Sunday, December 30, 2012

For a new movie, call ... CinemaNow

I always tell you when I discover new ways to consume movies. Don't I?

Well, I've got one.

The thrust of my Friday night movie watching took several unexpected twists and turns. At one point I was going to go see Django Unchained, but I called an audible and decided I was in no physical shape -- the indulgences of the holiday had caught up with me in the form of consistent heartburn and general exhaustion. If I hadn't been going to do that, the plan was to watch The Duplass brothers' The Do-Deca-Pentathlon with my wife. But before we had a chance to start that, we decided that its 76-minute length made it the perfect choice for one of our son's naps. That left us with a half-dozen other choices of 2012 movies on Netflix streaming, all of which were serious documentaries or impenetrable foreign films -- not "Friday night viewing," anyway.

So we decided to check among our BluRay player's other internet-based choices in its Netcast section, specifically the literally named service CinemaNow.

We'd used CinemaNow previously to watch the last couple episodes of The Walking Dead, which became necessary when our DirecTV tuner crapped out and we lost the episodes we had saved. For a minimal fee (something like $2.99 each), we were able to easily catch up with those episodes -- which was especially key given that The Walking Dead is not available to watch online for free, and without this, we might have been forced to wait until the show was available on DVD. (Or itunes, but we'd still have to watch it on one of our computers.) My wife had also used this service to catch a couple episodes of Bones.

Anyway, quite obviously, CinemaNow is not for TV only. And last night represented our first perusal of the movie options. At first I didn't notice anything special, except that the choices are organized in a very easy-to-digest single row that moves along the middle of the screen. (That's the same way Netflix is set up on our old BluRay player, but sadly, not our new one.) But then I noticed something that did qualify it as special: For a Good Time, Call ..., which I'd given up as inaccessible to me before the deadline for my list (it won't debut on DVD until January 22nd).

If I were staying in a hotel, I'm sure I could have gotten FAGTC back in October. But in all non-magical non-hotel environments, I figured it wouldn't be possible to see before my January 10th ranking deadline. Along comes CinemaNow. After all, it's called "CinemaNow," not "CinemaJanuary22nd."

And since my wife had already registered her credit card for the purchases of Walking Dead and Bones, all we had to do was click a single button to rent it for $3.99. 

If I were 15 years younger or 15 years more technically savvy, I wouldn't be impressed by the fact that there are any number of alternatives for affordable instant movies at my fingertips, CinemaNow probably being neither the coolest nor the most significant among them. After all, DirecTV has plenty of on-demand movies as well, which are probably around the same price -- we just haven't availed ourselves of that option very much because the interface for choosing them is significantly clunkier.

But I am and can only be me, and as me, I was pretty impressed.

One of the best things this reminds me is that even if I haven't made what's becoming my daily visit to Redbox, I still have plenty of options for not getting stuck with a serious documentary or an impenetrable foreign film. And the advantage it has over Redbox is that I don't have to commit to a choice. (Of course, Redbox has the advantage of costing a third of the price.)

I wouldn't be surprised if CinemaNow rears its head again sometime before January 10th.

The movie? Three stars out of five. It's the very definition of uneven, but its good moments are pretty delightful.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

"Because then I couldn't be in it" and other Impossible thoughts

Having been teased by the sensational opening 15 minutes of Clint Eastwood's Hereafter, I was really looking forward to a full movie dealing with the 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands on the shores of the countries abutting the Indian Ocean. (It was a tease also in terms of the potential for that dud of a movie, but that's another story.)

So when I saw the first trailers for J.A. Bayona's The Impossible, I knew it would be on my must-see list, likely in the theater. And so it was that I sat for a few extra minutes in my parked car the other day when I heard star Naomi Watts being interviewed on NPR prior to the film's release.

It was a good interview in which Watts sounded typically intelligent and graceful, but one moment could have thrown her if she'd let it. (I don't know if they're given the questions beforehand, but I doubt it.) Interviewer Melissa Block asked Watts if it gave her pause that this movie focused on the smallest demographic of people who died in the tsunami: European tourists, as opposed to Southeast Asians, who made up probably 99% of the casualties.

Here's a paraphrase of how Watts responded: "Well when I learned that it was a serious filmmaker who was going to approach the topic sensitively, I didn't worry so much about that."

But here's what she easily could have said: "But if it was a movie about a Thai family surviving incredible odds, I couldn't have appeared in it."

And I honestly think this would have been a reasonable, if probably too frank, response.

As an actor, especially an actor who takes herself as seriously as Watts does (has she ever appeared in a comedy?), you thrive on the opportunity to play roles that aren't just a carbon copy of the last role you played. A woman who improbably lives despite being at ground zero of the deadliest tsunami in history is a pretty unusual character to be able to play. And I think you'd agree that if a truly serious movie about a topic like this is to be made, it has to be based on historical fact. It can't be just some fictional person surviving some fictional tsunami, because then it just seems like it could never have happened.

So if Watts were ever going to be in a position to star in a movie about the 2004 tsunami, that movie would have to be about a white couple (Spanish in real life, British here). Are we saying she should turn down this opportunity just because the movie might have the unfortunate unintended consequence of making it seem as though the life or death of this English woman is "more important" than the life or death of the Thai woman serving her drinks in her cabana? That's not Watts' responsibility. She's just the hired help, and she's hired to help the director make the most sensitive possible movie he can about a British family trying to survive a horrific natural disaster. She succeeded, I'm pleased to say.

What she could have said and it would have been true, but thank goodness she didn't: "You can't make a movie like this about a Thai family. No studio would ever give you the money, because they think nobody would watch it. And they'd probably be right."

Some other Impossible thoughts:

In their shoes

In case you can't tell from what I've written so far (and how could you?), I did actually see The Impossible, on Christmas Eve. Which was a funny day to see it for a number of reasons that had the effect of putting me even more in this family's shoes.

That's of course the desired outcome of any movie about a natural disaster in which you follow the struggles of a couple key characters -- to feel like you are really going through what they're going through. But in my case it was a lot more specific in a couple interesting ways.

For one, I happened to see the movie on December 24th. This also happens to be the very day the Bennett family's story begins. They touch down in Phuket on Christmas Eve 2004, two days prior to the giant wave that tried to smash them to bits. It was odd sitting there in a theater in Southern California exactly eight years later, having the same proximity to Christmas they had, the same hope inspired by the holiday -- a hope that was to be dashed on Boxing Day, only they couldn't have known it then.

Then that night, to mark Christmas Eve, they participate in a ceremony on the beach in which hundreds of paper lanterns are sent floating into the sky. I had witnessed this very thing myself, also on film, in the movie I had re-watched just the night before: Tangled. In fact, as I was watching one of the most famous sequences in Tangled (famous in part for how effective the 3D is during that scene), it occurred to me to wonder whether sending floating paper lanterns into the sky is a real thing, or just something invented for this Disney fantasy world. Who would have thought it would have taken just 16 hours to have my question answered.

Then something else occurred just yesterday. As I was driving in to work, I popped in an audio book I received for Christmas: A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. Reading his own work, Bryson discusses very early on that it's impossible to tell which stars in the sky are alive and which are dead, because in some cases their light has been traveling to us for thousands of years. This same thing is discussed in The Impossible as a young boy and an old woman are looking up at the night sky. She uses the word "impossible" -- thereby providing the most overt meaning for the title -- in discussing how to tell that very thing, which stars are alive and which are dead. It's clearly intended as a metaphor for their current situation, where the reigning chaos has left it impossible to know who's alive and who isn't.

Eschewing vanity

One of the reasons Naomi Watts should get to play whatever role she wants is that she puts so much of herself into each performance. This has always been the case with her. If you're like me, you first became aware of her in Mulholland Drive, where she gives one of the most fearless performances I have ever seen, yielding completely to whatever David Lynch wanted her to do. Since then, it's just been more of the same. She never seems to balk at nudity, and you also get the impression she couldn't give a shit whether or not she's shot in a flattering light. All that matters is the work.

It wouldn't surprise you to know that this same Naomi Watts shows up for work here. She spends much of this movie caked in blood, hyperventilating, screaming out in agony, and generally looking three shades of green.

But the moment that really struck me was after she's weathered the two initial waves that tried to KO her. While walking through some reeds with her 13-year-old son (the revelatory Tom Holland), she turns to him, and he awkwardly registers that one of her tank top straps has ripped, exposing one grime-covered breast to the world. Dutifully, she ties the loose strap to the strap on the other side, and starts walking again.

Through this one little moment, you really believe that this tsunami is the kind of thing that would leave a person so exhausted and so unguarded that she might temporarily forget the ordinary human instinct toward shame. On the larger scale, it also made me recognize that this is the method that makes Watts such a good actress -- she isn't aware of shame, and she throws herself into a project like it's a tsunami that wants to chew her up. Only if she emerges from it beaten and bruised does she know she's done her job.

No strings attached

I won't lie to you -- I got emotional a number of times during The Impossible. Now that I'm a parent, I'm a sucker for anything that involves children in peril.

According to one review I read, the reason I got emotional was because of composer Fernando Velazquez's manipulative score. The reviewer noted "His score for The Impossible is so over-the-top melodramatic that at times it borders on parody."

It got me thinking. Yes, I suppose that we wouldn't become emotional in as many movies if there weren't string instruments at the ready to let us know it's time. But is this a bad thing?

One of the great assumptions when discussing scores is that if a viewer isn't shrewd enough to note when he/she is being emotionally manipulated, he/she is some kind of unsophisticated rube. But I'm here to say this kind of thing is not universally bad. If you don't notice the strings are manipulating you, then they've done their job. They've given you the emotional catharsis you were yearning for. If you weren't yearning for it, you would have heard those same strings and laughed.

And speaking of laughter, I think there's a useful analogy to be made with laugh tracks on sitcoms. A sophisticated viewer is supposed to categorically disdain the laugh track, to consider it the single most fraudulent thing about a comedy designed to be consumed by idiots. But those kind of broad generalizations just don't hold water.

When used well, a laugh track can provide the small amount of encouragement necessary to nudge you into your own laughter. Consider the case of one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, Seinfeld. Now think about watching Seinfeld without the laugh track. It would be indescribably odd. I've chosen Seinfeld because it's pretty much television teflon -- no one you talk to about it could mount a serious complaint against it. Yet Seinfeld uses its laugh track the way Fernando Velazquez uses strings: to cause you to acknowledge and give in to an emotion you are already experiencing.

The idea is supposed to be that a genuinely emotional moment in a movie should be so pure, such an unpolluted creation by the actors and the director, that it should translate to all audiences without anything so vulgar as music to call attention to it. But that's simply not realistic. Movies are the end result of the contributions of many collaborators, and the composer is hardly the least of them. If you wanted to take this argument to the extreme, you could say that no movies should have any music, because the purpose of all music is to enhance emotions that should be able to express themselves through words and actions alone. But movies would be a pretty dismal pastime if none of them featured music.

It's as with anything. If it's done well, it's good. If it's done poorly, it calls undue attention to itself. If a sitcom isn't funny and there are bales of hysterical laughter coming from the laugh track, you notice it and think the laugh track is awful. Similarly, if the actors haven't succeeded in making you feel the emotions of a certain moment, and the strings swell to compensate, you laugh where you should be crying. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

So what I can't quite figure out about this guy's review is that he finds everything else in the movie strong. He praises the acting, the writing, the directing. If the score didn't call attention to weaknesses in those aspects of the movie, then it probably actually called attention to how great they were.

Wait, this guy directed The Orphanage?

I still haven't seen The Orphanage, so I don't know how odd it is that J.A. Bayona directed that and then this. But I'm sure some people think it's strange that he's going from a literal horror movie to something that can be described as a metaphorical horror at best.

Well, I don't think you'll be disappointed, and the evolution from one type of movie to another makes sense in a couple key scenes.

That's right, one of the things that removes this from the squishy realm of "inspirational drama" is that there are a couple set pieces that use actual horror tropes to convey what the characters are experiencing. There was at least one that didn't make any literal sense that I could determine in what is otherwise a very realistic movie. It may have been something that was purely impressionistic, and is the kind of thing that makes me appreciate this movie all the more.


1) If staying in a resort on the coast of the Indian Ocean, try to get a room on the second floor.

2) When you hear what sounds like a herd of elephants stampeding toward you, don't wait to see what it is -- just head up the nearest tree.

3) If you fail in the first two and get struck by the wall of water, do your best to avoid hitting any stationary objects in your path or moving objects rocketing toward you.

4) If you can, see The Impossible.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Brave new world

Pixar's Brave was going to be our first 3D movie on our "new" 3D TV.

I'm very glad it ended up being the second. But first some history.

We got our "new" 3D TV around the time we moved, which makes it seven months old and nearly ready to shed the descriptor "new." To our great shame, we went the first six-and-a-half months of its life without even tapping into the feature that gives it its name. We knew we couldn't watch a 3D BluRay until we followed up this purchase with a 3D BluRay player, but we also knew that there were some 3D features on our TV we could access directly through the TV. Still, watching programming in 3D remained for us a peripheral priority, something that seemed vaguely too hard to do.

Flash forward to Cyber Monday, when I decided to convert on my intention to buy us a 3D BluRay player for Christmas. I couldn't click the "purchase" button on Best Buy's website fast enough. The thing cost a scant $70, and with having it delivered to the store rather than to my house, there was no shipping cost either. The next Saturday, I walked my son down to the nearest Best Buy and returned home with this tiny new component, less than 2/3 the size of our current BluRay player.

I knew I couldn't wait for Christmas to present it to my wife. I also knew it couldn't be a present specifically for her, because that's cheating -- I'd obviously get as much use out if it as she would, and probably more. So I decided to repurpose some birthday money for the purchase, and decided I would present it to her on the Saturday night before Christmas (she should still unwrap it, as a good way of revealing the surprise). That left Sunday and Monday nights as two possibilities for watching our first 3D movie. Oh, it would have still been "special" if our first 3D movie didn't come until after Christmas, but the days leading up to Christmas have this special kind of magic to them. Besides, one of my two movie choices would only make good viewing prior to Christmas.

See, another thing I'd been working on in December was borrowing the copy of Disney's A Christmas Carol I bought for my friend two Christmases ago. I bought him the version that included a 3D BluRay, even though his family didn't yet have a 3D TV (and still doesn't). But the timing of the borrow was tricky. His family planned to watch it this holiday season, but hadn't yet. About two weeks ago we realized that my needs and theirs were not incongruous. They weren't going to be watching the actual 3D BluRay, because they couldn't. So his wife secretly slipped me that disc in a padded manila envelope when she was babysitting for us two Saturdays ago.

I figured my wife would choose A Christmas Carol and that's what I was rooting for, but it seemed only fair to have another option available. And we do in fact own one 3D BluRay: Tangled. However, in my mind, that was a definite Plan B. We had both already seen Tangled twice. This would be my third Christmas Carol viewing as well, but she'd only seen it once, and had also proclaimed it "probably her favorite movie version of that story." Besides, Tangled would keep until after Christmas. A Christmas Carol would not.

As it turns out, she wanted a Plan C. And that's where Brave came into the discussion.

Both of the proposed BluRays were movies we'd seen within the past two years, and my wife was eager for another option. She mentioned that Brave had been in 3D, and neither of us had seen Pixar's latest yet. My Christmas Carol bias notwithstanding, I thought it was a great idea and went to work figuring out how to procure it.

We weren't so excited to see Brave that we thought it was worth it to actually own the movie, which would currently be priced at its all-time high. So Sunday morning I swung by Blockbuster to see if they might rent 3D BluRays. I didn't even need to get further than the front counter, where the friendly clerk told me that they didn't. I gave him an opening to refer me to one of his competitors: "So the only way to see a movie in 3D at home is to buy it?" "Pretty much," he responded.

I was satisfied with the response, because I thought it clinched my desired Christmas Carol screening. It did not. My wife chose Tangled.

And I'm so glad she did. Even if it denied us a seasonal viewing, Tangled is far and away the better movie. And watching a great movie in 3D on our own TV was as wonderful a way to usher in this new era as I could have possibly imagined.

Simply put, the 3D was astounding. I would have expected something that was very clearly a lesser version of what you get in the theater. At the very least I figured you needed to position yourself at a perfectly straight angle to the screen in order for the images to have that third dimension. But no. Tangled was as breathtaking as it had first been for me in the theater, with incomparable depth as well as images occasionally popping out of the screen. My wife, who hadn't previously caught it in 3D, claimed to like it better than she ever had before. Even a part of the third act that she had previously considered a significant narrative problem did not bother her this time. Amazing how an extra dimension, when done correctly, can just wrap you up in its spell and eradicate all your complaints.

Unfortunately, Brave could not pull off the same feat.

Last night, we did watch Brave in 3D -- without needing our new BluRay player, in fact.

It turns out that our LG 3D TV (all three of our components, including both of our BluRay players, are LG) has kind of an "app store" accessible from its home screen. It can use our wifi to deliver us a variety of movies directly from the TV, and it being a 3D TV, has a section devoted to movies we can rent in 3D. The other two 3D movies were movies we'd both already seen (The Avengers and Gnomeo & Juliet), so Brave was clearly it, especially since we'd flirted with this very idea on Sunday. Eight dollars even seemed a reasonable price to pay for such a rental -- that's probably a quarter of what it would cost if we bought the BluRay combo pack to own.

And after watching it, I can tell you that we don't want to own Brave.

Keeping in mind that I have yet to see Cars 2, Brave is the first Pixar movie that I have actually given a thumbs down. A Bug's Life might have been close, but even that lame movie would get a marginal thumbs up from me. Well, not this one. Even reasonably good 3D (though not as good as Tangled) and images that are certainly beautiful were not enough to blind us to the movie's many, many narrative flaws.

Name a few? Okay. (SPOILERS)

1. It's pretty damn hard to forgive your heroine after she has gotten a witch to cast a spell on her own mother. When was the last time you trusted a witch to do exactly what you told her to do? I didn't think so. Much like the devil, a witch's main priority is to make a nearly legalistic analysis of your request in order to figure out creative ways to follow the letter of what you asked for, though not the spirit of what you asked for. See Brave for a very good example.

2. As a result, Merida spends the entire second half of the movie trying to correct her own mistake. My wife always says that she can't stand movie characters who create their own problems. There are certainly exceptions to this, but it's hard to get behind a character who has to go to considerable trouble to undo something he/she never should have done in the first place.

3. I was led to believe one of the main plot points was that Merida competes against her suitors in a variety of feats of skill, in order to "win her own hand in marriage" rather than letting someone else win it. In this way I expected the story to resemble the tale of Atalanta from Free to Be ... You and Me (though originally a Greek myth). Turns out, she has one archery scene against the three dopes trying to marry her, none of whom can do anything with a bow and arrow. (One suitor hits the bulls-eye, but it's by accident.)

4. What the story is actually about is human beings turning into bears. Really. That's what this movie is about. The problem is that if a human being is confused for a bear -- because of, you know, being turned into a bear -- another human being might try to kill that bear. Never mind the fact that Merida could just say to her father, who has built his reputation on his desire to exact revenge on the bear who took his leg, "Dad! Don't kill this bear. It's Mom. I gave her a cake that had been cursed by a witch, and she turned into this bear." Instead, they have to hide the bear and run around like idiots.

5. When Merida and her bear mother are out in the woods, trying to find a cure to the mother's bearness, they somehow learn things about each other that make them understand each other better. However, none of this is actually dramatized in any particular moment. I guess being turned into a bear by your daughter is enough of a reason to realize that she doesn't need to get married against her will. 

6. Even while it's clear that the cake Merida has given her mother is making her physically sick, she doesn't care. All she cares about is whether her coughing and choking mother has changed her mind on whether she must marry one of the three dopes. Which, you remember, is the reason she poisoned her in the first place. All of these so far should lead naturally to #7 ...

7. I didn't like the characters. Any of them, really.

But I've saved possibly the most problematic element of the movie for last ...

8. Nothing that occurs on screen here -- I mean, nothing whatsoever -- requires an ounce of bravery. No one does something really daring. No one puts him or herself in position to make a sacrifice. No one leads an army against impossible odds. The film's only established antagonist (other than the witch with ambiguous intentions) is the king's brother, who was turned into a bear (called Mordu) after becoming evil and trying to take over sole control of the kingdom. He only appears in the story a couple times, and his motivations are so vague and generic that they almost don't even exist. He is dispatched somewhat easily. You could say that the queen engages in a bit of bravery by taking on Mordu, but since she is also a bear at the time, the risk to her is considerably less than if she had been, you know, not a bear.

So yeah, I didn't like Brave.

But that doesn't mean I can't use its poster art to symbolize our exciting new home 3D adventure. And now I'm just rubbing my hands together, figuring out which movie to rent or own that will blow our dimensional minds next.

My wife hasn't seen Wreck-It-Ralph, and I didn't see it in 3D. That seems like a probable one to own come February or March, as we get ever deeper into this brave new world.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Reversing the normal order

With books that get made into movies, I usually do one of two things: 1) Read the book and then see the movie; 2) See the movie and never read the book. (I suppose there are also plenty of situations where I do neither.)

Not so with The Hunger Games. I'm sure this has happened before, but not in a long while: I saw the movie and then circled back to read the book. I suppose I should say, to "read" the book -- I listened to the unabridged audio book, which is the same as reading it in terms of the processing your brain does.

I hadn't planned to do that. In fact, my original plan had been to try to read the novel before seeing the movie, as discussed here. When that plan didn't pan out, I assumed there was no more "plan" related to The Hunger Games at all.

But in early December, I was at the library looking for the next audio book for my commute, and came across Suzanne Collins' novel. Even then I might not have selected it, but I had my son with me, and he was being particularly squirmy. So I just grabbed it and went, deciding at the very least that it would make an interesting experiment in order reversal. With an audio book, which has the benefit of being a more passive experience than sitting down to read, you can afford to take gambles on reading experiences. Which is just one reason I've been enjoying the audio book phase of my life over the past six months since we moved 25 miles from my office. I may even "read" some harlequin romance just to see how bad it really is.

I could write this post just about what I gleaned from my experience of this story by reversing the order, but I added an extra layer to the venture by watching the movie again this past weekend. My wife hadn't seen it, and had it on her list of movies she wanted to watch around Christmastime (most of which I had already seen). I probably would have been interested in seeing The Hunger Games again anyway, but having just read the book gave me extra incentive.

Let's just say that the movie, which came out early in the year and has been steadily inching down my list, immediately shot up a dozen spots upon second viewing. And having read the book in between definitely made me appreciate how good a movie it actually is.  

SPOILER ALERT: I will probably spoil aspects of the plot as we continue. So if you have somehow still neither read the book nor seen the movie, you may choose to bail at this point.

For starters, let me say that I loved the book -- to a point. I found that the first two-thirds of it raced along, and Collins' prose manages to be both direct and evocative at the same time. I got more insight on some parts of the movie I initially thought were underdeveloped, and I really enjoyed having unfettered access to Katniss Everdeen's thoughts. In case you haven't read the book, it's told entirely from her perspective. We hear what she's thinking at every moment, and we know only what she knows.

But the final third of the book dragged for me. This may have been where knowing how it ends really affected my enjoyment. In either scenario of consuming a story for the second time -- whether as a film or as a book -- you're often looking forward to when such-and-such happens, to how they chose to depict such-and-such. However, that wait can seem interminable in text form. A quick analysis of the pace of the story's events and the number of discs remaining told me that the book was going to spend a lot of time in the arena, whereas the film's action is a bit more front-loaded. And I quickly realized that the movie's front-loading was to its advantage.

Simply put, there's way too much of the book where Katniss and Peeta are "playing house" in the arena. We're down to just a few tributes remaining, and the announcement has already been made that this year's rules are changing to allow two winners, as long as they both come from the same district. At this point, the novel pretty much grinds to a halt. The danger seems to disappear, and Katniss and Peeta have literally days upon days of hunting, gathering, treating Peeta's wounds and falling in love (though Katniss does not recognize it as such, thinking instead that it's part of their game strategy).

And here we truly see the novel's status as a product for young adults. It's called a YA novel, but really, that means teens. And teens want to know all the ins and outs of how people their own age fall in love. It's the thing that preoccupies them the most, and one can't blame Collins for lingering on that aspect of the story for longer than most regular adults could possibly stand. To be clear, she never loses focus on the overall thrust of the story, but she indulges in the star-crossed blossoming love between Katniss and Peeta more than one would think she needed to.

Apparently, she didn't think she needed to dwell here, either, once the novel became a movie. As one of the three credited screenwriters on the movie, Collins leaves much more unsaid about what develops between Peeta and Katniss. Whereas they kiss probably a dozen times in the book, a movie can afford to be a lot more subtle, can choose individual moments and give them greater significance. It has to, because a movie is essentially an efficient form of storytelling, while novels are generally more flabby. So in the movie, Katniss and Peeta share only a single kiss -- two at most. Which is just as it should be. And a bone is definitely thrown to the adults who will help make the movie a hit, as a couple time-lapse sundowns and sunups show the passage of their time together that the novel explicates in exhausting detail.

The most important other difference between the novel and the movie is the viewer's perspective on the events. As I said, the novel is told entirely from Katniss' perspective. We meet and understand characters only as she meets and understands them. Characters she does not meet are really not characters at all. Which creates a strange kind of void in the book, especially when you've already seen the movie. The only character who personifies an antagonist is probably Cato, the District 2 "career tribute" who is widely viewed as the arena's alpha male. Katniss never meets the Gamemaker Seneca Crane (played in the movie by Wes Bentley) nor President Coriolanus Snow (played in the movie by Donald Sutherland), although Snow is referred to. So for the people who have only seen the movie, the two faces they most associate with the nefarious Capitol don't even appear in the book. In the movie they can appear, because the perspective is omniscient.

This is a key difference. I didn't necessarily think it was to the novel's detriment that there is no personification of what Katniss is fighting -- fighting in the larger metaphorical sense, not in the literal sense of her competitors in the arena. But that never would have flown in a movie, to have just an abstract faceless villain. So while I'm not necessarily sure this is a misstep in Collins' novel, it's definitely a smart decision by the movie to make these two characters flesh and blood. Especially since Sutherland is so wonderfully chilling (which goes with his name, I suppose). His story to Crane about why there is a victor in the games is one of the movie's most telling moments, the moment that really gets us inside the mindset of a totalitarian regime fully wary of its loose grip on power.

However, the existence of Bentley's character in the movie but not the book played tricks on me. One of the main drawbacks of reading a book after you see the movie (or even after you're aware a movie exists) is that you can't help but see the characters as the actors who were cast in those roles. If you cherish the way a novel allows you to imagine how the words might look, you lose that as soon as a movie version becomes widely publicized. That had a particularly strange effect on me as I was reading the novel when it came to Bentley. I remembered that Bentley was in the movie, but apparently, not what role he played. So when Katniss' sympathetic stylist Cinna made his first appearance in the novel, my mind latched on to this character as the character Bentley must have played. So for the rest of the book, Bentley was Cinna. It was to my surprise when I watched the movie again, and Bentley's character is being interviewed by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) at the start. When Cinna appears probably 45 minutes later, I thought "Duh -- it's Lenny Kravitz." Still, any time I'd see Bentley again, I subconsciously thought "Cinna, what are you doing creating unholy hounds from hell that are sent into the arena to kill Katniss?"

Having Snow and Crane appear as antagonists (albeit a conflicted antagonist in Crane's case) also has the effect of softening the portrayal of the monstrous tribute Cato (Alexander Ludwig). He's still a lethal killer and a massive douchebag, which is in part so we don't feel so bad about his eventual demise. In fact, a number of characters are portrayed as vicious and sadistic, which I think helps us process their deaths better. But with Cato in particular, his death scene allows for the possibility that he is not just a single-minded killing machine, but rather a confused 18-year-old who has spent his life preparing for an event in which the odds were never really in his favor. We don't quite give ourselves over to fully sympathizing with him, but his final moments on screen remind us that the true enemy is the Capitol, not this man-sized boy who is just doing what society has raised him to do. I don't know that (or I should say, can't remember whether) we get that kind of ambiguity in Cato's final moments of the book. Since he's the only real antagonist, he has to fulfill that role more unwaveringly. This moment of ambiguity gives us a good taste of what I know the thrust of the next two books will be, which is to overthrow the Capitol. We get that spirit of rebellion more overtly in the book, since we have direct access to Katniss' thoughts.

However, I should say that there are certain things the novel definitely does better. For example -- and this may be intentional to minimize the horror of what's happening to these children -- the novel does a much better job keeping track of how many tributes are remaining in the games. Upon first viewing, I was frustrated by how poorly the tributes' deaths were marked, and was surprised at how rarely they used the effect of showing their profiles in the sky after they've died. There were also times in the movie (such as Rue's death) when there is inexplicably no cannon blast accompanying the death. The novel mentions a cannon blast at the death of every fallen tribute, and discusses seeing each one appearing in the sky at day's end.

Then there was Elizabeth Banks' character, the wonderfully named Effie Trinket. When I first watched the movie, I didn't really get what her role was supposed to be, since none of the novel's dialogue about her trying to get assigned to a better district appeared in the movie. I got that she was some kind of envoy, but her role remained pretty nebulous to me. I didn't have this problem the second time -- but I think that's only because the novel helped me get a better idea of who she was.

It may just be my much-discussed notion that the first version of any story you experience is the version you're going to like best, but my ultimate conclusion, especially after my second viewing, was that the movie version of The Hunger Games was a better distillation of Collins' core ingredients than the novel. Not only do I find the casting flawless (again, a hard assessment to make since I saw the movie first), but I find that I can apply to this movie one of the highest compliments I can give any movie: There are no wasted scenes. So even clocking in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Hunger Games feels streamlined and fast-paced. It's a major success, a success the fullness of which I now appreciate all the more given my knowledge of the source material that was adapted into the movie.

Lest you think the novel comes off poorly in this discussion, let me say this: This is not likely an order reversal I will undertake again with this series. Its "flaws" notwithstanding, reading The Hunger Games excited me enough that I definitely plan to read Collins' next novel in the series, Catching Fire, before the movie hits theaters next Thanksgiving.

Because let's face it: Reading a book is a lot more exciting if you don't know what's going to happen, and if apparent slow points in the plot have the effect of building tension and anticipation rather than stalling before an inevitable conclusion.

Now all I need to do is read Catching Fire before November. Which will be easy if I can find it in audio book form -- and sadly, not if I can't.

Oh heck, even a slow reader like me can probably find the time before November to make it through the page-turner that I'm sure Catching Fire is. Might make some good beach reading. Which is probably the last thing anyone's thinking about at this time of year ...

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The debt we owe to John Hawkes

I saw John Hawkes a week ago today. 

The Golden Globe-nominated star of The Sessions was getting on an elevator with an attractive lady friend as I was leaving my showing of The Hobbit. He was dressed in a smart-looking jacket and scarf, and in all respects looked very Hawkesian.

On Saturday while I was out doing some stocking shopping, I randomly remembered to text my friend who loves Martha Marcy May Marlene to say that I'd seen him. In one of those classic instances of funny timing, it was only moments later in the car that I heard Hawkes on NPR's Weekends. It was a segment they've been doing called "The Movie I Could Watch a Million Times." (And in another instance of funny timing, just now as I'm writing this at home on Sunday night, the Sunday edition of this segment is airing on Weekends.)

I started to laugh when Hawkes announced, with a completely straight face (at least I assume it was straight, since I couldn't see it), that his choice for this series was Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.

It originally struck me as funny because I'd peg someone like Hawkes as coming up with a much more unlikely choice. I'm sure the producers were happy to air such a choice on the weekend before Christmas, but I'm surprised Hawkes was so happy to supply it. Given his one chance to champion a quirky favorite, he chose one of the most beloved and well-known movies of all time. 

What made it extra funny is that the segment requires him to walk through the plot of the movie, which might actually be necessary with most choices for this series. Not necessary here. It was unintentionally hilarious to listen to him earnestly detail the plot of It's a Wonderful Life, as if he were talking to aliens who had just walked off their flying saucer. It couldn't have been more absurd if he had been saying "Star Wars is about this young orphan, Luke Skywalker, who is stuck on a desert planet but yearns for adventure that's just beyond his grasp."

But wait, there's more.

Hawkes also talked about the circumstances of his first viewing, something to do with a mentor in the entertainment industry who had taken him aside and shown it to him. Having immediately taken on the movie as his own, he then claimed to have entered a period of his life where he began "introducing it to people left and right."

Wait, are we talking about some little indie that almost didn't get picked up for distribution at Sundance, or are we talking about It's a Frigging Wonderful Life??

I loved the idea that there might be a bunch of people out there who could honestly tell their friends "I wouldn't know about It's a Wonderful Life if it weren't for John Hawkes," but I also loved that there might be a bunch of Hawkes' professional acquaintances laughing at him behind his back. Either way, they'd owe him a debt of sorts -- for opening their eyes to a classic, or for giving them a great private joke among their friends.

I initially envisioned this post as existing merely to poke fun at Mr. Hawkes. But then I thought a bit more about it, and I don't think that's really what I want to say today. Besides, that's not really in the spirit of Christmas, is it?

While on the surface there's something sort of naive/delusional about various aspects of Hawkes' segment, on further inspection, something shines through more strongly. Several things, actually:




A rejection of irony in all its forms.

John Hawkes really loves It's a Wonderful Life. He doesn't care if he's the only person who loves it, or one of tens of millions. It's a movie that spoke to him and has taken up permanent residence in his heart. That's the reason we watch movies, and for Hawkes, that's the reason he appears in them.

So I actually do owe you a debt, John. You reminded me of the most important thing we need to remember this time of year: It's a time to pack away cynicism for a couple weeks, and just enjoy the things you love in all the unironic glory you can muster.

Merry Christmas to all the John Hawkeses out there.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Readers who can see the future

One of my favorite late-December occurrences is when my Best/Worst of the Year issue of Entertainment Weekly arrives in the mail. This year that day was this past Friday.

I've been reading EW film critics Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwartzbaum for something like 15 years, or however long they've been entrenched at the magazine -- it's possible they were even the magazine's original two film critics. As with any critics, I've agreed and disagreed with both of them over the years. But since I think they both write very well, they're two of my favorite critics to read, regardless of whether our opinions line up. (Since you're never going to agree with everything a critic has to say, the most important thing is that you like how he/she writes -- it's our ability to write that earned most of us our jobs as critics, not our exquisite taste in movies.)

So I practically get heart palpitations when the year-end double issue arrives. I'm just that excited to see which movies they've each named their top ten of the year, not to mention their bottom five.

But as excited as I am, I don't tear right into it. I enjoy the experience of reading these lists so much, I don't want to just ruin it with a quick perusal. I want to have a moment to myself without any interruptions, to take in everything they have to say. Sometimes I even try to cover the opposite side of the page with my hand, so I don't accidentally read the other movies in their top ten (there's a 150-word writeup on each) before it's time to do so naturally.

Anyway, I got that private moment in our hammock yesterday afternoon while my son was taking a nap. (Yep, it was hammock weather where I am -- suck it.) And this year's reading of the lists was as good as ever. I'm expecting to have a lot of crossover with their top tens.

There's plenty of enjoyment to be had in the margins of this spread (which takes up five or six pages) as well -- humorous little asides and other "awards" given out by the two critics. (One example this year: "The Saw VI Enough Already Award," awarded to the Paranormal Activity series.)

This year, they also reserved one whole margin for the readers' picks for the top 10 movies of the year, which are about what you would expect -- with one notable exception. Here, let's see if you can figure out the exception:

1. The Dark Knight Rises
2. The Avengers
3. Argo
4. Skyfall
5. Silver Linings Playbook
6. Lincoln
7. The Hunger Games
8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
10. Les Miserables

No cheating by looking at the poster art from this post.

It's strange enough that enough readers were able to vote The Hobbit into the top ten in only a few days between the film's release and the deadline (let's say it was Wednesday) for this issue. Especially since some of those who saw it must have disliked either the story itself or the 48 fps projection, reducing some of its likelihood of making the top ten.

Far stranger: That enough readers voted Les Miserables into the top ten when it hasn't even come out yet.


Yeah, maybe anywhere from a couple hundred to a thousand of the magazine's readers were lucky enough to attend some special advanced screening in their city. But the number of these advanced screenings would be very small, and again, it would require almost universal acclaim from those readers to even get into the top 20, one would think, let alone the top 10.

Yet I don't think Entertainment Weekly is making these numbers up. Why would they? There would be too great a risk of discovery. It's not like this is the same as Stephen Glass fabricating entire stories in The New Republic, but any journalistic outlet of any repute would want to avoid even a minor scandal along these lines. And say what you will about Entertainment Weekly, but it's one of the most reputable of the magazines that are devoted to the arts and celebrity culture (outside of the terminally high-brow ones, I should say).

If they did fudge the numbers, though, I'd have to think it would be due to the regrettable problem we critics face this time of year: the fact that the calendar says it's time for us to finalze our lists, but we still haven't seen all the movies we think we must see before we can. To address this very problem, I don't finalize my list until the morning the Oscar nominations come out. In the past, that allowed me until late January or even early February to continue watching and fine-tuning. As I've written about numerous times, I have until only January 10th this time around.

It stands to reason that Entertainment Weekly didn't want a definitive list of the readers' choices for best movies of 2012 if three likely favorites -- Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty and the aforementioned Les Miserables -- hadn't even come out yet. There's a decent chance the actual best picture winner will come from this group (ZDT and Les Mis are considered front-runners), so years from now it may look strange if the readers snubbed the eventual winner -- even when you do consider practical realities like publication deadlines. I guess it really depends on how much EW cares about this kind of thing. Realistically, not much.

My wife floated a different idea last night, that readers were voting based on what they expected themselves to like the most. Maybe the readers were doing the work that EW couldn't ethically do, predicting their own tendencies based only on things like trailers and the already-existing buzz. However, that would seem unusually organized on their part -- especially as a strategy that had to be undertaken by multiple voters.

It's also possible EW set up this poll in a fashion they knew was dubious without actually crossing over into unethical. I never saw this online poll, so I have no idea if it was "fill in your own answer" or "select from this list of choices." If the latter, they could have provided Les Mis as an option (even knowing that the movie hadn't been released) in order to get a bunch of yahoos who were excited about it to choose that answer as a gauge of their own excitement. I'd have to think this is most likely the thing that actually happened. But if so, that's problematic in a whole bunch of other ways -- it means that just for the sake of sheer manageability, they would have had to eliminate a number of marginal contenders and necessarily pre-set the parameters for what the final readers' choice list might look like. And besides, if this is what they did, wouldn't they have presented at least Django as an option also? Perhaps theater lovers make up a bigger portion of their readership than those who fetishize violence.

Of course, in an online poll, readers can vote anywhere -- from other parts of the world as well, where the magazine is probably also circulated. But as far as I can tell, unlike with some other prominent recent releases, this movie hasn't opened elsewhere around the world yet. And again, even so, we'd be talking about a very small percentage. 

I suppose what I should really hope is that Les Mis is just so damn great that even the small group of people who have seen it are vocal enough in their support to earn it a legitimate spot on a list like this. I'm enough of a sucker for the theater that I've had my arms wide open to embrace another movie musical ever since Chicago swept me off my feet. However, its 58 Metascore tells me that's probably not the case.

At least I'll definitely see it in time to consider it for my own top 10. The only other time I saw Les Mis was as a 12-year-old child on a family trip to England, where we got tickets in the last row of the theater where it was playing in London's West End. I loved it then when the characters were just specks, so I have to imagine that some of these much talked-about emotions will be stirred up again when Fantine and Cosette are practically in my lap. (I've heard the film features a lot of extreme close-ups.)

Looking forward to making an assessment of its quality that isn't based on crystal balls or time machines.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The language of personal ads

Coming up with movie titles that sound straight out of personal ads is by no means some hallowed Hollywood tradition. In fact, in canvasing my brain on the topic, the only one I could immediately think of was Single White Female -- and in truth, that's just the elongated form of the personal ad notation SWF, which indicates the demographic of the type of roommate the poster is seeking.

Speaking of seeking ...

The year 2012 has featured two such movie titles: Safety Not Guaranteed, which we saw about a month ago, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which we watched last night as kind of a belated doomsday theme movie. (The world hadn't ended and it was already December 22nd in many parts of the world, but we thought it was a good theme viewing anyway -- we still had a couple hours of December 21st left here in Los Angeles.)

With Safety Not Guaranteed, the title is literally an extraction from a personal ad. Those three words are the caveat given to the reader should he or she choose to undertake the ad's offer of traveling back in time with the poster. "If you die, it's on you."

With Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, it's only an encapsulation of the film's themes, using the language we usually associate with such ads. "Seek" is just about the most common verb used in personal ads, as in "SWF seeks same." It's interesting, in a way, that normal people can even comprehend these ads, since the fact that they charge by the word requires heavy reliance on shortcuts in logic. It's kind of like reading those ridiculous Variety headlines: "Sticks nix hick pix."

And actually, there's a third example that I haven't seen yet: For a Good Time, Call ... This might be more likely to be scrawled on a bathroom stall wall than appear in the personals, but I'm sure it could appear there too, and I'm sure it originally appeared there before gravitating to this more unsavory medium.

The thing that's weird about this sudden "trend" is that it comes at a time when people don't really use personal ads the way they once did. In fact, you could argue that the target audience of all three films is more accustomed to transacting this type of business on Craigslist, where there's no premium on the words used and the poster can actually type out complete sentences (if they're capable of writing one).

Why, then? Well, it could just be another case of everything that's old being new again. Our reaction to the way technology has taken over our lives is to willfully go back to a time when it hadn't. There's something very quaint about placing a personal add. If they'd shown Mark Duplass actually composing his advert for a daring time-traveling companion, the scene probably would have depicted him hard at work on a clunky old typewriter.

It's appropriate, as well, that the two movies I've seen both deal with a central romantic relationship, even though the thing both titles are overtly requesting is only friendship or partnership. It seems that the most classical way to use a personal ad is to seek (there's that word again) out a love interest. Neither of these scenarios involve that on the surface, though of course that's what materializes.

I just wished I liked either of these movies better.

Both are terrific in concept. The idea of investigating a crackpot who thinks he can travel back in time, in order to write a quirky newspaper piece about him, is rich with potential -- it creates the necessary conflict by having the reporter hold back a key piece of information from the crackpot the whole time she's growing closer and closer to him. And with Seeking, when was the last time you saw someone try to do a romantic comedy that was set during the final weeks of planet Earth? Answer: Never, and I always loving seeing them attempt to do things I've never seen before.  

But the execution is wanting in rather significant ways. The resolution of Safety Not Guaranteed is too much of a departure from the kind of movie it seemed to me they were making, and that narrative gets sidetracked by a B story that's given nearly as much weight as the A story even though it comes out of nowhere and doesn't deserve such emphasis. And with Seeking, the perfect seriocomic tone is established in the first half-hour before being abandoned for a mix of dreary and schmaltzy, and the plot elements become unforgivably slapdash. Plus, the laughs die off a good week before the people do.

So I feel like placing my own personal ad:

"Seeking a good movie inspired by a personal ad."

Maybe For a Good Time, Call ... will respond. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Barbra vs. Bette

Still alive?

Good. Let's proceed with today's post.

Maybe the truest sign of the apocalypse is that the 2012 Christmas season features a cage match between one-time divas who are at least two decades, and probably more like three decades, past their prime.

This past Wednesday, The Guilt Trip, starring Barbra Streisand, hit theaters. Next Tuesday, Parental Guidance, starring Bette Midler, does the same.

Streisand is 70, Midler 67.

Both movies can probably be described as holiday family comedies, though The Guilt Trip likely skews younger since it features Gen X-friendly Seth Rogen. Meanwhile, Midler's co-star, Billy Crystal, is also in his mid-60s (he's 64), while even Marisa Tomei is nearly 50 (she's 48). Though I guess you could say that Parental Guidance skews really younger, as in to young kids, as well as to those Midler's and Crystal's age. So Parental Guidance -- the fittingly rated Parental Guidance, I should say -- gets the really old and the really young, while The Guilt Trip gets the middle.

Which of the two would I sneak into as the free half of a double feature? The Guilt Trip, but that's because I too am in the middle.

Midler and Streisand aren't just similar by being "women of a certain age." Both have also spent their careers straddling between two worlds, the world of acting and the world of singing. You'd probably say that Midler leans more toward the former while Streisand leans toward the latter. Streisand is almost undoubtedly the more famous and successful for her renowned music career, as she's won numerous awards -- as well as two Oscars in acting. But don't sell Midler short. She's also won awards, been phenomenally successful with her albums and at least been nominated for a couple Oscars, not to mention her status as a mainstay performing for American troops abroad.
What's interesting about the timing of these two movies is that they don't just represent the latest in a long, unbroken succession of film appearances by the two actresses. As can be expected for "women of a certain age," they've been winding down in recent years -- either by choice, or more likely, out of necessity. Midler has been working slightly more regularly, though her last "appearance" in a movie was in 2010's Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, where she provided only a voice (though it was the voice of the title character). Her last appearance as a human being was in 2008's The Women, and she'd had only two other film roles before that since the year 2000. Streisand, on the other hand, has had only two film appearances, period, since the 1996 film The Mirror Has Two Faces, and both were in Fockers movies. That pattern suggests that Streisand's retirement from acting may have been more by choice, while Midler may have just been failing to get roles.

So even though the career edge almost certainly goes to Streisand, does that mean The Guilt Trip will fare better than Parental Guidance?

If I had to guess, I would say "probably." Not only has it been marketed more aggressively, at least before the movies I've been seeing, but it seems to have a bit more "edge," which has proven a key ingredient with a moviegoing public that has made such big hits out of The Hangover and Ted. Besides, Parental Guidance also represents the (long-overdue) unearthing of Billy Crystal, who has been doing almost exclusively voice work for the past decade. So it could be seen as an incredibly unhip affair, trying to "make happen" not one but two career comebacks.

Then again, families looking for something they know will appeal to all ages may gravitate toward Guidance, since it features a number of child actors in prominent roles, and seems to be more of a traditional "family comedy." The Guilt Trip is more of a buddy comedy, and its PG-13 rating (plus a prominent scene from the trailer that takes place in a strip club) may mean that parents will keep their younger kids away from it.

What do these two movies represent in the larger scheme? Well, they seem to provide some indication that recent casting trends in Hollywood don't only favor the men. In the last couple years, numerous aging male stars (your Stallones, your Willises, your Schwarzeneggers) have been given a new opportunity to make the kind of movies that made them famous. It's a trend that has dovetailed pretty nicely with the remake trend, as Hollywood has consciously decided to give us another helping of the things we loved 20 years ago. We've responded by buying tickets to those movies, and allowing the cycle to continue.

Now, Midler and Streisand are showing us that the boys aren't the only ones having the fun. Or, they could be showing us that -- if these movies do well. If they don't do well, then it'll just be another case of Hollywood's long-standing gender biases returning to the status quo.

This last makes me think that maybe I should actually try to see one or both of these movies. That in whatever small way, I should try to further the struggle of female actresses everywhere to get their proper respect, not to mention their proper salary. And I can't do that by sneaking into the movie as the free half of a double feature, because that won't contribute to either movie's box office haul.

As much as I'd like to stand up for gender equality in the workplace, I don't know that I'll actually do this. In fact, it's very unlikely that I will. With all the movies I need to see in the next three weeks before I finalize my 2012 rankings, I've got bigger fish to fry.

The best I can hope for is to reverse the order of the free double feature. I can pay for The Guilt Trip or Parental Guidance, then sneak into some other movie that I really need to see. Then again, all those movies I want to see are over two hours long, making them a poor bet for the second movie in a double feature. And with a double feature, you always run the risk of not being able to get in to the second movie, so you have to see the one you really want to see first, the one you know you'll get in to, the one where you know you'll be fully awake.

Darn it, now The Guilt Trip is giving me a guilt trip.

Good luck, Barbra and Bette. I'm rooting for both of you.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Movies the Mayans don't want you to see

This is 40
Jack Reacher
The Impossible
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Promised Land
Zero Dark Thirty
Gangster Squad
Movie 43
Warm Bodies
A Good Day to Die Hard
Oz: The Great and Powerful
The Croods
G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Evil Dead
The Great Gatsby
Star Trek into Darkness
After Earth
Now You See Me
Man of Steel
Monsters University
World War Z
Kick-Ass 2
The Lone Ranger
Pacific Rim
The Wolverine
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Ender's Game
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Anchorman: The Legend Continues
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Lego: The Motion Picture
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Hobbit: There and Back Again
X-Men: Days of Future Past
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
The Avengers 2
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2
Avatar 2
Avatar 3
Star Wars: Episode VII
Star Wars: Episode VIII
Star Wars: Episode IX

So, let's hope the world doesn't really end tomorrow. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The return of nap movies

After starting his life as a very poor sleeper, my son (not pictured) has become a model of consistency in the past year or so. In fact, he's so consistent that when he has a night like last night -- when a cold kept him awake and moaning miserably -- we've forgotten any techniques we once knew about how to handle it.

Part of that consistent sleeping means that you can bank on a two-hour nap from him, usually from about 1 until about 3 -- and sometimes he gives us a bonus half-hour.

For most cinephiles, two hours immediate translates into "the length of even a pretty long movie."

In the first half of this consistent year we've enjoyed, we took advantage of his two-hour naps on Saturday and Sunday (the only days I'm there to witness them) in the form of firing up a quick movie on Netflix streaming. Not every weekend and usually not both days, but often enough that I got to expecting it and looking forward to it. Documentaries were the genre of choice by my wife, and in truth, what better time to watch a documentary than in the middle of the afternoon? Evenings should be saved for fiction films, for adventures and romances and other grand spectacles.

But since moving into our new house back in June, the tradition has all but died. I'm not going to point fingers here, but it seems that somebody thinks we should spend all our time working on the house. (I'm kidding -- it's to my great personal shame that I've seen so slow to adopt the responsibilities of a homeowner.) And there are many jobs around the house that simply can't be performed while a child is biting your ankles. Nap time is the perfect time for many such jobs.

Thank goodness for the onset of winter, and the holidays.

As it's gotten cold and rainy, and as the Christmas tree has taken its lovely place in our living room, the need to complete homeowner jobs has waned a bit among my wife's priorities. And this past weekend, nap movies came back with a vengeance -- one on each day. On Saturday we watched The Queen of Versailles, and when there was no suitable documentary on Netflix streaming to watch on Sunday (none that wouldn't depress us further after the shooting on Friday, anyway), we watched the Danish comedy Klown.

The timing of the return of nap movies couldn't be any more perfect, as just this past week I've become aware of the extra urgency in watching 2012 movies before the deadline to finalize my list -- which, as discussed here, is two weeks earlier this year. And part of the return of this tradition can probably be tied to the fact that I told my wife about my earlier list deadline. She's a good sport, and is eager to help me meet my year-end goals by allocating some of our shared TV-watching time to movies on my list.

Since watching these two movies made me think of two different observations to write about each movie, I thought I'd squeeze them all into this post and just be done with them.

Finishing the doco

When I'm watching a documentary that ends up portraying its subjects in a negative light, I sometimes wonder why they even bothered to let the filmmakers finish making their film.

Sure, some documentary subjects are too delusional to realize they are coming off poorly, while others are magnanimous enough not to interfere with a process they agreed to. But neither of these quite seems to describe the Siegels, the former billionaire owners of the world's largest timeshare company, who were building the largest home in America until the financial crisis pulled the rug out from under them and all their assumptions of how the world works.

Yeah, they're a little delusional, as their plans to build a home with 30 bathrooms probably suggests. But she has a degree in engineering (though you wouldn't know it from her current incarnation, seen in the poster above) and he built one of the world's most successful companies from the ground up. So they're not idiots.

Yet as their lives careened further out of control and they became increasingly surly in private moments that they knew were being captured on camera, you have to wonder why they didn't just stop playing nice with the filmmaker. Only in footage at the very end of the movie does David Siegel start to make comments to director Laureen Greenfield asking if we could "wrap this up."

Perhaps not too surprisingly, Siegel finally got wise to how they were going to look in this movie and sued to prevent this movie from being released, as well as Greenfield directly for defamation of character. As with most things in Siegel's life the past few years, he failed.

Although there are some things about this man that come across sympathetically, it's easy not to feel too sad for him that his life got portrayed this way (in other words, truthfully). Not only does he have to answer for the audacity of all the financial excesses in his life, but even while he was building this massive mansion in the Orlando area, he never found the generosity in his heart to send his Filipino nanny back home to see her son. A heartbreaking interview at one point reveals that the woman had not seen her son, now 26, since he was 7. Given her proximity to such unimaginable wealth, that is simply criminal.

And speaking of criminal ... Siegel also takes credit at one point for getting George W. Bush either elected or reelected, or perhaps both. And then admits that he can't elaborate on his role because it "may not have been strictly legal." That may just be the most shocking revelation of the whole film. 

Daddy's movie

Because we also squeezed a couple other things into my son's nap on Saturday, we weren't quite finished with the movie when he woke up. But since he wasn't likely to see anything on screen that was disturbing for a two-year-old, we let him sit with us on the couch for the final 11 minutes of the movie. He needs at least 11 minutes of grogginess after most naps anyway, before he starts tearing around the house again.

When we finished The Queen of Versailles, though, he wasn't finished with it yet.

My son said "I wanna watch Daddy's movie." Meaning the movie we had just finished.

Never mind that The Queen of Versailles should not have held much interest for a two-year-old. The funnier thing to me is that he called it "Daddy's movie." It's unclear how he decided he should associate this movie more with me than with his mother. Especially since I don't sit there and watch my own movies that wouldn't interest him while I'm his sole supervision. (Since that's the kind of thing you might imagine me doing, I thought I should tell you that I don't.)

Anyway, we let him watch the first 15 minutes of the movie again. It was pretty absurd to have my wife and me walking around the house, engaging in little household duties, while my son sat by himself on the couch, watching this movie.

Funny in any language

It's conventional wisdom that humor suffers if the movie is made in a different language than the one the viewer speaks. Which probably explains why action movies and other blockbusters fare better in foreign markets than comedies.

This can be attributed to the fact that cadence and line delivery play a big role in whether something makes us laugh. When we don't know the words being spoken, and we can't easily detect which word is being emphasized, we have only the subtitles to cue us in as to whether something is funny. Never mind the fact that senses of humor vary greatly from country to country, either being fundamentally different or relying on local cultural references that would be lost on a foreign viewer.

So I'm pleased to say that Klown is one of the funniest movies I've seen this year, and probably one of the funniest foreign films I've ever seen.

I'm sure part of that has to do with the physical nature of the comedy. The movie is about two Danish 30-somethings (possibly 40-somethings) who go on a canoeing trip where the horndog of the pair wants to get as much poon as possible, except that circumstances have thrust upon them a 12-year-old boy that the other guy is supposed to be watching. Booty on a canoe trip? Only in Denmark, I guess.

Anyway, the physical humor is indeed hilarious, but more than that, I found myself laughing out loud regularly at simple translations of jokes in the subtitles. For whatever reason, it worked. I'm not saying this has never happened to me before -- I found the French language OSS films starring Jean Dujardin absolutely hilarious -- but I thought it was worth pointing out anyway.

I guess it's such a surprise because the majority of foreign language films that gain traction in the U.S. are not comedies. Because of the sometimes provincial nature of comedy, many of those movies never make it out of their country of origin in the first place.

A Danish Sideways

I mentioned in the previous section that Klown is about two guys who go on a trip where the acquisition of pussy is the primary goal. This was just the first way that the movie started reminding me of Alexander Payne's Sideways, and it never stopped.

In Klown as in Sideways, you've got one handsome committed man (engaged there, married here) who ventures on a week-long trip with his friend, a considerably less attractive male whose prospects are less certain (he's single in Sideways, and here he's at a rocky point in his relationship with his girlfriend). The handsome guy is going to get laid come hell or high water, while the friend is going to reluctantly support him despite his moral misgivings about the whole thing.

In both films, the handsome guy gets involved in a couple outrageous sexual escapades that don't work out well for him, and the other guy has to clean up his mess. In both films, the handsome guy ends up breaking down emotionally near the end as he regrets the decisions he's made and the impact they will have on his significant other if she finds out, realizing only too late in the game that he couldn't live without her.

But here's the really funny similarity: In both movies, the handsome guy gets his nose broken after being hit in the face with a round object by a spurned woman. In Sideways, it's Sandra Oh's motorcycle helmet. Here, it's a round vase.

For the record, the similarities to Sideways don't make me like the film any less, nor do I even accuse the filmmakers of stealing from Payne's classic. And if I did accuse them of stealing, I'd have to throw in The Hangover as well, since this movie also features a hilarious photo montage at the end, showing us some of the outrageous events that had only previously been hinted at.

I guess the humor of Hollywood movies does sometimes translate into other languages.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My verdict on 48 fps, and other Hobbit thoughts

So I did as planned last night: I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 48 fps.

I won't say 100% that I loved the technique. I'm still processing whether it looked too fake or too realistic. And whether each of those things might also be good things.

But I did love the movie. In terms of pure, simple enjoyment, I may actually have liked it better than two of the three Lord of the Rings movies.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers will likely be my favorite Tolkien movie no matter what comes with the next two Hobbit movies, but as an isolated adventure, I think it's very possible that I liked The Hobbit better than Fellowship of the Ring and Return of the King.

Is that really possible? I'll have to think about it some more.

Of course, to call The Hobbit "isolated" is not accurate in any sense. The movie reminds us a number of times of the previous trilogy, not only with appearances by various familiar characters, but by the fact that the beginning involves the older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) sitting down to write his memoirs in scenes that also feature Elijah Wood's Frodo. A keener eye might have picked this out, but I couldn't actually tell whether this older Bilbo is writing in a period before the events of the LOTR trilogy, or after.

Neither is it isolated in the sense that it's only the beginning of this new trilogy, and closes with a terrific amount of momentum toward the events of next December's The Desolation of Smaug. Because I was ready for it this time, the thing that initially bothered me about The Fellowship of the Ring (its open-endedness) did not bother me this time around -- it just whetted my appetite for the next film in the series. I've come to quite like Fellowship, but its initial impression on me was somewhat negative -- an impression that was retroactively rehabilitated by how much I loved The Two Towers. And though I also quite like and probably love Return of the King, it's the only one of those movies I haven't seen at least twice, and my lingering thoughts about it have started to focus more on its bloated length and numerous false endings. Still a brilliant film, but a brilliant film with an aftertaste.

Fortunately for me, the aftertaste this morning of The Hobbit is still quite good -- meaning that yes, maybe I really do like it second-best out of the four Jackson-Tolkien movies.

The most amazing thing is that I never felt the movie seemed intentionally elongated by filler in order to reach Jackson's standard epic length. Much has been made (including by me) about how it may have been unwise to stretch a 300-page novel into three movies, but the strains of that don't show in this first film. The pacing is very good -- I never felt it dragging. And the set pieces are simply awe-inspiring.

Another thing that was overturned? My idea that The Hobbit was an adventure without stakes. Having watched it, I'm now very invested in the dwarves' quest to retake the kingdom they lost to the dragon Smaug. It's plenty epic, and I can't wait to see what happens next.

Ah, but what about the 48 fps?

The fact that I haven't been eager to jump right into it should probably tell you two things: 1) I enjoyed the story enough that my impression of the format didn't hinder my appreciation of the movie, and 2) I'm still processing. In fact, am I actually procrastinating within the body of this post? Usually you procrastinate on starting the writing, not within the piece itself.


My first reaction was that sinking feeling, that realization that indeed, it looks like I thought it was going to look, which was "not good." Even seeing the MGM lion roaring at the beginning in 48 fps filled me with a sense of wariness about a bad decision that could no longer be reversed.

But as I watched, I got used to it, and started to enjoy the sense of intense realism the format confers. I don't think I'd ever felt more like I was there in Middle Earth than I felt while watching this film. And here's the reason for that: Most cinema is more beautiful than real life. The 24 fps frame rate creates a sense of a moving painting, not quite realistic in one sense, but certainly aesthetically pleasing, which is why everyone loves it. Here, I felt like I was standing in that room with those characters, because they did look grubby and dingy and flawed. They looked tactile, like I could reach out and grab them.

The effect of this is not universally positive. We do go to the movies to see beautiful things, especially in the case of Jackson's inimitable production design. You could say that as much as a film tries to immerse us in its world, we are most comfortable being a little bit at arm's length. Well, 48 fps removes that arm's length. It draws us right in, and confronts us with whether this is really what we want. And some people definitely may not want to be that immersed.

While on the one hand I'm suggesting it's more realistic, there are also times when things look pretty fake. For example, during a couple set pieces where everything moved really quickly, and especially those shot at a great distance form the subject ("helicopter shots" being one of the DP's trademarks), the characters looked like little toy models moving at abnormal speeds. It's easy to see how you could be distracted by this, but I instead decided it was just part of the film's unique look.

I think you just need to be ready for it. You need to be prepared for the fact that the visuals of this movie don't hold your hand and tell you how pretty they are. They're pretty, alright, but the 48 fps technique tends to fixate on what makes them grungy rather than what makes them pretty.

In a weird way, the effect on the CGI creatures is to also make them seem a bit more realistic. If the idea created by The Hobbit is that you are standing there in the same room as a wizard, a Hobbit and a bunch of dwarves, then it's also that you are standing there with a troll, an Orc, and Gollum. And if you decide that the format makes it feel like these are actors on sets, something too realistic in a displeasing way, then it stands to reason that these fantastical creatures are sharing that same set with these actors. Which has the effect of making them seem more like actual elements that might "really exist."

Would I recommend that you go see it that way? I don't know, but that's in part because I don't know who "you" are. But when I got home from the movie, I told my wife that she may not want to see it in 48 fps. It's definitely an acquired taste, and I don't know if everyone will acquire it, at least not in time to have the experience of this particular film salvaged. But one of the reasons I was recommending she not see it that way is because I did like the movie enough not to have her experience of it ruined. I was proud to hear her say that it was going to be 48 fps or bust for her.

Okay, some other thoughts inspired by my viewing of The Hobbit, some of which may contain mild spoilers that I'll try my best to speak of in the broadest and most generic terms:

Every trailer I was trying to avoid seeing 

I had to laugh when I took my seat, because it was just in time to see three trailers that I was trying my best to avoid.

In fact, the three most talked about trailers in the previous couple weeks all appeared to me before The Hobbit, as I should have expected they might: Star Trek Into Darkness, Pacific Rim and Man of Steel.

Because I don't want to already be sick of images from these movies by the time I see them, I didn't go out of my way to find these trailers on the internet. Even when links were posted to online discussion groups I visit, I still didn't follow the links. All in good time, I figured.

Good time arrived last night. Oh well.

At least all three of those films look absolutely terrific.

Blinded by the light

One obstacle I feared I'd have while watching The Hobbit had to do not with the 48 fps, but with my 3D glasses themselves.

Very early on I noticed a small light in the upper right corner of the glasses, which threatened to drive me to distraction. I couldn't figure out the source of this light. It seemed like a reflection of some light source in the theater, but if that were the case, then it would disappear when I angled my head away from that light source. It didn't.

Fortunately, the light either went away or my eyes just got used to it, because pretty early on I stopped noticing it. Or maybe I just got wrapped up in the movie.

One thing I'm now wondering: Do some of these more high-tech 3D glasses actually have a light in them, as part of the ongoing effort to combat complaints that viewers find 3D movies too dark? It would seem foolish to create an artificial internal light source, if it has the side effect of distracting the viewer more than the darkness of the image distracts him/her. Plus, in this case it would be completely useless, because the whole point of 48 fps is to remove the darkness factor that bothers people so much.

I guess I could google it and find out.

Gandalf ex Machina, Deus ex Hawkina

I recently re-watched Adaptation, in which one of screenwriting guru Robert McKee's key pieces of advice to his audience of wannabe screenwriters is to never use a deus ex machina. You know, that moment in a movie when the hero is saved by something entirely external to his journey, that doesn't spring naturally from the conditions that have been put in place. The example in Adaptation itself is when John LaRoche is attacked by the alligator, but the example I always think of is during one of the endings of Return of the King, when Frodo and Sam are saved from certain death in the Mordor lava flow when giant birds fly in to rescue them.

This being Tolkien, I should not have been surprised to see numerous other instances of deus ex machina in this film.

Most of them are carried out by Gandalf. In fact, I counted three and possibly four instances where Gandalf's 11th hour involvement in a particular skirmish was the only thing separating our heroes from defeat. Oddly, though, Gandalf also displays a fair amount of human frailty in these affairs, often urging his compatriots to "Run!!" in no uncertain terms. One wonders why he can't just magic his way out of any situation, but apparently, he can't. Perhaps it has something to do with getting them to fend for themselves.

One other instance, though, involves possibly the very same birds that we saw at the end of Return of the King, which I will call hawks for the purpose of the play on words above. When in doubt, call in the hawks.

And speaking of things that fly ...

Flight of Conchords' Bret McKenzie is in this movie. I didn't note where or when, but I saw his name in the credits.

Not too surprising, since he's a Kiwi and this movie was shot in New Zealand. But I still find it funny.

I just looked it up in Google Images. He's an elf. I guess I didn't recognize him with the long straight hair.

That can't be his real name

And speaking of the end credits, I noticed that the makeup and hair credit went to a guy named Peter Swords King.


Not really. I just looked him up on IMDB, and he's credited there as Peter King. The "Swords" must have been added as some kind of inside joke. Still, having the name "King" alone makes him a pretty funny fit for this series of films.

The multi-talented Andy Serkis

I may have found Serkis' work as Gollum even more impressive here than in the other films, but in reality, it's probably exactly the same amount of impressive. In all three films he gets incredibly juicy emotions to act out, and this one is no exception.

But that's not what I'm talking about when I say "multi-talented."

Another thing I noticed in the credits: Serkis was also credited as "second unit director," a title I now see he holds for all three films (which makes sense).

I guess if Gollum's only going to be in about 20 minutes of the movie, might as well have Serkis do something else. It's just impressive that he can also do this job effectively.

Okay, I'm going to shut up now


(That blank line represents me saying nothing.)