Saturday, July 28, 2012

Which of these things is not like the others?

No, not what you're thinking. And by the way, how dare you?

He's not different because he's black. He's not different because he's British. He's not different because he wears glasses. He's not different because he has big hair. (Speaking as a fellow Big Hair, I sympathize.)

Richard Ayoade is different from these others because he's not famous.

Were there not clearly four main stars of this film, but maybe seven or eight guys who qualify, the poster would probably just advertise the existence of Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill. (In that order, I guess, though you could argue that Hill is currently the most successful.) But since The Watch offers up a main foursome of funnymen, that guy from the IT Crowd with a hard-to-pronounce last name gets billed alongside the household names.

They have made sure that his name and body are both pushed all the way to the right. At least they've done that.

Of course, I don't endorse some kind of exclusionary club where only actors whose movies have grossed x number of dollars at the box office are welcome. I merely think it's interesting to note how the understandable need to follow a certain advertising structure that's true to the movie can cause an up-and-comer to be promoted from the minor leagues.

In some ways it gives off the impression that the studio is trying to "make Richard Ayoade happen." Casting him in this role alongside the other heavyweights is actually what's trying to make him happen, not the advertising. But it might make the casual viewer ask "Richard Coyote? Am I supposed to know who that is?"

I know who he is, of course. Not only was he in the IT Crowd -- a show I've seen bits of here and there, and should have seen more because I actually work in IT -- but he directed a film that was pretty well-liked last year called Submarine. (Not necessarily well-liked by me -- although it showed a lot of talent, I found it a bit too derivative of a film like Rushmore.) Stiller was a producer on Submarine, so Ayoade's appearance in this film is not too surprising. Ayoade also had a bit part in a movie I recently saw and really enjoyed called Bunny and the Bull, but this would certainly qualify as the least-known of his credits.

So the reason I was probably inspired to write this post at all is because we don't usually see a relative unknown thrust into such a position of poster prominence. There's only so much real estate on a movie poster, and it's usually reserved for people whose name is going to help sell the movie to prospective viewers.

If I were being very cynical, I'd say the studio didn't care so much about Richard Ayoade's name as his face. The casting of a token minority among a group of white dudes, primarily to sell tickets to minority demographics, has a long history in Hollywood, certainly before Ernie Hudson showed up as Winston Zeddmore, a.k.a. the fourth Ghostbuster. Although I say I'm being cynical in attributing these motivations, I'm actually in favor of this kind of thing in general. I mean, every time I watch a movie that features only white people, my political correctness alarms start going off all over the place and I feel a little icky.

So I guess I'm glad Fox didn't take the "this guy's not famous, let's leave him off the poster" approach. That decision might have ended up sticking out more than including him, especially once people had seen the movie and realized he shares an equal amount of screen time with the Big Three. (I'm guessing he does, anyway -- from the ads, it appears that these four are inseparable throughout.)

And I suspect we're going to be glad that someone's "making Ayoade happen." From what I've seen of him, he seems like a pretty appealing comic presence. In fact, he may soon start steadily shifting to the left in poster group shots featuring three or more people.

So for the record: It's pronounced "eye-oh-WA-dee," according to IMDB.

Friday, July 27, 2012

My life as a POV movie

Last night, instead of taking a cab or a shuttle from the airport to my office, I walked.

That's right, I walked right out of the city-sized behemoth known as Los Angeles International Airport, all the way back to my office.

Okay, so it was a trip of only about three miles. But they were three treacherous miles, involving several searches for acceptable pedestrian walkways, and traversing a dark expanse of landscape lit only by the lamps of the planes passing above.

But first, some background.

As I was returning from what was something of a disastrous business trip to Albuquerque, I became absorbed in the magnificent southwestern terrain below. This Means War wasn't holding my interest, so I stole frequent glances at the impressive rock formations and unyielding deserts in all their majesty. I continued to look down with the interest of a child as we approached LAX from the south, having become much more accustomed to approaching from the east. The game of trying to identify landmarks and freeways took on an unusual fascination for me.

It was in this contemplative mood that I decided I wasn't going to hail a cab or find the free shuttle that drops passengers off at the metro stop near my office. I was going to strike out and walk. It was only 8:10 when the plane landed, and there was a welcome coolness in the air. Besides, I was feeling a bit of undue guilt for having to change my flight and cost my company hundreds of extra dollars, both in the flight change itself and the late-returned rental car. (Undue because it was just a "shit happens" situation, not my fault.) Anyway, I couldn't conceive of adding a cab receipt to the rising total of expenditures they had to reimburse me.

By the time I decided I was really doing this, it was 8:29, and I emerged from the terminal amidst the sea of weary travelers trying to make it the last leg home. It was only moments later that I began to imagine them as a throng of extras in a movie, with my eyes as the camera. Each represented a story, only a two- or three-second snippet of which the viewers would get to see.

It wasn't the first time I had imagined my perceptions as some familiar type of art form. When I was maybe 12 or 13, I sometimes used to "write" what was happening in my life in my head, as it was happening -- as though practicing to write a novel told in the first person. This hobby, probably better described as a quirk, shows the roots of my interest in becoming a writer. Certainly, I wouldn't do it all the time -- there were times when I was too much of an active participant in conversation or other pursuits to be fiddling away with an internal narration. But in contemplative moments when I was walking somewhere or mostly just observing my surroundings, my inner narrator would document my life in detail.

Then there were times when I imagined myself to be in a video game. It was usually in a situation involving crowds, when navigating the crowd efficiently could easily be the object of a series of joystick moves. I think I first remember envisioning this video game aesthetic in a crowded grocery store or an airport, when I imagined being awarded points for degree of difficulty in squeezing my cart through a narrow opening, or avoiding a small child who suddenly thrust himself into my path.

But last night was the first time I can remember consciously thinking that my eyes would serve as excellent cameras in a wordless, real-time film. Something about embarking forth from one of the largest airports in the world inspired this in me.

As I progressed from terminal 4 to 5 to 6 to 7, completing the second half of the U that comprises the LAX arrival level, my camera caught the faces of all brands of humanity: solo young men smoking cigarettes, small families with young children dragging their luggage on metal carts, homeland security officers getting off duty for the night, a group of Japanese schoolchildren. They all passed me by, or I them -- first in the distance, then in the foreground, then disappearing away from my peripheral vision. Each with somewhere to go, and no idea that they were being filmed.

The outskirts of the arrival level brought the first transition of the unfolding scenery. I laughed to note that outside the airport police station, there was a "pet resting area," complete with a little doghouse and a sign at its doorway with the name of a presumably beloved police pet. As all the pedestrian traffic had died away, this was a sight that few ever saw, too busy were they speeding away to their destinations in some kind of motorized conveyance.

My aim was to walk down Century Boulevard, the main thoroughfare that feeds into LAX. But the car traffic reaches said boulevard by an upward sloping ramp which has no sidewalks. I needed to figure out another way to get there.

The sidewalk actually led me down Sepulveda Boulevard to the south, but I knew that was a dead end. Sepulveda goes under the runways through a half-mile-long tunnel not long after it leaves the terminal area, and I doubted there would be safe passage in that direction.

Fortunately, I found an alternate way in the opposite direction on Sepulveda that was totally pedestrian approved. Crossing Sepulveda and its many jersey barriers seemed like it might be an insurmountable obstacle, but there ahead, as a symbol of the legitimacy of my crazy scheme, lay a crosswalk which would bring me over to Century.

Century Boulevard is home to numerous sky-scraping hotels, restaurants and businesses that make their money on travelers, but also to a large number of industrial warehouses where the peripheral aspects of air travel are produced and housed. It was a thrill to see the large illuminated posts, which run down the median of Century and terminate in the airport, up close. They seemed more luminescent than usual, probably because I usually behold them through the windshield of a car, and only for a moment before looking away again.

As I proceeded west on Century, I continued to document the faces of the people I passed. They took on a different tenor from the faces I had passed earlier, as these people were not involved directly in the logistics and general exhaustion of travel. Some were back and forth from hotels and restaurants, looking hopeful about an exciting trip that might begin early the next morning. Others rode bikes home from their work in the greater air travel industry. Still others had no purpose I could immediately fathom.

Further down Century, the types of business became a bit more commonplace: fast food restaurants, parking structures. My camera took in the billboards that stretched along the thoroughfare, advertising essential aspects of the Los Angeles experience, from Hollywood to surfing to strip clubs.

As the illuminated columns grew shorter and eventually dropped off altogether, I knew it was time for another tonal shift in my film. I turned south on Aviation Boulevard, leaving behind the hustle and bustle of Century Boulevard and beginning a stretch that would be dark and almost totally devoid of people.

Aviation Boulevard runs along the west edge of the LAX airfields, meaning that after a token business or two at the start, it quickly ceases to have any buildings altogether. Here is when I allowed myself to get a little spooked. The oddest sight my camera witnessed was a homeless man sleeping on the stoop of one of the last industrial buildings before the road gave way to barren land on either side. It wasn't that there was a homeless man sleeping there, but rather, that he was accompanied by a radio emitting loud, jarring, static-filled music that did not resemble any genre I had ever heard before. I moved on quickly.

Although I had given up the protection of regular street lamps and thrust myself into the unknown, I traded that for something truly enthralling: the passing of planes overhead. This part of the road was largely untraveled, especially at night, so I was out there alone, with just the planes passing over me. They came at intervals of every one to two minutes, and whenever they did, I would stop and look up as their impressive size overtook me, and I could feel the sound of their engines in my skin. I guess I haven't done things like this much in my life, as it left my totally awestruck.

At only one point did anyone else pass me, and before it was going to happen, I steeled myself for the unknown. But I quickly realized that it was an adult and a child, and let my concerns go slack. I imagine they were more worried about me, a solo man walking this godforsaken path in the dark of night. But I like to think I put them at ease as well with a friendly hello.

I looked back regularly to make sure no one was going to overtake me from behind, because that's where I felt most vulnerable. With cars speeding by in the dark next to me on one side and a barbed-wire fence on the other, I had little hope of escaping if someone had any designs on me, and they'd certainly have the element of surprise in their favor. And I did see a pair approaching from behind at some distance. I never lingered to admire a passing aircraft long enough for them to close the gap.

At last a beacon of familiarity materialized on the horizon: The Proud Bird. The Proud Bird is a restaurant frequented mostly by old folks these days, the kind of stodgy old eating establishment whose walls are festooned with black and white photos, in this case of the halcyon days of aviation. The food is fancy-terrible, but the place holds a certain fondness for many people, as its grounds are filled with all sorts of old biplanes that have been grounded for decades. As I passed, I saw a trio of post-dinner acquaintances looking up along with me at the impressive landings overhead.

Finally it was time to make the last turn of my journey, onto Imperial Highway, where my office is the first at the southwest corner of the intersection. As I made two crossings to get on the correct side of the road, I admired the mammoth concrete structure running above Imperial Highway, otherwise known as the 105 Freeway. Again I was seeing something I was unaccustomed to seeing when just traveling by car. I also took note of a funny little concrete sign reading "Welcome to El Segundo" along the south side of Imperial Highway. What was so funny about it was that not only was it really very small to be appreciated by the passing traffic, but it was facing the opposite direction from flow of traffic on that side of the road. In that case, I'm glad I was there to pay it heed.

At last I entered the parking lot, which was (to my surprise) not entirely empty. Three other cars joined my car, giving it company while it dealt with the emotional trauma of being abandoned by its owner 36 hours earlier. When I put my hand on the door handle, 59 minutes had passed since I began my walk. I'd hoped for an even hour, but I tell it to you like it actually happened.

Come to think of it, I doubt that many people would have the stomach for a 59-minute real-time movie about my walk back to my car from LAX.

But for me, it was one of the most strangely exhilarating things I have experienced in some time.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A displaced Wanderlust

You might say that my copy of Wanderlust went a-wanderin'.

And by "my copy" I mean the copy I picked up at a Redbox in Van Nuys, California, and returned to a Redbox in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I've long known that you can allegedly return a Redbox rental to "any kiosk," and I decided my business trip to Albuquerque was the perfect time to put that to the test.

Any kiosk? Not just "any kiosk in the greater metropolitan area where you live"? We'll see. 

And what more perfect movie than a movie about the yearning to find yourself through travel?

Wanderlust is not actually so much about that as about finding yourself in a different living scenario, so the title is a bit of a misnomer. But nevertheless.

I watched all but 15 minutes of it on my brief 90-minute flight, sitting comfortable alone on my half of the aisle. (I had no choice but to be alone -- on this tiny American Eagle jet, there was only one seat per row on the left side of the plane.) Then I finished the remaining 15 minutes in my hotel after dinner before striking out to see Ted in the theater.

After Ted -- a screening that was nearly twice nixed by the GPS giving me bad directions -- I survived a dead-battery-in-my-rental-car scare at just after midnight, and returned Wanderlust to a Walgreens whose address I had specifically looked up earlier in order to accomplish this very feat.

Upon inserting the DVD, I thought I had caught Redbox in a lie. It balked at the insertion, claiming I did not have it properly oriented. I thought, "This is how they get out of their 'any kiosk' guarantee. Give you some other error until you finally give up and bring it back home to where you rented it."

But upon my second insertion, in I swear the exact same orientation, it accepted my return with the usual amount of politeness and gratitude. "Hah!" I exclaimed, and got back into my rental car in the desolate Walgreens parking lot.

As for the movies I watched on this business trip, which has not quite ended yet as I sit in the Albuquerque airport, drinking a much-deserved beer after having to delay my return six hours as a result of a very stressful crisis that ultimately got resolved?

I didn't so much care for Ted, but Wanderlust! David Wain, you've finally connected with me.

Happy trails on your way back to Los Angeles, Wanderlust -- or wherever you may find yourself next. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What information to reveal, when?

In watching Christopher Smith's movie Triangle on Saturday, there were (appropriately) three instances when I was inspired to reveal information about the film that maybe I shouldn't have. One was before the film and two were during. Two also (not the same two) were instances where I actually revealed the info, and in one instance I kept my mouth shut.

But let me start by telling you a thing or two about this film, which worked very well for me despite the fact that a close scrutiny of its narrative structure might uncover all sorts of logical flaws.

A group of six friends (three men, three women) leave a Florida harbor on a beautiful morning for a day of sailing. Included in these friends is a woman (Melissa George) who seems a bit shell-shocked, like she can't exactly remember the events leading up to this moment in time. As they get out on the water, some unusual changes in the weather -- which seem localized to exactly where they are on the water -- portend ominous things to come.

Which is all I really want to say about it until I've given you a spoiler warning. Here it is: Mild spoilers to follow, but only about the kind of movie it is, not about actual things that happen in the plot. So in other words, you won't be too disappointed if you keep reading, and it shouldn't affect your enjoyment -- especially if you realize that the triangle of the title is the Bermuda Triangle, where weird things are always afoot.


Triangle had come up for discussion in the Flickchart group on Facebook sometime in the past year. The larger theme of the discussion was: mind-bender movies you may not have seen, which may or may not have to do with time travel. Also discussed were Timecrimes and Primer, the former of which I love and the latter of which I most certainly do not love.

It's rare enough these days that my wife and I watch movies together -- two a week at most -- that I feel like I need to sell each suggestion to her in order for her to agree to it. I probably don't; in fact, she loves not knowing anything about a particular film before she sees it. But when I've got a movie I want to watch, I immediately start planning out the sales pitch, to make the movie seem more enticing to her. So in this case I explained that the movie had come up in a discussion of Timecrimes and Primer.

My wife didn't balk at the information, or tell me she wished I hadn't revealed it. But as we started watching, I wished I hadn't revealed it. Knowing that other people had compared this movie to two time travel movies, I was immediately second guessing everything I saw on screen, instead of being lulled into a false sense of the movie's straightforwardness by what seemed like an ordinary boating trip on a beautiful Florida day. In fact, before the movie started, I hadn't even known that Triangle referred to the Bermuda Triangle. So if I hadn't known there was going to be a supernatural element at play, I mightn't have suspected anything from this innocent beginning.

Of course, I had to know something was up because I knew it was a thriller/horror. Clearly this was not going to be a movie about people taking a pleasant sail and then returning home unscathed.

So how much is too much? You need some information to get you in the door. Without movie websites telling you things like "People who liked this also liked this," you might not even know a particular movie existed. In fact, that may have been how those who recommended Triangle to me learned about it in the first place. Maybe they saw Timecrimes, and then Triangle was recommended as a similar movie. (Note: If you are worried that I have spoiled Triangle for you in some way, worry not -- calling it similar to Timecrimes and Primer is in many ways a red herring, and the very specific thing it has in common with Timecrimes is not what you would expect at all.)

My wife, who didn't like the movie as much as I did, didn't scold me one bit for telling her that it was similar to these other movies. She didn't say it affected her expectations, or anything like that; in fact, she didn't mention this advanced knowledge whatsoever. She did, however, scold me about yet again taking her out of a movie by identifying one of the actors as someone who once appeared in something else.


See, one of the compulsive things I do that pisses my wife off the most is to point out actors on screen as the movie is going. "Hey, it's so-and-so." Or "Hey, that's the guy who was in such-and-such."

Objectively, it's an annoying habit. I will own that. But certain viewing companions -- my wife not being one of them -- would actually benefit from something like this. If they are like me, they get something out of recognizing that this actor appeared in that other movie, and they want to know about it at the time so they can appreciate it. If they are like me, they like figuring out the way the cinematic universe fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, how many degrees people are removed from each other, and the twists and turns in people's careers.

My wife, however, represents the much more sizable majority of viewers who want to get lost in the movie, and see that person only as a character. The nerve.

I may be slow on the uptake, but believe me, by now I know that my wife doesn't countenance such interruptions. Especially since she gave me a pretty definitive tongue-lashing (with a half smile, of course) on the subject recently. However, Triangle represented what I considered to be an exception to the rule -- and I want to see if you agree with me.

One of the three men aboard the sailboat in Triangle is an actor named Henry Nixon. There is nothing exceptional about Mr. Nixon -- his is the smallest of the three male roles, and though he performs more than capably in the movie, no one is specifically going to remember him from his work in this film.

Except, there is one thing exceptional about him to us: We've met him.

Nixon is an Australian, like both Triangle's lead (Melissa George) and my wife. And not just any Australian, but an Australian who appeared in the movie Noise, which was directed by my wife's good friend Matthew Saville. Noise appeared at Sundance in 2007, and as such, so did Henry Nixon and my wife and me. Considering the despicable character he plays in Noise, we were glad to see that Henry (I think we can call him that) is a really affable guy without an ounce of ego about him. We spent the better part of an evening with him while we were there.

Because of this connection, I thought my wife would want to know the very moment I identified who he was, which came probably 30 minutes into the film. I figured she would want to know that this was a person we had met and liked, as that would allow her to see his performance through a slightly different lens. It was time sensitive, and even though she warned me as I was doing it, I overrode her warnings for what I thought was her own good.

Turns out, she still didn't want to know. When we discussed it afterward, she told me I could have just waited until the movie was over. But according to my thinking, she would have by then missed her opportunity to watch this guy as he was doing his thing. If she hadn't known she needed to pay special attention to him, she might have had a hard time going back and considering his performance in retrospect.

Okay, well, now I know for the next time we see a movie featuring someone we know.


The third thing is kind of a silly thing, and this is the thing I did not mention to my wife.

At some point in the second act of the movie, I noticed that there had been an inordinate number of shots of Melissa George turning dramatically toward the camera. I think you can imagine what I'm talking about: You start on the back of her head, then she turns around and faces the camera, either to display a look of horror or to deliver a weighty line of dialogue.

I started to notice it so much that I almost thought it was worth pointing out. That way, if this shot then happened a half-dozen more times, we could laugh about it.

There were two main reasons I didn't: 1) I had already been scolded about the Henry Nixon incident; 2) I was enjoying this movie, and didn't want it to become the subject of ridicule.

However, let's say I did want it to become the subject of ridicule. Wouldn't I want to get everybody on the same page, so we could all have a fun time ridiculing it? That might turn the experience from a dull one to one we might remember years from now.

I think of when my wife and I watched Crazy Heart with another couple. Unbeknownst to each other for the first half of the movie, we were all suffering through the viewing, finding falsehood upon falsehood, one unintentionally hilarious moment after another. Then, fortuitously, someone ventured a snide remark, and everyone else chimed in with an equal passion for how little they were enjoying the film. This opened the flood gates, and allowed us to openly crack wise about the movie. I remember laughing and laughing and ultimately having a very fun time -- which doesn't make me feel any more fondly about the movie, only the experience of watching it.

But it can be a risk to take the movie into the MST3K realm. First off, you have to read the room. You have to pick up on the shifting bodies, the sighs, the mild scoffs, to be sure that others are in agreement. Then you've got to pick just the right moment to point out something absurd in the film, and see if your vocal interruption is welcomed or rebuffed.

With Triangle, I didn't want to take it to the level of ridicule, because I was really enjoying the movie. My wife might have actually taken it and ran with it, since she didn't get as much out of the movie as I did. But I didn't want the numerous shots of Melissa George doing a 180 to be our defining memory of the film.

So I did something that I can, surprisingly, do when I want to:

I kept my trap shut.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Too intense for impressionable minds?

I knew I had to write something about The Dark Knight Rises today.

Informally the holiest release date on the 2012 calendar, July 20th could not pass without me addressing the phenomenon in some way on The Audient.

At first I was going to write another post about how I was all "geeked out," how the anticipation for The Dark Knight Rises had caused a huge amount of personal backlash for me. Then I was going to write about how I had grudgingly accepted that I was more curious about it than I liked to admit, as I had surprised myself by leaning in and listening to a review of the movie by Bob Mondelo on NPR in the kitchen last night, despite the fact that my son was creating an awful din in the background. (And despite writing yesterday that I preferred to avoid reviews of movies before seeing them, unless it was inconvenient for me to do so.)

But driving in to work this morning, I heard that a gunman had walked into a multiplex in Aurora, Colorado last night and opened fire during a midnight premiere of the movie, killing 12 (so far) and injuring an unfathomable 50 others. He was supposedly wearing a riot helmet, bulletproof vest and goggles. He started the whole thing by tossing a gas canister, presumably just to create confusion and a cinematic backdrop for his killing spree.

So now I'm writing about something I'm wondering about, not for the first time:

Are Christopher Nolan's Batman movies too intense for people with a hazy understanding of the difference between right and wrong? Or, perhaps, with an active disdain for that difference?

It's not overstating things to say that Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and now The Dark Knight Rises have presented some of the darkest flavors of villain we have ever seen at the movies. It's been long enough since I've seen Batman Begins that I can't recall the level of sadism of the Scarecrow, as played by Cillian Murphy. But Heath Ledger's Joker has become legendary for his amoral sense of anarchy. He derived much of his power from the fact that you could not ascribe ordinary criminal motivations to him, a fact he demonstrated amply by burning a stack of money that surely totaled in the tens of millions. One of his other calling cards was that he would do simply anything, no matter how horrifying or cruel, a fact he demonstrated amply by blowing up a hospital.

I have specifically not learned very much about Batman's new nemesis, Bane (Tom Hardy), but his appearance alone suggests he subscribes to the same school of chaos as the Joker and (to a lesser extent) the Scarecrow before him. 

Undeniably, one of the most visceral effects of these movies is the way Nolan hasn't flinched from staring deep into the soul of evil. What has catapulted them to the level of greatness accorded them by their fans is that moment when those viewers first felt the envelope being pushed past the point of turning back. Unlike most "safe" superhero movies they had seen before, these movies were going to have real blood, real death, real horror. No one's intelligence was going to be insulted, and no one was safe. Even "the girl" might die -- suddenly, horribly, in the middle of the movie.

You might say that what Nolan has presented on screen is toxic for the wrong type of person with a fragile type of mind. In fact, come to think of it, I'm kind of surprised that more high-profile mischief has not been inspired by Ledger's no-holds-barred portrayal of the Joker. I don't know that your average deranged movie fan has the wherewithal to blow up a hospital, but I'm surprised more people haven't tried that trick of slamming someone's face down into an upward-pointing pencil.

What's more dangerous than any individual act dramatized in these movies (let's be honest, we're really talking about The Dark Knight) is the sociopathic mindset Nolan endorses. And by "endorse," I certainly don't mean to suggest that Nolan believes the Joker is his hero, or that any of his actions would be acceptable under any circumstances. More than anything I mean that by merely presenting such extreme actions as something somebody could do, he may be unintentionally birthing copycats. It's like how people worry that Hollywood movies about terrorism will accidentally be giving real terrorists real ideas about how to effectively commit their terrorism.

It's easy to see how the maliciousness, the instability, the downright derangement presented in Nolan's Batman movies could concoct themselves into a dangerous stew in the brain of an unhinged person. And it seems reasonable to assume that this deadly stew was percolating in the brain of James Holmes, as he (allegedly) walked into that Colorado theater last night and started shooting. For someone like James Holmes, Nolan had made it all too easy for life to imitate art. He had inadvertently created the conditions where that imitation would not only be possible, it might actually be probable.

Purely in terms of the business of movies, I wonder what effect this incident will have on the opening weekend of The Dark Knight Rises. Surely, most rabid fans will not be deterred by the possibility of a copycat. But some might. And I know at least one friend who has tickets for a show tonight, who will probably read this before he goes, who must be distantly wondering whether Nolan's movies may bring a sociopath out of the shadows and into his theater.

Friday, July 20, 2012

I won't read, but I'll listen

In a film discussion group on Facebook in which I am a semi-active member, we've been discussing recently the idea that we don't like to read reviews of movies before we've seen the movie. Some are critics themselves, some are just film buffs, but most shared this sentiment.

This applies primarily to movies we're interested in seeing. With movies that utterly repel us, it might be fun to read what a particular critic we like has to say. At worst, it confirms our suspicions that the movie is terrible, and allows us to delight in the linguistic thrashing given by a writer whose style we like. At best, it changes our thoughts on the film, and maybe now we would like to see it.

So yeah, as a critic myself -- albeit one who is not currently working -- I am doubly disinterested in reading a review of a movie I have yet to see, in part because I always feel like I might eventually review it, and don't want to be unconsciously influenced by the criticism of that particular work that I've already read.

Reading is one thing. Listening? Quite another.

I've included as my artwork on this piece a picture of Joe Morgenstern, film critic of The Wall Street Journal, whose reviews appear in audio form on the local NPR station, KCRW. (See, Morgenstern is a fellow Angelino, even if his publication is located in New York.) I don't read Morgenstern's reviews. In fact, I don't think I've ever read a single printed word he's written. But I listen to everything that comes out of his typewriter when he is the person reading it to me, during his weekly Friday night reviews (which play at precisely 6:46 p.m.), or much more frequently, as a podcast.

When it comes to Joe Morgenstern, he's such a gifted writer -- a talent made only more impressive by his mellifluous readings of his own writing -- that I can't bare to skip a single morsel of his criticism. Which means that I frequently subject myself to the rich depths of his impressions of film, even the films I'm planning on seeing, despite the fact that this makes me uncomfortable, despite the fact that this unconsciously colors my own impression of the same films.

Why do I break this rule when it comes to Mr. Morgenstern? I doubt that it's he in particular who is so special, nor can it can't simply be the difference between listening and reading. After all, I'm doing all I can to render that distinction unimportant on my commutes to and from work. See, now that I live about 24 miles from my office (rather than a mere eight), I'm listening to audio books during my drives to and from work. When I'm perusing the available options on the shelves at the local library, I make sure always to select the unabridged version, so I can get full credit for having "read" the book. I contend that listening to every word of a book is the same as reading it, and I certainly want credit once I complete the final four discs of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, since I'm unlikely to ever have the time to read it in the traditional sense. Just as a blind person wants credit for "reading" his/her audio books, I want credit for "reading" mine. My brain has been doing the same work, it's just been using my ears as an instrument rather than my eyes. (And if listening to Hawthorne's sumptuous and literate work is making my own writing a tad more florid in the meantime, I wouldn't be surprised.)

No, I think it has more to do with my strict obedience to the unyielding structure of a podcast feed.

When it comes to the podcasts I listen to, I am a staunch completist. If I've committed to a particular podcast, I listen to all of its episodes. It would be very easy for me to skip one of Morgenstern's three-minute reviews of a movie I want to watch first, but then I fear I'll never get back to it, as it might get lost in the shuffle. The consequences of never listening to it are, surely, quite small, but I nonetheless do not want to entertain them. (This last sentence is definitely the spirit of Nathaniel Hawthorne speaking through me.)

Even more so than with Morgenstern, I encounter this problem with Filmspotting, the hour-plus-long podcast hosted by Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen. Kempenaar and Larsen begin each program with a review of a current release. And though they are very careful to avoid spoilers, their recent review of Magic Mike told me more about it than I probably cared to know. Even little, seemingly inconsequential things are revealed that I probably wouldn't want revealed. For example, their summary of the film basically concluded that it's more of a mood piece, and that the plot is somewhat incidental. Now I know that there are probably no huge revelations, no great scandals, nothing earth-shattering in this particular film. It conditions my expectations in a way I usually like to avoid.

But the idea of skipping an episode of Filmspotting is anathema to me. They do such an excellent job with their long-established format, and this format includes so much discussion of films that are not new and that I've definitely seen, that to discard an entire episode because I haven't seen the opening film they discuss would seem ridiculous. If I know I'm about to see the film, I can hold off on listening to the episode for a week or two. But I can't, in the meantime, skip on to the next one, because then the natural chronology dictated by the podcast feed would be all thrown out of whack. What's more, with my current busy schedule and the increased difficulty of getting to the theater, I may not see many of these films until they come out on video. So I wouldn't just be discarding one episode of Filmspotting, but probably three out of ever four.

You might use the logic I've espoused in this post to suggest that I should just read the reviews I want to read, regardless of whether I've seen the movie. After all, between Morgenstern, Kempenaar and Larsen, they are reviewing most of the movies that are coming out. I'm consuming these reviews one way or another, whether it's with my eyes or my ears. And if it's a really great critic who happens to appear only in written form, it means I'm just missing out on what he/she has to say, never to return to it.

I guess the conclusion is that the price to be paid for immersing yourself in the discussion of film is that you are inevitably going to be exposed to some criticism before you're ready for it. You may have strategies for minimizing that exposure, but some of them contradict other strategies, and some of them are just altogether fruitless.

In other words, it's hard to be selective. You just have to read/listen to what you like, and hope that you're able to maintain a strong enough movie-watching pace so that you'll get to compare your own thoughts with theirs, more often than you carry their thoughts with you to a screening as an unwanted viewing companion.

I guess I should be glad most people don't worry too much about this. Film criticism as a profession is built on the notion that many if not most people want to know what a critic thinks before they see a movie.

So if everyone wanted to avoid reviews before they saw movies, not only would I not have work as a critic now, I would not have work as a critic ever.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Unlucky for summer movies?

You know how most Fridays during the summer, you've got a couple different new releases to choose from? Maybe not all in genres that speak to your demographic, but a couple significant new movies nonetheless?

Yeah, not this Friday the 13th.

Perhaps it's just the imposing, tectonic (if you will) box office muscle of Ice Age: Continental Drift, but that kiddie film is the only prominent new release opening this weekend.

Of course, some of that has to do with a shift in our definition of the term "prominent." Once upon a time, a new movie from Robert De Niro would be an occasion to stop and take notice. One hardly blames Mr. De Niro for this shift -- the man is, after all, a month from 69 years old -- but his new film Red Lights is hardly creating a ripple in the buzz machine (to mix metaphors).

Or perhaps it's just that no movie wants its second weekend to be utterly obliterated by the opening of The Dark Knight rises next Friday.

Anyway, not much dismissive or snarky to say about the umpteenth Ice Age movie, except that I still remember going to the first one and really enjoying it ... and then, by the second, already realizing that the series was headed down a perilous path toward lesser quality, and never subjecting myself to it.

Actually, there's one other reason I remember going to Ice Age, and this is as good a time to tell you about it as any. I was going to see it with a couple friends -- these were back in the innocent days when I still went to the movies with three or four other guys -- and a humorous exchange at the ticket counter became the stuff of legend in our group.

My friend Dan had been following the normal procedure of stating his preferred movie and showtime to the ticket seller. Except instead of "Ice Age, 3:40," he came out with "Ice 40?"

Immediately hearing his mistake, he laughed at himself and shook his head, either actually or metaphorically. "Ice 40 ..." he murmured with a big grin on his face.

Then, returning to the ticket seller with total earnestness, and no intention whatsoever of making the joke, he repeated the error: "Ice 40?"

If they continue to make Ice Age movies, I suppose Ice 40 would be due sometime in the 2060s.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Wanted: The best film of 2012

It's rare that I would get into July without having at least a good placeholder as my #1 movie of the year.

As you probably know, I rank the movies I see from a given calendar year as I see them. I've seen 20 of them from 2012 -- a fairly pathetic total, but remember, I moved last month -- and I have yet to see something that I think could at least be in contention for the #1 spot at the end of the year.

That's not to say that my current #1 -- Jeff, Who Lives at Home -- is not a very enjoyable movie. I have drunk the Duplass brothers Kool-Aid, and I'm a big fan of most of their work. But #1 for the year? I see it more as around #20, when all is said and done. Assuming that the second half of the year will provide more worthy candidates than the first half, as it always does.

This is part of the reason I'm going to see Beasts of the Southern Wild tonight, which will be my first trip to the theater in exactly four weeks and one day.

Not surprisingly, there's a ton of worthy summer fare that I haven't caught up on, some of which demands to be seen on the big screen in order to have its greatest impact. But right now, I'm not looking for another FX epic that will likely land somewhere around the middle of my list. I want greatness.

Will Beasts of the Southern Wild be great? I don't know. In fact, I don't know a whole lot about it, and I'm glad for that fact. So, don't say anything about it in my comments section, at least until tomorrow morning (or until you've seen it appear in my Most Recently Seen list on the right).

But if the festival buzz about it is any indication, it could be a contender for that #1 spot.

Coming into the movie with this mindset has made me realize that there's a certain something I look for in a potential #1. Usually, I don't go into a popcorn movie thinking it could be #1. I'd like to think that I'd give that popcorn movie the chance to be the best movie I see that year, but I also know that I'd be disappointed if I did end up crowning it as the best movie of the year. In other words, I'm kind of hoping The Dark Knight Rises does not knock my socks off. (Its much beloved predecessor was only my #15 movie of 2008, and I doubt this one will actually be better.)

So I definitely prefer it if this potential best movie is something independent, or at least with an independent mindset. You'll see that borne out in my choices for best film of the year from the last ten years. (I could go back further, but that would just be self-indulgent. Or, I should say, even more self-indulgent.)

Let's take a look:

2011 - A Separation
2010 - 127 Hours
2009 - Moon
2008 - The Wrestler
2007 - There Will Be Blood
2006 - Children of Men
2005 - Hustle & Flow
2004 - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2003 - Lost in Translation
2002 - Adaptation

There are a couple things these movies have in common. One is that they are mostly dramas. You could argue that a couple of these verge into comedic territory, but only slightly.

Another is that they are mostly not genre films. Moon is science fiction and Children of Men is post-apocalyptic, but neither of those genres are "heavy" genres -- and by that I mean that the genre does not heavily influence our expectations for the film, like a thriller, a noir or a romantic comedy would heavily influence our expectations. I'd argue that the genre classifications of Moon and Children of Men are actually a relatively small part of why I think they are so great.

Another thing they have in common is that most of these films has a big star -- a big male star in most cases. That's where Beasts of the Southern Wild seems to diverge from the others in terms of my usual criteria. The star of Beasts is a young girl with a name that's nearly impossible to pronounce on sight: Quvenzhane Wallis. I looked it up, and it's pronounced Qui-ven-ZHEN-ay. We'll all have to figure that one out if she becomes a household name.

However, the film's greater entrenchment within independent cinema than most of my yearly bests doesn't necessarily mean it wouldn't be a prime contender. Last year I discarded my predilections in order to crown A Separation as my favorite film. As this film was produced entirely within Iran, clearly it does not boast any world-famous performers -- nor anyone likely to become world famous anytime soon.

But this is a lot more speculation than I usually like to indulge in. Even writing a post like this places undue burdens on the movie I'm going to see tonight. Now I'll be watching it specifically with an eye for how great it might be, not just taking in what it actually is.

But what can I say. I've gotten to July 11th without seeing what I consider to be a great film in 2012. I'm starved. I'm looking for contenders, and I can't trick myself into thinking I'm not.

Sorry to disappoint you, but don't expect me to check back in tomorrow with my thoughts. After all, if this is going to be my favorite film of the year, I want to keep up the suspense for when I reveal that choice in January of 2013.

One thing is certain: It will just be nice to get back to the movie theater after a month's layoff.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A John Carter length nap

Alas, my attempts to see a movie in the theater on vacation last week were foiled.

It shouldn't have been so hard. The trip included a total of nine nights, seven of which were spent in easy range of numerous movie theaters. I totally could have gone out to a late movie once my family had gone to bed, even if the plan for my wife and me to go to a movie together never transpired.

But it just didn't work out, in part because I had targeted a specific night late in the trip to do it, and that night ended up seeming like the wrong night when it finally arrived. Of course, the theater in Portland where I wanted to see Seeking a Friend for the End of the World didn't make it any easier on us -- it was playing the movie, but only at 3:15 in the afternoon. Only two weeks into its run? Shame. We could have seen it at another theater, but that was the one we had targeted for its cuteness and proximity to Portland's Old Port district, where we hoped to get a drink afterward.

When Wednesday night the 4th clearly wasn't going to work out, I mentally scrambled to see if I could make the next night work out, but the rain on Wednesday night conspired against me, as the city of Portland shifted its fireworks display (which we were supposed to attend) ahead by one day. I ended up glad I had never mentioned it at all, so as not to make my family think I'd been conspiring to see a movie for part of our limited time together. (See here and here for fuller discussions of why I love seeing movies while out of town.)

My last play was for Saturday night, the night before our departure. We were staying in my sister's intimate loft apartment near Boston's Logan Airport, and there was an idea that my sister and I might need to clear out while my wife stayed home and tried to get our son to sleep -- especially important given that we had to get up before 5 to leave for our 7:05 flight. But when we didn't get home from dinner until well after 9, it was clear that this opportunity would also go by the boards.

Well, thank goodness for having to rouse our son so early. As a result, I somehow got to watch an entire 132-minute movie, without interruption, on our flight home.

After our trials on the flight over, I didn't think I'd have a shot at watching even one of those in-flight 30-minute sitcoms. Our son is still under two, so he qualifies as a "lap infant," meaning we don't need to buy a seat for him. Great savings, but it made for a terrible quality of travel. He spent the first three hours of that flight wriggling and kicking and trying to make life miserable for everyone around him. Fortunately, we succeeded to the extent that he only really made it miserable for us. My wife hilariously attempted to watch the in-flight movie, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, despite our son pulling out her earphones every two minutes. (Or "Journey 2: Mystery Island," as the flight attendant had called it.) Me, I can't even wade into a movie if I know that kind of nonsense is awaiting me.

But my son was considerably more docile at the start of this flight home. He still had more sleeping to do. In fact, I began to stress out when he had already gotten himself into a comfortable sleeping position, torso on my wife's lap and legs on mine, but the movie had not yet started. I needed those two things to align perfectly if I wanted any shot at getting through a whole movie.

I figured I had a better shot at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which I guessed would be about 100 minutes (looking it up now, I see it's actually 123). That was the movie they had announced we'd be seeing. When the Walt Disney logo and an image of Mars were the first two things to appear on screen, I knew we weren't in India anymore.

The first thing that bummed me out about John Carter starting was that I wanted to watch it on a big screen. I knew it wasn't supposed to be good, but I thought our new home TV would be a good place to take in its Martian vistas, which promised to be the best thing about the movie.

The second was that I knew it was about 2 hours and 20 minutes long. And I figured there would be almost no way the little sleeping cherub in our laps would still be either cherubic or sleeping 2 hours and 20 minutes from now.

Well, it couldn't have worked out much better. There were a few twitches and small awakenings, and even a retraction of his legs off my own. But it was only just before the credits were set to roll that my son returned to the waking world, and it was a groggy return uncharacterized by lunges at our headphones.

The movie itself? I liked it fine. Yes, it has all the problems everyone says it has, but I applauded its ambition, and also the visual whimsy Andrew Stanton clearly tried to bring to it. There were some pretty successful attempts at humor, like the scene in which Bryan Cranston is interrogating Taylor Kitsch, and dutifully progresses through the same speech despite being repeatedly interrupted by Kitsch's escape attempts. Each time Kitsch head butts Cranston or dives through a nearby window, the scene picks back up in a new location, with Kitsch newly recaptured, and Cranston picking up where he left off in the speech. That kind of thing really worked -- but the movie needed a lot more of it.

Now that I'm back, I need to get out to the movies big time. It's been nearly a month since my last theatrical screening: Prometheus, way back on June 12th.

However, I may target Beasts of the Southern Wild, and just save Seeking a Friend for DVD -- an unfortunate outcome, since I really wanted to support it by seeing it in the theater.

So my wife and I will probably have that date to see Seeking a Friend, in the end. It'll just be on our couch sometime this October.