Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I finally saw: A Nightmare on Elm Street

A couple times on this blog I've sought your feedback on what movie I'm most embarrassed I haven't seen.

I've mostly considered the true classics as primary contenders for this honor, but there are plenty of movies it's surprising I haven't seen because of my audience demographic. In other words, everyone else my age with more or less my background has seen this movie, but I haven't.

A Nightmare on Elm Street would certainly qualify. That is, until I finally saw it on Saturday night.

So I'm introducing a new feature on my blog called "I Finally Saw," where I'll discuss movies that were new to other people in the 1980s or 1990s, but are only new to me today. Will they hold up? Will I be able to put myself in the mindset those people had when they originally saw these movies? That kind of thing.

I may never have seen it, but I've definitely had impressions of A Nightmare on Elm Street since it came out in 1984. A lot of my friends saw it right around that time, even though we were only 11 going on 12. I wasn't one of those kids who gravitated to horror movies at a young age. I didn't like to be scared until the past decade or two, and the disturbing things I imagined happening in A Nightmare on Elm Street (I found this poster particularly disturbing) were things that I ran from rather than embraced.

Before I go on, I'll say that if you are like me and hadn't seen this, you deserve a SPOILER WARNING.

So one of the things that surprised me about this movie is the low body count. Unlike many other slasher movies, which offer up a good six or eight characters to kill off, Nightmare introduces us to a mere four teenagers, only one of whom ends up getting killed by Freddy Krueger's famous finger knives. Of the other two, one gets hanged and another (Johnny Depp) is basically vaporized into a geyser of blood.

Some of the structuring of the deaths kind of surprised me as well. In what should be a scene with life-or-death stakes, Depp's character falls asleep while standing guard as Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) enters her dream to confront Freddy. Given how much emphasis is placed on not falling asleep, thereby letting Freddy kill you in your dreams, it's rather amazing that the script doesn't kill off either of these characters when Depp starts to snooze. Under ordinary horror movie morality, death should be the just punishment for a weak character not taking the threat seriously enough and falling asleep on the job. But Depp's death occurs later under sort of lame circumstances. He's supposed to come over to help Nancy (a second time) at midnight on a particular night, but falls asleep. What's lame about it is that he actually falls sleep twice, and the first time is awoken at about 11:40 -- in other words, with plenty of time to cross the street to Nancy's house before midnight, but not so much time that he'll accidentally fall asleep again while waiting. Yet he does accidentally fall asleep again, and this is when he buys it.

Another thing I found strange is that none of the deaths show Freddy's actual participation at the moment of death. On the one hand, that's by design. Freddy is not actually present in the real world; he's only killing them in their dream. So when the first victim's stomach is sliced to ribbons and she's dragged up a wall, it's appropriate that we don't see it, because Freddy isn't actually "there." It's useful for the audience to see what her boyfriend perceives is happening to her. But once this is accomplished, wouldn't it be better to see Freddy taking a more hands-on approach in the next two murders? Instead, we just see a guy in a prison being hanged by his own bed sheets, and a volcanic spray of blood coming out of a bed.

Now, the stuff that surprised me in a positive way. The Freddy stuff we actually do see managed to be pretty disturbing. Oh, I'm not saying I had nightmares myself about it, just that it was objectively more scary than I thought it would be. Like, when he's struggling with one victim who manages to peel the features off his face, revealing a cackling skull. Or the ominous quality of Freddy's arms as they extend 15 feet out the side of his body. Or like when another victim asks Freddy what he is, and he slices open his skin as his wordless answer, unleashing worms and maggots.

And that leads to another surprise about Freddy: I thought he was a lot more of a talker, and specifically, a wisecracker. In fact, he doesn't talk nearly as much as I expected, and there are almost no groan-inducing puns. My guess is that this aspect of his persona doesn't really take off until the sequels -- all of which, not surprisingly, I have also not seen.

Still, A Nightmare on Elm Street seems a bit more dated than other seminal horror movies from this period. It doesn't have the timelessness of Halloween or even the original Friday the 13th, which is probably a reflection of it being filmed deeper into the 1980s than either of those films. (In fact, Halloween wasn't made in the 1980s at all, having come out in 1978.) So perhaps I'm just expressing a preference for the 1970s horror aesthetic over the 1980s horror aesthetic.

I can tell you one place that Nightmare steps horribly wrong. In an ending that leaves things wide open for the multiple sequels, and expresses for certain that Freddy isn't dead (the way he's dispatched barely even suggests he might be dead), Nancy's mother is pulled through the window of her front door in the film's final shot, presumably by an unseen Freddy on the other side. You're supposed to be chilled by this, right? Uh uh. It's so obvious that the body being pulled through the window is a doll that it's downright funny. The doll's legs even catch on the side of the window in a way that make them bounce in a completely doll-like and completely inorganic manner.

Regardless of this unintentionally funny image the film left me with, I'm glad I "finally saw" A Nightmare on Elm Street, and ultimately I rate it pretty highly simply for its place in horror history.

Also, now I finally get that Simpsons Halloween special where Groundskeeper Willie gets burned in the boiler room and attacks Bart and Lisa in their dreams.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

And the award for "Strangest Use of Hugh Grant" goes to ...

There are many strange (and usually wonderful) things about Cloud Atlas, but probably the biggest (also wonderful) disconnect for me was seeing all the various incarnations of Hugh Grant.

Grant is an actor who has been used in one very specific way throughout his entire career: a handsome and charming Englishman given to stumbling over his words and finding himself in delightfully awkward situations.

Suffice it to say that this does not match any of the six incarnations of Grant from Atlas. I would love to show you all of them here, but google images is not cooperating with me -- the movie probably hasn't been out long enough for any stills to be available other than those specifically selected by the studio's publicity team. And besides, part of the fun of seeing Cloud Atlas is trying to recognize who everyone is in each scene.

But here, how's this for starters?

Can't you just see him stammering? "I, well, I rather think that this makeup makes me look just beastly. I'm really a rather quiet fellow."

Obviously the award in this post's title does not exist, but there's an Oscar for which Cloud Atlas seems like a shoe-in: best makeup. This film is as brazen a display of makeup chutzpah as you are likely to see, probably ever, in a movie. Whether it all works or not is open to debate. But most of the dozen recurring actors play at least one different race or one different gender from their own, and even when they are their own race or gender they are not always recognizable. The closing credits offer us a glimpse of the roles essayed by each actor or actress, and the audience I watched with gasped in amazement during these revelations.

So yeah, even with movies like The Hobbit entering the discussion, Cloud Atlas seems likely to leave the rest of the field in the dust when it comes to the makeup category. And if not "best makeup," then at least "most makeup."

In fact, everything about Cloud Atlas is some kind of "most" -- most characters, most genres, most time periods, most different locations, just plain most ambitious. I like the comment by critic A.O. Scott: "This is by no means the best movie of the year, but it may be the most movie you can get for the price of a single ticket."

He's probably right about both, but I'll say only probably. The more I think about Cloud Atlas, the more it may scramble its way up that messy hillside toward greatness.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A thing I'm starting to understand about The Hobbit, and my TV

I've been aware that Peter Jackson was shooting the (formerly two, now three) Hobbit movies at the higher rate of 48 frames per second (twice the normal 24).

Whenever I've heard that mentioned, I've kind of nodded along and thought "I guess I'll see what that looks like when the time comes."

On Wednesday night over at a friend's house, I learned what that looks like in the course of us talking about it. And now I worry I've been seeing what it looks like ever since we got our new TV.

You know how I've had such a hard time (in this post and in this post) discussing what I meant when I said that the picture looks "shitty" on many of our picture settings? I described it as "the Masterpiece Theatre effect." Essentially, this setting on my TV makes things look like they had been shot on home video with poor lighting. Other places I've heard it described as a "1970s soap opera" or "cheap reality TV." It's a picture setting on my TV that I avoid at all costs.

Yeah, that's what 48 FPS looks like.

Uh oh.

There's a reason Jackson's "great new innovation" has been controversial, and so far, poorly received. I didn't know that reason was that it made The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey look like one of the least expensive productions of all time, rather than one of the most. 

The increased frame rate -- which abandons the 24-frame paradigm we have known all our lives -- is supposed to be easier on your eyes, especially in the case of 3D. Less blurring, more clarity. But that also makes it look significantly less like a movie.

The weird thing about this frame rate is that it's a complicated sort of unpleasantness. At the same time that certain aspects of the picture look really crappy -- especially the lighting -- others are undeniably clearer and have higher definition. In fact, sometimes you feel like you are right there in the same room as the actors on the screen.

But that's not what most of us want out of a movie. We don't want to feel like we can reach through our TV screens and touch the actors. We want them to have an incredible sense of realism, sure, but we want that to be filtered through the pleasant sheen of 24 frames per second. It's probably the reason people tend to be so happy with BluRay, as opposed to certain kinds of HD. BluRay takes what you're intended to see it and promotes it to its greatest possible clarity, within the limitations of the way it was shot. That's a good thing. HD takes beautiful people and shows you the blemishes that keep their skin from being as beautiful as you have always perceived it to be. And that is not a good thing -- unless your only desire is to heckle them and take them down a peg.

I don't want my movies taken down a peg. I want them on that pedestal that confers them a certain beauty, even if the story elements they're depicting may be ugly.

I was asked recently in a discussion group on Facebook whether I would see The Hobbit in 48 FPS if given the opportunity.

I now know that the answer is no, and that I'm even worried whether it will look okay when projected at 24 FPS.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

If Neo and Lola had a baby

Three directors.

Two men and one former man who now identifies as female.

Two siblings (once brothers) and one who isn't related to them.

Two Americans and one German.

The directors of two of the best films of 1999 (The Matrix and Run Lola Run).

Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski, as they are credited. Always in that order. (Ladies first I guess.)

However you slice it, Cloud Atlas is going to be interesting.

But will it be good?

Cloud Atlas looks like the classic example of a love-it-or-hate-it movie, and so far, the hate-its seem to be winning. You could say that its 52 Metascore means that those two opposing sentiments are averaging out almost perfectly, but if you were translating that score into a letter grade, it would be an F, not the C you would expect for a love-it-or-hate-it movie. (Then again, a straight translation doesn't work -- whereas a score of 59 or lower is an F in school, you're really probably looking at a Metascore of 25 or lower for the equivalent of an F. So I guess 52 probably really is a C, since it is described as "Mixed or Average Reviews.")

Yeah, I probably could have reconfigured that last paragraph to remove my faulty initial assumption altogether.

In any case, Cloud Atlas looks very much like the next installment in my series of movies that are "Too Shebulba," as described in this post. To refresh your memory, the term was inspired by Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, in which the characters appear in several different time periods and the futuristic version of Hugh Jackman is left whispering the word "Shebulba!" at a tree floating through outer space. One of my commenters corrected my spelling of the term, explaining that the character is referring to the Mayan underworld Xibalba. However, the term was born as "Shebulba," and that's how it will stay for my purposes.

In fact, if Cloud Atlas most closely resembles one single movie, I'd say The Fountain is it. Especially as it seems to focus on a man and a woman whose love affair stretches out over generations and in different incarnations of themselves -- here Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, there Jackman and Rachel Wiesz. And if it does really resemble The Fountain, that's bad news for me, since I found that movie to be an interesting failure at best.

But then I return to the directors themselves, and consider some of the boundary-pushing movies they've made over the years. I mentioned The Matrix and Run Lola Run, but each director or directing pair has a second movie that I absolutely love -- in the case of the Wachowskis, even more than The Matrix, and in the case of Tom Tykwer, slightly less than Run Lola Run. The Wachowskis' Bound is among my 30 favorite films of all time, and Tykwer's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is probably among my top 50. Both movies mesmerize me, and both demonstrate that these directors or directing teams have the kind of range that could make them perfect choices for an ambitious opus like Cloud Atlas.

I will probably find out Sunday night. Until then, I will continue to marinate in a sense of wary anticipation about what kind of weird and potentially brilliant oddity lies ahead of me.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Posters for Chasing Mavericks

Here is the official movie poster for Chasing Mavericks, a new surfing movie releasing tomorrow:

However, below is the one I'm most familiar with, as it appears on the outside of that building I always tell you about, the one on my way to work that has given itself over full time to monolithic movie advertisements:

I don't know how well you can see it, but everything that's dark in this image is an immense wave, the crest of which runs along the upper right third. There's also a miniscule surfer you can see on the far left edge of that crest. In the upper right corner are the words "Actual Size." Yep, that's a pretty effective ad.

But forget these two. Shouldn't this really be the poster for Chasing Mavericks?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The rise of directors named Ben

I notice patterns. It's who I am.

Not all the patterns I notice mean anything. But that doesn't mean I won't write about them here.

Like, what's up these days with all the prominent directors named Ben? Or some variation of that spelling?

Earlier this year, Benh Zeitlin took the film world by storm with his memorable feature debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild. A young whippersnapper by industry standards, Zeitlin just turned 32.

But you don't have to be a young Ben (or director Ben Younger) to be making a name for yourself in 2012. Last Friday, one of the most buzzed about movies of the fall, The Sessions, opened. Its director? A 66-year-old Australian named Ben Lewin, who hadn't made a feature since 1994's Paperback Romance.

Meanwhile, one of the most buzzed about movies of the year, period, is Argo, directed by Ben Affleck.

Could the best director race this year feature three Bens? There's an outside possibility that it could.

Unfortunately, that's about as much evidence as I can give you. Though I will have a little bit more when Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty comes out next year. That one should be interesting. 

Like I said, it's a pattern that doesn't mean anything. Nothing to see here. Move along. Move along.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

When distortions go unnoticed

A friend of mine had a unique viewing experience when watching District 9.

He watched some kind of pirated digital copy on his computer at work. Everything about the movie seemed normal; there was nothing that gave away the fact that it was an inferior reproduction. So he had no way of knowing that when there were no subtitles for the alien dialogue, this was a mistake. He thought it was just a bold creative choice by writer-director Neill Blomkamp -- a bold choice that he loved, which helped him love the movie. Kind of wish I'd seen that version of District 9, because the one I did see didn't leave me very smitten.

In discussing the movie with friends, he eventually learned that his copy was missing something. But that didn't change his impression of the film. District 9 was still a thrilling cinematic experience for him, even if it was the "wrong" experience, an experience he never should have had.

A thing like this happened on Friday night when I watched Panos Cosmatos' Beyond the Black Rainbow. In order to understand the experience, you have to understand a little more about the LG 3D TV we bought back in June.

If you own a "sophisticated" TV, you know that it has any number of picture settings that make the picture look absolutely awful. Seriously. Out of the dozen or so distinct picture settings these TVs have, 11 of them look like utter shit. I guess the point is that under some circumstances, this is the picture setting you want. Us, we've found that the only picture setting we ever want to watch is the one called Game, as discussed in this post

However, as discussed in this post, we recently discovered a problem where the mouths don't always sync up with the dialogue when we watch Netflix streaming through our BluRay player. Sometimes they are off by just a hair, which is just enough to annoy the f___ out of you.

On Thursday night, when watching Get the Gringo (as discussed in this post -- okay, I'll stop now), I noticed the problem again and decided to mess around with the picture settings, which proved fruitful in the case of watching The Crucible (as linked to in the previous paragraph -- okay, really stopping now). I didn't find the magic touch to make streaming through BluRay look correct, but I did find a very good setting to watch the movie with correctly synched dialogue straight through our TV (which has an internet connection and a Netflix app as well).

I managed to forget that I had left the settings in a non-standard state by the time I put on Beyond the Black Rainbow on Friday night. That's kind of ironic, because this non-standard setting is actually called Standard. So I had non-standardly left it on Standard for my Get the Gringo viewing straight off the TV, but then gone back to watching BTBR through the BluRay player.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would have noticed the problem immediately. Standard creates what I like to call the "Masterpiece Theatre look" -- everything you watch looks like a low-budget BBC production from the 1970s or 1980s. Simply put, it looks like cheap video with poor lighting.

With Beyond the Black Rainbow, though, that's the look they were going for. The debut film from Panos Cosmatos, the son of director George P. Cosmatos (Tombstone, Rambo: First Blood Part II), BBTR is a psychedelic horror movie set in 1983 -- and designed to look like it was actually made in 1983. I'd heard the movie described and recommended on the podcast Filmspotting: SVU, and it was part of a weekend binge of Canadian low-budget horror movies that also included Pontypool (also recommended).

So having forgotten that the TV was set wrong, I watched this movie unfold before my eyes, looking like it was shot on cheap video with poor lighting -- a phenomenon that utterly enhanced the fact that it was trying to look like it had been made 30 years ago, on cheap video with poor lighting. I sat there, mesmerized by the content itself, even more mesmerized by this impossibly executed filter of low-budget 1980s schlock. For the first half of the movie, I thought it might be one of the trippiest and most exciting movie-watching experiences I've had in years.

It was only at some point late in the second act that I realized that wait a minute -- I might have the TV set wrong. Indeed, I changed it back to Game, and indeed, the movie started to look a lot more conventional. You could still tell that Cosmatos was going for a look -- a TV setting alone can't either add or subtract that intention. But now it looked like low-budget film rather than low-budget video, which is decidedly a different thing, at least in terms of the paradigm under which I had already loved experiencing it.

So I switched it back to Standard and tried not to let it bother me.

It didn't bother me -- that much, anyway. It must have bothered me to some extent, because I was inspired to write this post about it.

The thing that's really funny is that I actually thought to myself earlier in the movie "You know, given how abstract and psychedelic this movie is, it doesn't even matter if the dialogue is off by a half-second. In fact, that might make it even better." So I knowingly accepted and in fact embraced an error in the audio synchronization, without even realizing the possibility that the picture setting was anything other than it should be.

I guess what bothered me is not that the experience of watching the movie itself was diminished by the realization I had the picture settings wrong. It's that I thought that Cosmatos had achieved something he actually did not achieve. I thought he had been actively responsible for shooting his movie in such a way that it created this cheap 1980s appearance, and was mesmerized by the level of success he had with that intention. When in fact, it only looked like it did because of a setting on my TV that makes things look terrible 99 out of 100 times.

I'm reminded a bit of the great documentary My Kid Could Paint That, which I watched about two months ago. The film has a lot to say about art and what it means -- whether art should be taken at face value, or if the history of its composition should come into play. Without giving away too much of that movie, I'll just say that it involves these masterful paintings created by a four-year-old girl -- and whether she was actually the one who painted them. Whether she painted them or not, they still are what they are -- they still create a certain emotional impact on those who behold them, if viewed in a vacuum, without any knowledge of their origin. However, it's certainly clear that the people who want to buy her paintings want to buy them because she painted them -- and not necessarily because they are objectively powerful works of art.

And so I am kind of left wondering about my own impression of Beyond the Black Rainbow. Was I as enthusiastic as I was about it only because I saw it on the Standard TV setting, or would I have found it just as profound if I'd watched it on Game? I can't go back and erase my initial viewing experience. As long as I had the reaction I had to it, does it matter how or why? Like my friend who watched the incomplete copy of District 9, I guess I will just be glad for the experience I did have, whether the movie "should" benefit from that or not.

However I end up coming down on that topic, I'm glad to say that at least two other things left me unambiguously loving it: 1) The terrific synth score by Jeremy Schmidt, which I have spent the better part of a couple days trying to find online to download; 2) The creepy lead performance by Michael Rogers, which contains (without hyperbole) some of the most nuanced expressions of emotion through minor facial expressions that I have ever seen in a movie.

The problem with my skewed viewing experience is, of course, the question of how fully I should really recommend it to friends. And at least with Beyond the Black Rainbow, there's something that prevents me from giving it my fullest recommendation: The movie has an extremely disappointing ending.

Then again, with a movie like this, neither the lucidity of the narrative nor the satisfaction of the payoff are really the point. I read a review that described it as poetry, and indeed, I think that's the best way to consume it.

Preferably with your TV on the wrong setting.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Mel Gibson does not hate Mexicans

Or so would be my conclusion after last Thursday's viewing of Get the Gringo, in which he surrounds himself almost entirely by Mexican actors and actresses.

Then again, it could just be because he's Catholic and so are they. 

Having grabbed your attention with that lightning rod headline, now I want to bait and switch you and talk about what I really would have called this post if I hadn't been engaging in a cheap ploy to grab your attention:

Memorable settings: Get the Gringo

A famous person once said that there's nothing new under the sun, and that famous person certainly had a point. We see it all the time in the movies: things under the sun that do not feel particularly new.

Setting aside the obvious examples like familiar narratives and plot structures, one thing you don't see very often is a truly new setting. Even in movies set on other planets, those other planets usually bear a striking resemblance to other other planets you've seen in other movies.

So I was glad to say that Get the Gringo, which Gibson co-wrote along with director Adrian Grunberg, does indeed give us a setting that's quite unlike anything I've seen before.

It isn't telling you too much to reveal that Gibson's character gets arrested in Mexico in the film's first five minutes. His next destination is a prison, but it's not the kind of Mexican prison you may be imagining as you read these words. If I were to read those words myself without seeing Get the Gringo, I'd imagine something not hugely different from an American prison. Except that where the American prison might have this kind of hospital-like immaculate quality, the Mexican prison would be overrun with rats and have toilets that hadn't been cleaned in five years.

That's not some kind of expression of cultural supremacy, mind you -- it's a recognition of the kind of thing Hollywood traditionally does to "Mexican up" a location. Well, this location is plenty "Mexicaned up," but in a way I hadn't expected.

Essentially, the prison that functions as the main location for Get the Gringo is somewhere between a noisy bazaar and a small city. There are no individual cells. The entire prison population is poured into a large open space in which dozens or even hundreds of examples of a fledgling economic system have arisen: convenience stores, restaurants, the shack you visit to get your heroin fix. It's essentially like a giant walled-in ghetto, only distinguishable as a prison at all because the walls are policed by men with sniper rifles, and there are various access points where guards can check in visitors (and even check out inmates, under certain circumstances, as we soon discover). What makes it seem even more like a slice of everyday life in a really, really poor area is that it's not just a bunch of men doing time for their crimes. Whole families live in this prison. In at least one case we learn about, both parents were convicted of a crime so the child just came along too. In some other cases, even fewer members of the family than that may be guilty.

There's something oddly liberating about this environment, in a sense. If you have some money -- which it seems that everyone does -- you can just lounge in a cafe with a soda and a taco. There are plenty of sights and sounds to occupy you, especially on the weekends, when visitors are allowed to freely enter the prison for what amounts to mass conjugal visits. (In one of the film's many examples of opportunistic economy, we see men charging kids to go inside a tent and have sex with each other. One of the more hilarious moments in this setting involves a half-dozen tents, sitting basically in the middle of the main flow of traffic, grooving back and forth as their occupants get it on and a burly man stands outside to prevent them from being interrupted. A paying customer has earned certain privileges, you see.)

And if you do have enough money, you can even secure yourself a location to sleep -- a "location" may be more of an accurate description than a true bed. But at least a paid-for location to which you claim some right in the skewed but still recognizable morality of this particular world.

Of course, it's doubtful you would actually choose to live there, even if you were penniless and this were as good a patch of ground to sleep on as any. With such a teeming mass of people and so little a structured attempt to differentiate them, you'd be a sitting duck to anyone who has a grudge against you. Murders would seem to carry even fewer consequences within the walls of this kind of prison, and even if they did, you'd have to have prison guards who weren't corrupt to hold the guilty parties accountable. More than likely, a payoff would leave the guilty party in the clear, and some of these inmates claim a pretty enviable standard of living as a result of their success at manipulating the prevailing economic system.

The long and the short of it is, this makes a very interesting environment for essentially only a single gringo (Gibson) to attempt to survive and thrive. I read a review that describes his character as "resourceful," and that's where the setting truly comes into play. We are learning the rules of this unruly environment just as he is, so it's interesting to see him figure out how to work the place to his advantage -- and we wonder if we might rise to the occasion under those circumstances and do the same thing for ourselves.

Anyway, Get the Gringo is worth a watch. It's clever and funny and gripping, all at the right moments, creating just the right tone to carry us through. And if you weren't that satisfied with Mel Gibson's previous attempt at a second comeback, last year's oddball The Beaver, this one should deliver a lot closer to the kind of thing you were looking for.

I should stop for a moment to acknowledge what I hope goes without saying: that Gibson does not deserve our good will. It's hard for me to even keep straight all the reasons we should despise him, though they are all valid.

Fortunately, this exciting and fun little movie comes to us pretty much guilt-free. It failed to get a theatrical release, although it did play in something like nine cities on exactly one night. So if you're getting it on Netflix streaming, you aren't really contributing to its financial success in any meaningful way, are you?

And Gibson can still be a compelling screen presence, as he is here -- seeming to be having more fun than he's had in a decade. (Speaking of liberating, maybe knowing that the whole world hates you gives you a certain freedom just to try to enjoy yourself.)

You could choose not to see Get the Gringo because you want to stick it to Mel, and I would support you in that decision. Or, you could just leave your reservations at the door and choose to be entertained.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Losing count

I received a telling email earlier this week from the Mission Tiki Drive-In, which sends me weekly notifications of what's opening on their four screens that weekend.

The subject of the email was:


But Paranormal Activity 5 -- the inevitable Paranormal Activity 5 -- does not open until October of 2013. We're only on Paranormal Activity 4 right now.

They got the title right in the body of the email, but I think this speaks volumes about where the Paranormal Activity series seems to be heading:


The parallels between the Paranormal Activity movies and the Saw movies seem to be inescapable. Both series saw (so to speak) a massive hit in the first movie released. Then both series immediately got to work producing a sequel, so it would be ready in time for the next Halloween. Then both series had hits with the sequels, and undertook a basically round-the-clock production schedule so that the next installment in the series would keep being ready for the following Halloween.

It took seven Saw movies before they finally stopped making enough money to be worth continuing. It remains to be seen if Paranormal Activity will get that far, but it's certainly on its way.

The other thing these series have in common is how earnestly they appear to be committed to logically continuing the original storyline. It would stand to reason that when a series gets as far as seven movies in, all it really needs to do is share thematic elements with the original movie to reasonably fall under the same banner. It would hardly seem possible to still be working on the same narrative, trying admirably to work your way out of apparent dead-ends and to continue a serpentine storyline that has long since stopped making sense. Whatever you thought of the Saw movies -- the ones you watched, anyway -- you had to admire how the custodians of the series continued doggedly tying everything together, even four full movies after the series' original antagonist had died.

Just as doggedly, I did watch all seven Saw movies, which is why I know this. I have not, on the other hand, been a Paranormal Activity completist, even though I liked the two movies I did see -- the second one maybe more than the first. I haven't gotten around to watching Paranormal Activity 3, and of course haven't seen 4 as it is only just opening today.

But what I can tell from the trailers is that, indeed, the same character from the first Paranormal Activity, Katie (Katie Featherson), is still around, still doing her possessed night-walking thing. And it would seem that PA would be even less beholden than Saw to continuing with the same characters from the same original events, because Paranormal Activity is more about its increasingly hackneyed medium -- found footage -- than about the particular behavior of possessed people doing spooky things. At least in Saw there was the idea that these perverse tests/punishments were all the brainchild of one demented individual and his proteges, whereas you'd think you could set a Paranormal Activity movie in any home that was equipped with high-tech security cameras. (And isn't it convenient that Katie keeps coming into contact with houses that are so equipped.)

If the critical reaction to Paranormal Activity 4 is any indication, this series may reach the end of its road before Saw did. The current Metascore for PA4 is a tepid 42, down from the 59 scored by its predecessor, the 53 from PA2 and the 68 from the original. (Interesting to see that critics liked the third better than the second. Maybe I ought to prioritize PA3.)

But since when has what the critics said played a role in how long a horror series can keep on procreating? Just check out the ugly Metascores for the entire Saw series: Saw (2004) = 46, Saw II (2005) = 40, Saw III (2006) = 48, Saw IV (2007) = 36, Saw V (2008) = 19 (!), Saw VI (2009) = 30 and Saw 3D/Saw: The Final Chapter (2010) = 24. Not a single one above 50, not even the original. Whereas Paranormal Activity is only just now dipping below 50.

So if you take the tendency of critics to sniff at movies intended for the masses and therefore add about 20 points to their Metascores as an estimation of how the public feels about them, PA4 will be another huge hit at the box office. And maybe Katie Featherston will still be walking around in a trance and snapping people's necks on into 2017 or 2018.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Yes, that Tyler Perry

I'm thinking there's a reason this poster features a huge silhouette of a recognizable Matthew Fox looming over a smaller, unrecognizable figure who appears to be African-American.

It's probably because Summit Entertainment has no idea how to market the latest Tyler Perry movie, releasing tomorrow.

Yes, that Tyler Perry.

What? Madea is going to start tracking down serial killers now?

Not exactly. In fact, Alex Cross is not even a comedic take on the detective thriller. From the trailers, it seems to be a deathly serious continuation of the on-screen adventures of the title character from James Patterson's series of novels, who first appeared in Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider.

Then he was played by Morgan Freeman. Now he's played by a man who gained most of his fame doing pratfalls in drag.

And to be honest, I think it looks kind of awesome.

Here's that trailer if you want to judge for yourself:

He looks totally equal to the task, doesn't he? Serious and imposing and ready/able to kick some ass.

With the caveat that I don't see commercials as much as I did five years ago, I haven't seen this trailer anywhere except online, when someone specifically directed me to it months ago. In fact, the only way I even knew it was opening tomorrow was that I happened to see it leading the list of opening movies on IMDB.

Which tells me that yeah, Summit is not really sure what to do with Tyler Perry as an action hero.

It should be a no brainer. Perry's movies make money hand over fist with the target demographic, African Americans. And African Americans certainly like action movies. Plus, Alex Cross has the rare opportunity to go way beyond Perry's usual demographic and get a large stake of the white audience.

And perhaps that really gets at Summit's hesitation in this ad campaign. It's not that they think that Perry's Madea audience won't show; it's that they worry the white audience won't show if they know it stars Madea.

If I get out to the theater this weekend, I will prove them wrong. That is, if I don't see Argo. And I really need to see Argo.

Speaking of playing against type ... it's interesting that someone finally realized Matthew Fox might make a good bad guy. Cast as a hero throughout his career, Fox has always had that way of looking so intensely, bitterly indignant when he's pissed off. The "I can't believe you're suggesting that" expression is one Fox has mastered. It's a pretty short road to go from put-upon hero to psycho pushed past the breaking point, and it looks like Fox may have walked that road successfully in Alex Cross.

As for Perry, it'll be interesting to see if this is the beginning of a full crossover career for him. Perhaps he thinks he's done all there is to do in his corner of the cinematic universe, albeit a massively successful corner. If your ambition is to be one of the biggest stars in the world, you have to make people start seeing you as someone other than a gun-toting grandma.

So Alex Cross might be an interesting crossroads for Perry ... so to speak.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

How Oz was saved from Tim Burton

Wait, you thought I knew how?

Actually, I have no idea.

It is beyond my imagining that Tim Burton is not the director of Oz: The Great and Powerful. How were we spared this awful fate?

Again, I have no idea.

The fact that there is a sequel -- or prequel, or whatever -- to The Wizard of Oz is an awful enough fate for some people. But let's not forget that this isn't the first time there's been such an attempt to capitalize on the Oz brand. Return to Oz already curdled that particular innocence way back in 1985, taking today's opportunistic remake trend off the hook for the crassness of which it is so regularly and so justly accused.

When it was clear that even sacred cows like The Wizard of Oz would not make it through untarnished, it seemed almost certain that Tim Burton would be the one to tarnish it. Didn't it? I mean, has there been a director in the last two decades more suited to this material, and more specifically, more suited to ruining it?

In fact, as I see on wikipedia, Burton actually was in talks to make this film at one point, and in that iteration of Oz: The Great and Powerful, Johnny Depp was indeed set to star. In that perfectly deadpan and non-gossipy way that it has, wikipedia gives no explanation for the following sequence of events, only listing them as facts:

"Robert Downey Jr. was Raimi's first choice for the part of Oz. When Downey declined, Johnny Depp was linked to the role of Oz with Tim Burton attached to direct. By the end of February 2011, James Franco was in final negotiations to star in this film."

Which is, of course, what ended up happening.

I love the implication in these three sentences that Depp and Burton were a package deal. If you wanted Depp to play Oz, you had to get Burton to direct. Apparently, Raimi could not direct Depp, and Burton could not direct Franco. Thankfully, one of the two of them -- Depp or Burton -- caused the idea to collapse before it could gain any traction. Either that, or someone at Disney looked past the bundles of cash Burton made them with Alice in Wonderland and decided that they just couldn't bear to see the soul sucked out of Frank L. Baum's marvelous world by the erstwhile Mr. Helena Bonham Carter.

Having Raimi as director gives me significantly more hope. He's one of a number of directors -- among them Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro -- who should really be given the opportunity to save some of Burton's many mistakes before he makes them.

Why am I talking about this now, when Burton has a movie in theaters (Frankenweenie) that may actually be both original and good?

Well, I saw the Oz trailer a couple weeks ago and have been thinking about it since then. Also, Dark Shadows wiped out most of my merciful impulses toward the man, such that even any good will generated by Frankenweenie is too little, too late.

The trailer certainly looks good in some ways. But the truth is, whoever's directing it, Oz: The Great and Powerful will probably be a lot closer in quality to Return to Oz than to The Wizard thereof.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Overachievers: The Burning Plain

Sometimes you're in the mood for a movie that you think will expand your mind, awaken your awe, and introduce you to the furthest reaches of what cinema as a medium can accomplish.

And sometimes you're just in the mood for a good howler.

Last night, when my wife went to bed early, I was in the mood for a good howler. And Guillermo Arriaga's The Burning Plain jumped out from our Netflix instant queue and asserted itself to me as a movie likely to satisfy that yearning.

I had heard that it was simply awful. Whatever review I'd read left me with the impression that it was characterized by histrionics and a total lack of subtlety in imparting its message. Bad acting was certainly also implied.

It really isn't so. The movie is surprisingly subdued; it could sooner be accused of being too quiet than too loud. And each of the central trio of actresses (Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger and Jennifer Lawrence) brings real subtlety and emotional honesty to a complicated character.

The other way I expected it to fail is that it's supposed to be a prime example of a played-out type of filmmaking called "hyperlink cinema." Not familiar with this term? I myself only became acquainted with it about a month ago. Hyperlink cinema refers to films that feature multiple seemingly unrelated narratives, which gradually weave together to reveal connections between characters that often rely in some way on fate. At their best, films structured this way can seem fresh and compelling. At their worst, hyperlink movies seem to derive all their supposed cleverness from the mere exercise of linking the characters together. Many films in this genre exemplify the genre at its worst. (The reason they're called hyperlink movies is because if you clicked on a highlighted link in one area of one story, you could get to the other story, and back again, even though the stories don't seem to have an overt relationship at the time you're doing the clicking.)

Arriaga, director of The Burning Plain, has written several prime example of hyperlink cinema, many of whose narratives felt fresh when we first saw them: Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. I'm a big fan of the first, I'm not a big fan of the second and I expected to dislike the third but actually ended up liking it pretty well. But even though Babel itself was an overachiever for me, I now see it as kind of the prototypical example of hyperlink cinema, with stories taking place in Mexico, the Middle East and Japan, yet somehow still claiming a narrative connection once all is said and done.

By the time Arriaga debuted as a director on The Burning Plain, we were all hip to this type of movie and had long since stopped finding it compelling. Perhaps Arriaga's resume alone caused viewers to come into this one full of suspicions and doubts. And in fact the plot synopsis itself reveals that the movie is comprised of four seemingly disparate narratives.

But that, too, I found misleading. There are really only three different stories that at first seem unrelated, but they give up their connections to each other earlier in the narrative than you necessarily expect for a hyperlink movie. In the stereotypical bad hyperlink movie -- say, Crash -- the connections among the characters is the big reveal in the third act, the big Shyamalan twist that's supposed to (but so rarely does) create that "Oh shit" moment.   
The Burning Plain is mature enough not to even manipulate you into that kind of big moment. When the connections between the stories are revealed, it's in the form of a dawning realization -- a mention of a character's name from one story who you realize is mentioned in the other story, that kind of thing. The movie doesn't stop to show you just how smart it thinks it is. It just rolls on and respects your ability to absorb the natural flow of the story. It helps that the story actually flows in a natural rather than supernatural way, relying very little on obvious bits of cleverness but instead on logical, organic connections between the characters.

So why did that one review I read rake Arriaga and this movie over the coals?

I figured I must have read the dismissal in Entertainment Weekly, so I tracked down Lisa Schwarzbaum's D+ review of the movie online -- all 99 words of it. Which didn't really prove all that helpful in the end:

"Kim Basinger plays a sad married mom in New Mexico who screws around — until her dreams go up in smoke. Charlize Theron plays a sad single woman in Oregon who smokes and screws around. The two ladies are linked, but to find out how, you must wade through The Burning Plain's intentionally disorienting narrative shuffles — the signature storytelling tic of Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Babel), here making his unsteady directorial debut. The scenery (prettily captured by There Will Be Blood cinematographer Robert Elswit) is littered with heavy symbolism (fire! rain! dead birds!); the performances are merely heavy." 

I guess it's yet more proof that if you carry a bias against a movie just because you read one bad review of it, you are probably giving that one critic too much credit.

Look, I'm not saying you should go rush out to see The Burning Plain. I'm just saying that if you come to it looking or a good howler, you will be disappointed.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


When I saw that the new horror movie Sinister was from the producers of the 2011 horror movie Insidious, it made me laugh a little.

It also made me cognizant of a possibly fruitful naming convention for horror movies: Just pick a nasty-sounding adjective and go, even if that adjective may not describe that particular horror movie better than it would describe any other horror movie.

I mean, aren't most horror movies "sinister" or "insidious" in some way or another?

At the same time, you can't just use any old adjective. Sinister and Insidious both work as titles, but some of their synonyms would not. If I look up synonyms for "sinister" on, I get:

Adverse, apocalyptic, bad, baleful, baneful, blackhearted, corrupt, deleterious, dire, disastrous, dishonest, disquieting, doomful, evil, foreboding, harmful, hurtful, ill-boding, inauspicious, injurious, lowering, malefic, malevolent, malign, malignant, mischievous, obnoxious, ominous, pernicious, perverse, poisonous, portentous, threatening, unfavorable, unfortunate, unlucky, unpropitious, woeful.

Only a couple of these could stand alone as good titles for a horror movie. I'm thinking Bad, Evil, Malevolent, Malignant, Perverse and Poisonous could all stand alone as good horror movie titles. And of course Unpropitious

But that's only seven out of the 38 synonyms listed. Which suggests that a certain vagueness, a certain impreciseness of meaning is key to it working as a title. The word threatening, for example, is very common and recognizable to most people. But it has a kind of clinical literalness that keeps it from seeming like an ominous title (which is also the same problem with Ominous as a title). In this case, Threat would be a much better title. But then it would probably be a thriller, not a horror.

Let's take a look at the synonyms for "insidious":

Machiavellian, artful, astute, corrupt, crafty, crooked, cunning, dangerous, deceitful, deceptive, deep, designing, dishonest, disingenuous, duplicitous, ensnaring, false, foxy, guileful, intriguing, like a snake in the grass, perfidious, perilous, secret, slick, sly, smooth, snaky, sneaking, stealthy, subtle, surreptitious, treacherous, wily, wormlike.

Almost none of these would make a good movie title, with the possible exceptions of Crooked and Dangerous. But perhaps that gets at a problem with Insidious as a title. Perhaps the title Insidious is not even really functioning as a literal definition of the word, which is:

1. intended to entrap or beguile: an insidious plan.
2. stealthily treacherous or deceitful: an insidious enemy.
3. operating or proceeding in an inconspicuous or seemingly harmless way but actually with grave effect: an insidious disease.

Since that movie is about a boy who is being haunted by spirits, there's not really any treachery or deceit going on here. The title would make sense if these spirits came to the boy in a friendly and apparently above-board way, but actually intended to do him harm. But that's not the case. Perhaps the producers are trying to make audiences think of the root word "inside," even though that word has only a tangential relationship to the word "insidious" as we think of it today.

Or, maybe they just thought it sounded like a cool title.

So that got me thinking of the other movies I've seen with one-word adjective titles -- and whether it was actually a meaningful description of what happens in the movie, or just sounded good.

Time for a list.

Now, for the purposes of this exercise, I'm going to rule out what I'm calling "states of being" adjectives. By that I mean adjectives that describe the state of being of a character or element in the plot fairly literally. For example, Awake, which features a man who is accidentally awake during major surgery. Or Buried, which features a man buried alive in a coffin. Also excluding such titles as Titanic, which is an adjective, but here is serving as a name.

Okay, I'll go through the rest alphabetically, with a quick definition of the word, description of the movie and judgment whether it works or doesn't work.

Anonymous (2011, Roland Emmerich)
Definition: without any name acknowledged, as that of author, contributor, or the like; lacking individuality, unique character, or distinction
Plot: Did William Shakespeare really write his own plays, or was that feat performed by a person whose name was never recorded by history?

Beastly (2011, Daniel Barnz)
Definition: of or like a beast; nasty, unpleasant, disagreeable
Plot: A modern-day take on the Beauty and the Beast tale.

Bedazzled (2000, Harold Ramis)
Definition: forcefully impressed upon, especially so as to make oblivious to faults or shortcomings 
Plot: Man disenchanted with his life is granted seven wishes by a mysterious woman who turns out to be the devil.
Sort of works - It's a bit of a stretch but we'll accept it.  

Big (1988, Penny Marshall)
Definition: large, as in size, height, width, or amount; of major concern, importance, gravity, or the like
Plot: A boy makes a wish on a carnival fortune-telling machine and is transformed into the adult version of himself.

Bound (1996, Larry and Andy Wachowski)
Definition: tied, in bonds; under a certain legal or moral obligation
Plot: Two women who have just become lovers team up to steal a briefcase of money from one's mobster boyfriend.
Works - Not only are characters actually tied up in this movie, but they are metaphorically tied to each other by the trust necessary to pull off the heist.

You know what? This is going to take too long. Let's speed things up here ...

Cellular (2004, David R. Ellis) - Works
Closer (2004, Mike Nichols) - Sort of works
Collateral (2004, Michael Mann) - Doesn't really work
Clueless (1995, Amy Heckerling) - Works
Crossover (2006, Preston A. Whitmore) - Doesn't really work
Fearless (1993, Peter Weir) - Works
Fireproof (2008, Alex Kendrick) - Works
Flipped (2010, Rob Reiner) - Mostly works
Frantic (1988, Roman Polanski) - Sort of works
Gigantic (2008, Matt Aselton) - Does not work at all
Hoodwinked (2006, Cory Edwards) - Sort of works
Infamous (2006, Douglas McGrath) - Doesn't really work
Irreversible (2002, Gaspar Noe) - Works on multiple levels
Lawless (2012, John Hillcoat) - Sort of works
Limitless (2011, Neil Burger) - Works
Missing (1982, Costa-Gavras) - Works
Moonstruck (1987, Norman Jewison) - Does it work? I can't remember
Overnight (2003, Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith) - Works
Redacted (2007, Brian DePalma) - Works
Rogue (2008, Greg McLean) - Doesn't work
Safe (1995, Todd Haynes) - Works
Shattered (1991, Wolfgang Petersen) - Mostly works
Spellbound (2002, Jeffrey Blitz) - Works
Super (2011, James Gunn) - Works
Taken (2009, Pierre Morel) - Works
Tangled (2010, Nathan Greno and Byron Howard) - Sort of works
Unfaithful (2002, Adrian Lyne) - Works
Unforgiven (1991, Clint Eastwood) - Doesn't really work
Unknown (2006, Simon Brand) - Works
Unleashed (2005, Louis Letterier) - Works
Untsoppable (2010, Tony Scott) - Works
(Untitled) (2009, Jonathan Parker) - Works
Wanted (2008, Timur Bekmambetov) - Doesn't work

Conclusion? There isn't really that much abuse of adjectives going on in titles after all. Most of them are pretty good representations of what the movie is about. And in one case that I consider sort of a stretch (Unforgiven), it's actually my favorite movie listed here, so I don't even care.

I hope this exercise was at least sort of interesting. Though I guess if I had to do it over, I would have written about Argo

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Boom boom boom, let's go back to my room

Question: Are there really two different movies with the word "boom" in the title opening on Friday?

Answer: Yes. Yes there are.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A hot mess

I don't know when I first heard the phrase "a hot mess," but I think it wasn't that long ago -- almost definitely within the past five years. It could just be that "a hot mess" had been eluding me all these years, or it could be that some clever wordsmith strung these three common words together for the first time only recently.

In any case, I find it a very accurate descriptor for a person or thing in a particular state of chaos. Someone or something that is a hot mess is disjointed, disheveled and disorganized, and if this person or thing has hair, the hair is almost certainly sticking out in all directions. A literal element of heat often applies as well.

But the phrase is not entirely derogatory. There's an element of love to it -- a sense that the current state of this person or thing is an aberration, and that in most circumstances he, she or it is a lot cooler and cleaner. And there's also the implication that there's something interesting in this "mess" -- that it's "hot" in some way, perhaps in the way Paris Hilton famously said "That's hot."

The definition seems to apply in almost every way for Lee Daniels' The Paperboy. It's hot, but it's definitely a bit of a mess.

I saw The Paperboy yesterday as the last of my Monday matinees. You may remember in this post that I discussed my plan to go into work at 5 a.m. on Mondays for a period of about six weeks, to help with the East Coast rollout of my company's new rental software. And since I'd get out at 1:30 but didn't need to pick up my son from daycare until 5, I'd have a perfect opportunity to squeeze in a movie. It turned out to be only five weeks, only four of which was I actually the guy who came in at 5, and only three of which featured a Monday matinee. After Celeste & Jesse Forever, I saw Lawless the following Monday. Then missed two in a row before catching The Paperboy yesterday. The software is now rolled out, so I'm back to my usual 7 a.m. start next Monday.

I was drawn to The Paperboy for two reasons: 1) It was directed by Lee Daniels, whose first film (Shadowboxer) was definitely a mess, but not a very hot one, and whose second film (Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire) was a masterpiece; 2) It featured Nicole Kidman, one of my favorite actresses, serving as the embodiment of the phrase "a hot mess."

If you haven't seen an image of Kidman in The Paperboy, here's one:

While her hair is generally in order, that's about the only thing you could describe that way. Even if you saw no moving images of the things she's doing in this movie, you'd probably know just from this one shot that Kidman's character does not have her shit together. Not only is she dressed slutty, but she's also got a bra strap creeping its way down her right arm. She's been through the ringer and back.

If you did see some moving images of this film, you'd see that the film stock is practically sweating. The Paperboy is shot in a dingy, grubby style in which particles of dirt seem to hang in the air, and you can practically hear a chorus of cicadas in the background, adding extra dimension to the swampy Floridian summer in which the movie is set. In fact, the environment depicted here shares something in common with Beasts of the Southern Wild, which teems with images of swampy animals up close in all their wriggling beauty and ugliness. (I'm sure part of why I think that is that you see an alligator being gutted in The Paperboy, with its hot mess of guts spilling out all over the place.)

But Kidman isn't the only hot mess in this movie. How about John Cusack?

He plays an accused murderer so vile that he the sweat dripping off him is like malfeasance oozing out of every pore. If you don't think Cusack could play this role, check it out -- the hatred and ignorance simply emanate from him.

Even Matthew McConaughey, deep into the independent phase of his career that movies like Failure to Launch and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days seem to have financed, is falling apart at the seams in this movie:

He's got scars on both sides of his mouth, one of which you can see here, and in one scene he's covered with some kind of pox that gives him the appearance of a truly unwell individual.

Zac Efron still looks pretty much like a Tiger Beat pinup, but he appears in only tighty-whities about four different times in this movie. And if you recall this post from years ago (in a discussion of another film starring Nicole Kidman), tighty-whities are the favored undergarment for hot messes everywhere.

Of course, the biggest mess here is what we expect to be going on, emotionally, among the characters. Not only is Kidman sleeping with any number of them, which creates plenty of problems, but this being Lee Daniels, you know that there's a simmering racial element underneath it all. In fact, the movie is narrated by one of the film's two black actors, Macy Gray -- an actress/singer who has been a hot mess in almost every role she's played.

But is The Paperboy a hot mess you should check out?

A day later, I'm still undecided. My initial reaction to it was quite positive, as most of the performances and all of the filmmaking were executed at a very high level. However, I soon started wondering what it all added up to. In the end I couldn't figure out exactly what message Daniels was trying to leave us with. Or if he was only trying to leave us with a mess.

But I think the very nature of a hot mess is that you have to take the good with the bad. In the end, you're there because you know it's going to be interesting.

And since I didn't start to nod off once, even after my day began at 4 a.m., I'd say it definitely was.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Distracted by poor pizza protocol

You know how when you're watching a horror movie, especially one involving a haunted house, you want to shout out a bunch of things that the character shouldn't do?

"Don't open that door!"

"Don't climb up those stairs!"

"For God's sake, don't go see what that creepy noise was!"

I wanted to shout things at The House of the Devil, but it was entirely about a pizza delivery.

On Saturday night I got to show my wife Ti West's excellently slow-burning and creepy 2009 debut, which I just saw myself for the first time in February. If you haven't seen the movie, West does an immaculate recreation of an early 1980s horror movie. Rarely have I seen a film made in the style of another era that does so as effectively as this film. And even though the main character listens to The Fixx's "One Thing Leads to Another" on her walkman, meaning the story takes place around 1983 (that's when the song was released), the movie itself reminds me most of a late 1970s movie like John Carpenter's Halloween. Yep, that's high praise.

But I was really distracted this time through by something I didn't notice the first time. The following contains minor plot details, but no real spoilers.

The main character, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), is hired for a mysterious babysitting assignment in a creepy old mansion in the woods. The couple who hires her leaves her an extra $20 to order pizza from a number on the fridge. She does so.

Now, when you order a pizza, there are certain rules of behavior -- either logical or practical -- that immediately kick in. Samantha goes about breaking almost all those rules.

So instead of yelling at her not to open a door or not to investigate a noise, in my head I was yelling:

"Don't eat that candy bar, you just ordered a pizza and you'll spoil your appetite! Plus, sweet before salty is a no-no!"

"Don't put on your walkman, play a game of pool and dance around the house, you won't hear the doorbell ring!"

"Don't go to the bathroom, that's right when the delivery guy will show up!"

Granted, the pizza takes much longer than the advertised 30-minute timeframe to arrive. But since we never see her call them back to get an ETA, it's as though she's forgotten about her dinner entirely. Which means that it could easily arrive while she's eating a chocolate bar, dancing to "One Thing Leads to Another" or sitting on the toilet.

I write this post not to take away at all from the movie -- it's an outstanding movie, and I think everyone should see it.

It's just an illustration of how certain "unrealistic" things -- like poor pizza protocol -- can truly distract you if you let them.

Who knows, maybe Samantha is just the type of person who doesn't care if she makes the pizza guy wait while she flushes and washes her hands.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Taken down

I've been passing the giant billboard for Taken 2 on my way in to work for about three weeks now.

It's been plastered to the side of a building right at the southbound exit for LAX off the 405, which I take to go to work (although I don't head toward the airport -- I continue to drive parallel to the freeway for another mile or so). I've written about movie billboards in this spot before, most recently in this post.

The massive display size of this spot has traditionally gotten me pumped for whatever movie they were advertising, or at least bestowed it with a certain sense of grandiosity. But the same cannot be said for Taken 2. The more I think about the original Taken, the more I do not like it. I'll get into those reasons later on.

So I had to laugh yesterday when I passed the billboard and saw that it was already coming down. A day before the movie was set to open.

At first I thought it might have been a mistake, an act of God or nature or poor execution that caused the upper left corner of the fabric to peel away from the face of the building. But on my way home I confirmed it, as I saw more work being done on the adjacent side of the building facing the freeway. This morning, all it said was KEN 2 -- perhaps a sequel to the ever-popular movie about Barbie's boyfriend.

There could be any number of reasons a billboard for a movie is taken down before it actually opens, such as a mistake in the length of the time the advertising space had been leased, or perhaps even marketing research that demonstrates a peak period when the human mind is most susceptible to advertisements for a new movie.

But the fact of the matter is, it seemed to me like some kind of defeat -- some kind of decision to cut and run on Taken 2 and move on to the next thing. And perhaps that's really true. Granted, I fast-forward through all commercials these days, but it still surprises me that I haven't been exposed to a single trailer for Taken 2. I should have gotten one somewhere. In fact, I had to read this poster just now to even know what the movie is about -- that it's not a second case of Maggie Grace getting kidnapped.

So now it's time to explain what irked me so much about the first Taken -- irked me more and more as the days and months passed since I saw it.

The xenophobia of that film is such that Liam Neeson's character begs and pleads with his daughter -- in as macho and domineering a way as possible -- not to go to France, because he's worried she'll be putting herself in danger. And she goes to France and immediately gets kidnapped.

Let's ponder that for a second. He didn't warn her against the dangers of El Salvador. He didn't say "Don't go to Thailand, someone will kidnap you and sell you into the sex industry." He didn't even steer her clear of the creepy Eastern European countries where Hostel takes place.

No, daddy knows best so well, that he is able to predict that she might get kidnapped in one of the world's most affluent and safest countries. Which is basically the same as saying "Don't leave the United States -- everyone who speaks a different language is inherently a threat."

Maybe that's why the first Taken was such a hit. It tapped into our latent fear of "other," which has been an unfortunate part of our national character ever since 9/11. While we might have told ourselves we just loved seeing Neeson issue ominous threats and kick butts, what we really loved was the movie's apparent proof of and justification of our fears that the outer world is poised to get us. Maybe the French were metaphorical Muslims, the sex trade standing in for the terrorists who might kidnap us and cut off our heads.

So yeah, I'd kind of like to see Taken 2 get taken down at the box office this weekend -- if only to prove that we aren't so easily suckered into that kind of jingoism that is based in hate.

Friday, October 5, 2012

All wrapped up with no place to go

I had to get a smog test on my car last week for the first time in ages.

I guess they make you do it every two years, if your car is past a certain age. But I've had cars that weren't past that age for a number of years now, since I was leasing the car before this one, and this one had 40,000 miles on it when I bought it almost exactly three years ago. In any case, getting a smog test on my car was something I had almost forgotten I ever needed to do.

But it came up on my registration renewal notice this year, and last week, I took it to the place that does the smog tests. (Because, you know, there's only one.) They told me it would be about 25 minutes. So my son and I wandered over to a grubby old department store called Big Lots, which is what a Target would look like if it was on day five of a meth binge and had lost all hope.

The place was just gross and dingy. As a telling sign of what was on the shelves, I picked up a random bottle of unrefigeratred orange juice -- ponder that for a moment -- that had expired four days earlier. Since it wasn't refrigerated, presumably it had enough preservatives to keep it ticking on into the next decade. In fact, at a normal store, if you picked up a bottle of this orange juice, the expiration date would be three years hence.

Not at Big Lots. That orange juice may have been sitting there for five years.

At least I wasn't that worried about letting my son remove whatever he wanted from the shelves and just leave it in the aisle. Then again, I probably shouldn't have let him touch anything -- not for the store's sake, but for his.

But Big Lots did have a rack of cheap DVDs, so Big Lots had my attention.

I actually had a $3 copy of Transamerica in my hands before deciding that, you know, I probably don't need to own Transamerica, even if it's really good and even if it would cost me only $3.

One thing I thought was sort of funny was that some of these DVDs came gift-wrapped. It was an idea I had never considered before. If you're running late to a party, and you need to bring a present, just grab this already-wrapped DVD. It's a perfect idea for this crazy on-the-go world we live in.

Except that only a single movie was packaged this way: The Invention of Lying.

It would be one thing if there were only one pre-wrapped copy of the movie, but there were like ten, scattered throughout the selections.

This tells me one of two things: 1) The Invention of Lying was, for some reason, considered uniquely appropriate for this particular promotion, and was the only movie to be packaged this way, or 2) All the other movies packaged this way sold, but The Invention of Lying did not, leading it to ends its miserable existence in his shitty chain store next to a bottle of expired orange juice.

Really, who's to say how a particular inventory of cheap DVDs makes its way to Big Lots. And really, The Invention of Lying is a pretty good movie, if not a wholly successful delivery on its promising setup. (It turns into a kind of sentimental mush in the third act.)

But just the randomness of it -- ten copies of this one movie, pre-wrapped for your convenience -- caught my attention and prompted me to write about it.

Because that's what I do.

I said earlier in this post that I bought my car almost exactly three years ago. The reason I had to buy a new car was that my old car was totaled in an accident in which another car turned in front of me while I was zipping along (with the right of way) at about 40 miles per hour (which was below the speed limit). I braked, but not nearly in time. This accident occurred on October 2, 2009.

Which was also, I just noticed, the release date of The Invention of Lying.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Getting acquainted with ... the Three Stooges

This is the latest in an ongoing monthly series in which I watch three films by one or more movie personalities I want to brush up on.

I realized soon after choosing the Three Stooges for my September Getting Acquainted that there was a reason I hadn't seen many features starring this ever-changing lineup of slapstick artists: They didn't make many features. As Stooges fans know, shorts were really their thing. So a Getting Acquainted series devoted to their movies ended up seeming like a pretty flimsy choice. But I'd already chosen it by the time I recognized their paucity of feature-length films, and choices like this are set in stone once they appear on my blog. (Except when they aren't. I actually watched only one of the three features I originally said I would watch.)

But I still considered it a worthwhile project because of the way I was going to end it: watching the Farrelly Brothers' The Three Stooges, released this past April. At the very least, watching a trio of Stooges movies would help me determine how effective Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes and Will Sasso were as Moe, Larry and Curly. And because I've been in a forgiving mood toward the Farrellys recently -- I loved Hall Pass, for example -- I thought they deserved the benefit of the doubt on this seemingly ill-conceived project.

But the original reason for focusing on them was because I wanted to familiarize myself with these icons, whose most iconic lines and finger maneuvers are known to me, but not much beyond that. If you're a person who talks pop culture, it's useful to be at least somewhat familiar with Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp and Curly Joe. And it's not just morons who like the Stooges. I know Larry David is a big fan, not only because the Stooges came up for discussion a couple times on Seinfeld, but also because David appears in the Farrellys' movie ... as a nun.

So I had to see if there was something deceptively smart about their consummately dumb brand of comedy. I found what I could and was on my way.

Soup to Nuts (1930, Benjamin Stoloff)
Watched: Friday, September 7th
One-sentence plot synopsis: A costumer is going out of business because he spends his time on Rube Goldberg inventions rather than improving his shop, and the representative sent in by the creditors falls for the costumer's niece.
My thoughts on the film: Did that sound like a rather strained plot synopsis? That's because this movie is more of a collection of bits than anything else -- welcome to the Three Stooges! This was actually their first-ever appearance, with Shemp predating Curly, and Moe being credit as "Harry." In fact, the boys were associated with a straight man named Ted Healy, appearing jointly as "Ted Healy and his Stooges." (I guess they have him to thank for their wildly successful careers, but watching the movie today, I couldn't help but think "Who does this Ted Healy guy think he is?") What interested me most about this otherwise somewhat forgettable collection of shenanigans (albeit some fun ones) was that the movie was written by none other than Rube Goldberg. (Hence the presence of Rube Goldberg devices.) Goldberg is a person whose work I have referenced on numerous occasions, but I knew almost nothing about him, let alone that he was still alive in the 1930s. For some reason I fancied him to be a 19th century personality, to the extent that I thought about him at all, but in fact he lived from 1883 to 1970. Shows what I know. Anyway, Goldberg and the Stooges seem a natural fit, but their parts of the movie are actually somewhat separate -- the Stooges play firefighters who come to put out a fire the the costume shop with all the Goldberg devices. (And really, these particular devices are pretty simple, a necessary limitation of what they could effectively reproduce on film in 1930.) Soup to Nuts made the Three Stooges famous, I guess, and I guess I can see why. Their appearance at a fire station party -- doing a variety of pratfalls and groaners, in a variety of costumes -- would have made a pretty good introduction to what we would get for the next 30 to 40 years.

Swing Parade of 1946 (1946, Phil Karlson)
Watched: Tuesday, September 18th
One-sentence plot synopsis: Faced with eviction from her apartment, an aspiring singer (Gale Storm) accepts a fee from a real estate mogul to serve a cease and desist order to the owner of the nightclub where she wants a job -- but ends up falling for the nightclub owner, who happens to be the mogul's son.
My thoughts on the film: I had announced Dancing Lady as the second Stooges film I was going to watch, but I realized that that would make two movies in which one of the three best known Stooges didn't appear. I didn't need two Stooges films from before Curly came on board, so I looked later in their filmography and found that although Swing Parade of 1946 wasn't available from Netflix, I could stream it on youtube. Having never before used youtube that way, I decided it was definitely time -- and might have written a separate post about it were Swing Parade not one of my Getting Acquainted movies, which I usually don't even reference until the monthly recap post. I found it a pretty good way to watch a movie -- a movie you don't care that much about, anyway. And you can leave off and pick back up anywhere you want, as long as you have a computer and the internet present. Anyway, I found this movie sort of delightful, actually. It's an example of the type of movie that was common in this era, where the plot is basically an excuse for a handful of musical numbers, the kind you'd see at a nightclub (which is the movie's setting). I had the opening number, performed by Louis Jordan and his orchestra, in my head for about a week afterward. The plot itself is minimal, giving brief screen time to such standard elements as the romantic couple meeting and falling for each other, while also devoting a decent amount of time to the Stooges (who play dishwashers) breaking dishes and getting involved in other hijinx. I didn't consider anything the Stooges did to be especially inspired, but I also didn't find their presence obnoxious. As seems to be the case in most of their efforts, they embody an essential good will and serve as an agent for steering their protagonist toward a successful outcome of his/her goal. Storm makes a very likable protagonist, and her love interest (Phil Regan) is equally likable. One funny thing that speaks to the perfunctory nature of the narrative beats is that there is literally about a minute of screen time between the thing that drives a wedge between these two and its resolution. But that's not why you see Swing Parade of 1946. Another element that speaks to the film's narrative oddity is that a significant portion of the movie's final five minutes is devoted to the impressive verbal powers of a young man who had spent the movie trying to get an audition for the nightclub. In the show's true variety show nature, he's given a moment at the end to do his remarkable impersonation of a locomotive, and other outstanding impersonations -- right as most movies would be concentrating on tying up the central plot.

Snow White and the Three Stooges (1961, Walter Lang)
Watched: Monday, September 24th
One-sentence plot synopsis: Instead of seven dwarfs, there are three Stooges, and a number of the set pieces take place on ice skates.
My thoughts on the film: The second Stooges film I said I would watch but didn't was The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, and the reason for the shift was a) I had heard this film referenced in another Stooges review I was reading as something that had high production values, and b) I found that Snow White was available for streaming on youtube as well. Also, the fact that it starred an Olympic gold medalist ice skater (Carol Fleiss) seemed too interesting to pass up. By this late stage in their careers, with Curly gone and replaced by Joe DeRita (Curly Joe), the Stooges had morphed into full-on ambassadors of good, capable of very few pratfalls and finger pokes. (As a joke early on, they are shown as traveling salesmen who try to sell a bogus potion called Nyuk that helps re-grow hair.) I didn't mind them in this mild benevolent capacity, and I thought they worked pretty well in the plot. Fleiss is a pretty capable actress, and her handsome prince charming (Edson Stroll) is as handsome and charming as you would want him to be. This too is a musical, but in addition to people breaking into song to disrupt the flow of the narrative, they break into sudden bouts of ice skating -- something I had never seen before. I found it no more peculiar than what we always accept in musicals, the sudden singing. Indeed the film has decent sets and production values overall, and I found it plenty charming. Not much more to say, really.

The Three Stooges (2012, Peter and Bobby Farrelly)
Watched: Saturday, September 29th
One-sentence plot synopsis: A modern-day version of the Stooges tries to raise $800,000 to keep the orphanage where they were raised from closing down.
My thoughts on the film: Since I'd heard this film praised in various quarters, I managed to be let down by something I never thought would be any good in the first place. The leads -- Chris Diamantopoulos, Will Sasso and Sean Hayes -- all do perfectly credible impersonations of the three most famous Stooges, but in the end, I decided that these impersonations weren't really such an amazing feat after all. A couple of the set pieces are marginally impressive; more of them seem pointless. The best thing the film has going for it is that its heart seems to be in the right place. The worst thing it has going for it is that it seems to have tried to prop up its fortunes in two pretty dubious ways, neither of which work. The ads for this film assumed that if you weren't otherwise interested in the Three Stooges, you'd see it because Snooki gets her eyes poked by Moe, and because Kate Upton appears in a nun bikini. Well, the film relies too heavily on the Jersey Shore bit, as Moe actually becomes a cast member on the show, and the show's idiot regulars each get far too much screen time as a result. The opposite sin is committed with Upton, as the money shot from most of the ads does not even appear in the completed film -- she's seen in her nun bikini only while sitting in a lifeguard chair, which tends to obscure much of what the audience came to see. Oh, and David's appearance basically amounts to a lot of yelling.

Conclusion: In the end, I don't feel like I actually saw any vintage examples of the Stooges. In order to do that, I needed to be steered toward their classic shorts -- which wouldn't have been a relevant assignment for this blog. That said, I found each of the films I saw pleasing enough.

My favorite of the films: Swing Parade of 1946

October: Bring on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This is a choice inspired directly by the Sight & Sound list, where they had a staggering six films listed -- none of which I've seen. In fact, I'd say I didn't even know much about them before this list, though I later realized that I've seen a solo effort by Powell: Peeping Tom. My current plan is to see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, though as you saw from last month, this is subject to change. Especially since one of their other films from this list, A Canterbury Tale, is available on Netflix streaming while Blimp and Shoes are not.

Until then, enjoy my usual frivolous output.