Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Forecast for this week: Spotty

Do you start every day with a dose of The Audient? Do you feel like not having your Audient in the morning is the same as not having your coffee? Do you walk slanted all day long and think "I shoulda had an Audient?"

Well, you may be walking slanted and feeling groggy for the near future.

Having spent this past Saturday and Sunday painting in our new house, we'll be moving all our stuff and sleeping there for the first time on Sunday. Until then, things figure to be verrrrry busy.

Adding to the complication, I stupidly volunteered to write a post for the Flickchart blog, timed to the release of Snow White and the Hunstman on Friday. I like the idea for the piece and really want to write it, but the timing couldn't be any worse.

So, don't expect much in the way of output on The Audient this week, and probably into next week as well.

I could be like most bloggers and just not post for awhile, and let you piece together what it all means. But I don't like to leave you sitting there, wondering if I got hit by a bus, or no longer have the use of my hands. I don't want you worrying about me.

Of course, writing a post like this means I'm guaranteed to think of things to write about for all the rest of the days this week, and somehow find the time to write them.

But in the greater likelihood that I don't, I'll see you when I see you.

In any case, I think I'll have something on Friday, also about Snow White.

Until then ... 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Will Smith yields the Fourth

Men in Black 3 is poised to do pretty well. A bankable star (Will Smith). A reliable veteran (Tommy Lee Jones). A new addition who has hip indie cred (Josh Brolin). A franchise that retains its sense of good will despite a second installment that almost no one liked.

And a plum release date just before Memorial Day, the ceremonial start to summer.

However, it's this last part that probably chaps Will Smith's hide.

During his career Smith has been identified with the Fourth of July, an association he has worked hard to cultivate. In fact, he went so far as to anoint himself Mr. Fourth of July back in the late 1990s.

Can being shifted to Memorial Day seem like anything but a demotion to him?

Not because Memorial Day is intrinsically a worse time of the year for a movie to come out. In fact, I'd argue it's better. There have already been a couple major releases, so you're not the first big movie of the season. In fact, you're catching audiences right when their appetites are truly whetted for summer movies in all their shapes and forms. You could argue that by July, the summer movie season is already winding down.

No, it's because Smith calls himself Mr. Fourth of July. He doesn't call himself Mr. Memorial Day. And this earlier release means he can't haul out his old Independence Day branding, which started with Independence Day.

On July 3, 1996, Independence Day hit theaters and was a huge hit. A year later, on July 2, 1997, Men in Black followed and did almost as well at the box office, with greater appreciation from critics to boot.

Thus -- at least in Smith's mind -- a legend was born.

Even though Wild Wild West (released June 30, 1999) was a colossal failure, that didn't stop July 4th from belonging to Smith. His next summer blockbuster, Men in Black II, hit theaters on July 3, 2002.

It was only at this point that Smith's blockbusters stopped being synonymous with summer's midpoint three-day weekend. Bad Boys II was released July 18, 2003, and I, Robot was release July 16, 2004. That seems a bit punitive, as late July is really starting to be the back end of the summer movie season. (Just don't tell that to Christopher Nolan.) But Smith returned to his favored release date in 2008 with Hancock, which came out on July 2nd.

But then a funny thing happened to Will Smith: He disappeared.

He's such a big star that you may not have even noticed it, but did you realize that Smith hasn't made a movie since Seven Pounds in December of 2008? It really opened my eyes yesterday on NPR when I heard a reporter mention that Smith hadn't starred in a movie "since George Bush was still in office."

It's not like the Smith family brand went into complete hibernation, though. Will's son Jaden starred in The Karate Kid a couple summers ago. But daddy was nowhere to be seen.

Well, Smith ends his self-imposed exile today, when the apparently troubled third installment in the Men in Black series (they started shooting before the script was finished) invades the multiplexes. And we'll be seeing more of him in the next four years than we have in the last four, as IMDB lists five movies currently in his pipeline, though only a couple of them have progressed past the "rumored" phase. The one that's currently filming is After Earth, with Winter's Tale in pre-production. Then a bevy of seemingly ill-advised sequels: I, Robot 2, Hancock 2 and Bad Boys 3.

I for one am happy to see him back. Even though I made some snide remarks earlier that indicated I think Smith has a big ego, I actually think he has the right kind of big ego. (As it turns out, I Am Legend was not actually a biopic.) When he's boastful or proud, he's joyfully so, and it never comes off wrong.

Besides, he's a big, charismatic star who has made slightly more good choices than bad ones. That's a gamble I'm willing to take.

(Also, I really want to watch 90 minutes of Josh Brolin impersonating Tommy Lee Jones.)

And so what if it's "only" coming out on Memorial Day weekend (and not even the Wednesday before). At 43, Smith is still young enough to re-brand himself.

So what is coming out on Fourth of July weekend this year? That honor goes to The Amazing Spider-Man, starring the new Mr. Fourth of July ... Andrew Garfield.

Yeah, I'm betting I'll find Men in Black 3 more amazing.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The wrong time to impose structure

I can't imagine ever giving up the DVD-through-the-mail option from Netflix.

Oh, I know there will come a time when technological advances render this delivery method obsolete. But under the circumstances I know now, I can't imagine willfully forfeiting that option. It's the only way we have to choose exactly the movies we want to see, since all other methods have a relatively limited selection of titles.

But this doesn't mean I always know what to promote to the top of my queue. In fact, I rarely do. Because one thing that's definitely changed is that collectively, we are no longer an audience that consumes movies by watching a series of targeted choices. We have gradually transitioned into watching the best of a bunch of available choices, targeting our next choice relatively infrequently. Or when we do target our next choice, we go for an immediate gratification method like Redbox, where there's no chance the movie will be stuck in a "Short Wait" or "Long Wait" purgatory.

And so it is that I like to have some kind of structure that governs what I pick as my next DVD rental.

In the past, this was always easy. Up until November, I was reviewing movies for All Movie Guide, and I was working from a regularly replenished list of older titles. It was easy to promote something to #1 in my queue because I was financially incentivized to keep watching and reviewing these particular titles.

Since that ended, I've had my Getting Acquainted series to fall back on. You know, the series where I watch three movies per month by a cinematic luminary who is generally unfamiliar to me. Sometimes one of these movies is available for streaming, but more often I have to get at least two of them from Netflix.

But this month I'm taking a month off from that as we prepare to move.

Now what?

In a way, the timing was perfect for me to follow my first marathon on the Filmspotting podcast. Filmspotting is a terrific film podcast hosted by Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen, and one of their recurring segments is to watch five or six movies over a period of roughly eight weeks, all by the same director or all following a similar theme. In the year that I've been listening to this podcast, I've not followed marathons devoted to Krzysztof Kieslowski and Robert Bresson, but I decided it was time to jump on board -- if only so I didn't have to entirely space out during the ten minutes of each podcast they discuss that week's marathon movie. Plus, the lastest marathon topic -- contemporary Iranian cinema -- interested me greatly, especially after I crowned A Separation as my favorite film of 2011. What's more, my wife is on record with her love of Iranian cinema, so she had sort of agreed to come on the journey with me. With the caveat that she may have actually already seen some of the titles. (Yep, I married the right woman.)

So I got Close-Up, directed by Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy), in the mail last week. And quickly realized that I was crazy.

With each of the next three weekends likely being chaotic due to moving logistics, and with my Celtics in the playoffs, and with TVs soon likely to be in various states of connection or disconnection, how the hell am I supposed to watch a bunch of Iranian movies that will require my complete concentration?

Given how much of our minds are devoted to other things right now, it's a miracle we can even give an hour-long TV show our full attention. The half-hour shows are much better in that respect. However, the entire TV season is wrapping up in the next week, which at least allows the possibility that movies could re-assert their claim to dominance. Even then, though, an 85-minute English language comedy will seem a lot more realistic as a way to relax from everything that's going on.

I would have loved to follow along with this marathon. Not only would it have satisfied my hunger to learn more about the cinema of Iran, but as I mentioned, it would have given me more investment in the discussion portion of each podcast. Plus, I'd always have something at the top of my DVD queue.

At least watching the first movie worked out well. In between packing and one of our last bike/rollerblade rides down to the beach from our house, we watched Close-Up during our son's nap. Indeed, my wife had already seen it, but when she heard the title, her face lit up. Her ravings turned out to be true -- it was wonderful. If you were a fan of Certified Copy and the themes of identity and copies that it addresses, you should see this film. It's also a unique formal mix of documentary and fiction film, with people playing themselves in fictionalized recreations of things that actually happened. I won't divulge any more, but its themes will speak to the A Separation fans out there as well. Speaking of not imposing structure, Kiarostami is a filmmaker who seems immune to traditional narrative structure -- which is most assuredly a good thing.

And because my wife and I also saw Dark Shadows on a date night Saturday night, that meant that I was fresh off a viewing of both movies they discussed at length on the podcast I listened to the next morning on my walk with my son. It was a week old, but by delaying listening to it, I got a lot out of both discussions (even if I did not get a lot out of Dark Shadows).

At the end of their discussion of Close-Up, Adam and Josh revealed the marathon's next title, but said it wasn't available from Netflix. In fact, they got their copy from a local Chicago DVD-through-the-mail service. Also, they wouldn't even be discussing it for two weeks, meaning not until this coming Friday. Which means I have until at least a week after that to see the next movie in their Iran-a-thon. And longer if I can wait a week before listening to the podcast.

Maybe I can impose this structure after all?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sleeping all these years

I keep a running list of all the movies I've ever seen.

This you know. I've told you before.

What I may not have told you is that there's almost no way it's complete. I like to think of it as complete, but the truth is, it was initially compiled out of a comprehensive guide available at the local video store in my hometown, over 20 years ago. I've made it as close to complete as possible over the years by adding any titles I think of that are missing, and I've been successful to the extent that I go years between realizing certain titles aren't on there.

But it still happens. As in last night, when I finally realized that Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty was not on my list of movies seen.

And all it took was seeing an updated softcore erotica version of the story for me to make the connection.

Actually, Julia Leigh's 2011 film Sleeping Beauty really only borrows the title of the Disney film/fairytale, as it involves a "beauty" (Emily Browning) who willfully consumes a drug that will put her into a deep sleep for several hours, during which time clients at a brothel can do anything they want to her, short of actual intercourse. So, don't take your kids to this one.

But as I was going to list it in my lists, I made a mental note to add the year 2011 in parenthesis after the movie to distinguish it from the 1959 Disney version. Oops. Nope, not on there.

So then I had to ask myself: "Did I actually see the original Sleeping Beauty?"

I had to think about it. I've long had a system for distinguishing the three animated movies from the early years of Disney that involved princesses. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the classic; Sleeping Beauty is okay but sort of forgettable (which is why I can never remember if I've seen it); and Cinderella is the one I haven't seen.

Oops. Cinderella actually appears on my lists.

Okay, so it looks like at some key moment in the history of compiling this list, I confused Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. It's probably because I know Cinderella is more classic and I'm a lot more familiar with the story, even if I haven't seen the Disney version. So I feel like I should have seen it over Sleeping Beauty. I haven't seen it ... right?

There's an easy way to correct this, and it's the same correction method I used last year when I wasn't sure I'd seen Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries: Just see the movie again. But do I really want to waste a viewing of Cinderella now, when I could wait two or three years and watch it with my son? I've actually been stockpiling a list of animated movies I haven't seen, intending to delay my first viewing until I can watch them with my son. If he then wants to watch that same movie another 30 times, that'll be one fewer total viewing for me to get sick of it.

So maybe the Cinderella issue will go unresolved for now, but after deliberating about it, I can now say pretty certainly that I did see Sleeping Beauty. It was during one of the theatrical re-releases that were common when I was a child, where I also saw the likes of Pinocchio, Snow White, Dumbo and Bambi. I'd venture to say that I saw those four before I saw Sleeping Beauty, and perhaps that's why I now remember for sure that I saw it -- I remember thinking that Beauty was "lesser Disney." Yep, there I was, an eight-year-old kid, contemplating the greaters and the lessers in Disney's catalogue.

As for this new Sleeping Beauty, well, it's not titillating, if that's what you were hoping for. It has some interesting moments, some shocking moments, but overall it's too opaque to make as much of an impression as it clearly wants to. The three things it does have going for it are the beautiful photography, uninterrupted takes that usually run the length of the whole scene, and a performance by Browning that must have been really difficult to pull off.

And unlike its predecessor, there's no chance I'll forget whether or not I saw it.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The least legitimate movie ... ever?

The other day I attended a Mother's Day appreciation get-together at my son's daycare. The women who run the daycare had been working "with" the kids all week on crafts for the mothers (the kids' contributions were debatable, but the quality of the crafts was excellent, so I'll take the tradeoff). Then they had us for snacks, drinks and presentation of the crafts to the mothers.

We're relatively new to the daycare (my son started last summer), and we hadn't really met any of the other parents. As it turns out, some of them know each other rather well, and two of the couples had actually been together to the premiere of Battleship the night before. I never found out how they were invited, but one of them joked to another "Did you go to the after party at Rihanna's house?"

I had to ask about the movie. I asked, innocently, whether it was good, even though I knew there was almost no possibility it was.

Even though they presumably had some relationship, however distant, to someone involved with this movie, they felt no need to spread good word of mouth. "Eh, well ... it was like Transformers, except ... even less good than that."

Maybe they would have just hauled off on this movie entirely if they'd known me better.

This has occurred to me for some time: Battleship may just be the most bogus contraption ever assembled for audiences to consume. Let's consider what it has working against it in the legitimacy department:

1) It is an adaptation of a board game. And not a board game with preexisting characters, such as Clue. A board game in which you fire missiles randomly at an open expanse of water, hoping to hit battleships.

2) It's not even about what the board game is about. The board game makes no mention of aliens. Then again, the board game is meant to be a simple pleasure enjoyed simply. Perhaps the fine people at Hasbro always imagined a "backstory" involving aliens.

3) The movie it most resembles is considered one of the most crass examples of moviemaking for the masses we have today. Yet the vibe people have is that Transformers, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Transformers: Dark of the Moon seem like Shakespeare's three greatest plays compared to Battleship.

4) The main "original" idea in this movie, and possibly the only creative impulse that really propelled it forward, seems to be those metal balls. You know what I'm talking about. The metal balls with their jagged edges that rip through America's cities, laying waste to everyone and everything in their paths. It's very possible that some stoned writer once thought: "I've got it! Jagged metal balls that rip and roll through cities! Let's make a movie!" And some genius then decided to marry that idea to the adaptation of the Battleship board game.

5) One of the movie's stars (Rihanna) is a hip hop singer in her first acting role. 

6) Another of the movie's stars (Liam Neeson) has recently become known as the guy who will take any role that's offered to him. At least he has a sense of humor about it, recently appearing on Saturday Night Live alongside Andy Samberg, who was dressed up as Nicolas Cage for a recurring Weekend Update sketch that makes fun of Cage's movie choices. (Watching this skit was an awesome moment for me, considering how I called it: See this post.)

Is six enough? I'm not sure if I can get to ten. So might as well stop here while we're already on a round enough number (a half-dozen).

Besides, there's only so much about the seeming illegitimacy of Battleship that can be put into words. It's just a feeling that washes over you: This movie is crap. And unlike other movies that are crap, this crap doesn't even have its origins in something someone once thought was cool.

The real loser in this scenario seems to be the board game. I mean, the board game was cool, in a way. I'm not going to say that the movie will tarnish the board game's good name -- let's not go that far. But it was a fun board game that involved some level of strategy and a basic excitement/tension about trying to fend off impending doom. Did I say "was"? Is. This board game will probably fly off shelves once again, which means that it's only a loser in the sense that it is now associated with an inferior piece of cinematic garbage.

However, I can see the disappointment now. "Daddy, this game is fun and all, but where are the aliens?"

Friday, May 18, 2012

Spare me the complete scenes, please

I noticed a disturbing trend in the trailers I saw before The Dictator on Tuesday night. Specifically, the comedy trailers, which were all but one of them.

Not just snippets of "funny dialogue," but entire scenes.

Like, eight consecutive lines of dialogue each, for two or more characters, in the same setting.. 

If it had happened in just one trailer, I might not have noticed it. But since it happened in two, it graduated to the level of a post topic.

It may be no coincidence that both The Watch (formerly Neighborhood Watch) and That's My Boy felt they needed to supply whole scenes to convince us the writing is funny. If the trailers are any indication, neither movie looks likely to supply many laughs. (There's a reason I put "funny dialogue" in quotes earlier.) And as an added sign of desperation, The Watch trailer had to drop in about three f-bombs, in the hopes that merely employing profanity is enough to convince audiences of the writers' comic genius. Red band trailers are a little puerile, aren't they?

Here, check out the trailers below:

I'm counting about five scenes here, the first of which lasts, astonishingly, the entire first minute of the trailer. And basically tells you nothing about the movie. It's downright awkward to watch such long scenes play out with such little payoff. I must admit I think the kid with the ice cream cone is kind of funny, but what does he have to do with the creative talents behind this film? That painfully protracted comparison of the alien goo's viscosity to the viscosity of semen -- now that's what I expect from these guys.

In the case of The Watch, I can understand the need for this going-nowhere vagueness about the movie's content. They kind of don't want you to know what the movie is really about. The Watch was almost derailed by the high profile shooting death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of over-zealous neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. In fact, it's a major surprise the movie is even coming out this year. Too bad Neighborhood Watch is no longer a viable title, because the new title is lame.

Here's the trailer for That's My Boy, a potentially funny idea that looks poorly executed:

This is not as guilty as The Watch in terms of the wholesale reliance on complete scenes, but the one in particular where they discuss the finer points of Adam Sandler's parenting techniques was agonizing for me to sit through. I kept thinking "Please let this end." And not because the dialogue itself is so bad or anything. Just because it seems awkward to sit through such a long, uninterrupted part of the movie -- until you're, you know, actually sitting through the movie. You're waiting for the zinger, which should come in five seconds or less, and then on to the next joke. When you have to wait 20 seconds for it, you've gone limp at least ten seconds before that.

What these trailers tell me is not that comedy writing is much worse today than it has been in the past, because Lord knows cinema history is littered with awful comedies. No, these trailers tell me that the studios don't trust the audience to pick up on nuance, to fill in the blanks, to reach a conclusion based merely on suggestion. Take the scene where Sandler laughs at Andy Samberg's New Kids on the Block tattoo. In the past, the trailer might have been cut to end with Sandler laughing at his own bad behavior, leaving it up to the audience to put two and two together: he gave the tattoo to his son during a drunken stupor sometime in the late 1980s. Instead, they really hit us over the head with the next couple lines of dialogue: "Their heads are all warped!" "That's because I got it when I was in the third grade! My body grew!" And just to hammer it home, a second later Samberg tells he him that he sucks. That clears it up for those of us who thought he liked being tattooed by his teenage father.

I wish I could say that the studios were wrong. Fact is, people probably are too stupid to get nuance these days. And unless you're sure people get what you're saying, you're not sure they'll pay theater prices to see your movie.

It goes without saying that you have to show funny clips from a comedy, so people will want to see it. But you don't have to show the whole scene. I've had experiences in the past where the trailer whetted my appetite for something funny, then I got more than I bargained for when the parts of the scene they didn't show were even funnier. When trailers show everything, you know exactly what you're going to get. Which probably provides a certain comfort for people -- another sad sign of where we find ourselves, collectively, as an audience.

Not that I myself am completely above this. When I saw The Dictator, I was actually disappointed that my favorite line from the trailer didn't make the movie. "America, the birthplace of AIDS," muses Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) in a moment of faux awe. But he doesn't muse this in the movie, only the trailer. And yeah, I missed not seeing/hearing the line.

That seems like a problem neither The Watch nor That's My Boy is likely to have -- so much good material that you have to leave some of it out.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Acceptable circumstances for viewing a comedy

You may remember in this post I talked about some new rules I had for watching comedies. I was no longer going to watch them by myself -- as in, without anyone I know. Failing that, the theater I watched them in had to be packed.

Plan B came into effect last night.

It was once again $7 Tuesdays at the local theater, though I did not at first understand why my Tuesday choices included The Dictator, which does not officially release until today. However, I soon realized that it was already today on the east coast when I saw it, since the first showing at this theater was at precisely 9 p.m. Without even looking it up I can assume that as long as it's May 16th somewhere in the U.S., the movie can be played. I'm sure there was at least one Hawaiian theater playing it at 6.

I know the theater was at least 37% full. That's the percent sold it was when I showed up a half-hour early, just to be on the safe side. I guess opening night isn't what it once was, or maybe this surprise early showing of Sacha Baron Cohen's latest fooled other people as much as it fooled me.

But I'd say the theater was 70 to 75% full by the time the show started. Entering the screening room five minutes early was enough to get me a seat where I could put my feet up on the bar. Because that's how I roll.

We were a good crowd and we were ready to laugh. And SBC gave us plenty to laugh about. I won't review the details of the movie for you, since they are worth discovering on your own. But just wait for that sequence where Admiral General Aladeen discovers a certain ... pleasure that he never knew about previously.

In fact, I'm going on record: The Dictator is my favorite of Cohen's three starring vehicles, if you are considering the other two to be Borat and Bruno. (My tendencies toward anal retention would ordinary require me to spell out the whole title of Borat, but not this morning.) I didn't like either of those movies as much as I wanted to, but they're still movies I like pretty well. Yes, even Bruno.

So what Cohen was bringing last night was in my wheelhouse.

But I can't deny that the crowd had something to do with it. There was probably a little extra buzz from it being opening night, though I'd be lying if I said it was tangible. We were just ready to laugh, and laugh we did. Pretty much every time Cohen wanted us to, with a couple minor exceptions.

So maybe I've got a new optimism about the idea of seeing a movie on opening night, as long as it's a comedy, and as long as it's only 37% full a half-hour before the movie.

And even if no one I knew was there, it's funny how much like a friend your neighbor feels when you are both laughing hysterically.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I knew Anna Kendrick was cool

But she doesn't have much luck being construed the way she wants to be.

I was drawn to an article on Moviefone titled "Anna Kendrick, What to Expect When You're Expecting Star, Relieved to No Longer Be In Twilight." While that may be a needlessly complicated and frankly awful headline, it did the job of getting me to read the article. After all, I liked the sentiment. I have always thought that Kendrick was better than Twilight. You could say I have a little bit of a crush on her, which is funny, because she's been in a couple movies I haven't been a huge fan of (Rocket Science, 50/50). I didn't even love Up in the Air like most people did.

Anyway, I love the fact that they're making Kendrick out to be basically embarrassed about her involvement with the Twilight saga. Even if it's not entirely accurate.

Here's how it really went down:

Interviewer: How does it feel to not be involved in the final Twilight movie?

Kendrick: It’s a relief, you know? Because it’s kind of off my shoulders [in terms of] talking about it. Because talking about it I always feel like I say something that gets misconstrued or I offend someone because people are so deeply passionate about that series. So, I’m actually sort of happy to be not talking about it.

Well, nice try not talking about it, Anna. And good luck being construed better next time. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

First DVD of the year

As you probably know, I am perpetually involved with ranking my favorite movies of the current calendar year. As soon as one year finishes, it's on to the next.

But the first half of the year is always pretty slow, since your only option for seeing new movies is the movie theater. And I tend to be pretty disincentivized from hitting the theaters unless a) the movie is likely to be really awesome (which often is not the case with early-year movies), or b) I'm just desperate to start working on the new year's list. B gets me out to probably five or six more movies in February, March and April than I'd otherwise see. The fact that they'll be available on DVD in plenty of time before my end-of-year ranking deadline further discourages me from seeing them in the theater just to get them ranked.

So that brings me to what I want to discuss today -- that magical moment when the first of the current year's titles hits DVD. It's usually late April or early May. The first one I noticed being available this year was Contraband. The first one I myself watched was Haywire, on Saturday afternoon.

From here, the list can really take off. In the first four months of the year, I saw a measly 11 titles. But I could see my next 11 in the next six weeks -- if I weren't moving in about three weeks, that is.

There has become something ceremonial enough about the first DVD I see from the current calendar year that I remember what it was last year, too. Actually, last year it was not technically a DVD but an itunes rental. Last year I watched No Strings Attached on my ipod on our trip back east for a wedding. (This year it was not technically a DVD either -- I rented Haywire on BluRay from Redbox.)

My No Strings Attached viewing was nearly a month later on the calendar than May 12th, when I watched Haywire (because I couldn't find Contraband at two different Redboxes). Does an earlier start this year mean that I might break my record for titles in a calendar year, which I set last year by watching a total of 121 before my late January deadline?

Probably not. See my previous comment about my life being thrown into chaos by moving houses in about three weeks' time. That'll set me behind again.

But I loved the passing of that ceremonial moment on Saturday, even if I did not love Haywire. I feel somewhat compelled to write a whole post about this, but let's just get it in here at the end of this one instead. I've been feeling this for awhile, but Haywire really brought it home for me: Steven Soderbergh is a cold, clinical filmmaker who will sacrifice character development for plotting and sleek visual presentation. I didn't give a flip about any of the characters in this contract killer thriller, and that doesn't have a lot to do with the fact that Gina Carano is a mixed marial arts fighter, not a trained actor per se. That's all on Soderbergh, for not caring if we care.

All I really cared about was that it was a 2012 movie, one I was planning to see no matter how good it was, and that I didn't have to go to the theater to see it.

From here on out, any early-year movies I wanted to see, whose quality might be highly suspect, will be only the price of a rental.

Let the good times roll.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Much more beautiful en Espanol

The first time I heard the title for Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In (which I watched last night), I thought, "That sounds like sort of a tortured, awkward title, doesn't it?"

I mean, it's only five words. How tortured and awkward could it really be? But nonetheless I took that impression from it.

Of course, Almodovar wasn't naming his film with its English translation in mind. (Though with how important it is to do well in English-speaking countries, maybe he should have given that more consideration.) In Spanish the film is of course called La Piel Que Habito, which just seems infinitely more elegant. (I say "of course" because you can see the title in the more pleasing Spanish language poster I've included here, which is not a close-up of this woman's face, covered by a mask of bandages.)

I know that part of my perception of the title's elegance is a result of me finding the Spanish to be exotic, and therefore, more beautiful. Even if it means the same thing as "The Skin I Live In," those words just sound more beautiful than their English counterparts, which are not particularly beautiful words. And although the grammatical structure in English is not particularly complicated, it's just awkward enough to seem like what it is: a translation.

However, this is not the first time a title to one of Almodovar's movies has seemed a bit awkward in English. Let's take Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The movie came out in 1988, meaning I was either 14 or 15 when I encountered it for the first time. I specifically remember thinking "What is this movie whose title is practically a sentence?" The Spanish title in this case is no shorter: Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios. In fact, that might actually be more awkward.

You do, however, get an interesting difference in length when it comes to his next film, which we call Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! En Espanol that movie is called, simply, Atame! Meaning that the title was simply untranslatable to us in a way that would mean something to us, because we don't understand a concept like this in a single word, as the Spanish do. (Atame literally means "tie me up." I love that this concept could be expressed in a single word, especially since it involves a person asking for a thing that most people never request.)

I notice Almodovar also made a film with a title that probably never stood a chance not to sound weird: 1995's La Flor de mi Secreto, known to us (to the extent that we know it at all) as The Flower of My Secret. Try wrapping your head around what that's supposed to mean. For the record, the film is about a romance writer who has to confront a personal and professional crisis. 

Then you've got his 2006 film Volver, which is the other thing that sometimes happens with foreign titles: They don't get translated at all. Volver means "return," but we don't call this movie Return in English -- we call it Volver. See here for a longer discussion of why some foreign titles get translated for consumption in the English-speaking world, and some don't -- though don't expect any satisfying conclusions.

Anyway, it was my first Almodovar since 2004's Bad Education (La Mala Educacion), so I was glad to get back to him after inexplicably blowing off his two straight collaborations with Penelope Cruz (Volver and Broken Embraces, or Los Abrazos Rotos). Not only is La Piel Que Habito shot beautifully -- I was especially noticing the precise framing and mis en scene -- but it contains some of the darkest and most thought-provoking themes in his work, which has always been fairly dark and provoked a considerable amount of thought. (Not to mention that it also contains genuine surprises in the narrative.) And while at first blush I thought it seemed like a departure for Almodovar, having watched it, I now feel very definitely that it fits comfortably into his canon. 

You might say it's the same interesting skin, or piel, that Almodovar has always been living in.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A reprieve for Depp and Burton?

If I were to choose the two biggest whipping boys throughout the history of The Audient, it would have to be Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.

Or more specifically, Tim Burton in all contexts, and Johnny Depp as his work relates to Burton's.

(And I have yet to even see Alice in Wonderland. It has more value to me as something unseen that I can assume is terrible, than something that I might end up liking if I actually saw it.) 

None of my previous references to the collaborations between Depp and Burton (and Helena Bonham Carter) have prepared me for the fact that I'm really, really excited to see Dark Shadows.

That's two "really"s, people.

In fact, after Dark Shadows, there isn't a movie I'm this excited to see until Prometheus, which comes out nearly a month from now.

How did this happen?

I'd say the biggest factor in my excitement for Dark Shadows is that it's not a property I'm already very familiar with. It's been nearly ten years since the last Tim Burton movie I really liked, which was Big Fish -- also the last movie of his I would describe as "original." In the interim, he's "put his stamp" on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Alice in Wonderland. The first two were enough to convince me I didn't want to see the third.

But this? This seems delightful. A vampire comedy set in the 1970s. And so what if it started out as a TV show. I'd never even heard of the show, let alone been familiar with it, so as NBC used to say about Thursday night reruns you hadn't seen, "it's new to you." (Or in this case, me.)

Then I think points have to go to the character design, specifically as it relates to Depp. One of the things I have found most off-putting about Burton's recent films is what they've done to poor Johnny Depp. The worst offender was of course his Willy Wonka, a misguided conception of that character if there ever was one. I didn't have a problem with the character design of Sweeney Todd per se, but it was a step backwards again with the Mad Hatter. (And I don't have to have seen the movie to pass judgment on the character design.)

There's something wonderfully mod about his character in Dark Shadows, especially as demonstrated in the poster above. (And how about the Warhol-esque, pop art nature of that poster? Even if it's a collection of the single-head one sheets they are using to promote the movie, rather than an actual poster they are using, it's still very aesthetically pleasing.) The alabaster skin, the spiky hair styled just so, the rectangular shades. Okay, everyone in that poster has alabaster skin. But that speaks to the production design in general. Each of the characters seems to be a fascinating, eye-popping creation who fits perfectly into the stylized environment. The environment has Burton's stamp, for sure, but it's different enough that he doesn't just seem to be resting on his laurels.

And speaking of those other characters, the actors playing them certainly have something to do with my excitement level. There's of course Chloe Grace Moretz, who is just about the best thing going for actors under 18 (either gender). But I'm also really excited about what they've done with Eva Green, who you may remember as Bond's love interest in Casino Royale. She's looking all big-eyed and angular, approaching the kind of thing Burton had going on with his ex-girlfriend Lisa Marie. You may remember her as the Martian girl in Mars Attacks! The similarity is no coincidence.

Mars Attacks! is no masterpiece, but it's a really fun movie that represents Burton in his waning glory days.

If Dark Shadows gives me a little bit of Mars Attacks!, I'll be plenty happy.

And then maybe I'll put away the whip for awhile as far as Burton (or Depp or Bonham Carter) is concerned.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Romantic comedies for old people

Not many movies wanted to open against The Avengers last weekend.

In fact, only one of any note did: John Madden's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Albeit on only 27 screens nationwide.

It was the ultimate in counter-programming. A superhero movie for young people vs. a romantic comedy for old people.

It shouldn't be much of a surprise who won.

Granted, the $902,000 domestic gross to date for Marigold Hotel is not bad, considering its small number of screens. But the small number of screens -- especially with a cast of this pedigree -- should tell you something about how often studio execs think old people go to the movies.

Which is odd, because at one of our favorite nearby theaters, we always complain about the fact that the place seems overrun with old people. And I don't live near some retirement community in Florida. I live in the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles, which doesn't only bustle, but is home to the movie industry. And plenty of blue-haired old ladies, thank you very much.

(To be clear, we don't complain about them because we have a problem with their blue hair or musty smells. It's because they don't seem to be able to prevent themselves from talking during the movie. Their ability to filter the little voice inside their head seems to have vanished once they turned 70.)

For awhile this spring, when I was seeing a trailer for Marigold Hotel before every other movie I attended, I linked it in my mind to Lasse Hallstrom's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which came out about six weeks earlier, whose trailer I was also seeing on a repeating loop at this theater. The cast is younger, but the audience seems to be the same: older people who have outgrown edgy humor, who may be thinking about the exotic locations they haven't yet visited and may never visit, and are not automatically thrown off by five-world titles.

In a run of about six weeks, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen made just under $8 million in the U.S. That was on a much larger eventual total of 483 screens.

So, maybe old people don't go to the movies that much after all.

Still, I'm heartened by these attempts to remember that other demographics exist beyond the audiences who either have gone to Comic-Con, or would go if they had the money. It's an increasingly rare risk for studios to take.

It seems hard to believe that there was a time when a movie like Grumpy Old Men not only didn't make people blink, but actually scored $70 million at the box office -- and that was in 1993 dollars. (Harder to believe is that its budget was a full $35 million, so the box office hit only doubled the budget domestically.) In fact, it was hit enough that Grumpier Old Men came out in 1995 -- making $1 million more domestically on a budget that was $10 million less. ($25 million seems like more the right amount to spend on a movie like this. It must have cost a lot to lure Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau out of semi-retirement for the first one.)

These days, with every movie needing to have the potential for franchising and merchandising, the market has shifted away from the older audiences who could once help make movies a hit. And I think we're the worse for it. It's why more movies seem the same as each other rather than different from one another.

Of course, I'm not doing my part. I'm only 38, but I'm fast approaching old. And I didn't see Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and have no realistic plans to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I'm sure I'll catch both on DVD.

But I also am steadfastly refusing to add to the coffers of The Avengers.

There's that, at least.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

It's Wednesday ... still no ideas?

It's the last refuge of the desperate blogger to write a post about how he has nothing to write about.

I don't intend to be a seven-day-a-week blogger. My goodness, you guys need a break from my long-windedness from time to time. But over my nearly three-and-a-half years writing this blog, I've probably averaged something like five days a week. Actually, I can be more exact than that: 790 posts divided by about 173 weeks, which comes out to 4.56 posts a week. Round up and you've got five.

Lately I haven't been writing much over the weekend -- just too busy with family stuff. But in the last couple weeks I've also missed Monday, just because work has been really busy in my first day back from the weekend. But I've always managed to at least crank something out by Tuesday. 

So when the length of time since my last post stretches out to five days, I feel compelled to say something about it. In fact, without saying something about it today, it would have run to at least six tomorrow -- and possibly a full week, since the next post I'm sure I'm going to write will be this Friday. (Besides, having denigrated The Avengers and then seen it make $200 million in its first weekend, I can't leave last Friday's post up on the front of my blog forever.)

So yeah, this is one of those "I'm writing to say I don't have anything to write about" posts. (Plus, I've got an unexpected bout of insomnia so I'm writing it at 2 in the morning.)

And as much as I like to think ideas for things to write about can come to me out of thin air, the truth is, they are largely a function of me seeing new things. Which I have not done a lot of lately. It's been six days now since the last new movie I saw, Rob Reiner's Flipped -- a nice little movie, but not something I feel inspired to write anything about. I'm not entirely clear when I'll see my next movie, either -- though Friday seems like a safe bet, since my wife will be away for the night and I'll have the TV all to myself.

Why haven't I been seeing anything? Well for one, I was in Vegas this past weekend. Whereas I usually take down at least one and probably more like three new movies in a given weekend, this past weekend I saw nothing.

But it's also been a stressful time around here. Not only has work been crazy, but we are in escrow on a house, as I mentioned in my Getting Acquainted post from last week. Since many of you skip that series, this may be the first time you're hearing that little tidbit of news. We close on May 24th and hope to move in a week after that.

Let's just say that when your life is full, it can sometimes be easier just to squeeze in a 30-minute sitcom on your DVR as a form of mental escapism. Sometimes a movie requires too much thought and attention, which you can't spare or simply don't have at the time.

But being busy doesn't necessarily mean I don't have ideas -- it could be that I'm bursting at the seams with things to write about, only I can't find the time. In this case, though, I'm also operating from an idea deficit. And it makes me ponder the fact that blogging can be a feast or famine proposition. Sometimes I have so many things I want to write about that I need to jot them down so I don't forget about them. (One of my hard and fast rules: no more than one post a day.)

Then there are times like now. Where if I'm not careful, a whole week will slip away without me writing anything.

Well, with this post, I guess I dodged that bullet. Even if the thing I wrote about was the fact that I had nothing to write about.

And this is about as many words as I want to spend on that particular circular endeavor.

Back soon, I hope, with some actual ideas ...

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Superhero circle jerk

And so officially begins the summer movie season.

And it seems like everybody is excited about the ceremonial first movie of summer but me.

It feels like two years now that all I've heard about is Avengers this, and Avengers that. And from the first moment I heard anything about it, I thought it sounded like a bad idea.

Here's my problem with it, in an admittedly broad nutshell. It gets together two groups of people who tend to be insufferable in their own ways:

1) People who go on and on about comic books.

2) People who go on and on about Joss Whedon.

Some of you reading this undoubtedly fall into one of those two categories, and no, I probably don't actually find you insufferable, per se. It's the prototypical "you" that I find insufferable.

I have lately felt the urge to post about there being a difference between being a movie fan and being a fan of superhero movies. There are certain forums in which I discuss film where people call themselves film enthusiasts, but their "love of movies" seems to begin and end with movies adapted from comic books. They'll throw in movies that might as well have been adapted from comic books for good measure. But they don't seem to be interested in talking about anything beyond that. Fortunately, Hollywood has given them plenty to talk about within that sphere in the past decade.

Then there are those people who are still trying to tell you how awesome Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, even though it has been off the air for nearly a decade. I'm sure it was awesome, but I didn't find it so. I watched one episode, and thought I was hooked; I watched the next episode, and immediately lost interest. What's worse, they will also proclaim their undying love for Firefly, which I did not watch at all. But I did see the awful film version of the show called Serenity, which was, simply, awful. There's a certain cutesiness that suffuses Whedon's work, that I can't quite get over.

But I certainly like, even love, some comic book movies (Batman Begins and Watchmen are two examples) and I certainly like, even love, some stuff by Joss Whedon (The Cabin in the Woods and Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog are two examples).

So maybe the better way to encapsulate my disinterest in The Avengers is this:

Do I really want to watch a movie about a bunch of superheroes, sitting around jerking each other off?

Of course I'm not being literal, though one of these superheroes is Scarlett Johansson, so that would be pretty titillating. But I can imagine them all sitting around in a room, looking kind of funny because superheroes shouldn't sit around in a room, having fake arguments that are really just designed to demonstrate how awesome they all are in their own different ways with their own different powers. It's ego stroking disguised as the kind of bickering men and women do in romantic comedies before they realize they're in love.

See? Cutesy.

But really -- and I expect to keep defining this and modifying it as I write the piece -- the main reason I'm not so sure about The Avengers is that I think over-stuffing a movie with superheroes is very "Joel Schumacher Batman." I think superhero movies tend to work better if they focus on only a single hero or a finite number of heroes, not the 12 or 13 in this movie. Movies like the X-Men movies are the exception, because that was always part of the concept of that series -- a multiplicity of heroes. I'd rather see for a second time the movie subtitled The First Avenger -- which would be last year's surprisingly awesome Captain America -- than see Captain America the character have to elbow out of the way a bunch of other dudes (or dudettes) trying to hog the spotlight.

But maybe the REAL reason I'm not looking forward to The Avengers (you sick of this yet?) is that it seems to rely all too heavily on the mythology -- and I do mean "mythology" quite literally -- that originated in last year's disappointing Thor. The main villain in The Avengers is Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who is the fallen brother of Chris Hemsworth's Thor. The problem with both of these guys is that they are gods who live on another planet. I don't like that idea at all, but I definitely don't like it mixing with a bunch of other heroes whose back stories are grounded in reality (even if one of them, the aforementioned Captain America, effectively time traveled to be in present day). Throwing all these different realities together into one melting pot just seems fraught with peril. You are effectively telling me that Iron Man could get on that "space bridge" (even though I think it was destroyed at the end of Thor) and travel to Asgard -- another planet, in outer space, inhabited by gods.

But I hear The Avengers is good. Right? That's what "they say."

Then again, I wonder if I should really trust "they," if "they" is increasingly comprised of people who love Firefly and Thor.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Where have all the bad films gone?

I have this little ritual I perform at the end of each month, which helps me "close out" the month.

I look back at the new films I've seen during the previous month, and make note of which I liked most and which I liked least. Then I record them on the same document where I record the order I've watched them. I list the month and year, the number of movies I saw for the first time, then the best and worst afterward in parenthesis. Example: 4/09 = 20 (Best Movie, Worst Movie)

This often produces really funny pairings of movies, since they are at the extreme ends of the quality spectrum. Let's take June of 2008: 6/08 = 13 (The Godfather Part II, 10,000 B.C.). (And yes, that means I did not see The Godfather Part II for the first time until 2008.) Or March of 2004: 3/04 = 9 (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Battlefield Earth).

However, this exercise isn't as funny anymore, because it appears I am no longer seeing bad movies.

When I stopped reviewing movies for All Movie Guide last November, I suspected that the quality of the movies I watched would improve overall. But I didn't expect to basically stop seeing movies that stink. And movies that stink are an essential part of the many-splendored experience of watching movies.

The end of April rolled around earlier this week, so it was time for the ritual again. I saw only 12 new movies in April, in part because I watched nearly that many movies on repeat viewing (I've been binging a little lately) and in part because it's the beginning of the baseball season, so my attention is diverted.

The top movie was easy. As I discussed on Tuesday, I saw one of the first 5-star movies I've seen in a long time, The Passion of Joan of Arc. So that easily claimed the top spot for the month.

The bottom slot? It went to the Will Ferrell/Gael Garcia Bernal/Diego Luna mexploitation film Casa de Mi Padre, a film I gave only a marginal thumbs down. In fact, I had convinced myself to give it 3 stars out of 5 on Letterboxd, only to gain some toughness at the last moment and knock it down to 2.5. But there are a lot of things I respect about that movie, including the fact that the whole thing (excepting a few lines by Nick Offerman) is in Spanish, which means that Ferrell commits to speaking Spanish throughout.

Here, I'll show you the other contenders and the star ratings I gave them on Letterboxd:

4/3 - The Hunger Games - 3.5 stars
4/7 - OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies - 4 stars
4/14 - Marwencol - 4.5 stars
4/14 - The Big Year - 3 stars
4/17 - The Cabin in the Woods - 4 stars
4/19 - Day of Wrath - 4 stars
4/22 - The Tempest - 3 stars
4/25 - Bunny and the Bull - 4 stars
4/27 - 21 Jump Street - 4 stars
4/30 - Ordet - 4.5 stars

So maybe I just had a really good month. My Getting Acquainted series was with a director (Carl Theodor Dreyer) I ended up really loving. I saw a surprisingly good documentary (Marwencol) and a couple unexpectedly delightful comedies (OSS 117, 21 Jump Street). And I saw only 12 new films. It's not such a stretch to say you liked 11 of a given 12 films you see, especially since most people try to watch movies they think they'll like. And now that I'm not writing reviews, I'm more like "most people."

But in situations like this, especially given my prior and hopefully future job as a working critic, I always wonder if I'm going soft. Would I have ranked some of these films more harshly in the past? Let's take The Tempest. In many ways, it was not a very successful film. But I enjoyed a number of the performances and really dug the visual style that Julie Taymor brought to it. But Taymor always brings plenty of visual style. Does this mean that I have to give all of her movies that minimum 3-star "passing grade"?

Another thing that makes me worry about encroaching softness: My overall percentage of movies I liked, which I keep track of on a different spreadsheet. A few years ago, I liked around 64% of the movies I'd seen. Now it's around 67%, and growing. That's not an insignificant change, considering that I've seen over 3,500 films. And the higher it gets, the more I worry that I just don't lay into movies like I used to.

Of course, I can't ignore the fact that there is less incentive for me to see bad films nowadays. Back when I was reviewing for All Movie, a bad movie was almost as good as a good one, because either earned me $20 for the review, and reviews of bad movies are generally faster and more fun to write. Now, however, I have to kind of trick myself into seeing bad movies. I see fewer movies that I know will be bad, and with the ones I do, it's mostly for the ironic value of seeing it and being able to reference it (such as Howard the Duck, which I saw in February).

Nowadays, it seems like most of the bad movies I see will be movies I thought would be good, but didn't end up liking. It's these pure disappointments that seem to be increasingly rare. If it's a movie I'm excited about, I feel like I usually find enough about it to appreciate that I give it that minimum 3-star grade. And we can debate about where the cutoff should be on the five-star scale between movies you like and movies you don't like. I've probably given thumbs up here and there to a movie I would only give 2.5 stars out of 5.

I think I'm starting to ramble here. But the point is: I'm starved for something bad.

Come on, month of May. Bring it on.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Fastidious, expensive & completely controlled

Last year I wrote a piece on this blog detailing my top ten documentaries, according to where I had them ranked on Flickchart. I then listed my next ten as honorable mentions, making 20 total.

Nowhere on this list of 20 was a film by the great Errol Morris, a fact indelicately pointed out to me by a commenter on the Flickchart blog, where the piece was reprinted. He wrote: "No Errol Morris? No Herzog? Do you really like documentaries ... or just nice film posters?" (The presentation on the Flickchart blog is heavy on the artwork).

I felt a bit annoyed by this accusation that I might not be a "real" documentary fan if I didn't cherish Morris' work more than I do. But that set me to thinking about why I don't love his work. After all, I do consider him "great" -- he's probably one of the finest and most accomplished documentarians we have.

I've seen five films by Morris, two of which (The Thin Blue Line and Tabloid) I've seen since writing that post. In fact, The Thin Blue Line (1988), his masterpiece, would certainly make that list if I were making it today. But neither Tabloid nor the other three (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. and The Fog of War) would.

It's his 1997 film Fast, Cheap & Out of Control I saw first, and I still consider it representative of what he's trying to accomplish as an artist -- or not accomplish, as the case may be. You'll be disappointed to know it doesn't feature loose women with day-old mascara smudged across their faces. It's actually a portrait of four eccentric experts in four unusual and unrelated fields: a topiary artist, a lion tamer, an expert in mole rats and a scientist who makes bug-like robots. It's probably no surprise that Morris sees himself in these passionate pursuers of their respective crafts.

It was this film that introduced me to Morris' trademark style. The prototypical Morris film relies heavily on beautiful camerawork that's outside the box, including unusual close-ups and angles, and interview subjects talking directly to the camera. Morris' films also rely on a lot of slow-motion and a lot of what you might consider B-roll, an indulgence I interpret to indicate his preference for presenting beauty over his preference for presenting truth. He also employs a score almost constantly, usually one that's fairly reliant on a dominant instrument like the violin or the piano.

So while it's possible to find yourself wrapped in a certain spell as you are watching the beauty of Morris' craft, I'd argue that this beauty may be skin deep. Even when his subject matter is not frivolous, such as the modern history of the U.S. involvement in foreign wars, it seems like it exists primarily to serve his aesthetic sensibilities. And that's why none of Morris' films had yet penetrated their way into my top 20 at the time I wrote that piece.

Okay, how does this all relate to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which I saw last night as the back end of a double feature with Richard Linklater's Bernie?

Simply put, I thought director David Gelb was doing his best Morris impersonation, right down to using a Philip Glass score. (Morris used Glass in at least three of his films.) And that's why I'm not compelled to wax rapturous over Jiro, even though many critics have, and even though it is, without a doubt, an excellent film of which a great documentarian like Morris would be proud.

Specifically, I saw Fast, Cheap & Out of Control everywhere in this movie -- even though those terms apply even less to the craft of making sushi than they do to the four crafts highlighted in Morris' film.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the story of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, a world-renowned sushi master whose restaurant is located in a Tokyo subway station and can seat only ten customers at once. Thanks to a tireless dedication to his craft (which has included making apprentices of his two sons), his restaurant has received one of the highest ratings for any restaurant in the world, and customers book reservations months in advance. A 20-piece meal starts at 30,000 yen, or $300. But no customer ever leaves unsatisfied, in part because Jiro has mastered his palate and technique over the course of 75 years of maki sushi.

Gelb's film is absolutely beautiful, which shouldn't surprise you, since I'm comparing him to Morris. There are any number of mouth-watering shots of a hand depositing a freshly cut roll on the marble slab off of which it will be eaten, glistening with the sauce that has just been brushed on its surface, drooping ever so slightly as gravity starts to have its effect on the buoyant concoction. My words pale in comparison to the beauty of these images.

But is that all they are? In fact, is that all Jiro is? Just a bunch of beautiful shots of raw fish? Where's the meat, as it were?

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is only 81 minutes long, but it feels like it could be 20 minutes shorter. The problem is that there's not much of a narrative. The conflict, to the extent that there is one, is that Jiro's 50-year-old eldest son is essentially waiting for his father to retire so he can assume the position of sushi master at his father's restaurant. After all, his younger brother, who is not duty bound to follow directly in his father's footsteps, has already opened a successful restaurant across town.

Gelb faces a bit of a problem in that he is limited by the culture of his interview subjects, who are all quite traditional in their ways. Because filial piety is such a highly regarded trait in Japan, neither son is going to say the remotest thing negative about his father. What's more, any negative feelings they have toward one another are similarly repressed. So there is not, naturally, going to be any drama springing from these interviews.

Instead, we have what amounts to a loving montage on the process and dedication involved with the creation of great sushi. In many ways this is a joy to watch. In some other ways, it leaves a person hungry, as it were.

I imagine that those who disagree with me would say this, and they would have a good point: There is drama in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it's just not the kind of open, unfiltered drama you might get in other documentaries. Jiro's eldest son, Yoshikazu, may not tell the camera of his frustration at still being only an apprentice to his genius father at the age of 50, at least not with his words. But it's there, in nearly imperceptible looks and glances, perhaps all the more powerful for the fact that it must go unspoken.

And this is why I hesitate to even write what may be construed as a "negative" piece about Jiro Dreams of Sushi. After all, if it seemed drawn out, that could have been because it was my second movie of the night and I started it at 9:45. This is a very good movie, and you should see it.

But if you have the same hesitations about Errol Morris that I have, just know that coming in.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Getting acquainted with ... Carl Theodor Dreyer

This is the latest in my Getting Acquainted series, in which I familiarize myself with a legendary cinematic talent whose work was previously unfamiliar to me. I watch three films by/featuring that person during the month, then write about it at the end.

My interest in getting acquainted with Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer was driven almost purely by The Passion of Joan of Arc. This film has surfaced in various film tomes (including 1001 Movies to See Before You Die) and other lists of generally great films, but I guess what set it apart in my mind was the immediacy of the poster (which you'll see below). This poster seems to suggest the unlimited depths of the suffering of Joan of Arc leading up to her execution, and I guess I was surprised that such an early film (it was made in 1928) would address such a controversial figure in a likely controversial way.

As it turns out, it's correct that it was controversial -- the film was banned all over the place, and was once thought to be entirely lost, the master copy destroyed in a fire. Thirteen years after Dreyer died, a nearly complete copy was discovered in the janitor's closet of an Oslo mental hospital in 1981. It's considered one of the greatest discoveries of a lost masterpiece in film history.

As it also turns out, there were plenty of other controversial films about controversial topics made around that time -- it was only my ignorance that deemed this one to be a special case. Or perhaps it just struck a chord with me, as I seem to be endlessly fascinated by the depiction of religious fervor on film. I imagine this dates back to my fascination with depictions of Christianity in 15th century Flemish art, which I discovered in an art history class in college. I want to be clear that I am not a religious person myself -- far from it. But the depiction of religion in art has interested me for at least those 17 years since I took that class as a senior in college.

Little did I know the extent to which religion and religious persecution would appear in most if not all of Dreyer's films, many of which are considered masterpieces, only three of which I've seen, with more certain to come.

I'll get into the films in particular in a moment, but I wanted to also mention at the start (since I'm not sure how this will factor into my individual discussions of the films) that I was amazed the extent to which Dreyer seems to have influenced two other filmmakers, one indisputably great, one disputably great. I was first struck by how the black and white compositions and religious themes seemed to directly influence the work of Ingmar Bergman. Needless to say, most great filmmakers were influenced by other great filmmakers before them, but until now I was not familiar with what seems to be Bergman's greatest influence. Then Dreyer also seems to have influenced enfant terrible Lars von Trier, his fellow countryman. Both being Danish filmmakers would seem to be enough, but more specifically, each film I saw of Dreyer's includes the kind of masochistic persecution of a woman for which von Trier has become famous. At least Dreyer's treatments didn't go to the extremes of von Trier's, but it was clearly a preoccupation of his.

Okay ...

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Watched: Thursday, April 5th
One sentence plot synopsis: A depiction of the events, including trial and torture, leading up to the execution of Joan of Arc at the hands of the English.
My thoughts on the film: Wow. Can I just leave it at "wow"? I ranked this film five out of five stars, without hesitation, at Letterbox'd, where I keep track of my film rankings. I've only given that rating to ten other films I've seen since about 2004 (which is where I stand now in terms of adding my back movies in reverse chronological order). Simply put, I was astonished at the level of artistry on display in a movie made in 1928, when most other filmmakers were making the cinematic equivalent of cave drawings. (Another exaggeration, but I'm making that exaggeration to indicate just how astonished I was.) What struck me most was Dreyer's use of close-ups, to capture every groove of his actors' faces, and all that they expressed. There are the hardened lines of the gruff and unyielding judges, but then there are the freshly quivering lines of the face of Maria Falconetti as Joan. Falconetti has been rightly praised for giving one of the most captivating screen performances of all time, though you can't say it is 100% realistic -- her Joan often behaves as though she is in some kind of trance, which is consistent with the character's purported religious state, I guess. It's impossible to look away from the expressions of horror, despair and ecstasy Falconetti gives us, her eyes the size of saucers. It was instantly clear to me that Sinead O'Connor must have modeled at least some aspects of her persona on Falconetti. But Falconetti's performance and Dreyer's close-ups are not the sum of this movie's greatness, and I'd like to quickly mention three other stunning things about it: 1) Dreyer's use of a panning camera. I can't say to what extent it was used by other contemporary filmmakers, but it is used wonderfully here. 2) The editing in the scene where Joan is gradually slipping into a faint while viewing the spinning wheel of the implement that will be used to torture her. Dreyer goes back and forth between the two, with ever closer shots of this spinning torture device and the man who is impassively spinning it. 3) Joan's execution. It is incredibly detailed. The camera never looks away from what's going on, and that includes seeing a slumped and blackened corpse being licked by flames. I have never seen a movie like this, and it was made nearly 85 years ago. One note: If you are going to watch this, be sure to watch it with Richard Einhorn's "Voices of Light" score accompanying it. At the time it was made, Dreyer showed it with different music at different times, so there is no definitive native score. If you watch it without the score, you will be watching nothing but silence for the entire running time. After about two minutes of this, I decided I couldn't do it. (Plus, the score Einhorn composed in 1994 is really beautiful.)

Day of Wrath (1943, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Watched: Thursday, April 19th
One sentence plot synopsis: Following the decision to have a woman burnt at the stake for witchcraft, a pastor must consider evidence that he may be married to a witch himself -- and that this witch may have cast a spell on his son.
My thoughts on the film: I must admit, I chose this film more for the title than because of any particular reputation it had. You may recall that I wrote a piece on the use of the word "wrath" in movie titles when Wrath of the Titans came out, so I thought this would make a logical choice for something to see. Fortunately, it's also pretty brilliant. The film is more or less divided into two halves, the one leading up to the execution of a woman thought to be a witch (which rivals Joan of Arc in terms of being surprisingly graphic), and the second involving the wife of the pastor, who seduces his son. Day of Wrath lulls you with its pacing, but it also has this understated yet exotic beauty with its black-and-white cinematography. In fact, it was this film that first caused me to make the connection to the works of Bergman. Lisbeth Movin is otherworldly in a way that's truly chilling, playing the young "witch" (I'm putting it in quotation marks because it's only assumed, not known) who casts a spell on the ordinarily pious son of her pastor husband. You can't tell if she's truly in love with this son, or if she's merely acting out against a man at least 20 years her senior who made her his wife against her will, or a little of both. But the effect is dreamy. There's plenty more to ponder on the idea of godliness and its opposite, and whether "good" men are truly good, or "evil" women truly evil. As this film employs dialogue and Joan of Arc of course did not, I became aware for the first time of Dreyer's keen abilities with the pacing of dialogue and his minimal use of score/sound effects. Many sequences in this deliberate and spartan film are scored only with the sound of the whistling wind, and the effect is both lonely and oddly captivating.

Ordet (1955, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Watched: Monday, April 30th
One sentence plot synopsis: Heads of two neighboring homesteads clash over their different approaches to believing in God as one tries to marry his son to the other's daughter.
My thoughts on the film: Dreyer's second-to-last feature film is also considered by many to be his masterpiece. (Joan of Arc notwithstanding, I guess.) I am almost in agreement, but I guess I have to give Joan of Arc the slight age as seeming more radical and groundbreaking for the time it was made. Needless to say, Dreyer continues to struggle with religion in this film, which would seem to serve as a kind of overview of his whole career. (I'd have to see his other films to be sure.) You can see elements of both the previous films I've discussed in Ordet (translation: The Word) -- the farmer Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg) has a son Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) who believes himself to be the resurrection of Jesus Christ (in a bit of "blasphemy" similar to Joan's purported crimes), and the pacing, precise framing, cinematography and themes of family and religion seem to directly echo back to Day of Wrath. But this film may contain more philosophical meat than either of the others, as the dialogue frequently touches on the difference between believers and non-believers, believers and different types of believers, and the intersection between science/medicine and faith. For a fairly simple film that's easy to follow, there's quite a bit going on here. And it's in this Johannes character -- who, trance-like, tells people that they can't believe in him (Jesus) walking the earth now, though they did then -- that I'm seeing some of von Trier's later efforts. We watched von Trier's The Kingdom horror TV series, which includes a boy with Down's Syndrome working in the hosptial's dishroom. For all intents and purposes, he and a fellow female dishwasher with Down's Syndrome function as the "chorus" of that TV show, commenting on the action with an all-seeing eye but not involved directly in it, and his trance-like delivery is very similar to the trance-like delivery of this character Johannes. As I mentioned earlier, this film also has a suffering female character, the godly wife of Morten's atheist son, who is about to give birth to a baby and has numerous trials in store for her. That's all I'll say about that. All of these philosophical ideas about belief or lack of belief in God come to bear on these two families with their stubborn father figures and their innocent children suffering indirectly at the hands of their stubbornness. And it's all encased in Dreyer's unique style, with its deliberate pacing and that eerie use of the whistling wind outside as one of the only noises you hear other than the dialogue. Quite simply, I was blown away. This despite the fact that my schedule meant I had to watch it in four -- four -- different sittings. Now that's a great movie.

Conclusion: I am a full Dreyer convert. Up soon, I hope: Vampyr and Gertrud.

Favorite of the three: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Although I may be a bit exhausted by the greatness of Dreyer, that's not why I'm taking the month of May off from Getting Acquainted. It more has to do with me being out of town this weekend, then going headlong into moving. That's right, we bought a house, and escrow is supposed to close on May 25th. (There, that was my grand announcement to you that I'm becoming a homeowner.) I just figure things will be too chaotic leading up to the move to give any cinematic luminary my full attention this month.

Even though things will still be pretty chaotic in June, I do hope to return then. (If not, definitely July.) I have a number of next candidates for Getting Acquainted, but we're due for a woman on the schedule, so I've decided to go with Clara Bow, the first ever "It-Girl." This will allow me to finally see the first film to win the Oscar for best picture, Wings. I'll also see It (appropriately) and The Plastic Age (because it was one of her only other titles I could find on Netflix).

See you back here then ... in the meantime, enjoy all my regularly scheduled programming, about five times a week.