shot jump forward in small bursts, which have the effect of cutting an otherwise straightforward scene into slices. I may not be describing this effect perfectly, but you should be familiar with it -- the camera angle isn't changing, but there are abrupt little cuts that give off the effect of a pastiche of moments rather than a single uninterrupted take. This happens in Chronicle during several scenes in which a camera is not being operated by anyone, but has been set on a tripod. Think about that for a moment. In the context of a found footage movie, the only explanation for this is that a cameraman didn't film the whole scene straight through, but pressed stop and start repeatedly. Without the cameraman doing that, we can only assume that the cuts were added in the editing room. Which means that it's purely stylistic and not based on the limitations of video as a recording medium, which is what the film is overtly trying to suggest.

6. Found footage films don't actually have to be "found." And speaking of the editing room, most found footage films don't seem to care that the images we're seeing are a lot more than a succession of consecutively recorded video files being shown in chronological order. Only a few examples, like Blair Witch, are truly "found footage" in the original way that term was imagined. Most modern found footage films suggest a huge number of video files, few of them shown in their entirety, edited together in cinematically accessible narrative order -- often from many disparate sources, including security cameras and other devices to which the editor would need access. In Chronicle, this approach also violates the first-person filming perspective that had been dominant modality of the whole movie, as the big climax includes security camera footage just to up the "wow" factor of the final fight. The use of security camera footage and other third-party footage also begs the question: How did the person who theoretically assembled all this footage into a movie get access to all the footage he/she needed? The reason people can't make a "found footage" film in real life, out of actual found footage, is that they can't cobble together enough real footage from all those sources to imitate the structure and rhythms of a feature film. Most found footage films suggest a kind of omniscient filmmaker who has unlimited access to all existing footage about the subject at hand, regardless of who shot it and whether they were likely to make it available. And frankly that just makes the whole thing seem stupid.

5. Found footage films frequently overlook the fact that someone needs to press start and stop. How often do you see a character in a found footage film, while videoing him or herself, start from behind the camera and return to behind the camera in order to stop filming? It's like they're pressing the record button with their mind. (Which I suppose could happen in a movie like Chronicle -- but if so, happens in Chronicle before the characters realize they might have that ability.) There are many moments in Chronicle when the three main characters all appear in front of the camera together, without anyone emerging from behind the camera or returning to that spot to press stop. You could argue that the person editing the film together just cut out those distracting logistical details, considering them clunky. If that's the case, why go to such great lengths elsewhere in the film to suggest that the footage is undoctored? Like cutting off the aforementioned line of dialogue mid-sentence? You can't have it both ways -- you either want to prove this is real and undoctored footage, or you want to make it seem like a smooth narrative. You can't pick and choose.

4. Found footage films are supposed to look like they're shot on video. This one really gets me. The reason to make found footage movies about otherworldly phenomena, such as telekinesis, is that the video imagery is supposed to make the special effects look all the more authentic. If you're seeing a videotaped image of a guy flying through the sky, it must "really be happening," right? The video image is supposed to look raw and undoctored, lending the special effects their greatest possible credibility. Yet in a number of key scenes in Chronicle, it's clearly film stock you're seeing, not video. In fact, the aesthetic of the image changes so totally that only an inept filmmaker wouldn't have recognized the jarring effect it has on the viewer.

3. Found footage films need really good actors. In addition to making special effects seem more like they're "really happening," found video footage is also supposed to lend a greater authenticity to the performances of the actors -- and in return require a more credible performance from them. The pseudo documentary style requires that the actors be even more believable than in most films, because there's not supposed to be any artifice at play. If you don't believe these are real people doing real things, the jig is up. For me, this is one of Chronicle's greatest weaknesses. The actors are generally not believable, and the dialogue they speak is ham-fisted and atrocious. Take particular note of the scenes involving the domestic strife with the main character's father. I've rarely seen an abusive relationship ring this false, and that's even in fiction films, where the relationship can be exaggerated or stylized for effect. Here, it's supposed to be straight-up reality recorded by a video camera.

2. Found footage films frequently involve outdated equipment. There are two key characters in Chronicle you see holding video cameras -- the lead, and the romantic interest of one of the lead's friends. Both characters have large, clunky video cameras, the kind that would have been used regularly in the 1990s. This film clearly takes place in 2012 -- at a school talent show, one character addresses the Class of 2012 -- so the use of those old-school style video cameras is another knock against the film's much-prized realism. And the entire purpose seems to be to give us some iconographic representation of what a video camera should look like. If you want me to really believe a found footage movie set in 2012, have the characters use cell phones, Flip videos or even normal cameras whose primary function is photography. Really small cameras can get really good footage these days -- and are a lot easier to carry when you're trying to capture every single detail of your entire life, even the embarrassing moments no one would ever film, as the characters are in Chronicle.

1. Found footage films always want to make some comment about society. Many found footage films are obsessed with what it says about our culture that we always want to record everything. It's supposed to represent our narcissism, or perhaps our latent belief that we could all be filmmakers. It's supposed to indicate that the barriers to our privacy have been willfully broken down. The bad things that happen to these characters, then, are usually some form of punishment for these shallow obsessions with fame and image. As on-the-nose as that can be, it's even more dispiriting when a found footage movie does not have any such convictions. In Chronicle, there is never any reason given why the main character wants to film everything in his life. And it's discussed so damn much that there should be a reason. In the climax, this character has become so consumed by his powers that he's transformed himself into a supervillain. While floating near the top of the skyscrapers in Seattle's downtown, he gathers a group of recording devices around him, floating in the air, filming him. Any thematic meaning of his obsession with "chronicling" his life is utterly indiscernible.

But, by all means, go see it if you want to. ;-)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Something old, something new

Before I lose half my audience right off the bat, let me say that this post has nothing to do with the 2011 romantic comedy Something Borrowed.

Honestly, I just thought this would be some "clever" poster art to accompany the title I'd already chosen for this post.

I actually want to talk about the double features I watched over the past week while my wife was out of town. She left Wednesday morning and returned Saturday afternoon, leaving me control of the television in our living room on three different nights last week. I set out to watch a double feature each night. Turns out I took it even further than that, but we'll get to that in a minute.

The themes of my double features were simply this: Something old, something new. More specifically, each double feature would consist of one movie I'd already seen, and one movie I hadn't already seen.

I've been wanting to do this for some time, but I've lacked the discipline. When my wife and son went to Australia for 11 days last May, I had the crazy idea of doing one double feature like this every day they were gone. That turned out to be impractical, of course. There were days when other things I wanted to accomplish (like getting out to a baseball game) prevented me from seeing even one movie, and then there were days, specifically the weekend days, when I wanted to watch more than two movies. See, I'm anal about things like this -- it either has to be exactly two movies, fitting the exact specifications of my project, or I won't do it at all.

Three nights, however, was a much shorter and more manageable timeframe. Plus the fact that I had to stay home to babysit my son meant that I wasn't tempted to go out into the world on any of those nights. (Couldn't even if I was tempted.)

I ended up developing a bit of a theme for each individual double feature, but I'll get into that as we go along. The movie I list first is the one I watched first.

Wednesday, February 15th

Something old: 127 Hours (2010, Danny Boyle)
Something new: The House of the Devil (2009, Ti West)
Informal theme that developed: Recent movies with moments of squirming intensity

Although I had some ideas for what I wanted to watch set in stone before my wife left town, I also wanted to leave some up to whim and circumstance. Both of the first night's movies were to be determined that way, in part as a result of what I picked up at the library that afternoon. As it turned out, all three of the movies (the maximum I'm allowed to check out) were movies I'd already seen. The one I knew would make it into my DVD player that night was 127 Hours.

127 Hours was the movie I ranked #1 in 2010. Since then I'd wondered if a different movie (The Social Network, #3 at the time) deserved to be in that top slot instead. So after flirting with my second viewing of 127 Hours a couple times, I finally made it happen on Wednesday night.

I'm not sure if it will have the ability to endure over time that The Social Network has, but I averaged out to liking 127 Hours about as much as I had the first time. I say "averaged out" because the first 2/3 inevitably did not strike me as much as they originally had, when the freshness of Boyle's choices caught me so delightfully by surprise. I didn't consciously like this part less, it was just the typical second-viewing phenomenon of having seen these choices before. What I found odd, though, was that I was more emotionally stricken by the ending than I had been the first time. I'm conscious of the fact that Boyle is really manipulating us at the end of this movie -- as (spoiler alert, ha ha) Aron Rolston grows closer to finally being removed from that canyon he thought would be his tomb, A.R. Rahman's score swells and increases in intensity. Yet I felt the emotions even more intensely than I had in the theater, and when the helicopter finally comes into view, it slayed me. I think it's okay to be taken by these techniques if you know they're operating on you on that level. Hey, movies are made the way they're made for a reason.

As for The House of the Devil, I'd only just added this to our Netflix queue two days earlier. On Monday I was listening to my weekly Filmspotting podcast, and they were discussing West's new film, The Innkeepers. The House of the Devil was mentioned a couple times as a point of contrast, and both of the show's co-hosts made it sound like some batshit stuff happened in that movie. I like batshit stuff. I like movies. It was on my queue 15 minutes later and in my ocular cavities two days after that.

I might be overstating how much I liked this movie, but here are two of the horror films I compared it to in discussions afterward: Halloween and Suspiria. If you don't know anything about this movie, it's basically a babysitter-in-peril movie that is styled after slasher films from the 1980s. Or so people are saying -- I actually found that the aesthetic reminded me more of the late 1970s than the 1980s, and the film never actually says the year it is set. However, the lead listens to The Fixx's "One Thing Leads to Another" on her walkman, and although the walkman was invented in 1978, "One Thing Leads to Another" was not invented until 1983. In any case, my quibbling with what style it most resembles is actually intended as a compliment -- the film looks and feels great, and its slow, dread-filled build toward [stuff I won't tell you about] is simply exhilarating.

Thursday, February 16th

Something new: Le Samourai (1967, Jean-Pierre Melville)
Something old: All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Informal theme that developed: "Old" movies that would require my full attention

The problem with watching two movies in one night, starting after your child goes to bed at 7 p.m., is that you are in serious risk of falling asleep before the second one finishes. Especially if you don't get to the first movie until the disappointing end of a basketball game between the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls. And especially if the second is over two hours, which was the case with both of my "old" options: All About Eve and John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre, both of which I had absolutely adored but never revisited (and which were the other two movies I picked up at the library on Wednesday). As it turns out, I ended up finishing the second at about quarter to 2 in the morning after a short "nap," but first things first.

Le Samourai had been on my radar again thanks to Filmspotting, where Melville's movie has come up several times in connection to movies featuring "man with no name" type characters. Since I'm pretty sure it came up first during their discussion of Drive, which I did not really like, that should have been a warning sign that Le Samourai might not have exactly been in my wheelhouse. It wasn't exactly in my wheelhouse, but it's still quite a good film. Just nothing I want to recommend breathlessly to other film fans. (Without any set plan on when to watch it, I elevated it to the top of my queue and it arrived a couple weeks ago. I decided last week's project was as good a time as any.)

The story revolves around a mysterious hitman named Jef Costello (Alain Delon), who is sought by police after carefully setting up several alibis that should deflect attention from him after he completes the contract to kill a prominent Parisian night club owner. Although there is some nice atmospheric stuff involving him and his spartan apartment and the way he walks the Parisian streets looking guarded yet cool, much more of this film than I was expecting revolved around the procedural stuff related to finding the killer in this particular murder. There are some fleeting and interesting character relationships that crop up, but I guess I just thought there would be more "there" there. Still, I can't deny that it was pretty engaging and that it was shot beautifully. To make the experience more complete, I enjoyed wine, cheese, crackers and Italian salami while watching it.

As it was 10 o'clock by the time I got myself in position to start the second movie, I was moments away from inserting Treasure of the Sierra Madre into my DVD player, due to its 12 fewer minutes of running time. But then I got real with myself and decided that All About Eve was the one whose gravitational pull I was feeling more strongly -- the one I'd either almost borrowed or actually borrowed from the library on a few previous occasions. Damn that wine during Le Samourai -- it took me down for the count around 11, and threatened to throw my whole double feature schedule out of whack. Fortunately I revived in time to finish, even if it was well into the next day at that point.

I quickly remembered why All About Eve had been calling me back. The 1950 best picture winner is quite simply one of the best written films I've ever seen, primarily from the perspective of dialogue, though I also love the story. Bette Davis is terrific in the central (if not title) role, and boy can she sure deliver the hell out of Mankiewicz's dialogue. If you don't know the story, an ambitious nobody who is blessed with otherworldly acting skills latches on to a famous stage star (Davis) in order to try to learn all her tricks and eventually suck her dry. The deceptive innocence Eve (Anne Baxter) initially puts forward is terrific, as it demonstrates how you don't have to be an easily flattered stage diva to be taken in by her charms and apparent good intentions. I love how the story gets increasingly complicated among a coterie of secondary characters, and eventually culminates in that hollow awards acceptance speech at the end. Makes me wonder how many other people in the entertainment industry are thanked in contexts where they loathe the person thanking them.

Friday, February 17th

Something new: The Road Warrior (1981, George Miller)
Something old: Hardware (1990, Richard Stanley)
Quite formal and intentional theme: Post-apocalypse movies

One of the most embarrassing deficiencies in my viewing history has been The Road Warrior. I'd seen both of the other movies in that series, but never that one. But I had heard two wildly divergent opinions of it. Back when I was seven years old and it was in the theater, my parents and some of their friends went to see it while we were vacationing on Martha's Vineyard. I distinctly remember them (specifically my mother) saying how much they had loathed it, that it was violent and nihilistic (though they probably wouldn't have used the word "nihilistic" with a seven-year-old). Of course, since then my contemporaries who have seen it say it's awesome in all the right ways. They may have liked it for the exact reasons my parents didn't.

So I thought it made a good pairing with Hardware, which my contemporaries and I all loathed when we saw it in the theater. In recent years I've been wondering if it wasn't just that the movie had disturbed me -- quite possible, as it does feature a battle robot that comes back to life in the apartment of an artist and tries to rape her. I'm probably more open-minded to something dark and twisted like that than I was 22 years ago. So when I saw Hardware was available on streaming, I loaded Road Warrior into my DVD queue, and it arrived just in time for Friday night's premeditated double feature.

I guess I came down somewhere in the middle of those two opinions of The Road Warrior. I expected it to be non-stop lewd and lascivious acts from start to finish, but it really wasn't. In fact, it had more Beyond Thunderdome in it than I was expecting. (Something about that feral little kid with the boomerang just screams "Thunderdome" to me.) I loved the fast cars, spectacular wipeouts and amoral brutality ... but to be honest, I expected those elements to be present to a greater degree. I also expected Mel Gibson's Max to be a bit more depraved and a bit more of an antihero than he was. Really, he's fairly safe, as would have made sense in trying to make the movie more mainstream for a bigger box office. That said, I really enjoyed most of it, and felt like I was checking a seminal film off my list.

I didn't realize how perfect a double feature partner Hardware was until I started watching. The lead character here, played by Dylan McDermott, is actually nicknamed Max, though his given name is Moses. I couldn't tell if that was supposed to be either a direct or an indirect allusion to the Mad Max series -- the movie never really expounded on it.

It was funny how much I remembered of this movie I hated (another indicator that this movie might have scarred me in some way, which my 17-year-old brain interpreted as hatred). I actually remembered the tune of the movie's theme song, which is "The Order of Death" by Public Image Limited and includes the refrain "This is what you want, this is what you get." I don't think I've heard that song since then (although I see it was used in The Blair Witch Project), so my memory of exactly when it played, 22 years later, is really quite something.

Here's what I'll say: This movie is not good in any conventional sense, but it's a lot more interesting than I gave it credit for. The robot splatters a couple humans (including a sexual predator) in really grotesque ways, and his advances at the artist (Stacey Travis) are pretty menacing and frightening. The movie has some awkward moments where it's very poorly executed, which is probably part of what turned my uncertainty into out-and-out distaste when we were first watching it. But I also don't really think we could handle this movie back in high school. As someone who has since gone on record with my affection for depraved films, I think Hardware fits in nicely -- it's bleak, hopeless and tarnished, which I now view as positive characteristics rather than negative ones.


My "official" double feature slate ends there, but funnily, I got in two more pairings of double features that fit the old-new theme before the end of Saturday night. I might as well run quickly through those since I've already come this far:

Saturday, February 18th

Before my wife got home:

Something new: The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges)
Something old: Rabbit Hole (2010, John Cameron Mitchell)
Informal theme that developed: None, really -- but both were movies I could watch while my son was awake?

I won't spend too much time on these, in part because The Lady Eve is part of my Getting Acquainted series and I'm going to spend more time on it a week or so from now. But let me just say that I'm glad I was watching The Lady Eve while my son was awake, doing his little projects around the house and occasionally bothering me, rather than Rabbit Hole. I watched Rabbit Hole during his nap, and was glad I did -- I simply love this movie, and as with 127 Hours, it hit me even harder, emotionally, on the second time through. It wasn't that I wasn't a bit distracted while watching it -- I needed to take care of some last cleaning around the living room before my wife came home. But at least the distractions were of my own choosing.

After my wife got home:

Something new: Chronicle (2012, Josh Trank)
Something old: They Live (1988, John Carpenter)
Informal theme that developed: Science fiction? Unintentional comedy? I don't know.

I'm going to leave these undiscussed. If I find the time, I'm going to devote a whole post to giving Chronicle a piece of my mind later this week.

Sunday, February 19th

The pattern was finally broken yesterday when I watched only one movie, the hilarious spy spoof called OSS 117: Lost in Rio. It's from the director (Michel Hazanavicius) and star (Jean Dujardin) of The Artist.

Which, for the record, was something new.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The stunted frustration known as anime

I saw a poster for The Secret World of Arrietty the last time I went to the movies. And as I get when I see any poster for an animated movie whose story origins are unknown to me, I got excited by the possibility of it being our next great discovery in animated film.

And then I saw the trailer.

Oh anime, you've suckered me again.

I didn't immediately get it, looking at this poster, that the movie was anime. Some of the hallmarks are there, in the eyes of the larger character, and in the general milieu of sprites and other small creatures, possibly of the spirit world.

But the trailer cleared up any doubts for me. Here it is:

Here's my problem with anime:

It's the one form of animation that never seems interested in looking any better.

The action is still a bit jerky. The mouths still don't line up correctly with the words being spoken. And the eyes, the signature of the form, are still exactly the same as when the style was first hatched back in the 1960s.

I'll give you that some of these "deficiencies" can be mitigated by good storytelling. I've enjoyed the storytelling in a number of anime movies I've seen.

But except in very rare cases, the willful insistence on never advancing keeps me at arm's length.

And I find this an especially strange impulse (or lack of impulse), since the Japanese have long been technical innovators in nearly every other endeavor known to man.

Even animated styles that are purposefully rudimentary have grown over the years. Let's take South Park, for example. Originally, the characters and sets were all, literally, shapes cut out of construction paper. That was, you would agree, key to their charm. But I don't think that today, approaching two decades since South Park started as a five-minute short that made the rounds on video tape years before there was such a thing as viral video, we would still tolerate the construction paper approach. Which is why slowly, gradually, imperceptibly, South Park has grown into a very sophisticated animated entity. Next time you watch the show, check out the backgrounds. Check out the character designs. Just check out the detail. Computers have made the show full-blooded and actually beautiful to look at -- without sacrificing the aesthetic that first made it seem so original.

The same can be said for such long-running shows as The Simpsons and Family Guy. If you compare the first seasons to the most recent ones, the style has stayed essentially the same, but the detail has gotten so much richer. I'd say we're better for it.

I know what you're going to say -- the details are much richer in anime than they were at the start, and the characters' faces do conform more to the words they're speaking and the emotions they're expressing than back in the 1960s. I can't argue with you there.

But I can argue the degree to which they've improved. I can argue that in the year 2012, you should not still be animating human beings who speak just by randomly opening and closing their mouths.

The funny thing about anime is that it splits people into two basic camps. One camp agrees with me. They undertake anime mostly out of a sense of duty, giving their attention to the occasional film that scares up enough critical attention to demand a viewing from any serious film fan or fan of animation. And sometimes, they even develop a limited affection for those films. (For me, one of those films is Paprika, which we actually own.)

Then there's the other camp. For that camp, anime can do no wrong. And you might even say that the more rudimentary the art appears, the more it conforms to what they expect. It's a specific form with a specific series of expectations, which sometimes include loud and piercing line readings and melodramatic emotions.

Maybe I should just not judge. Maybe I should just accept what camp I'm in and agree to disagree with the other camp.

But my incompatibility with anime is brought home to me anew each time my hopes are briefly raise for a film like The Secret World of Arrietty. And of course, you should read this post with all the standard disclaimers that this particular movie might be good, that it certainly seems to contain the possibility for wonder. I hate to be a bully toward anime when the story has such potential to be sweet and magical. I mean, I did take one look at that poster and start to imagine myself away into that world.

But then I took one look at the trailer and imagined myself right back out of it again.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Lady's choice: Valentine's Day Edition

For Valentine's Day, and for the second night in our bi-weekly Tuesday Lady's Choice Movie Night series, I had what may have been a first:

I started watching a movie without knowing what it was.

Okay, there was that time in that hotel when pressing a button repeatedly on a non-responsive remote control accidentally ordered us Balls With Fury. (Which we quite enjoyed.) But this was the first time someone had curated a movie-watching experience for me, without me knowing what it would be.

See, it was my wife's choice of movie again -- she chose two weeks ago, as you will recall from this post. Getting to choose again was to make up for the way I had dominated our viewing agenda in January, in my push to finish up my 2011 rankings. And she had a choice for Valentine's Day, but she wanted it to be a surprise. Which was quite possible, since the Netflix account is in her name, and she gets the emails notifying us which movies have been shipped. I did actually have a little Netflix business to transact on Monday -- I added The House of the Devil to our instant queue -- but I was sure to avoid the through-the-mail queue. And so moments before the movie started, I still didn't know what it was.

Really, I'd have liked her to carry through the idea one step further. When she saw that the title didn't appear on the DVD menu, she told me to open my eyes. I was familiar enough with the image in the poster above to immediately know what it was. Too bad, as I'd have loved the chance to see if I could guess which movie it was before the title actually appeared on screen. (Don't know if I would have -- I'd forgotten that Jane Campion directed this film until last night.)

Bright Star is beautifully shot and quite powerfully acted, I think. I've been a fan of Ben Whishaw since his admittedly minimalist performance in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and I sung the praises of Abbie Cornish back in this post. But the real surprise in terms of the actors was Paul Schneider, erstwhile of the first and second seasons of Parks and Recreation and the early movies of David Gordon Green. I had to look him up afterward to make sure he wasn't Scottish, because he did an incredible Scottish brogue. I also learned, to my surprise, that The National Society of Film Critics bestowed their 2009 best supporting actor award on Schneider for this performance. He had to share the award with Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds ... but damn, Waltz won everything that year, making the feat impressive indeed. (Of course, it also highlights the quirks of this critics' group -- Schneider didn't get an Oscar nomination.)

Despite its evident strengths, Bright Star was, however, too long and too slow. We'd had wine with our pasta dinner, and it was really dragging us down. We probably needed a 90-minute movie rather than a 120-minute one. But we also probably needed a movie that felt like it went somewhere a little faster than this one did, and brought us a bit closer to the characters than the proximity we achieved here.

But there was one moment that was absolute perfection, both in terms of the holiday and my personal cinematic interests. I've written before that I love what I call Wax Stamp Movies. These are movies that either actually feature letters that are sealed by wax (usually red wax), or have the kind of production design that would include such a wax-sealed letter. Set between 1818 and 1821, Bright Star is such a movie. In fact, there were a half dozen different instances of wax stamps appearing on screen.

One in particular stood out. Fanny Brawne, played by Cornish, receives a prank Valentine card from Mr. Brown (Schneider). It's given to her as a way of mocking her, as their mutual contempt is thinly veiled. But it has the effect of making the lovestruck John Keats (Whishaw) jealous. Anyway, this couldn't have been a more perfect moment for our Valentine's Day, making Bright Star an unexpectedly perfect choice for our second Lady's Choice Movie Night. So of course I had to take a picture of the paused image, which you'll see below.

Hope you had a great February 14th.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Four days late, many dollars short

I thought it was a strange enough decision to release This Means War on Valentine's Day, a Tuesday, even before this past weekend at the box office came and went.

It's not your typical romantic comedy by any stretch of the imagination. Clearly, there are romantic comedy elements they are trying to emphasize, otherwise the Valentine's Day release date makes even less sense. But if you're going to release the movie on the actual holiday, the only way to capitalize on the general buzz created by the holiday is to get couples who are planning to see it that very night, on opening night. You'd be better off just releasing it the Friday before, like The Vow.

How much better off? Just ask The Vow.

The Vow led a jaw-dropping weekend at the box office with a staggering $41.2 million in domestic ticket sales. I don't know what the actual projections were for its performance, but I can only assume this shattered them. I mean, that's a blockbuster-sized opening. It's especially noteworthy given the fact that romance movies have become increasingly marginalized in terms of their mainstream box office potential.

But it wasn't just The Vow that performed mightily this past weekend.

I had checked the box office tallies on IMDB (something I do some Mondays, but not every Monday) to assess how The Phantom Menace performed in its opening weekend. As you remember from last week, I discussed that the Star Wars team has threatened to withhold the other 3D re-releases unless Episode I had a strong box office performance. When I saw it came in fourth, I figured that fans had indeed turned their noses up at it. But when I looked at the box office total next to it, I realized that wasn't really the case. Even in fourth place, Episode I hauled in $22.5 million. Not bad, really. Perhaps enough to give us Episode II.

So that means there were two other movies that made over $22.5 million this past weekend. Those being Safe House ($40.2 million) and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island ($27.3 million), which both probably qualify as very healthy returns on their projections. In fact, even the fifth and sixth place films cracked $10 million (Chronicle with $12.1 million, The Woman in Black with $10.1 million).

In essence -- maybe now that the football season is over -- audiences were just throwing their money at whatever was available on screen. You telling me This Means War wouldn't want in on that? One wonders if even its six-day total, tallied sometime this Sunday afternoon, will rival those totals.

Of course, one of the things I like to write about on this blog are release dates that seem over-crowded, especially when there are two movies that could speak to the same audience. Even without This Means War, February 10th was one of those release dates I almost wrote about. For about six weeks leading up to it, every billboard in town carried a release date of February 10th. Perhaps This Means War was the last to try to come out that day, and shifted forward to the 14th to avoid the bloodbath.

But a bloodbath implies that although there may be some winners, there will definitely be losers. In a very strange phenomenon, none of last week's new releases lost out. Even finishing fourth out of the new movies, The Phantom Menace can't be too disappointed because it's a movie most of its audience had probably already seen. Re-releases are known commodities that are already available on video, which makes them a tougher sell to begin with. Methinks this is probably one of the most successful openings ever for a re-release, which makes its fourth place finish quite easy to stomach.

But back to This Means War for a second. Is it possible that even the stars of this movie knew there might be something wrong with it? I'm thinking of one star in particular. Let's see which one it might be ...

Could it be ... this guy?

Nope, he's on board. He's got that sly smile. He's happy enough to be here.

Could it be ... her?

Nope. She took the same direction as the other guy. Sly smile, you're happy to be here.

What about ... this guy?

Yep. That's the one.

Is it just me, or does Tom Hardy look like a deer in the headlights here? Is Tom Hardy contemplating firing his agent? Is Tom Hardy pleading with us, asking us "What the hell am I doing here?"

Since making his first real mainstream appearance in Inception, Hardy has gotten very good notices in two films, both of which came out last year: Warrior, for which there was even some awards talk, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Those titles don't solidify him as some kind of indie darling, but they do seem like intelligent choices made by a selective person. (He's also in The Dark Knight Rises this summer.)

This Means War doesn't seem like the kind of movie he'd have chosen, if he had his druthers.

If you think you know that about him, it makes this poster even funnier. It really highlights the contrast between the expressions Chris Pine and Reese Witherspoon are making, and the blank stare offered by Hardy. Of course it's possible the photographer didn't want all three of them to be making the same expression. But it's more fun to think that Hardy was so unenthusiastic about this movie that he couldn't even play ball for the poster.

So if you're spending your Valentine's Day at the movies tonight, at least Pine and Witherspoon hope you'll consider This Means War.

Hardy's hoping you'll go to The Vow, so his agent won't try to get him more roles where he plays a lovestruck spy in a McG movie.