Sunday, April 29, 2012

Seventh week, still first run

I can't remember the last time I saw a film in the theater when it was as deep into its theatrical run as 21 Jump Street was when I saw it yesterday.

Even at a second-run theater. And the second-run theater nearest to me closed down, so it's been awhile since I've seen one of those anyway.

21 Jump Street was released on March 16th. Yesterday was April 27th. That means it was beginning its seventh week in the theaters. A pretty impressive feat these days to be sure.

And I'm glad I went. As you recall from yesterday's post, I was choosing between this and The Raven. But after the stressful day I had, barely ever getting a chance to even stop and collect my thoughts, a comedy that was absolutely dynamite for its first two acts was a much better fit than a dour period piece about a serial killer.

But as I touched on yesterday, there's something funny about seeing a movie in the theater when it's already been out for so long. Especially when you're paying $12.50, which seemed entirely too much for a movie playing on its seventh Friday at 2:50 in the afternoon.

Namely, there's a moment that passes when you feel like you're closer to the film's video release than to the beginning of its theatrical run. To be sure, it's very possible that 21 Jump Street will be out on DVD sooner than seven weeks from now. That would put its DVD release in mid-June. Mid-July seems like a better guess, but the point is, that moment seems to have passed in my mind, even if it has not passed literally.

And I'm trying to examine the psychology of it. I mean, if you've determined that a film is worth seeing in the theater, does it really matter if it's the first day it's out, or the 42nd? Either way you are seeing it on the big screen. It seems like it should be a simple choice: Is it worthy of seeing on the big screen, or isn't it?

So then I come to the idea that the main goal may not be seeing it on the big screen, but rather, seeing it sooner rather than later. If it's already been in the theater for seven weeks, you start to reason "Might as well wait until video at this point."

And if that's really the mentality, it suggests that the studios might really be on to something if they're talking about making movies available sooner at home. Maybe people really don't care if they see it on a big screen, that's just their only option if they want to see it sooner rather than later.

Of course, sometimes the decision just comes down to what's playing at a convenient time so you can watch it after an early release from work and still pick up your son from daycare on time.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Quoth The Raven, "What a bore"

Really, I have no idea. It's just a clever headline, people.

Actually, James McTeigue's The Raven should be right in my wheelhouse. I have a history of liking period thrillers, such as Sleepy Hollow and From Hell, and I have frequently discussed my passion for Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which this film also seems to resemble in a couple key ways.

Not to mention that this would likely qualify as a "wax-stamp movie," a genre I coined to describe any movie with art direction that either does or would probably feature a letter sealed with a wax stamp. Generally speaking, I love such movies. If an actual wax stamp is not present, a quill pen dipped in ink will do as a substitute. This poster indicates that this movie has such a quill pen -- dipped in blood, which is all the better.

But my interest in The Raven is held back by two people:

1) John Cusack

2) James McTeigue.

With Cusack, I've just learned too much about what kind of an a-hole he is in real life to feel the affection I felt for him when he was making some of the formative movies of my childhood. His movies have become progressively less interesting by the decade. Though it is interesting to note that he's signed off each decade with a movie I really liked, and in some cases loved: Say Anything ... in 1989, Being John Malkovich in 1999 and 2012 in 2009.

As for McTeigue, well, I have three words for you. Or, one letter and two words:

V for Vendetta.

Yeah, I did not like that film.

However, I may be in a position to see The Raven as soon as today. I'm covering the 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift of a vacationing co-worker today, and my son doesn't need to be picked up from daycare until 5. Which leaves me just enough time to get to a 2:50 show, and have it still get out in plenty of time for me to pick him up. The choices of things I somewhat care about are this and 21 Jump Street. Any thoughts on which one I should see?

On the one hand, I've heard that 21 Jump Street is surprisingly good. But it's been out for more than a month, so it doesn't really satisfy a person's craving to see something new, does it? (I'll let you decide whether there's any practical value to such a craving, because it doesn't make a movie better just because it's new.) Besides, as described here, I'm trying harder to watch comedies with either packed audiences or at least one viewing companion I know. I doubt the 2:50 show on a Friday five weeks after its release is going to have more than one or two other people there with me.

On the other hand, The Raven? 43 Metascore.

It may really come down to the wire on this one ...

Friday, April 27, 2012

Lady's choice: Bunny and the Bull

When my wife springs a choice on me for movie night, I like to have her just press play so I can try to guess the movie before the title comes up. With her previous two choices, I did pretty well -- I got both right off the bat. Granted, only guessing The Visitors was actually impressive, because I got it from about the first ten seconds of the movie. Bright Star was not so impressive, because she told me to open my eyes while it was still on the DVD menu screen. The menu screen didn't actually contain the title, but it did contain the still image of two lovers embracing from the poster, which was familiar enough for me to identify it instantly.

When we watched Bunny and the Bull last night, I would have been guessing all night. Except of course that the title was the very first thing that appeared on the screen.

This is a long way of saying that we watched a movie I'd never even heard of last night, and I loved it.

Bunny and the Bull, a 2009 British independent romantic comedy from writer-director Paul King, can best be described as a magical realist road trip. But that's really only capturing part of what is so great and unique about it.

Basically, we open on a reclusive man named Stephen (Edward Hogg, unrecognizable from Anonymous) bound to very strict daily routines, who hasn't left his house in a full year. Over the course of the narrative, we learn why he's reluctant to go out into the world, through a series of flashbacks to events that occurred immediately before his self-imposed house arrest. These events involve a road trip through Europe featuring his best friend Bunny (Simon Farnaby), a lothario who always calls him "dude," and the foul-mouthed Spanish woman (Veronica Echegui) they pick up along the way.

It's the style of the flashbacks that makes the movie so visually arresting. If Stephen dreams himself away into the takeout box from the fast food chain Captain Crab, he remembers a scene that occurred inside an actual Captain Crab restaurant, only its facades and other environmental elements are all made from the materials of the takeout box. This aesthetic choice informs all the flashbacks and works terrifically, a seamless blending of the the funny and charming actors with these fake (but not preciously so) sets, with even a little animation thrown in for good measure. If you are trying to think of something that would be similar, think The Science of Sleep. But it's different enough that I wouldn't want to carry the comparison all the way through.

Anyway, I don't have anything really profound to say about this movie, I just wanted to post something today to recommend it to my readers. It's currently available on Netflix streaming, and it's about 100 minutes long.

I also wanted to just say that it's nice to be reminded that cinema can continue to surprise you with hidden gems like Bunny and the Bull, which I feel like I should have encountered or had recommended to me before now. The deeper you get into any area of culture, the less likely you think you are to be surprised by something. For example, a real music enthusiast can be prone to depression from time to time, I bet. They think they know the music world so well that they've already considered every band that might theoretically appeal to their tastes, so now they'll have to wait for new bands to be formed to find something new.

I would never claim that level of familiarity with cinema, but I'm quite pleased to make discoveries like Bunny and the Bull nonetheless. Reminds me how much is still out there, waiting to be discovered.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The self-created hype over Epix

I don't know about where you are, but here in Los Angeles, we're being inundated with billboards that look something like this. (Imagine it elongated into the rectangular shape of a billboard.)

This was pretty much my first awareness of a premium television channel called Epix. So if awareness is what they wanted to create, I guess they accomplished their mission.

If a sense of exclusivity is what they wanted to create, well, mission failed.

The supposedly momentous "Marvel Heroes Weekend," which begins in JUST TWO DAYS!! (but has been advertised for well over a month), includes the three movies you see here:  Thor, Captain America and Iron Man 2.

So, I'm supposed to congratulate some genius in the Epix advertising department who figured out that they might have the rights to three of Marvel's recent movies?

Otherwise I don't get why this is supposed to excite me so much.

I sort of get why they think it's cool that they can show Thor and Captain America. Both movies came out in 2011. But Thor has been available on DVD since September, and Captain America since October.

As for Iron Man 2? Yeah, that movie hit theaters in 2010. In fact, when my wife and I finally saw it last year, it was streaming on Netflix. Making it kind of the opposite of exclusive.

It would be one thing if Epix were a free basic cable station, which was proudly trumpeting its coup of winning the rights to these three successful movies. But you have to pay for Epix. It's offered on the Dish Network, among others, but it ain't part of your basic subscription. You have to pay extra.

We live in an age where its possible to get so many movies in so many ways, so quickly after they hit theaters (and even while they're in theaters if you want to buy an illegal bootleg), that it seems very antiquated to be hyping up what amounts to a clever pairing of long available properties, nakedly designed to whet your appetite for next week's opening of Joss Whedon's The Avengers. But which geeks are they really trying to appeal to here? Which geeks counting the hours until The Avengers opens have not already seen these three movies? Probably multiple times?

Thanks but no thanks, Epix. We're even considering a move to the Dish Network, but I don't think we'll be adding you any time soon. Even if you can show us The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises in August of 2013.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Before I knew who they were

There are many pleasures to revisiting a favorite movie you haven't watched in 20 years, but one of the most delightful is seeing actors you didn't realize were in it because you didn't know who they were at the time.

Case in point: Airplane II, which my wife and I watched on Sunday night. I watched this movie almost as much as I watched Airplane! when I was growing up (I had both on VHS, having copied them off cable), but my wife had never seen it. So something like my tenth viewing, first since the late 1980s, excited me not only because I wanted to share the movie with her. And not only because we'd just revisited the original about three weeks ago. And not only because of William Shatner.

But I also wanted to see if what a friend of mine recently told me is true: We may not realize it, but when we still, to this day, quote Airplane!, more of our quotes are actually from Airplane II. Airplane! just gets all the credit, because, as the first movie and an undisputed classic, it's "obviously" better. It seems crazy to think this, but for my money, the two are close enough in quality that this proclivity of ours (if true) is not blasphemy.

I won't comment on that, in part because it would be hard for me to come up with a definitive list of our favorite quotes from these movies and determine which ones are from which. Except to say that my friend's instinct seems right. I think the movies are able to blend together so seamlessly because they got almost the entire cast to return from the original movie, the only prominent exceptions being Robert Stack and Leslie Nielsen. Of course, in just ten minutes of screen time, the aforementioned Mr. Shatner more than compensates for the both of them. ("No tower? WHY THE HELL AREN'T I NOTIFIED ABOUT THESE THINGS?!")

But back to the original point. I kept seeing familiar faces pop in Airplane II, though only now are they familiar to me. Here's a short list:

Who: John Vernon
Where I first met him: National Lampoon's Animal House
Who he plays in Airplane II: Dr. Stone, Ted Striker's doctor at the mental hospital, who "doesn't do impressions"

I now think it's safe to say I haven't seen Airplane II since before I went to college, because it was my freshman year in college (1991) when I saw Animal House for the first time. (And then saw it about ten more times before the end of the year.) If I had seen Airplane II since then, I would have had that "Hey, that's Dean Wormer!" moment before now. In retrospect, I can imagine that Vernon must have seemed familiar to me in some way, but I don't think I consciously acknowledged that I recognized him from Airplane II. And in this case I would have, because he doesn't just blend into the scenery like at least one other person I'm going to mention here.

Who: Rip Torn
Where I first met him: Defending Your Life
Who he plays in Airplane II: Bud Krueger, one of the bigwigs behind the shuttle program, who is "familiar with" the Des Moines Institute (which specializes in treating impotence)

Coincidentally, 1991 was also the year that I saw and fell in love with the wonderful Albert Brooks film Defending Your Life, where Torn plays Brooks' afterlife attorney, who is going to try to make the case that Brooks should get into heaven (rather than going back to Earth for another human life, where he'll try to be a more self-actualized person). Torn is pretty hilarious in that film, displaying a kind of daffy disinterest in whether Brooks is successful in his case. Yet more proof that I have not seen Airplane II since 1991.

Who: Oliver Robins
Where I first met him: Poltergeist
Who he plays in Airplane II: Jimmy Wilson, owner of Scraps, "a boy dog"

Okay, I saw Poltergeist in the theater, so I saw Robins getting sucked into the tree outside his window long before I saw him board the shuttle in Airplane II (which came out the same year as Poltergeist, but which I did not see until it was on cable). Come to think of it, my Poltergeist screening was probably on a re-release, but that still wouldn't have been any later than 1985. I just don't think I made the connection that Jimmy Wilson was also Robbie Freeling. Or maybe I just did my best to block the terrifying Poltergeist, probably the single most frightening experience I've ever had at the movies, out of my memory. Especially the tree scene.

Who: David Paymer
Where I first met him: Quiz Show? The American President? Get Shorty?
Who he plays in Airplane II: A court photographer, who takes a couple pictures of Striker (literally -- he is handed one from a manila folder)

Paymer is one of those character actors who has not really had one defining role, so it's likely that he just seeped into my awareness over time. But I definitely wasn't aware of him until the mid-1990s or later. Even if I had been aware of him, though, it's very likely that I could have overlooked him. His role in Airplane II is of the "blink and you'll miss it" variety.

Who: Pat Sajak
Where I first met him: Wheel of Fortune
Who he plays in Airplane II: An anchor reporting on the impending shuttle disaster, working out of the thriving metropolis of Buffalo, NY

Okay, I think I did know that Vanna White's partner in crime was in Airplane II. But I'd forgotten. So the delightful feeling of discovery was similar. Even though I really, really don't like Wheel of Fortune.

Okay, that's just about enough of that.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The unlikely career of Djimon Hounsou

I finally finished watching The Tempest this weekend.

I've had the damn thing out from Netflix since March 27th, the longest I can remember having a movie in ages. That's the problem with renting movies you are trying to save for the perfect viewing occasion: that viewing occasion rarely arises. And it took about two weeks into our possession of it for me to definitively determine that my wife was going to pass on it.

But my own attempts to watch it were many. Every time I started to watch it, it was too damn late at night. I watched the first ten minutes at least two to three weeks ago, and then I think I made a second attempt during which I got about just as far. I finally made a permanent dent in its running time on Friday afternoon at the gym, and it was my intention to finish it that night. But Friday's late-night viewing window got me only 30 minutes further, and Saturday's only 15 minutes further than that. I finally took down the last 35 minutes last night, and it will be getting back to Netflix just a few days shy of a month since I first received it.

The main casualty of this protracted viewing schedule was not that I lost the thread of the narrative. I pretty much got what was going on, even though this was one of Shakespeare's plays that was not familiar to me. It was that I kind of stopped translating the language, and allowed myself to space out for a minute or two without worrying what I'd missed. That's blasphemy for any serious Shakespeare devotee, and I consider myself to be such. But I got the thrust of what was going on. And besides, with any Julie Taymor film, the most interesting part is the visuals. This film did not disappoint in that respect. (I just confirmed what I'd taken the plot to be by reading the synopsis on wikipedia. Turns out, only a few little details needed to be ironed out for me.)

Perhaps because I made so many attempts to watch The Tempest, a number of different things occurred to me to write about. But the one that was the most interesting was the way the movie made me think about the career of Djimon Hounsou, who plays the "monster" Caliban, the deformed son of a witch who lived on the play's island setting before Prospero (here Prospera, so Helen Mirren could play the role) and his/her daughter got there.

And what an unlikely career this actor has had.

Simply put, there is no other actor out there who is "like" Djimon Hounsou. There's not really anyone working in Hollywood who you could say was "a poor man's Djimon Hounsou." And perhaps that's because his path to get here seems so unlikely, born in the West African country of Benin and emigrating to Paris with his brother when he was 13.

There are few actors who originated in Africa who have even made a name for themselves. If I were pressed to think about who I'd consider most similar in either physical appearance or cultural background, names like Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (of Lost fame) and Chiwetel Ejiofor would come to mind. But both of those actors were actually born in England, with at least one parent of Nigerian origin.

Hounsou has more than made a name for himself. He's gotten nominated for two Oscars. And even though The Tempest may not be his crowning achievement, in a way it represents another threshold for him to have crossed. Hounsou speaks English with a very heavy accent, so it would be natural to expect his tongue to get twisted and tripped up by the Shakespearean dialogue. I'm glad to say that was not the case, and he still hit all his character's necessary emotional beats, even bringing subtlety to a role written broadly.

But Hounsou's career is not only unlikely because he hails from a West African country so small that I must say I was only somewhat aware that it even existed. It's because he didn't start as an actor, but rather a fashion model. How many fashion models turned actors do you know who have even one Oscar nomination? (Okay, there are probably more than I think there are. Just as one example, I recently learned that winner and three-time nominee Anjelica Huston started out as a model.)

But even once he proved that he was more than just a pretty face, more than just that beautiful body from the Janet Jackson video for "Love Will Never Do (Without You)," Hounsou had to confront the reality that there would be relatively few roles where he would be a natural fit. Because of his heavy accent (his native language is French) and because of his distinctly African appearance, he wouldn't be a logical candidate for most roles written for an African-American. (Which Hounsou literally is, as of 2007 -- his citizenship is officially Beninese-American.)

So Hounsou's best bet was roles where he played either an African living in Africa, or a displaced African living elsewhere. In fact, his Oscar nominations were for one of each -- Blood Diamond for the former, In America for the latter. By cornering the market on these roles -- which also included Amistad, Gladiator and The Four Feathers -- Hounsou not only forged a career working regularly, but I'd argue he has sort of become a household name. Fortunately, his name is easier to pronounce than Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.

Another big step in Hounsou's unlikely career came in 2009, when he was cast as a character with apparently no African origins or affiliations, named Henry Carver, in the "normal people with special powers" movie Push. And it was a step forward despite the fact that the movie was terrible, and Hounsou himself was a part of the problem. Playing an outright villain for possibly the fist time ever, Hounsou seemed to stumble over his dialogue, failing to enunciate it in a way necessary for his role to seem chilling. And although I do cite that as one of the film's weaknesses, it's only one of many reasons the movie doesn't work. But I think it's more useful to look at what the movie represents than what it was. It represents the desire to work with Djimon Hounsou even when he may be quite wrong for the role in question.

His casting in -- and effective performance in -- The Tempest seems to permanently put to rest the idea that there might be things Hounsou can't do, either because his accent is too strong or because as a former fashion model, he's not a "real" actor. As much as Taymor prizes the visual scheme in her two adaptations of Shakespeare's plays (she also directed the 1999 adaptation of Titus Andronicus, called Titus), she's not just giving these roles away to any old person. The casts of her two films have included the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, David Strathairn, Chris Cooper and Alfred Molina. If Hounsou couldn't have done the role, she wouldn't have given it to him.

The future for Hounsou seems like a combination of what we've come to expect from him, and what we haven't -- the latter making his career seem more unlikely still. IMDB lists Hounsou's next project as the 2013 film Zulu, which I took to be a remake of the 1964 movie starring Michael Caine. Instead, he plays a police officer working in a Cape Town homicide department. But what seems really surprising is that wikipedia shows him affiliated with a now-filming version of John Milton's Paradise Lost, though IMDB does not list this project. Depending on the treatment of this particular adaptation, it could again call on Hounsou's recently discovered fitness for 17th century language.

We have so few actors working today who can truly be considered one of a kind. When one pulls it off and then some, it's worth celebrating.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The title of this post contains spoilers

Do you think you're ready to read the real title of this post?

Then answer me this: Have you seen The Cabin in the Woods yet?

The real title of this post is not "The title of this post contains spoilers." But I can't reveal the real title at the top of the page, because that would probably reveal a key secret about the movie.

You have been warned: I am going to discuss this movie in detail. I'm not only going to spoil it, but I'm going to discuss it down to the very last shot.

So I'm going to write a lengthy preamble, in order to give you fair warning in case you haven't seen it. (It's been out for less of a week, so I suspect many of my readers have not.) In fact, I suspect you will get tired of this preamble long before I've finished writing it. Hey, what can I say. I have to take into consideration various sizes of monitor, and how much of the screen you are likely to see just by surfing over to my site. And are there vertical monitors? Maybe there are. If you have a vertical monitor, you might as well just stop reading now.

Is this enough? Have I written enough yet? Maybe I should make the poster bigger.

Okay, I think that's enough.

Wait, one more paragraph and one more line break.

There. You gone now?

Horror wrapped inside sci-fi wrapped inside fantasy

You've heard the old adage "A riddle wrapped inside a mystery wrapped inside an enigma," right? (I looked up the actual quote and it's "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," but I like this better.)

That's essentially what The Cabin in the Woods is. It is constantly forcing you to reassess your genre assumptions, and that is most assuredly a fun and exciting thing.

The fact that you shouldn't know much about this movie before going in has been much ballyhooed. Unfortunately, I knew more than I was bargaining for simply by seeing a couple scattered images, which featured some kind of high-tech control room. Those carelessly distributed images were enough to ruin one of the key surprises for me: namely, that these horny teenagers (what other kind are there) are not just going off for a run-of-the-mill weekend in the woods. They're the subjects in some kind of vicious and nasty experiment, a la Cube or Saw.

The thing is, one of my first surprises while watching was that this movie is not actually trying to keep that fact from you.

In fact, the first two characters you meet are the ones played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, two of the supervisors of this particular experiment. Scenes of them are intercut with scenes of the teenagers right from the start. You may not know exactly how they relate, but their existence from the starting gun means that you can't really call it a twist, either.

No, the twist comes later. But it's not really a twist, either, because it kind of seeps in. It's not revealed in one shocking moment where the curtain is pulled away with the accompaniment of a crescendo in the score. It is presented matter-of-factly, but it's a surprise nonetheless.

Yes, this experiment -- more accurately defined as a ritual -- is being performed to keep at bay a number of subterranean giants, who will destroy the earth if the ritual killing of teenagers is not performed entirely to their satisfaction.

And to do that, the familiar tropes of most horror films -- which include the virgin girl dying last, if she dies at all -- must be performed in a precise sequence.


Yeah, this movie is goofy -- but in all the right ways.

I don't think we should be surprised at the deconstructive nature of this movie, given that Joss Whedon is a writer-producer and the writer-director, Drew Goddard, wrote Cloverfield and a number of episodes of Lost.

In fact, given Goddard's background in particular, maybe The Cabin in the Woods should not be very surprising to us at all.

See, Lost in particular can easily be seen as a model for this movie. The parallels are obvious. Both Lost and The Cabin in the Woods have a surface level thing they're most obviously about, and it's nothing we haven't seen before: survivors of a plane crash try to get rescued, teenagers visit a cabin in the woods that has a disturbing secret. Then both things shift out a level, where it's clear that the setting is not entirely what it seems -- there are (or were) people behind the scenes, watching them, experimenting on them in some way that is not yet clear, from mysterious control rooms governed by mysterious codes and rules. Then both things shift out another level, leaving that science fiction realm and becoming pure fantasy. The island is really governed by age-old beings who embody such broad concepts as good and evil, and the earth is really ruled by giant creatures who live underground, entirely hidden from the awareness of the average human being.

It's that mixture of sci-fi and fantasy that really throws a person for a loop.

While sci-fi and fantasy may be kissing cousins in some ways, they rarely overlap. Simply put, dragons never appear in movies about computers, and computers never appear in movies about dragons. Oh, there are of course exceptions, but for the most part, these rules are sound. Both genres portray things that don't exist, but science fiction typically portrays things that could exist, while fantasy does not.

And so that's what's supposed to blow your mind about The Cabin of the Woods. You think you're in a horror, but you're really in a science fiction movie. Then, you think you're in a science fiction movie, but you're really in a fantasy. And along the way it's tons of fun, and incredibly funny as well. So does that mean you're also in a comedy?

In what I thought was also a spoiler, a friend of mine told me to think of it like I'd think of Army of Darkness, the third Evil Dead movie. Having now seen The Cabin in the Woods, I realize that a) this was not a spoiler, as he assured me, and b) he's right. Army of Darkness doesn't have the intermediary science fiction level, but it definitely pulls the rug out from under you by going from straight horror to pretty much straight fantasy. If you want to be really technical, that genre shift probably actually occurs between the end of Evil Dead 2 and the beginning of Army of Darkness, but the effect is the same.

Of course, it wouldn't be a true exercise in deconstruction without there being plenty of metaphors at play here about the process of making movies in general.

Clearly, The Cabin in the Woods has fun with the idea that horror movies subscribe to certain formulas, which are pretty darn predictable. In fact, there's that great scene where everyone is betting on which adversary will be chosen to dispatch our horny teenagers. It ends up being a family of zombies, despite the sentimental desire of Whitford's character that a merman would one day emerge as the killer. Really, a merman? Yes, really.

Perhaps my favorite scene, the one that gave me the greatest thrill, was also the scene that reminded me most of Cube. In this scene, the stoner and the virgin find themselves inside an elevator-size chamber that's part of a series of moving chambers that resemble a Rubik's Cube. Each other chamber is filled with some kind of nasty creature -- a wolf, a giant snake, a man with saw blades jutting out of head. The list is pretty much endless, as there seem to be hundreds of these chambers moving and shifting in the Rubik's Cube. It's again a comment on the idea that all horror movies are essentially the same -- what distinguishes them is what kind of nasty creature is chosen to do the killing.

But the most interesting commentary may come at the very end, when the ritual fails for the last time -- hilariously, the life of a stoner, who smokes a bong while driving his car, is prized above the lives of everyone else on the planet. (Incidentally, I love how the stoner character is used in this movie. First, he's the comic relief. Then he's the only one who seems to really know what's going on. Then he's the action hero. And finally, it's because of him that the entire earth is destroyed.)

So rubble starts to fall from the sky, and the final two characters have this kind of conversation that indicates that yeah, they pretty much know this is it. In keeping with the movie's wonderful tone, though, they are not sad or scared, they are just humorously resigned to the fact that this gigantic mindfuck they've been involved in is going to resolve itself in the worst possible way.

And in the last shot, a giant hand -- a giant human hand -- bursts out of the ground where they were sitting. Presumably killing them, but we'll see how well the movie does -- there could be sequels. Though I have to say, if there's any movie that would seem immune to the possibility of a sequel, it's this one. A prequel, maybe.

In their last piece of commentary before the credits roll, Goddard and Whedon give a justification of sorts for their entire movie. There's a reason the hand that bursts out of the ground is human -- it symbolizes the audience. And the audience is tired of this same ritual, in which a series of horny teenagers die, save the virgin who must emerge victorious at the end in order to let us leave the theater without feeling depressed. The audience is rising up and "destroying the world" -- "the world" in this case being all our assumptions about how horror movies are conceived and made. And in a way, that's what Goddard and Whedon are doing here -- they are subverting everything we know and expect about horror with the violence of a giant first bursting out of the ground. And hopefully making a better movie as a result.

Did they succeed? I'd like to hear what you think. After all, if you've read to this point, you've surely seen the movie. I can't say I didn't warn you not to read unless you had.

In the final analysis, you might even say that Goddard and Whedon are subverting the very idea of the twist, possibly the most cliched element in horror movies or any kind of supernatural movies that have been made since M. Night Shyamalan made The Sixth Sense. Much has been made about how this movie contains a twist. But it actually kind of has two twists, neither of which are played like a twist is traditionally played. One twist appears right at the beginning, even before the main story that is supposedly being twisted. And one comes along almost casually, revealed through a fairly banal piece of dialogue late in the second or early in the third act.

So yeah, I'm glad I didn't know much about The Cabin in the Woods Inside a Dome Above a Bunch of Slumbering Giants.

But I think I still would have dug it a heckuva lot even if I had, and perhaps that's the film's greatest triumph.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

I still don't love Lebowski

When I first watched Joel and Ethan Coen's cult hit The Big Lebowski in my parents' basement in probably either the summer or Christmas of 1998, I thought there must have been some kind of defect in my character for not liking it more.

Even then, I knew what people thought of it, and the adulation has become a genuine phenomenon in the ensuing years. Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski seemed to instantly join the pantheon of great cinematic characters, his adventures a kind of post-modern epic that immediately clicked with a legion of devoted viewers.

Well, not for me. And not for my wife, either.

We had both struggled with our inability to like The Big Lebowski more than we did. We knew we were crazy. I mean, everyone loves The Big Lebowski. Right?

So about a month ago we acknowledged we both wanted to see it again, and this was surprisingly able to happen this past Sunday night. I say "surprisingly" because I assumed it wouldn't be available on Netflix streaming. I was looking it up just to add it to my DVD queue, and there it was, ready to be played instantly. That was the afternoon, and it immediately became the headliner for our Sunday night slate of television programming.

Guess what? After watching it again, we still didn't like it all that much.

I'm being a bit provocative by saying that. I think it's definitely a "good movie," and there are dozens of little details I appreciate about it.

But this is the movie many people describe as their favorite Coen brothers movie, and I just can't go there with that. Especially when the Coen filmography also includes masterpieces like Raising Arizona and Fargo.

When I ranked the Coens' 14 films back in early 2010 (this was before True Grit), I ranked Lebowski sixth behind Raising Arizona, Fargo, Miller's Crossing, Blood Simple and The Hudsucker Proxy. Having watched it again, I would leap-frog both A Serious Man and Barton Fink over it, and leave it to do battle with other films that leave me with mixed feelings (The Man Who Wasn't There, No Country for Old Men and Intolerable Cruelty).

If I were to go back and put myself in the mindset of the 24- or 25-year-old me from 1998, the thing I was probably expecting from Lebowski was something more along the lines of Raising Arizona. Like Arizona, it featured a colorful cast of characters working in the mode of a crime comedy.

But aside from both movies featuring John Goodman, the comparison pretty much ends there. There isn't what I would consider to be a single "mean" moment in Raising Arizona. The movie's heart shines through every scene. And by that I don't mean the movie is sickening or syrupy in any way -- it just gives its characters a fair shake and loves them despite their (ample) faults.

Lebowski, on the other hand, seems to resort to meanness on multiple occasions, and overall it just feels jaded. The problems could actually start with the beloved Dude himself. The ideal Lebowski, as I see him, is some kind of innocent rube who shows surprising smarts when it's required of him. And even if he is essentially passive in a world full of raging personalities, there's something sublime about his passivity.

But that's not really the Dude we get. This Dude really is a loser, and I don't find him half as lovable as I think I'm supposed to. There are things about his character that I like, such as his epic quest to get compensation for a urine-stained rug. But overall I find him to be more sour and ornery than I want this ideal Dude to be. It seems to me that his essential Dudeness should keep him above the fray, in an almost Forrest Gump-like way. But he's right down in the dirty fray, his hair soaked with alcohol, his bathroom slippers muddy with grime.

When I think of The Big Lebowski in the abstract, the scene that comes to mind is the scene where the porn entourage breaks into the Dude's bathroom and drops a ferret into his bathtub. In itself it is not any more memorable than many other scenes, but I suspect I remember it because it encapsulated a couple things that were troubling me on my first viewing, which troubled me yet again this time:

1) The film is more aggressive and violent than it really needs to be.

2) The film really doesn't have a point.

It's that last part I'd like to focus on now. And now is probably a good time to mention another Coen movie that was conspicuously absent when I listed the relative worth of the Coens' movies above. In fact, it was their next movie, O Brother Where Art Thou?

Both O Brother and Lebowski share a narrative structure that does not really work for me, which is essentially this: They aren't so much stories as a series of bizarre vignettes. The structure itself works a little better, I think, in O Brother, since the events are more or less based on Homer's The Odyssey. I like Lebowski more than that film, but I think its structure may be more unsatisfying. I know this has a cultural forbear as well, as it's more or less a Philip Marlowe story with The Dude in the Marlowe role. But the plot convolutes itself to such an extent that I had to read the wikipedia plot summary just now to make sure I remembered exactly what happened -- and I just re-watched this movie three nights ago. (Granted, we also started watching it too late, and yes, I did have two White Russians to go along with the theme.)

Speaking of convoluted, that last paragraph was a prime example. But what I really want to say is this: The Big Lebowski is not for the viewer seeking that sense of catharsis that comes from traditional character development and narrative payoffs. And I guess I am that kind of viewer. If I am going to get into a movie that's mostly just vignettes, I want the characters themselves to speak to me more.

And I guess that's an essential problem I have with this movie: I just don't find the characters as interesting as other people seem to. I've already described my hesitations with The Dude, but what about Goodman's Walter? He spends the whole movie pulling guns on people, concocting cockamamie schemes and shouting down his nice bowling teammate, Donny (Steve Buscemi). Seriously, why does he spend the entire movie telling Donny to shut up? Is that supposed to be funny? Is that a part that "really works" for the people who love this movie?

What happens with Donny reveals the nastier Coens whom I've railed against in the past. Another movie conspicuously absent from my earlier listing of Coen titles is Burn After Reading, my least favorite Coen film. I found that film pretty much repulsive from start to finish, but one of the things that really stood out was the Coens' sadistic desire to punish nice people. Two very nice characters pay a dear price for their niceness in Burn After Reading, and I feel it's that same mentality that leaves Buscemi's Donny dead of a heart attack at the end of The Big Lebowski. I'm not saying that nice people must always prosper in the movies -- that would make the movies really uninteresting. But I like there to be some reasoning behind why they don't prosper, some essential message that relates to the themes of the movie we've been watching. I feel like Donny's death doesn't have any meaning within the context of this movie -- and it just makes my belief firmer that there's isn't much meaning behind anything that happens in this movie.

And what lesson does Walter, a bad person, learn from his bad behavior? That they won't ban you from a bowling alley for pointing a gun at a fellow bowler and cocking the hammer. That you can send kidnappers a bag of your dirty underwear without any real-world consequences. That you can illogically yell at a nice friend who just wants to get up to speed in the conversation, and when he dies as an indirect result of your boneheaded decisions, neither will this cause you any shame or guilt. "Fuck it, let's go bowling," says Walter.

Fuck it, I'm just never going to love The Big Lebowski.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The big decade?

There's a scene in David Frankel's The Big Year in which the characters played by Rashida Jones and Jack Black take a break from their frantic cross-country birding to meet up in Boston. They're both intense birders and they both drop a fortune on travel in pursuit of that passion, but there's a difference: Black is doing a "big year," which means he's trying to set the record for the most number of bird species seen in United States in a calendar year, while Jones is just doing it out of a simple love of birding.

"I love that you're not doing a big year," Black says. "There's something so pure about that."

"How do you know I'm not doing a big year?" Jones teases. (She isn't.)

It got me thinking. I've kind of been doing a "big decade." And I'm wondering if there's something impure about that.

You see, The Big Year was a milestone movie for me -- it was my 3,500th movie. And it was just a happy coincidence that a movie about setting a record ended up being that milestone movie. (Unlike my 3,000th movie, which I carefully orchestrated to be Mr. 3000, as discussed here.)

Every time I cross another threshold of 100 movies, I like it to be random what that 100th movie is -- I want it to be whatever I was "planning" to see anyway. Of course, I usually know I'm approaching the milestone, so there have to be some decisions made that result in me watching the movie I watch. There's every possibility of my much-cherished randomness being corrupted.

In this case, however, I can genuinely say it was totally random. It had been a week since the last movie I hadn't seen previously (it's been a busy time over here), so I had forgotten I was sitting on 3,498 when I went to the Redbox kiosk Saturday morning and picked up The Big Year. (The movie was a priority mostly because I have a friend who is a birder and works in the greater birding industry.) I planned to watch The Big Year while babysitting for some friends who were going out to see The Hunger Games on Saturday night. And even then, in order for it to be that 3,500th movie, my wife and I had to watch the wonderful documentary Marwencol that afternoon while our son was taking his nap. That was a chance viewing, one we were only able to do by getting home early from an activity we expected to take much longer.

But the fact that I even know it was my 3,500th movie is the result of two things: 1) The list of all the movies I've ever seen, which I have been maintaining for something like 22 years, and 2) The list of the order I've watched my movies, which I have been keeping since February of 2002. In fact, I had been planning to celebrate ten years of knowing the exact order of every new movie I've seen in the form of a blog post, but I simply forgot.

The thing that started my list, which I keep in a Microsoft Word document called "movie order" (creative title there), was watching my 1,500th movie on February 22, 2002. It was the Hughes brothers' documentary American Pimp, of all things. It's always easiest to start new ventures once you've reached a milestone, and voila -- a new obsessive list was born.

Ten years, one month and 20 days later, I have reached my 3,500th movie -- which means just over a decade to watch 2,000 more movies. That's an average of 200 new movies a year for ten years.

Do I need to check myself before I wreck myself?

I find myself thinking about that comment Black's character makes to Jones' character about the purity of her pursuits. As though there's something kind of gross about what he's doing, by comparison -- he's trying to "win." It almost doesn't matter that he truly loves birds, as well -- so much so that he can identify hundreds and hundreds of species just by their song. By introducing the concept of "being the best" and "winning" into the equation -- in other words, by trying to beat the record held by Owen Wilson's character -- he's somehow tainting the whole activity.

So switching from the obsessive seeing of birds to the obsessive seeing of movies, is there something crass and inelegant about my inexhaustible and unquenchable desire to watch more movies?

My first, defensive instinct is to say "no." I mean, I'm a certified film buff. Watching movies is what we do. I have always shown signs of being a film buff, it's just that there were times in my life when I had other priorities that prevented me from binging on movies. There would have been no other decade in my life when it would have been so easy for me to watch two thousand movies. Even if the available time has been there after the end of college (1995), the ease of watching these movies has been significantly lower until recently. With the advent of streaming video, you can watch a movie totally without premeditation.

But I do wonder if the mere act of recording your movie-watching milestones doesn't create a hunger to pass other milestones. Actually, I don't have to wonder -- I'd say it does. I recognize that behavior more in my year-to-year movie-watching pursuits than over the course of a decade. When I rank my new releases each year, which makes me keenly aware of how many current year movies I've seen, I'm always noting how I've done relative to myself in other years, and relative to others who are doing the same thing. (One in particular, though he always beats me by a huge amount so it's really no contest.) You could say that each year I watch movies is a "big year" for me. I'm always going for "the record," even if the current record holder is me.

And yeah, if I were just a couple away from the record before my deadline, you better bet I'd jam a few in, not because I necessarily want to, but because the record compels me. When Black, Wilson and Steve Martin are this close at the end of their big year, but it'll take a last-minute trip to some remote part of Alaska to get them this much closer, do you really think they want to? No, but the record compels them.

I guess the real way to determine whether this is a problem is whether I feel like I am merely compelled. Whether I watch movies out of duty, or out of love. And that really provides our definitive answer. I crave watching more movies because I love watching movies. And I love watching movies because movies offer entertainment, insight and emotional truth. And I'm always craving more of those things.

And if I'm always going to recognize and be aware of approaching milestones, so be it. That's the way I'm hard-wired. I'm a list maker and I love statistics (explaining also my love affair with baseball).

And every once in awhile, a little miracle comes along to remind me that I'm still a human being involved in pure pursuits.

Like, temporarily forgetting I was on the verge of watching my 3,500th movie.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

There's something about that squint

One unassailable truth about the 2012 movie season, shared by almost everyone I've talked to, seems to be that The Three Stooges will be an utter abomination.

Me, I don't know. I'm taking a wait and see approach. In fact, I'm not even going to look at its Metascore until after I've finished writing this.

Part of that has to do with the Farrelly Brothers. The veteran comedy writer-director duo made one of my favorite comedies of last year, Hall Pass. In the process, they at least temporarily reversed a decade of decline, which had culminated in their simply awful remake of The Heartbreak Kid a couple years ago.

The rest of it? Something about that squint.

That's right, the squint of Sean Hayes as Larry Fine is fascinating to me for reasons I can't entirely explain.

Well, here's one explanation: I've been looking at it every day for the past six weeks on my drive in to work. A massive Three Stooges poster has been plastered to the outside of a building I pass on my commute. As seen here:

About a week into its tenure on the side of this building -- a week spent mostly rolling my eyes, if I remember correctly -- I became sort of entranced by Sean Hayes' squint. And I can't really explain why, because I have no personal history whatsoever with the Three Stooges, and Hayes in particular is no great favorite of mine. In fact, he was one of the reasons I never truly became a Will & Grace fan.

But there's something about the look of befuddlement he captures here that intrigues me. I have to look at his squinting face every time I pass it, until I can no longer see it. It makes me chuckle.

I guess I am also feeling somewhat favorably inclined toward Will Sasso, who plays Curly, these days. I never watched him on Mad TV -- in fact, I felt that show was a pale imitator of Saturday Night Live and sort of disdained it. But he was on last season's short-lived sitcom Shit My Dad Says, and my wife and I, against our better nature, sort of dug that show. (What can I say, I love William Shatner.)

Of course, none of this translates to me actually seeing The Three Stooges in the theater. There's another movie coming out today, The Cabin in the Woods, that is probably my next target. In fact, I might have written about that today except that I've done a very good job avoiding most of the information about it. I understand that's as it should be with this film.

I do have what I think is a plan for seeing The Three Stooges, though -- despite the seeming ineptitude on display in the trailers, and the fact that they contain a cameo from Snooki. I said before that I was generally unfamiliar with the work of the real Three Stooges, right? Well, this seems to set itself up perfectly for my Getting Acquainted series, maybe for August or September, once the Farrellys' comedy has reached DVD. I'll watch three movies by the Three Stooges (one for each Stooge, you might say), then I'll finish up the month with The Three Stooges.

I suppose this movie could look a lot worse to me if I've just seen three of the Stooges' "classics." Then again, I don't know that I really will find them classic. This seems like a situation where I may just judge the new film based on how well the actors (the third of whom I've never heard of) impersonate the people they're impersonating.

And maybe I'll actually enjoy it. I mean, if Larry David's in it, it might be good, right?

Um ... right?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

"That's an idiom!" And other new thoughts on Titanic

I sat in front of possibly the smartest children ever last night at Titanic.

And when I say "children," I mean they were young. Two girls. Couldn't have been more than six and eight. And it's possible they were only four and six. (I'm better at judging the age of toddlers than little kids.)

I was worried at first whether I'd regret my choice of seat. This movie was set to run three hours and fifteen minutes, which could be anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes longer than these girls wanted to sit still. And when they talked a couple times at the start, I thought I might be in for a long night. Unless I moved, which would probably make their parents feel bad.

But they were extremely well behaved. They only got antsy around the time that (spoiler alert) Rose is floating on top of that ornate wooden door, with Jack fused to her in a frozen death grip. At that point one of them actually had to be taken out of the theater -- she was just done. But before that, they spaced out their random expulsions of commentary quite well, and never fussed.

And one of them may have said just about the most brilliant thing I've ever heard a child that age say.

Brassy Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) has realized that Jack can't show up to the fancy dinner in his steerage clothing, so she outfits him in her son's tuxedo, which is almost the perfect size for him. (Really, it's perfect -- you can't have the dashing Leo DiCaprio wearing a monkey suit that doesn't fit right.). When Brown admires her work in the mirror, she says "You shine up like a new penny!"

The little girl behind me said: "Dad, that's an idiom, right?"

Her dad: "Right."

Mind = blown.

One thing I did wonder was whether they were emotionally mature enough to watch the movie. Not only are there Kate Winslet's boobs and the mostly implied sex scene, but don't forget the little matter of the fifteen hundred people who died on the ship -- many of whom were left as floating corpses in the water, including a dead mother grasping her dead baby in her arms. That's heavy stuff. But the most I heard in terms of real trauma from them was afterward, when one of the girls proclaimed "Mommy, that was a very sad movie."

I have plenty of other thoughts on my viewing of Titanic. Do you have a couple minutes?

The only way to watch a 195-minute movie

I must admit the only thing I really dreaded about watching Titanic again was the length. I'd seen it twice in the theater and a third time on VHS. But that was when I was in my 20s, before the internet had truly destroyed my attention span.

How would I fare in a 195-minute movie at the ripe old age of 38?

My recent experience with watching very long movies is limited. The last two I've tackled have had very similar themes: Ben-Hur and Spartacus. When I watched Spartacus, it took most of the morning and early afternoon on a Saturday, maybe 5+ hours. But that's nothing compared to Ben-Hur. In part because of my circumstances watching it (later at night, after my wife went to sleep), I watched the damn thing in four consecutive 45-minute sittings from a Monday night to a Thursday night.

After last night I realized: The only proper way to watch a movie of such impressive girth is in the theater. There's no temptation to pause and check your email, to make yourself a snack, to go to the bathroom, just to take a breath. The movie doesn't allow you a break. You've got to do it all in one shot, which means you are certain to accomplish the feat (unless you fall asleep, that is).

With Titanic, it was all the better because I didn't have to worry about my bladder, nor falling asleep. If I needed to go to the bathroom, I'd just leave and go to the bathroom. I've seen this movie before. I know what happens and when there are slow moments. (Not many, really.) If nature calls, I can answer. And if sleep calls, I can oblige.

And, psychologically, because I had these options open to me, I didn't have to go to the bathroom and I never came close to nodding off. Well, I had to go to the bathroom by the time I left, but I was even considering holding it until I got home.

James Cameron does nothing halfway

Another big fear many people had about this 3D release of Titanic was the dreaded c-word: "conversion." Namely, in the short history of converting 2D movies to 3D, the process has been almost universally derided as unsuccessful and in fact pointless. The extra dimension derived from this process has, traditionally, been paper thin and utterly perfunctory.

But those people didn't remember that James Cameron does nothing halfway.

If he was going to convert Titanic to 3D, he was going to do it in such a way that the naysayers simply had no ammunition. And by golly, he pulled it off.

I heard Cameron interviewed the other day on NPR, and he said that $16 million went into the 3D conversion of Titanic -- which must be three times the cost associated with converting most movies. (And it made that total back immediately on its $17 million opening weekend.) He also listed some number of years it took them to do it, which could have been anywhere from three to eight. Needless to say, he was involved intimately in every step of the process.

So did you really think he would not pull it off?

I would say that the 3D ranged from more than competent to simply astounding. He achieves an incredible depth of field, which was also an inarguable strength of Avatar. The same technology was doubtless involved. (Yes, I know that Avatar was shot with special cameras, but some of the same revolutionary principles of 3D were no doubt utilized here.)

One thing I wondered was whether watching a 3D movie for over three hours would give me a headache, but the only lasting physical remnant of the experience was a dent on the bridge of my nose where the glasses had rested. It stayed there for at least the next two hours until I went to bed.

James Cameron can also draw out the tension

One thing I noticed on this viewing is how well Cameron milks the sense of tension out of every scenario. There were a couple times I noticed my body rigid with uncertainty about how a scene would turn out, even though this would be my fourth viewing of Cameron's epic.

One scene in particular that really stressed me out was when Rose seeks help to free Jack of his handcuffs. I really noticed how Cameron draws that scene out, demonstrating the couple false starts she makes before finally happening upon the axe as the only way to snap his bonds. You can really see the way her mind wants to collapse under the strain of trying to figure out what to do under the intense pressure of the situation. And even though I knew the waters below deck would not drown Jack, for a tense ten minutes or so, Cameron convinced me it might be otherwise.

The one Michael Bay moment

People who really want to hurt Cameron's feelings might compare him to Michael Bay, which most everyone else would agree is unfair. However, there are some similarities in the scope and themes of the projects they take on, and neither is known for working with particularly subtle dialogue. In fact, there's even a parody trailer for something called Titanic Super 3D going around right now, where the joke is that Rose's loogie literally flies out into the audience, and other creative talents (George Lucas, J.J. Abrams) teamed up with Cameron to make the movie more "super." The segment detailing Bay's contribution shows explosions everywhere you look on the boat, from plates falling to the ground to people bursting into flame as they hit the water.

But there was one single shot that reminded me of something you would see in a Michael Bay movie, and it's that scene where Rose and Jack turn a corner down a new hallway, to escape the wall of water that has just consumed the man and his son behind them. It's done in slow mo and you can see the water crashing behind them, almost as though they were running from an explosion. You know the shot I'm talking about. And it doesn't really help that their running doesn't look particularly urgent in this shot -- that's the kind of thing Bay would miss, not Cameron. (Then again, with that water crashing behind them, maybe they couldn't afford to do many additional takes to get it right.)

An impressive use of extras

One thing that unfailingly impresses me about older epics is how amazingly they choreograph the extras. If Titanic had been made today, it wouldn't have needed all those real people. A lot of those extras would have been digital, and we would have been the lesser for it.

By being forced to go old school -- because the new school hadn't been invented yet -- Cameron gives us a living, breathing sense of being there.

Yes, there are digital effects in Titanic. The sweeping "helicopter shots" of the boat are often done on the computer, and you can really tell sometimes. But there's an impressively small reliance on digital imagery in general. Most of the scenes of people clambering all over each other involve real people, each with their own "character," each with their own set of motivations and back stories, even if only because the extras themselves chose to work out those motivations and back stories. You really notice a thing like that. There isn't some extra off in the corner of the frame who's been programmed on a repeating loop of random, slightly robotic panic. Those panicked people are real.

The framing device

One of the brilliant things about Titanic that gets overlooked is Cameron's decision to set the action in the present and have Rose tell the story of what happened in flashback. It would have been incredibly easy to just tell a straightforward Titanic story that all takes place within those three days in 1912. But it's 20-25 minutes before we even see our first images of the boat in its initial majesty, rather than just existing as a rusting hulk at the bottom of the ocean.

It never occurred to me before to actively think about this as one of the movie's strengths. Since I was so smitten with this movie when I first saw it -- and my opinion of it hasn't really changed much in 15 years -- I tend to think of everything about it as a strength. But on this viewing I specifically pondered the effectiveness of that framing device. No, you can't really say that Bill Paxton's character undergoes a very complicated growth over the course of the narrative. He's really just a guy who's only in it for the money, then does a 180 and starts to really "see it," as he says. But it's great to have that part of the story there to ground us in the present. (Besides, without that, we wouldn't have had Gloria Swanson's wonderful performance.)

DiCaprio ages, Winslet doesn't

I couldn't help thinking as I watched this movie that the 2012 Winslet looks almost exactly like the 1997 Winslet, yet DiCaprio looks quite a bit older. That's even while acknowledging that he still has a baby face.

The whistle

As moved as I tend to be by Winslet meekly mustering the words "Come back! Come back!" to the lifeboat at the end, what really moves me about that scene is the strident look on her face as she blows into that whistle she grabbed off a nearby corpse. This woman was bathed in doubts only two days earlier, but in this moment, she's choosing life, and wants the whole word to know it. She really will never give up.

The old couple lying in bed

Is once again the thing that got me the most.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Programming note

Tonight's regularly scheduled installment of Lady's Choice Movie Night has been preempted so I can go see Titanic.

Actually, the series has been pushed to Wednesday altogether, and it's not just because of Titanic. It's because Rave Motion Pictures at the Howard Hughes Center, a nice and luxurious theater, has introduced $7 movies all day on Tuesdays. At those prices, it simply doesn't make sense to have a recurring conflict on Tuesday nights. At those prices, either my wife or I should be going to a movie every week.

I went for the first time last Tuesday, when I caught The Hunger Games and then snuck into Casa de Mi Padre. So it actually ended up being only $3.50 per movie.

No way I'm sneaking in to another movie after Titanic, even though the 6:30 screening time means that I could. The damn thing is 195 minutes long. Which kind of scares the hell out of me. The good thing is, I've already seen it, so if I need to go to the bathroom, I'll just go.

And actually, Titanic will be more than $7, because the price of 3D still has to be tacked on. But I think it's only $2, or at the most $3, so I'll still be seeing three hours and 15 minutes worth of movie, in 3D, for ten bucks or less.

I know you don't care about this programming change. I just thought I would let you know.

And maybe, there'll be a post tomorrow about my Titanic experience. "Best 3D conversion yet," I've heard.

We'll see.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

When movies imprinted themselves

Before this past weekend, I'd seen Swingers only once all the way through.

According to my records, I'd seen The Silence of the Lambs more than once -- but it couldn't have been more than twice, and I'm even doubting that, because I don't remember sitting down for Silence of the Lambs a second time. In any case, my second viewing would have been in the early to mid 90s.

Yet I remembered almost everything about these movies. Their great scenes had been seared into my brain. Imprinted, you might say.

Wondering why that doesn't seem to happen anymore.

With movies I watch now, I quickly forget the details. In fact, sometimes I've forgotten the details by the very next day.

Now granted, these are not the most fair examples to choose. Both Swingers and Silence of the Lambs have classic lines of dialogue and iconic imagery that have been parodied multiples times. And I'm sure I've seen parts of each movie more recently than the 1990s. They're such modern classics that you're also seeing clips of them in clip packages on various awards shows. These two movies are the furthest thing from passing trifles ... even though Swingers may have been designed as a passing trifle.

But it still amazed me how many parts in each movie I was looking forward to seeing again, how many quotable lines I was expecting to rear their heads.

The old "they don't make 'em like they used to" sentiment, which seems to be at play in almost any analysis of any art form, certainly factors in here. I certainly think it's true that the great movies from the 1990s are greater than the great movies from the 2000s. It may just be too soon to truly appreciate the great movies from the 2000s, nor have we had enough time pass to get as intimately familiar with them as with their forbears. But I suspect the great movies from the 1990s were actually greater.

(And just to prove to you that I don't merely think each decade is greater than the one that came after, I also think the 1990s have a leg up on the 1980s. I may have guilty pleasures that I love for personal reasons from the 1980s -- many of them, in fact -- but I would surmise that the 1990s produced better movies on average. To say this, I must set aside the obvious personal favorites produced by the 1980s, such as my top three movies on Flickchart: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future and Raising Arizona. Yep, I think that overall, films from the 1990s may have been better.)

But I don't want to get off track here. The question brought on by watching Swingers and Silence of the Lambs yesterday was this:

Have the movies changed, or have I?

Well, I know I've changed in some ways -- ways that may or may not be important in the overall scheme of things. For one, I was a far more selective viewer when Swingers and Silence of the Lambs hit theaters than I am now. When Lambs came out, I was a senior in high school, and needless to say did not have the same amount of unprogrammed personal time to fritter away on movies. The outlook was slightly improved by 1996, when Swingers debuted. I was out of college and could theoretically watch all the movies I wanted. But watching movies was still more of a commitment than it is now, as you had to pay individually for all rentals, rather than just catching them streaming as you pleased.

So what I'm wondering is whether movies don't imprint themselves on me the way they once did, simply because I'm letting each one sit with me for less time as I scurry on to the next.

Back then, I may have watched only 100 movies in a given calendar year. Now, it's upwards of 250. There have to be some consequences of that ... don't there?

I'd like to think that only today's forgettable movies would be forgotten, and the parts of my brain devoted to recalling movies would occupy themselves with the great ones instead. If that were the case, my capacity for movie-related random access memory would be undiminished.

Yet I feel like it probably is diminished. One phenomenon I've been discussing with my wife is that I will often forget what specific things I found so funny in a movie that left me in stitches. I'll sit down for a kind of post-mortem on the movie, either with a friend or in my own head -- a necessary ritual to processing and help imprinting what was so enjoyable about it. And I'll be grasping for straws. I find it crucial to savor and replay the great comedy bits, but I'm not as able as I once was. I usually need to see the film a second time -- even if it was really good -- before it will imprint.

I guess it could just be that I have lower standards for what I consider "really good." Perhaps it's all relative. Perhaps I remember Silence of the Lambs and Swingers so well because my current definition of "really good" pales in comparison to my definition of "really good" from 1991 or 1996. I may think I'm feeling as fondly toward today's movies as I felt toward those movies, but it's only because I'm comparing them to such worse movies. I can see how that's a good thing, on a purely practical level, because I'm kind of addicted to the thrill of discovery and the ecstatic feeling of joy that comes along with it. If I were comparing all movies I see today to the greatest movies I've ever seen, I might be in for a lot of disappointment.

Or it could just be that my brain doesn't work as well as it used to. Old(er) age can do that to a person. So can poor quantities of sleep.

But it was nice to know that even if my short-term memory appears to be diminished, at least where films are concerned, the long-term memory is in fine working order.

Which is why I felt myself quelling the urge to quote movies I'd seen approximately once, approximately 16 to 20 years ago.

And I'll go out on a limb and say that when it comes to movies like Swingers and Silence of the Lambs, they really don't make 'em like they used to.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A jubilant end to Han Solo's trials

I'm not a Christian -- in fact, I'm not religious at all. But on this Easter Sunday, I am in fact celebrating a resurrection of sorts.

It's not the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It's the resurrection of Han Solo.

The following just plain makes me happy.

It's a so-called "play-through" of a segment of action in the Star Wars game for XBox 360 Kinect. If you're not familiar with the Kinect, it's a camera-like object that sits atop your television and is able to record your movements and incorporate them into the game.

I wouldn't ordinarily be up on such technology, but I happened to play a game called Fruit Ninja on an XBox 360 Kinect last fall at a friend's birthday party. In this particular game, a bunch of fruit gets tossed up in the air and you karate chop it in half by moving your arms and legs. The camera picks up your movements and slices the fruit into pieces. (But watch out for the bombs, or you will lose points.)

Now I desperately want to play this particular game. There are a number of different scenes involving other songs and other Star Wars characters, some of them pretty funny. (You'll want to check out Darth Vader and the Emperor doing a dance-off to some awesome techno song.) But none of them approach the sheer ecstatic delight this sequence produces in me.

It was posted to the Flickcharter group on Facebook, and I have now watched it approximately ten times. There's something about it I just totally connect with (no pun intended).

The song is a version of Jason Derulo's song "Ridin' Solo," but with Star Wars-themed lyrics. I had never heard this song before, and I almost immediately went to buy it from the itunes store -- then didn't, because the original version has nothing on this one, if you ask me. This one, however -- it works for me incredibly well, even though Derulo's brand of music is not something I'm ordinarily into.

The lyrics have been adjusted so that they relate to the resolution of Han Solo's plights in the Star Wars universe. "I'm so happy the carbonite is gone." He discusses getting into the Falcon with a Wookie by his side, and also going to see a princess. It's like he's singing to the heavens after his release from a period of intense trials, and the jubilation is contagious. (Something about that "trash compactor" move, where he reaches for the sky, brings it all home so well.)

You'll have to disregard the fact that the venue for this dance-off between him and Lando Calrissian (another nice touch) is the very location of his greatest challenge, where the aforementioned carbonite freezing occurs. But I can easily overlook it, because this chamber -- host to both his freezing and a later duel between Luke and Darth Vader -- makes a terrific dance location. I love all the Bespin go-go dancers (Bespinettes?) in their signature purple outfits around the perimeter, and perhaps the greatest touch in the whole thing is Lobot spinning tunes from his perch above.

I have to say, especially with his bald head and a permanent "headset" attached to it, Lobot was born to be a DJ.

The feeling of exaltation I get watching this video has caused me to watch it nearly a dozen times in the last 24 hours. I just can't get enough of it. I don't know if these were a random series of moves produced on this particular recording of the game, or whether they are the same moves every time, but damn, they go so well with this song. And I love thinking of it as this moment of triumph for Han Solo -- a moment that actually arrives, in the series, on Endor, after the Death Star has exploded at the end of Return of the Jedi.

You can think of Solo as the greatest suffering character of the whole series -- he submits to incredible torture in Cloud City, and is for all intents and purposes dead when frozen in carbonite. (He's at the whims of anyone and what they might want to do to him, let's at least put it that way.) Not only all that, but he's not even a "true believer" -- he makes all these sacrifices not out of an ideological commitment to the principles of the rebellion, but just because it's the right thing to do.

His reward? A ship still intact, a bunch of new friends, renewed ties with an old friend, the continued companionship of his furry best friend, status as a hero, and a beautiful princess at his side.

If I were him, I'd want to sing my thanks to the heavens as well.

It doesn't even matter that my favorite moment of this whole video belongs to Lando, when he strikes the "Han Solo pose" and a cascade of blue light appears from behind him, giving the song its final moment of triumphant glory.

Han Solo is reborn. To quote the song, he's feeling like a star and you can't stop his shine.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Truth in titling

The American Pie series is hardly the first series to participate in the revitalization trend of the past few years. I'm calling it a "revitalization trend" because that covers both reboots, which the latest American Pie movie is not, and delayed sequels, which the latest American Pie movie is.

However, American Reunion may have the most truthful title of any of them.

Because isn't that what these series revitalizations really are? Reunions for the cast and crew? And also for the audiences who loved these movies the first time around, and are now trying to indulge in the nostalgia that is part and parcel to the whole concept of a reunion?

That's why these reboots/delayed sequels get so many of the original participants to come back into the fold. If you are a self-respecting actor who has gone on to a successful career, it's hard to get too enthused about the umpteenth straightforward sequel to the successful original movie you were in. Umpteenth sequels are played out. However, dress it up as sort of a reboot, sort of a delayed sequel -- as a reunion -- and you can get those people back. They're on board because it's "special" -- because you are openly acknowledging it's a trip down memory lane, an attempt to "get the band back together," rather than just soldiering on through a series of ordinary sequels whose only purpose is to make more money. (Of course, that's the only purpose of these reunions as well -- but by thinking of them as reunions, the actors can fool themselves into thinking it's more profound than that.)

I mean, what kind of curmudgeon doesn't want to go to a good reunion? As long as reunions are infrequent enough, it's the one time when the ironic and the sardonic can let themselves off the hook for having the detestable desire to care about something. If they go to a reunion ironically, it doesn't matter if they enjoy themselves genuinely.

Of course, movies like American Reunion don't only get back the really successful alums who have gone on to bigger and brighter things. (Most of the American Pie cast has not, actually -- but you could include Seann William Scott, Alyson Hannigan and possibly John Cho in that category). They also get back the actors who can only find work in movies in this series. Which, sadly for these folks, includes most of the rest of the cast.

The result? Everyone comes back, and you have the conditions in place for a possible -- possible -- hit.

Now, American Reunion may not be the greatest example overall. For one, most of this cast appeared in 2003's American Wedding, save only Chris Klein among the main characters as far as I can tell. (I haven't actually seen that movie.) For another, American Wedding was not technically the most recent movie in this series. The American Pie series includes about 17 straight-to-video sequels whose only representative from the original cast is Eugene Levy as "Jim's dad." (I don't think the character actually has a name -- I think his name is "Jim's dad.")

But we can see this same pattern in other franchises. The one that really struck me was 2009's Fast and Furious, which was pretty much a total reunion of the cast of The Fast and the Furious eight years earlier. The movie itself did not get great notices, but it was enough of a hit that it spawned another sequel that got both a good box office and some love from the critics.

The fact that Vin Diesel deigned to be in each of these past two movies is a bit of a mixture of both phenomena that can cause someone to come back for one of these reunions. In one sense, he was the big shot coming back to grace the little shots with his presence, and because it was "special," his reputation wouldn't be tainted by it. But on the other hand, Diesel hasn't really panned out to be the kind of box office star he thought he'd be -- so he actually really needed this work. And once others show their interest -- such as Dwayne Johnson, who appeared in Fast Five -- it's no longer just an "ironic reunion." It might, just might, become an ongoing force among franchises, fresh and genuinely revitalized.

I don't think that's necessarily going to happen here. I don't think we'll be seeing American Reunion 2 or anything like that. I mean, Stifler's jokes in the ads feel pretty musty, and truthfully, this cast is full of a bunch of has-beens. Even Seann William Scott is not getting the work he got two or three years ago. The poster pretty much acknowledges this reality, recommending that we (the viewer) "save the best piece for last." (Because that's definitely something no franchise has ever done -- say it's the last movie when it really isn't.)

So maybe this reunion will indeed just serve as their last hurrah, their chance to get together one more time, maybe give the audience a little last piece of what they loved from American Pie. It'll allow everyone to celebrate their own glory days one last time -- to fool themselves, momentarily, into thinking that what was is what still could be.