Friday, November 30, 2012

Why aren't all great books movies?


As you know, I've been "reading" (i.e. listening to) audio books on my commute since I started having this 25-mile commute back in June. I told you previously that I'd read around a dozen books since then, but I guess I was exaggerating -- Dean Koontz' False Memory, the last of whose 17 discs I finished on Tuesday (just in time for it to be due back to the library on Thursday), was my tenth.

Naturally, since I watch a lot more movies than I read books, my instinct is to imagine everything I read being adapted into a movie.

My next instinct is to wonder why more of them are not.

I know that it takes a substantial financial commitment by a studio to adapt a book into a movie, and it's not a venture to be taken lightly. But with all the crap scripts that get made into movies, you'd think that more of the work of someone like Koontz would have found its way to the big screen by now.

Until False Memory, I was completely unfamiliar with Koontz' work, though I've been aware of the man for at least 20 years. Back when I was reading Stephen King all the time, I think I got the impression that Koontz was in a similar category of fiction. But as I started to grow weary of King, the prospect of a lesser King seemed pretty hacky to me. Turns out that's not really what Koontz is, but the impression stuck with me for a couple decades.

But during my current audio book era, I decided it was time to give Koontz a shot. When the experience of reading is more passive, as it is with audio books, it's a lot easier to take a gamble on something that you might not like (especially when you are borrowing them from the library rather than buying them). Instead of forcing yourself to move forward page by page, you just listen until the point where you either get into it, or it's not worth continuing. (However, since I'm a completist by nature, I do try to finish what I start.)

I knew I better like False Memory, because I was going to have to listen to it at an aggressive pace if I was going to get through 17 hour-long discs before it was due back three weeks after the day of rental.

And it turned out that I loved it. (I'll also give some credit here to the reader, Stephen Lang, who played the villainous colonel in Avatar. The guy's got some serious chops.)

This post is not about recommending False Memory to you per se, so I won't bother with a synopsis. Just know that not only was Koontz' language exquisite (this was the biggest surprise), but his plotting was masterful. I loved how and when he chose to reveal certain information, and I genuinely could not predict where the story would go.

So ... why isn't False Memory a movie?

It came out in 1999, so it's had plenty of time to get there.

In order for you to better judge whether it should be, I'll give you a couple of the elements it deals with: agoraphobia, mind control, a mystery to resolve, violence and threats of violence, a twisted villain, psychological torture, family dysfunction and creepy dreams that would make darn good trippy asides in a film. There's even an adorable dog.

And then there's the fact that it already exists out there, lying around as an untapped property. No one even needs to think it up.

My guess? You have to pay Koontz a pretty penny to get the rights to his work. It's not as simple as saying "This is a really good read. Let's make a movie out of it." It's going to cost you, probably a lot more than it would cost you to commission some green writer to come up with a Koontz ripoff.

Or maybe Koontz' writing just isn't as superior as I'm making it out to be. Maybe there are a hundred Dean Koontzes out there writing stuff like this, all of which is good enough to be made into movies. The experience of listening to these ten audio books has taught me that I'm not as discriminating a reader as maybe I thought I was. I've liked each of the ten books to varying degrees -- none of them were merely passable. Granted, you're talking about some literary classics in there, such as The Age of Innocence and Brave New World. But even one of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch detective novels, Echo Park, left me completely satisfied and wondering about a possible film adaptation.

At least I was glad to see that some Koontz work has made it to either television or the big screen. Wikipeda shows 19 of his books adapted into movies, though almost none of them are movies I've heard of. The Ben Affleck bomb Phantoms was a Koontz adaptation, I see. Ha. (A bomb in more ways than one. In Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Jason Mewes yells to Affleck, "You da bomb in Phantoms, yo!") Stephen Sommers is directing an adaptation of his book Odd Thomas, starring Anton Yelchin, that's due out next year.

Maybe it's just that Koontz' astounding output makes it difficult to figure out which of his books to actually adapt. Wikipedia also tells me that the guy has written 106 full-length novels since 1968, not to mention another fifty-some essays and short fiction.

Whoa.

Maybe False Memory is just an average Dean Koontz novel. Which means that even if I don't have a False Memory movie coming out any time soon, I've got plenty of potential listening goodness, in the form of other Koontz novels, still ahead of me.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

127 Minutes


Last Tuesday:

"A guy and a tiger on a boat for two hours?" my friend asked.

"No no," I assured him. "There are going to be flashbacks and fantasy sequences. It'll be like 127 Hours."

And so I thought it was a funny coincidence that the running time of Life of Pi happens to be 127 minutes.

(Since I'm a bit of an amateur numerologist, I can't help but notice that I'm writing this post on 11/27.)

In truth, there are a lot of similarities between the two stories/movies. Each features an opening section in which we meet the protagonist (a young man) and gradually start to see how he ended up in his horrible predicament. Then, the second act begins, and he's thrust right into it. Both predicaments present a very low chance of survival, each seemingly hopeless in its own way. (The big difference is that one really happened and the other is a work of fiction.) And both predicaments feature a necessary stasis, essentially pinning the characters to their locations -- whether literally, between two immovable rocks, or figuratively, in an expanse of the Pacific Ocean that looks the same to a person on one day as the next. 

And in both cases I knew the outcome of the story. With 127 Hours, it was a famous incident that had been covered in the news, the details of which we knew only because the man had survived the ordeal. With Life of Pi, I'd read the book.

127 Hours was my favorite movie of 2010. So I should love Life of Pi just as much, right?

Not quite.

And I'm having a hard time figuring out why.

In every respect you can imagine, Ang Lee's movie is nothing less than a perfect adaptation of Yann Martel's book. It's a faithful rendering in almost every aspect, and the visualization of the book's images is something you might have thought was only possible in your mind's eye. It's that beautiful. Some shots are so stunning that you may just scratch your head about how they were even accomplished. Also, I would absolutely recommend seeing it in 3D, even if you are someone who's skeptical of the film industry's motivations when it comes to the third dimension. It's gorgeously immersive.

Nor can I find fault with the lead performance of Suraj Sharma as Pi, short for Piscine Molitor Patel. I don't necessarily think it's in the same league as James Franco's from 127 Hours, but I wouldn't argue with you if you did. Pi is a character obsessed with finding his spiritual path -- he dabbles in several contradictory religions simultaneously -- and that aspect of the character may make the acting performance even more tricky.

So, why am I having trouble saying I loved the movie?

It's not because I knew how it ended, or at least, I don't think it is. Sure, for the most part, you want to be surprised by these things, which is why I know certain film fanatics who have a rule about not reading books they know will be adapted into movies. That's a rather strict stance, because it means you'll miss out on a lot of good books. But I know why they take that stance.

But I also knew how 127 Hours would end, and it vaulted to the #1 spot on my year-end list. As did Michael Almereyda's present-day adaptation of Hamlet, back in 2000. As did Titanic three years before that. Merely knowing the ending of a movie doesn't spoil the experience of it. As I've written before, that's the big difference between movies and TV. With TV, you watch to find out what happened. With movies, you watch to find out how it happened.

So the only element I can really point to was a part of the story structure that may be different from the book, though I can't honestly remember. I've been dancing around whether Pi survives the ordeal, but then I realized, I shouldn't be, because the movie doesn't. You meet the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) before you meet the young one, and he's telling us this whole harrowing story several decades after it happened. But he's not actually telling it to us -- he's telling it to a Canadian writer he's just met, played by Rafe Spall.

For some reason, I was bothered by this narrative device. Every time the film jumps out of the lifeboat and back into the present, I felt unceremoniously ripped out of the story. I think that's because there's something inevitably hokey about it. We used to see movies told this way all the time, with regular breaks from the action to check back in on two doe-eyed children with their chins propped on their palms, asking "And then what happened, Grandpa?" "Well my child, we're just getting to the good part," Grandpa would answer.

So I felt there was something irredeemably quaint about the listener/storyteller relationship between Spall and Khan, as though this one adult man was playing doting grandchild to another adult man. And I think part of the problem is that Spall isn't all that good. They could have chosen anybody for this role, and this guy just wasn't doing it for me. That's a shame, because Khan, an actor I've seen a number of times before, is quite good.

But there's one climactic moment where the script fails Spall more than his line reading. At a truly key moment, Spall is forced to speak a line of dialogue that sounds so goofy, in context, that I felt like laughing, and one member of my audience actually did laugh. Which is certainly not what Lee or writer David Magee were going for in that moment.

However, Lee also makes a very smart decision at the end that I will only hint at here. If you've read the book, you know that something unexpected happens near the end of the story. What Lee chooses to show -- or not show -- during this moment is key in how we read and understand all the previous events we've seen.

Ultimately, I did not feel the surge of emotion in the climax of this movie that I felt during the climax of 127 Hours. Is Danny Boyle just better at emotional manipulation than Ang Lee? Maybe. And is that not necessarily a good thing? Maybe.

But sometimes, all your critical analytical tools fail when confronted with the physiological reaction your body produces as an emotional response to something you're watching. Life of Pi did not produce that physiological reaction in me, at least not to the extent I was hoping.

It's still filmmaking at a nearly unparalleled level, especially on the technical end. And you should most certainly see it in the theater, in 3D if possible.

Will it be my favorite movie of 2012? No, but only one film can claim that hallowed honor.  This just doesn't happen to be it.

After Moon and 127 Hours were two previous #1s essentially carried by one actor, I don't want to become too damn predictable anyway.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How the other half lives


Some people get opportunities the rest of us simply don't.

On Saturday night I hung out at what was billed as my friend's "sweet bachelor pad in Hollywood." The guy who owned the place wasn't actually there -- another friend, in town for Thanksgiving, was staying there watching a cat that belonged to yet another person, a relatively unknown Hollywood actress. To make matters one degree more complicated, the cat was wearing one of those satellite dishes around his head to keep him from licking a wound. Cute cat, very friendly.

Anyway, the friend visiting from out of town had the blessing of the place's owner to have us come over and hang out with him that night. Which was good, because most of the rest of us have kids, and here was a place we could be for free without watching the volume of our voices.

Oh, and it was a three-story condo with a balcony from the master bedroom that looked out over Hollywood.

This guy is by no means a star. He's a working TV writer who just finished a long gig writing for a successful show aimed at teenagers. Which was at least enough to afford this place, I guess.

But the part that relates to the movies is the invitation I noticed on his kitchen counter, as follows:


Yeah, I'm looking forward to Judd Apatow's next movie -- not only because I like most of what Apatow does, but because I myself will be 40 within a year. (Crap, I don't think I've actually written out that sentence before.)

But this invitation from the Writers Guild of America is not only a screening of the movie. It's also followed by a Q&A with Apatow. And that Q&A also happens to be moderated by Cameron Crowe (in case you can't read the small print below Apatow's name).

Judd Apatow and Cameron Crowe in the same room? Yeah, I'd go to that.

But before I go boo-hooing that I don't receive similar invitations, I should probably tell myself that events like this are probably just as much of a clusterf*ck as the screenings my wife used to get invited to through her subscription to Creative Screenwriting magazine. These screenings tended to be drastically overbooked, so unless you devoted the preceding 90 minutes of your life to waiting in line, you had no shot of getting in. As I've discussed before, "free" becomes a lot less free if you need to restructure your entire day to see a "free" screening.

And the WGA? Yeah, it has a lot of members.

I'd rather spend a fun night with friends in somebody's sweet bachelor pad.

And hey, I've already done that.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The year that filled up


Now that we're past Thanksgiving, it's time to get in that reflective mood as the year starts to close down.

Too early for year-end lists, mind you, but not too early to start assessing what kind of year 2012 has been.

I don't think this has been a great year for movies, but it certainly has been a full one.

When was the last time you can remember hearing about four major releases that had to be shifted to the following calendar year?

Most release years include one or two movies that must move their release dates forward for one reason or another. But in 2012, The Great Gatsby, Gravity, Gangster Squad and G.I. Joe: Retaliation all jumped to 2013.

Must have something to do with the letter G, though The Grey, Goon, Gone, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Good Deeds and God Bless America were all spared.

So the market is becoming more competitive but less good. What else is new?

Then again, the best part of the release schedule is still largely ahead of us. And it was from now until the end of the year that the first three of the four delayed titles were scheduled to come out.

With The Great Gatsby, the reason for the delay (to May 10, 2013) is listed on wikipedia as "delays in the production schedule." But conventional wisdom suggests that perhaps Warner Brothers didn't want to send Leonardo DiCaprio up against Leonardo DiCaprio. The Great Gatsby was supposed to come out at Christmas ... which is when Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, starring one Leo DiCaprio, is also going to quench our Quentin thirst.

Gravity -- Alfonso Cuaron's long, long-awaited follow-up to 2006's Children of Men -- is cruelly having an entire year tacked on to that wait. Originally slated for the day before Thanksgiving this year, the movie now won't bow until next October 18th. It sounds like the reason for the delay is all the CG required in post. I'm reading that Cuaron is experimenting with all kinds of innovative technology, including an "uninterrupted" 17-minute take (though the article suggests that the take is done with digital assistance, unlike the long takes in Children of Men, which were au naturel).

Gangster Squad fell victim to that old problem of having a trailer containing subject matter that was rendered controversial by real-world events. The Gangster Squad trailer they were showing this summer had a bunch of baddies with tommy guns blowing away patrons in a movie theater from behind the screen. The shooting in Aurora, Colorado during The Dark Knight Rises pretty much killed that particular trailer. And not only is that scene now gone from the movie, but the whole movie was moved by four months from September to January 11th (a release date that would be a sign of very low confidence by the studio in most cases). Maybe it was reshoots, maybe it was just trying to keep a wide berth from those tragic events.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation has the most number of apparent reasons for its delay from this past June to next May. The "official" reasons are that 3G is being added in post-production and that Paramount is trying to boost interest in international markets. (Since when aren't international markets interested in Hollywood action movies?) However, the unofficial reasons include all of the following: reshoots to avoid the early death of Channing Tatum's character, after Tatum had officially become a star in 2012 (hey, it's not a spoiler if it isn't going to end up happening in the movie); a desire not to compete with Tatum's Magic Mike, which was set to open the same day (in a situation that echoes the potential Christmas Day DiCaprio double feature); and, um, that's it, but the rule of three dictates I list three things.

And come to think of it, it isn't only movies that start with G that have jumped ship from 2012. I just thought of a fifth movie that was supposed to come out this year, but didn't: World War Z. The adaptation of Max Brooks' popular zombie novel would have been part of that crowded late December release schedule had it not been for production delays and the seven weeks of reshoots that were required earlier this year. With or without those reshoots, the trailer tells me this movie might be a bigger disaster than an actual zombie apocalypse.

Of course, now that I've analyzed the reasons for the delays of five major would-be 2012 films, it seems pretty clear that none of them were delayed only because "too many movies are already coming out in 2012." In each case there seem to be other factors, even if they are as simple as too many movies by one of the movie's stars coming out during the expected release window -- not too many movies in general.

What I think this really illustrates is how over time, making movies is becoming an increasingly complicated proposition, with studios finding profit margins to be ever thinner, and the need seeming ever more paramount to fine-tune the movie until it's a perfect product released at a perfect time.

Or, maybe it's just a statistical blip. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Cannibalizing future profits - so to speak

The last envelope I returned to Netflix came emblazoned with the following image:


Edward Cullen. As if we don't see enough of his handsome mug.

Now, I certainly understand the instinct to partner yourself with a wildly successful franchise, and the positive byproducts of that might be immeasurable.

But don't you think it's a little strange that a company that relies on people not seeing movies in the theater is telling them to go see a movie in the theater?

Unlike Blockbuster, which recently tried to dupe its unsuspecting email audience by intimating that the new release End of Watch was available for rental in its stores (see discussion here), Netflix clearly states that Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 is "only in theaters" (as that small text above the release date reads).

But the more people who catch it in theaters, the fewer people there will be to rent it from Netflix later on. This advertisement has a direct, though probably small, impact on the company's bottom line.

Perhaps this is just an acknowledgement by Netflix that the movie's zeitgeist moment is now, not three months from now when it comes out on DVD. The Twilight movies probably get a higher percentage of their viewings in the theater than any other successful franchise out there. Whereas most other successful movies have a significant number of people who rent them "just to see what all the fuss is about," you can't really say the same for the Twilight movies. Most people already know what the fuss is about. Either they're into the fuss, which means they see the movies in the theater (perhaps multiple times), or they can't get far enough away from the fuss, and they never see them at all.

Let's anticipate the first year of existence for Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 and for another wildly successful movie, The Avengers (which I was in the minority by not seeing in the theater). Let's say that in this first year, The Avengers gets 75% of its viewings in the theater and 25% on video. I have no idea if that's correct, but it sounds plausible. That 75% would represent its peak, because from now until the end of time, the only way for most people to see The Avengers will be on video. So the percentage will start at 75% and keep dropping a little bit every day. Eventually, if the movie endures in popularity through the decades, more people will have seen it on video than in the cinema.

While the percentage will also drop for Breaking Dawn Part 2, it doesn't seem likely to drop as much. Its first year will probably be more like 90%/10%, and it will fall only very, very slowly. It may take a generation to get down to 80%/20%. There are always going to be young girls who are going to come of age and seek out the Twilight books, but fewer and fewer random other people will watch these movies as their zeitgeist moment gets further and further in the rear view mirror.

I'm probably belaboring a fairly obvious point, but the point I'm trying to make is that Netflix is probably just fine with advertising Twilight on their return envelopes, because there was never going to be a particularly sizable rental market for this movie anyway. Sure, three months from now will be a good time for some of these folks to see it again -- but they're not going to rent it. If they loved it, they'll just buy it.

The real risk with this marketing strategy is that it will do more harm than good from a "coolness of brand" standpoint. After all, the effect of being associated with Twilight is not a universally positive one. Some people (like me) will see this ad campaign and think "Lame." And Netflix will have suffered, however infinitesimally, in my estimation. 

The other explanation is that this is just a brand new marketing venture for Netflix, and Edward Cullen just happens to be the first of many faces we're going to see gracing our return envelopes.

As is often the case with my theories, time alone will tell.

Of course, much of this discussion is made moot by the following important little detail: Netflix is a subscription service, not a pay-by-rental service. They don't care if users are renting Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, as long as the monthly subscription fee is being automatically debited from their bank accounts.

So maybe they're just trying to limit the number of Breaking Dawn DVDs they'll have to stock to meet the demand.

And now we're getting to the truly measurable impact on their bottom line.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A silver lining


The surest way to jinx your plans? Give voice to them.

In Wednesday's post, I announced my likelihood of being able to attend a 1:50 3D showing of Life of Pi. Then I didn't make it in time.

But really, is it a jinx if something was simply never realistic in the first place? First off, I was getting off work at 1:30, and you never leave at the exact minute you're supposed to clock out. Secondly, the drive to the theater would have taken the better part of 15 minutes even in normal traffic. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is most decidedly not normal traffic, and you should probably at least double your expected travel times. But even if it had taken only slightly longer than normal to drive there, there's still a parking garage you have to navigate, and a walk of three minutes or so to the theater, even if you are moving quickly. Never mind the fact that a large popcorn was going to be my lunch, and there's always at least one person ahead of you in the snack bar line.

Fortunately, it wasn't one of those situations where I was close enough to even chance it, making me commit a lot of time and energy to a fool's errand. At 1:48, when I was still more than a mile from the theater, I pulled over and jumped on my phone's web browser to figure out other options. I knew there were no more Pi showings that were at a convenient time, so now I was looking for something else.

And so, the silver lining to missing Life of Pi? Silver Linings Playbook.

Which was playing at 2:35 in downtown Culver City, about three miles from the theater where I meant to see Pi. 

I love the work of director David O. Russell, but until now, that had been based primarily on the strength of three movies that were all released in the 1990s: Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings. I hated I Heart Huckabees and ended up thinking The Fighter was good but not great.

Suffice it to say that Silver Linings Playbook had me wondering if it might rank up there with his two masterpieces, Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings.

The interesting thing about Russell as a filmmaker isn't that he consistently breaks new ground or blows your mind with some kind of unique technique. After his debut, which you could say was pretty unusual as it dealt with mother-son incest and featured a euphemism for masturbation as its title, I'd argue that Russell has mostly just been giving us really fresh takes on genres we're familiar with. Flirting with Disaster was a fresh take on a screwball comedy, while Three Kings was a fresh take on the war movie (albeit with some genuinely innovative camera and narrative techniques). Has there been a genre that's been more worked over throughout the history of cinema than the boxing movie? Yet most people felt that The Fighter was a really fresh take on that genre.

You could say that the only time Russell really gets himself into trouble is when he tries to indulge his more off-the-wall impulses. Enter I Heart Huckabees, a disaster that was much more than flirted with. A satire about commercialism featuring a pair of existential detectives, Huckabees was a misstep from minute one. It may be no coincidence that this shoot featured the short-fused director's most famous blow-up, a verbal scrum with Lily Tomlin that developed a life of its own on the internet. (He also reportedly nearly or actually came to blows with George Clooney on Three Kings, though that didn't hamper the brilliance of that film one bit.)

In fact, I considered calling this post (and wouldn't it have been clever) "Burning Bridges Playbook," because I realized that the director rarely works with the same actor twice. But then I recalled that not only was Huckabees his second (and obviously last) collaboration with Tomlin, after Flirting with Disaster, but Mark Wahlberg has worked with him three times: Three Kings, Huckabees and The Fighter. The last two were the important ones for this discussion, because Wahlberg continued on with him even after the famous Tomlin incident and his weakest film on a relatively short resume.

Besides, I didn't want to concentrate on the negative in a post about a film I liked as much as I liked this one.

Silver Linings Playbook finds Russell returning again to his success with reinvigorated genre films. In fact, as I was watching this movie, I was reminded most of last year's Crazy, Stupid, Love. Like that film, Playbook reminds us that a romantic comedy can really stick with you just by being cast and written well. And it doesn't even need to do anything particularly unconventional.

The difference is that Russell is a much better (or at least more established) filmmaker than Crazy's Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, and he brings elements of his best work into elevating his own script for Playbook. Watching the film, I was also reminded how well the director does chaotic scenes with multiple people arguing, which have been prominent components of especially Disaster and The Fighter. And the arguers have been cast perfectly here. Bradley Cooper won't get an Oscar nomination, but should -- Robert DeNiro and Jennifer Lawrence probably will, and Lawrence might even win. They're all that good. Heck, even Chris Tucker is really good in a small part. Cooper and Lawrence also succeed at something you rarely see these days -- a smoldering, undeniable chemistry.

But I have to wonder if part of what makes Silver Linings Playbook so satisfying is that it may be Russell's most personal film. At least in terms of what we've already discussed about him. A guy with bipolar disorder given to fits of rage and occasional violence? That could probably describe Russell himself just as well as it could describe Cooper's Pat Solitano. Which means Russell is uniquely qualified to dramatize that fugue that takes over during a panic attack, where sounds fade to the background and a ringing of the ears surfaces to the front.

What's amazing is that Russell tackles such serious issues and gives us several scenes that are intense to the point of disturbing, while still keeping the movie essentially light and "feel good" (in the best sense of that phrase).

Only the guy who brought us Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings, right?

Here's hoping that the director has found his own silver lining in a sometimes troubled career, and the plays he draws up in the future will be more masterpieces like this one.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pre-Thanksgiving 3D extravaganza


I've developed a very specific kind of tradition lately as it relates to my Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving trip to the theater.

In the past, I'd always try to go to a movie on the shortened last day before a long weekend -- Memorial Day, Labor Day, what have you. My boss tries to release us two hours early on days like this, and I'd taken advantage of those extra hours to grab a flick.

Since the birth of my son, my responsibilities have necessarily caused many of these opportunities to fall by the wayside. One that hasn't fallen is seeing a movie on my pre-Thanksgiving early release, and since my boss already told us yesterday that he might not be in today and that we could leave two hours early, I don't have to worry about a last-minute bout of Scrooginess causing him to renege. (Unless he reneges electronically, but that seems unlikely.)

And even though it originally looked like the times might not work out, it now appears likely that I'll be able to attend a 1:50 showing of Ang Lee's Life of Pi. Making this the third straight year that I will have gone to a 3D movie on the day before we eat turkey.

In 2010 it was Tangled. In fact, it was Tangled by default, because either there wasn't anything else opening that interested me, or the other things opening didn't have convenient start times. I dragged my ass to Tangled even though I didn't have high hopes for it, just to take advantage of the opportunity and my wife's blessing. As you may recall, I absolutely loved it -- so much so that I eventually ended up ranking it #2 for the year.

Then last year it was Hugo. I didn't love Hugo like I loved Tangled, but there were parts of the movie that delivered an equivalent level of exhilaration to me. In fact, the thing both films had in common was their exceptional use of a technology that is frequently fumbled by filmmakers: 3D.

Now Life of Pi is being billed as "The next Avatar." At least, on the billboard I see on my way in to work. I certainly hope that the story is better, but I think the comparison they're trying to make is a technological one. If this billboard is to be believed, Life of Pi is doing things with 3D and CGI that will make us ooh and ahh the way Avatar did.

Actually, I know the story of Life of Pi is better because I've actually read the book. I say "actually" because reading has been a particular weak spot for me in the past couple years. In fact, until I experienced a reading renaissance through audio books on my commute to work in the past six months, which has led to the consumption of about a dozen new books, it'd had been a couple years since I'd read a book from start to finish. Pathetic but true.

And so when an adaptation of one of the books I've read comes home to roost, it does give me a little sense of pride that I'm not a total philistine. For similar reasons I'm looking forward to the adaptation of Ender's Game, which is due out next year and will probably be a visual marvel in its own right.

But let's not look ahead to next November 1st. For now I'm excited about this November 21st, when I'm hoping to go three-for-three in pre-Thanksgiving 3D extravaganzas as part of this newly established tradition.

Now just knock on some wood for me that I don't have any work crises that nullify the possibility of my early release.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The cheapest flight I've gotten in years


I saw a 1:50 showing of Flight on Saturday that was only $8, which qualifies as a minor miracle. Especially when you consider that it's a brand new theater, having opened in the last six months or so.

I always love checking out a new theater, and this was quite a pleasant introduction to the new Laemmle on Lankershim in North Hollywood. Not only did everything still have that new theater smell, but it was surprisingly uncrowded. I thought just the opposite would be the case, since everyone goes to the movies on the rare rainy Saturday in Los Angeles.

What's more, I discovered that this theater has midnight showings of Tommy Wiseau's The Room on the last Saturday of every month. I'm planting the seed among my friends about going this weekend, even if a movie that starts at midnight will majorly test our collective and individual staminas. (Staminae?)

The Laemmle chain in Los Angeles usually specializes in arthouse films, so I celebrate it all the more. Perhaps the $8 price for all weekend shows before 2 p.m. is a reflection of that indie philosophy.

I must admit, however, that the new North Hollywood Laemmle is a bit more my speed in terms of its offerings than the one that's just about equidistant from my house in Encino. While I would like to think that there's no movie that's too arthouse for me to see, I must also admit that my moviegoing dollars are precious to me. So just having heard a movie's title somewhere is not enough for me to plunk down even $8. (It's not only the cash, it's also the available time to see movies in the theater, period.) Encino's Laemmle is currently playing The Other Son, A Royal Affair, A Late Quartet, Cafe de Flore, The Flat, La Rafle and The Optimists. And though I've heard of the first four, and would certainly like to see some of these movies as proof to myself that I still have that adventuresome spirit for seeing all kinds of movies in the theater, well, Flight has a plane crash that absolutely must be seen on the big screen ... right? And with more than two weeks passing since it was released and a whole slew of Thanksgiving releases right around the corner, it was now or never.

And even though the Laemmle in North Hollywood is also playing Twilight and Skyfall (those titles sort of go together, don't they?), it props up its credibility with The Sessions, Up on Poppy Hill, Zarafa and The Painting. Not to mention the fact that it's currently hosting the Hungarian Film Festival. Who even knew there was such a thing?

If you've just opened a new arthouse theater and you don't want it to close as soon as it's opened, you have to straddle that line between the obscure and the mainstream. Besides, if playing Twilight is allowing me to pay only $8 for a matinee, I'm all for it.

One other detail I loved. Before the trailers started, a title card introducing them came on the screen with the following (paraphrased) text:

"Warning: The following trailers may contain BIG EXPLOSIONS, the BEST LINES and the ENTIRE PLOT. Watch at your own risk."

Perfect.

As for Flight? Well, Robert Zemeckis once again (after Cast Away) proves he can do a plane crash like nobody else. Even if you don't like the rest of the movie -- and I certainly did -- the opening 20 minutes are worth the price of admission. A couple pretty on-the-nose song choices aside, I found that the rest of the film was pretty rich with nuance ... and that Denzel Washington gave one of his most impressive performances in years. I guess an airline pilot with substance abuse problems is a pretty meaty role for any actor to sink his teeth into.

Now we'll just see if I can schedule a return visit for The Room this Saturday. Though I understand that even the $8 matinee price they will no longer be charging at midnight may be too much to pay for this particular film.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Seriocomic running


Because the Twilight series famously does not need to advertise in order to sell tickets (plenty of tickets), I had not seen this poster for the series' final installment until last Friday night.

And then I just laughed. And laughed. And laughed.

I mean, they've got to be kidding with this poster, right?

The insufferable love triangle at the core of this series looks like they're running -- their bodies all appear in running poses.

Their faces? An entirely different matter. Their faces are perfectly still and perfectly stolid, not to mention typically humorless. They display none of the effort that would normally be associated with running.

Admittedly, it's hard to capture movement in a still photo. All you can do is show legs and arms in familiar running poses, and let us assume that they are moving forward with a certain alacrity, especially if they are being chased by creatures who mean to do them harm.

But the faces just belie any sense of forward momentum these characters might have.

I've written before about how realistic running is one of the most surprisingly difficult tasks for actors to master, and there are only a small number of them who excel at it. In fact, in this post, I sung the praises of unequaled run-actor Tom Cruise.

But come on. Even for a shot that is clearly posed rather than being extracted from the finished film, this is pretty lifeless. It's some of the worst photo shoot directing and photo shoot acting I've ever seen. (These days, the actors may not have even posed for it. It's certainly possible their heads were just Photoshopped on running bodies. In fact, that would explain a lot.)

You could argue that a really intense runner sometimes does have a perfectly stoical expression, one that results from total concentration and focus. But the effect of having all three of these characters wear that same expression, plus the fact that they look like they're going for a light jog rather than outrunning death, just saps all the intended drama out of this image, rendering it utterly comedic. The fact that these movies have always taken themselves so seriously only makes it funnier.

All this said, the movie does have a pretty impressive 68 Metascore* as of this writing. (I wrote this yesterday -- with the new Friday reviews, it's now down to 53.) Which makes me wonder if the same thing is going on here that went on in the Harry Potter series, which is the most similar model for the way these movies have been released (especially releasing the adaptation of the series' final book in two parts).

Namely, with the arrival of the final movie, a nagging sense of prolonged water treading might finally be dispelled. I think the reason I loved Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 as much as I did was that we finally got to see this big showdown that everything had been building toward. With that series in particular, and with me as a viewer in particular, the momentum stalled almost to a complete halt during the middle movies. (Everything after Prisoner of Azkaban, really, until the final movie.)

Now, I have no idea what has happened in the plot of this series, since I watched only the first movie, and only then so that I could have it as a cultural touchpoint. But I can only assume that the Twilight saga has been leading up to some kind of similarly epic confrontation between ever-growing legions of good characters and bad ones. (I actually do know that there's some icky stuff about Bella's pregnancy in this last book, having read a shocked negative review of the book in Entertainment Weekly at the time it was released.) And maybe this sense of something finally happening makes this final entry in the series better than the rest.

So I guess I better catch up on Twilight: New Moon, Twilight: Eclipse and Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 before I go to the theater and see Breaking Dawn Part 2 this weekend, right?

Wow, I couldn't even type that with a straight face.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Stuck with "Mouse"


Be careful what you show your kids, because you may be stuck with it.

Earlier this week I wrote about a couple animated movies I'd seen recently that I really enjoyed. Today is the story of one I didn't really enjoy.

As my latest two-birds-with-one-stone scheme, I've been filling the early morning weekend hours when my son wakes up early with animated features I've been meaning to see. Not both weekend mornings, but usually one of the two. I've done this both of the past two weekends. 

At two years and three months, my son doesn't yet have the attention span to sit through a whole movie. But I figured it would probably go something like this: He'd watch the first half-hour pretty attentively, then play with his toys for possibly as long as another half-hour before he'd demand a more active form of stimulation. Then I'd catch the movie's remaining half-hour at some point later on, on my own time.

A couple weekends ago I did this with The Tale of Despereaux, which I noticed was streaming on Netflix. Let's call this one of the "minor majors" from the past few years of animation -- a big-budgeted, lavishly vocal-casted movie that nonetheless never rose to the level of essential viewing for cinephiles. As I watched the opening credits, I was struck by just how many big-name actors were involved. Here, just check it out: Matthew Broderick, Emma Watson, Sigourney Weaver, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, Kevin Kline, Robbie Coltrane, Stanley Tucci, William H. Macy, Frank Langella, Christopher Lloyd, Ciaran Hinds, Tony Hale and Tracey Ullman. I became exhausted just reading that list.

The movie looks beautiful, breathtakingly so at times. But the thing is, it's got serious problems from a moral standpoint. I'll get into those in a moment. For now, all I need you to know is that my viewing of The Tale of Despereaux went pretty much as I'd expected in terms of my son's attention span. And after I finished it around 11 o'clock that night, I slapped it with a disappointing two-star rating.

Which I thought would have been the end of it. During the half-hour my son did watch the movie, there were several times that he seemed to be wearying of it. "I wanna watch Bob" is what he probably said at least once. Referring of course to his nearest and dearest friend, Bob the Builder.

But then the next day it came for the first time: "I wanna watch Mouse."

And then on another day: "I wanna watch Mouse."

And then another day: "I wanna watch Mouse."

And I assume this morning, because when I got out of the shower, I saw that my wife had put on "Mouse" for him.

Uh oh.

Now his rotation consists of about five things: "I wanna watch Bob." "I wanna watch Thomas." (Though this is more rare: He thinks he likes Thomas the Tank Engine, but always bores of him quickly.) "I wanna watch Gromit." (Thank goodness for this, because I could watch Wallace & Gromit for hours on end.) "I wanna watch Sheep." (The TV show Shaun the Sheep, another gem from Aardman.) And of course "I wanna watch Mouse."

I really don't know how this tale of a swashbuckling mouse entrenched itself so much in his psyche, especially since the movie contains a number of parts that I know scare him. (Like I said, I'll get into those in a moment.) I have to conclude that the mere presence of the mice and rats makes it more interesting to him than something like The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which has animal sidekicks but no speaking animal characters. I guess I should be just as glad, because if he woke up one morning and said "I wanna watch Pirates," I'd be out of luck, since my copy of The Pirates! Band of Misfits is resting in the belly of a Redbox kiosk.

But since The Tale of Despereaux is streaming, it's easy to summon it up for him again -- and even easier because it's always close to the front of our Recently Watched queue. And I'm starting to wonder how many 15-minute chunks of this movie I don't like I may be subjected to in the future.

So what's wrong with The Tale of Despereaux? Well, I'll give you a couple examples.

1) The premise is very odd, and bears a very odd (though I think coincidental) relationship to Pixar's Ratatouille, which came out the previous year. To sum it up, there's a kingdom populated by human beings where the biggest holiday of the year is called Soup Day. This is when the kingdom's chef unveils that season's signature broth, ceremoniously served to the royal family before anyone else. A rat (voice of Dustin Hoffman) that just disembarked from a ship in the harbor leans in too far while smelling the soup's delicious aroma, and inadvertently drops from the rafters into the queen's bowl. Assuming that the soup was infested with rats to begin with, the queen drops dead of shock, doing a face plant into the bowl. This sequence of events leads the depressed king to ban the making/eating of soup from the kingdom forever, which has unlikely meteorological side effects -- now there are neither sunny nor rainy days, only a perpetual fog hanging over the kingdom. (Oddly, though, the king does not actually fire the chef, when under the circumstances he might do far worse than that.)

So yeah, weird connection to Ratatouille, right? Only it has to be a coincidence, because a) The Tale of Despereaux would have already been in production when Ratatouille was released, and b) it's based on a storybook that dates back to 2003 anyway.

2) While trying to not be all sunshine and roses -- literally -- the movie aspires to respect the capacity of its audience to appreciate shades of gray. However, this results in a tone that ends up being too dark, and too cynical about human nature -- and mouse nature, and rat nature. I understand why you don't want your characters to be separated into groups of saints and sinners, but the movie has a strange tendency to make its good characters nastier than they need to be, and its bad characters grossly irredeemable. While probably trying to do the opposite, the movie does such things as condemn entire species. Pretty much all the rats are bad except for Hoffman's character, while the mice actually pride themselves on the way they cower and hide in the face of danger, to the extent that they actually cast out the title character (voice of Matthew Broderick) because he doesn't display these traits in sufficient quantity. Then there's the fairly monstrous behavior of the humans, starting with the way the king basically damns his entire kingdom because his wife overreacted to finding a rat in her soup, then continuing to the surprisingly uncharitable behavior of the princess toward others who are different from her. But worst among the human characters is a fat, dumpy but supposed-to-be-sweet servant of the princess, whose malleable mind is warped into all kinds of twisted behavior. The thing that's so disturbing is that the filmmakers think they're going the traditional route with this character, showing us she has a heart of gold -- but it plays out in such uglier fashion than they think.

Now, it would be a common storytelling technique to display these bad traits in order to set up our characters for redemption. But surprisingly few of them get the redemption they seem like they should get. In many cases it's a kind of half-measure redemption, totally unsatisfying in its execution.

3) The movie is just weird in certain ways. The movie is ostensibly "realistic," in the sense that there's no magic -- the only unusual detail is that mice and rats have the ability to speak. There's one glaring exception to this, and it's a character who is essentially a small tornado of food. This character makes the soup along with our human chef, flying around the kitchen like a ghost comprised of ingredients that take the shape of a face, torso and arms before tapering off at the bottom. I see on wikipedia that he is referred to as Boldo, the "soup genie" (voice of Stanley Tucci). He looks like this:


Why a character like this exists in this movie is never explained.

4) There is a scene where the rats capture the princess, Gulliver-style, and march her into their gladiator pit, where they usually have a cat on a chain doing battle with rats and mice. It's never said aloud, but I believe the implication is that the rats mean to eat her. This is just plain wrong.

So now you know what I'm stuck with when I'm stuck with "Mouse."

I guess now we have to figure out what we're going to do. It's easy for parents to fall into the trap of just giving your child what he/she wants. It's the fastest way to make the whining stop, that's for sure.

But despite him having a pretty impressive understanding of the basic functions of a remote control, there's no way at this age that my son can figure out how to call up The Tale of Despereaux without our help. And he's also pretty susceptible to the bait and switch. He says he wants one thing, you tell him you'll give it to him, and then you give him another thing. Two minutes later he's forgotten about the first thing.

So yeah, maybe the time has come to banish "Mouse" from this particular kingdom.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Combining two great passions: Movies, and hammocks


We bought a hammock about three years ago. About three weekends ago, we finally set it up.

The cause of the delay: We didn't actually have a spot to hang a hammock at our old place.

We thought we did, but we were being unrealistic. There was a spot outside our living room window, next to the garden that abutted our house, where we would sometimes sit outside for a drink. At one point we thought we could stretch a hammock between two of the trees on either side of this sitting area. But there was just no way.

I suggested that we return the hammock, but my wife insisted we keep it -- even though I'm the one who really loves hammocks, while she just likes them. She insisted that one day, we'd live somewhere we could hang this hammock.

Now, we do.

But when we moved into our new house at the beginning of the summer, buying a hammock stand was not among our first financial priorities. In fact, it was not among our first hundred financial priorities. So the hammock stayed rolled up in our garage, ever vigilant, knowing that one day its day would come.

That day came when I turned 39 years old on the 20th of October. My wife used the occasion to buy the hammock stand that was the last piece in our long puzzle of hammock ownership. I was hard at work setting it up less than five minutes after I opened it.

Since then, I've enjoyed a couple naps in it, and twice lay in it to watch planes flying overhead through the darkening night sky with my son. Bliss.

Then last Sunday night -- ten days ago now, though I definitely meant to write this post sooner -- I decided to combine my passions to produce a conglomerate of awesomeness the likes of which the world had never seen.

I would stream a movie on my computer while lying in the hammock.

(Watching a DVD would have also been an option, but the DVD player on my computer is broken.)

It was after my son's bedtime, and my wife was feeling sick so she went to bed early. As though there was something perverse about the thing I planned to do, I waited until I was sure she was sorted away for the night before assembling what I needed.

I got a blanket and a pillow for warmth. November in California is warmer than November in most places, but it still gets cold at night. The pillow, of course, was for comfort, not warmth.

Then I got a Diet Coke and a bag of potato chips. I didn't know how well I'd be able to eat or drink in the hammock, but it's not a movie without something to nosh on, is it? I momentarily considered erecting a little table next to the hammock to hold my food and beverage, but decided to chance it with just having them in the hammock there with me. I knew at least the potato chips would be fine.

Lastly I brought out my laptop, my headphones, and a little "writing desk" with a cushion bottom for the laptop to sit on. (This "writing desk" is basically just a flat surface with a cushion underneath, to serve as a portable writing surface. I guess they expect you to rest it on your legs most often, hence the cushion.)

Now, one of the challenges of any hammock is to find the spot that provides maximum comfort. Unencumbered, you can toss and turn and readjust until you are sloped at just the right angle for whatever activity you're trying to pursue. With a computer, though, you want to be sure you don't move too vigorously, lest a spasmodic leg kick send your laptop flying into the bushes. To lessen the degree of difficulty, I left my drink and chips on the ground next to me, having faith that it wouldn't compromise my perfect viewing orientation when I had to lean out and grab them later on.

Eventually I found what I thought was a good position -- though I would fussily tweak it for awhile yet -- and retrieved my consumable items without incident. Even better, there was no problem streaming a movie out here. The movie played without buffering, even some 30 to 40 feet from my wireless router.

The movie I'd chosen was Gerhard Richter Painting. I don't know why. It counted as a 2012 film and I haven't watched a lot of documentaries so far this year. So, why not?

Only, I may have made a bad choice. The movie consists of a lot of shots of the famous German artist going about the unconventional procedures he uses to make his abstract art, which involve seemingly random paintbrush strokes and a finishing step that features what can best be described as a wooden squeegee.

Richter's process itself didn't bother me, but something about how they displayed his work did. There are a couple instances early in the film where the camera pans along a long gallery wall full of his work from different periods. The right-pointing pans that would last for as much as a minute at a time, when combined with the continual slight swaying of the hammock, left me feeling queasy. Queasy enough that I had to pack up at the 30-minute mark and finish the movie inside.

I guess some great passions are just meant to be enjoyed separately.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Cartoon characters seeking trophies


I couldn't help but notice a thematic similarity between the two animated movies I watched this past weekend, Disney's Wreck-It Ralph and Aardman's The Pirates! Band of Misfits.

The following analysis contains some spoilers, so if you haven't seen these movies, you may choose to abstain from this post. 

Both movies feature a protagonist who is "bad," whether he likes it or not -- the villain in a classic video game and a pirate captain. The video game villain actually wants to be perceived as less bad, while the pirate captain wishes people would see him as more vicious than he really is. In each case they are driven toward a talisman that they believe will validate them in the eyes of their peers. Wreck-It Ralph just wants to win a medal, any medal, while the Pirate Captain (that is his only given name) has his sights set on the prestigious Pirate of the Year Award.

Earning these trophies, they believe, will help them get out of the shadow of a rival. Ralph is naturally jealous of Fix-It Felix, the hero and namesake of the game, who is bestowed a medal as part of game play, while Ralph (quite diametrically opposite) must go sleep in a pile of trash at the end of the day. The Pirate Captain, on the other hand, has been trying to surpass the exploits of several rival pirate captains, most notably one so fierce and grandiose that he makes his entrance by emerging from the belly of a whale, whose every move he apparently controls.

Determined to reverse the natural order of things, each protagonist embarks on a quixotic quest into unfamiliar territory -- Ralph into the first-person shooter game Hero's Duty, and the Pirate Captain into 19th century London, where Queen Victoria is known for her zero tolerance policy toward pirates. In both cases the hero threatens the existence of his status quo by going after this elusive trophy. Ralph's departure from Fix-It Felix gets the game slapped with an Out of Order sign, which is the natural precursor to it being unplugged for good. And the Pirate Captain is exposing his whole crew to being lynched at the hands of the bloodthirsty queen.

When each hero does get his hands on the trophy, it necessitates a betrayal of a trusted sidekick. Ralph, after getting and then losing his medal, is in the position to get it back, but his new friend Vanellope thinks it's at the cost of selling her out. (It's more complicated than that, but Ralph does feel some guilt over the arrangement.) Meanwhile, the Pirate Captain is bribed by the queen with the kind of booty that will surely win him Pirate of the Year, but he has to relinquish his beloved "parrot" Polly, actually revealed to be a dodo.

Realizing his culpability in what has transpired and the fact that there were unintended consequences to his actions, both Ralph and the Pirate Captain lead daring third-act rescues that will assert once and for all their true capacity for good, while risking everything they have. And since I don't need to also spoil the end of these movies, I will leave off this comparison there.

I guess good story structure isn't that different the world over, but it's still good -- I really liked both films.

Wreck-It Ralph is the best animated movie I've seen since Tangled, pure and simple. I guess it's not such a coincidence that these are both Disney ventures under the watchful eye of Pixar founder John Lasseter. Lasseter simply knows a good story and knows how to tell it. I place this slightly below Tangled in terms of the immediate sense of joy it created in me, but only slightly. Wreck-It Ralph is an unqualified home run.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits is not by any means at that level, but it's miles ahead of the previous foray into CG from Aardman Animation that I saw: the terrible Flushed Away. I still prefer when Aardman uses claymation, but I also understand this is an extremely laborious approach to animation, and the animators managed to make the images feel more tactile here than they felt in Flushed Away. Plus, the details of the pirate world are wonderful, the script is smart, and the movie has a couple classic Aardman chase scenes.

Now, off to vanquish several rival bloggers in my impossible quest for Blogger of the Year.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

James Bond on the brain


Literally.

But the weird thing was that I sent it from my brain to someone else's last night.

I was walking up the stairs from the parking garage to the main level of the Sherman Oaks Galleria, where I was planning to meet a couple friends for an 8:30 showing of Skyfall at the Arclight Theater. I started to anticipate not liking the movie as much as I think I should, and viewing that as more evidence that I'm not a huge Bond fan. Apparently, I want to like Bond more than I actually do, so this seemed to me a failure of some kind.

But as I reached the top of the steps I thought "But that's not really true -- I like that second Brosnan movie more than almost anyone I know." The title Tomorrow Never Dies did not immediately leap to mind, but that's the movie I was thinking of.

Apparently, so was someone else. As I continued on toward the main thoroughfare, I caught a lingering snippet of a conversation from the group of people I had just passed. The last words I heard one of the guys speak were "the one with Michelle Yeoh in it."

Which means that he, too, was thinking of/talking about Tomorrow Never Dies at that very same moment. And also not producing the title on the spot as he and his friends did a Skyfall post-mortem before separating to their cars. 

Now, I'm sure you are thinking "Vance, you just heard them talking about Bond, which is what got you thinking about Bond and predicting your reaction to Skyfall." But it's not true. I started to think about Bond before I even reached this group of people, and even if I had unconsciously heard them talking about it, it's still striking that I started to think about Tomorrow Never Dies before the guy ever mentioned it. And even if I had unconsciously heard them talking about Tomorrow Never Dies -- though not by title, because, as discussed, the guy referred to the movie only by mentioning one of its Bond girls -- that's not how I "got to" Tomorrow Never Dies in my own head. I started thinking about it by reassuring myself that I do really love some Bond films, and producing TND as an example. And it's not like we were both thinking of the most recent Bond film before this, which I haven't seen anyway. The film we were both thinking of is 15 years old.

Anyway, this funny little coincidence -- probably not a case of either of us sending messages with our brains -- gave me something to think about for the rest of the walk to the theater.

During one of the down moments of the first act, I got to thinking something else about James Bond and his own personal history. I'm sure this has been written about by untold Bond enthusiasts, but I haven't read their work, so it was occurring to me independently as I watched Skyfall. The question struck me as appropriate for the 50th anniversary of the character's appearance in movies.

The question was:

Is this James Bond supposed to be the same James Bond from Dr. No?

Setting aside the obvious problem that a secret service agent could not be in peak physical condition for field operations for a 50-year period of his life, is Daniel Craig, as James Bond, supposed to be the same James Bond who fought on the platform of a huge satellite dish (Goldeneye), the same James Bond who disarmed a bomb on a military base wearing a clown outfit (Octopussy), the same James Bond who cheated his apparent death the first time after being shot in a fold away bed in Japan (You Only Live Twice)?

There seems to be a good reason that the character doesn't spend much time mentally cataloguing his past adventures, all the ways he's evaded death and all the women he's loved. It's because clearly this is not meant to be the same man for 23 movies. But it's not overtly supposed to be a different man. I mean, clearly there is not more than one superspy named James Bond working for MI6.

I guess it's probably useful to think of it this way: Each actor who plays Bond has had the experience of all the things that have happened to him in his own films. The James Bond of A View to a Kill (1985) has the memories of the James Bond of Live and Let Die (1973), because both are Roger Moore. But if you ask him to remember what happened to him in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), he can't, because that was Sean Connery.

This isn't to say that each actor's first time as Bond represented the character as an agent new to MI6. Bond is a veteran agent even in Dr. No. Just that each actor's first Bond film represents the first cinema-worthy adventure Bond undertook as an agent. You'd assume his previous adventures were more by-the-book, even the harrowing ones. In that sense, the Bond series was mastering the concept of the "reboot" even before we had computers.

I'm sure Travis will have something to say about all this.

As for Skyfall, I was quite entertained. It's an unusual entry in the series in many respects, not least of which was the cinematography by Roger Deakins -- I kept noticing the wonderful composition and framing of shots, for which Sam Mendes also deserves credit. I commented to one of my friends afterward that after the first scene -- which may just be the best 15 minutes in any Bond movie I've ever seen -- the movie was notable for its lack of the kind of Rube Goldberg staging of action scenes that we have come to associate with the series. (You know, the kind that Aardman Animation has since perfected.) The finale of the film is a particular departure in that respect. Skyfall is a lot more raw and straightforward, which is not a bad thing.

I mean, the movie's whole damn point is that sometimes retro is better. As a guy approaching 40, that's an idea I'm starting to get behind more and more all the time.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Cramming for Skyfall


I started to write this last week, then never got to post it. So instead of reworking it, I'll just post it as is and tack on a new ending.

Last week: 

The word is out that Skyfall is supposed to be pretty darn great.

Still over a week before it's released, its Metacritic score stands at a ridiculous 83. That's Argo territory.

Which means that a semi-indifferent Bond fan like myself may be on the verge of a good polish-up before seeing it in the theater.

I didn't like Casino Royale all that much. There, I said it. The film is pretty much universally adored, so it's okay if you're looking at me like I have three heads. I had multiple problems with it, but I won't go into them here.

What's germane about not loving Casino Royale is that it means I didn't prioritize seeing Quantum of Solace -- especially after hearing that my minority negative appraisal of Royale was the majority opinion here. I could have used that information to determine that Solace might be right up my alley. Instead, I moved further away from it -- so much so that I still have not seen it.

But the words of breathless praise about Skyfall -- at least from the eight positive reviews currently tabulated on Metacritic, compared to two mixed reviews -- got me thinking that it might be time to give old Quantum of Solace a shot. I suppose I wouldn't strictly need to see it first, but I try to watch movie series in order if it's not that hard to do. And catching up with just a single movie before watching Skyfall would not be that hard to do.

Except, maybe it will be. Turns out other people are cramming for Skyfall as well.

When I added Solace to my Netflix queue a couple days ago and immediately promoted it to the #1 position, I noticed that its expected availability was characterized as "Very Long Wait." Hmmm.

Now, in this post, Don Handsome convinced me that I shouldn't read much into the ETAs issued by Netflix. He told me he frequently gets movies that are in his #1 position even when their expected availability is less than immediate. And I believe I subsequently had the same experience myself.

But it did get me wondering whether this is the actual phenomenon I'm seeing: lots of other movie fans who, like me, did not see Quantum of Solace, and feel like the narrative might confuse them without knowing which person double-crossed whom in James Bond's most recent adventure.

That's kind of a joke, since a James Bond movie is a James Bond movie is a James Bond movie. I didn't worry about the fact that I hadn't seen any of the Sean Connery movies when I sat down to see Moonraker. (It was either that or For Your Eyes Only that was my first Bond movie -- can't say for sure.) You pick up what's going on pretty quickly.

However, what's not a joke is that people who read the critical dismissals of Quantum of Solace may be deciding it's worth reconsidering the movie, now that they know there will be another Bond movie and that it might be really, really good. In case you forget, there was a time when it seemed like the Bond series might not continue. Solace came out only four years ago, but the immediate two years after its release were plenty of time for chaos to reign about the future of Bond. Solace was the last film Columbia (having bought MGM) agreed to distribute, and it was uncertain what would happen with the series after that. Fortunately, a new deal was reached quickly enough for it to barely seem like a longer break than usual between successive Bond films.

This week:

Okay, so now I have some real-world results of my uncertain success about being able to acquire Quantum of Solace from Netflix. In fact, since I started this post, I've been unusually good about watching the discs in my possession. Today, the third movie since I started writing this post is shipping to me, and it's the third straight movie that has not been Quantum of Solace. So in this case, the "Very Long Wait" really means something.

So maybe I'll just not worry about the fact that I haven't seen it. I know there are other ways I could get it, but maybe it's not worth the bother. I'm feeling an excitement for Skyfall that I haven't felt for any Bond film in years, and maybe the attempt to see Solace would only slow me down.

Who knows, maybe it could even challenge Octopussy as my all-time favorite. Stifle the giggles all you want, but that's the one I saw ten times when I was a kid, and it holds a special place in my heart. Could Skyfall top it?

Eh, probably not.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Getting acquainted with ... the Archers


This is the latest in a monthly series called Getting Acquainted. I watch three movies featuring the contributions of a particular actor, director or the like whose work has previously been unfamiliar to me, then I write about them at the end of the month.

Strangely, I spent the month of October getting acquainted with the Archers in multiple ways. I had been listening to Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence for the last couple weeks of October, and the main character in the book (played by Daniel Day-Lewis in Martin Scorsese's movie) is one Newland Archer. The book also features his mother, his sister Janey and his wife May. Together, they are the Archers.

But the Archers I want to discuss today are none other than Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, a British directing team who were often know as "the Archers." (That's actually the name of their production company. Each film begins with an arrow hitting a target and says "A Production of the Archers.")

As I mentioned last month when I announced my choice for October, the duo came on my radar by having an inordinate number of movies (six) that appeared among the 250 most mentioned films in the recent Sight & Sound poll of directors and critics. I'd seen none of these six, and was only passingly familiar with their names, probably due more to the alliteration of the Ps than having any idea what role they played in film history. (In fact, I might have told you that Emeric Pressburger was German, if I'd been asked, though that would just be ignorance of the finer differences among European names, since the man was actually born in Hungary.) I'd seen Powell's solo directing effort Peeping Tom, but nothing more.

So I chose exactly half of their six movies from the Sight & Sound list, and was on my way.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Watched: Friday, October 12th
One-sentence plot synopsis: On the eve of another new war, an aging officer looks back on a 40-year career in the British military.
My thoughts on the film: I must admit that one of the primary reasons I chose this film was that it struck me as a particularly odd title for a film that I had never heard of. And it seemed like I should have heard of it, considering that it was a lofty 93rd most mentioned on the list. So either the name should have been funny enough or the film should have been good enough for it to cross my path before now. And the movie has an appropriately funny (as in absurd) opening, as a throng of soldiers captures Major General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) in a Turkish bath despite his protestation that "War starts at midnight!" Unfortunately, after a rousing and more than a bit disorienting opening, Colonel Blimp slows down as it heads into flashback to the Boer War some 40 years earlier. And here we see a pattern that would continue throughout all three of these films: Powell and Pressburger start slow, and require me to overcome a strong impulse toward indifference. As we made our way through several wars and minor conflicts, and more than a little bit of hanging around parlors, I started to wonder how this history/love story/story of an unlikely friendship could continue this way for 163 minutes. Then it slowly and steadily started to grab me, most particularly in a scene where Wynne-Candy's unlikely German friend and romantic rival (played by Anton Walbrook) movingly recounts his estrangement from his children when they became Nazis. I started to realize that by following these characters for many years of their lives and witnessing the events that shaped them, I had indeed come to care about them, and I started to find the film's structure illuminating rather than frustrating. I later read that Colonel Blimp had, in large part because of its structure, been thought of as "the British Citizen Kane," and by the end I was willing to stop short of calling that comparison blasphemy, though I definitely did not love it. Livesey and especially Walbrook give very good performances, and I enjoyed Deborah Kerr too. Somehow, however, I ultimately missed who "Colonel Blimp" was supposed to be -- it's not actually the protagonist himself, despite his eventual rotund shape.

Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Watched: Tuesday, October 16th
One-sentence plot synopsis: A group of British nuns encounters repeated difficulties while trying to run a convent in a former brothel in an isolated Himalayan village.
My thoughts on the film: Another slow-starting Powell/Pressburger film, but when this one captured me, it captured me completely. (To be fair, that could be because I watched this relatively brief film in a single evening, and Colonel Blimp eventually got stretched out over three nights.) I liked the film's high concept setup, with its breathtaking Himalayan setting and its many cultural clashes between British Catholics and the local villagers to whom they are trying to minister, specifically in terms of providing a hospital. But what really made this film start to be interesting, once I fell into pace with it, is the way it explores exactly what it means to be a nun -- specifically, forsaking all carnal desires. And in that respect I eventually found this to be an incredibly daring and forward-thinking film for 1947. Two of the main nuns we follow are the convent leader, Clodagh (played again by Kerr), and mentally unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who are both tempted by a local Brit who has been living in the village. One represses these desires and the other, well ... did I mention she was mentally unstable? Things progress toward a climax that can best be described as Hitchcockian. Byron gives an incredibly daring performance, one that becomes boldly sinister in a way that the Catholic church surely could not have liked. Although there are a lot of ideas flying around in this movie about the lengths people are willing to go to succeed, the extent to which they should impose their will/belief on others, and the shades of gray of personal morality, one thing I liked about Black Narcissus is that it follows a leaner and essentially simpler structure than Colonel Blimp. I don't mean that Colonel Blimp was hard to follow, just that the relatively straightforward nature of Black Narcissus' narrative carried a much greater payoff for me. The last third of this film is genuinely exciting and envelope-pushing, and it exploded some of my ideas that Powell and Pressburger may be a bit stuffy. I don't want to tell you anything about what happens, but they make maximum use of this wonderfully foreign landscape, and there are no pat answers or resolutions.

The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Watched: Monday, October 22nd
One-sentence plot synopsis: A talented ballet dancer must weigh her career against her personal happiness when she finds herself in a love triangle between a world-famous choreographer and the composer who she's fallen in love with.
My thoughts on the film: I wanted to love The Red Shoes, really I did. It's gotten a huge amount of love on the Filmspotting podcast, and it's also Martin Scorsese's favorite movie of all time. But I just couldn't really get into it. I guess my problem begins with the person who makes the film what it is, in its incredible dance sequences: world-famous Scottish dancer (and novice actor) Moira Shearer. Although she is capable enough as an actress not to stand out, she's not capable enough to make her character anything other than a cipher (says me). Since the emotional core of the film is supposed to hinge on how she struggles to decide between the thing that will make her a world-famous star and the thing that will nourish her heart, we need to see more of that struggle on screen -- and we need to have more screen time devoted to her falling in love with the composer, played by Marius Goring. Their love is basically established in a single scene, after which we are meant to find it a nearly immovable obstacle around which the rest of the action revolves. Anton Walbrook is more memorable as the choreographer (that's probably not a strong enough term for what his character is -- wikipedia refers to his character as a "ballet impresario"), giving a strong, villainous performance as the jealous and controlling figure who could make Shearer a star -- if she plays ball. As he also did impressive work in Colonel Blimp, Walbrook's talent (especially in the hands of these collaborators) is beyond question. I just wish I felt more involved in the film's central conflict. What I should devote some time to is the absolutely incredible centerpiece dance sequence, which is a ballet based on Hans Christian Anderson's titular fairy tale about an indefatigable pair of red shoes. The scene goes on for more than 15 minutes of screen time, changing sets and backgrounds, and delivering not only astonishing ballet, but some state-of-the-art camera and editing tricks that allow the sequence to extend seamlessly through these different backgrounds, while also providing what must have been some of the most jaw-dropping effects audiences had seen in 1948. That sequence demonstrates what cinema is all about, and alone justifies the casting of Shearer. The rest of the film didn't grab me enough, though it was interesting to see the debt that Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan owes to it.

Conclusion: Powell and Pressburger definitely have the skills of epic craftsmen, but there's something about their approach that left me a little cold. Still, I find myself thinking about seeing A Matter of Life and Death, one of their greats from the Sight & Sound list that I did not include in this month's slate.

My favorite of the three: Black Narcissus

As it is now November 8th, which means it's been 17 days since I watched The Red Shoes, it may be evident to you that I am finding it harder and harder to write these Getting Acquainted posts. Even with the more compact format that I introduced to the series in 2012, these posts still tend to hang over my head like tedious burdens. I'm enjoying watching the films far more than I'm enjoying recapping them on my blog, in part because if I don't write about them immediately (which I don't), details I wanted to mention can be easily forgotten by the time it's time to write.

So I've decided -- for other reasons than this one, which I may expand on at a later date -- to wrap up the Getting Acquainted series at the end of 2012. Or at the very least, take a year hiatus from it and see how I feel. And I've decided to end with two big names: Elvis Presley and John Wayne. I've already started watching my Elvis films for November. I watched Jailhouse Rock on Monday night, and I've still got Blue Hawaii and Viva Las Vegas ahead of me. I'll announce the Wayne films at the end of November.

Thanks as always for reading ...

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Yes.



I'm going to take a day off from discussing movies and just enjoy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

These actors will be sad tomorrow (I hope)

If I were 10% less tired or 10% more willing to churn out something unoriginal, I would come up with some kind of movie-related list to honor Election Day. I mean, I've got to recognize the day somehow. Even with about four posts backed up, I don't feel like I can just write any ordinary old post on this first Tuesday in November.

But you've already seen other people tell you the best (or worst) movies about presidents, the best (or worst) movies about elections, and any other feature you can imagine as a variation on these themes: who would play Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in the movie, which candidate has a better favorite movie of all time, whether there are more good movies with red in the title or with blue, etc.

So instead, I just decided to give you a bunch of faces of Hollywood Republicans looking sad.



Yep, that was juvenile. But politics makes us all into infants throwing tantrums.

Go vote, everyone -- and while you're at it, vote for Obama, won't you?