Thursday, February 28, 2013

Flop fail

Remember last month when I told you about a new series on my blog called Famous Flops, which would find me watching one epic flop per month that I hadn't previously seen? And that I announced Ishtar as my first movie for February?

Yeah, that's not happening.

When I announced Ishtar as the first movie in the series, I did so without having a clear path for seeing it. I assumed it would be available on Netflix, though I don't know why I would assume such a thing -- the Netflix inventory is notoriously full of holes, some of them a lot bigger than this one. In the comments section of that post, Don Handsome pointed out that Netflix did not in fact carry Ishtar.

But I didn't have to scramble for an alternate viewing method for long, because the helpful website revealed to me that I could in fact watch Ishtar on Crackle. I had never used Crackle and was a bit skeptical of its validity as a resource, but I soon learned that the only price to pay for this free service is having to sit through commercials. Plan back on.

Then I checked Can I Stream It? again and found that either its apparent availability had been an optical illusion, or just like that it had slipped out of availability again. The website did inform me that the movie was available for purchase from Amazon for $14.70, but that exceeds my budget for something like this.

So the apparently epic awfulness of Ishtar will remain a mystery to me for an undetermined amount longer, and instead I'll be launching the series in March with The Adventures of Pluto Nash. A movie that is indeed among Netflix's offerings.

Will you join me? If not, I can hardly blame you. It'll be an adventure indeed, I'm sure.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Oscars, East Coast style

I remember what it was like to have to stay up until almost midnight to finish watching the Oscars telecast.

In fact, I remember because it happened to me on Sunday -- even though I live in Los Angeles, where the show starts at 5:30.

I capped off one of my strangest Oscar Sundays in recent memory by starting the show at almost 9 p.m. and somehow, some way, managing to watch all the way through to the end.

The day was so strange because it began in a hotel room with breakfast in bed, continued to a hike in Fryman Canyon with my wife, my dad, his wife and my son, and then segued naturally into four-plus hours of nailing pickets to a fence with a nail gun. That's not even counting the nearly three hours I was awake with insomnia in the hotel, from about 12:50 to about 3:30. What did you do on Oscar day?

When my weary bones arrived back home from returning the nail gun to Home Depot, having spent a thousand rounds on the fence, I could have gone to sleep right then. But we had a leisurely dinner of roasted chicken that my stepmother made before my wife and my dad joined me for the first half of the show. They eventually peeled away, but I stuck it out to the bitter end.

And the end wasn't so bitter, actually. I was really pleased to see Argo win the statue, as it was my second-highest ranked of the nominees, and my highest ranked with a reasonable shot of winning. (Silver Linings Playbook had some momentum at one point, but was probably never a real contender.) That makes two years in a row where the Academy has bestowed the statue on my second favorite of the nominees, which makes me wonder if my streak of being disappointed by the outcome in alternating years is finally over. Then again, these Oscars were probably going to please me no matter what, considering that the other top contender (Lincoln) was only two slots behind Argo on my year-end list (#5 vs. #7). As nice as Ben Affleck's acceptance speech was -- nicer for not being polished, I thought -- somehow George Clooney managed to make that moment his just by doing nothing but looking on with sage paternalism. Clooney has accepted Oscars before, and didn't feel the need to take the moment from either Grant Heslov or Affleck. A class act through and through.

The same cannot be said for the rest of the show. When it wasn't dull, it was groan-worthy. But that's all I'm going to say about that. If there had been a time for a full Oscar recap replete with catty comments, it would have been yesterday. But I had too much catching up to do at work, and just couldn't manage it. So you get a slightly stale Oscar piece a day late and a dollar short.

It's kind of appropriate that Affleck, a fellow Bostonian, finished the first Oscar night in over a decade that I watched on the same timeframe as if I'd been in Boston myself. For one night, I felt again like that wide-eyed junior high kid in the suburbs of Boston, who had just discovered this tremendous thing called the film industry, and needed to use whatever means were at my disposal to stay up until the very end to see who won.

However, I seem to remember fewer nail guns back then.

Monday, February 25, 2013

This year's Oscar boning

When we spent last night in a hotel (while my dad and his wife are in town visiting, and therefore, able to babysit our son), we wanted to watch something that wasn't too dark.

We were referring to the tone, but the other meaning of "dark" was the salient one in this situation.

On our hotel TV, we just couldn't figure out how to lighten the contrast on the decidedly murky film ParaNorman, in which all but a scene or two is set at twilight or just plain night. At least you could distinguish contrasts during the twilight scenes, which were lit with an otherworldly beauty. At night? Fuggedaboutit.

This wasn't the only circumstance that destined us to only half-see ParaNorman. We'd been out for a Mexican dinner and each had two margaritas, plus I'd had a beer right when we got to the hotel. Combine that with a day spent replacing the fence between our property and our neighbor to the west of us -- day two of that project -- and we stood a pretty low chance of staying awake throughout the 93-minute movie, even starting it before 9 p.m. There was one last sleep-inducing factor: The bed is the most comfortable spot from which to watch a movie in your hotel, and under the blankets is even one step more comfortable.

So I'll probably need to see ParaNorman again before I can be sure what I truly thought of it. However, it does give us a third straight year of boning up on an Oscar nominee right before the telecast.

Boning up on nominees is something many people do in the weeks leading up to Oscar night, but I am not really one of those people. My obsessive watching prior to the Oscar nominations, in order to complete my year-end rankings in as thorough a manner as possible, obviates the need for much of that. This year, for example, I'd seen all the best picture nominees before they were announced. Add to that the fact that I'm usually done with watching movies from the previous year for a couple months after ranking them, and I'm usually not consuming a lot of nominated movies leading up to the show.

Right before the show, however, has been the exception. Two years ago, I watched best foreign film nominee Dogtooth on the afternoon of the telecast. Last year, that same slot was devoted to best documentary nominee If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. ParaNorman keeps the tradition going, and gives a third new category of nominee over the course of those three years. In fact, I'd have a complete perspective on the best animated feature race if only I'd seen Frankenweenie.

Both Dogtooth and If a Tree Falls were big hits for me. Given the unfavorable circumstances, I can't say quite the same for ParaNorman, though what I saw was probably better than I thought it would be. The film certainly has a unique visual scheme, and I thought it showed a pretty bold tendency to be darker than your average children's fare -- without being out and out inappropriate.

I just wish it had been darker in tone only.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Programming note: I'm busy

Could you tell?

I have not watched a movie or written a blog post since Saturday.

In the intervening days I have hung curtain rods, assembled our new Ikea bed, cleaned our house for the arrival of my son's grandparents, observed my wife's birthday, been involved in a two-day team meeting at work, made two time-consuming dinners and welcomed the arrival of the aforementioned relatives yesterday.

Tomorrow, I start building a new fence to replace the one separating our house from our neighbor's.

Too bad ... I had a post to write about the hotly contested best animated feature Oscar, which has seen For Your Consideration billboards all over town for all of the movies, as well as each of them underwriting the local NPR station. But that's all the contemplation and analysis you'll get of that particular topic, unfortunately.

I will write about movies again, soon, I promise. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Vudu that you do

So well, it makes me want to shoop shoop shoop.

I've heard of this streaming service called Vudu primarily from listening to the Filmspotting: SVU (Streaming Video Unit) podcast, in which it's frequently mentioned as one of the places you can get such-and-such a film online. But like some of the other names of streaming services I don't recognize (Crackle), I didn't know what distinguished it or how it worked, and I kind of assumed there would be something difficult about -- some obstacle that left me disinclined to try it.

And I probably -- definitely -- wouldn't have tried it if Netflix carried Mississippi Burning. See, I'm watching Alan Parker's 1988 film as part of a project I'm doing for another blog, but the bright green Save button on Netflix left me scratching my head about how I'd get it to my eyeballs.

Then I remembered the handy website, which allows you to type in any movie name and get an immediate report about where the movie is available for streaming. Vudu came up when I searched for Mississippi Burning.

"How hard can it be?"

Not very, it turns out, but it did come with an annoying marketing red herring.

See, when I went to the Vudu website, I was met with an advert telling me that I'd get ten free movies when I signed up for the service. Since signing up for the service is free, I thought they must be really desperate to get people to use it. It seemed too good to be true, but I dove in and signed up as quickly as I could.

On the Mississippi Burning page, I saw that I could rent it in any of three formats: Standard for $2.99, HD for $3.99 and something called HDX (I don't know what that is, and I can't be bothered to look it up) for $4.99. I had entered my credit card number as part of the signup, and I expected there to be some indication that I could use one of my ten free movies to buy Mississippi Burning. When that clearly wasn't happening, I decided to go to the help section.

At which point I determined that it's not any ten movies, it's a specific package of ten. They could have teased me one step further by having them be ten downright awful movies, but they're really not. The biggest problem with these ten movies is that I've already seen most of them: Behind Enemy Lines, Ghost, Lethal Weapon, Never Been Kissed, Paranormal Activity, The Perfect Storm, The Producers (2005), Psycho (1998), Valentine's Day and Wrong Turn 2: Dead End. Of the three I haven't seen (Behind Enemy Lines, Psycho and Wrong Turn 2), it's possible I will eventually watch use Vudu to watch Psycho, but I won't be prioritizing it any time soon. I'm told that these movies change, so if you sign up for Vudu three weeks from now, you may get something different.

The real advantage Vudu has in terms of my own setup is that I can watch it easily on either of our TVs. We have an LG BluRay player in our living room and our bedroom, and both have Vudu as option. That's no given, since I think Netflix may be the only other service that appears on both players. So it worked quite nicely to fire up Mississippi Burning on Wednesday night in our bedroom, and as a measure of how gripping I found it, I didn't start to fall asleep until the very end of the two-plus-hour movie, and only then because it was approaching 11. (The comfort of the bed usually knocks me out much earlier than that. In fact, last night, I fell asleep during the opening credits of the TV show I was trying to watch.)

Verdict on Vudu? Now that I've done the "hard part" of signing up, I will definitely use it again. Sure, my first option will always be Netflix streaming, because I get that free as part of our monthly subscription. But it's refreshing to know that the streaming universe doesn't begin and end with Netflix. As I've found more and more holes in the Netflix catalogue the more I look, it's nice to know that there are other reasonably priced services out there that can fill those holes.

Next week: I see what the deal is with Crackle, because that's the only way I can watch Ishtar, the first movie in my Famous Flops series.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Double feature candidates aplenty

I had a pretty good weekend as far as bringing movies home from the library. I told you on Saturday that we were watching movies on the projector in our garage, and I mentioned that Jaws was up first. It turned out we watched the other two movies I brought home as well, which I believe marks the first time ever that my wife and I have watched all three movies I plucked from the library shelves in one visit. (I've watched all three myself, but I don't think she's ever watched all of them with me.) Since you get a maximum of three movies for only two days (three on the weekends), it makes such a success rate pretty unlikely.

We got an earlier start on Saturday than we had on Friday, so even with running over two hours, The Matrix finished up by a little after 10. There was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to tack another movie on and make it a double feature. But which movie?

It wasn't quite so simple, but it looked like I was going to subconsciously choose a thematically appropriate double feature, whether I liked it or not.

Before I start, I should tell you that I rarely plan double features where the movies will be good companions for each other. People have called me a cinematic omnivore, and I think that's true to some extent. This means that I am not usually gravitating toward the same kinds of movies, which also means that the best movie to appear as the second half of a double feature is usually the movie I feel the most pressing urge to see.

The one factor that does influence my decision is whether there is anything about the circumstances that dictates one choice over the other. So the projector was the influencing factor in this case. The theory when watching a movie on the projector is that you want it to be visually impressive in some way. That was a guiding influence in my choosing Jaws and The Matrix, though not necessarily 21 Jump Street, which we watched on Sunday night to cap our weekend. 

Having already seen all three of the movies I checked out of the library at least once, I was eager to crack the seal on something new to follow up The Matrix. I don't mean that literally. There would be no cracking of seals on unseen DVDs, because there are only a few movies I own that I've never seen, and that means I acquired them in some unusual way (as a present or a gag gift) and did not expect them to be projector-worthy.

So I scanned our Netflix instant queue for a visually dynamic film that I hadn't seen that was short enough for me to have a reasonable chance of consuming before sleep overtook me. The title that jumped out was David Cronenberg's Existenz, which I have been trying to prioritize for years. I may have subconsciously had The Matrix on the brain when I chose it, but I don't think so, in part because I was scouting choices earlier in the day, before we'd popped The Matrix in.

Existenz sure would have been a natural partner for The Matrix. Although I haven't seen it, I know that it has to do with a virtual reality form of gaming, in which people are connected via a port inserted into their spinal column. Not only does this speak to The Matrix's traveling between two worlds, one real and one imaginary, but Existenz also shares the physiological logistics of making the connection.

I say "would have been" because Existenz was defeated by two technological realities with which it couldn't grapple. My computer reported that a plug-in needed to be updated in order to play Netflix (it's my new work computer, so it hasn't done this job previously), and after 10 o'clock at night, I just didn't want to bother with that. Then there was the fact that the wifi signal just wasn't at maximum strength in our garage. Although it had worked fine for email on another night, I noticed it struggling along at just two bars out of five.

Having lost the possibility of a new movie, I turned to our DVD shelves in our living room, and quickly came away with two sound choices -- both of them also inadvertent double feature pairings for The Matrix.

The first was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which may just be my all-time favorite film adaptation of a video game. This 2001 film, which is in the anime tradition but uses a far more advanced animation style (as you can probably tell from the poster), should have been a technological marvel and a real hit. But for some reason, it just wasn't. Even if people didn't like the story, although I don't know why they wouldn't have, this was perhaps the most effective CG recreation of human beings that had been seen yet at the movies, and that should have counted for something.

Anyway, the setting is a post-apocalyptic earth that is ruled by phantoms, which are diaphanous alien creatures who can kill by mere physical contact with human beings. Their physiognomy is often squid-like or otherwise aquatic, making them reminiscent of the robot sentinels that come searching for the Nebuchadnezzar in The Matrix. Not to mention that the "real world" in both movies is a torched wasteland, where a small pocket of human resistance living in a thus-far impermeable "final city" try to stave off the extinction of the species.

I tried to watch Final Fantasy as my third movie of the night, actually, but I made it only 20 minutes, the last five of which were spent more asleep than awake. It lost out to the eventual winner of this double feature sweepstakes simply because I didn't want to watch it quite as much.

That eventual winner was Tarsem Singh's The Cell, the movie I would have been least conscious of having a connection to The Matrix before I started, but may have had the most significant similarities when all was said and done.

Both movies feature characters who use a specific procedure to consciously leave their real world and enter a fantasy world where rules don't apply -- a fantasy world they can manipulate, but one that will eat them up if they're not careful. In both movies there's a lot of talk about how if you die in the fantasy world, you die in reality, because your mind can't separate the two. (Each movie has a specific line about this. In The Matrix, it's "The body cannot live without the mind." In The Cell, it's "It's like that old wives' tale, if you die in your dream you die in your real life.")

Both movies feature the hero "going back in" when it will very likely result in his/her death, while people sitting at the controls stand by in shock, either physically unable to prevent the hero or reluctantly agreeing not to. Both movies also conclude with a race against time -- in one case, to prevent a victim from drowning in an underground cell, and in the other, to prevent sentinels from killing all the human resistors we have come to know.

As discussed, any one of these would have been a great match for The Matrix, but I'm glad The Cell ended up winning out. I wouldn't say it enthralled me quite as much this time as when I wrote about it in 2010, but each viewing further reminds me that this is an underappreciated classic involving a singular vision by its director.

Now I'm just licking my lips for my next opportunity to borrow the projector.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

How to haplessly catch a shark, and other Jaws thoughts

While New England is being blanketed by snow and even Southern California is experiencing weather that is cold, windy and rainy, what better way to get warm than to transport yourself to the summer of 1975?

That's what we did on Friday night when we watched Jaws, me for only the second time, and the first time in 17 or 18 years I imagine. We still had to bundle up while we watched it, since I borrowed a projector from work and we projected it on the inside of our garage door. We sat on our old couch under blankets, trying to keep our toesies from getting cold.

When you watch a classic that you haven't watched since you were in your early 20s, and you're now in your late 30s, you are bound to have plenty of new observations. I'll repeat what I said in my Dumb and Dumber piece the other day: Just because you see some funny parts that don't quite add up, doesn't mean you love the movie any less.

The first new observation I want to tell you about is the scene where the townspeople come after the shark with torches and pitchforks.

May as well have, anyway.

You know what I'm talking about. It's the scene where the citizens of Amity are mad as hell and they aren't going to take it anymore. They take to the harbor en masse to recklessly board boats, regardless of the boats' maximum occupancy levels or the citizens' ability to pilot them, carrying spears, sticks of dynamite, and whatever rusty implements they found in their garage, ready to have shark meat that night for dinner.

I haven't seen a more unintentionally funny scene in a long time. This motley collection of blowhards, drunkards and other rubes have about a snowball's chance in hell of knowing what to do with this shark if they came across it. They'd as likely start punching it and insulting its mother as penetrating its weak spots.

They get out in the water and steer these ships so haphazardly that people are practically falling out of the boats and the boats are practically colliding with each other. One guy starts randomly throwing M-80s in the water. Two other guys dump chum with such gusto that they nearly overbalance themselves overboard. I think I even saw one guy with a lasso.

Yet they actually do capture and kill a shark.

Think about that.

Other Jaws thoughts ... 

When were video games invented again?

After the town of Amity gains fame for both having a shark and then subsequently killing it, the incident becomes a major advertising thrust for the tourism-conscious town. They're selling all sorts of shark souvenirs and the like.

And for some reason, the local video arcade has a game where you shoot up sharks with a machine gun.

As I was watching this scene, I wondered if Pong had even been invented yet in 1975. 

It turns out it had, but only three years earlier. So 1975 was very, very early in the history of video games. Yet here's this odd first-person shooter game in which you riddle a shark with bullets. 

Was the movie engaging in a little Jules Verne-style forward thinking, or did some similar games actually exist back then? 

"Sure, what the hell, play by the water"

Correct me if I'm wrong, but hadn't three people died already when the shark makes his appearance in the so-called "pond" on the 4th of July? My understanding of "the pond" being a place that's enclosed by netting and buoys and is therefore considered safer. But it's still in the water, people.

And Sheriff Martin Brody still lets his son play there. And doesn't even start moving that much faster when his wife tells him the boy is there. (Okay, maybe it was his wife who let their son play there. Come on, Mrs. Brody: Stand by your man.) 

Speaking of Mrs. Brody ...

Isn't there a moment on the boat when she calls for him on the shipboard phone, yet we don't hear any of their conversation or even see him take the call? What was the plot function of that call?

And when he leaves on what may be a suicide mission to get the shark, meaning they may not ever see each other again, all they can do is manage a rather awkward hug?

Stand very very still

In the 4th of July scene where bathers practically stampede out of the water (one heartless man even overturns two kids on an inflatable raft so he can paddle it in himself), most of the swimmers are singularly devoted to getting out of the water as soon as possible. Then there are a couple shots of poorly directed extras who stop to essentially look at the camera and shriek. 

One woman in particular lets out a cry right out of a soap opera as she hugs her child to her. She doesn't move. Yeah, sharks are attracted to the splashing, but there's no way this woman is making that choice consciously in this situation, especially with a child to protect.

Honestly, she's just blowing it, pure and simple.

Did Quint really need to smash that radio?

Well, did he?  

Not that fake after all

It's almost a given that one of the "complaints" about Jaws is that the shark looks fake. People who love the movie tend not to tolerate that criticism without qualification. They can spin this into a positive, since the story also goes that a technical malfunction kept them from using the shark as much as they wanted to -- making for an accidental case of brilliant minimalism.

But I have to say, I wasn't at all bothered by its artificiality. In fact, only once in the whole movie did I find it the least distracting (the scene where it eats the back of the boat, flailing about on the deck). 

So I'm essentially saying that 1975 FX are good enough for me. Forget all this Avatar stuff. Give me a robotic shark any day of the week. 

Speeches with names

Robert Shaw is so damn good in this movie. Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss are great, but Shaw is a notch better, a notch more legendary.

In fact, he gets to deliver the movie's two best speeches with the perfect dose of macho New England crustiness. One speech is so great that it even gets its own name: "The U.S.S. Indianapolis speech."

Good on ya, screenwriter and novelist Peter Benchley. 

Beauty in death

One of the lovelist shots in the whole movie is the carcass of the shark sinking to shallow ocean floor, its dorsal fin fading into a murky red cloud and then out of view. 

Rectifying my podcast faux pas

I hadn't seen Jaws in many years, but I had recently been put in a very public position to render judgment on it. 

And the judgment I rendered was oh so questionable.

I guested on a film podcast called Flick Fights just about two years ago, the format of which calls for the hosts to debate the merits of two films that come up in a head-to-head duel randomly determined by the Flickchart website. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Early on we got a duel between Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Jaws, and I think you know what I'm going to say here.

Yes, I argued that Sarah Marshall hit my sweet spot more than Jaws did. Yes, I was nearly laughed out of the building by the two hosts. And yes, I redeemed myself through a series of solid judgments from there onward. 

But one of the reasons I was eager to see Jaws again was to determine if that funny and highly charming comedy was actually better than the movie that launched the summer blockbuster era.  

You know, they scratch such different itches.

I do think that if I were on that podcast tomorrow, having seen Jaws yesterday rather than 15 years earlier, I would have picked Jaws this time.   
Mistakes were made

Updating my various lists (I have three different places I mark seeing a film for the second time), I noticed that my records show that I gave Jaws a thumbs down.

Clearly this was a mistake. I remember being absolutely enthralled the first time I saw it. Clearly I was off one row in my Excel spreadsheet when that "down" was recorded.

Glad I caught it before any more time could pass. If anyone should ever stumble across this list or see at my invitation, just imagine if they thought that I actually disliked Jaws.

The embarrassment.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Directors who take their ball and go home

Much has been made about Steven Soderbergh threatening to quit directing. Since his Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra is set to appear on HBO, Side Effects, releasing today, could be his last theatrical release, if you are to take him at his word.

Then again, his word has also been modified from this rather absolutist stance. Maybe the specter of a future devoted entirely to painting seemed a bit daunting, so he has lately decided to re-dub this break from filmmaking a "hiatus."

Either way, I find there to be something a little petulant about people who state that they'll quit doing the thing they're doing. Especially when they do it as well and as frequently as Soderbergh does it.

It's the frequency part that really smacks of something that could almost be described as hypocrisy in the case of Soderbergh. How do you go cold turkey after spending several years on a pace of releasing a movie every seven months?

Sure, burnout is a possible factor. But if you are starting to burn out on something you love, can't you usually see the warning signs and forge for yourself a less intense schedule? Most directors are comfortable making one movie every two years, and some less frequently than that.

Which is why I always get the feeling in these situations that the person is really saying "I'm not getting the creative respect that I want/deserve. So I'm taking my ball and going home."

It's nothing overt the person is saying, but rather, a reading into the situation. Usually, a person quits doing something because they have become disillusioned with the process of doing it. And usually that's the result of this thing not bringing that person the rewards he/she believes it should bring. According to wikipedia, Soderbergh said that "when you reach the point where you're saying, 'If I have to get into a van to do another scout, I'm just going to shoot myself,' it's time to let somebody who's still excited about getting in the van, get in the van." Couldn't you extrapolate from this comment that he's saying "If I have to get in a van to do another scout and I'm not winning an Oscar on the other end, I don't want to do it anymore"?

Okay, that's reading a lot into it. And Soderbergh strikes me as the kind of guy who doesn't care that much about Oscars (I could probably find a quote from him that said as much if I googled it). But I don't think it's totally off base either. If Soderbergh found "getting in that van" to be so odious, why did he do it so often? In fact, so often that it looked like he was trying to set a record for the most films shot during the least amount of time?

My second example of a possibly petulantly quitting director is perhaps a clearer example. Kevin Smith has also told people that he will be wrapping up his directing career after he makes the hockey movie Hit Somebody, which was then expanded into two movies before ultimately becoming envisioned as a six-part TV miniseries. Clearly wanting to go out with some kind of feature rather than just fading away, Smith changed those plans to directing a third Clerks movie pending some other details falling into place.

Like Soderbergh with his painting, Smith also has other time-consuming passions that could easily replace the time he spends making films, as he has a knack for instantly expanding into any new form of social media. His podcasts are really popular too.

But here it seems a bit more like he was dissatisfied with the way he had started being received, and is quitting as some kind of "I'll show you" act. The announcements about his future coincided with his release of Red State, which he had to distribute himself and which was not greeted with universal acclaim (though I felt it should have been). At that point he started saying things about how he was "running out of stories to tell" and talking about how Harvey Weinstein had built him up as a celebrity auteur because his films couldn't stand on their own. Sounds pretty bitter to me.

The reason I feel more confident in accusing Smith of these petulant motivations is that I doubt he would have said or done any of this if Red State had been greeted as the masterpiece that I believe it is. If he'd gotten more love from critics and audiences on this movie, don't tell me it wouldn't have given him renewed encouragement about his own capabilities. It would have easily inspired him to continue these initial strides as a serious filmmaker, who thinks about how he composes his shots and writes stories that don't provoke merely with potty humor.

If you're detecting a little petulance in me, well, that may just be because I don't want to see either of these guys disappear. I alternate liking and not really liking Soderbergh's movies, but the ones I like (Magic Mike), I like a whole lot. And I would argue that Smith is currently making the best movies he's ever made. Both Red State and another movie he listed as one source of his low cinematic morale -- Zack and Miri Make Porno -- are comfortably in my top five Smith movies.

I was even looking forward to the hockey movie. So here's hoping neither Soderbergh nor Smith takes his puck and goes home.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Dumb thoughts

My wife and I had each had a rough couple days. Nothing major, in the grand scheme of things, had happened to us, but we felt beset by the types of little to mid-sized things that make you sense the universe is against you.

The things we might ordinarily turn to for a laugh on a weeknight -- sitcoms, which can be consumed quickly in 22 minutes -- were actually one source of our bum mood, as we'd recently learned that two shows we like (Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23 and Ben & Kate) had both been canceled. That's in addition to two other sitcoms (30 Rock and The Office) ending their long runs this spring. (30 Rock has already ended, but we haven't watched the finale yet.)

So I made a command decision Wednesday night: We were going to pop in some comedic comfort food in the form of Dumb and Dumber.

Even though it's one of my favorite comedies of all time, I hadn't owned Dumb and Dumber until a friend bought it for me on BluRay for Christmas. We almost watched it around New Year's, but that moment passed. The moment came up again on Wednesday night.

Ah, comfort food. Is there anything it can't do?

As is often the case when revisiting an old favorite, I'm inspired with a bunch of new thoughts about it. And though some of them seem like continuity nitpicking, don't mistake my mentioning them as something it's not. These little quirks just make me love the movie more.

Aspen dreams

One thing I noticed this time through is that Lloyd's terrific fantasy while falling asleep at the wheel is set in the wrong location.

By that I mean it's set in the actual Aspen, the ski town, not the warm getaway on the California coast Lloyd imagines Aspen to be.

When he first meets Mary while driving her to the Providence airport, Lloyd places Aspen in California rather than Colorado. He still has this impression of it when describing it to Harry later, selling him on its warmth and other idyllic qualities.

You could even say that he keeps this impression on into the fantasy sequence, when he imagines Mary greeting him at the door of her Aspen home on a sunny day in a yellow sundress. However, in the next scene, he's impressing people with his party tricks (which include lighting his farts on fire) while they're sitting in front of a roaring fire and wearing ski sweaters. During the great fight in the restaurant against the waiters and the Chinese chef, snow-capped mountains are clearly visible out the window.

So which is it, Lloyd? California or Colorado?

The Gas Man Cometh

When the heavyset hood Joe reads the note Lloyd and Harry left for the "Gas Man," he mistakenly believes they're professionals who are taunting him. Clearly, they are aware of his flatulence issues, which means they've been following him for weeks.

Yet later on, his ploy for getting to know them better is to pretend he's a motorist broken down by the side of the road, so they'll pick him up as a hitchhiker and he can surreptitiously suss them out.

If they had been following him for weeks, wouldn't they know what he looks like? And if they're professionals who are also armed, wouldn't they just whack him as soon as he came into view alongside the interstate?

No ketchup residue

Not that it really matters, but I noticed that there's no evidence of the squirted condiments Harry and Lloyd use to try extinguish the heat of the peppers they just consumed at the diner. In the very next scene, both they and the surrounding counter are clean.

Who are they, Wile E. Coyote, instantly recovering from the bomb that blew his face into a smoking cinder?

Magic gas

How could Lloyd mistakenly drive 1/6th of the way across the country in the wrong direction without stopping for gas? (And without Harry ever waking up?)

That would be about 500 miles.

Not the version I know

I've seen Dumb and Dumber somewhere between five and eight times, but maybe only three times (including last night) from start to finish. The rest of the viewings have involved catching it on TV and being unable to change the channel until the movie was over. I used to be like that with The Shawshank Redemption as well. For some reason, I think of these as the two movies I can't turn away from if I come across them on TV. 

So it's actually a different version of Dumb and Dumber than this one that I know so well.

There are a couple parts of this movie that lift out easily that TBS (it's always on TBS) has gone ahead and lifted out.

For one, I noticed that the scene in the sleazy motel with hourly rates and hot tubs runs longer than I remembered. There's a whole part where Lloyd talks about what he would do to Harry if he were a woman. And then he calls Harry a homo. It struck me as quite odd. In this case I think TBS' edit is the right choice.

Another moment with potentially homophobic overtones is shown on TV in edited form as well. When Seabass shows up in that Colorado restroom in accordance with instructions left on the bathroom wall in black magic marker, TBS doesn't show him pulling down his pants and showing his leopard print underwear. It wouldn't seem to be any worse than Harry's junk bulging out from his tightie whities while he's wearing the masseuse's outfit, but they leave it out nonetheless -- likely to limit the suggestion of gay sex, and not just to prevent us from seeing Cam Neeley's underwear. (And, a thought I've had every time before -- what the hell is Seabass doing in Colorado?)

There was one other specific moment that I didn't remember, where a post-laxative Harry pulls Mary's broken toilet out of the floor and proceeds to dump the contents out her bathroom window. Another strange thing to leave out, since you don't see any actual cascade of diarrhea.

Harry is Beavis and Lloyd is Butt-head

Not really, but the hair colors work, right?

I do have a serious comparison to make, though. On this viewing I noted that the plot of the surprisingly enjoyable Beavis and Butt-head Do America (which came out two years later) cops liberally from Dumb and Dumber.

Both movies involve a hapless road trip in which the travelers get where they're going through chance and dumb luck. Both movies involve outsiders (cops, criminals) mistaking the main duo as brilliant criminal masterminds, their apparently dumb comments made as an ironic form of derision. And there are those hair colors.

But the moment that actually makes me think most of Beavis and Butt-head when I watch this movie is when the shivering Lloyd and Harry finally pull their moped to a stop in downtown Aspen. "We're there," says Lloyd. Take his tone and add the word "dude" at the end, and you've got something one of the precocious metalheads might say.

The masterful reactions of Lauren Holly

As good as Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels are in this movie -- legendary, really -- it was Lauren Holly I couldn't take my eyes off this time around.

Okay, okay, she's an attractive woman. But what I'm going for here is how good her reaction shots are.

Since her character is written as essentially passive, her primary responsibility is to react to the odd behavior of Harry and Lloyd. And she knocks it out of the park.

Either Holly or the Farrelly brothers decided that Mary Swanson was going to be a society woman with snobbish tendencies, but essentially a good person who can be touched by displays of human decency and isn't completely turned off by eccentric characters. She incorporates these traits into each of her reactions, and it makes for an exceptional realization of a possibly underwritten character.

Shall I name some of her triumphs?

There's her reaction to realizing that Harry is referring to the Icelandic snow owls when he walks up to her and comments on her hooters. She tries desperately to keep up a polite facade while stifling a laugh at his clearly unintentional double entendre. She doesn't entirely succeed, and her laugh creeps into the next line. That's no easy thing to do.

There's her bemused pause when Lloyd offers her the explanation that he's shaving, when instead he's trying desperately to fan the fumes of his bowel movement out the window.

There's her dawning realization that she does in fact recognize Lloyd from the Providence limo ride to the airport, and then the slightly different incredulous realization that he is the one who's had her suitcase full of cash.

There's the look of surprised horror when Harry nails her in the face with a snowball at full speed.

And there's the scene where she's handcuffed to Lloyd on the bed, and Harry flanks her on the other side. As the two friends bicker, she turns her head from side to side, registering the exact meaning of the things they're saying in her face in subtle increases and decreases in her level of alarm.

And there are others.

But Holly is not simply reacting effectively. She's engaging in some deceptively agile comedy here as well. Take the scene where Lloyd is basically eating her face as part of his dream sequence -- kissing her so passionately that she must have been unable to breathe during the 10 seconds this shot lingers. Her hands shoot out, fingers splayed, almost like those of a zombie. This is her involuntary reaction to this attack, and it always leaves me in stitches.


Even though I now own Dumb and Dumber on BluRay, don't be surprised if I still watch it through to the end the next time I come across it on TBS.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

77 minutes, at least three sittings

What's the most number of sittings it has taken you to get through a 77-minute movie?

I'm going on at least three for the 2006 French horror movie Them.

I hope to finish the movie on my next sitting, which will be my third. But I've still got 23 minutes left. So far, it has been a significant obstacle to make any headway in this film, so I'm not going to guarantee I'll take down those 23 minutes on my next attempt.

I started watching Them on Saturday night. I chose it specifically for its short running time. Exhausted from a day of digging trenches in our yard (we're being alpha homeowners by installing our own sprinkler system), I still figured I could get through 77 minutes, even starting after 10 o'clock. I actually got through 45 minutes.

Then last night I made a go of finishing the final 32 minutes. Again the circumstances were less than ideal. I'd had a hard day (the clutch on my car died -- yes, I drive a stick -- and it's going to cost beaucoup bucks to fix), so I finished the day with two beers. Perhaps I shouldn't have told my body it was time to go sleep by brushing my teeth, because once I climbed in bed to watch those 32 minutes, I didn't even manage a third of that.

Some of this can/should be blamed on the movie. It's like Ti West's stellar The House of the Dead in that it's essentially a haunted house movie that contains tons and tons of build-up to what might be a big payoff. (For the sticklers out there, neither of the houses in these films is technically a "haunted house," but both use a "haunted house narrative structure" because they take place almost exclusively inside one domicile, at least from the end of the first act onward.) The difference is that West's film gave me confidence throughout that the big payoff was coming. I'm not so sure this time.

And because it's so minimalist in establishing its scares, you don't have that much in terms of actual plot to grab on to as you make your way through the narrative. That's killer when you are fighting off sleep with all your might.

Still, I do have hope that Them will pay off in a big way. Them is directed by the duo of David Moreau and Xavier Palud, and I liked a lot of what they did with the Jessica Alba vehicle The Eye, which was a remake of a successful J-horror. In fact, my relative satisfaction with The Eye was what caused me to put Them on my queue in the first place.

One bit about the way this film was advertised is puzzling, though. Moreau and Palud go to great lengths to conceal the identity/appearance of the titular "them," and in fact, at the 54-minute mark, we still haven't gotten a clear look a them. Yet the poster above betrays the directors by giving at least their silhouettes up front. I'm starting to think that this is the kind of movie where silhouettes will be all we'll get. And while that's a good thing, it means that the poster deflated the suspense entirely.

I guess the final 23 minutes will tell me a lot. Eventually.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The obligatory post-Louie Pootie watch

If you're like me, you saw Pootie Tang within a year or two of its 2001 release, and didn't really know what to make of it. You knew there were some good parts, but overall you thought it was definitely a misfire.

If you're like me, you then went on to fall in love with Louie C.K., who happens to be the writer-director of the aforementioned Pootie Tang. In fact, when you first saw Louie C.K. perform, you remembered him as the guy who your friend at MTV Films once described to you as this promising young comedian who had written and directed this new movie called Pootie Tang.

If you're like me, not only do you love Louie, C.K.'s half-hour comedy-drama program ("sitcom" does not seem like the right word) currently airing on FX (though not again until 2014, unfortunately), but you even loved Lucky Louie, C.K.'s underappreciated first effort to break into half-hour programming on HBO. Okay, "loved" may be a strong word -- that show was rough around the edges, even more than it intended to be -- but "liked very much" would be fair.

If you're like me, you thought it was now worth going back to watch Pootie Tang again, to see if you could see in that movie the origins of the successful star C.K. has become.

So if you're like me, you watched Pootie Tang on Saturday night with your wife, who was seeing it for the first time.

If you're not like me, you've never heard of either Pootie Tang or Louie C.K. and have probably stopped reading by now. But if you haven't stopped reading, it's probably time for me to tell you a little bit about Pootie Tang, though the above poster certainly gives me a tremendous assist in that effort.

The title character (Lance Crouther) is a specimen of pure cool shaped into human form. He's loved by everybody despite selling out to nobody (or maybe because of that). He dresses in what one would consider to be a pimp's attire, but one of Pootie's many attributes is his respect for the women who adore him (which doesn't keep him from sleeping with them, but only when a mutual respect has been established). He's defined by being above the fray. He even speaks his own language that's a hybrid of English and made-up words ("Wa da tay!"). Lastly, he has the ability to dodge bullets (smacking them away with his braids) as well as to kick anyone's ass with the help of a pseudo-magical belt he can remove from his waist as quickly as any old West gunslinger draws his pistol. Despite his incomparable fighting skills, Pootie exists to bring peace and love into the world -- as long as these things are also groovy.

The movie Pootie Tang is essentially the story of this character as he is put through trials and manipulated by a nefarious corporate entity into endorsing a lot of very un-Pootie things. And it's actually considerably more straightforward, plot-wise, than I'd remembered. I had this memory that one of the reasons the movie didn't work was that it had a bunch of unrelated scenes strung together in an order that was neither chronological nor logical. That's not the case. To call the movie a conventional narrative would not be accurate either, as it does contain a number of asides, and the character's unique rhythms will never be effectively translated to everyone. But it's not avant garde and inaccessible like I'd remembered.

Outside of the general narrative spine that keeps the plot moving forward, the movie can best be described as a series of scenes that feature what would seem to be tall tales about this larger-than-life figure. All the scenes where he comically whips a variety of adversaries with his belt fall into this category, as they are intentionally cartoonish but also shot in an exciting fashion that gives them pretty good action movie credibility. That Crouther is so good wielding the belt has a lot to do with why these scenes are so crackling. Then there are also some great apocryphal moments from Pootie's childhood. Legend goes that he was always a heartbreaker, and that when he was a child, women three times his age could not resist him. One funny scene involves a distraught lover throwing Pootie's belongings out of her apartment as he stoically looks on from the street below. Since he's only 8-10 years old, one of the items she tosses out the window is his Big Wheel tricycle.

And I have to admit I dug it a lot more this time around. Not only did these scenes flow better on a second viewing, but as I said before, they made more sense as part of a cohesive whole than they did originally. Some movies are just like that, and it does not surprise me in the least that Pootie Tang is one of them.

The supporting performers played a big role in why I enjoyed this movie better the second time. Not only were there the reliable contributions of Chris Rock in several different roles, but Wanda Sykes is great as Biggie Shorty, a streetwise woman who is almost always seen dancing emphatically to unheard music playing through her headphones. (She's mistaken for a prostitute because she dresses in short skirts and does this dancing immediately adjacent to a group of actual prostitutes). When I saw the movie the first time I was unfamiliar with J.B. Smoove, who has one of the largest roles, and it was great to see him now that I know and love him. There are also some great cameos, most notably from David Cross as a fake Pootie Tang sent out to be a corporate shill at the openings of Pootie's Bad Burgers fast food restaurants.

The question that interested me the most about Pootie Tang, however, was whether I would be able to see C.K.'s brand of humor present in this film. Strangely, the answer there is "Not really." Whereas C.K.'s TV show is perhaps one of the most brutally realistic shows on television in terms of how the things that happen to him rarely have good explanations and rarely end happily for him, Pootie Tang is pure satire, rarely tethered to reality in any significant way.

There are, however, a couple of things I can point to as revealing these two C.K.s to be the same man. For one, both Louie and Pootie find space for absurdism. Even as realistic as I have said Louie is, it does have the occasional dream sequence or other flight of fantasy that's totally out there. The show wouldn't work nearly as well as it does if it didn't have those sequences. Another thing I see in common is C.K.'s abhorrence of typical narrative structure. His TV show is structured in a way you simply don't see anywhere else on television, with most shows divided into one short story and one longer story, but only on days that C.K. is feeling conventional enough to adhere to even his own loose guidelines. Pootie Tang may be deceptively conventional in its structure (or more conventional than I thought it was), but the pacing and the placing of scenes are almost as idiosyncratic as we see on the show.

But on a deeper level that may speak to both of the things I've just identified, what I see in both C.K.s is a certain rebelliousness, a certain WTF attitude, a certain "take it or leave it" approach to comedy. Clearly, C.K. couldn't have made it to where he is by playing it safe. Pootie Tang was an early attempt to throw the spaghetti against the wall and see what stuck. His ensuing television shows were a much more successful attempt to do the same -- to strike out on his own, as a unique personality, and see if the public wanted more. Eventually, they did. A lot more.

You could say that Pootie Tang was the best flop ever to happen to Louie C.K. If Pootie Tang had been a hit, who knows what direction that might have taken C.K.'s career. At that age maybe more than now, he probably would have been tempted by the trappings of fame, and maybe he would have spent the next five years making increasingly less successful variations on Pootie Tang, as long he was being paid handsomely to do so. He may never have gotten to the profound insights we see weekly on Louie, because many of those were honed by years of struggling rather than years of succeeding.

If C.K. had never made Pootie Tang, though, I think the world would be a lesser place. There's something deliciously odd but also sweet about it, and my second viewing has confirmed: I'm glad it's something that exists in the world.

Now, get here fast, 2014, so we can see more of Louie C.K. as we have come to know him.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Crazy timing

Is it really possible that former NYC mayor Ed Koch died on the very day that a documentary about his life was going into limited theatrical release?


Talk about timing.

His death is of course sad, but at age 88, it would be safe to assume he had been knocking on the door anyway. He'd had several recent hospitalizations.

What makes it a bit more tragic is that he was about to enjoy a renewed period of public prominence as audiences got to see this movie and critics weighed in on its merits. Yet heart failure put a stop to that about 2 a.m. this morning.

I wouldn't say I knew all that much about the former mayor, but he was the first New York City mayor I was ever aware of. In fact, looking at who held the office before Koch became mayor in 1978, I had not even heard of this fellow: Abraham Beame. Is that a real person?

That may be part of why Koch was considered so iconic. He made the job of NYC mayor a national figure, a trend that continued with David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani and now Michael Bloomberg. Without Koch asserting himself so vigorously, it's very possible these men would never have become such household names.

Of course, neither was the man universally beloved. In another documentary I just saw a few weeks ago -- How to Survive a Plague -- Koch was painted as a figure who did little to help the cause of people with AIDS fighting for health coverage. Which is kind of ironic, because it was widely assumed that Koch himself (a lifelong bachelor) was gay.

That said, his outspoken style and catchphrase "How'm I Doing?" made him widely popular, as did his ability to raise the city out of a crushing economic crisis into prosperity. 

I saw the trailer for Koch prior to my screening of Amour last month, and was really looking forward to seeing it. Now I think I may seek it out in the theater rather than waiting for DVD.

Rest in peace.