Saturday, March 31, 2012

A disproportionate amount of wrath

"Wrath" is not a word that comes up all that much in everyday conversation.

In movie titles? That's a different story.

The word "wrath" has a long history of appearing in movie titles, the most recent of which is Wrath of the Titans, which hits theaters today. At least, it appears in titles a lot more than its synonyms listed on, some of which, granted, are too ungainly for the multiplex:

acrimony, asperity, boiling point, conniption, dander, displeasure, exasperation, flare-up, fury, hate, hatefulness, huff, indignation, ire, irritation, mad, madness, offense, passion, rage, resentment, rise, stew, storm, temper, vengeance.

This may not be the greatest list of synonyms -- in fact, "mad" is not even the same part of speech -- but it does help us identify a couple of the things that are so great about the word "wrath":

1) It's only a single syllable;
2) It's really fun to say.

Just say it out loud: "Wrath. Wrath." It's kind of cathartic just to say it, isn't it?

Filmmakers implicitly think so. Here's a list of other titles with the word "wrath" in them, by approximate order of my familiarity/affection for them:

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicholas Meyer)
Certainly my first introduction to the word "wrath," and boy did Ricardo Montalban sure personify it well. In fact, I remember when I first saw the title, I didn't know if "wrath" was a made-up word, just like "Khan." (A made-up word, a name, same difference.)

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog)
If you lead a band of conquistadors through Peru in search of El Dorado, without an ounce of deference toward nature, your army or the locals, it will make God very, very angry at you. And you will be left dying on a raft overrun by monkeys.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)
Adapted from a John Steinbeck novel, so we can't really credit the word to studio execs. Probably the most famous instance of the word "wrath" to those people who don't describe themselves as Trekkies.

Day of Wrath (1943, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Don't know anything about this film, but I expect to soon, as my Getting Acquainted series will focus on Dreyer in April. A movie about witchcraft in 17th century Denmark. Sounds interesting.

Day of Wrath (2005, Adrian Rudomin)
Does not appear to be a remake of Dreyer's movie, though it's almost the same time period, taking place in the 16th century rather than the 17th. Set in Spain instead of Denmark. Stars Christopher Lambert. That last is probably all you need to know.

Wrath (1917, Theodore Marsten)
Is Theodore Marsten related to Carl Theodor Dreyer? Wait, that doesn't even make any sense.

The Wrath (2007, Julian Higgins)
It's a horror movie. That's all I can tell from

And here are some others in list form:

The Wrath of the Gods (1914, Reginald Barker)
Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God (2006, Gerry Lively)
Days of Wrath (2008, Celia Fox)
Wrath of the Ninja: The Yotoden Movie (1989, Osamu Yamazaki)
Evil Bong 3: The Wrath of Bong! (Charles Band, 2011)
Wrath of Jealousy (1936, Alex Bryce and Campbell Gullan)
Apes of Wrath (1959, Friz Freleng)

And it goes on like this.

One thing this tells us is that there have been a lot of movies made, and that there are probably many words that have appeared in a higher number of titles than seems statistically likely.

But perhaps I notice the word "wrath" not so much because it appears more frequently than other colorful synonyms for more common words, but because it is such a good, such a fun word. And probably because I really, really love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Will that bring me out to the theaters this weekend to see Wrath of the Titans? Doubtful. I haven't even seen the original Clash of the Titans remake.

At least this one was shot in 3D. Because 2010's Clash of the Titans remake could have been titled Wrath of the Critics, given how much hatred was directed toward its hasty and ineffecutal 3D conversion.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Starring Julia Roberts and Audrey Hepburn

The first time I saw this poster I thought:

"Who invented the time machine that brought back Audrey Hepburn from the early sixties to star in the new Snow White movie?"

I guess I'd have to be slightly more specific and tell you which new Snow White movie: Mirror Mirror, which opens tomorrow. (Ignore the date on the poster -- it does in fact open tomorrow. Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart, opens June 1st.)

This bright yet minimalist poster makes Mirror Mirror look significantly less somber and gothic than its counterpart. But that's okay. See, Audrey Hepburn had quite the knack for comedy.

Seriously, how is actress Lily Collins (Phil's daughter) doing such a dead-on Hepburn impersonation? If you find out, let me know. With her pixie hairdo and her pursed, full lips, it's pretty much like Holly Golightly walked off the set of Breakfast at Tiffany's and donned a tiara.

The funny thing is that this poster actually reminded my wife of a different Audrey -- Audrey Tautou, of Amelie fame. I can see that, I just see Hepburn more. But now I wonder if anyone ever consciously noticed the similarity between the Audreys, Hepburn and Tautou -- I'll have to look that one up.

But it's not as though Collins is particularly reminiscent of Hepburn in her daily life. Here's how you'll more typically find her:

The hair length really makes the difference. A beautiful girl, to be sure, but not one who instantly makes me think of Hepburn. In fact, I'm getting a bit of a Jordana Brewster vibe off her. No?

If she has an ounce of Hepburn's charm, this could really be a watchable movie.

Two other quick things I want to mention about Mirror Mirror:

1) Is there an accidental subliminal meaning behind this poster? Roberts, once a darling young ingenue like Collins herself, casts the young actress an envious sidelong glance. Perhaps that's because at 44, Roberts is now nearly twice the age of her 23-year-old co-star. She's officially morphed from Snow White into the Evil Queen. (I don't think the same dynamics necessarily exist between Theron and Stewart -- Theron is still only 36, and the erstwhile Bella seems a lot older than 21 since she's been around forever.)

2) This film is directed by Tarsem Singh, who directed The Cell, which I adore. Learning this suddenly made me very giddy about Mirror Mirror. Reminding myself that I did not go to see the Singh-directed Immortals, and heard very bad things about it, suddenly made me not so giddy anymore.

That's all for now.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lady's choice: Play ball!

This morning at approximately 3 a.m. Los Angeles time, the Oakland A's and the Seattle Mariners played the first regular-season game of the 2012 baseball season.

No, it wasn't some kind of weird publicity stunt. Well, it was a publicity stunt of sorts, but not the kind you're thinking of. See, it wasn't 3 a.m. in Japan, where the first two games of the season will be played, as they have been a handful of times over the past decade.

The night before this first game, to celebrate the ceremonial arrival of spring that this first game traditionally represents, my wife and I watched Major League.

That probably wouldn't have been her choice -- but that's why our bi-weekly Tuesday night movie series is all about alternating who gets to choose. It's called Lady's Choice Movie Night, but as I've described in the past (and will probably have to again), I serve as the "lady" in this scenario once a month. It's really not worth going into. All you have to know is that it doesn't involve me dressing up in her clothing or anything.

But I wasn't just forcing my wife to watch something that would probably hold little appeal for her, because the ground rules of this movie series allow me to. She's not a sports fan, but she's a big fan of sports movies -- a much bigger fan than I am, in fact, so in that sense I was actually kind of throwing her a bone. (For a fuller discussion of my feelings about sports movies, see here.) "It's all about the human drama," she said last night, explaining the genre's appeal to her.

Well, there's plenty of human drama in Major League -- not to mention plenty of laughs, plenty of swears and plenty of actors who are still nearly as familiar today as they were back in 1989.

But let's start with those swears. On this viewing in particular I appreciated how damn much the characters in this movie swear. They elevate profanity to an art form. That's undoubtedly accurate when you're looking inside the locker rooms of professional athletes, but that doesn't mean Major League would be made like this if it were made today. Made today, Major League would be PG-13 and might have a smattering of naughty words. But it probably would not have a single f-bomb. And in fact, as I was discussing on Facebook earlier today, nearly every classic line in the movie contains an f-bomb -- with the notable exception of Bob Uecker's famous quip "Juuuust a bit outside." Forthwith:

"Who's THIS fucking guy?"

"Nice catch. Don't ever fucking do it again."

"If you ever tank another play like you did today, I'm going to rip your nuts off and shove 'em down your fucking throat."

"I say 'fuck you' Jobu. I do it myself."

"Strike this motherfucker out."

You get the idea.

Yet what's so wonderful about this movie is that it's not the least bit mean-spirited. That's just how we've changed as a movie audience in the past 23 years. Major League probably has at least 50 f-bombs in it -- isn't it funny how I'm still saying "f-bombs" even though I just wrote out the word "fuck" five times -- yet it's incredibly light-hearted and fun. It seems hard for us to imagine that kind of balance today. Movies that relied on such profanity would seem to be showing off, or trying to emulate Quentin Tarantino. Unlike Major League, which is just plain realistic.

Okay, not entirely realistic. I could certainly quibble with parts of the movie. Like, how would Pedro Cerrano ever keep a starting job all year if word spread around the league that he couldn't hit a curveball to save his life? Or, in order to pull off his big move at the end of the movie -- spoiler alert -- Jake Taylor would have to show bunt on the brush-back pitch from The Duke that knocks him to the ground. Yet he doesn't.

These things don't matter, and you wanna know why? Because Major League also has one of the tightest scripts around. It's incredibly detail-oriented, yet the details are always there to show us more about the characters and the "inside baseball" (an appropriate use for that term) we're seeing on screen. They are never belabored, and there are numerous short scenes that tell us plenty without even any dialogue. My wife even said that watching Major League gave her ideas about how to make her own script, on which she's stalled around page 40, even tighter. It's a point A to point B to point C type of screenwriting that blows you away with both its efficiency and its unexpected depth.

Let's take Rene Russo's character, Lynn, for example. Stop and think about how many times she appears in this movie. She's in like five scenes. Five! Yet you know a ton about Lynn and her relationship with Jake, because each scene accomplishes exactly what it needs to accomplish. There's no way you get to the end of that movie and realize she may have only had ten minutes of screen time. She feels like a full-on co-star, a fully developed romantic lead. Credit that to David S. Ward, a name I don't really know, who is nonetheless both the writer and director of this wonderful movie.

I also enjoyed realizing how many stars were in this movie, and how they were truly the right stars, perfectly complementing each other in the truest sense of the word "team." You've got the ever-reliable Tom Berenger as the aging catcher with bad knees. You've got fleet-footed Wesley Snipes as the hot shot outfielder who invites himself to spring training. You've got Corbin Bernsen as the primadonna with the big paycheck who will no longer sacrifice his body. You've got Dennis Haysbert, much more famous now than he was then, as the voodoo-practicing slugger who defected from Cuba. And you've got one of the most notorious personalities of the past year, Charlie Sheen, as an ex-con with a bad attitude and a haircut that looks like he lost a fight with a weedwacker. This is to say nothing of the delightful Russo, the hilarious Uecker and James Gammon, the salty old manager, who will be sorely missed after dying in July of 2010. (Odd -- he was 70 when he died, making him only about 49 in Major League. He plays at least ten years older than that.)

Oh, and I said something about laughs. Yeah, we were laughing consistently. Both of us. And this was at least my fifth time seeing the movie.

More than anything, though, I was interested to see Major League again because the former host of the Filmspotting podcast, Matty Robinson, unabashedly touts this movie as his favorite of all time. Think about that for a second. He is (or was) the co-host of a highfalutin podcast where, for example, they spent a half-hour dissecting, analyzing and gushing about The Tree of Life. Yet this modest little baseball comedy from 1989 is his favorite movie of all time.

Last night's viewing reminded me that Mr. Robinson might not be so crazy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Finishing what I started

It's very rare for me to start a movie and not finish it.

A book, yes. I seem to be doing that all the time. Although I have a personal philosophy of finishing even the books I find to be quite a chore, it seems I don't actually live up to that personal philosophy as often as I'd like.

But movies? They are a much shorter commitment. There's not really a good excuse for leaving one unfinished. (Actually, there are a couple, which I'll get to later.)

This weekend, though, was a weekend that reminded me of the idea of not finishing movies -- because I didn't finish two of them this weekend alone, and heard discussion of a third I hadn't finished.

Let's get to the third first. It's Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie. It's a movie I'd wanted to see for quite some time, and it finally made its way into my DVD player sometime last year. Then made it out of the DVD player before I got a chance to finish it, because I started it too late on a Sunday night, and it was due back at the library the next day. Apparently, I wasn't enjoying it enough to pay the $1 late fee it would cost to keep it another day. Then again, the late fee really would have been more like $3, because I had two other movies that needed to be returned as well, and it seemed silly to make a trip to the library to return two of them, but not the third.

The Man Who Fell to Earth was discussed at length in a podcast I listened to this weekend. That's strange, considering that the movie came out in 1976. But this podcast, calling Filmspotting SVU (Streaming Video Unit), focuses on movies available on streaming, which takes new releases out of the equation in most cases. Each episode, the co-hosts submit one long-form review of a film that their listeners have selected out of three choices. When they listed the choices on the previous podcast, I was hoping and praying the audience would select Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, in part because I'd already seen it and would therefore get a lot more out of a discussion of it. (And would love to hear the hosts poke fun at that ambitious mess of a movie, which is intermittently successful.) Not only would The Man Who Fell to Earth be a movie I hadn't seen, thereby opening me up to having parts of the plot spoiled, but a review of it would remind me of my failure to finish watching it. Of course, that's what happened.

I listened to that podcast on Sunday morning, but only the night before, I started two different movies and finished watching neither of them. At least both were movies I had already seen. My wife had gone out to dinner with a friend, and I like to use occasions like this as a golden opportunity to watch whatever movie I might like. I started the Watchowski brothers' Bound, a movie I absolutely adore, and had finally broken down and bought within the past six months. But I paused at about the 35-minute mark, and never resumed. I decided there was a good chance I wouldn't finish it before my wife got home, and I suddenly got paranoid that she would think I had saved a crime thriller with some hot lesbian action for a time when she was out of the house. My more above-board reason for not resuming is that I actually thought it would be fun to watch this with her, since she's big on crime thrillers. (I think she's seen it, but it would have been years ago.) If I watched it through to the end now, I wouldn't want to watch it again for at least a year or two. And besides, as discussed, I probably wouldn't be able to watch it through to the end anyway.

At this point there was very little chance I'd finish a new movie, but I popped in Napoleon Dynamite anyway. I'd been in a bit of a funk all day (I won't get into why, but nothing having to do with my family), so I decided I should watch something light that might raise my spirits. (And something where there would be no suspicion of watching it for prurient reasons, when my wife inevitably returned home before I finished it.) My sister bought me Napoleon Dynamite for a birthday or Christmas, at least five years ago. I'd never taken the DVD out of its package, which is no commentary on the movie itself -- I'd already seen it twice, so obviously I like the movie a lot. A third opportunity to watch it just hasn't arisen. But I'd been up since 5:30 (when my son could no longer sleep anymore) and I got myself too comfortable on the couch, so I fell asleep about 20 minutes in, having the presence of mind to pause first. I awoke only when my wife came home, around 10:20 -- which actually would have given me enough time to finish either movie, if I'd stuck to the first or hadn't fallen asleep during the second.

In addition to those three movies, here are a couple others I started but never finished, and the reasons:

Sophie's Choice (1982, Alan J. Pakula)
Sophie's Choice fell victim to the same scenario as The Man Who Fell to Earth. I started it too close to the time it was due back at the library, but falling asleep was not the issue here -- I had to abandon it because I knew I'd be running up against some other social conflict in the evening, and some quick math told me I would not be able to get in its full 157 minutes. So I watched about 45 minutes of it, and made the Sophie's Choice of not finishing Sophie's Choice in favor of my social obligation.

Withnail and I (1987, Bruce Robinson)
With this one, there's no good excuse. Well, except that I wasn't really enjoying the movie. We were watching it on Netflix streaming at my wife's urging, but the movie's weird and unconventional rhythms just weren't working for me at that time of night, with the level of stamina I was bringing to the table that evening. You'd think we would have just finished it the next day, but it's been a good six months and it has not been resumed.

When I started this post, I imagined that I was guilty of this sin with more than three movies I've never seen before -- and I guess there could be a couple more titles out there I'm just not thinking of right now. And there are definitely some titles where I watched less than ten minutes before aborting, which I don't really count -- Akira Kurosawa's Dreams and Before the Devil Knows Your Dead are two that come to mind. But with those, I never stood a chance -- I put them on late at night and was literally asleep three minutes later. They don't count.

But with The Man Who Fell to Earth, Sophie's Choice and Withnail and I, I think I have a real duty to go back and finish those. They are like open, festering wounds. If they weren't, I doubt I would have devoted a whole post to them.

Now that I have, perhaps this will provide me the motivation to go back and finally finish what I started.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The world's oldest "dee-vee-dee"

Watching DVDs of older movies can be a fun trip down memory lane. You see trailers for movies that have already been out for a decade, and the style of the title menu and other promotions and design details can be gloriously dated.

But rarely do you actually get to watch a DVD in which DVDs themselves are being promoted as the wave of the future.

Such was the case with my boss' copy of Taxi Driver, which you may remember I watched when I went for my night in the hotel earlier this month. (It's only coming up now because I pulled the DVD out of my bag to return it to my boss last week.)

I can't say for sure when this DVD rolled off the assembly line, but it seems to have been long before I got my first DVD player in 2003. In fact, the back cover of this particular incarnation of Taxi Driver says "1997 Layout and Design Columbia TriStar Home Video." But I'm assuming that was for a VHS release of the movie. I mean, people didn't actually have DVD in 1997 ... did they?

In any case, its status as one of the earliest DVDs is cemented by the sticker on the front cover, as seen above. See what it says? "Also Available on VHS." Like, if you're a regular joe who's scared off by this new-fangled DV-whatzit technology, this same title is still available on good ol' VHS. A sticker on the back reveals that this DVD seems to have been purchased at a video store called Video Out-Takes Inc. -- which almost certainly isn't in business anymore.

But even funnier is what happens when you pop in the disc.

You're greeted immediately by a promotion that starts out with a shot of a bunch of planets and other celestial bodies, visible out in deep space. Emerging in the center of these various orbs is a spinning disc, starting out small but rapidly growing as it makes its way to the foreground.

An announcer then chimes in:

"Reach for the stars and discover a whole new world of home entertainment."


Yep, he enunciates it like you'd enunciate a word (or acronym) the listener had never heard before.

What follows is a series of short clips from Columbia Tri-Star movies, set to a dramatic orchestral score. The titles include the major (Ghostbusters, Stand By Me, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dr. Strangelove) and the minor (The Net, Mathilda, The Craft, First Knight). You know, it's one of those promotions designed to simultaneously sell two things: a new technology, and a series of specific properties in the Columbia TriStar catalogue. As if the images of these movies alone are supposed to somehow communicate the possibilities of this new "dee-vee-dee" medium.

After about a minute of this melodrama, the promotion closes with:

"Dee-Vee-Dee. See the future."

It's not so much funny to me that this DVD ever existed -- everything is new at some point, and needs to be promoted. I guess what's funny to me is that this is the copy of Taxi Driver my boss still has, and it actually still plays fine. Though that really shouldn't be a surprise, either. My boss is a movie fan, and he probably was doing well enough financially to be an early adopter of a new format like DVD. If he bought Taxi Driver back when DVD was in its infancy -- perhaps it was even before the year 2000 -- there's not really any reason he should replace it with a newer pressing. He's not that kind of movie lover, the kind who needs the Criterion edition of Taxi Driver before his collection is complete.

What does interest me is that I think you might only be able to get these old-fashioned, original series DVDs precisely in this way -- borrowing them from a friend. (He's my boss, but I've known him for ten years, so yeah, I also consider him a friend.) If I rented Taxi Driver from Netflix, they'd certainly send me something that had been pressed within the last couple years. That's perhaps a testament to how often our classic movies are repackaged and sold to us again, if only so that they don't seem so archaic, so they don't have such simple, analog menu screens.

Also, maybe I'm just a little bit nostalgic for a time when the DVD -- a media format that could now be on its way out -- was something shiny and new.

Those were the good old days, right?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Guess I never ended up reading Hunger Games

I'm pretty disappointed in myself this morning.

Months ago, I vowed to read The Hunger Games before the movie hit theaters. Today, it's hitting theaters. And I haven't read it.

Yet more proof that I have become a hopeless reader. And maybe that's what disappoints me more than anything.

I have always been a slow reader, but at least in the past, I used to make my way through a couple books a year. At a minimum. But lately, I don't seem to make my way through anything.

It would be tempting to say that I don't find the time, because for the past 19 months I've been a father, and that kind of thing leaves you less time overall. But there has been no discernible drop in the number of movies I've seen -- those, I fit in. It's the reading that has really suffered.

Which, I try to tell myself, is okay. Fact is, movies are my "reading" -- they're the texts I'm consuming, because they're my passion. So while my friends may read more books than I do, I certainly see more movies than they do. Your value judgments on which practice is more objectively useful are yours -- but since this is a film blog and you're reading it, I'm guessing you're at least sympathetic to my position.

And I do this not only because of a personal love, but for professional reasons. If I wanted to be a book critic -- which I think would be a terrible job for me, because I read so slowly -- I'd probably read more books. But I'm a film critic, so films are my books.

But back to The Hunger Games. While I don't generally think it's necessary or even desirable to have read a particular book before you see the movie, I do think there can be a certain thrill to seeing something you read come to life on the big screen. From time to time, I think it's useful to create this situation for myself.

And The Hunger Games seemed like a good choice. I know it's sort of aimed at teens, but not to the same extent as Twilight, and a number of friends whose tastes I respect have spoken highly of it. Not to mention that it seemed like just the kind of quick, accessible reading to renew my interest in the joys of getting lost in a good book.

If not for a little twist of fate, I might have actually read it. A friend of mine was planning to loan me the book, but I didn't pick it up from him soon enough and he ended up loaning it to somebody else. With the pressure of having to read it and return it to the person who loaned it to me (even though he certainly wasn't planning to read it again himself), I certainly would have prioritized it. But without that pressure, it was left to me to either borrow it from someone else or buy it. With the ball in my court, I dropped it.

Yeah, there were a couple times I flirted with buying it. I had (still have) an Amazon gift card that would have been perfect for it. I also picked it up off the shelf a couple times in book stores, weighing the possibility of a purchase. But in each case, something stopped me -- like the fact that I'm still reading a book of Raymond Carver short stories my wife got me for my birthday in October, and have made almost no progress on it in the last three months. She actually bought me that book with the hope that the shorter stories would encourage faster reading, since she knows I aspire to read more. (When in fact, the opposite could be true -- you power quickly through a book because you become invested in its characters.) If I bought The Hunger Games before I finished the Carver stories, it would signal a certain defeat to both my wife and to me.

I guess I could still read the book before I see the movie. I am not by any means committed to seeing this movie in the theater, even though its 68 Metascore indicates that director Gary Ross seems to have brought it to the big screen successfully.

But now I'm also wondering if it wouldn't just be better to see the movie without reading the book. Sometimes, already knowing what will happen in a movie is a drawback to enjoying it as much as you might otherwise.

Let's take the example of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, arguably the most popular book in recent years other than The Hunger Games. (More popular, I'm sure.) I didn't read Stieg Larsson's novel, but I did see its Swedish film adaptation prior to seeing David Fincher's in December. I'd say that knowing how the novel ends, from seeing the first adaptation, did in fact affect my enjoyment of Fincher's movie. Then again, this may be a bad example, because in the end I just don't find the mystery itself in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo all that satisfying. It's also not a great example for this particular post because I didn't read the book. Reasons already discussed.

We can also look at the flip side -- enjoying a movie more because I hadn't read the book. I think one of the reasons I responded so positively to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II was because I watched it in suspense, not knowing what would happen -- whether one of our heroes would not survive the final chapter of this tale. If I'd read the Harry Potter series, I would have been watching the movie primarily to see how successfully they translated it to the screen, not getting caught up in a story whose twists and turns were, blissfully, still a mystery to me.

The nice thing about The Hunger Games, as it is now, is that I don't know what happens. Yeah, I know that the characters played by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson are pretty likely to survive the first movie. But I don't know what happens with a lot of the other characters -- in fact, I don't yet even know those characters. Since this is a story about life and death, there are definitely going to be a number of people who die. Maybe I'm better off not knowing. Maybe I'll enjoy the movie even more.

Fortunately, I don't have to make up my mind too quickly. This movie will be in theaters at least until May, and I wouldn't be going in the first couple weekends regardless. And I don't have to worry about anyone spoiling the movie for me, I wouldn't think -- the benefit of it already existing as a book is that if people intended to spoil it for me, they probably would have done it already.

If you plan to see The Hunger Games weekend, good luck fighting the lines, and I hope it's at least better than the Twilight movies.

Friday, March 23, 2012

2 excited 2 sleep

Today is the day of my fantasy baseball draft. A day I have described in the past as like your birthday and Christmas combined. My favorite day of the year. (If you're reading this, honey, second only to our anniversary.)

That's right, this afternoon at precisely 4 p.m. PST, I will be drafting a team of 20 major league baseball players who will guide my fantasy baseball fortunes for the next six months.

Naturally, I was too excited to sleep.

So I woke up at 3:33 a.m. and watched 2 Fast 2 Furious.

Most of it, anyway. I still have about 15 minutes left, which is why you won't see it in my Most Recently Seen For the First Time section to your right, if you're reading early in the day.

See, I came to work early today, in order to get out a full 90 minutes before my draft begins. Gotta make sure my internet connection at the coffee shop is good, and I have all the time I need to prepare. So by about 5:20 a.m. I had to shut it off and get in the shower.

Not sleeping is not unusual for the night before the draft. I remember back in the year 2000, I got in only a single hour of sleep. Guess it didn't affect my performance too much, as I ended up winning my first of two fantasy baseball championships that season (the second was in 2010, so I'm looking really good for my third in 2020). Though I should say, that was more accurately called an auction than a draft. Instead of just selecting players in rounds, back then I bid on them using a $260 budget of Monopoly money. Since 2005, though, I've been drafting.

And that's kind of appropriate, because isn't drafting something you do in drag racing? They didn't use the word in 2 Fast 2 Furious, though I know it's a word used in other types of auto racing. Then again, I do still have 15 minutes to go.

Watching 2 Fast 2 Furious today is appropriate, in a way. I wasn't necessarily thinking this when I rented it from Netflix -- more on that in a minute -- but it's a good way to psych me up (as if I need it) for a fantasy baseball draft, because I actually named my fantasy team after this movie back in 2003, the year it came out. Each year my team name has something to do with my actual name, which starts with the letter D. I loved the outlandish title 2 Fast 2 Furious so much, I named my team D Fast D Furious. Good thing I wasn't playing "for slips" that year, or else I'd be out one automobile.

The reason I actually ended up renting it, though, was that a) I needed something I could watch at the gym, which obviously didn't end up happening, and b) I have decided I need to watch the Fast and the Furious movies in order before I can watch last year's hit Fast Five. Why? I don't know. I'm anal retentive, yes, but I've watched plenty of series out of order in the past. For some reason, this time around, I felt I needed to watch 2 Fast 2 Furious, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and Fast & Furious before I can sink my teeth into the guilty pleasure known as Fast Five.

The whole nod to my fantasy baseball past was just a bonus.

I was actually planning to return it unwatched, though. I need to line up my next movie to arrive by Tuesday, when it's my turn again in Lady's Choice Movie Night. With all the preparation for fantasy baseball -- and with my sister in town for five days, ending yesterday -- I hadn't had time to think about trivial things like the second Fast and the Furious movie. Since I hate returning movies unwatched, thank goodness for pre-draft jitters.

And I have to say, as much as no one seems to like this movie, I've really enjoyed what I've seen so far. I mean, for what it is. It's kinetic and busy and full of activity.

Just like my mind, exactly 9 hours, 13 minutes and 34 seconds before my favorite activity of the year is upon me.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Those Duplass brothers make movies with heart

Jeff, Who Lives at Home opens with Jason Segel talking into a tape recorder.

At first, you think it's supposed to mean that Segel's character, Jeff, is an idiot. He's talking about the M. Night Shyamalan movie Signs. Particularly about the perfect synergy of coincidences in its final scene -- you know, the scene where Joaquin Phoenix uses a baseball bat to smash a bunch of unfinished glasses of water, thereby killing a bunch of aliens. Sorry if I just ruined Signs for you.

The most obvious and snarkiest way to play this scene is to use Jeff's love for the movie Signs -- which he admits to watching at least a half-dozen times -- as proof that he is someone to pity or laugh at. (Never mind that I'm with Jeff, not to the extent that he is, and notwithstanding that last scene in particular.)

But if you think Jay and Mark Duplass would go that way, you don't know Jay and Mark Duplass.

They love their character Jeff, and they love that he loves Signs. In fact, I'm not even sure they disagree with him. Maybe they love Signs too.

In both of their last two films, the previous being Cyrus, the Duplass brothers have managed a pretty nifty balancing act. They are adhering to the modern-day Apatow-infused comedy sensibilities enough to provide good material for the trailers, but secretly taking the movie itself in their own direction, one with an unexpected amount of heart. (This is not to imply that Apatow's movies don't have heart, but they don't have the raw, genuine, unfiltered heart that Duplass movies do.)

The Signs bit is a good example. If any part of that bit appeared in the trailer, though I believe it does not, it would be used to demonstrate that Jeff is a geek or a loser -- not very cool, someone who loves a director as played out as M. Night Shyamalan. In fact, you could take that one step further and say that the entire title Jeff, Who Lives at Home is intended to give you this impression, that Jeff is a man child who has never matured, who loves getting stoned and watching movies appreciated by geeks in his mother's basement.

Some of this is true. But the reasons he's never matured are not part of the realm of comedy. And Jeff's home? He's barely there at all.

I love this about the Duplass brothers, that they are kind of baiting and switching us for our own benefit. Cyrus did not play like many people thought it would play, as kind of a Step Brothers lite. (Though I might not have minded that, because I love Step Brothers.) Many people surely thought that John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill would spend the running time of Cyrus playing cruel pranks on each other in their desperate attempts to win Marisa Tomei's love. That stuff is in play, but not nearly to the extent you'd think it would be. And the supposed big set piece, in which Reilly and Hill come out the door of a wedding reception fighting, is a deadly serious, tragic moment -- as it would be in real life.

Mixing tragedy in with their comedy is what earns the Duplass brothers their heart. And without these difficult moments of real pain, the heart that fills the stretch run of Cyrus wouldn't be so satisfying. But don't be confused -- when I say "heart," I don't mean "shmaltz." I mean a genuine affection for the characters and a genuine, honest approach to a truly satisfying catharsis.

I won't say if Jeff, Who Lives at Home ends that way, because it just came out and you should see it. However, you can guess from my tone that I'm very satisfied with how it ends -- and with the movie in general.

And if something about the structure of this movie ends up resembling a little M. Night Shyamalan movie about aliens allergic to water, it's all the more proof of the Duplass brothers' refreshing disdain for cynicism.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bridesmaids 2, or The NBC Comedy Mafia

While I was watching Friends With Kids on Saturday, I couldn't help thinking:

Writer-director-star Jennifer Westfeldt might have just run onto the set of Bridesmaids and said "Okay, you, you, you and you. Come with me. We're making another movie together."

Maybe the reason Kristen Wiig doesn't want to make another Bridesmaids is that she's sick of the principle cast?

Then again, hardly -- we're living in an era where ensembles of actors, especially comedic actors, simply love working together. Making it not that much different, I guess, from other eras.

Bridesmaids veterans Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd and Jon Hamm all appear in Westfeldt's directorial debut. Hamm's appearance makes a certain sense, as he's been in a relationship with Westfeldt for the past 15 years.

The rest? Well, because they're part of the NBC Comedy Mafia.

I don't know why I want to use "mafia" here, except that a group of people who regularly associate with one another is sometimes referred to as a mafia, even if their intentions are not malicious. If we wanted to, for example, we could call Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd part of the Judd Apatow Mafia.

So let's take a closer look at the cast of Friends With Kids and suss out the connections.

Hamm is a regular Saturday Night Live host and maker of cameo guest appearances, and has appeared on 30 Rock. Rudolph was an SNL cast member and currently appears on NBC's Up All Night. Wiig is a current SNL member and one of Rudolph's best friends. (And I think has guested on at least one of the NBC Thursday night shows.) And Adam Scott, who is the male lead in this movie alongside Westfeldt, is currently on NBC's Parks and Recreation.

The system breaks down after that, since none of O'Dowd, Westfeldt, Ed Burns or Megan Fox have appeared on any NBC programs, to my knowledge. (On further inspection, Burns actually appeared in three episodes of Will & Grace and produced a short-lived NBC show called The Fighting Fitzgeralds.)

But I have to say this is a pretty appealing group of people to watch together in a movie. One of the great strengths of Friends With Benefits is its ensemble cast -- even if Rudolph and Wiig don't really have enough to do. Since these two were the stars of Bridesmaids, it's kind of funny to see them play such second fiddles here -- both Westfeldt, a funny and charming actress who does not work regularly (though I loved her in Kissing Jessica Stein), and Fox, a bombshell who is generally unlikable, get more screen time. It's also funny to see who they're matched up with, as Wiig is with Hamm, who played her obnoxious boy toy in Bridesmaids, and Rudolph is with O'Dowd, who played Wiig's nice-guy love interest, the Irish cop. I almost expected Wiig to have a cat fight with Rudolph in this movie -- "Keep your hands off my man!" (And I'm just realizing, I don't think Rudolph's and O'Dowd's characters even meet in Bridesmaids.)

Okay, this post is turning into total stream-of-consciousness.

I'll conclude with something concrete: See Friends With Kids for its great ensemble, who I will be excited to see work together again. (It's also got some smart observations about life and relationships, even if it does kind of whimper out in the third act.)

And given their fast friendships and many connections, it seems likely that they will work together again.

But probably not in Bridesmaids 2, if Wiig gets her way.

Maybe they should have their own NBC sitcom instead?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

21 Jump Street opens today

Here it is, the ultimate placeholder blog post.

I'll let you imagine some kind of rant about whether it's good for us, either creatively or commercially, that a TV show from the late 80s/early 90s is being made as a feature-length action comedy/buddy movie in the year 2012.

Instead, I've got to turn my attention to March Madness, preparing for my fantasy baseball draft (next Thursday), and getting ready for my sister's arrival in town (this afternoon).

Cheers. Happy St. Patrick's Day. All that good stuff.

Be back with something useful to say real soon.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lady's choice: Choix de la dame

It was my wife's turn to pick the movie again last night, as part of our bi-weekly Lady's Choice Movie Night series. (I'll probably have to keep explaining this every post, but "lady's choice" is not gender specific. It's an inside joke I explained in detail here.)

Although it's fun if the movie can be a surprise to the off-week person right up until we watch it, sometimes that's just not possible. Like, for most of my weeks, I'll probably be scheduling a DVD to arrive from Netflix. Since she gets those emails from Netflix, she'll know what's coming. She, on the other hand, will choose from our instant queue most weeks, meaning I can be totally fooled. After she floated the idea of watching Gomorrah a couple nights ago, I was expecting that might be the choice. But she decided that the 2 hour and 17 minute running time might kill us last night, so her ultimate choice was indeed a surprise after all.

In fact, I had her press play on the movie without me knowing what it was, so I could see how quickly I could guess. I'm proud to say I got The Visitors (or Les Visiteurs) within the first five seconds. (It helps that I've grown pretty familiar with the 150 titles we have in our instant queue.)

Well, I'm certainly glad we didn't watch a 2 hour and 17 minute foreign film, because a 1 hour and 47 minute foreign film proved long enough for me. See, my son had given me another miserable night the night before, and even though we started watching around 8:15, I was ready to pack it in for the night at the half-hour mark. Fortunately, I struggled through, because it's against the very spirit of this film series to cop out of a movie for any reason. Pleading exhaustion is just not cool. (So if I'm fuzzy on the details of the last 20 minutes of the film, forgive me.)

Actually, The Visitors was an interesting choice for me because I had already seen its Hollywood remake, the 2001 film Just Visiting. Which also stars Jean Reno and Christian Clavier as 11th century knights who are transported to the present day by a sorcerer, but features such American-friendly presences as Christina Applegate and Tara Reid. And I actually had a limited affection for that widely reviled film, so seeing its source material seemed like a natural fit for me.

And it was -- to a point. The exhaustion was definitely a factor, but I also assumed I was missing some of the finer wordplay due to the fact that the knights are actually speaking in old French, which was not necessarily being translated very well in the subtitles. Both of us -- my wife is basically fluent in French, and I'm actually pretty good -- were picking out mistranslations that didn't even seem like they needed to be translated incorrectly for American audiences to understand.

But overall I found it funny enough, considering. The woman who played Applegate's role, Valerie Lemercier, had terrifically snappy comic delivery that just made her a joy to watch. (Interesting, though, how relatively plain-looking Lemercier is -- you would never see that in a Hollywood movie.) She also has a put-upon husband (Christian Bujeau) whose annoyance with the visitors is pretty comical. (But he has to tolerate them on some level -- since his wife is Reno's descendant, the physical similarity causes them to conclude he's a long lost uncle with amnesia.) Unfortunately, much of the humor put forth specifically by Clavier as Reno's manservant is pretty broad and physical, and didn't work as well for me.

When I wasn't sure how well the whole movie was working for me overall, it occurred to me to wonder whether there was a ceiling for how funny you could find a comedy that's not in your native tongue. I quickly surveyed my favorite foreign films, and few if any of them are comedies. Then I thought about the converse, about whether the French and other foreigners find American comedies to be particularly funny. Which got me thinking about Jerry Lewis, whose films I am watching this month as part of my Getting Acquainted series. The fact that the French love Jerry Lewis could have something to do with the fact that very little of his comedy is linguistic in nature -- the physical stuff translates much better.

This thought momentarily disappointed me -- it made me question the idea that cinema can be a universal language. But then I quickly remembered that I have seen an absolutely hilarious foreign film -- in fact, a French film -- just within the past month. Having enjoyed Jean Dujardin so much in The Artist, we watched his second collaboration with director Michel Hazanavicius, the spy spoof OSS 117: Lost in Rio, streaming off Netflix about three weeks ago. (The first OSS 117 movie -- subtitled Cairo, Nest of Spies -- had temporarily disappeared from Netflix instant, though it is back now.) We were in fits during Lost in Rio, and not just because of Dujardin's undeniable gifts with physical comedy. In fact, the wordplay was some of that movie's funniest bits.

Okay, so maybe The Visitors just doesn't scale the heights of what a French comedy can offer.

Or, maybe I was just on the verge of slipping into a coma the entire time.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Anime I can get behind

A couple weeks ago in this space I wrote that anime doesn't have a huge amount to offer me.

And then I saw Grave of the Fireflies.

I'd heard the movie discussed in film circles with the highest levels of praise, and I'd also heard how it was supposed to be very, very sad. But a part of me didn't trust that this praise wasn't coming from people whose other favorite movies are Akira and Princess Mononoke.

Still, after hearing another breathless mention of it about a week ago, I decided to promote it to the top of my queue. I watched it on Saturday night.


In case you don't know the plot, Grave of the Fireflies is about two Japanese children who become homeless orphans in the waning days of World War II after their house burns and their mother is killed during Allied bombing strikes. The boy, 14-year-old Seita, serves as a de facto parent to the girl, 4-year-old Setsuko. They try to forge their way through an uncaring world dominated by individuals, even family members, who are forced to look out for themselves first. Making matters more melancholy, we know from the very beginning that things don't turn out well for at least one of the kids. The film starts with narration from Seita in which he gives the date September 21st, 1945, and says "This is the day I died."


As I sat there, gobsmacked, watching this movie, I naturally considered why it worked so well for me, while other anime movies generally do not. Here is some of what I came up with:

1) The animation is simple yet beautiful. One of my complaints in my February 17th post was that anime seems to be technologically stunted; anime released today does not look significantly better than anime released 25 years ago. Grave of the Fireflies was actually released 24 years ago, and it looks great. Some of the backdrops are rich and beautiful, and some of the imagery is perfectly elegiac in its simplicity. (I'm thinking of this one shot of a burst water pipe that kind of transfixed me.) But I think the age of the movie freed me up from worrying about perceived technical deficiencies and allowed me to just get lost in the story. Which I did.

2) The emotions are generally muted. A standard complaint I have about anime is that the line readings are incredibly unsubtle, either for melodramatic or comic effect. You'd think a movie about children starving as they steer clear of bombs and corpses would have a high melodrama factor, but Grave of the Fireflies does not. In fact, pretty much everything is underplayed and understated, making it all the more effective. When real emotion does creep in, it's totally earned.

3) It's grounded in reality. One thing I realized as I was watching this movie is that most anime involves some sort of fantastical element. This is not always a bad thing, and can in fact be a very good thing. But it definitely sets certain expectations and can strain narrative logic if not done well. Grave of the Fireflies is totally and utterly realistic. It's about human beings in real-world conditions, and could have easily been shot live action. Except then I don't think the effect would be quite as powerful.

4) It's not intended for kids. I've already told you that the kids' mother dies, so I'm not really spoiling anything more if I tell you how. You don't see how she initially becomes injured, but you do see her in a makeshift hospital, covered from head to toe in bandages with blood seeping through in various spots. From the first time you see her in this state, you know there's no way she's surviving. And in fact, the next time you see her, her bandaged body is being trucked out to be burned, covered in maggots. That's hardcore. As an aside, there's a great red herring related to her character. In the opening scene before the bombing, when they're all headed off to a bomb shelter, Seita asks her if she has her heart medication. She says she does. You expect this to come into play later in the story, but the nature of her injuries entirely removes her heart from the realm of her concerns.

Anyway, yeah. You should see it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Celebrating the mundane

This image has been sitting on my coffee table for about a week, and I decided it was finally time to write about it.

It's the back cover of the February/March issue of Written By magazine, which my wife receives as part of her job as executive director of a non-profit screenwriting competition. As you can tell, it's a promotional ad intended to get eligible voters to select The Descendants when voting on a couple prominent screenwriting awards. (It obviously worked, as the movie won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay.)

What interests me about this image is how captivating it is -- even though there's nothing going on. In fact, because there's nothing going on.

During the life of a movie's advertising campaign, we become familiar with about a half-dozen of its prominent images, which pop up regularly in conjunction with the movie. That's because they're part of the press materials. I may be explaining the obvious here, but a number of stills are made available to the press to allow critics to write reviews, and to allow publications to write about the movie (and hopefully promote it) in other ways.

For The Descendants, these half-dozen prominent images include this:

And this:

And this:

And this:

What do these four images have in common? They all remind you of something specific that's happening in the plot. They all serve as a single-image encapsulation of what a certain scene is all about. In each image there is either kinetic or potential energy -- actions either in process or about to be in process. Implied movement, if you will.

The image in the "for your consideration" ad is quite the opposite. It is almost defined by its lack of movement. George Clooney's arms are at his side, and Robert Forster's are crossed. There's definitely a memorable scene between these two characters, but it's not this scene. Their memorable scene takes place at Forster's residence earlier in the movie, whereas this shot seems to be from later in the movie at the hospital.

But why I like it so much is what it says about screenwriting. It gets at the idea that when you strip everything else about a movie away, all the stars and all the glitz, what you have left is its nuts and bolts: the script. A good script is not all about big comedy bits or dramatic twists or explosions or memorable deaths. It may have some of those things. But this image reminds us that at its essence, screenwriting is a blue collar craft. Just like life, a good script contains its share of quiet moments, moments when nothing is really "happening." A good script makes getting from point A to point B as important and as interesting as those big moments.

If you've read my blog consistently, you know that The Descendants was not my favorite film from last year. In fact, I ranked it 66th out of the 121 movies I saw in time for my ranking deadline.

But this ad, and the contemplation on the art of screenwriting it has inspired, makes me like the movie just a little bit more than I did before the latest issue of Written By magazine spent the past week on my coffee table.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Shutting Eddie Murphy up

No hidden commentary here. I just think this is a good idea for a movie.

Will it be a good movie? That's another question.

Due mostly to the divorce between Dreamworks and Paramount/Viacom, this film has been caught in limbo for the better part of four years, as most of the principal photography occurred in 2008. The fact that there were reshoots last year makes things seem worse for A Thousand Words. The fact that its release date bounced around within 2012 makes them seem even worse. And the fact that it was not screened for critics is kind of like the death knell.

But the idea is good. Make a comic known for his motormouth linguistic skills shut his trap for most of the movie and see how funny he can be without relying on verbal gymnastics. The timing is perfect, coming right off the first silent film winning best picture since Wings. Who knows if the audience would have been in this same frame of mind back in 2009, when it was supposed to be released.

However, it seems legitimate to worry whether Eddie Murphy's latest public relations troubles will have an impact on his box office drawing power. Although your average joe is not necessarily privy to the behind-the-scenes goings on of awards shows, the fact that Murphy was supposed to host this year's Oscars, but stepped down, became pretty big news. Of course, even fewer of your average joes know who Brett Ratner is, so the fact that Murphy stepped down in deference to the firing of Ratner for making homophobic slurs (always the class act, that Brett Ratner) is probably not generally known. All that's known by most people is that Murphy was supposed to host, but didn't. In a way, I guess he shut himself up.

Well, I won't be seeing A Thousands Words in the theater of course. While I said I like the idea, I haven't trusted Murphy enough to see a movie of his in the theater since -- well, since Shrek I guess. That was 11 years ago. Neither do collaborations with director Brian Robbins give me much hope, if their previous two -- Norbit and Meet Dave -- are any indication.

But I will be seeing my third movie of the 2012 release year this afternoon after work, reviving an old post-clockout tradition that has pretty much subsided since my son was born. My wife is going away for the night tomorrow night, so as my reward for extra parenting duty this weekend, I'm heading straight to the theater after work and getting home in time for bath and story time. (Incidentally, these trips may become more regular in the future -- my wife told me I didn't need a special occasion to do them. Score!)

I'll be watching Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. Most likely in 3D.

One of my readers in particular will warn me away from this, but I have enough reason to think it might be good that I'm willing to venture it. Besides, I've got a gift card to one of the local movie theaters, so there'll be no money leaving my pocket.

At first I was planning to choose between The Lorax and John Carter, and I had an interesting way to determine which it would be. I decided that whichever movie had the higher Metascore would get my gift card dollars this afternoon, since I knew the Lorax Metascore, but the John Carter Metascore would be new to me as of today. Since both were movies I'd wanted to see originally, before being scared off by them, I thought this was a perfect way to break the deadlock.

But then I saw that John Carter was a full 40 minutes longer than The Lorax, and that just tipped the scales too much. The shorter movie would prevail.

Just to see what would have happened, though:

The Lorax - 47
John Carter - 52

For my wife's sake, I'm glad I made this decision in advance.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Keeping the Weitz brothers straight

You know, because they were thinking of going gay.

As discussed in this post, there are lots of brothers out there making films together. However, there are not quite as many brothers out there making films separately.

There are a few prominent examples (Ridley and Tony Scott), and a few not-as-prominent examples (Alfonso and Carlos Cuaron). But in both cases it's not hard for me to keep them straight. Ridley directed Alien and Blade Runner, Tony directed Domino and Man on Fire. That one's not hard. Alfonso directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men, Carlos directed (the quite likeable but not epic) Rudo y Cursi and something called The Second Bakery Attack. One has an established career, one is fledgling.

Ridley > Tony and Alfonso > Carlos.

But what happens when you really can't discern a difference between the two in terms of the quality of their films, and the genres they work in don't make things any clearer?

That's the scenario with Chris and Paul Weitz, who gained fame as the creative duo behind American Pie, then directed two more films together before forging separate careers.

I started thinking about Chris and Paul yesterday when I was listening to The Treatment, Elvis Mitchell's half-hour weekly radio program in which he sits down with a creative type, usually a writer or director but sometimes an actor or other industry type. Paul was yesterday's guest, and he was discussing his new film Being Flynn, starring Robert DeNiro and Paul Dano. It opened last Friday.

I thought, "That's funny, so soon on the heels of A Better Life." Which came out last summer, and netted an Oscar nomination for lead actor Damien Bichir.

Of course, I should have realized that it was probably Chris who directed A Better Life, not Paul. And that is in fact the case.

So I decided then and there I needed to figure out the difference between Chris and Paul Weitz. What better way to do it than a post about them? Maybe writing about it will help it sink in. For a guy who's anal about knowing who directed, wrote, produced or appeared in what, this suddenly seemed very important.

So what I'm going to do is run down each career, and conclude at the end which man belongs on the right side of the >, and which one belongs on the wrong.

But let me start by saying that I've realized something else about the two brothers in the course of researching this post: They were a legitimate directing team for three features, not just American Pie (1999) as I'd originally thought. I had always thought that only one of them directed About a Boy (2002) (I thought it was Paul), but checking several sources on these here interwebs, I see them both listed as directors. And then there's the Chris Rock vehicle Down to Earth (2001), with which I didn't know either of them was affiliated. I didn't see that, but I heard not good things. If that's the case, we can blame them both.

But then it was separate ways for the pair, though clearly they did not have a falling out, as they continue to serve as producers on each other's movies. Hey, I don't blame them. If I had a brother, I wouldn't want to always share the spotlight with him either.


Chris Weitz
Age: 42
Films he directed solo: The Golden Compass (2007), Twilight: New Moon (2009), A Better Life (2011)
Best film: A Better Life
Worst film: Can I say Twilight: New Moon even though I haven't seen it?
Summary: Looking at two of Chris' solo directing efforts, I guess you'd describe the younger Weitz brother as the high-concept guy, the guy who's given the big budgets and high expectations. Then of course, he confounds your expectations by going on to direct a little movie about an illegal alien trying to prosper in Los Angeles and provide for his son. I'm always interested by creative minds who can shift gears so totally and so successfully. I say "successfully" because I was actually a big fan of The Golden Compass -- and not only because it pissed off fundamentalist Christians.

Paul Weitz
Age: 46
Films he directed solo: In Good Company (2004), American Dreamz (2006), Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (2009), Little Fockers (2010), Being Flynn (2012)
Best film: In Good Company
Worst film: Little Fockers
Summary: The x-factor here is Being Flynn, which I guess could be either his best or his worst film. (The 54 Metascore is somewhat inconclusive.) And see, this is why these Weitz brothers are so tricky -- given that Chris directed Golden Compass and Twilight, I would totally expect that he'd be the one who directed Cirque du Freak (except that it came out the same year as Twilight: New Moon, so that would have been a lot of work). Maybe the studio was as confused as I am, and offered Cirque du Freak to Paul by accident. I have a huge affection for In Good Company, which was mostly developed on my semi-accidental second viewing last year. However, the other three I've seen are only mild successes (Cirque du Freak) to mild failures (American Dreamz) to massive failures (Little Fockers). Paul gains points back through greater output and greater variety of choices. He would have gained even more points if he'd been the sole director of About a Boy, as I once assumed.


This is sort of a tough one. Each has a big success to his credit, but each also has a big failure (critical if not commercial). And then each has some films that got a lukewarm critical response. Hmm.

Okay ...

Chris Weitz > Paul Weitz

Agree? Disagree? Leave it in the comments.

One thing that's for certain: I'm always going to be interested in what both are doing next.

One thing that's not certain: Whether writing this post will actually help me remember which is which the next time this comes up.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Projecting again, posting about it again

So is this impressive collection of films a shelf at the local video store? With that many films lined up so impressively and so neatly, it could only be, right?

Nope. That's just what I brought with me to the hotel on Friday night.

Yep, I made another trip to a dumpy hotel near my work, armed with clothes, snacks, a laptop and a projector. Oh, and lots of movies. Twenty-one physical DVD cases, one of which contained three separate DVDs. So that's 23 movies total.

You may recall that I first did this last fall, the day after my birthday. It was designed as a birthday present, to get a night off from parenting at a hotel. My wife had done such things previously, and I followed suit. Projecting movies on the wall was my own personal innovation, my idea how to get the most out of time that I could spend exactly as I wanted.

Well, since my wife went out of town for three nights for her own birthday a couple weeks back, she insisted that I take another one of these nights for myself. Initially I was not all that pumped for it, because this would be my third time borrowing the projector from work, and I was already feeling sheepish about the prospect of asking my boss. In fact, I even devised various plans to steal it (he probably wouldn't notice), or rent or even buy my own (some people were selling them really cheaply on craigslist). Ultimately I just asked him again, and again he had no problem loaning it out to me.

That's when I started getting excited.

My goal this time was to watch six movies, which would be a one-movie improvement on my previous total. Having done this once already, I figured to lose less time to the logistics of making it work. For example, this time I didn't have to go to the store to buy a box of pushpins, so I could put a sheet up on the wall to cover the patterned wallpaper. But I did forget to bring the power strip I brought last time, so I watched my first movie with the laptop running on batteries. After that finished, I headed back to the office just after the last person left for the day, and corrected that situation. Time lost: 13 minutes.

And yep, I did get in those six movies - just barely.

I didn't want to write a massive post about my experiences watching these movies, but then as I was watching them, ideas of things to write about came up for each movie. So it will in fact be a sort of massive post, but it'll be broken up by subheadings, so you can pick through it that way if it makes it easier for you.

Laurie Holden's twin sister

My first movie up was Ron Underwood's Tremors, which made its way to the top of my Netflix queue without a specific plan for me to watch it. This seemed as good a time as any. When the sunlight is still coming in the hotel window (I checked in just before 3 p.m.), it's nice to have a movie that has lots of exterior shots. Otherwise it's difficult to see anything.

One of the first things I noticed was that Laurie Holden, of X-Files and Walking Dead fame, was in it. But this struck me as very strange. The movie is 22 years old, which would mean that Holden is now in her mid-40s -- at the very youngest. And the woman in this movie didn't seem to be only in her early 20s, in part because she is playing a seismologist doing research on plate tectonics.

So I took a break from the movie to satisfy my curiosity on the internet, and in fact, the woman in the movie is Finn Carter, who I saw last fall in How I Got Into College. I didn't mistake her for Holden then. But here, look at them side by side and tell me what you think:

Uncanny, right?

Well, maybe it would seem more so if I'd been able to find better pictures to use as my examples ...

(For the record, Holden is 39 and Carter is 51.)

That strange subplot with the Japanese guy

When I got back with the power strip, I excitedly put on Fargo. The movie is one of my top ten films of all time, but I have not seen it in at least five years. This needed to be remedied.

As I was watching it, I was marveling over the perfection of the script. It's such a tight script. Except ...

... there's an otherwise totally unnecessary subplot about a former classmate of Marge Gunderson's who is trying to romantically woo her, despite the fact that she's married and seven months pregnant.

I got to wondering what the purpose of this subplot is. It never dovetails into the main plot. I was talking about it with my wife later on, and we determined that the primary function of the subplot is to show that even in a contented marriage on the verge of motherhood, Marge has doubts about her place in the world. After all, she dresses up nicely to meet her former classmate while out of town in the big city, and even chooses a fancy restaurant for their meeting -- before eventually seeing how weird the guy has become and realizing how good she has it back at home with Norm. I guess the doubting of contented marriage is a theme in this movie, as Jerry Lundegaard is also shaking up a seemingly stable family life through the choices he makes.

Still, Fargo could easily exist without the Mike Yanagita subplot. Especially if you go by the basic screenwriting guideline that every scene in a movie should move the story forward in some identifiable way.

So why did the Coens include it? Especially when the movie otherwise exists as a master class in screenwriting?

My ultimate conclusion: It was a deliberate imperfection introduced to showcase how brilliant the rest of the script was. I admit that this is something of a stretch, and basically accuses the Coens of patting themselves on the back. (But let's be honest, it wouldn't be the first or last time they had patted themselves on the back.) But it got me thinking about how Muslims are supposedly known for leaving deliberate imperfections in their work, because only Allah is capable of perfection. Not that the Coens are Muslims, but that there's something about an imperfection that tends to accentuate how great everything else is.

And since Fargo is perfect as it is, I would definitely miss Mike Yanagita if he weren't there.

The unintended benefits of Heath Ledger's death

At around 8 o'clock I started what I guess you would call the main course. Anyway, I'll call it the main course because my pizza arrived about 20 minutes in.

The most famous thing about The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is, of course, the fact that Heath Ledger was working on it when he died. Since he had not completed all his scenes, Terry Gilliam pulled the unorthodox trick of recruiting three other actors -- Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell -- to complete the parts Ledger had not completed.

To me, this sounded like a doomed decision that would just add confusion to what was probably already a very confusing movie, it being from the mind of Gilliam.

Then I saw the movie.

It was amazing to me how cleanly Gilliam incorporated these other actors. If Ledger had to die while making this movie, it seems he chose an opportune time to do it. He seems to have filmed all of his real-world scenes before dying, leaving those within the fantasy word of the imaginarium unfilmed. It's in this fantasy world where those other actors take over, and it makes perfect sense in terms of the logic of that fantasy world. And it's not at all confusing.

In fact, I think I liked the movie better with these other three taking on the roles they did than if Ledger had done those roles himself.

You can't make an assessment like that in a vacuum, of course. We'll never see the movie as it would have been if Ledger hadn't died. But the work Ledger did contribute to this film is not some of his best. Which may have something to do with his physical condition in the weeks before he died -- I mean, he was taking all those medications that resulted in the cocktail that killed him for a reason. It's just like when I was watching Brad Renfro's last movie, The Informers, last weekend, and he seemed to be physically struggling to complete his scenes.

And so it was that Depp, Law and Farrell injected a much-needed playfulness into both this film and the character.

Anyway, the film does not entirely work on all levels, but it does enough right to have been well worth the watch.

Cybill Shepherd as [some character you don't know]

My second viewing of Taxi Driver, which began at about 10:45, was long overdue. I saw the movie for the first time probably in the mid 1990s, and not again since. It was also the one movie of the 23 that I knew I would watch, because my boss loaned it to me. In fact, as if I'd needed to lubricate my request to borrow the projector, I told my boss about my plan to watch Taxi Driver so as to snare him in a wave of enthusiasm. (It's one of his favorite films.) I'd actually been intending to pick it up at the library, but he brought in his copy on Friday to loan to me. That meant I was committed to watching it, even if I felt like passing on it at the 11th hour. (And it literally was almost the 11th hour when I started the nearly two hour movie.)

My main and only comment on Taxi Driver, beyond the fact that I really like but don't love the movie, has little to do with Taxi Driver itself, but a phenomenon that occurred to me while watching its opening credits.

Namely, that movies used to -- and some still do -- give the name of the character such-and-such actor is playing in the opening credits.

Taxi Driver did this twice. It says "Peter Boyle as Wizard" and "Cybill Shepherd as Betsy."

While I have a certain affection for this convention because it has a long history in cinema, I did wonder what it really gains you to know the name of the character an actor is playing. You don't know the names of any of the characters at this point, so knowing which actor plays which character is of limited value. These credits are basically asking you to store that name as information in your short-term memory, and then when the character appears on screen, you can say "Oh, that character is played by Cybill Shepherd."

But in a way, isn't that kind of "breaking the spell"? Don't you just want to concentrate on the character as a character, not as an actress playing that character? That's what the closing credits are for.

I think it's slightly different if it's a character that you might know before the movie even starts. Like, if Santa Claus were a character in Taxi Driver (which would be a pretty weird version of the movie), you might say "And Harvey Keitel as Santa Claus." But who is this "Betsy," anyway? Why is she singled out from the other characters?

The beauty of Derek Smalls

This is Spinal Tap is another of my all-time favorites, and another film I hadn't seen in at least five years. In fact, I can't even remember when I bought the DVD, and the packaging was still on it. (It was one of those DVDs that's taped shut along three edges, and the tape rips off in chunks. It took about five minutes for me to free the disc.) Anyway, since I know it so well, it made a perfect accompaniment to my morning coffee. The light streaming past the closed curtains wouldn't matter, because I didn't technically need to see everything that was happening.

This post is getting long, so I don't need to go on at length about This is Spinal Tap. You probably already know everything a person could say about it. But a couple quick comments nonetheless:

- I consciously noticed for the first time that Anjelica Huston is in this movie. She plays the woman who designed the 18-inch Stonehenge model. But what I found really interesting about her appearance is that her name appears twice in the closing credits, spelled two different ways. The first time they spell her first name wrong (Angelica), and the second time they spell it with the J. Funny.

- I love the "lukewarm water" that is Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). I love how even-keeled this guy is. He's always using logic to interpret every situation in the most optimistic possible way, and nothing can really throw him. On this viewing, I especially appreciated the fact that he smokes a pipe. That seems to make him all the more wise. It also makes the scene where he goes through airport security with an aluminum foil-wrapped cucumber in his pants all the more funny, because you get the prankster side of the character there as well.

Watching Raising Arizona as a father

My personal favorite among the classics I rewatched is Raising Arizona, the final movie of the visit, which I finished just 15 minutes before checking out. I have it ranked as my third favorite movie of all time on Flickchart, yet I hadn't watched it since June of 2007.

I know this movie like the back of my hand, which made for a good movie to watch as I was cleaning up the room and dealing with a stronger quality of light coming through the window. What I'd never done previously, though, was watch it as a father.

And I found myself getting emotional several times.

Some of that was just the emotion I've owned up to feeling when I love a movie so much that it touches me on a deeper level. Like, when the opening credits finally kick in at something like the 11-minute mark, with the movie's classic theme song, I think I had a bit more than just the chills I'm getting even know as I write about it.

But the ending, always sentimental and poignant, really got me this time. HI and Ed having to return the baby. Nathan Arizona realizing that it was them who took Nathan Jr. Ed explaining that they can't have one of their own. Nathan describing how lost he would be if Florence left him -- "I do love her so." And finally, HI's dream where you see him from behind, an old man at a future family reunion, and a grown woman comes to touch him on his cheek, speaking to him a single, loving word:


Yep. Waterworks.