Saturday, March 30, 2013

Jurnee Smollett's pregnant lip

It seems at least somewhat unlikely that Jurneee Smollett (now Jurnee Smollett-Bell) actually posed for this photo.

But the pregnant lip in question is supposed to belong to her character, a marriage counselor considering infidelity, who's the main character in Tyler Perry's Temptation (or Tyler Perry's Temptation -- I go back and forth about whether his name is actually part of the titles of his movies).

And damn if it isn't a near perfect single-image encapsulation of repressed desire.

The lip is, as I've suggested, damn near pregnant with desire, a desire that can't quite manifest. You could say it's the lips, but it's really that lower lip that's bulging, that's nearly dripping with lust. The teeth are biting back that lust as a basically futile effort to keep it from birthing into existence.

On the one hand, you could look at this poster and dismiss it as carrying the trappings of soft core eroticism. The poster's deep reds, and especially that title font, would support your claim. But that would be unjust. This poster is doing something that we rarely see posters do anymore. It's telling you what the story is about through a close-up of a small detail -- not through generic pictures of the two stars looking longingly at each other.

In that sense, I suppose it's good that Jurnee Smollett and the object of her lust, an actor named Robbie Jones, are not bigger stars, because then that might have been how they composed the poster. This way is much better.

Really, every time I see this poster, I'm drawn into it, and I look at it as long as I can. (So I'm glad I'm mostly seeing it on billboards, when the momentum of my car keeps me from just staring at it forever.)

The reasons are probably not that surprising. Lips have long been among the most sensual of body parts, and by themselves they can make a statement that other body parts can't. The Rolling Stones are just one entity that has used the iconic power of lips to help create and expand a brand.

Whether Temptations: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (that's the full title, meaning that Perry's name definitely should not be affixed to the front) will attain any kind of iconic status as a result of this poster remains to be seen, but since Perry's movies come out at a pace of two per year, it doesn't seem likely.

However, it is likely that I will see this movie on video, since I've been seeing about half of Perry's films for the past couple years. Not to mention the fact that I do like Smollett, who will probably smolder here, to make an obvious play on her name.

This movie also has a chance to exceed the usual audience for a Perry movie for one interesting reason: It contains at least one full scene in which Kim Kardashian acts. The trailers will naturally play up her involvement, because she continues to fascinate despite ample evidence that she probably shouldn't. But from the scenes of her in the trailer I saw, it's not clear whether she's actually in more than one scene.

And speaking of pregnancies (real or metaphorical), Kardashian probably can't wait to see this movie hit theaters as a reminder of what she looked like before the tabloids started jumping down her throat for gaining too much weight during her pregnancy.

So it'll be Smollett's pregnant lip vs. Kardashian's pregnant booty. 

Friday, March 29, 2013

I talked, Redbox listened

As a blogger, sometimes you forget that your stuff really could be seen by anybody in the world.

Usually, you figure it's just your Mom and a handful of your more dedicated friends and fellow blogger acquaintances behind whatever page views you can muster. Sometimes, though, your reader is Michael E. Rubin, Redbox Sr. Manager of Social Media.

When I wrote this post last fall, decrying the fact that the Redbox interface contains a superfluous and in fact self-defeating I'M DONE button, Mr. Rubin stopped into my comments section with the following two comments:

"Thanks for taking the time to write and share your two cents about the box. This is exactly the customer feedback we love to read, so I'll be sure to share your post with our engineering team.

If there's anything I can do for you, please don't hesitate to let me know."

Then, three days later:

"I have an update for you. As it turns out, we're working on a better solution for the 'I'm Done' button and will be removing it in the near future. You're the first to know that outside Redbox."

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the first half of the year is basically a Redbox blackout period for me -- I'm no longer interested in the new releases from the previous year, and the first movies from the new year don't usually hit until late April or early May. However, we did rent a pair of movies on Sunday in order to watch them projected in the garage, so Monday was my first opportunity to return movies to Redbox in a couple months.

Sure enough, the problematic I'M DONE button has been removed, and now it simply says "Hang on a sec while we put your movie away." (That's a paraphrase -- I didn't have the presence of mind to jot down the exact wording.) Then you are instantly taken back to the home screen.

Now, chances are, my post was not directly responsible for the change to the user interface. The phrase "as it turns out" is a good indication of that.

However, he did say he was going to share my post with the engineering team, meaning that at least this guy wasn't aware of any change in the works.

And if there's an available interpretation that tells me The Audient is changing the world, one blog post at a time, well ... you can't blame me for going with that particular interpretation. 

One thing I can say for sure about Redbox, though, is that whatever they're doing, they're doing it right. Many of my regular kiosk locations, which always just had a single box, have seen a second kiosk spring up within the past couple months. That kind of thing only happens when demand exceeds supply, and when demand exceeds supply, that's when you've got a successful business model.

Listening to your customers ... a novel concept that's behind some of the world's more successful ventures.

Thursday, March 28, 2013


I must have ballpark franks on the brain because of the upcoming start to the baseball season. What my wife's explanation is, though, I have no idea.

See, on Sunday night we watched a double feature of movies with the name "Frank" in the title.

Yep, sometimes that's all it takes for an Audient blog post.

We were on night #3 of the latest installment of the Garage Movie Projector Series. Haven't told you about this? Well, at intervals of two to three weeks, I've been borrowing the projector from work and projecting movies on the inside of our closed garage door. We have our old couch in the garage, so it works out perfectly. To take full advantage of having the projector, I've been watching two movies per weekend night, and this past weekend, my wife joined me for the second on both Saturday and Sunday.

We'd been having decent luck with streaming from Netflix in the garage -- up until we watched Butter on Saturday night, that is. We got through it, but it stopped to buffer a half-dozen times, and some of the rest of the time, the stream was out of focus. We decided it'd be better to stack the deck in our favor with actual DVDs for Sunday night.

So my wife checked out the Redbox titles online that she'd be interested in seeing. Me, I'd been missing Redbox a bit. I use the service at least once and more often twice a week during the latter half of the year, when it's stocked full of releases from the current year that I need to see before I close my list. But then I completely foresake the kiosks from the middle of January until the middle of May, since the last thing I want is to see more movies from last year. Redbox must wonder if it's something they said.

With the emphasis on having physical DVDs in our hands, however, Redbox was back on the table as an option. A promo code for 50 cents off sweetened the deal.

In order to convert the double feature, though, they needed to be two short movies. Sinister had been mentioned and probably would have taken one of the two slots if it weren't nearly two hours long. It probably would have been Sinister and Robot & Frank if time were no object. My wife has been talking about Robot & Frank since it came out, and got damn near giddy when she saw it was at Redbox.

R & F's 89 minutes met our criterion for a short running time, and so did Frankenweenie -- which I was surprised to hear my wife mention as something she wanted to see. (I thought she disliked Tim Burton almost as much as I do.) It's actually two minutes shorter than Robot & Frank.

Of course, seeing that they both had the word Frank in the title sealed the deal.

Unfortunately, that's where this mesmerizing profundity ends. There isn't anything unexpectedly similar between the two movies, other than their titles.

Oh, and the fact that they both qualified as mild disappointments. I liked most of what Robot & Frank was doing, but I expected to like it more. Though I should stop to compliment Frank Langella, always a treasure, on another memorable performance. As for Frankenweenie, it too did some things well. Ultimately, though, it still felt a bit safe for Burton, which is the opposite of what I want to see from him. Not putting his stamp on (i.e. ruining) a beloved property is a start, but even this original idea is still too deep in his wheelhouse to have surprised or enchanted me.

Next weekend we watch movies with the name "Beauregard" in the title. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"My father raped me" and other hilarious lines from Butter

You think I'm kidding.

Read on.

Let me start by saying that Jim Field Smith's Butter is a weird little movie. Weird good, but still weird.

It's a movie about people competing in an Excellence in Butter Carving competition at the Iowa State Fair. But it's also an allegory for the 2008 presidential primary between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, something I didn't consciously recognize but learned afterward from a review. But it's also a sweet movie about finding a family among the people in your life. But it's also raunchy as hell.

Take the following exchange, which shouldn't have made me laugh but did. First let me set up the scene, and give you a mild spoiler warning.

Frustrated husband Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell) walks out after an argument with his wife (Jennifer Garner) and heads to the nearby strip club, where he meets/may already know a stripper named Brooke (Olivia Wilde). After he offers her his dollar in exchange for some closer contact, Brooke slinks off the stage into his lap and the following occurs:

Brooke: You're the only man who cares about me.

Bob: That's not true. I'm sure there are plenty of men who like you. Your father cares about you, right?

Brooke: My father raped me.

Bob: Oh, my ... God.

Stammering in that humorous way that Burrell has mastered. 

But wait, before you click that button to stop following my blog, let me explain to you why this exchange -- which seems so tragic on the page -- was actually hilarious.

1) It's pretty clear Brooke is a con artist. She feeds Bob an opening line that is clearly intended to lay the groundwork for some kind of sugar-daddy arrangement. If it isn't clear enough, after this exchange she says she's looking for more than someone to take care of her and pay her rent, "which comes out to $580 with utilities." The whole seduction plays out like a parody of strip club seduction.

2) She says it in such a sultry voice. And she goes up on the word "raped." "My father RAPED me," she says, as though emphasizing the sexiest part rather than pleading for pity. Which could make it more horrible, I guess, but instead makes it more deliciously absurd.

3) Even if Brooke weren't clearly playing him and telling him something that we'd have to guess is not the truth, the line made me laugh because it's such an unusual approach to wooing a john (which the next scene makes it clear Brooke is doing). In the psychology of the gentleman's club, the dancer's job is to keep her personal history or present circumstances entirely out of the proceedings, allowing the man to indulge in his fantasy (and fork over more money). Get too detailed about the events that led her down this path, and the man will start to feel guilty and end the transaction before it even begins. That she would take this brazen approach (while, we assume, lying through her teeth about the rape) establishes this character with delightful crudeness.

4) It was just plain unexpected, and the unexpected sometimes makes us laugh in spite of ourselves. 

My wife also laughed, so I didn't feel so bad.

It may have also been that this was the first indication (at the 18-minute mark) that this wasn't just an innocent little movie about provincial hicks whose world begins and ends with the state fair. Butter is actually raw and shocking sometimes -- shockingly hilarious, mostly.

Here's another example.

When Bob's wife (Laura) discovers Bob having sex with Brooke in his minivan, she rams it, summarily ending the sexual act and depriving Brooke of the money she had coming to her. Thus begins a quest by Brooke to get the money, which morphs into a vendetta against Laura. As Laura has her eyes on the prize of winning the carving competition, Brooke signs up as her opponent just to mess with her. After leaving a frantically illegible doctor's signature on the sign-up sheet, Brooke whips into a standing position, the hair still in her eyes, and quips "It's on, c---."

Standing nearby is a 10-year-old girl (Yara Shahidi), but also Kristen Schaal, who says "I haven't heard that word since my dad died."

Again, laughter.

That's two instances of awful father-daughter behavior that were both delivered in such a way as to make a good liberal like me laugh.

Oh, and that 10-year-old girl? Later, when learning from her foster father that her foster mother can't have babies, she asks "Is her vagina broken?"

Laughter, this time mostly free from guilt.

As you might guess, there's an element of Butter that's all over the place. The story goes on tangents with secondary characters and has its satirical sights set on a few too many things.

But man, when it's funny, it's funny.

The really strange thing about Butter is that one of its least crude characters is Rob Corddry, who has made an entire career out of being a smarmy asshole. Playing the foster father, he has a relationship with his foster daughter that's entirely free from cynicism, and it's easily the warmest performance I've ever seen him give. In fact, having not previously liked him all that much, I now feel all turned around on the topic of Mr. Corddry.

There's also one great extended cameo that would be all the better if you hadn't familiarized yourself too much with the cast listed on this poster, as we had not.

What makes this movie, though, is Olivia Wilde, whose commitment to the material is tremendous. By taking her stripper (who rides a kid's bicycle) and turning her into something profane and wonderful, she's removing her from the realm of victim, making her into a victimizer instead.

Anyone who can make me laugh at the concept of forced incest has got to be doing something really right or really wrong.

I guess you'll need to see Butter to decide which it is for you.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Did Derek Smalls plant the cucumber?

I watched This is Spinal Tap for probably the eighth or ninth time this past weekend, having just watched it for the seventh or eighth time a little over a year ago.

You'd think by this point I wouldn't be discovering lots of new things about it, or maybe I should say, that I wouldn't be finding new interpretations of certain scenes. (This is Spinal Tap not being known as a movie where you interpret the meaning of scenes, per se.)

But I did have a new discovery of sorts this weekend, or a realization that maybe I hadn't read something correctly on all previous times I watched the movie.

When Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) has to go through the metal detector three times at the airport, I always thought having the cucumber in his pants was a prank meant to embarrass airport security and thumb his nose at airport security conventions. A punk rock act of defiance.

Now I've decided that the most obvious interpretation of the scene had escaped me for over a half-dozen viewings: It's a prop designed to enhance the sense of sexual prowess he emanates, and he's gotten so used to it that he simply walks around with it all the time. Meaning that even though the two female security agents are embarrassed, it's Derek who is more embarrassed.

I guess I still don't know which it is, so I'd like to ask you.

It's not that on some level, I didn't think the cucumber was also a prop meant to enhance the impression of his sexual prowess. I knew that joke was also being made. But something about the way Derek reacts to the incident made me think he knew it would set off the metal detector.

For starters, he doesn't show much surprise when the wand reveals the location of the metal source. Then he unwraps the aluminum foil from the cucumber and drops it on the table with the same cool dismissivness as a rock singer who drops his microphone and walks away. Then there's the laughter of his bandmates, which I always thought was with him, targeted at the security guards, rather than at him.

But my erstwhile interpretation would require us to reimagine the character entirely. Every other time we see Derek in this movie, he's polite, humble and kind -- he doesn't seem like he has a bone in his body that would try to make another person feel bad. He doesn't take the piss out of people; he gets the piss taken out of him. If we decide he's going to turn on a dime and (mildly) sexually humiliate the airport security guard, that's not the Derek we know.

But if he does walk around all the time with a cucumber (not an armadillo) in his pants, what are the logistics of that? How does he sit comfortably? How does he keep it from falling out? How often does he have to change the cucumber so it doesn't start to go bad? And why would he chance such a thing, when the movie seems to indicate he's getting tail left and right? If you live a rock star lifestyle that might involve unpremeditated sex at any moment, why would you risk blowing it by having your girl find a cucumber in your pants?

However, in that picture above, he does look a might bit embarrassed, doesn't he? It's hard to say if he's embarrassed or just playing the joke very straight. How the joke plays out could be either. By pretending to remove every metal he has on each pass through, he could be just intentionally wasting everyone's time and drawing more attention to the ridiculousness he perceives in the process. Or, he could have literally forgotten that he had a metal source next to his junk. 

What ultimately convinces me that it was, indeed, a prank, is that the cucumber is encased in foil. If you were just augmenting your crotch area to affect the bulge that appears in your pants, why would you wrap that augmentation in foil? It wouldn't change the shape of the bulge.

It would help keep the cucumber fresh, however.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Big screen to small in record speed

You can imagine my surprise when I opened my New Releases email from Redbox this week and saw Zero Dark Thirty at the top of the list.

Is this the same Zero Dark Thirty that didn't even get a wide release until 2013?

Yes indeed. In fact, its wide release was January 11th. Its DVD/BluRay release was March 19th.

That's two months and eight days.

My my. Or, Maya Maya.

I remember first registering my shock three years ago over the quick release of another best picture nominee, Up in the Air. That release at least took 76 days.

ZDT got to home video in only 67 days. I said two months and eight days, but one of those months is the shortest of the year.

I suppose what made it extra shocking is that Redbox usually has to wait an additional 28 days before new releases are available. Not in this case, apparently.

On the one hand, I should not be so shocked. Once the Oscars have passed, people kind of forget about the previous year's movies, so teasing out their release dates has little to no value. Plus, we're also living in a time when many movies, even ones with prominent actors or directors, premiere on VOD on the same day as their theatrical release. Sometimes even before their release.

But 67 days for a best picture nominee and one of the most critically acclaimed films of last year? I still needed to register my shock, even if it's not all that shocking.

Of course, I saw it on video back on December 30th, via a screener borrowed from a friend.

That's big screen to small screen in -13 days, which would definitely be a record.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Famous Flops: The Adventures of Pluto Nash

Hello, and welcome to the real first post in my new series Famous Flops, after I flopped the ball last month by picking a movie (Ishtar) that I couldn't get my hands on without buying it.

Note to self: When you're going to watch a movie that's not very good, make sure you write about it as soon as possible. I watched The Adventures of Pluto Nash over a week ago now, and details are already starting to escape me. And details -- especially outrageous ones -- will be part and parcel to this series, if I want it to be the kind of hoot that will justify me watching these terrible movies.

For starters, I think I will begin each post by telling you what kind of flop this is. In almost all cases, the movie will have been a financial failure, so that's not what I mean here. I mean that there are two very distinct ways a movie can be bad:

1) Outrageously misguided. The movie makes a bunch of howlingly bad choices and is filled with laugh-out-loud moments. ("Howlingly bad" and "laugh-out-loud" are essentially two ways of saying the same thing.)

2) Lame. The movie is not egregious in any single, definable way -- it's just lame.

Needless to say, it's a lot more fun to watch and write about a movie that is outrageously misguided. Alas, that's not the case with The Adventures of Pluto Nash. It's just lame.

That's especially disappointing because I figured it would be outrageously misguided. Eddie Murphy in a goofy space suit, which was a central part of most ad campaigns for the film, seemed like just the start. I expected him to be interacting throughout with a bunch of very poorly rendered CGI aliens and other silly props and creatures. Alas, this was not to be.

The movie is about an ex-convinct named Pluto Nash, who has gained quite a reputation on the criminal circuit as a successful smuggler. Upon getting out of jail, he saves an old friend (Jay Mohr), who owns a dive bar on the moon (the whole thing takes place on the moon in 2080), but can't repay his debts to the mob. Nash agrees to pay his friend's debt seconds before the mobsters are going to pour battery acid down the man's throat, effectively ending his nascent singing career -- and any number of other potential pursuits, such as, you know, living. Flash forward eight years, and Nash has turned the dive bar into the most successful club on the moon -- which puts him right in the crosshairs of Rex Crater, a mobster who wants to buy/take the property for himself. Nash is having none of that. He's also just given a job to the daughter of his old prison buddy who has just arrived from Earth, played by Rosario Dawson.

All of this is presented rather blandly and without any consideration of Murphy's skills as a zany comic. This may be one of the straightest of his roles on film. Rarely is he called on to do any sort of impression or use his rubber face to any purpose. In fact, most Murphy characters that are some variation on Pluto Nash are notable for being so completely above the fray. Not only is Nash not above the fray, he seems to be genuinely concerned by the events of the plot in a way that plays unnaturally given Murphy's talents.

Rex Crater has a number of goons at his disposal (one played by Joe Pantoliano) who make several failed attempts to whack the club owner, leading to Nash and Dawson's character going on the run and getting involved with a number of would-be whacky adventures. These adventures are presented so lifelessly that I barely even remember what any of them were.

The one character I really liked was Nash's robot body guard, played by Randy Quaid. Usually the thing you'd hate most about a movie like this is the sidekick character(s), but the android Bruno is the real exception. He's an obsolete model, which makes him lovably dim-witted in certain ways -- and this is something Quaid can do very well. Perhaps the thing I liked most about the character is that to give him a robotic voice, his dialogue is auto-tuned. Maybe I'm still just a sucker for auto tune, a decade after it seemed like a novelty, but the overall effect was to make this character seem very sweet and charming.

Murphy and Dawson are fine. Really. Remember, this movie is not outrageously misguided, it's just lame.

Oh, Nash does eventually don a spacesuit for exactly one scene.

The Adventures of Pluto Nash didn't offend me, which may be the most disappointing thing about it.

Having gotten out of the gate with a bit of a thud, I'm definitely angling for something outrageously misguided for April. I can't imagine having any other reaction to Atlas Shrugged Part I, the 2011 adaptation of Ayn Rand's famous novel. This movie was supposedly a creative disaster, though neither its critical lambasting nor its poor box office (less than $5 million) prevented Part II from coming out last fall and Part III from being scheduled for next year.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Logline trainwreck

Upside Down, starring Kirsten Dunst and Jim Sturgess, is just the kind of film I gravitate toward. (I write this with the understanding that "gravitate" is an especially pregnant choice of verbs in discussing a movie that seems to feature mirrored worlds pressing up against each other.) I really dug Another Earth, for example. This could be the bigger-budget, effects-laden cousin of Another Earth.

Except that an unintentionally hilarious logline for this movie has risen to the surface, and it makes me giggle every time I hear it.

The film is serving in an underwriting capacity on KCRW at the moment. In case you don't know what "underwriting" is, it's basically the closest public radio and television can come to advertising without actually advertising. In exchange for money, the underwriter gets its name mentioned in a "sponsored by" capacity, where there's no actual marketing of the product in question other than the fact that it's being mentioned in the first place. Underwriting spots are also produced by the radio station, rather than the underwriter.

So right now I'm hearing on KCRW the following description of Upside Down:

"Kirsten Dunst and Jim Sturgess star in Upside Down, an interplanetary dystopian romance about a young man's search for the long-lost girl of his dreams."

Um ...

Interplanetary dystopian romance?

While that may be a concise and accurate description of the movie, it sounds like a joke.

As I dissect why it strikes me as so funny, I realize it's because the adjectives "interplanetary" and "dystopian" are basically selling to the same audience twice. That three-word phrase is essentially saying "Sci-fi sci-fi romance." By that logic, "interplanetary romantic comedy" or "dystopian romantic comedy" would actually be less funny. Then at least you'd be telling someone that there's sci-fi and romance and comedy.

Will I be seeing this interplanetary dystopian romance?

You know, other than these plugs on the local NPR station, Upside Down hasn't been getting a lot of press. The only trailer I've seen for it was many months ago, when someone pointed me toward it online, and it's only playing at two theaters in LA. That's a little unusual for a movie that seems to have some visual touches in common with something like Inception. Then again, people can make visually striking movies these days without it meaning there's a big budget, so perhaps this interplanetary dystopian romance is just not a fit for the multiplex audience.

Besides, it's up against The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, and that features Jim Carrey.

More likely than not, though, I won't be going to the theater at all this weekend as I use my available free time to a) go to a poker game tonight, and b) prepare for my fantasy baseball draft, which is next Wednesday.

If I hadn't already chosen my team name, Interplanetary Dystopian Romance might really be a good one.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Blade Runner dysmorphia

The term "dysmorphia" is otherwise classified as "body dysmoprhic disorder," and it has to do with the psychological condition in which a person obsessively focuses on a perceived flaw in his or her body.

So it's not exactly the right word for the condition I experience related to Blade Runner, but it's in the neighborhood, so I'm going to co-opt it for this purpose. (Besides, "dysmorphia" seems like the kind of word that should go with a science fiction movie about androids.)

The flaw I perceive in Blade Runner is that I can no longer recognize it as a single movie with a single, certain storyline.

It's a disorder because it's seriously affecting how great I consider the film to be, which is pretty darn great under ordinary circumstances.

But when I watched it again for the first time in years this past Saturday night, the viewing was accompanied by a certain amount of trepidation. I felt I could no longer be certain what Blade Runner I was going to see, what was different from other versions I'd seen, and which one was truly the superior version. It has essentially become a foreign body that's unrecognizable to me.

It's a disorder because it's probably all in my mind.

See, this whole (very mild) anxiety was kicked off by the fact that it was the director's cut of Blade Runner we were ready to watch. I couldn't tell you for sure, but I don't think I've seen the director's cut before. The reason I was fairly certain I hadn't seen it ended up being spurious, because as it turns out, this is not the version where the end of the movie reveals that Deckard is a replicant. The fact that such a version of this movie does exist, yet this is not it, only adds to my Blade Runner dysmorphia. (Incidentally, I just looked up other terms, and "body integrity identity disorder" sounds on the surface more like what I'm trying to describe here -- except that this particular disorder involves a desire to amputate one's arms or legs.)

Getting to the end of the movie only slightly alleviated my concerns. See, as it ended up, there was only one thing I could be sure was different from the original theatrical version that I'm sure I know, which is that the movie ended slightly earlier, with Rachael and Deckard getting on the elevator in her building, not driving off into the countryside. That doesn't change the essential story, unlike the Deckard replicant version. I later learned that Ridley Scott's cut also excised Deckard's voiceover, which I remembered that I knew, but didn't notice one way or the other when I was watching. (There was also an added dream sequence involving a unicorn, which did strike me as strange at the time, but I thought maybe it was just something I didn't remember.)

So I decided to go to the interwebs to sort this whole thing out, and I discovered that of course, wikipedia has a page devoted to this in-depth. I won't bore you with all the details, but here's a link to the page: And if you don't choose to follow that link, I'll just tell you that there are seven versions listed.


Blade Runner is not unique in having a half-dozen versions of itself, and in fact, many of the other movies that have done this have done it for far less defensible reasons, most of them motivated specifically by profit. With Blade Runner, you get the sense it's one of those cases were the movie is so rich and so beloved by its fans, that it was for purely artistic reasons that all these other cuts of the film have been unearthed/made available/discussed in hushed tones of awe.

But in the cases of some of those other films, like the original Star Wars trilogy, at least many of the new additions have been done for the purposes of digital masturbation. "I've got new technology now and I want to use it to make the original movie look like it was made today instead of in 1977." While this is a much-reviled approach to the movie, at least it doesn't change anything essential about its plot. Star Wars doesn't now end with the Death Star not blowing up. It's got an extra shockwave ring encircling the explosion, but there's still an explosion. And because everything that's important is the same -- yes, I know, Greedo shooting first is important -- I don't suffer from a bad case of Star Wars dysmorphia. (I may have a mild case, though.)

So after I've written all this and bemoaned the many versions of Blade Runner that have blurred my sense of it and made me more hesitant to watch it over and over again, there's one final joke here:

There is no version where Deckard is a replicant.

Of those seven versions of the film wikipedia talks about, none of them ends with the grand ironic revelation that Harrison Ford's character is no more human than the perps he's chasing.

So how the hell did I get this idea?

It turns out it all comes from an earlier version of the script by Hampton Fancher, before it was reluctantly handed off to David Peoples for fine-tuning and revisions. In at least one and possibly several versions of the script, the movie ends with a voiceover in which Deckard says that he and Roy Batty were "brothers" and "similar models." As far as I can tell, this was not actually shot, and the only reason I thought it existed was that it must have been news sometime in the last 15 years that the movie was originally intended to end with Deckard as a replicant.

Because my Blade Runner dysmorphia was already in full swing at the time I heard this, I assumed that the replicant version did actually exist on film.

So how does one avoid movie dysmorphia? Well, we ourselves can't do anything to avoid it, as we are just the passive recipients of the creative decisions of others. The responsibility lies with those others. And my standard line of discussion on this topic goes something like this: Da Vinci didn't go back and keep tweaking the Mona Lisa. He just finished it and released it to the public. That's how movies should be. Once the art exists in the world, LEAVE IT. That's it. You're done.

At least this post has helped put me on the road to recovery from my Blade Runner dysmorphia. As usual, the first step in the cure is to recognize -- and subsequently research -- the problem.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Reviewing Hollywood, not Oz

Remember those hyperbolic critigasms I talked about last Friday?

Yeah, I'm feeling like employing a few of them myself this morning.

Simply put, I kind of loved Oz the Great and Powerful. Of course I'm not going to say it's better than The Wizard of Oz, but it's of sufficient quality that I will tolerate it when today's young folks, who haven't seen the original, inevitably declare that they like this one better once they go back and discover it. (Some of that is the unbridgeable gap of technology. To some young people, The Wizard of Oz is always going to look "old," and we just have to accept that that's how they're wired.)

So now that I want to critijizz all over the place -- sorry, that was gross -- I'm struggling with why others don't.

The movie has a Metascore of only 45, which is down four points from the last time I checked. Even the critic who liked it the most (Kim Newman of Empire) scored it only 80 out of 100. If I were to produce a Metascore expressing my feelings about Oz, I'd probably go with a 91 or a 92.

In the pressure cooker that is the film criticism industry -- that's a joke, but stick with me -- there's a lot of concern about how your peers will view your judgments. At least I imagine there to be -- I don't talk to many other professional critics. (Yes, I'm still one, even though I haven't been working since the end of 2011. You don't stop being something just because you aren't doing it right now.)

My love of Oz is the kind of thing that would make me look like a rube at best, or a studio kiss-ass at worst. How could I just sit there and eat this contraption up?

And so I've come to a decision: Some of the critics who sunk this movie's Metascore are reviewing Hollywood, not Oz the Great and Powerful.

It's almost impossible these days not to be suspicious of a studio's motivations for making a certain movie. In fact, there's no reason to be something as vague as suspicious. It's easy enough just to know that the studios are in it for the potential profits, because making movies is a business, and if you don't make movies people want to see, you'll go out of that business.

The problem among critics (myself included) is that we tend to treat this motivation as an insurmountable obstacle. If there's even the slightest suggestion that a movie is being made just because of its familiarity with audiences and the ability to make a successful line of toys, we prejudge that movie harshly. It's got to climb a long way back up just to convince us that it's not utterly soulless.

Oz the Great and Powerful seemed to be a prime case of this. The original movie was nearly 75 years ago, and there hasn't been a theatrical release in this series (the sequel Return to Oz) since the 1980s. It would have been easy to assume this one was safely buried, never to need resurrecting. And once the resurrection was announced and the first glittering digital images of the movie were seen, it was equally easy to assume it was going to be a bunch of pyrotechnics with no heart.

And it certainly could have been. But Sam Raimi and his team of screenwriters gave this movie that little extra oomph that took it beyond the minimum that would have been required of it. Not only is the writing smart and the cast chosen fortuitously, but the digital effects are as good as you would expect, combining the signature elements of The Wizard of Oz with enough new stuff to dazzle you without giving you Star Wars Prequel Syndrome.

What's especially smart is the way the film interfaces with its own technical advancement. On numerous occasions does this movie indicate its awareness of the essential slight of hand, the essential prestidigitation (to employ a favorite word that the movie also uses at one point), of special effects. The future wizard (James Franco) is a magician at a traveling circus stopped in Kansas, and he's pretty handy with a number of on-the-spot optical illusions. The story comes to ask a lot more from him than that, but it's really just illusions on a grander and grander scale -- which is what the computer effects in this movie are as well. In fact, there are even some moments where this movie functions a bit like Hugo, demonstrating its love of the art of moviemaking and the illusions that are part and parcel to it.

Some other things I will briefly mention that I loved about the movie:

1) Franco. He's got a sly grin or an awkward look for every moment in the story, and he's hilarious.

2) Michelle Williams. Simply luminous. I got lost in her eyes on numerous occasions, but it's not just because I'm a heterosexual male -- she's just a hypnotic presence here.

3) The opening credits. A fabulous and original, diorama-style creation.

4) The sidekicks. A winged monkey in a bellboy's outfit and a little girl made of china. Both were original types, and the china girl had some real pathos to go along with her general adorableness.

5) The wicked witches. Yes, there are two. Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis each bring their own brand of nasty.

So why have most of the critics been grumpy about this movie?

My guess is that they could not unburden themselves of the notion that this movie was a soulless Hollywood enterprise, not made with the apparent purity of its forbear. But I've got news for you: MGM wanted to make money on The Wizard of Oz as much as Disney wants to make money on Oz the Great and Powerful, and they used the best prestidigitation available at the time to do so.

And don't forget this: The Wizard of Oz was actually the fourth film version of L. Frank Baum's novel. That's right, the fourth.

Look, I'm not going to let one movie reverse all my own well-documented cynicism about Hollywood. It's certainly justified more often than it isn't.

I just think it can blind us to the quality of movies that can still try to make tons of money, while at the same time being really good.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The best movie of 1998 finally gets revisited

In my 17-year history of ranking all the new movies I've seen each year, only three of my top-ranked movies are ones I've seen only once. Even my favorite film of 2012, Ruby Sparks, is something I've already seen again. (The night before I coronated it, as a matter of fact.)

Make that two I've seen only once.

Wednesday night I finally re-watched Todd Solondz' Happiness, which was my top film of 1998, the third year I kept the stats. That's 15 years since its release year, though only a little over 14 since I saw it.

You could say that Solondz' film is a classic one-timer; one of its main characters is a pedophile, and recently ejaculated semen is seen not once, but twice. (Neither time by the pedophile, at least, though one instance is from an 11-year-old boy.)

But I did love the movie, and I really should have re-watched it before now. (In case you're interested, the other two I haven't rewatched are the very first movie I crowned, Looking for Richard in 1996, and A Separation in 2011).

Perhaps I suspected Happiness wouldn't hold up. Although it seemed quite original and fresh at the time, how would it seem now, now that there have been scores of independent films featuring dysfunctional extended families working their way through hot-button issues?

Also, it qualifies as an early version of a term I've heard popularized recently: "hyperlink cinema." It's not really a positive term. It refers to movies where multiple story lines are threaded together, seeming at first to have no relationship to each other. Over the course of the narrative, we realize that this character has this connection to this character, who has this connection to this other character, who has this other connection to the first character. It's supposed to be profound. Lately, it's seemed like hack screenwriting. Happiness doesn't 100% qualify, because although the connections between these characters are there, at least the characters don't have to come together into some kind of big finale that's supposed to blow your mind.

Well, I'm glad to say that Happiness still felt fresh to me.

What's still fresh? WARNING, SPOILERS AHEAD.

1) The sympathetic pedophile. By far the boldest thing Solondz does in this movie is introduce a character who rapes young boys (Dylan Baker), yet somehow is presented with enough complexity that you don't simply condemn him. Society reserves a spot somewhere below rapists and murderers for the pedophile, yet Solondz has the guts to present this man as the victim of an illness rather than a moral degenerate. In fact, Bill Maplewood is so unflinchingly honest with his son -- even confessing to his son without hesitation, and speaking to him with the frankness he would reserve for an adult -- that there's something morally upright about him. Which of course doesn't excuse the whole pedophilia thing. But if the goal of some filmmakers is to change minds, you might say Solondz succeeds at that better than most, if only because you want Bill to figure out a way to stop doing it, to save his own soul as well as the bodies and minds of his victims. Fifteen years later, I still haven't seen someone else pull off such an unlikely trick.

2) The explicit sex discussions with children. I can't find much information on Rufus Read, the actor who played young Billy Maplewood -- his IMDB page is as stripped down as they come. But he's playing an 11-year-old and certainly couldn't have been much older than that. Yet he asks his father what "cum" means, and waits around for the answer, which is nothing short of clinically accurate. Later, he asks his father about the crimes of which he's accused, and gets similarly frank answers. His final act of the movie is to jerk off while watching a woman sunbathing. The lower half of his body is of course not seen, but Solondz had to direct him to make some kind of motions that would simulate the convulsions of the real act, so the upper half of his body would respond correctly. The act culminates with a droplet of his splooge dripping off his balcony's white horizontal piping -- before it gets licked away by his dog. Not only is it pretty crazy content for a child character to be involved with, but the child actor couldn't simply be fooled into thinking it was something other than what it was.

3) The nice girl who always gets shit on. Yes, we meet Joy (Jane Adams) while she's in the process of rather callously breaking up with Allen (Jon Lovitz), but there's something about her -- probably the irresistible sympathetic nature of Adams as an actress -- that makes any apparent callousness seem purely accidental. At her core, she's a genuine person who genuinely wants to help people and do good things in the world. Yet she is repeatedly unlucky -- in all things, really, but especially in love. Not only does Allen kill himself (an act for which she is blamed both by him and by his mother), but she is robbed by a Russian-born cab driver (Jared Harris) who beds her and immediately leaves. Did I mention he's married and his wife assaults Joy? In an ordinary narrative, these occurrences in the plot would lead us to a moment of transcendence for Joy, in which her patient wait for a good person pays off. Uh-uh. The humiliations continue to pile on top of themselves. The only thing preventing her character from being an unremitting tragedy is that in the final scene of the movie, she doesn't seem overburdened by despair -- she just has the normal, healthy level of despair. Another nifty tonal trick by Solondz.

This list would be more impressive with five examples, but let's leave it at three.

Since I began writing this blog entry, I have watched Solondz' sequel to Happiness, Life During Wartime. It would have been great to incorporate that into this piece if it hadn't already been 75% written. As such, I think I need to chew on this one for a day or two, and maybe then I'll have collected some thoughts for a follow-up.

I was curious about whether Happiness is still my favorite film of 1998, so I decided to consult Flickchart to see what I have ranked ahead of it and whether I'd seen those movies at the time I completed my rankings. Flickchart tells me that it's actually ranked third, though that's really second, because Flickchart counts Run Lola Run as a 1998 movie -- my #1 1998 movie. Which it probably is, because that's when it hit German theaters, but I can't think of it as anything other than 1999. See, Run Lola Run was actually Happiness' successor, my top-ranked film of my next year of rankings.

Number 2? It's Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, which I had seen at the time (and ranked #3). Now there's a movie I need to revisit -- though it would probably be my third or even fourth viewing. 

Number 2 on my year-end rankings between Happiness and A Simple Plan? Waking Ned Devine, which must have fallen in my estimation some, as it now ranks only eighth from 1998 on my Flickchart.

And that's probably enough reminiscing about the year 1998.

No hyperbolic critigasms, please

The biggest new release of 2013 (so far) comes out today, and with that are sure to come a bunch of positive assessments of its quality -- even if there end up being more negative assessments.

We call these "critigasms." They are phrases, often taken at least partly out of context and featuring a surplus of exclamation points, extracted from the reviews of marginally reputable critics, who are more interested in getting quoted than earning the respect of their more reputable peers.

But please, don't let me hear this popular nugget about Oz the Great and Powerful:

"Even better than the original!"

No matter what this movie may do well, there is no way it's actually better than The Wizard of Oz. And trying to pass that off on me is only insulting my intelligence.

Yet it's not so far-fetched that we might actually see that particular critigasm. After all, wasn't the last Pirates of the Caribbean "the best Pirates yet!"? Wasn't there somebody who said of A Good Day to Die Hard "You've never seen a Die Hard this good!"? Didn't somebody in the community of critical prostitutes describe The Phantom Menace as "Better than the three previous Star Wars movies -- combined!"

Maybe, maybe not.

But the point is that there's somebody out there venal enough to do it. If it'll get you on that poster, why not tell me that The Godfather Part III is "three times the Godfather!"?

I'll report back with my own critigasms -- or lack thereof -- on Oz after seeing it on Tuesday night.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


When I was driving home from work yesterday, I saw a billboard for The Baytown Outlaws, a movie I had not heard of previously. Looks like it had a limited release in either December or January. More likely, it didn't have much of a release at all.

The billboard basically consisted of the upper half of the poster you see here, without the lower half's many guns, rednecks and motorcycles.

Below Billy Bob and Eva and the movie's name was the following request:



Really? Rent it? That's the best you can do?

Someone at the firm who publicized this film should be fired. You don't tout a rental as the ideal way to consume a product -- you tell people to own it. OWN IT TODAY ON DVD. Or better yet, OWN IT TODAY ON BLU-RAY. If you're going to mention only one physical format, you go with the one that's most current. Duh.

It's pretty much understood that if you can own something, you can also rent it. If not on Netflix for another 28 days, then on one of the many outlets that rent to you on the first day the DVD (or Blu-Ray) goes on sale. They didn't need to phrase it this way just to appease the "Wait, but what if I only want to rent it?" crowd.

It comes off as a tacit acknowledgment that the movie is just not very good.

The question I really have is: Can you promise me that Eva Longoria's boobs look that good when they aren't being rendered by an artist?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Operation Dumbo Watch

I've been looking forward to the age where my son can consume and sort-of appreciate feature-length animated movies as my opportunity to reacquaint myself with mostly-forgotten classics. Since animation was dominated by Disney for five or six decades, I'm mostly talking about the classic Disney movies here.

But I wasn't going to start buying up old Disney movies on speculation. There was a good chance that neither of us were going to like them enough to be worth owning them, especially at the prices that are generally charged for such beloved films. (Even with Travis' Disney Bucks or Disney Dollars or whatever they're called.)

So it was with some joy that I learned of the deal Netflix recently struck with Disney. In addition to some rather significant long-term plans -- like, exclusive rights to Disney new releases starting in 2016 -- Netflix gets immediate access to movies like Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo, both of which I added to our queue soon after hearing about their availability. 

I haven't actually seen Alice in Wonderland, and since I'm aware of all the movie's hidden drug references, I hesitate a little bit about unleashing it on my son. Not that I think he would get those references, not before he was a late teenager anyway -- and he's only 2 and 1/2 now. It's irrational, but it feels like bad parenting to me.

Dumbo, on the other hand, was a perfect candidate. I'd seen it so long ago that the only thing I really remembered from it was the iconic shot of the baby elephant flying around the top of a circus tent. If pressed, I'd probably have been able to tell you about his mother nearly stampeding some folks and being branded as a "mad elephant."

Plus, it was only 64 minutes long.

But I didn't have my strategy right. I decided to show my son Dumbo at a time that I was not in a position to watch it with him. This was three or four weeks ago.

He loved it so much that he watched it again three or four times in the following days. And though I was undoubtedly chuffed (to use an Australian term) to see him taking to a classic movie -- thereby quelling my distant fear that today's kids are hard-wired to need modern animation -- I started to worry that he was going to burn out on it if I didn't get to watching it with him soon. Then I also worried about my own proper viewing being ruined by seeing five minutes of it here and five there.

About a week ago I noticed that he had stop requesting Dumbo. Uh oh.

So this weekend I determined to sit down with him for the movie, before he loses interest altogether. He shows a real ferocity about rejecting shows he no longer wants to see. Some of them make an eventual comeback, but some of them are gone forever. And though I could certainly sit down to watch Dumbo without him, that felt a little absurd to me, not to be killing two birds with one stone when it would be so easy to do so.

Saturday morning we were going to the park, so Sunday morning was the time. And I'm pleased to say that it went off effortlessly. Sometimes he practically wakes up saying the name of the program he wants to watch, but Sunday was not one of those mornings. So I slipped on Dumbo and met nary a moment of resistance from him. A couple times he wandered over to the door to our hallway to call for my wife, who was still sleeping, and with about 15 minutes left he lost interest in watching. I manged to contain him in the first instance, and he contained himself in the second by playing with his toys. So I did complete my Dumbo viewing -- even if some of his toys drowned out the dialogue toward the end.

My thoughts? It's a tight, though exceptionally dated, little movie. Here are some more specific thoughts:

1) It was more Fantasia than I thought it would be. I had certainly forgotten, perhaps because I was too young to understand it at the time, that Dumbo discovers he can fly as the result of accidentally getting drunk. One clown knocks over one bottle of champagne into one bucket of water, and upon drinking from that bucket of water, Dumbo and his mouse companion get so inebriated that they hallucinate a pink elephant parade that takes up five or six minutes of screen time. And here I thought I was saving my son from hidden drug references by not showing him Alice in Wonderland. The trippy sequence culminates with the pair lying in a tree, which is how they learn that Dumbo has the gift of flight.

2) Are the crows racist? It's something I'm seriously grappling with. Dumbo and the mouse meet a half-dozen crows in the aforementioned tree, all of whom have the thick accents of southern blacks. Clearly, this would never happen if the movie were made today -- but is it actually racist? The most negative trait the crows can be accused of is laughing too much at the plight of the hungover pair. Otherwise they're rather clever, and they do play a key role in helping Dumbo tap in to his ability to fly. So here's the question: Is it racist merely to try to authentically recreate the voices of southern blacks in any characters, maybe specifically crows? I'll have to think about that one some more. I did notice that every single human being who helps erect the circus tent has black skin -- which would also prompt a person to wonder whether the movie is racially profiling, or just admitting certain regrettable realities.

3) Not all elephants can talk. I did wonder as I was watching why the catty elephants can (and do) talk as much as they please, but Dumbo never talks, and his mother only talks long enough to provide the stork with the baby's name: "Jumbo Jr." I suppose this movie treats talking as a sign of a lack of enlightenment, as almost every character who opens his mouth has something unpleasant to say. The possible exception is the mouse, who has Dumbo's well-being in mind -- most of the time. If you were being cynical, you'd say he's just as interested in punching his own ticket to fame and wealth.

4) The stork. One of the things about this movie that I found quaint in a good way is the sequence where the stork delivers babies to all the animals in the circus. I'd say that I don't know if you'd see a stork make an appearance in any animated movie shot today, even though the story of the stork is certainly still told to children. But if I said that, I'd be forgetting the Pixar short Partly Cloudy, which played before Up and featured a stork as its main character.

5) Was Mel Brooks working back then? I don't know why, but I felt like all the characters (except the crows) sounded like they could have been voiced by Mel Brooks or Dom DeLuise. I guess that's more an indication of the tradition those two worked in, a vaudevillian tradition which is certainly present in Dumbo.

Although I think Dumbo is an odd movie at times, it's ultimately sweet, with special emphasis on the scenes with the mother animals nestling with their babies. There's the sucker parent in me coming out.

Now that my son has survived the pink elephant scene, I'll have to figure out if Operation Alice in Wonderland Watch might be around the corner.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


A rather obvious title for this post, but that doesn't make it any less true.

After a month of February in which I went to the theater exactly zero times -- a comment on my schedule as much as on the quality of the theatrical offerings -- March roars in with at least a limited release of Park Chan-wook's new movie, Stoker.

How can you resist the intensity of that poster?

It's nice to have a 2013 movie I'm actually excited to see. I did see Mama, but I'd say this is the first one I was looking forward to before the year started. (Let's try to forget that little disaster known as Movie 43, whose reviews made me repress my memory of looking forward to it. I certainly forgot the movie itself, opting to wait until video.)

And because I live in one of the few markets where it's being released this weekend -- in multiple theaters, in fact -- there's at least a decent chance I will actually see it this weekend. I had been determined to go to the theater come hell or high water this weekend, and I was expecting to see Jack the Giant Slayer, which I still view as a good option. The reminder that Stoker is beginning its limited release this weekend changed up those plans right quick.

It's not like I'm the world's biggest Park Chan-wook fan. (I love the guy, but some people downright worship him.) In fact, until recently I referred to him as Chan-wook Park. (The scandal.) In fact, I haven't even seen the entire vengeance trilogy -- I'm still a Lady Vengeance short of that. I also haven't seen Thirst, which has been on our instant queue forever. I'm not even sure that Park is the Korean director I respond to the most. Bong Joon-ho's Mother may be the best Korean film I've seen.

But I do love Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance more than most people I know, and Oldboy is, of course, a masterpiece. The best parts of those two movies showcase exactly what we're capable of achieving with a movie, in terms of storytelling. Even the ordinary parts do that very well.

I also really like the cast here. Two of those should be obvious. I've been a tireless champion of Nicole Kidman over the years, and I think Mia Wasikowska is one of our best new discoveries of the past five years. (You can put her neck and neck with J-Law.)

What's interesting to me is this Matthew Goode casting. Matthew Goode is, by almost all counts, a B-lister at best. He did appear in the big-budget Watchmen, but he had probably the most forgettable role in that movie, even though it was a pivotal one. He's more known to your average person for romantic fluff like Chasing Liberty and Leap Year. The real exception on his resume is the excellent thriller The Lookout, in which he's a small-time bank robber with a big-time menacing charisma. It's the menacing charisma that I expect to see in Stoker.

So yeah, I'm stoked for Stoker, and I'll make a real effort to see it this weekend.

Besides, I've got a scoop Don Handsome and see it before he does.