Saturday, April 27, 2013

Is Bay's pain our gain?

It must have pained Michael Bay to make a movie with so much ... potential.

So much apparent originality. So much (intentional) humor.

So much ... pizzazz.

Could this really be the Michael Bay we know and hate?

I'll believe it when I see it, and I may actually see Pain & Gain. Why not? Even if there weren't some dream casting here (Dawyne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris), movies about gonzo Floridians always have a special verve about them. (I'm still thinking about Spring Breakers more than you'd think I'd be thinking about a movie I saw three-and-a-half weeks ago.)

Could I secretly, maybe, want Michael Bay to prove he's worth something? I don't know, out of some unlikely affection for the original Transformers movie and The Rock?

I won't go that far. But I may go as far as to plunk down my money at the box office of a local multiplex, to watch a movie about clueless steroid freaks who get in over their heads and pull off capers that will certainly result in numerous absurdly comical deaths.

Somehow I've managed to see the trailer only once, too, which means the best parts haven't really been ruined for me through sheer saturation.

I guess there are benefits to only getting out to the theater a half-dozen times so far in 2013.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Famous Flops: Atlas Shrugged: Part I

This is the second in a monthly series in which I subject myself to famously bad movies, and see if they're as famously bad as I think they'll be. 

In the wake of Roger Ebert's death, I've heard a lot of people discussing how personal the job of film critic was to him. They've talked about how Ebert made himself a part of his reviews, how he fearlessly championed movies because they were in his wheelhouse, while pillorying movies that he was never likely to appreciate in the first place.

It may seem strange to start a discussion of the flop Atlas Shrugged: Part I with a fond remembrance of Roger Ebert, but hang with me for a minute.

Although I cherished the man, I do take a slightly different approach to film criticism than he did. I take film criticism personally in the sense that I argue passionately for the merits and against the weaknesses of the films I discuss, but I do also believe that I need to remove my "self" from the proceedings as much as I can. One example of that: When I was reviewing movies for All Movie Guide, I often sought out movies where I was not part of the intended demographic, such as movies aimed at African-Americans. I thought these movies deserved to be given fair and earnest reviews, reviews that were not inevitably crippled by the fact that I was not African-American. I don't know what Ebert's approach was to reviewing such movies, but according to the philosophy of his approach, he would have been justified in reviewing these movies negatively simply because they were not aimed at him. (And let's be honest, movies aimed at black audiences don't necessarily attract the top-money talent in the industry.)

That brings us, finally, to Paul Johansson's 2011 film Atlas Shrugged: Part I. It's the first in a series that's supposed to eventually have three parts, the final installment of which will complete the adaptation of Ayn Rand's famous novel. Part 2 came out last year, and was dismissed with just as many critical guffaws as was Part 1.

The thing is, part of what most critics seemed to hate about this movie has something to do with taking the Ebert approach to how it offended their personal sensibilities. I'm not saying I liked Atlas Shrugged: Part I, but neither was I ready to laugh it out of the building. 

Perhaps it's time to give some explanation why Ebert and others would not have liked this movie.

If you're not familiar with Ayn Rand, she was basically a conservative ideologue. She believed in the exceptionalism of the individual, which sounds good in the abstract. But what the idea boils down to is that greatness is derived from self-actualized human beings striving for their own rational self-interest, who will logically, as part of this pursuit, create the great inventions and ideas of our age. She believed that a society founded on the good of the community tended to be the enemy of these great specimens of humanity. Simply put, she was a hardcore capitalist who despised socialism. However, she disguised much of this through a philosophy called Objectivism, which enabled her to put more of an intellectual spin on her essential elitism.

Now, movies that have strongly conservative agendas tend to do very poorly with critics. The reasons for this are fairly simple: 1) Most critics come from the world of journalism, and most journalists tend to be liberal; 2) Most filmmakers also tend to be liberal, which means that movies made by conservatives tend to be weaker aesthetically. There's a third reason: Since movies with strongly conservative agendas are very rare, they tend to leave a person feeling "weirded out" in a way they can't entirely pinpoint. That "I just walked into the wrong lecture" feeling.

All of this is to say that Atlas Shrugged: Part I is not as bad of a film as it was made out to be. Though it did definitely leave me feeling "weirded out" from time to time.

The story, such as I'm able to explain it, involves several captains of industry as its protagonists -- the first tip-off that it's not your usual story. In most stories, the hero would be the little guy, but the heroes here are the big guys. The villains are the ones who want to regulate them. But this may not even be weirdest part.

The weirdest part is that the primary indicator of the health or illness of the U.S. economy in the not-too-distant future (2016 to be exact) is the rail industry. That's right, the economy seems to live or die on which trains are doing well and which aren't. One of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged is Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), a bigwig at the heretofore massively profitable Taggart Transcontinental. Another hero of Atlas Shrugged is Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler), the CEO of Rearden Steel, which is manufacturing a new steel amalgam that will allow the fastest transcontinental travel ever. Everyone else in the movie -- and I mean everyone -- is fixated on the success or failure of their partnership.

The villains are those who support unionized workers, try to stifle companies that want to become monopolies, and generally want to end the fun that the rich people enjoy so much. One of the key developments in the plot is the passage of a bill that disallows any person from owning more than one company. Yes, the movie is asking you to root for the big guy against the little guy.

But this is what Rand's book is about. It's not set in 2016, but otherwise, the book sounds very similar. It presents her political perspective, which we may think is kooky, but which was responsible for a best-selling novel.

If Johansson presented Rand's ideas ineptly, then we'd be right to rake him over the coals. But to be honest, much of this movie is decently executed. Sure, it has that kind of weird feeling of promoting fringe ideas, and the corresponding weird feeling of no one famous appearing in any of the key roles -- smaller parts essayed by the likes of Jon Polito and Michael Lerner is about as close to the A list as this movie gets. (Schilling would later appear in a movie opposite Zac Efron.) Part of this, of course, is because the movie is low budget. But it doesn't look low budget, so that's a feather in Johansson's cap as well.

The worst thing about the movie is probably its lack of action. There's a lot -- a lot -- of discussion about business strategies, about schemes to increase profitability and drive one's competitors out of business. After awhile you start to think "Have they really just been talking about trains for the past hour?" The answer is yes, yes they have.

So this is not my kind of movie. The protagonists are fundamentally difficult to root for, even if they are indeed exceptional by Rand's standards. There's not a lot of action. And the politics are something with which I essentially disagree.

But is this a halfway decent adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, as far as I can tell? Yes, it is, it's halfway decent.

Perhaps I was predisposed not to hate Atlas Shrugged because I really loved the 1949 adaptation of her other most famous novel, The Fountainhead. King Vidor's film is about an exceptional architect, played by Gary Cooper, whose main struggle is with an architectural community that wants to change him or reel him in. I didn't know anything about Rand and her politics when I saw it, and this is what I wrote in my review:

"Rand's talky philosophies, which dominate the film for better or worse, invite endless contemplation about what it means to be a trendsetter and to protect the purity of one's artistic endeavors, especially in a world eager to quash those who challenge the status quo."

In other words, divorced from a liberal's bias against Rand, I found these ideas fascinating, even powerful.

I do think it's fair to meet a movie like Atlas Shrugged: Part I on its own terms -- just as I did when I saw 2016: Obama's America and decided that it was a reasonably competent expression of a case against Obama. I think the theories in that documentary are crackpot theories, but the evidence is presented in a way that makes me understand why the people who hold those opinions hold them. So, thumbs down, but not the most ridiculous movie I've ever seen.

Because of some of the ways it's slow and a bit too dense for its own good, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is definitely also a thumbs down for me. But it's not a laughable thumbs down.

And yeah, sure, all these oblique references to an unseen character named John Galt are a little ponderous, especially since there's no resolution to them. But loose threads are expected in a film that's supposed to be the first of three.

I'm even kind of curious to see how the next two parts turn out.

Okay, looking ahead to May ... the Olivia Newton John bomb Xanadu. At least it'll be plenty cheeky.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The generosity ends now

I've become an old softie of late.

By "old" I mean I just started the six-month countdown to turning 40. And by "softie" I mean that I feel like a jerk if I give any movie less than three stars.

This is where Danny Boyle's Trance comes in. But more on that in a minute.

Star ratings were something I never used to worry about at all. I made no habit of generating them on my own. The only way I really officially recorded some kind of quantifiable reaction to the movies I saw was giving them either a thumbs up or a thumbs down, a judgment I recorded in a column on the Excel spreadsheet where I track all the movies I've ever seen. There were certainly some movies that caused me to agonize over this choice, but at least it was only a 50/50 decision.

Since starting to use Letterboxd a little over a year ago, though, I've been thinking of movies in terms of star ratings a lot more. I was primarily drawn to the site because it would allow me to easily record the dates of the movies I saw, making this effectively a "cloud backup" of all the other documents I keep related to the movies I watch. (I can reconstruct all my other lists as long as I have a way of determining which movies I've seen since my last successful backup, and this gives me that.)

Another irresistible element of the site is giving the movies star ratings. It's not that I don't resist this element on other sites, like IMDB and Netflix, but that something about the Letterboxd interface encourages me to use it here. So use it I do. And unfortunately, a side effect of that is that as I'm watching a movie, I keep a running dialogue with myself about what its star rating should be. It's a distraction I wish I didn't have, though I suspect this afflicts anyone who reviews movies professionally to a greater or lesser extent.

Another side effect is that I've had to sync the two judgments I'm making, the thumbs up/thumbs down and the star rating. That means I need to choose an objective standard for the lowest star rating that can earn a thumbs up from me.

This is the hard part. Letterboxd uses a scale of .5 stars to 5 stars -- I suppose you could give a movie zero stars, but it would look like you simply forget to enter the star rating at all. So I've chosen three stars as that logical midpoint. Three stars out of five is a movie I like somewhat, whereas 2.5 and lower is something I dislike more than I like.

The system seemed to make a certain amount of sense. It gave an equal number of star ratings to "good" movies (3, 3.5, 4, 4.5 and 5) as to "bad" movies (.5, 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5). Seems fair, right?

Except the thumbs up/thumbs down part of it is screwing with my head. Can I really give a thumbs down to a movie that does some things right? I'm comfortable giving that movie a 2.5 stars, but I'm not that comfortable giving it a thumbs down. It seems too harsh, too absolute. Yet I do fundamentally believe in the determinations I've made about which star ratings should go to which movies. Three is my minimum for a movie that earns more praise from me than scorn.

Now it's just a matter of recognizing when I'm scorning a movie more than praising it.

When I walked out of the theater after watching Danny Boyle's Trance last night, I had decided it was worth three stars and a very mild thumbs up. When my viewing companion asked me what I thought of it, I said that I liked it more than I didn't like it. "Really?" he said. "It was alright ..." He trailed off, indicating the "but."

And yes, what about that "but"?

The next 15 minutes were spent discussing things we didn't like about Trance. I will spare you those discussions, since you probably haven't seen it.

The point is, when you get out of a movie and your first instinct is to pick apart the things that didn't work, how is that a "thumbs up"?

It occurs to me my problem is this: If I can't give a movie my recommendation, it feels the same as saying it's worthless. Which is ridiculous. Ever heard of a noble failure? I apparently haven't.

Trance is the definition of a noble failure. It means to be a jumble, but it's more of a jumble than it means to be. It means to contain surprises, but some of the surprises just don't work. It means to have a distinctive visual scheme, but sometimes that scheme gave me a headache.

So yeah, a noble failure.

A 2.5-star noble failure.

What I need to get over is the idea that I am somehow damning these filmmakers to hell if I give them anything less than three stars. Even if they worked really hard and made a lot of interesting narrative choices, it can still not work. And if a movie doesn't work, the best it can be is 2.5 stars ... right?

My "good try" approach to star ratings has left me with an unfortunate imbalance on Letterboxd. I've got tons and tons of movies with 3 or 3.5 stars, and because I'm giving those out too freely, that lowers the standard for 4 or 4.5, because I want to distinguish those movies from the 3-star dreck. The imbalance leaves very few movies with 2.5 stars and lower. Especially neglected are the .5, 1 and 1.5 star ratings. Give out those, and you're basically saying the filmmaker is not only an untalented hack, but a bad person.

So, how to restore balance?

The first step is to stop awarding participation ribbons to people who made unsuccessful movies. Just because Danny Boyle is coming off two genuinely great films (Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours), it doesn't mean he's incapable of failure. And just as I would call a spade a spade, I need to start calling a failure a failure.

The generosity ends ... now.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

I finally broke down and bought Cars

After bitching and moaning about not wanting to pay full price for Cars several times on this blog, I finally manned up and did it this past Tuesday.

Even for just the DVD (not the BluRay), and even at Target (not some top-dollar place), it was still $19.99. That was about twice what I wanted to pay for it, especially since you can get many DVDs (especially at Target) for a quarter of that price. And not just the sucky ones.

But that twenty bucks has already bought me four hours of relative quiet this past Saturday and Sunday mornings. The movie is 116 minutes long, making it an absolute beast by normal length standards for children's entertainment. But my son watched it through to the end both mornings, only taking about five minutes to run around the house and create havoc during each viewing. Each time, I was able to get him back on task, and he watched the home stretch of his own volition.

During those two two-hour blocks, I wrote a press release for work on Saturday (that's something I'm doing these days), and Sunday's Audient post on Sunday.

If you're a parent, you know you can't put a price on getting some time to yourself -- even if you have to do it by letting a Pixar movie babysit your child. At least my son has already been watching Toy Story and Up, so it's not like I'm crossing some new line.

My only complaint now is that the video has a strange glitch that affects only one part of the movie, but it affects that part every time through. When the Disney logo comes up, and that star makes an arcing motion over the top of the Magic Kingdom, the star pauses in its path, three quarters of the way through the arc. If you want it to move onward, you have to fast-forward it. However, after that, the DVD plays normally all the way through the end of the credits.

Probably another small price to pay for my sanity.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The shame that prompted a Goodfellas revisit

You know those movies you love so much and know so well that you kind of take them for granted? And then one day you realize it's been a decade since you've seen them?

That's Goodfellas for me. Except a recent incident made me question how well I really know it.

Three Saturdays ago, five friends and I attended an event I meant to write about at the time, called Terminator Too: Judgment Play. The event is a live spoof of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which professional actors play most of the key roles -- please note I said "most." Arnold Schwarzenegger is played by someone from the audience, who auditions at the start for the right to spend his entire evening on stage, reading his lines from cue cars. One of the friends who factors into today's story actually auditioned, but he only got the third-most applause from the audience -- and was later relieved to see that he hadn't had to spend his entire evening under the heat of the spotlights. (The guy they chose, who ended up being quite funny, was dripping with sweat by the end.) Anyway, the show itself is a raucous, interactive affair that sticks more or less to the movie's storyline, and involves the audience by regularly spraying them with water and blood from squibs. (They actually sell disposable ponchos, and over half the room was wearing them.) Adding to the raucous environment is that this is an intimate space with a bar, which you are invited to frequent throughout the show. If any of this sounds familiar to you, the idea originated as a similar show called Point Break Live!, in which Johnny Utah was the non-professional pulled from the audience.

Anyway, I rode there and back with my one friend who had auditioned for the Ahhnuld role (let's call him "D") and another friend ("S"), who was the driver. S had been showing us his portable version of Spotify, which allows him to take his Spotify playlists on his mobile devices for a small monthly fee. The playlist that was currently fascinating him was a complete collection of the music from Goodfellas, which is not otherwise available in album format. Some Spotify user had gone through and recorded which songs played when, then listed them chronologically for all other Spotify users to enjoy.

Since Goodfellas is my #11 movie on Flickchart, I was all ready to chime in with general words of unbridled praise for the movie, with enough specific examples sprinkled in to clearly indicate I have mastery of this material. If you're a film person -- and if you're reading this, chances are you are -- you're probably familiar with this phenomenon. You're not trying to show off, exactly; you just want to convince the others around you you're a legit film fan with plenty of insight.

A minute or two later, I would realize how ridiculous the idea of me "showing off" actually was.

I didn't even have time to open my mouth before D and S were describing exactly what was happening on screen when each new song began, in the excited language of guys who've seen the movie 30 times. Adding to the frenzy was that S did not actually want to listen to each song all the way through -- he'd give a 15-second taste of some songs and then move on to the next. D, who was especially masterful in this exchange, didn't miss a beat, immediately jumping to the next scene and giving a full and accurate description of it.

I couldn't verify its accuracy, of course, but the knowing laughter of S said "Yep, you're right, and it's hilarious that you know it that well." Of course, he was one to talk -- he was doing almost as much as D to set the scene. (And it was he who had the playlist in the first place.)

I sat there mostly silently, contemplating the depth of my own Goodfellas ignorance. I'd chime in with words of awe or praise for their daunting levels of familiarity, but mostly just shook my head in disbelief. Not only could I not match much of the music to anything in the movie -- the notable exception being that song that begins "Everything, everything, everything's going to be all right" when a paranoid Henry Hill is checking the sky for helicopters -- but I wasn't even recognizing some of the scenes they were describing.

The shame. The shame.

I can tell myself that while they were watching Goodfellas 30 times, I was seeing Goodfellas once and expanding my film horizons by watching 29 other movies I'd never seen. (I've actually probably seen Goodfellas four our five times.) It's an approach to watching movies that I generally favor. 

But when my approach prevents me from remembering numerous details about what's supposed to be my 11th favorite movie of all time? A movie I included as one of the ten I'd submit if I were voting in the Sight & Sound poll of the best movies of all time (as discussed here)? That's a point of concern.

Exactly three weeks later, I finally made amends. I'm borrowing the projector from work again this weekend, and last night, I projected Goodfellas on a sheet hanging on the back of my garage door. Since I (obviously) don't own the movie, though I certainly should, this was a library rental. And for a minute I thought it wasn't going to happen, since I inserted the disc and found myself suddenly at that scene where Karen Hill is angrily ringing Janice Rossi's doorbell. I looked for a second disc in the container, but there wasn't one. I finally realized that this two-sided disc -- speaking of two-sided discs -- didn't have the full screen version on the other side, it had the first half of the movie. I'm glad to say that neither side was scuffed enough to endanger my viewing.

Since I've already gone on for awhile here, I won't go into the details of my latest viewing. I will say that I definitely still love it as much as I loved it ten years ago, or whenever my actual last viewing was. In situations like this, I also like to be reminded of some of the actors playing some of the secondary characters, actors I may not have realized were in the movie the last time I saw it, or may not have known well enough at the time to recognize them. Three in particular come to mind from Goodfellas: Mike Starr, Kevin Corrigan and Isiah Whitlock Jr. 

One thing is for sure: I will no longer take Goodfellas for granted.

And the next time D and S want to start up a Goodfellas discussion free-for-all, I'm all in.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Double-sided disc saves the day

I always kind of hate DVDs that can play on either side.

What should seem like a marvel of technological achievement instead just bothers me. Here are the reasons:

1) I like artwork on DVDs. Pure and simple. A DVD is all the more special if it looks nice. Or at least if you can read the title on anything but the inner rim of plastic.

2) I like having a protective side. I want there to be one surface that can come in contact with dust, dirt and other damaging particles without having any impact on the disc's ability to play.

3) If you have two sides, you are usually catering to some philistine who doesn't understand the value of keeping intact the film's original aspect ratio, and wants to watch the movie in pan-and-scan full screen.

However, in rare instances, having a second side to the DVD actually serves as a backup, preserving your ability to watch a movie you would otherwise have to send back to Netflix.

That was the case last night when I watched Wrong Turn, an absolutely terrible horror movie from a decade ago which I was watching for a series I'm doing on another film blog. When I removed it from its shipping sleeve, I immediately noticed a crack in the shape of a crow's foot on the playing surface, extending outward for maybe an inch from the center.

I might as well have just immediately put it back in the envelope, left it for the mailman, and started to scramble for another option to fulfill the needs of this week's post. Except I noticed that this was one of those two-sided discs, giving undiscriminating viewers the right to discriminate against the wide screen version. I also noticed that the seemingly fatal crow's foot was only on one playing surface, while the other one was generally pristine.

Sure enough, I inserted the disc into my BluRay player, and the FBI warning immediately confirmed the disc's ongoing viability. In fact, only at one point, maybe a half-hour in, did the disc start to have any problems at all, when it start doing that pausing/pixelating thing. At that point I'd already determined that the film was terrible, and thought it could be an even worse tease to see only a third of this terrible movie, wasting a half-hour of my life before having to scramble for another option anyway. But I successfully bypassed the problem section by moving on to the next chapter and manually rewinding to the point when it started pixelating, and it didn't pixelate the second time through.

I did have a couple problems when my wife returned from dropping her friend at the airport and asked me to continue the movie on another device so she could watch something on the living room TV. I had only 20 minutes remaining at this point, and neither the bedroom BluRay player nor my laptop seemed to want to oblige the damaged disc. I got nowhere on the BluRay player, and my laptop actually started playing the movie but then kicked me out. On my next three or four attempts, it wouldn't get past the menu screen. However, I randomly gave the BluRay player a second chance, and this time it read it right away and escorted me to the movie's merciful finish.

I had to watch the pan-and-scan version, but with a movie this shitty, that was probably more appropriate anyway.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Running through tears

I've struggled with how to address the Boston Marathon bombing on my blog, especially since it's a movie blog. Then I decided, screw the theme. This is what I went with.

I decided it was important to go running on Monday.

Running is not something I do regularly, though it is something I hope to do regularly going forward. See, within the past month I decided that I want to run a marathon at some point in my life. I was a cross country runner for three years in high school and college, so I have the ability. I've run as many as ten miles in a row before, and though I'm under no illusions about how easily or how quickly I could pick it back up to more than double that distance, I also realize I'm a legitimate candidate to try.

Besides, Monday was also the day they bombed my hometown.

I grew up in Lexington, the Revolutionary War town to the northeast of Boston. Lexington is known as the site of one of the battles that kicked off our successful rebellion against the British. As a matter of fact, early in the morning on the third Monday of every April, this battle is reenacted on the town green. Thousands of people turn up as early as 5 a.m. to line the green and watch the minutemen and the British duke it out in a battle that amounted to a massacre for the locals. The fledgling Americans may have lost that battle, but as we all know, they (we) won the war.

My dad was involved with the facilities committee at our church, which looks out over this patch of lawn where the battle is reenacted. So he had access to our church steeple, meaning I got a bird's eye view of the reenactment a couple times as a young and wide-eyed child.

This third Monday of April is a state holiday known as Patriots Day, and that's the day of the running of the Boston Marathon, one of the world's most famous and most prestigious. It's also the first day I myself ever ran in a race. I couldn't have been more than eight or nine years old when I ran my first five-mile Patriots Day road race in Lexington, an experience that taught me I might have an aptitude and a love for running. The race was, and probably still is, one of a number of town events on Patriots Day, including a big parade.

Because of a shift in my son's daycare schedule, I was already scheduled to go running on Monday instead of Wednesday as I normally would. This was before I heard that two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, ultimately killing three people and injuring more than 170.

I'm not quick to shed tears in times of tragedy. In fact, even though I was slack-jawed and in a daze for weeks after 9/11, I never shed a single tear.

But when I got into my car on Monday to visit one of my company's remote sites for a technician visit, and heard them discussing the incident on the radio, I felt that involuntary huffing and heaving well up inside me. It's different when it's your own home, the place you grew up, the place that always felt so safe to you. It's different when it's personal.

I worked the rest of the day in a bit of a daze, but continued to fulfill my duties as I learned additional bits of information here and there. I picked up my son and brought him home, and laced up the new running shoes I'd bought two days earlier.

I've been listening to podcasts while I run, but this wasn't the right accompaniment to my current twin senses of anger and pain. So I put on Prodigy's album Invaders Must Die, thinking nothing of any metaphorical significance it may have had, thinking only of the driving beats that would propel my body to run the anger out.

The first track, the title track, has obvious meaning in terms of the xenophobia involved in a terrorist attack. The next track was "Omen," which continues the, well, ominous mood. That goes right into "Thunder," which includes the following refrain: "I hear thunder, but there's no rain. This kind of thunder breaks walls and window panes." I had just earlier heard about the windows of shops on Boylston Street blowing out from the blasts.

These three tracks are followed by "Colours," "Take Me to the Hospital," "Warrior's Dance" and "Run With the Wolves." It's like someone engineered this album specifically to get out the frustration after a marathon in your town is attacked by terrorists. (Even though I didn't quite get to the track called "World's on Fire.")

I didn't stretch before this run, and I didn't pace myself once it started. I hit the track and ran like I was chasing ghosts, or running from them.

And as I thought of the kinship between myself and my hometown, and the physical activity that linked me to the tragedy that had occurred there a couple hours earlier, my legs gained speed and my vision blurred.

Anger and frustration can only fuel the body so far, and pretty soon I was forced from a run to a walk. And I could have stopped right there and just gone home, powerless to do anything less or anything more than I was currently doing.

But I picked back up and jogged for another 15 minutes -- enough to get me through "Run With the Wolves," anyway.

I owed it to the runners in Monday's Boston Marathon, and the city itself, to keep on going.

In my car on the way home, I moved ahead to the last track on Invaders Must Die, a joyous, lyric-free anthem that can almost be described as the electronic version of marching band music.

The song, appropriately, is called "Stand Up."

Friday, April 12, 2013

Life, the universe and Jackie Robinson

The number 42 has had a significance to me long before I knew much, or perhaps anything, about Jackie Robinson.

Just as it has for anyone who grew up reading Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.

It's more involved than this, but here's a tidy summary from wikipedia:

"In the first novel and radio series, a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings demand to learn the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything from the supercomputer, Deep Thought, specially built for this purpose. It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42. Deep Thought points out that the answer seems meaningless because the beings who instructed it never actually knew what the Question was."

As is the case with anything brilliant and wonderful you read, it sticks with you a lot longer, and comes up in a lot more situations than you ever would think it should. Hence, I basically cannot hear the number 42 these days without thinking of Deep Thought and its perplexing calculation. When my wife turned 42 back in February, I even quoted The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in her birthday card. She appreciated that.

So what does this all have to do with baseball?

Well, Jackie Robinson, the first man to break Major League Baseball's color barrier back in 1947, wore #42. To honor this feat, baseball retired Robinson's number on all teams, not just the Brooklyn (now Los Angeles) Dodgers, back in 1997, to mark 50 years since the landmark achievement.

It's doubtful that Douglas Adams, a young humorist living in England, had any sense of the American significance of this number (nor that Americans themselves had much of a sense of it at the time) when he launched Hitchhiker's as a BBC radio series back in 1978. (And can I just say that it's blowing my mind to learn that this brand originated as a radio series, not as a book. I thought it had been the other way around.) It probably just seemed to him like an absurdly random number somewhere between 1 and 100. He probably used similar logic to what you and I use when we are looking to exaggerate a number, but not too much. ("I've checked my email 42 times in the last five minutes," you might say.)

I guess you could say this number is almost equally important to me for the two different reasons. Baseball now means a lot more to me than The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but Adams' book did come along to me first, and found me at a perfect time to play an essential role in molding my sense of humor and giving me a bottomless appreciation for the absurd. (Actually, they came along very close to the same time, as it turns out. I read at least some of those books in the summer of 1986 when my family was vacationing in England, and I became a baseball fan that fall when the Red Sox went to the World Series. I'd like to say that was the year I turned 14, which is a factor of 42, but alas, it was the year I turned 13.)

Still, I don't know if it's quite enough to get me out to the movies to see 42. Suddenly the films I want to see in the theater are starting to really conglomerate, and my genuine interest in seeing a Jackie Robinson biopic is still slightly less than my antipathy for sports movies in general. (I've discussed this irony before, that I love sports but don't love sports movies, so I won't get into it again right now.) But if I don't make it out to the theater to see this movie, I'll be first in line to rent it on DVD.

The other half of this irony on my perspective on sports movies vs. actual sports is that my wife is just the opposite. She doesn't care a lick for "sport" (as Australians call it) but she damn near loves sports movies. In fact, every time the ad for 42 comes on, she mentions that she wants to see it. It's especially funny because my wife hasn't see anything in the theater since before Christmas, when she took in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This could be the one to end her drought.

I suppose it could just be this: She's of the exact age to be seeking out the answers to life's great questions.

Closing my eyes, covering my ears, and humming

I think I may have freaked out my friend when seeing Evil Dead Tuesday night.

The movie hadn't even started, and already I was showing signs of being possessed.

I can only imagine his thoughts as he first registered my behavior out of the corner of his eye. What would you think if your theater companion suddenly closed his eyes, covered his ears and started emanating a tuneless, demented hum? Whether or not he was actually rocking back and forth, you'd probably hallucinate it at this point.

Well, all I was really doing was trying to limit my exposure to the latest trailer for This is the End, the ensemble end-of-the-world comedy in which the stars you see in this poster play themselves, facing the apocalypse.

I don't usually go to such extreme lengths. It's usually too much trouble to prevent yourself from seeing trailers in the movie theater. Usually I just hope that the movies I really want to see are not the movies they've chosen to advertise.

But especially with a comedy, there's a very good chance that some of the best jokes will be spoiled in the trailer. And this is one of those movies where I want the best jokes to remain a surprise to me.

This is the End did it the right way by starting out with an excellent teaser trailer, in which five of the six people you see above (sorry Jay Baruchel) have a conversation on what I guess is the "morning after." Enough bad shit has already happened that they know Danny McBride shouldn't be wasting their food supplies on the lavish breakfast he's cooked up, but not so much that their world has been torn asunder (though they do say that Michael Cera has already died, and that this could be a benefit of the apocalypse). It's a funny scene, and I kind of suspect it's not actually in the movie. This two-minute bit is followed by maybe 30 seconds of images that I do expect to actually be in the movie.

However, I could tell that this was a new trailer that was intent on showing me a lot more. So I decided, then and there, that I needed to use whatever means were at my disposal to prevent it from reaching my eyes and ears.

Fortunately, I did have the presence of mind to immediately snap out of it once the sounds of the trailer stopped, and to immediately explain to my friend what I'd been doing. However, that meant that for the length of your average trailer, he thought his friend might have just had a psychotic break with reality, and he probably spent a good 30 seconds debating what his next move should be.

Next time, I think I'll only try to create a personal sensory deprivation chamber when I'm alone at the movies.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Misunderstanding Evil Dead

I can't tell you how many times I've had pretty much this exact exchange with people since the first footage of the Evil Dead was revealed:

Me: "I can't believe they're remaking Evil Dead as a straight horror."

Other Person: "But the original was a straight horror movie. They're remaking the original."

Factually, this is true. But that ignores the fact that the legacy of the Evil Dead series -- which includes The Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992) -- is horror comedy. In fact, the third movie almost entirely abandons horror in favor of comedy. If you had to choose a second genre for Army of Darkness, you'd probably choose fantasy before you'd choose horror.

So that raises the question: If you are rebooting a series, do you want to capture its essence, or do you want to be literal about it?

It's probably clear that I think it should be the essence. Maybe I'm the only one who thinks this way, but when I think of the most Evil Dead-ish Evil Dead movie, I think of Evil Dead II. I think of Bruce Campbell treating his disembodied hand as an adversary and dropping the single-word adjective to describe any situation: "Groovy."

If you have a different experience, that's fine. Perhaps you saw the movies in order. Me, I saw Evil Dead II first, followed by Army of Darkness and then by The Evil Dead itself only two or three years ago, 17 or 18 years after I saw Army of Darkness. That's a pretty logical explanation for coming to know this as a comedy series, not a horror series.

But I'm talking to people around my age, age 39, most of whom would not have seen The Evil Dead in 1981 when they were seven going on eight. In many ways it seems like mine was the more likely experience, with Evil Dead II being slightly more age appropriate (13 going on 14) and Army of Darkness even more so. Me, I was introduced to Evil Dead II in college, probably around 1993 or 1994. There was a reason my friends chose to show me this, followed quickly by Army of Darkness, and not the original movie: They thought it was funny as hell.

In case you think this is some kind of indictment of The Evil Dead, I assure you it isn't. I couldn't believe how much I loved Sam Raimi's original film, even seeing it at the late date of 2010 or 2011. I am a big champion of that film.

But it seems to me that if you are looking to attract the original audience of a series, at least as a secondary goal, you need to make a new film that's a tribute to our lingering impression of that original series. (The primary goal, of course, being to appeal to today's teens.) Especially if you are going to make it a rebooted franchise. If that's your goal, you have to get it right the first time. Otherwise, you won't have the chance to remake Evil Dead II as a comedy. 

Not that this is how they would be going with future Evil Dead movies, if there are to be some. Now that you've established this new series as a horror series, you run the risk of turning off whatever your new fan base is by shifting tone so radically for the second or third movies.

Especially when you have attempted to make -- and believe you've succeeded at making -- "the most terrifying film you will ever experience." So not only is this not a comedy, it's more frightening than The Exorcist or Poltergeist or Suspiria. What's more, it's more frightening than any movie anybody will ever make. To quote John Travolta from Pulp Fiction, "Das a bold statement."

It strikes me as very odd that a studio would consider a movie series worth rebooting, but also run so completely away from what made that series distinctive. It's not that horror comedy has utterly no traction with today's youth, either. Though it may not have been a box office smash, The Cabin in the Woods was certainly a cultural phenomenon, indicating that teens like their horror movies funny and self-aware. You can fit some legitimate scares in there as well without them being any less legitimate. As currently constructed, Evil Dead 2013 seems like just another attempt to scare the bejesus out of the audience. It could end up feeling -- gasp -- generic.

In a way, though, perhaps this is the best way to serve Evil Dead II. When we talk about movies being sacred and not wanting to see them remade, that's because we think the remake will dilute the ongoing value or our lingering memories of the original. If the makers of this reboot had spent a bunch of time on trying to cast a square-jawed leading man who could be as funny as Bruce Campbell was, that's a sure recipe for failure. Campbell was an unexpected comic genius who did his thing perfectly, and any attempt to duplicate that would probably fall flat.

I will take all of these questions out of the realm of the theoretical when I go to see Evil Dead on Tuesday night. At the very least, I'm curious to see what somebody's hyperbolic notion of "the most terrifying film [I] will ever experience" is.

It has to be good for at least one or two disturbing moments -- even if not any funny ones.

Friday, April 5, 2013

R.I.P. Roger Ebert

I spoke to Roger Ebert one time in my life.

I had stopped to visit Don Handsome at the University of Illinois in the spring of 2001, as part of my drive cross country to live in Los Angeles. My exact date of departure from Boston (where I had been collecting myself for a few weeks after leaving my apartment in New York) was actually determined by this visit, because this visit was purposefully scheduled to fall during Roger Ebert's annual Overlooked Film Festival, which takes place in Champaign every April. The festival was in its third or fourth year, and continued through til last year, by which point it was known simply as Ebertfest. I imagine a 2013 installment would have transpired if Ebert hadn't been dealing with the return of his cancer -- which only was just making news yesterday.

I attended each day of the festival before continuing west, watching such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jesus' Son, Such a Long Journey, Maryam, Songs from the Second Floor, Panic, Everyone Says I Love You, and surely one or two more than I am not remembering now. Bill Paxton spoke, so I must have seen one of his movies as well. Ebert himself spoke before each film, introducing the movies and sharing a little piece of his great critical mind with us.

During rare down times between screenings, Ebert made himself available for activities like luncheons and book signings. I didn't go to any of the former, but I did attend the latter, equipped with my copy of one of Ebert's books. (I could look up the title, but it doesn't really matter.)

Don and I waited in line for maybe 30 minutes (I don't really remember) before we got up to the front.

Now, since this is a remembrance of one of the foremost critics in film history, you probably think I'm going to regale you with the touching story of how Roger took an interest in my critical aspirations or shared an attaboy or some priceless words of wisdom with me.

Um, no.

When I got to the front, I told Ebert that I was also a critic. This was 12 years ago, when not everyone with a keyboard and a mouse and an internet connection could make such a claim.

Ebert's response?


It wasn't quite as emotionless as that, and in fact it did contain an obligatory note of albeit disinteresed recognition that this was something he was supposed to be impressed by. Well, he wasn't impressed.

That's okay. Ebertfest was a busy time for the man, and he was probably exhausted from willingly exposing himself to every well-wisher who wanted to approach him. Just because I aspired to do the same thing he had made into a wildly successful career, didn't make me any different than the rest of them.

I was a little disappointed by the experience -- but how couldn't I be. This man was an unacknowledged hero to me. By that I mean, I didn't go around telling everyone that I worshipped Roger Ebert or proclaiming the influence he'd had on my life. But I have absolutely no doubt that he was one of a few key factors in me pursuing film criticism as a career.

I am very sad today, on the day of Ebert's death, but I guess I'm not as sad as the day Gene Siskel died in 1999. Even though I knew Siskel had been struggling with a probably fatal illness, his actual death caught me completely by surprise and left me feeling hollow for days. Now, I'm 14 years more jaded and more accustomed to public figures bowing out of our collective lives. Ebert was 70, which is three years younger than my dad, who seems like he could live another 25. But 70 is also old enough that you don't say the person got cheated by not living longer.

Still, Ebert was an active force in film criticism up until, well, this week I guess. He lost his jaw to cancer and became a shadow of his former self, yet that only seemed to increase the vigor with which he discussed films.

And one thing about the version of Ebert we'd come to know in recent years: He was always smiling. Whether that was a true reflection of his feelings about the world or not, I like to think that it was.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Still processing

When you're not sure whether you liked a movie a lot or a little, but are still processing it two days later, there's your answer.

Spring Breakers is the kind of movie that makes you realize that the mere exercise of grappling with your complex feelings about a movie makes it pretty damn good.

What's turning out to be the most divisive movie of the year so far doesn't have me divided anymore. I'm not going to say it's a masterpiece, but it's a shot of cinematic adrenaline that feels unique at the same time that it feels familiar.

If that sounds like a contradiction, welcome to Harmony Korine's latest film. It's all about contradictions. It's high culture and low culture. It's a critique and a celebration of the pursuit of hedonism. It's a comedy and a horror movie.

My first instinct after the credits started to roll (literally; I turned my phone on right then and there) was to text the following to my friend who had already seen it: "Spring Breakers: the Tree of Life of spring break movies."

I'd say that was an oversimplification, except comparing something to The Tree of Life is never an activity that should be described as simple.

The surface comparison I was making is that both movies have arthouse pretensions ("pretensions" in a value neutral sense) and that both contain a lot of what I called "B-roll" when I talked about The Tree of Life. If you're not familiar with the term "B-roll," it's basically secondary footage that doesn't accomplish anything more than setting the scene or tone. It's really a TV journalism term: If you are interviewing kids on the street about a new viral phenomenon, you might shoot some footage of the outside of their high school, or a street sign, or a skate park, to set the scene of where you're doing the interviews. That's B-roll. Of course, B-roll in an arthouse film would be a lot less strictly functional and mundane. The B-roll I think of in The Tree of Life is stuff like sprinklers watering a lawn, or a curtain blowing lightly in the wind.

My contention was that The Tree of Life had altogether too much B-roll, especially in its second half, when I thought it started to lose focus. Spring Breakers might also have too much, but at least much of the Spring Breakers B-roll contains gyrating bodies, lines of cocaine sniffed off of torsos, and geysers of foamy beer.

Before I get sidetracked forever on a discussion of B-roll, let me use this as a transition to discuss what this movie is doing. The movie is damn near suffused with shots of naked breasts, slow-mo clouds of weed smoke coming out of bongs, and water cascading over bikini-clad bodies. Such unbridled indulgence would be easy to criticize, especially since Korine isn't so straightforward and moralistic as to outright condemn what he's showing us. When you show us lots of boobs without making a direct indictment of what you're doing, you could certainly be accused of exploitation.

Except art is rarely very effective when it tells us exactly what to think. Covering your ass from a moral standpoint rarely makes for provocative or memorable art. Surely, the bacchanalian pursuits documented in Spring Breakers go plenty of places that strip the romanticism from those pursuits, so Korine does indict them on some level. But the line is so fine -- especially with the repeated focus on the bodies of these barely post-teen women, some of whom cut their teeth on Disney productions -- that it's meant to discomfit us.

And discomfit us it does. While titillating us. While making us hate ourselves for that. While indulging in some gonzo iconography that's simultaneously cheeky and profound.

The best way to describe the visual scheme/concepts of Spring Breakers is somewhere between Point Break, Drive, Oliver Stone's Savages (which I actually haven't seen) and any number of Tony Scott's more in-your-face movies (maybe Domino). So there's a contradiction built into the movies I'm comparing it to as well. I say I really like this movie, yet I don't love any of the movies that I'm comparing it to (the ones I've seen, anyway). In fact, I don't even like Domino, and I think the Point Break comparison really has to do with beach bums committing violent crimes while donning masks.

The fact that I've written nearly 800 words, and don't feel like I've started to scratch the surface of Spring Breakers, is another indication of how much I liked it.

But see, until the brilliant last scene of the movie, I wasn't even sure if I liked it. My guess is that's by design. You're supposed to feel a bit queasy, a bit disgusted with what's on display, a bit uncertain whether Korine is driving you off a cliff, a bit uncertain whether that's actually a bad thing.

I've read at least a couple truly excellent reviews of Spring Breakers, and because I'm writing this post under time constraints, I'm not going to try to achieve that level of insight about the film. However, I will refer you to both of them if you're interested: Here's one and here's the other. I'm sure there are plenty of others, and I'm sure there are even some negative reviews that make really convincing arguments.

That's what this processing is all about. It's a film having an internal life inside you as you chew it over for days and even weeks. Even if I have another phase where my affection turns into disdain, I'll know that the movie truly provoked me, which means it's "good" by any measure.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

a bad thing happeNed

I have sumething to tell you. on Saterday I had an acident while using the laddur in my backyard. My head hit the ground hard and i went uncocious. I woke up in the hospital where docters were taking to me.

They said I sustaned some brain damage when I fell on the ground. I can still do most thing the same but i get tired quick ly and Im taking at least 3 weeks form work.

Its kind of sad because theyre not sure if Im gonna get better. Ill have to seee if i can stay on disubility for awhile from my wokr.

Its too bad too becuz i liike writing this blog posts., I dont want to stop The Adient (what dose that mean anyway) becuz i like reading these posts

however,, I think some things are probbly have to change. .   I dont know if I still made good reckimindations for movise these days. I still like most movies tho.

So blog possts wil be a littul stange for awhile probally. I hope you like me enuff to keep reeding because I like to rite blogs ,

I hope you have a good Eastur, mine was good accept for you know, the thing that happend.

Pleasdont giveup on my Adient blog

Monday, April 1, 2013

Forever Frankenweenie

I've seen a new movie since Frankenweenie.

It was Neil Marshall's The Descent, which I started watching on Wednesday morning when I inexplicably awoke an hour earlier than I needed to. Since movie-watching time is rare and precious, I put that extra hour to good use, and finished watching on my lunch break.

I've also revisited a movie since This Is Spinal Tap. It was Quentin Dupieux's Rubber, which my wife and I liked so much when we first saw it, I decided to buy her the BluRay for her birthday in February. We watched it again on Friday night.

Neither of these viewings is reflected in my Most Recently Seen For the First Time or Most Recently Revisited sections on the right of my blog, however, because Blogger is broken.

I don't usually have to write too much -- or anything, really -- about the functioning of this free service that Blogger provides me, because usually that functioning is top notch. But since Wednesday, when I tried to update you on the fact that I saw The Descent, the gadget that stores that list has been busted.

See, everything that appears in the right column on the blog is called a gadget. A gadget is basically a blog part that has a certain function. You can have as many or as few as you want, but many of them are pretty core parts of the functionality of the blog, such as the display of my followers, the listing of recent posts, the quick bio of me and my extensive list of labels.

The Recently Seen lists (which were accompanied by a Recently Reviewed list when I was still regularly writing reviews) are just a gadget called a list, which can be anything you want it to be. I decided that these lists would be a good way to keep you up to date on the most basic level with my viewing habits, since I certainly don't discuss every movie I see in the form of a blog post.

I've been unable to since Wednesday, however, because when I try to delete Butter as the third most recent movie I've seen, move the others down to slots 2 and 3, and add The Descent at the top, I get the following error upon saving: "Please correct errors on form." In fact, I get this error if I try to do any one of those things, so it's nothing about the "complexity" of my transaction that's causing the error. In fact, even if you just open the gadget, do nothing, and then hit save, it still gives the error. Your only choice that does not produce an error is just hitting cancel and closing the gadget that way.

I didn't even notice the form had given me an error on that first day. In fact, I was at work, and I just hit save and shifted my attention to another open window on my computer. It was only the next day, looking at my blog, that I noticed Frankenweenie was still the most recent movie I'd seen. Surprised at the oversight, I then noticed the gadget window still open, hidden behind my other open documents, with the error. I repeated the action and got the error again.

A couple hours later, after another failed attempt, I finally googled it, and discovered that dozens of other people reported the same issue -- with no response from anyone at Google (which owns Blogger) about what was happening and when it would be fixed. Not to mention plenty of bloggers frustrated with Google's inactivity.

Since then I have tried it again about once a day with the same result.

I don't care all that much, really. Although it's a bit annoying, I don't sit here and say I have some right to a string of perfect, unbroken functionality on a service I don't even pay to use. Of course, Google gets its money from me in other ways, charting my activities and selling it to advertisers. Still, I think I've gotten a plenty good deal by writing this blog for over four years and never paying anyone a single dime.

I did want to let you know that no, I did not go blind, or no, my DVD player and internet are not broken, or no, I'm not suddenly too broke to go to the theater.

I did want to give you some sort of explanation about why Frankenweenie will forever more be my most recently seen movie ... either forever more, or until sometime this Tuesday, when someone at Google finally finds the small piece of screwed up code and fixes it.