Thursday, August 29, 2013

Famous Flops: The Room

This is the latest in my monthly series Famous Flops, in which I watch one absolutely terrible movie and tell you what I think of it.

By all rights, my first post after arriving to Australia (almost a full week ago) should be some kind of "welcome to Australia, Vance!" post. However, I have deadlines to keep, and only a precious few days remaining in August in order to serve up my monthly installment of Famous Flops.

It seems like forever ago that I saw The Room, since so much has happened in the interim. In fact, I still had a few days remaining at my job when I took to the theater on the night of Saturday, July 27th (technically cheating since the screening should have fallen within the month of August) to watch a movie so famously bad, they now show it at midnights on Saturdays in cities around the country, including North Hollywood, CA. I feel like I haven't worked in forever, so this tells you how long ago it was -- it was forever ago plus a few days.

This movie is terrible, of course.

But first a little history, personal history, about it.

I was living in Los Angeles when Tommy Wiseau's craptastically wonderful film was first released back in 2003. I remember thinking of it as some kind of Los Angeles institution akin to that ageless (i.e. very old now) pink Corvette-driving "beauty" Angelyne. One look at the billboard and you could tell that it was not a reputable production. Yet that billboard stayed up there on Highland, I think it was, for years, meaning that it did indeed have some kind of dollars or marketing muscle or something behind it. My fascination increased.

Sometime last year I learned that it was playing at the Laemmle in North Hollywood at midnight on the last Saturday of every month. I tried to get a crew to go on Thanksgiving weekend when a friend was in town, but you'd be surprised about how people ultimately react to a midnight movie when their backs are against the wall. They passed.

About three days before the last Saturday night in July of this year -- in other words, the last Saturday I'd be eligible to see The Room in Los Angeles before leaving for Australia -- the scarcity of my remaining opportunity struck me. I knew I needed to move now if I wanted to make The Room -- the full-on live experience of watching The Room, not just a DVD viewing -- happen. I emailed a couple friends and one bit. We set it up for that Saturday.

There's a great story that goes with this viewing, but I'll save it until after I give you my impressions.

First I should probably set the scene. There's an idea that The Room is a cultural heir apparent to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and seeing the live screening did nothing to disabuse me of that notion. For starters, it was packed. Not sold out, but populous enough for a midnight screening to earn the description "packed." The next thing I noticed was that people were bringing props, a la Rocky Horror. Plastic spoons were one particular prop. A football was another, though to the great consternation of many audience members, this football was lost/misplaced early on, never to be recovered. Lastly, the audience was buzzing with electricity. When the movie inexplicably started about five minutes early, disappointed audience members still filing in loudly exclaimed "It's not midnight yet!" To no avail, of course.

Okay, the movie.

Yeah, it's awful. Here are some overall comments/impressions:

1) There are about four sex scenes within the first half-hour. However, these are not lurid sex scenes designed to titillate. They are "romantic" sex scenes, involving cheesy music, rose petals, and both participants with expressions on their faces like you might see in an ad for an erection pill. What's most comical about these scenes is that they are ALL romantic, even though the same woman appears in all four, but has two different partners. The movie means for us to believe that she has an equally romantic relationship -- in other words, a relationship that the movie itself supports her having -- with both men.

2) Tommy Wiseau. He is probably the worst actor who has ever lived. He looks a bit like Gabriel Byrne, but there's no comparison between their abilities as thespians. Wiseau's unplaceable European accent probably contributes to his poor line readings, but only so much. You're not just picking on him because he has a funny accent. You're picking on him because he is a truly terrible performer.

3) The football. About five different times in this movie, characters engage in carefree sessions of football tossing. This is regardless of what's going on in the plot (plot? what plot?) and seemingly without reason. None of these characters seem athletically inclined, generally (although there's also an extensive jogging scene), nor would they seem interested in football, in particular.

4) The plot. What plot? As far as I can tell it's about a guy (Wiseau) who is losing his wife (Juliette Danielle) to his best friend (Greg Sestero). However, it is frequently very indirectly about this. There's also a part where their teenage neighbor gets involved in some kind of drug deal gone bad, but it's handled so non-specifically (we never learn what kind of drugs, or how he got involved) that it becomes just another one of the film's laughable elements.

5) The technique. Just awful. Establishing shots of San Francisco -- and there are many, usually involving the Golden Gate Bridge -- linger on for 10-15 seconds longer than they should. The dialogue is Z grade. Characters appear mysteriously and become important without being introduced or contextualized. Characters also sometimes look at the camera or make inexplicable gestures/glances.

6) I could go on.

7) But what I really want to say is that the participation of the audience, while active and in many ways quite fun, sometimes served as a distraction for me. Knowing how terrible everything about this movie was, I sometimes regretted having real howlers in the dialogue drowned out by their rejoinders. I don't suppose there's anything I could have done about that except for see the movie first at home, and then come to the theater. However, I think seeing this stuff for the first time on a big screen is key to your enjoyment of it, so my complaint about losing some of the priceless craptasticity is only a minor one.

Okay, so, the story.

When The Room ended and we got up to leave, I patted myself down and realized I did not have my keys. As it was nearly 1:45 a.m. and I had to get home, panic set in almost immediately. Sorry, I should tweak that last statement a little bit. As it was nearly 1:45 a.m. and I had to get home, and my wife was already in Australia, panic set in almost immediately.

I first examined the area around where I was sitting, since the most likely explanation was that I'd lost my keys between the seats. It's happened before. But they were not there. I then thought that perhaps I had left them atop the urinal in the men's room, since I had indeed relieved myself before the movie started. They weren't there either.

Panic really started to set in when I couldn't find anyone who worked at the theater still there. I assumed there must be someone in "the back room," an area behind the concession stand where it seemed most likely they'd be. But leaning over the concession stand and repeatedly saying "Hello? Hello? Excuse me?" yielded no results. This was starting to get truly frightening.

Actually forging back behind the concession stand finally prompted a woman in the lobby to identify herself as a member of the staff. Pretty dick move on her part not to say anything before then with a very obviously agitated customer desperately trying to identify her, so I guess it was a good move on my part to breach the employee area. I asked if any keys had been turned in to the lost and found. She said no, but I was welcome to look. Meanwhile, my friend was doing a much more thorough search of the theater.

Suddenly I knew where they were, and where they almost certainly would no longer be:

On the roof of my car.

My car, which was parked on a side street off a main thoroughfare, on a Saturday night in North Hollywood.

I started running at full sprint, sure that they would be gone, sure that my car would be gone, sure that I would be out the amount of money I hoped to make on my car when I sold it in a few weeks, sure that I would have lost all the personal items in the car as well. I felt a cold sweat break out on my forehead and ran faster.

It took only about 20 seconds to reach the car, where I immediately saw a shimmering object on its roof, right where I expected it to be.

I scooped up those keys, breathed a massive sigh of relief, and somehow ran back to the theater even faster than I'd run to get to my car. It took another 30 seconds for my friend to emerge from the screening room (and I was now locked out so I couldn't get to him), but when he did, there I was, dangling the thought-to-be-lost item in glorious victory.

When I told him where they, in fact, were, he laughed in disbelief and ecstatic joy.

Here's what happened: I arrived a few minutes earlier than he did, and while waiting for him, I stood outside my car and smartphoned for a few minutes. When I do this, I usually just toss my keys on top of my car, then grab them before I go. In this case, I expected him to call me when he arrived and I'd go meet him at the theater. Instead, he was walking toward me and talking to me on the phone, so I naturally started to walk toward him when I saw him turn the corner and come into my view. No thought was given as to whether the car was locked or I even had my keys.

So my keys sat on top of my car for nearly two hours, from 11:45 to 1:45, in what used to be a kind of seedy neighborhood but has now improved slightly, and my car was not stolen.

I'll just have to thank my lucky stars for that one.

Okay, on to September. As I'm still getting my bearings and I don't know what my new methods of acquiring movies will be (we can still watch Netflix streaming using a special plug-in, but I don't know yet know how I'll get DVDs and BluRays), I'm going to leave my next month's choice open-ended. Let's face it -- you weren't going to watch it beforehand anyway. No reason more than one of us has to subject ourselves to this crap.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Transporting my whole movie collection

Just a short one today, probably my last in the country. And you get no picture. Sorry.

So when you're considering how much space you have to bring things with you in a move to, say, Australia, and you're a movie buff, one of the first things that occurs to you is that you can probably only afford to take a dozen of your favorite movies at most. You'll probably have a half-dozen must-haves, then the rest would be movies you love but haven't seen recently. Anything you have seen recently probably stays behind.

Uh uh.

The other choice is that you leave the cases behind, and throw all the DVDs and BluRays themselves into one of those Case Logic folders you once used to carry around your CDs.

As luck would have it, I had one of those folders. And, as even greater luck would have it, I had a package of fresh new sleeves to replace the broken ones that had been in there from the time it actually carried those CDs. I don't even remember getting those replacement sleeves.

So last night, in front of the Red Sox-Yankees game (probably the last baseball game I'll see on regular TV for awhile), I sat in my mostly bare living room and systematically loaded that baby up.

Even funnier was that I had a steak knife next to me to open a good 20-30 packages I had never even opened before. A DVD/BluRay is meant to be opened, and now, finally, all mine have seen the light of day.

I was getting brash. I took multiple copies of Raising Arizona, just to be sure. I took both the DVD and the BluRay of Donnie Darko, because I think the BluRay is the director's cut only. I was even taking marginal movies with me. That's how compact the thing is.

One small way Australia will feel more like home, sooner. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Interrupters, with interruptions

On Thursday I told you about a movie I watched at home without a single pause. Straight through, two hours and five minutes, start to finish. (It was Philadelphia.)

Today I watched another sad movie with hard truths about a different big city, which I also gave a five (out of five)-star rating.

The difference was, I had to pause The Interrupters about 37 times.

Didn't seem to make a difference in how much I loved it, though.

See, I've got quite the challenge these last ten days in the United States before moving to Australia. I have to keep up with my movies, especially since I write a weekly series for another blog that involves one real-time viewing per week. Yet I also have to keep up with, you know, going through every single thing that I own and moving out of my house.

So The Interrupters, the movie I'm watching this week for that other blog series, was what I watched as I rolled my coins into coin sleeves, went through the mail, sorted through our recipes, and prepared my son's crib to be bought by someone from Craigslist (whose arrival I am awaiting as I type this).

You might wonder how a person could properly absorb a movie while doing all these other things.

Well, for one, documentaries are a bit easier than fiction films. In your typical documentary, there's a lot of talking. The images are certainly important as well, but I think it's most important to hear what they're talking about than to see every little thing. And don't worry, I saw plenty of the images of The Interrupters. Some of which I wouldn't have liked to have seen. (How about a shot gang member whose feces are easily visible through his colostomy bag?)

Secondly, well ... I had no choice.

But it didn't make a difference in what I took away from Steve James' documentary about violence on the south side of Chicago, and the former gang members (called violence interrupters, or interrupters for short) who try to intervene at a crisis point to prevent tempers from boiling over into actions that can't be taken back.

Wow, what a movie. James' commitment to documenting this stuff, intimate and unfettered, is nothing short of spectacular, as is the access he's able to get. I can imagine the last thing many of the people who appear in this movie want is a camera in their face, yet that camera was allowed to look at them without blinking. And what a clear-eyed vision he captured of this problem, and the people who are trying to solve it. There are successes, there are failures, their are deaths, there are new leases on life. And it's all there for us to consume, floored as we watch.

Even if I did have to pause it an average of once every three minutes.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Philadelphia with Dad

By now you may be wondering if I'm still here.

The simple answer to that question is "Yes, of course I'm still here, because 'here' is defined as wherever you are at any given time."

But what you really mean is "Are you still living in the United States, and are you still writing this blog?"

I sure am, for 12 more days on the first question, and indefinitely on the second. But I have been super busy. Since I wrote my last post, I've wrapped up my last three days of my job, spent 4+ days in Chicago with Don Handsome, and hosted my dad here at my house for 3+ days of odd jobs around our house that will help prepare it to be rented. I haven't prioritized blogging in those 11+ days of inactivity.

However, how long can I really leave The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure at the top of my blog, before you decide to write me off altogether?

So I decided to tell you about a movie bonding experience I had last night with my dad -- one that I had the first time with him nearly 20 years ago.

Let's start 20 years ago. Or, nearly 20 years ago.

Philadelphia hit theaters on December 24, 1993 -- which may have been the last time I can remember a movie being released on Christmas Eve. I saw it in theaters, and was so enthralled that I watched it again on VHS within a year or two. In fact, it was likely on one of my breaks from college (I was in college until the spring of 1995) that I was sitting in my basement, taking in Jonathan Demme's movie for the second time.

My dad walked through the basement, probably on the way to his shop. He frequently walked through when I was watching something, and might linger for a moment to see what it was. However, he'd always move on within a minute or so, either to give me my privacy, or because the thing I was watching wasn't really worth more than a momentary linger.

Except not Philadelphia. With Philadelphia, my dad sat there and watched. For about 15 minutes.

I was at the age that this should have annoyed me, but it didn't.

In fact, I dug that he dug Philadelphia. "Dug" might be a bit of a frivolous word here, in both instances of its usage in the previous sentence. I was thrilled that he was as emotionally stricken by this movie as I was. There, that's a bit better.

I remember that after the scene where Denzel Washington's Joe Miller returns home to his sleeping family, after hearing Tom Hanks' Andy Beckett deconstruct the greatness of a Maria Callis aria (which he can still hear in his head as he ponders the great personal epiphanies of that evening), my dad turned to me and said "This is a really good movie." His voice was choked with emotion and enthusiasm.

My dad is not a huge movie fan, so I don't have a significant number of movie bonding moments with him. But that was one. And he didn't even see the whole thing. After that scene ended, he left me alone to watch the rest of the movie myself.

Flash forward about 18 years, and it's funny how things work out.

I'd been thinking recently about how it had been too long since I'd seen Philadelphia, and I wanted to see if the movie still left me an emotional wreck. So I ordered it from Netflix ... and then immediately became incredibly busy. So busy that I didn't know when I'd get a chance to watch it, especially facing three straight nights with my dad in town.

I figured, it's time for my dad to watch the rest of Philadelphia.

When I first made the suggestion last night, I'm sure it seemed out of left field to him. It was clear he didn't remember much about having watched the part of it he watched with me. In fact, he even misremembered the title as The Philadelphia Story, which, as you know, is an entirely different movie, one that came out the year after he was born.

Because he's not usually one to turn down a suggestion made earnestly, he quickly accepted the idea, and after dinner ended we started watching. As the opening credits played, I was second-guessing myself all over the place. "How random is it to be showing my dad a seemingly random movie from 1993? What if he doesn't like it? What if he wonders why I've chosen to show him a movie about AIDS and homosexuality? Does he expect me to follow the screening with an admission that I'm leaving my wife because I, too, am a homosexual?" (My dad is strongly in favor of gay rights, so this random fear had nothing to do with him.)

It didn't take long to realize I hadn't miscalculated. In fact, about 45 minutes in, I asked him if he wanted me to stop the movie to get us ice cream. My dad is always interested in ice cream. But he didn't want me to stop. He described himself as so invested that he couldn't pause for even a moment. I can't remember the last time I watched a two-hour movie at home without pausing once.

The movie slayed me again, as it did the other two times I watched it. This time, I noticed just how much Demme uses the technique of having the characters talk straight to the camera, and just how effective that is. Overtly, the characters are not talking to the audience -- they're just talking to another character who happens to be occupying the same physical space on the set where the camera's set up. But it has the covert function of having the actors address us, of confronting us directly with the powerful and invaluable issues at the movie's core.

And yes, I did cry again, at all the expected spots. I tried to keep it as subtle as possible, even though my dad is unusually receptive to that kind of display of emotion.

After it was finished, he unwittingly offered almost an identical assessment to the one he'd given back in '94 or '95:

"That was really, really good."

The funny thing was that he didn't remember having seen the scene where Joe Miller lies in bed with his sleeping wife, staring straight ahead as Maria Callis hits all the high notes in his head. He claimed to have only remembered the scene where Andy and his boyfriend Miguel (Antonio Banderas) visit the Beckett house and sit around with the family, warning them about revelations that may come out in a trial.

I know better. He's 73, so I'll allow him so faults in his memory.

I gave him my own little post-movie comment, one that was also attempting to offer an explanation for my fixation on a pastime that doesn't pay my bills, a pastime he probably can't fully understand himself. After finishing Philadelphia, he may have understood that fixaxtion just a little bit better.

"That is why I love movies" is what I said.