Sunday, September 30, 2012

The circumstantial acceptance of an Odd choice


I've been scheming to see a movie at the Rustic Theatre in Idyllwild, CA for about four years now.

When my wife extended me the opportunity on this, our third trip since 2008, I told I'd see whatever was playing, as long as I hadn't already seen it.

And had to put my money where my mouth was when she told me a couple days ago that The Odd Life of Timothy Green -- a movie that was released on August 15th, mind you -- would be beginning its run on the Friday we arrived.

Not Looper. Not Hotel Transylvania. Not even Trouble With the Curve, its opening time-shifted by a week for this small artist community in the mountains above Palm Springs.

No, a movie that was already gone from most theaters in L.A.

Darn.

As I've told you a couple times before -- here, for one -- I love seeing movies in single-screen theaters nestled into towns that seem like they should be too small to have a movie theater. On our trips to Idyllwild in 2008 and last year -- both on visits related to my wife's job -- I would walk longingly by the theater, like a kid walking longingly by the toy store window displaying the toy he couldn't afford.

See, on neither of those trips was a movie going to be possible for me. I don't remember what was playing in 2008, but last year it was Contagion, a movie I hadn't seen but desperately wanted to. Especially in the unusual setting of this little mountain town, which would make the experience all the more memorable. But I was on babysitting duty, so it just wasn't going to work.

This year, when my opportunity arose, I was not so lucky to get a movie in my wheelhouse. In fact, I'd found the trailers for The Odd Life of Timothy Green to be painfully shmaltzy, and the only review I'd read of it was one I'd heard: Kenneth Turan on NPR, confirming with prejudice the movie's tendency toward preciousness.

But I said I'd go, so I was determined to go.

The experience got off to a rough start. This theater is literally a three-minute walk from the cabin where we're staying, which just contributes to the sense of intimacy of this small town center. But I was still on the verge of being late due to a last-minute crisis on the home front. I won't go into details, but it was one of those situations that could have forced me to skip the movie out of my husbandly duty to support my wife in times of stress -- which the start of this work weekend certainly is for her.

But at about three minutes before the movie's one 7 p.m. showing, she unleashed me with her blessing. The crisis wasn't exactly resolved, but it was close enough to it that there wasn't anything else I could do for her.

The lingering stress I felt was only heightened by the scene I was met with at the theater. I arrived to find a crowd of mostly old people streaming out of the exits. Had I somehow gotten the time wrong? It's an odd sensation to know that the movie you're supposed to be seeing is supposed to be starting right now, yet people are heading out of the theater rather than in.

I picked my way against the flow of traffic and found a single counter just inside the door with only a single person ahead of me buying a ticket. Well, it wasn't exactly a ticket -- "buying admission" is perhaps the more accurate thing to say. You see, this theater is so small and so quaint that they don't even bother with the formality of giving you a physical artifact that demonstrates you paid.

Still under the impression that I might be late to the movie, I hurried over to the concession area to buy my popcorn, since I wouldn't be getting a proper dinner until after the movie. Except, there was no one there. I quickly realized that the same person who sold me the ticket was also manning -- or not manning, as the case was -- the concession stand. After bustling around the theater for a few other urgent responsibilities, she arrived behind the counter, almost out of breath, with a knowing sense of the absurdity that she was doing this unusual double duty. She filled my popcorn hurriedly (but with a smile) and then disappeared again.

It was then that I noticed that the lobby full of people (full = about seven people) were not just sitting there for their health. They were waiting for the janitorial staff (a single dude with long hair) to finish cleaning from the previous performance. Whatever that performance may have been, because there had been no previous showing of the movie advertised.

It was then that I strolled over to peruse the gallery of DVDs, at least a thousand of them, on shelves in the lobby. At first I couldn't imagine their purpose, then decided that this movie theater rents videos by day. Double duty for everyone.

I guess we started finally entering the theater before it was all clear, because the guy was still going through the aisles with his broom as we entered. This guy was some kind of character, I thought -- good willed, but definitely odd (there's that word again) in some way. Seeing the torrent of 11 theatergoers entering the theater, he made a strange kind of flourish with his broom and announced "I ain't cleaning the front row" before exiting stage left.

It was then that I noticed that this theater of about 100 seats wasn't cooled by air conditioning, but ceiling fans that were lazily going through their rotations.

The trailers got started and the movie followed. The only other comment I'll make about the place is that it was one of those theaters where the seats have almost no give, meaning if you're trying to insert a leg between two of the seats in front of you, you're out of luck. Much shifting and repositioning ensued.

For about the first 30 minutes of the movie, I was nodding along with Turan's dismissal of the film. It was just as shmaltzy as I could have imagined.

And then I slowly started to realize that The Odd Life of Timothy Green is up to something a lot more profound under this sheen of excessive sweetness. I started to realize that the whole story is basically a metaphor for the trials, tribulations and uncertainties of becoming a parent. It was just masquerading as a precious bauble about a boy who emerges from a garden, born during a magical rainstorm, because the grieving couple inside who just learned they can't have kids got drunk and buried a box of little sheets of paper, which have the character traits of the child they can never have written on them, in said garden.

Maybe the movie eventually won me over because I am a parent, so I understand the mistakes parents can make, and the mistakes they can make trying to fix those mistakes. (I'm paraphrasing a line from the movie there.) But it's actually got a lot more to say than that, grappling with the way we place unrealistic expectations on our children that have to do with our own unfulfilled dreams, and the way familial bonds can be complicated in all families. (Each of Timothy's parents has a strained relationship with one of their own family members.) There's also a lot to be said about how we try to make children "normal" when they appear to be "different."

The brilliant thing is that it's feeding us these ideas with the kind of aesthetic that buries them deep in the subtext. You can also appreciate it (or be scornful of it) as a bauble that pulls on your heartstrings in obvious surface ways. Only by digging a little deeper do you realize the more genuine points it's making, which deliver a more genuine sense of emotional catharsis.

Okay, if you still don't believe The Odd Life of Timothy Green might be worth watching, well ... you may be right. It does have its moments of real shmaltz. But what can I say, in the end it worked for me.

Or maybe it was just that I was charmed by the quirks of a small town movie house in the mountains, where the ticket girl is the popcorn girl and fans scrape the ceiling of the theater.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Spawning the next generation of horror fans


I have a friend with an eight-year-old son who's been into ghoulies and goblins over half his young life.

You name it, he loves it. Ghosts. Skeletons. Witches. Jack-o-lanterns. Eyeballs. Fake blood. Even severed body parts don't faze him, though they would have to be the kind that looked pretty fake.

I'm sure that at least some of this has to do with having watched The Nightmare Before Christmas at a young age, and then seeing Jack Skellington and friends at Disneyland. But the joke was that he would start preparing for Halloween sometime in May. The best part of the joke was that it wasn't really a joke. He does start preparing in May -- or at least he used to. He'd probably start even earlier, except there has to be some amount of preparation that just qualifies as ridiculous -- even if our definition of what constitutes ridiculous might be different than his.

My friend's son is not alone. It seems that one of the chief ways for a young kid to assert his budding adulthood is to test his limits when it comes to fear. Even if this stuff is not all that scary, and the horror characters are pretty PG version of what they represent in reality, it still says something that young kids prefer things intended to scare them than things intended to be cute or make them laugh.

Naturally, the movies have taken notice.

Hotel Transylvania, opening today, is the middle of three high-profile animated movies released in a span of less than two months that seek to feed the macabre to children. Last month we got ParaNorman. Next month we'll get Frankenweenie.

Each of these movies actually appeals to me in some way, though it's unlikely I'll see any of them in the theater. At least they aren't just another movie featuring animals who team up for crazy adventures.

As discussed previously, the "fear" peddled here is very mild. My guess is that most of the characters in these films are comic relief, and their voices will be goofy if not actually cute.

Of course, this trend is nothing new -- it's just thrusting itself into the forefront of my consciousness because of the timing of these three movies. I'm not even sure there will be another movie aimed at children released during their two-month reign (unless you count Oogieloves. And really, do you?). Which means that if parents wanted to take their kids to the movies between early August and early October, they needed to test their children's tastes for this PG horror -- if their kids weren't already begging them to go, that is.

But like I said, it's nothing new. Allmovie.com has a very useful feature on each of its movie pages, which is to list similar movies -- a godsend when writing a post like this. The similar movies for ParaNorman include Coraline, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (the word corpse in the title of an animated movie?), Igor, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 9, James and the Giant Peach, Monster House, Beetlejuice, Alice in Wonderland, and of course The Nightmare Before Christmas, among others that don't advance my thesis in any useful way. Oh, and of course Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie. For Frankenweenie's page, you can add to those titles Edward Scissorhands (not really a kids movie), Where the Wild Things Are and some other rather inexplicable choices, including Midnight in Paris and When in Rome. (Hey, I never said the algorithm was perfect.) Transylvania's page also offers us Monsters Inc. (that should have come up earlier), Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Addams Family.

So, "scaring" kids has been a big business for years.

In fact, you could argue that a film in which there isn't some kind of intense antagonist is dramatically limp. Think of how far Disney has gone portraying its variety of witches and wicked queens over the years. It would be easy to say that some of those baddies are more intense than they really need to be. But clearly, having something that's genuinely at least a little scary raises the stakes for kids.

Since Hotel Transylvania stars the voice of Adam Sandler, I'm going to say there's a ceiling on how scary it will actually be. However, I'd bet you a hundred bucks there will be at least one character who can remove some or all of his limbs, and possibly even his head.

As long as it doesn't look realistic, I guess.

What do I have to be embarrassed about now?


The biggest blind spot on my List of Shame had been Sunset Boulevard, as determined in this post.

It took me nearly two years since the date of that post, but this past Sunday, I finally watched it.

Loved it, but discussing Sunset Boulevard is not why I'm writing today.

The point of this post is to figure out what movie should now take over as The Film I Am Most Embarrassed I Haven't Seen.

I could just choose one of the remaining eight films on the list I gave you previously (I tackled Spartacus last year). To refresh your memory, they were Gandhi, The Last Emperor, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, Platoon, Rocky, The Ten Commandments and West Side Story.

But I decided that since the year 2012 has seen a newly minted list of the best films of all time, I should draw from the Sight & Sound list for my new list of contenders for this (dis)honor. (And I promise I will stop talking about Sight & Sound after this.)

The problem with the Sight & Sound list is that many of the choices are very obscure, at least for your average film fan. I consider "your average film fan" to be a person who likes to see, in this order: a) most prominent new releases, b) the important older films that will deepen their perspective on the history of cinema, and then c) anything else they can get their hands on. As much as I might like to imagine myself having more pretentious ambitions than this, this is basically the type of film fan I am.

So you could say that I might be more "embarrassed" about not having seen a popular film like West Side Story or Rocky. After all, isn't this sense of embarrassment supposed to be derived from not having seen something you think you should have seen? I'm never going to be embarrassed that I haven't seen Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

So here is another one of those posts that I'm starting before knowing where it might go. What I'm going to do is go through the Sight & Sound top 250 and see which films I can legitimately describe as being embarrassed I haven't seen, then listing them below for your (and my) consideration, in the order that they appear on the list. If there's any overlap with the previous list, chosen from the more populist list of the films I haven't seen that are ranked highest by Flickchart's users, then that might really tell me something about what is "truly" my greatest blind spot.

1) Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau). The first best picture winner (sharing the award with Wings) is supposed to be an astonishing achievement. Its #5 ranking on Sight & Sound means that I should be embarrassed about not having seen it, if I'm not already.

2) Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman). I haven't actually spent that much of my mature life as a film fan with Persona even on my radar. Maybe that's the most embarrassing part. In the past couple years, the film has come up continually. As a huge Bergman fan, I have to see it.

3) Rio Bravo (1958, Howard Hawks). This is another one that's been coming up a lot for me in the last couple years. As a man generally disinclined toward Westerns, I have not gravitated toward this film previously. I'd say it's definitely the Western I'm most embarrassed not to have seen, but there are actually others that I won't name here, in order to keep my shame at a minimum. 

4) Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone). And speaking of Westerns I haven't seen ... this one is up there as well.

5) Intolerance (1916, D.W. Griffth). Griffith was a racist m-er f-er, but I still feel like I should have seen this.

6) Once Upon a Time in America (1983, Sergio Leone). Wait, these are both by Sergio Leone? I didn't realize there was a connection between them, and in fact, I think I confuse the two of them. I'm sure they will cancel each other out, but I will list them both.

7) King Kong (1933, Merian Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack). This was actually one I thought of before I started going through the list. Probably one of the most iconic films I have never seen, if not the best. 

8) The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964, Jacques Demy). Heard that this is wonderful. I guess it doesn't really scream out "embarrassing" if you haven't seen it. I guess I am still including it here.

9) The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks). This has come up a lot recently for me, especially since I just saw another incarnation of Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye.

And Sight & Sound yielded exactly nine unseen choices I thought would qualify as embarrassing, falling short of the ten I wanted. Of course, none of those titles cross over with the titles I considered previously. Which I guess demonstrates either a) my previous success at watching the populist films on the Sight & Sound list, or b) the list's true divergence from what is really populist (as determined on such sites as Flickchart).

Which kind of brings me back to square one.

So, I really need your help. Not only do I want to find the one of these 17 choices that is my new Greatest Blind Spot, but I also want to develop a pecking order, so I don't need to keep pointlessly revisiting this topic time and again. In fact, one of the main reasons I revisited it this time was that it did take me nearly two years to watch Sunset Boulevard. Once we figure out which of these movies I need to see most, I might end up watching it two weeks from now, instead of two years.

What say you? The choices again are:

The Big Sleep
Gandhi
Intolerance
King Kong 
The Last Emperor
Mary Poppins
My Fair Lady
Once Upon a Time in America
Once Upon a Time in the West
Persona
Platoon
Rio Bravo
Rocky
Sunrise
The Ten Commandments
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
West Side Story

Of course, I've also made this as murky as possible by drawing a distinction between "the best movies I haven't seen" and "the movies it's most embarrassing I haven't seen."

Make of it what you will. That's the great thing about loving movies. Not only can we rarely agree on the best movies, we can rarely even agree on the best terms to discuss those movies ...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Two more Sound opinions


I know pretty much everybody has stopped talking about the Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time, and I've actually already talked about it once on my blog (here).

What I didn't do the first time was offer up my own list of ten movies. So I'm going to do that now -- with more than a little bit of trepidation.

But I won't be alone. I've also asked Don Handsome, faithful reader and longtime friend (I've known him for 35 years), to submit a list. That'll assure us we'll get something credible here.  

Strangely, I didn't work very hard on mine.

You'd think with something like this -- the task to come up with the ten best/most indispensable/etc. films of all time -- a person like me would vacillate and sweat and go into a fever. But I didn't. I came up with some quick rules and made some fairly quick choices -- choices I nonetheless stand behind.

To explain my unusually swift approach to the assignment, I think you have to realize how I see the Sight & Sound assignment itself. I don't think any of the over 1,000 critics and directors who submitted lists probably chose their ten favorite films of all time. The end results included surprisingly few of what I would consider guilty pleasures, and any film fan who doesn't have a guilty pleasure among their favorites is not someone I want to have a conversation with.

So the actual assignment has something to do with an objective idea of "best," not "favorite." (The difference between these two terms has been debated to time immemorial.)

However, I don't think it's that interesting to just parrot the conventional wisdom of what the "best" films are. The struggle is to make these lists personal in some way. So it seems to me like the final list should be some combination of "best" and "favorite," with perhaps a greater emphasis on "best."

But then there are intangible factors like "This list has to include something by this director," and "This list has to include a film that is specifically groundbreaking in some way." I think you also want to have a healthy mixture of genres and time periods.

Instead of seeing this as some incredible burden, the results of which will define me as a film fan until the end of time since they are etched permanently into my blog, I just decided to come up with some choices I could defend using some loose rules.

My process was to peruse my top 250 films on Flickchart to get an initial list of candidates. I decided straight off that if a film didn't make my personal top 250, it didn't belong in my top ten. A pretty obvious guideline, I guess. But even considering 250 movies was a measure of how I was willing to deviate from my own "favorites" for this assignment. Besides, 250 allowed for the fact that my Flickchart rankings are always in flux, and may contain some inaccuracies. (All my choices ended up being from my top 75, which is probably as it should be.)

At first pass I selected (quite unconsciously) exactly 25 films that might be contenders. And I have consciously decided NOT to include my honorable mentions, because I consider it a hedge. My Flickchart top 20 is on the side of this blog, so it'll be easy for you to guess which films were hard to leave off.

As I was perusing those 25 choices, I quickly realized that they could be broken down into two logical categories: old films and new films. Or more accurately, films from my lifetime and films from before I was born.

So I decided that I would comprise my list of five from each category. That'll assure that I have both films that recognize the great history of cinema, and films that have a special importance to me because I grew up with them or discovered them at a perfect moment in my maturation as a cinephile.

I don't want to spend any longer on preamble -- not only do we have to get to my choices, but we have to get to Don's as well, and I really don't want to lose you. So let me just say that Don and I each agreed to write a short blurb about each film and why we chose it, and said that we would list them alphabetically. Without any further ado, here's mine:

Vance's picks

The Bicycle Thief (1948, Vittorio di Sica). I know it is fashionable these days to refer to this film as Bicycle Thieves, and I'm usually a guy who prefers literal translations of foreign titles. But The Bicycle Thief became one of my favorite movies as The Bicycle Thief, so I'm sticking to that title. Simply put, I was floored by the heartbreaking honesty of this Italian neorealist masterpiece. For the vast majority of the time I've known this movie, I had an objective appreciation of it. But now that I'm a father, its themes hit me subjectively like they never have before. Rarely have the responsibilities of a breadwinner been laid so bare. If you can't provide for your family, you can't even afford to live life by the kind of moral code you would hope to pass on to your son. Which is why the extremes to which Antonio is driven are so painful. You never feel your own failure so absolutely as when you see it reflected in the eyes of your son. I could talk about technique and economy of storytelling and acting, and they would all be excellent ways to praise di Sica's masterpiece. But it's the film's tragic emotional truth, diluted wonderfully by the hope of unconditional love, that makes this film resonate and linger.

Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles). This is no mere vote for the status quo. Citizen Kane is as great as everyone always says it is, and I have always thought so. It's difficult to go into a first viewing of Kane knowing what everyone says about it, and knowing that you are probably either going to adopt that opinion or actively repudiate it. But the movie should have you under its spell in no time, and force you to consider it on its own grand terms. Welles broke new ground in so many areas with this film that it's almost impossible to enumerate them, so I won't even try. In fact, I won't even spend my limited space on it trying to provide my own unique explanation of what makes it so great. I'll just say that this was a slam dunk pick for me, and that it is definitely a better film that Vertigo.

Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee). I like to be honest with you on this blog, so let me be brutally honest and say that I didn't want my list of the greatest films to include only white guys. But Do the Right Thing belongs on this list even if you are not taking into consideration the race of the filmmaker. Spike Lee made one of the most volcanic perspectives on the way human beings can fail to understand each other that I've ever seen, one that sticks with you for decades after watching it. But this film also contains moments of intimacy and grace that are equally unforgettable, as Lee employs a multiplicity of styles to portray his multiplicity of moods and characters. The film also provides possibly the best depiction on film of the way the heat can oppressively blanket a region and mess with the minds of everyone in it. One important function of cinema is to fill its viewers with a sense of righteous indignation, and after Do the Right Thing, you're quivering with that sensation -- without feeling like you've been manipulated into it.

Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese). When you are debating Martin Scorsese's greatest film, I know the "right" answer is either Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. And I don't care if it makes me seem like a new school cinephile if I choose Goodfellas instead. (And since a film that came out 22 years ago is my newest film on this list, I can't be that new school, can I?) There are countless amazing things about Scorsese's masterpiece, which take the best techniques of cinema history and amplify them to exhilarating effect. But the thing that has always amazed me about Goodfellas is the one way that it actively defies the logic of what makes a good film. While cinema is consummately a medium of "show don't tell," I'd argue that Ray Liotta's narration is not only a boon to Goodfellas -- but that it wouldn't be the same film without it. Goodfellas is so epic and satisfying that it needs to be both shown and told -- and does both brilliantly.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg). I have a friend who wears his love of Raiders of the Lost Ark on his sleeve. He's been Indiana Jones for Halloween multiple times, and any time there's any story about Raiders in the news, someone posts it on his Facebook wall. In short, the thing that everyone knows about him is that he loves Raiders. I, on the other hand, almost never talk about it. But when I was reloading my Flickchart account last year (or was it the year before?), meaning I systematically ranked every movie to the spot where I believed it belonged, I came to the realization that I was going to rank Raiders #1. This exercise showed me just the kind of respect I have for Steven Spielberg's masterpiece. Without even consciously knowing it, I decided that Raiders had no cinematic equal. And so even though I don't even own it, it simply had to have a spot on this list. (And besides, I decided Spielberg should have a movie on here as well -- with apologies to Schindler's List.)

Raising Arizona (1987, Joel Coen). And here we have the one truly "me" pick on this list. Every other film I've chosen is something I can defend externally, objectively. With Raising Arizona, it's all about love. The Raiders of the Lost Ark Flickchart experiment notwithstanding, I have recently decided that if I cleaned house on my rankings again, I would install Raising Arizona as my #1 movie. (So if they ever come up against each other organically in a duel, watch your back, Raiders.) The last time I watched Raising Arizona earlier this year, I was tingling with my enthusiasm for every quirky, wonderful moment of this film. The characters are instantly memorable, the dialogue crackles, the funny moments are all funny, and the tender moments give me chills. Unlike in some of the Coens' work, the way they ridicule these characters goes hand in hand with an overwhelming sense of sincere affection, and the result is one of the most tonally perfect films I have ever seen. But for everything else this film does perfectly, there may be no greater segment of storytelling than the film's opening, which gives us 13 minutes of back story before finally delivering the opening credits accompanied by Carter Burwell's unforgettable "Way Out There." As with Goodfellas, Raising Arizona is another film that wouldn't be the same without Nicolas Cage's terrific narration. I see a pattern developing here. Lastly, let me simply say this: No list of great films is complete without something that makes us laugh.

Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock). Another moment of honesty: I decided that I couldn't submit a list of great films without saving a slot for Alfred Hitchcock. So even though I have somehow seen Rear Window only once, it had to go on here -- not only to represent Hitchcock, but to represent the thriller genre as well. What's so remarkable about Rear Window is not only that it presents us with a suspenseful and exciting murder mystery, but also that it famously doubles as a too-close-to-home metaphor for the essential voyeurism of watching movies. When we watch movies, we are essentially like Jeff Jeffries, watching characters who don't know they're being watched -- and trying to discover essential truths about them. But I'm going to leave my (probably unnecessary) defense of Rear Window at the superficial level, in part because I'm aching to watch it again and be reminded of why it left me with such a palpable sense of its perfection. I like this story so much that I even liked the Christopher Reeve remake, and that's saying something.

Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa). I guess 1954 was a good year -- it produced two of the ten films on my list. At 207 minutes, this is one of the five longest movies I've ever seen -- and it was so good, I saw it twice in the space of two years. Not bad for a kid who was alternately 17 and 18 years old. That I haven't watched it again in the past 20 years is only a function of its daunting length, because this is one of those experiences that stays with you, hitting on so many human themes (played out within the realm of a battle to save a village from marauding bandits) that it's like a ten-course meal for the mind. I had to have Kurosawa on my list, and this is his greatest of at least a dozen great achievements (of which I have seen about half). The fact that I'm making only a cursory defense of this great film is also that it's been so long since I've seen it. (Besides, I want to make sure you aren't all read out before we get to Don.) Now that it's made this list, I will have to carve out those three hours and 27 minutes again.

Star Wars (1977, George Lucas). I had some trepidation about including both this and Raiders of the Lost Ark on this list, since both feature the contributions of George Lucas and Harrison Ford, and both fill a certain quotient for escapist adventure. And then I decided, so what? And then I had trepidation about the fact that I don't even technically describe Star Wars as my favorite Star Wars movie, with that honor going to The Empire Strikes Back. Once again, I decided, so what? Star Wars is just one of those iconic forces (no pun intended) of nature that changed the entire way we watch and go to movies -- or if you want to dumb down its influence, it was just a rollicking good time. I defy you to name a movie where more individual characters can be described and remembered by a wider variety of people throughout the whole world. Even in movies you love beyond your ability to describe them, sometimes you have to refer to the characters as "the main guy" and "the girl." Not Star Wars. That cast of characters, and the old-fashioned and grandiose yarn in which they were featured, are seared into our memories -- and for those of us who owned the action figures, we even know such obscure side characters as IG-88, Bossk, R5D4, Dengar, Walrus Man and Lobot. (They aren't all from the first film, but sshhhhh.)

The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming). My final title is the inclusion that surprised me the most. As with a number of other movies on this list, I have not seen The Wizard of Oz in many years. But when I was growing up, we watched it every year when it came on television -- back in the days when we didn't have VCRs, before we could rent whatever we wanted. There was a reason the networks gave us The Wizard of Oz every year: You could always revisit it, and it would always fill you with joy. At its essence, the medium of cinema is something that can and should fill you with wonder, which is why some of the great film's in history are those that succeed with all ages. Star Wars could have filled the kids movie quotient for this list -- after all, it was the first film I saw in the theater -- but Star Wars doesn't have scarecrows, witches, ruby slippers, flying houses, tin men, cowardly lions, fields of poppies, yellow brick roads, and flying monkeys. One of the most iconic films of all time also has one of the most iconic songs in film history. If there's a movie moment that's more pure and universal than Dorothy singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," I don't know what it is.

So, there you have it. A list that even I could not have anticipated myself making -- but one I feel proud of nonetheless.

I do regret the disservice I've done to Don by going on for so long ... so take a break, refill your coffee, make a lap or two around the office, and tune back in for ...

Don's picks

The rest you will read is from Don Handsome, in his own words ...

In creating this Sight & Sound inspired list I was forced into shockingly hard decisions. Early on in the process, I found myself chopping many personal sacred cows (Badlands, Goodfellas, The Godfather, Army of Shadows, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction) and wondering what kind of hot mess I had gotten into. Coming up with the ten best films ever made is less a finesse exercise for me and more of a slaughter. And every slaughter should have rules:

1) No movies should be watched for the first time because they “should” be on this list. Furthermore, I should have seen all of the films multiple times;
2) To be included on this list, I must genuinely love a film (but I love so many films and also must recognize that I might “love” some films more than the ones on this list);
3) There must be an objective reason -- an innovation or a undeniable advancement of the art form -- for inclusion;
4) One film per director;
5) No reviewing the internet or actual copies of the films in an effort to get them on (or off) this list;
6) Recognize that conventions exist for a reason; and
7) No influences from other sources -- In my circles, it’s been impossible to avoid the current Sight & Sound poll and commentary on that poll. I didn’t try to avoid such opinions while making this list, but I did have to make a conscious decision not to be influenced to include or discount a film because of these opinions.

So rules were applied and cuts were made. Ultimately I came up with these Ten Best Films Ever Made. I’m not ranking them beyond this point, so I’ve presented them in alphabetical order. Here we go:

Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen) – Only on its most crude level is Annie Hall a story of a couple, and thus the greatest romantic comedy ever made is not really that romantic. Allen isn’t interested in telling a love story as much as he is interested in stoking the smoldering ashes of a doomed relationship and building a world from the resulting fire. I tend to think of Annie Hall as a lesson on how (and how not) to self-process. The Woody stand-in, Alvy Singer, has processed every nuance of himself to such extremes that New York City appears to exist solely to serve his neuroses and whims. That Annie and Alvy don’t end up together is inconsequential, as I’m just so thankful that they were together once so I can continue to enjoy the little mysteries (why do Alvy and Rob call each other “Max”?) of this treasure of a film.

Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch) – A tone poem about the primordial ooze of suburbia and inhabited by creatures of various evolutionary stations. Blue Velvet uses its B-movie spine as a vague structural excuse for wonderful and wicked trips down several breathtaking rabbit holes. Each shot is conceived and staged with meticulous detail and is filled with rich color that feels poured into the frame. Blue Velvet is high-art that is infected with low-art. This is an avant-garde film that isn’t afraid to admit that it cares about the mainstream. Blue Velvet feasts on popular culture, reprocessing it into nightmares. With Blue Velvet Lynch delivers a punching bag so enticingly overstuffed with blood that we can’t help from picking away at its seams, waiting for it to burst.

Breathless (1960, Jean-Luc Godard) – Forget that it’s a trifle, but remember that it’s the best of the French New Wave films. Forget its vapid pretentiousness, its American obsession, and its pseudo-existentialism, but remember that Godard imbues Breathless with a revolutionary visual language. This film is visual jazz and its images are associated through jump cuts that careen viewers through the world of this film. Every cut and every shot of Breathless is the result of a master craftsman hitting a note. String these notes together and we’re left with a free solo of a film that reflects the heartbeat of Paris and of Godard in its very DNA.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Robert Wiene) – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a living surrealistic painting. While this film takes place in a terrestrial plane, it takes us to more out-there and interesting landscapes than most fantasy or science fiction films. In this film, setting is manipulated more than the characters are and the effect is transportive. Wiene gives us the sharp angles and deep shadows that will go on to form the architecture for Film Noir and modern horror films - much has been borrowed from Caligari but it remains robust, unique, and unreproducible as a whole. Physics doesn’t work this way and people don’t look like this, but it’s still impossible not to “get” the nightmare world at the core of Caligari nor is it possible to avoid being sucked into it.

Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski) – In any discussion about Chinatown, it’s only a matter of time before someone injects the line "forget it Jake, it's Chinatown." It’s a cool-but-meaningless line -- and that’s the real essence of this cynical film. Chinatown is gorgeous and well-acted and filled with cool lines and cool people
wearing hats and driving cool cars but all of it is meaningless because in the end it all unravels. What entices me the most about Chinatown is that it fully owns its sinister heart. In its fiber Chinatown demonstrates the idea that no matter what we do, no matter how we try to right our own ships or to seize on to what is in front of us, we’re always going back to the same horrible end. To Chinatown, Polanski brought no small amount of distrust and disdain for humanity – and this is undeniably his film.

Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles) - This is the film that teaches us the language of film. While Welles delivers a master class in cinematic technique, and while Gregg Toland throws unending camera and lighting innovation at us, it’s the way this film is edited that cements its place on lists like these. Robert Wise almost
recklessly eschews conventional storytelling and weaves perspectives together over time (and seemingly space) with montage, matching shots, and associative imagery that 70 years later are still fresh and invigorating.

Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee) – Do the Right Thing is a popular film – one that, it can be argued, is too heavily grounded in commercial culture – that actually dares to engage in real conversations about race, motivation, and people. Do the Right Thing has a blistering, generation-defining soundtrack. Do the Right Thing is the first “important” movie I saw on my own volition in the movie theater. Do the Right Thing is one of the best movies about the best season ever made. Set these facts aside, and Do the Right Thing still stands as a unique and vivacious accomplishment. Spike Lee treats his audience to the full fabric of the city, with previously unseen depth and definition. Too often in film, the elemental aspects of a city blend together into gray mess. Yet there are nuanced actual colors on display in Do the Right Thing. While there is bleakness at play, there is no gray. Do the Right Thing pops. It is vibrant and full of life and pulsating with the people and language.

Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg) – The shark is clearly fake and it does things that no shark would do. But it doesn’t matter, Jaws has it where it counts. Jaws is rich in character, light on shark, and profoundly heavy on quotable lines. It is a blockbuster that warmly rewards repeat visits. A horror movie at its core, Jaws is a simple treatment of unstoppable nature plowing repeatedly into our insular world. Yet on a cinematic level, it never ever fails to deliver the spectacular. Take a look at the framing of the famed U.S.S. Indianapolis scene, or Quint’s ear-melting first appearance as a fish out of water, or the way Spielberg migrates his cast of extras
back onto the beach to gradually expose us to a victim’s panicked mother, or any other of the countless masterful moments and it is undeniable that this film is a juggernaut that shouldn’t be discounted for its girth. Jaws is the whole package and it is the truth.

The Wages of Fear (1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot)– Do existential crises always makes for such tightly-wound and explosive films? The Wages of Fear is pure TNT – an exercise in seismic tension of personal and imperial scales. We follow four men carrying nitroglycerine on trucks into the mountains of South America - the action flick implications are undeniable, but this is not an action flick. Clouzot is unsentimental about his characters and allows us to suffer with them. We see desperate men making desperate choices. We all could be making these choices, so we all bring our own baggage to the story and Clouzot skillfully winds that into his tale as well. That The Wages of Fear is dated and arcane in parts only very slightly diminishes the raw power of this transcendental classic.

The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah) – It starts so small - with kids torturing scorpions with red ants - but very quickly grows uncontrollably big as a menacing horde of robbers ride into and end up destroying the town. The Wild Bunch is a movie about the death of the scorpions. Fearsome killing machines being broken by swarming, seemingly organized threats to their lifestyle. Peckinpah sets forth to tell the story of two bank robbers and the different path that they took in their lives and ends up opining about brotherhood, imperial greed and expansive war machinery. A quintessentially American film, The Wild Bunch is unafraid of its violence and its characters' use violence to advance their own goals. But Peckinpah is also nostalgic for a different kind of personal violence, and warns us all against the machinery of war that has the power to reduce the expanse of North America into shreds.

Okay, now, use this comments section to a) discuss our picks, either for or against them, and b) insist to Don that he should be writing his own blog. (Not because he's not welcome on mine, but because his thoughts on film are that interesting and worth hearing.)

Thanks for reading. Check back here in ten years to see if our thoughts have changed.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Caleb Landry Jones out-Pitts Michael Pitt


On the Flickchart discussion group on Facebook, someone recently (like, a month ago) posted the trailer for an upcoming movie called Antiviral, which is directed by David Cronenberg's son, Brandon.

Yes, I thought Brandon was a funny choice for Cronenberg to name his son, as well. Balthazar, maybe, but Brandon? There isn't a hint of mystery in that name. He might just as well have named him Skip or Bryce or Blaine. Maybe it was his wife's choice.

The film has already played at Cannes and Toronto, but still lacks a U.S. release date. One can only hope that's because it's as disturbing as this trailer makes it seem:


Other than the fact that voluntary and involuntary medical procedures make for deliciously squirmy subject matter for a movie, I find that actor Caleb Landry Jones is what makes this trailer seem singularly disturbing.

In fact, this guy really reminds me of Michael Pitt.

If you don't know who I'm referring to, this is Michael Pitt:


If you haven't been disturbed by Pitt (no relation to Brad) before, it means you probably haven't seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Funny Games or Last Days. He's also one of the stars of Bernado Bertolucci's The Dreamers, which I haven't seen, and a member of the cast of Boardwalk Empire, which I don't watch. I imagine he's disturbing in both.

There's something about the combination of his penetrating blue eyes and his deceptively baby-faced looks that make him sort of freakish, a broken child who has been twisted into something evil. Surely he has his sympathetic roles as well, but Pitt ain't going to be cast as a romantic lead in a conventional movie anytime soon.

Caleb Landry Jones hasn't been around as long, and I've only seen him in a couple movies, two of which were not particularly disturbing: X-Men: First Class and Contraband. I nonetheless managed to be discomfited by him in both films. And then he was also in The Last Exorcism, a film where he plays the brother of a possessed girl -- a pretty menacing character even if he himself is not the possessed one.

What Pitt and Jones have in common is their pale aspect, and that intense look in their eyes that could easily be warped into something sinister. With Jones in the case of Antiviral, it looks like it really has been.

At this point, it doesn't look like we'll be seeing the brainchild of David Cronenberg's progeny in 2012, but consider this one a priority of mine in 2013.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The 10:30 rule


I haven't been sleeping well lately.

The last few nights have been good, but for ten days before that, I was waking up at weird hours of the night -- and sometimes, an hour before my alarm was set to go off, even if the rest of that night's sleep had already been terrible.

I'm sure it's most accurate to blame the fact that I've been waking up at ten past four for work on each of the past two Monday mornings. That's got to have its residual effects.

But it's also fair to blame my decision to start watching a movie at all hours of the night -- and nap my way through it (pausing it of course) until I finish.

The worst example of this was last Friday night. I started watching the Amanda Seyfried vehicle Gone at around 11 p.m., and didn't finish until 2. That included about four naps, but those naps couldn't replicate the sleep I would have gotten if I'd just gone to bed at midnight instead of wading my way through this shitty movie.

But I still have to carve out time to watch movies, and one of the best ways to do that is to start a movie after my wife goes to bed.

I just need to set up some ground rules if I want to keep my sanity. I mean, the price of watching a shitty movie like Gone was that I was in a foul mood all day last Saturday, and got into a stupid fight with my wife. That's no way to live, especially for a one-star movie.

So, new rule: I can only watch a late-night movie if I start it by 10:30. It also shouldn't be longer than about 1:45, but I won't be so strict about that.

The idea is not necessarily to finish it before midnight, but so that at least more of the movie gets watched before midnight than after.

My first test of the rule was Arbitrage on Thursday night, which I bought on VOD for $7.99. I actually started it around 10:35, but they're my rules, and I can stretch them however I want. I find it useful to adhere to the seven-minute grace period we get for clocking in at work. (Yes, my job requires me to clock in. At least it's on a computer rather than a punch clock.) As long as I clock in by seven minutes past the hour (or half-hour, or quarter hour), my time punch rounds down to the most recent quarter hour past. So my 10:30 rule is really a 10:37 rule.

Arbitrage was 100 minutes, and with pauses, I finished up at a very manageable 12:30. I was still tired during the day on Friday, but at least I didn't snap at anyone. Besides, Thursday night is the honorary first night of the weekend, since most people figure they can wade their way through a Friday at about 60%.

What remains to be seen is if I can stick to this rule, and how much I bend it. What if my wife turns in at 10:45? What about 10:40?

But any rule is only there to correct a perceived problem. If I can start a movie at 10:40 or 10:45 or even 11, and not spend the next day as a zombie, then maybe I'll be okay. I can test it and play with it and make it work for me. But it's nice to know it's there, to remind myself of the possible consequences of breaking it.

After all, you never know when being only 60% of who you want to be won't be good enough.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

You're so Money, baby


I have two little rules of doing business on The Audient, and I adhere to them even if I'm the only one who cares about them.

1) I never use the same poster art to top a post more than once. If I'm going to write a second or third post about a particular movie, I'll find a different poster (or sometimes a still) from that movie as my artwork. I may reuse a poster at some point in the future, but it can only appear once on the top of the post. It can appear again somewhere in the body of the post, but not at the top. (The logic has something to do with being able to distinguish one post from another at a glance, but beyond that it's basically irrational.)

2) I never use the same title for a post twice.

I'm breaking rule #2 today -- sort of. You see, it was almost exactly a year ago that I used the title "You're so money, baby" for a post, and in fact, I'm only comfortable repeating the title this time because of the capitalization and italicization of the word "money," which technically makes it a different title. (Or so I'm telling myself.)

There are two reasons I'm willing to (sort of) break this rule:

1) Swingers quotes never go out of style.

2) I'm intentionally drawing a comparison to the post from a year ago -- triggering a sense of deja vu, if you will. That's because I'm getting a sense of deja vu from Trouble With the Curve.

The "You're so money, baby" post from September 23, 2011 was to herald the arrival of Bennett Miller's Moneyball, which went on to become a critical favorite, a (modest) hit with audiences and a best picture nominee. The producers of Trouble With the Curve would simply love it if those three outcomes followed from the arrival of their film.

The movies have more than a release date in the September 20s in common. On the most obvious level, they're both about baseball. More specifically, they're both about the side of baseball we don't see on the field. Even more specifically, they deal with scouting. In fact, you could say that Clint Eastwood's character in this film might have walked out of an Oakland A's scouting meeting after bristling at some idea espoused by that young whippernsapper Billy Beane.

Even more specifically than all that, the posters for both movies feature a talent evaluator whose body is pictured leaning forward at about the same angle. Consider Brad Pitt's posture in this Moneyball poster:



Must really chap Eastwood's ass to be forced by the marketing department to so closely imitate an unwashed hippie like Brad Pitt.

(If you're looking for more comparisons, one of the central focuses of both films is the lead character's relationship with his daughter.)

Outside of direct imitation, though, what we're seeing here is the notion that late September is the perfect time, psychologically, for a viewer to consume a contemplative meditation on baseball. Late in the baseball season is the new season for prestige baseball movies, and I wouldn't be surprised if we saw another one hit theaters on September 20th of 2013.

And if the marketers have done their jobs right, this movie will catch audiences in the moment of their greatest readiness for Trouble With the Curve, meaning at least one of those three desired outcomes -- the modest hit with the audience part -- will come true.

If they've done their jobs right, Clint Eastwood won't have to spend this weekend talking to a bunch of empty chairs.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Now lying at Blockbuster


I got an email just now from Blockbuster, a residual effect of having been a former subscriber to their DVD-through-the-mail service. (Which I actually really liked, and only abandoned so my wife and I could consolidate to one account -- her Netflix account. Oh, and because Blockbuster is going out of business.)

I get an email from them maybe once a week, but the subject of this one caught my attention:

"Now Showing at Blockbuster: Cabin in the Woods & End of Watch."

And I thought to myself, "Isn't End of Watch that movie whose trailer I just saw on Monday, that's coming out this Friday? You know, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena?"

Yep, that End of Watch.

Now, I know Blockbuster has, in the past, boasted exclusives -- movies (usually movies you've never heard of, with B-list stars) that can only be rented from Blockbuster for some finite window of time. But these movies have been of the straight-to-video variety. Certainly not theatrical releases, and certainly not theatrical releases that have not even been theatrically released yet.

So I dug into the email. The first section was about Cabin in the Woods. Then came a section of featured moves, flanked by a section of featured games. Then a bit about saving 50% off all previously viewed movies. Then an advertisement for EA Sports' FIFA 13 video game. Then a section about getting recommendations from Blockbuster's "real-life movie experts."

And then finally a bit that says "End of Watch, in theaters September 21." And next to that: "Bring Jake Home Tonight," and a shot of Gyllenhaal from the movie next to three of his previous starring vehicles: Love & Other Drugs, Source Code and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Then a button that says "Rent One Tonight."

Really?

Has it gotten so bad for Blockbuster that they are now trying to trick us into thinking they have exclusive access to movies that have not even hit theaters yet?

Given that some movies are now available on VOD even before they hit theaters, this isn't an entirely ridiculous strategy. The ridiculous part is that anyone who cared (such as yours truly) could easily unmask the strategy and identify it as a blatant case of false advertising. It's promising something you can't deliver, which is a really, really bad idea in business. And it's almost as though Blockbuster knew this, which is why the reference to End of Watch is buried deep enough in the email to discourage casual investigation. I guess the very short-sighted idea is to excite you enough to get you to open the email, but then immediately make you forget why you were originally excited.

It pains me to write such an "exposé" about Blockbuster, because I always liked their customer service and always rooted for their business model to succeed. But a lack of success has reduced them to cheap bait-and-switch tactics. Almost better to just bow out gracefully, methinks.

The timing of this email couldn't be worse in terms of my own impression of the chain. One advantage Blockbuster continues to have over Netflix and Redbox is that it gets certain new releases up to 28 days before the two healthier DVD rental outlets. This came into play on Saturday, when I was trying to find a new release for us to watch that night (as you remember, we ended up with The Dictator from Redbox).

So I determined to swing by Blockbuster and see what they had. I know I'm still in their records, even though I don't even know where my rental card is anymore. The last time I rented from them, all I had to do was give them my driver's license. Fortunately, I do know where that is.

The problem? Not only was the Blockbuster closest to my house no longer in operation, but the second closest Blockbuster had also shuttered. I swear, the last time I checked, both of these locations were still afloat. Not anymore, I guess. Not remembering where the third closest one was -- and not being sure it would be open, even if I found it -- I abandoned this course of action and just settled on Redbox.

For Blockbuster, the title End of Watch has a real metaphorical significance.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Treading water


Yesterday, I saw my 36th film released in 2012. (John Hillcoat's Lawless).

If I want to get to last year's total of 121 before my late January ranking deadline, I'll have to see 85 more films from 2012 in just over four months. That's more than 20 per month -- a high total even if I were to forgo watching my usual complement of older films.

So yeah, I ain't gonna be seeing another 121 films before the morning the Oscar nominations are announced. But at this point it's looking like even 100 films is pretty unrealistic.

Which is why it was sort of disappointing I ended up watching The Dictator a second time on Saturday night. 

My wife and I had talked about watching something new for our Saturday night movie, and I was all excited to add to my paltry total of 2012 films. But the Redbox options were pretty thin. The most interesting choices I scouted at a kiosk on Saturday afternoon were The Woman in Black, Lockout, Mirror Mirror and Man on a Ledge. Really, I'm not even interested in Man on a Ledge, but I took it down as a possibility because both my wife and the movie's star (Sam Worthington) are Australian. (Similar logic held for Guy Pearce and Lockout, though I am interested in seeing Lockout.)

She did some of her own research online, and mentioned two titles: The Dictator and Bernie.

Both of which I'd already seen.

Both of which I'd really liked, but both of which I'd already seen.

She knew I'd seen them -- actually, she'd forgotten I'd seen Bernie -- but her response to my four movies was less than listless. Which I certainly understand. If you don't watch that many movies these days, you want the ones you do watch to be good. Most people aren't just checking things off lists, like I am. (And toward that end, at least now I know I'm clear to watch those four movies on my own.)

She wouldn't have forced me into The Dictator or Bernie, but I was in an agreeable mood, so I gave her the choice of which one she wanted to see more. She chose The Dictator. And so it was written, and so it was done.

And so I got another large helping of Sacha Baron Cohen offending all races, religions and people of refined tastes in equal measure.

As it happens, this stuff plays a lot better on a first viewing.

But I didn't go into the viewing feeling pessimistic about it. After all, there's a precedent for this kind of thing. It was around this time last year that I watched Greg Mottola's Paul for the second time, under similar circumstances. I had already seen and loved it, and I wanted my wife to do the same.

The big difference? I felt the active desire to see Paul a second time, while I suspected that The Dictator would not survive another viewing in my good graces.

Indeed.

But another big difference is where I find myself within the ranking year. Right now, I'm staring at my lowest total of movies in a year since I started writing this blog back in 2009, and probably for a couple years before that. Which shouldn't be a huge surprise. With each passing year, my responsibilities increase, and my free time to fritter away on movies grows less and less. Even if I know it's probably inevitable, it's still depressing.

I'm choosing to look at my second viewing of The Dictator as a blessing in disguise, though. Since watching it the first time -- the night before it came out, if you remember this post -- I've heard several people say they utterly detested it. Which got me wondering if it was just my release-eve screening and the vibe people had going that made me like The Dictator so much -- that made me, in fact, declare it the best of Cohen's three star vehicles.

My second viewing disabused me of some, though not all, of those notions. The four stars I had deliriously given it on Letterboxd should clearly be revised down to at least a 3.5, possibly even a 3. And some of the things that made me laugh the first time just made me groan this time.

But even as I treaded more water on assembling my 2012 list, I did gain a benefit from seeing The Dictator a second time. Now I won't go and do something foolish like put it in my top 10 for the year. In fact, I came very close to putting last year's Hall Pass in my top 10, until I watched that again before my deadline. It only went down to #12, but that felt better than at #8, where it had been previously. (Out of 121 movies. Yes, I know how that looks.)

In an ideal world, you'd see all the movies you could possibly see in a given year -- and then before you finished your rankings, you'd see them again. Only then could you really have a good sense of what belongs where.

The reason for this is pretty simple: context. Our feelings toward movies are so dependent on context that a single viewing of a movie can often be skewed in one direction or another by a very good or a very bad viewing scenario. Over two viewings, the context averages out a bit and becomes less important. You could say that The Dictator desperately needed a second viewing, to offset the unusual circumstances of watching it in a packed theater with a game crowd on the night before it opened. You could say that for me to assess it in a way that more accurately represented my true feelings toward it, The Dictator desperately needed a second viewing at home on the couch, one where I was cringing with the sense of personal responsibility for every offensive thing Cohen's character said or did. (You see, a certain ownership comes with recommending a movie.) My wife has a good sense of humor and laughs at many of the same things I do, and to be honest, this kind of cringing is key to the bite of Cohen's comedy. But I still felt embarrassed a couple times at the enthusiasm of my prior endorsement, given the true comedic quotient of what was up on screen.

The true quality of The Dictator probably lies somewhere between the two.

Maybe I'll discover that on my third viewing next month.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Cinematic good samaritan, or just selfish?


One of my favorite films of the last few years is John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole. With a lesser script and lesser talented involved, the story of parents grieving the death of their young son could have become a maudlin, treacly affair. But with director Mitchell, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (adapting his own play) and actors Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Sandra Oh and Miles Teller giving great performances, it's an understated masterpiece that hits all the right notes and packs an emotional wallop.

I've seen it twice already. Which is two times more than my wife -- until yesterday.

Although I've told her it's great, I had not been pressuring her to see it. You see, we have a two-year-old son, and I thought Rabbit Hole's death of a four-year-old boy -- off-screen and in the past though it is -- might be too intense for her. So with it waiting patiently for her in our Netflix instant queue, I thought I'd let her come to it at her own speed -- which she did yesterday afternoon, while I was at a 1:45 show of The Master at the Arclight in Hollywood.

Our son had a very long nap yesterday -- so long, in fact, that she was prompted to go check on him during the movie, for reasons that are quite understandable given its subject matter. That woke him up, so she didn't get to finish the viewing. When I started feeding him dinner in the other room at around 6, she decided to put on the last 20 minutes.

But we don't have a door you can close to separate where he eats from the living room. It's around a corner, but that does nothing for the noise pollution. And with this close proximity, and the fact that she usually feeds him dinner, she couldn't help reacting to the typical ebbs and flows of his eating experience -- him shouting that he wanted to get down, him throwing food on the floor, that kind of thing. (I'm surprised he doesn't starve himself, since he barely eats anything these days.)

Having this racket going on while she tried to absorb the emotional climax of the movie? That just wouldn't do.

At first I suggested to her that she wait until after he was asleep. She emphatically told me that she wanted to continue now, and that she would not be distracted.

Fat chance.

Remembering how I'd gotten misty-eyed during the final scene -- both times I've watched it -- I decided I had to take matters into my own hands.

My son rejected half of the cheese I gave him and almost all of the tamalitos (a small Mexican dish that sort of resembles ravioli), so it was on to the yogurt phase of dinner. And I decided he could sit and eat yogurt outside just as well as he could sit and eat yogurt in his high chair.

So we relocated to some lawn furniture outside, where he ate a few more bites of the yogurt, while letting most of the rest of it dribble down both of our clothing. Seriously, I don't know how this kid isn't starving.

Then he wandered up to the back door and shouted "OPEN THE DOOR!"

I knew I had about ten more minutes of the film still playing inside, so I used whatever was available to distract him. I got some good mileage out of the washing machine, even though I worry about him breaking it by pushing all the buttons, and even though the door smacked against the back door to our kitchen every time he opened it -- another sound I worried might summon her from the couch. I eventually took him away and played "Ready Set Go" with him a couple times -- a game that basically involves me saying "Ready ... Set ... Gooooooo!" and then running just behind him to some point maybe 30 feet away. And then repeating in the other direction.

When I heard my wife in the kitchen, and came into view just in time to see her going for the box of tissues, I knew that my maneuver had paid off.

But I started to wonder afterward whether I had done the thing that was best for her, or best for me. Clearly, I saw it as my responsibility to create for her the conditions necessary to appreciate the ending of Rabbit Hole with as few distractions as possible. But was this for her benefit, or mine?

In other words, did I care that she got a clean viewing of Rabbit Hole so that she could fully appreciate a great film that she may see only this one time, or did I want her to love it so that loving it would be something that we could share? Less magnanimously, the second point could be distilled as follows: Did I merely want my own recommendation of Rabbit Hole to be validated, to support the fact that my own recommendations can be trusted?

It's an interesting question. It makes me wonder how much of watching good movies is about just watching good movies, and how much is about validating tastes. As a critic (out of work though I may be), I clearly want other people to get the most out of movies I recommend to them. Watch enough movies I've recommended in a setting where you can't give them your full attention, and perhaps you start to trust my recommendations less. And if you start doubting a critic's recommendations, it's a bit like wondering whether your mechanic is really capable of replacing your transmission, whether your surgeon is actually capable of fixing your balky knees.

With my wife, the point is probably moot anyway. Even though she doesn't seek out movies the way she used to and the way I still do, one thing we've always had in common is our tastes about what makes a good movie. Even if Rabbit Hole hadn't been a slam dunk for her, she wouldn't have held it against me.

However, in the case of Rabbit Hole, I think my more magnanimous motivation for moving my son outdoors wins out. It's such a good movie that I simply didn't want the experience to be tainted for her. It's the kind of movie that puts a spring in your step, even though it's full of sadness -- just because it reminds you what a film can accomplish by taking a simple, no-fuss approach to good material. (In that sense, it is a sign of incredible maturity for Mitchell, whose previous films -- Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus -- are heavy on style and artifice, and still quite good.)

Oh, and having a cast of actors at the top of their game doesn't hurt.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A title that could describe its director


It would be an understatement to say I'm excited for the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

I'm so excited, and want to so little advanced footage to bias me one way or another, that I actually bowed my head while the trailer was playing before Celeste and Jesse Forever on Monday. So I heard the trailer, but didn't watch it, in keeping with my strict avoidance policy with regards to promotional material for The Master.

Reason: Few directors are as capable of surprising us as Anderson. When I go to see his movie this weekend, I want those surprises to flow over me like a tide of rushing water.

After all, The Master is the latest work from our current master of cinema.

Paul Thomas Anderson has made just five feature-length movies prior to this one, and I haven't wholeheartedly embraced all of them. But it's hard not to look back at those five films and see a creative talent of great vision and ambition. His stinginess -- after a relatively prolific start to his career, he's given us only two films in the past decade -- is part of his mystique.

The true greats -- like his collaborator in There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day Lewis -- take time to perfect their craft, even and perhaps especially if it means their fans have to wait. Perhaps I'm just used to this kind of thing, as my favorite band -- Nine Inch Nails -- used to routinely take five-and-a-half-years between new albums. When The Master hits theaters today -- at least in my market -- it will have been nearly five years since There Will Be Blood blew the doors off our expectations of what Anderson can accomplish.

Like many people given the privilege of directing a film, Anderson started modestly. His 1996 debut, Hard Eight, is perhaps the very definition of modesty. It concerns a downtrodden gambler (John C. Reilly) and the father figure (Philip Baker Hall) who takes him under his wing, in an attempt to turn the man's life around through perfecting the very endeavor at which he had failed (gambling). There's more to it than that, and the film also features such big names as Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson. But it's essentially a small character study, painted in intimate strokes.

Anderson threw modesty out the window -- literally and figuratively -- the following year with the masterpiece Boogie Nights. Not only did it include porn, prosthetic penises and mounds of cocaine, but the movie was a stylistic tour-de-force, as grandiose and ambitious as Hard Eight was quiet and contemplative. The film also represented Anderson's first instance of expertly imitating the style of another master, which he has done several times during his career. (In fact, I almost called this post "The Master ... of disguise?," except that I could only come up with two convincing examples of Anderson aping another director's style). Boogie Nights could have just as easily been made by Martin Scorsese, and people would include it in the conversation when discussing Scorsese's best films.

The director confounded me personally with his next film, Magnolia, in 1999. It wasn't because I considered the film bad -- in fact, in many ways it was more ambitious than even Boogie Nights. Rather, it was because I thought Anderson's tendency toward imitation overwhelmed him this time. I found Magnolia to owe entirely too much to the films of Robert Altman, specifically Short Cuts, a favorite of mine. Both this film and Short Cuts deal with a dozen or so intersecting lives, take place in Los Angeles, have a ridiculously epic climax, and run three hours in length. However, my initial reaction to Magnolia soon subsided, and I decided that I felt confounded by it because it had discomfited me in some way -- which is almost always a good thing when watching a movie. One of the first things I learned about my wife is that she loves this movie, and as it happens, a discussion last week led to my renting it from Netflix so we'll have it available to watch again -- whenever we seem to unexpectedly have three hours at our disposal.

So as not to pigeonhole himself as an auteur only capable of painting on a large canvas, Anderson went intimate again with Punch-Drunk Love in 2002. And as a great indication of the many ways Anderson is capable of touching many different movie fans, I know a number of people who consider this his greatest achievement. As though intentionally trying to challenge himself, Anderson took Adam Sandler and said "I can make a great film with this guy, and show you a side of him you've never seen." He certainly did that. I may not love Punch-Drunk Love as much as its ardent fans, but it's another film that ages well in my mind, as ambitious with sound, framing and just plain eccentricity as his two previous films are ambitious with scope. It's a love story literally like no other.

Anderson's first five-year layoff then followed, and the results were a spectacular return to epic form. There Will Be Blood was, for many critics, one of the most vital American films in a decade, the 2007 version of Oscar's annual failure to recognize the best film made that year. On the strength of the towering performance by Day-Lewis, Blood is a masterpiece of sound and vision, featuring such details as an anachronistic score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, an opening 20 minutes that contain no dialogue, a grand American story of enterprise, greed, violence and corruption, and breathtaking cinematography of the plains that earned this film comparisons to the great westerns of old. Many critics listed it as the best film made in the first decade of the 21st century.

So now we wait to see what will be Anderson's encore after his masterpiece -- or perhaps, just the latest in a string of masterpieces. It's easy to imagine that our master may have made another Masterpiece, and a number of critics have already proclaimed it such.

I'll be finding out soon. Real soon.

These are the times when it makes me giddy to be a cinephile. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

I watched The Rookie before Christ was born


I haven't written about it much, but one of my new cinematic websessions is called Letterbox'd (www.letterboxd.com).

I'm sure it does the same things as a hundred other movie database websites. It allows you to rank and review movies, then use the reviews of a network of friends to determine which movies you might like. It also allows you to make lists and keep a running diary of the order you watch your movies, including day and date. Nothing earth-shattering -- but I like it for the simple reasons that it's got a nice design and it serves a need.

See, if I record the dates of all the movies I see, I don't have to worry about the many movie lists I keep on my computer at home, if my computer dies and I don't have a recent backup. The list I'm most directly duplicating through Letterbox'd is a Microsoft Word document called "movie order," which has the date of every movie I've seen since February 22, 2002.

I have a number of other lists I keep, such as an alphabetical listing of all the movies I've seen, lists of movies I've seen by release year, etc. But only the list of movies I've seen in order would be necessary to help me rebuild these other lists in the event of a catastrophic data loss. That's essentially the "list of record," where every movie I see is delineated in order -- reminding me both what I saw, and what secondary lists I therefore need to update.

And so for the past nine months I've been steadily adding the contents of "movie order.doc" into Letterbox'd, going in backwards chronological order from January of this year, when I first discovered the site. I made quick and steady progress back to the end of 2005, then took a break for a couple months. Just lately I've picked up again, and am now back to July of 2002, with only a couple dozen more titles to enter before I'm all caught up. At which point I will begin the process of adding the many titles I watched before I started keeping track of the dates I saw them -- just to be completist.

See, when you add a new movie, you are given the choice of whether to specify the date you saw it. Once you click that box, it defaults to the current date -- the most relevant date for most Letterbox'd users, who probably add new movies as soon as they've seen them. But to add older movies, you can drill down into the date field and move back in time -- a day, a month, a year, a decade. Which has all been very useful in my current project.

Only yesterday afternoon, when adding John Lee Hancock's The Rookie -- which I watched on July 8, 2002 -- did I realize how far back you can go.

For my purposes, I hadn't needed to go back beyond the page that includes the years from 1994 to 2005. But I assumed (correctly) that you could go back earlier than that. Don't forget about my list-obsessed, film-obsessed predecessors, who have been keeping movie lists for decades longer than I have. Letterbox'd would need to cater to them as well.

So I clicked back 12 years at a time and saw that indeed, the days and dates went back through the 1980s, 1970s, 1960s, 1950s, 1940s, 1930s and so on, all the way back to when the Lumiere brothers were first introducing us to a concept called "moving pictures." Never mind that this gives you the option of saying that you saw a movie decades before it was made. So what if you want to say you watched Inception in 1914? That's your business.

I did, however, find it funny to note that they've programmed calendar dates back to a time before movies even existed. It's one thing to say you watched a particular movie before it was made. It's another to say that you watched a particular movie before any movies were made.

Yet here was Letterbox'd, honoring my request to go back through the centuries. The 1800s went by in a flash, and then it was on to the 1700s, back to before the Revolutionary War. And soon, here was The Rookie, a movie about a baseball coach who gets to pitch in the major leagues for the first time after his 40th birthday, being watched by the pilgrims as they were landing on Plymouth Rock.

But it didn't stop there. Here was Columbus making his own North American landfall. Here was the Magna Carta being signed. Here was Lief Ericson sailing the seas and landing in North America 500 years before Columbus. (Incidentally, why does so much of the history I know have to do with who landed in North America, and when?)

And then came a thousand years where who knows what the hell was going on, and finally, back to the year zero: the birth of Christ. I tell you, The Rookie was a real hit with the shepherds and wisemen, who shared myrrh-flavored popcorn while watching the film projected on the side of the manger.

I decided to give this little exercise a rest around 350 B.C. Then I went forward and set my viewing of The Rookie as December 25, 0000. Which was a Monday, in case you were wondering.

The site wasn't entirely able to comply with my request. In my diary, it showed the viewing as occurring on December 25, 0001. Then when I clicked in to adjust the date, it assumed I must have been talking about 2001 and gave me dates from that year to adjust. Except, duh, The Rookie didn't even come out until the spring of 2002. Stupid website!

Okay, going back to when Christ was born was too much. So I decided on a more reasonable, yet still ridiculous, date: February 1, 1852. A good 40 years before anything like a movie was seen by anyone.

Yep. It took it that time. When I went in to edit the date, I did indeed have the option of admitting I'd made a mistake, and that I had in fact seen The Rookie on February 2nd, 1852, not February 1st.

Letterbox'd at least does have rules when it comes to the future. Although you can sail forward as many centuries into the future as you want -- I stopped at the year 3000 -- you don't have the ability to select any of the days. In computer parlance, they are "grayed out." So you can't actually say you watched a movie on a day that hasn't occurred yet.

So to summarize:

Time travel into the past? Entirely possible. We're withholding judgment pending further inquiry.

Time travel into the future?

Now that's absurd.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tony Scott would roll over in his grave


I'm not saying that Tony Scott was some great master of the English language -- in fact, I have no idea whether he was or not.

But I do think he would have been troubled by this email that went out to those of us on the Cinespia distribution list this week.

Cinespia is an organization that hosts screenings of classic movies in the Hollywood Forever cemetery on Saturday nights in the summer. We haven't been in ages, but I did see The Philadelphia Story and Kubrick's Lolita there. Wine, cheese, bread, and probably something like olives were involved, if I remember correctly.

It's not really practical for us to go these days. Without the hermetically sealed environments we bring with us at the drive-in, our son could be quite the problem for the surrounding patrons if he couldn't get to sleep and insisted on making lots of noise. But I do still like to look at the emails, to imagine I might be going, to imagine I might be whittling pieces of pepperoni off a long stick and matching them with a slice of brie and a fancy cracker like I did those other two times. And of course watching a movie.

This week's email promoting True Romance gave me pause, however. Why don't I type it out here for you and see what you think? My comments inserted in brackets.

"Director Tony Scott will always be remembered for his energetic action films, but True Romance proves he can deliver a genuine love story.

[Would you really call it a love story? I mean, it is, but is it?]

"The action is there, all right, in all its raw glory, like the now-legendary scene with Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken, but the romance is there too in spades.

[Bad choice of word, "spades," if you consider the way Hopper baits Walken into killing him by saying that he and other Italians are descended from blacks. "You're part eggplant," Hopper tells Walken. Also, that scene is not "action" -- it's dialogue followed by a quick execution.]

New paragraph:

"Outlaw lovers Alabama and Clarence are on the run to Hollywood after they accidentally steal a suitcase from the mob.

[Since this is basically the only description of the plot, I'd like a little more detail please.]

"Patricia Arquette is compelling, adorable and ultimately, fierce as a she-lion as her and her soulmate are pursued by terrifying villains.

["Fierce as a she-lion"? The commas are a bit screwy in this sentence as well. "Her and her soulmate" -- take out "her soulmate" and it reads as "her [is] pursued by terrifying villains." Also, what a generic way to refer to the film's antagonists: "terrifying villains."]

New paragrah:

"The glib and cheeky script by Quentin Tarantino made him a household word, and the cast boasts over a dozen fantastic stars among them: Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer, Samuel Jackson, Gary Oldman, James Gandolphini, Mike Rappaport, Bronson Pinchot and the sly, wolfish Christian Slater.

[A person is a household name, not a household word. Also, Tarantino reached that status possibly from Reservoir Dogs, definitely from Pulp Fiction, but not from True Romance. Most people are not usually aware of a film's screenwriter. Also, is it really accurate to call his script "glib"? James Gandolfini does not spell his name with a ph, and I don't think anyone but his friends probably refer to Michael Rappaport as "Mike." Also, isn't it customary to include Samuel Jackson's middle initial? These "fantastic stars" should really be referred to properly. Lastly, "sly and wolfish"? This writer needs to work on his/her adjectives.]

"Join us under the stars to watch this modern Bonnie and Clyde and to celebrate the career and life of Tony Scott.

[Can't this weekend. Busy.]

I don't think being a grammar bully makes a person seem particularly magnanimous, though I do indeed do it from time to time. But come on, this is replete with errors and just plain misleading characterizations.

This grammar bully does need to see True Romance again, though. I've definitely warmed to it over the years to the point where I feel fondly toward it, but when I originally saw it, I thought it was a direct ripoff of Terence Malick's Badlands (perhaps because it uses the same exact steel drum theme song, Carl Orff's "Schulwerk: Musica Poetica"). I also found Christian Slater's Elvis obsession to seem a bit too faux cool, even back then.

Also, I think I found Slater a bit too sly and wolfish. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Monday matinees


I wouldn't say I've been exactly killing it at work lately.

Oh, I'm not disappointing anyone -- I'm answering all my emails and fulfilling my requests in a timely fashion. But I haven't been striving a whole lot, and there are times I worry about that more often than others.

It was during one of these periods of worry last Friday that I volunteered to start coming in at 5 a.m. on Monday mornings.

You see, my company -- a party rental company -- has been rolling out a new version of the rental software. So far, the rollout has focused on locations on the West Coast. But now it's time to hit up our East Coast sites, and we don't have a technician in the Eastern time zone.

On Friday, I overheard a conference call between one of the trainers and a couple of my co-workers. There was frustration being expressed on both sides, with the trainers wanting us to do more prep work to minimize the possibility of technical problems on the go-live day, and my side explaining that certain problems were impossible to prepare for and would inevitably arise. At one point, I heard the trainer say "Are you going to come in at 5 a.m. to help them on Monday?"

Why, yes. Yes, perhaps I will.

The question wasn't directed at me, but I popped into my boss' office about 15 minutes later and volunteered to do it. He was incredibly pleased. "It'll just be for a month or so, right?" I asked. "Yeah, six weeks," he responded.

No problem.

Of course, I probably wouldn't have been so quick to volunteer if I didn't immediately sense the opportunity this schedule provided me.

On Mondays, my wife takes my son down to daycare, and I pick him up. I'm usually there to get him around 4, but we technically have until 5:30 before we're actually late to pick him up. Just lately I've realized that the traffic is not that much worse if I wait longer, so I've been trying to fit in errands or other time-killers, to get a little time to myself between my duties at work and my duties as a parent.

With my normal 7:00 to 3:30 schedule, I don't have time for anything more than a couple short errands.

Working 5:00 to 1:30, on the other hand, would allow me to see a movie before I have to pick him up.

As long as I can get to something that starts by 2:30, or even quarter to three (if it's short), I'm in the clear to hit a matinee ... and just hope that waking up at ten past four doesn't leave me comatose in the theater.

Yesterday's first installation of the new schedule was not a great way to start. Four friends and I had gone to the Los Angeles County Fair the previous evening, meaning I didn't get back to my house until just before 11, having indulged on too much food and too much beer. This after I'd gotten only four hours' sleep the night before (I started Silent House after midnight on Saturday, a kind of celebration after cleaning up in my poker game).

But Zombie Me made it into the office at 4:59 nonetheless, and good thing too -- my first two hours may have been my busiest of the day.

When 1:30 finally rolled around, I was still standing -- barely. And Celeste and Jesse Forever was still starting at 2:05 at the nearby Arclight. Hard to believe, since this little movie had been out for a month, and I had already flirted with seeing it several times. I figured it wouldn't last this Friday's new releases, and it was only 89 minutes -- a perfect length for a body on the verge of collapse.

I figured I should probably get the largest caffeinated soda the Arclight would sell me, but I was already reeling from the fact that there was no matinee price at this theater, meaning I was paying a full $12.50 to see a movie on a Monday afternoon. Besides, I'd drank two consecutive Diet Cokes just to keep me going in the past two hours. Since I didn't feel like taking on any more liquid, I'd have to hope that the lingering effects of that caffeine intake would sustain me.

And I did survive the whole movie without falling asleep. Even though I wasn't getting the small bursts of adrenaline that laughter provides.

Yeah, I didn't really dig this movie. While it's not a straight comedy -- there are times when it feels like a downright drama -- I figured that its comically talented stars (Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg) would be good for a few laughs. As it turns out, not really. The lack of laughs would have been alright if I'd found the movie poignant, but it failed me there as well.

I won't go into too much of a review of Celeste and Jesse, except to say that it commits dual sins: it's way too formulaic in parts, but it's also way too scattershot and unconventional in others. It's basically a mixed bag of mediocre filmmaking, which is disappointing also because I realized afterward that it was directed by Lee Toland Krieger, whose The Vicious Kind really worked for me a couple years ago.

It pains me to say this, but it was Rashida Jones who kind of let me down here. Serving as a co-writer in addition to executive producer and star, Jones is probably the most dominant single creative force behind the film. And though I love her -- really, I've had a thing for her ever since she first appeared as Jim's new girlfriend on The Office -- I don't know if she's quite capable of carrying a film. (It ends up being her story much more than it is Samberg's.) There are some people who are simply delightful in a supporting role, but they just don't fly when someone makes them the lead. That could be the case with Jones, though I never would have guessed it coming in, given the ample charisma she's brought to everything she's done.

Of course, I can't discount the fact that it may just be a bad idea to see any movie after you've only had eight hours of sleep in the previous two nights.

Maybe I'll use next Monday's 1:30 release as an opportunity to go swimming in the nearby Pacific Ocean. That'll certainly wake me up.

After all, watching movies is not the only thing you don't get to do as much of when you're a husband, a father and a new homeowner.

But the pull of this unique Monday matinee opportunity will be strong enough on most weeks to bring me back to the theater.

I mean, I'm a guy who loves movies -- which, like Celeste and Jesse, is also forever.