Sunday, June 30, 2013

Famous Flops: The Hottie & the Nottie

This is the latest in my monthly series called Famous Flops, in which I watch one movie per month I know to be famously terrible, financially unsuccessful, or otherwise a flop.

Fall in line, Vance. Fall in line.

I can't.


I'm sorry, I just can't. I have to admit it:

I sort of liked The Hottie & the Nottie.

Ugh. I just died a little bit.

After three straight months of movies that I was supposed to hate that I didn't hate -- I didn't love them, to be sure, but neither did I hate them -- I thought for sure I'd hit the goldmine with the awful, terrible, miserable, awful (did I already say "awful"?) Paris Hilton vehicle that is so bad, it's the butt of modern jokes about what it means to be a bad movie.

And I liked it the most out of the four.

One of my core beliefs about film criticism is that you tell people what you actually think of a movie, even if it embarrasses you more than any sentiment you've ever spoken aloud before.

Good thing I'm only typing this rather than speaking it aloud:

I sort of liked The Hottie & the Nottie.

Here's what I expected to discover from the movie with the 7 Metascore and the 5% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes: That it was such an inexcusably vain exercise for Hilton that any ordinary narrative reality was thrown out the window in the service of a misguided lionization of "hotties" and a cruel and brutish dismissal of "notties."

Here's what I actually discovered:

1) Hilton will never win an Oscar, but she is capable of believable moments and more subtlety than anyone would ever dream of giving her credit for.

2) The film's heart is most certainly in the right place, even if it ends up being one of those standard "'ugly' girl is actually pretty when she finally cleans herself up" movies.

3) Joel Moore is an infinitely likable protagonist with deft comic timing. Since you likely don't know who Joel Moore is, he's this guy:

Of course, just admitting that you sort of like a universally reviled movie isn't the end of it. Not by a long shot. The next step is that you must discover why you liked it -- or perhaps more importantly, why other people hated it so much.

And here's what I've decided: Hating on Paris Hilton is the easiest thing in the world. It's a critical softball that almost anyone can hit out of the park.

Because the essential problem with The Hottie & the Nottie, especially for a Hilton hater, is that it kind of worships at the altar of Paris. Not to the overall detriment of the story, if you can ignore it, but enough so that it's easy to latch on to it if you decide you want to.

For starters, a line of dialogue refers to Hilton's Cristabel Abbott as "the hottest woman in Los Angeles." That's a particularly absurd claim given that Los Angeles is home to Hollywood, which is chock to the brim with women whose physical beauty is their primary asset. Cristabel is not even one of those women -- she doesn't even make her living on her appearance. (In fact, I can't remember what her job is at all and I just saw the movie last night.)

Then there's the fact that the camera delights in running up and down Hilton's body on a couple occasions. You know Hilton gets off on stuff like that.

But here's the thing: Many movies have had characters whose entire function is to be "the hot chick." (In fact, there was a whole movie called The Hot Chick.) The problem we have with it here is that Paris sees herself as capable of filling this role, and she is the creative entity most responsible for the existence of the movie in the first place. If she were just an actor hired to play this role, we wouldn't fault her. But as a sign of her lack of humility, it enrages us.

The thing is, Paris Hilton is sort of hot, in certain objective ways. She has a thin body. She has very good cheek bones. She has blonde hair, which plays a surprisingly significant role in making someone appear hot. There's so much backlash against her that we think she's not attractive, and we can certainly bag on ways in which she isn't so attractive (especially her personality), but it's not like she's an ugly girl trying to pass herself off as a pretty girl. She is pretty -- she's just not the "hottest woman in Los Angeles."

I must have some kind of soft spot for this person because I also didn't subscribe to the popular sentiment that she was one of the primary elements that ruined Repo! The Genetic Opera. Part of that is because I don't think Repo! was ruined. In fact, I own it -- and even though it was given to me as a gag gift, the person giving it to me gave it to me because they knew I actually liked it. Hilton's role is not that big in that movie, and it's certainly nothing to laugh at. Paris Hilton has the basic competence necessary to be an actor. There, I said it.

Because I'm sure you don't care if I spoil it, The Hottie & the Nottie ends up being a fairly traditional romantic comedy with a fairly traditional dose of gross-out humor (though not as much as the reviews would lead you to believe), in which Moore's character eventually falls for "the nottie," played pretty charmingly by Christine Lakin. If you want to look at it as a sign of Hilton's lack of vanity, she doesn't need to make herself the romantic lead in her own movie. She's essentially kind of a Macguffin that helps the male romantic lead find the female romantic lead. If she were truly as delusional as we all think, she'd figure out a way to have it both ways -- and that's what would make a movie worthy of our concentrated hatred, because it would likely ignore things like tried-and-true story structure and the traditional sense of which characters audiences find sympathetic. Instead, Hilton is intelligent enough to know what role she must play in this movie -- even if on some level it is a shallow homage to her physical beauty.

If you are looking for big problems with The Hottie & the Nottie, they are the same as with movies like She's All That, where an ugly duckling is transformed into a swan through what should be some fairly easy physical adjustments. I haven't seen She's All That, but I understand that making the female lead beautiful is literally as simple as taking her glasses off. It's a bit more complicated in TH & TN, as Lakin's character has somehow let an awful dental problem linger into her mid-20s, and has a massive mole on her chin. Why she hasn't taken care of these problems any earlier -- especially when she has a beauty-obsessed swan as her best friend (Hilton actually literally looks like a swan) -- is merely one of those plot mechanics that just needs to be that way for the story. It's stupid, but it's no more stupid than She's All That or other movies of their ilk.

The Hottie & the Nottie also distinguishes itself, slightly, by trying to put its finger on a real social phenomenon -- one that actually contains a bit of self-deprecation on Hilton's part if viewed the right way. The actual phenomenon of the title has to do with the idea that in order to have a chance with a pretty girl, a suitor has to ingratiate himself to her unattractive best friend. There's probably some truth to this, it's just that this movie exaggerates it (greatly) for comic effect. The elephant in the room, though, is why the pretty girl has an ugly best friend in the first place, which perhaps the film should have tackled more overtly if it wanted to qualify as true self-deprecation. The idea has always been that a pretty girl who's friends with an ugly girl does it so that she can look comparatively more beautiful. That suggests that the hottie (in this case Hilton) has real insecurities, and in some ways probably has low self-esteem. A reasonably solid core on which to build a gross-out romantic comedy.

And yes, some of the gross-out parts are, indeed, gross. The nottie also has terrible issues with her toenails, and at one point, one flies off and lands in the mouth of the guy who's being paid to be her date. Yes, that kind of thing is puerile and gross -- but no more so than a hundred other comedies that we don't lambast like we lambast The Hottie & the Nottie. (As a person who has bad toenail issues myself, I also tend to think of this kind of thing as less of an exaggeration and more of a reality.)

The 7 Metascore contains universally negative reviews, but the slight difference between this scale and Rotten Tomatoes is that a 5% freshness rating means that some people actually did rate the movie as fresh. Three people, to be exact. Here's what they said in their capsule reviews:

"At the risk of going against the obvious 'it's-cool-to-hate-Hilton' popular majority, it should be stated up front that The Hottie & the Nottie isn't half-bad." - Dustin Putnam,

"I wouldn't say it's particularly good, but certain measured elements of the genre create something surprisingly passable." - Eric Kohn, New York Press

"It's hard to fault the filmmakers, because given the premise, it could have been much MUCH worse." - Edward Douglas,

That's all I'm saying.

Though it should be noted that the first critic who gave it a fresh rating is Dustin Putnam, and the director of this film is Tom Putnam. Hmm. So maybe it's only two fresh ratings after all.

Still, what's clear from these comments is that the people knew they were supposed to hate it. They didn't because they were more courageous than other people who saw the same movie, who maybe also didn't hate it, but knew that a review full of vitriol was expected of them. There's no easier punching bag than Paris Hilton, and no negative review would be held up to less scrutiny than this one. They weren't going to be confronted on the street by anyone who said "I can't believe you said that about The Hottie & the Nottie." So, they said it, and they said it with glee.

Me, I'm honest, so I say again:

I sort of liked The Hottie & the Nottie.

Okay, I think I've found a can't miss movie for July. It's a movie I desperately wanted to see in time to rank it for my 2012 list, but the damn thing took forever to get to video. It's The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, and it's streaming on Netflix if you want to watch it with me.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Is the first or the second better?

You've probably read a hundred posts discussing the phenomenon of two movies on the same subject coming out within six months of each other. Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down are only the most recent of what is coming to be dozens of examples. In fact, I was even scheduled to write such a post for a different blog when Snow White and the Huntsman came out last year (on the heels of Mirror Mirror), except that I was moving that same week so I had to bow out.

One thing you might not have read: an examination of which one tends to be better, the one that reaches theaters first, or the one that marinates for a little while longer before hitting the multiplexes.

So in conjunction with the release of the second movie since March where the president gets taken hostage in the White
House, I figured I would do just that. Besides, I've already got a big collection of images just collecting dust, since I prepared the images for the post I never wrote last year. (I actually told the guy I would write it this year for Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. Oops.)

Anecdotally, I'm arriving at the conclusion that the first film is actually better in most cases, which is somewhat counterintuitive. You'd think the first film was rushed, leaving them more time to do the second one right. This is an oversimplification, of course, because it suggests that both films were conceived and sent into production at the exact same moment, which is of course not true. However, the phenomenon does certainly involve an awareness by the two projects of each other's existence, which does mean that an artificial increase in production speed is a possible reaction to that competition. This race to be first might be important; another reason why we might think the first one is better is because indeed, it did get there first, and by the time the second one comes out, we've already seen this movie.

Before we start, though, I thought it would be worth pointing out one more trend I see in these dueling movies that come out within a few months of each other. It seems in almost all cases, the first movie that comes out has a sort of abstract title (Olympus Has Fallen), while the second has a title that tells you much more overtly what the movie is about (White House Down). It's kind of uncanny, as I'll explore as we go along.

Needless to say, I'll only be discussing those where I've seen both movies. So, I can't actually discuss Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, because I never caught up with the latter. (Though I can say that the title phenomenon is present here too -- Mirror Mirror is at least somewhat abstract, while Snow White and the Huntsman lets you know immediately it's a Snow White movie.) 

Okay, in no particular order:

Release dates: Dante's Peak (dir. Roger Donaldson) - February 7, 1997; Volcano (dir. Mick Jackson) - April 25, 1997
Title phenomenon? Yes indeed. You could not get more on-the-nose than calling a movie about a volcano Volcano.
Which one's better? Dante's Peak by a long shot. I remember feeling several moments of real fear for the characters, whereas a slow flow of lava advancing on Los Angeles (as happens in Volcano) is a comparative snooze.
First film is better.

Release dates: Deep Impact (dir. Mimi Leder) - May 8, 1998; Armageddon (dir. Michael Bay) - July 1, 1998
Title phenomenon? Not as much. However, I would say that Deep Impact is more poetic while Armageddon is fairly in-your-face. So one is definitely less subtle than the other.
Which one's better? Deep Impact, and again it's not even close. I was surprisingly moved by Mimi Leder's film, and to verify that the feeling was legitimate, I watched it again two years ago. Armageddon is directed by Michael Bay. Nuff said.
First film is better. 

Release dates: Tombstone (dir. George P. Cosmatos) - December 24, 1993; Wyatt Earp (dir. Lawrence Kasdan) - June 24, 1994
Title phenomenon? Totally. One is the town where the action takes place, one is just the name of the main character.
Which one's better? Tombstone. Although I liked some aspects of the painstaking realism Costner and company brought to Wyatt Earp, it's not an exciting movie, unlike the rousing Tombstone. Also, it's like six hours long.
First film is better.

Release dates: Mission to Mars (dir. Brian De Palma) - March 10, 2000; Red Planet (dir. Antony Hoffman) - November 10, 2000
Title phenomenon? Nope. The first movie has the actual name of the planet in the title, the second movie refers to it abstractly.
Which one's better? Red Planet, just barely. Although I think Mission to Mars has more standout moments, overall it's a lot goofier and less "scientific," I would say. Neither film is a masterpiece, that's for sure.
Second film is better.

Release dates: No Strings Attached (dir. Ivan Reitman) - January 21, 2011; Friends with Benefits (dir. Will Gluck) - July 22, 2011
Title phenomenon? Absolutely. No Strings Attached could be about anything; Friends with Benefits could be about nothing else but fuck buddies.
Which one's better? Friends with Benefits, though both movies are bad. For me, Benefits benefits from (sorry, that was bad) more appealing stars -- Ashton Kutcher is going to sink almost anything for me. However, Strings' script is actively not good, while Benefits is sort of just lame.
Second film is better.

Release dates: Prefontaine (dir. Will Gluck) - January 24, 1997; Without Limits (dir. Robert Towne) - September 11, 1998
Title phenomenon? One is highly abstract, the other highly specific, but it's the second one that's abstract instead of the first one.
Which one's better? This is a weird one, because I was almost positive that Prefontaine was released second. In fact, it preceded Without Limits by a year-and-a-half. I blame this perception I had on the fact that I saw Prefontaine only last year for the first time. If Prefontaine had been released second, it would perfectly fit my theory, as Without Limits is slightly better (though neither is a memorable film) and has the more abstract title.
Second film is better.

Release dates: Antz (dir. Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson) - October 2, 1998; A Bug's Life (dir. John Lasseter) - November 25, 1998
Title phenomenon? They are both specific in their own ways about slightly different things. Antz gets points for abstraction by having a Z in its title.
Which one's better? I'm a fan of Antz, and I'm not a fan of A Bug's Life. Pretty simple. A Bug's Life is Pixar's biggest misstep until last year's Brave
First film is better.

Release dates: Weird Science (dir. John Hughes) - August 2, 1985; My Science Project (dir. Jonathan R. Beteul) - August 9, 1985
Title phenomenon? They're both pretty specific, but My Science Project is slightly more so.
Which one's better? Going way back for this one. These films have the closest proximity of any two we're discussing, as they came out only a week apart. There are light years of difference in their quality, however. Weird Science is the vastly superior effort, one of the classics of my childhood.
First film is better.

Release dates: Chasing Liberty (dir. Andy Cadiff) - January 9, 2004; First Daughter (dir. Forest Whitaker) - September 24, 2004
Title phenomenon? This is another absolute one. Chasing Liberty could be about anything; First Daughter could only be about the daughter of the president. (Or, I suppose, the oldest female child in a family.) 
Which one's better? Neither film is as bad as you might expect, and I actually kind of like Chasing Liberty, which means it's the better one. Surprisingly, First Daughter is directed by Forest Whitaker. Yes, that Forest Whitaker. Who knew?
First film is better.

Release dates: The Illusionist (dir. Neil Burger) - August 18, 2006; The Prestige (dir. Christopher Nolan) - October 20, 2006
Title phenomenon? The titles are similarly structured, but most people actually knew what an illusionist was before seeing the movie.
Which one's better? The Prestige is leaps and bounds the superior film. I must have really seen The Illusionist at the wrong time, because I had no idea why anyone liked it. I'd say I should probably see it again, but really, it's not that important to me. 
Second film is better.

Release dates: The Truman Show (dir. Peter Weir) - June 5, 1998; EdTV (dir. Ron Howard) - March 26, 1999
Title phenomenon? Both titles are fairly specific, but EdTV is a bit more in-your-face (and not just because of this poster). 
Which one's better? The Truman Show, plain and simple. I don't think EdTV is bad, though I think I remember liking it more than I should have. It's probably bad.  
First film is better.

Release dates: Paul Blart: Mall Cop (dir. Steve Carr) - January 16, 2009; Observe and Report (dir. Jody Hill) - April 10, 2009
Title phenomenon? The earlier film is the more specific in this case.
Which one's better? Probably the worst pairing of movies you will find on this list. However, there were some things I liked about Observe and Report. I cannot say the same for Paul Blart.   
Second film is better.

That's a dozen, and that's probably a good place to stop. 

So it appears I've reached no scientifically significant conclusion whatsoever. The first film of the pair is better only seven times out of 12. Barely above 50 percent.

I do think the thing about the titles is interesting, though. It's almost like the two warring studios came up with an agreement that one would go abstract with the title and one would go just the opposite. One thing I can say is that the more abstract title is usually better. Out of the ones where one title was clearly more abstract than the other, only Friends With Benefits is better than its cohort. In all other cases, the more abstract title is better.

Useful conclusions or no, I hope you enjoyed reading this. I enjoyed compiling it.

Friday, June 28, 2013

"Our Zod" and "our Khan"

I've long associated Superman II and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in my head, but never before had so many reasons to do so as I do these days.

Not only did they both come out around the same time (1981 and 1982, respectively), they were both installments in series that would run for years and years and reboot in multiple incarnations. They were also both second movies that I loved, following on the heels of original movies that underwhelmed me. In fact, I'm sure I've seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture only once, and I've seen Superman: The Movie twice at most, though possibly only once.

Both movies also gave birth to what, to this day, I consider to be two of the greatest villains in cinema history. Their names should come as no surprise to you, since I've included them in the title of this post and furnished you with pictures of them above.


Zod (then played by Terence Stamp) and Khan (then played by Ricardo Montalban) have dug themselves into our collective moviegoing psyche to such an extent that they were both rebooted in movies from the summer of 2013 (one in an actual second movie, the other in a second reboot of the series in the last ten years). It's not a secret in Man of Steel; it's sort of a secret in Star Trek Into Darkness, hence the spoiler warning. In fact, these characters' reappearance in these franchises (neither having appeared since their original movies) was such a selling point that the characters' presence alone got people in my generation excited about seeing these movies.

The thing is, they're not "our Zod" or "our Khan."

I thought that was particular felicitous phrasing from a friend over the weekend. I hadn't seen Man of Steel yet (I accomplished that feat Tuesday night), but people were talking about it a little at someone's birthday drinks -- not very positively, as it turns out. They knew not to get into spoiler territory with me present, but I also didn't want my presence to shut down the conversation completely, so I gave my one friend the chance to throw me a bone on something that I thought would be easy: "Is Michael Shannon at least good?" I figured there was only one possible answer to this question.

"Yes, but he's not our Zod," my friend said.

It turns out I both agreed and disagreed with my friend. Michael Shannon wasn't our Zod, it's true. But he also wasn't that good. Maybe my friend didn't think he was so good either, but wanted to give me something I could use to bring a sense of optimism to my impending screening.

However, Shannon was enough like our Zod, appearance and otherwise, to at least be recognizable as Zod. I can't really say the same for Benedict Cumberbatch as (LAST SPOILER ALERT) Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness. Cumberbatch is a far more interesting presence than Shannon, more cunning and diabolical, but he's really not that much like Ricardo Montalban. I suppose giving a character in 2013 bronzed muscles and a mane of shoulder-length white hair isn't really practical, but did Cumberbatch have to be so different from that template? Why even call him Khan in the first place?

As I try to make an objective case for those movies from the early 1980s being superior efforts to the movies from the summer of 2013, I must also realize that there's nothing objective about it. I try to imagine myself as a teenager today coming to these movies, and what I would think of them. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a real oddity in a lot of ways, as the hero (Captain Kirk) and the villain (Khan) are never actually in the same place at the same time. Not once. As a teenager today, I'd probably be flummoxed by long parts of the movie in which "nothing happens." Superman II is as much of an oddity in different ways. It does contain moments of the kind of darkness Zack Snyder is going for in Man of Steel -- don't forget Christopher Reeve dramatically yelling "Father!!!" in the shattered Fortress of Solitude -- but it's also got a ton of moments of levity, more than any modern teen is accustomed to seeing in their superhero movies. Whole characters (Lex Luthor, Non) are basically comic relief -- and that's just among the "villains."

So yeah, of course I'm going to prefer "our Zod" and "our Khan" over "their Zod" and "their Khan." They may see it as the reverse. If they're smart, they'll overcome the problem of being born in the late 1990s and find the true genius in the original incarnations of those roles, and in the inimitable performances of Stamp and Montalban, each subtle in their own ways, each chewing the scenery in their own ways as well.

More than anything, though, I see the resurrection of these characters as a validation of two movies from my youth that I have cherished for years, standing up for them even when others in my generation were snubbing them upon discovered "Great films" with a capital G.

Oh, I don't take the fact that they're being offered to the next generation of pop culture junkies as proof, per se, that Star Trek II and Superman II were great. You might say I should draw the opposite conclusion, that if Zod and Khan are being offered to the masses again, it's a sign that they are safe enough for general consumption.

But I don't choose to see it that way. I always thought I was a little weird that I could quote whole sections of Khan's whispered threats to Kirk. I always thought it was a little goofy when I put on my best Terence Stamp voice and operatically performed the line "Why do you say these things to me, when you know I will kill you for it?" Now I feel more prophetic than marginalized.

And I guess I do pity today's kids a bit, because they're not getting movies that are both awesome and sort of ridiculous at the same time. You can't love Zod and Khan without realizing that you are, on some level, getting off on a completely hammy performance. But these hammy performances didn't make the movie suffer, as they might today. Somehow they elevated the movie and made it more grandiose. That's what's been lost today: the ability to look at a big performance unironically. Zod and Khan filled the screen, sometimes with near Shakespearean levels of gravitas that couldn't help but verge on the camp. But that's what made them great.

It's not just that movies tried to be funny back then but they don't try to be funny today. Strangely, you have a flip-flop in the tones of these movies from the movies that revived these characters this summer. Star Trek II is a dour film, containing almost no humor outside of an occasional playful exchange between Bones and Kirk. Star Trek Into Darkness tries to be funnier than that -- not a lot funnier, but somewhat funnier, as the whole character of Scotty (Simon Pegg) exists for comic purposes. Superman II, on the other hand, is practically a comedy for whole patches of the running time, while Man of Steel barely cracks a smile once -- and when it does so, it's inappropriately out of sync with what's going on in the story.

This does make me wonder what today's young people grab onto when they're looking for "their Zod" or "their Khan" -- not those actual characters, but the modern equivalents they will one day cherish. Is it Loki from The Avengers? Is it Bane or the Joker? Is it the character Michael Sheen plays in the Twilight movies? I hear he's frigging hilarious.

What seems likeliest is that they don't have a Khan or a Zod -- and that's the saddest part. Everyone deserves a Khan or a Zod ... even if they have the audacity to have been born in the late 1990s.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Overseeing a disaster

Is it a bad sign that the thing that makes me most excited about seeing a certain movie -- in fact, the only thing that makes me excited about seeing it -- is the billboard used to advertise it?

The billboard for World War Z that I'm talking about is essentially an elongated version of this poster. There's something so arresting about this image of Brad Pitt looking down over a sea of carnage. The sea of carnage is nothing new for a poster like this, but his perspective on it is. It's damned enthralling.

The rest of the movie? Eh.

What I think is sort of unintentionally funny about this poster (and the double-entendre title I've used for this post) is that it works pretty well as a metaphor for Pitt's involvement in the project.

What most people know about World War Z is that it was a production that was plagued with problems, delays, reworkings and reimaginings. In fact, there were times when it seemed like the whole thing might go belly up. All that resulted in footage that looks pretty lackluster.

It would be one thing if Pitt were just a hired gun, but he's probably the single-most invested creative talent involved in this project. It's his baby, his dream project, his nightmare. If it's a flop, it could indeed by the biggest disaster he ever oversees, and it could have a lasting impact on his career.

Then again, all these things were said about Titanic, and look how that turned out. That too was a movie whose subject matter worked well as a metaphor for the production, but that ship certainly didn't sink. In fact, that ship flew.

Will these zombies be DOA, or rise from the ashes like a phoenix?

This weekend's box office will tell us a lot about that.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Fade to black

It's fitting that I watched On Golden Pond, Henry Fonda's final film, on the same day that James Gandolfini died.

There's something about watching the last film by someone who died soon afterward that naturally fills a person with melancholy. As it happens, I also just recently watched what turned out to be one of Gandolfini's last films, Not Fade Away. I didn't of course know to appreciate Gandolfini as I was watching it, but in retrospect, it feels pretty melancholy indeed.

See, Gandolfini's character in that film has what he believes is psoriasis. During the course of the film, it's instead diagnosed as cancer, which leads to some poignant moments contemplating his character's mortality.

Which makes it a more fitting "final film" for Gandolfini than, say, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.

Gandolfini still has films called Nicky Deuce coming out this year and Animal Rescue coming out next year, according to Wikipedia. But neither of those sounds like a good "final film" that will serve as some kind of summation of what he accomplished in his career.

Not Fade Away -- a movie set in New Jersey based on Sopranos creator David Chase's own life -- stands a much better chance at filling that function.

On Golden Pond was indeed Fonda's last film role, and perhaps it's so easy to remember it as such because a) it won him an Oscar, and b) it deals specifically with an octogenarian starting to lose his memory and confront the inevitable approach of death. For Fonda, death came sooner than he could have imagined.

It was indeed just a coincidence that I watched it last night, as I was watching it for a series I'm doing on another blog. And let's just say the death earlier that day of the erstwhile Tony Soprano made the experience of watching it just a tad more melancholy.

I'm not really sure why Gandolfini's death is striking me harder than your average celebrity death. I did watch The Sopranos, but only starting around season 4, so you wouldn't call me the die-hard Sopranos fan that other people are. So I can't quite explain it.

Except that I feel like underneath all that bluster and menace that Gandolfini made part of his characters, I sensed a teddy bear -- a guy whose wide smile was more of an indication of his true nature than how his characters used their fists or mouth.

Rest in peace.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Showing my age

This post contains spoilers about This is the End, but not for a few paragraphs down. You'll get another warning.

I'll be 40 in four months.

I'm feeling it pretty acutely when it comes to the sports world. I'll soon be reaching an age that serves as one of those absolute cut-offs. Professional athletes over 40 -- in the four major sports, anyway -- are few and far between, and in not too many years, I'll be older than all of them. For now, each sport does have at least one athlete who's older than me.

I don't feel it in the entertainment world, though. Many of Hollywood's biggest stars are over 40, and some are over 50. Age alone does not make you irrelevant in Hollywood, as numerous over-the-hill stars have been given the chance to continue doing things they started doing in their prime, back in the 1980s (or even, in some cases, the 1970s). Forty does not feel like such a daunting milestone in Hollywood.

Except in situations like this past Sunday, when I watched This is the End.

But let's back up again.

One way in which Hollywood has kept me feeling comfortably in the correct demographic is that the writers have tended to be my age. Since they're my age, they write references that I get ... even when those references are incongruous with the characters they're writing. A good example of this was something I posted here a couple years ago, about a television show I only ever watched a couple times. On an episode of Cougar Town, a show set in the present day, a character who was supposed to about 20 was talking about having an Emilio Estevez movie marathon with his friends -- an Estevez Festivez. This despite the fact that someone born in 1990 couldn't give a squirt of piss about Emilio Estevez.

That was the big change that I felt at the end of This is the End, a movie written and directed by 31-year-olds Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. These guys are probably on the young end for Hollywood writers, even though they've already been writing for quite awhile now. They're nearly ten years younger than I am, and this past weekend, I felt that for the first time in one of their movies.

Okay, I'm finally getting to the spoiler part. Avert your eyes.

What's happening in This is the End, a very funny movie that loses steam at certain key junctures, is The Rapture. Near the start, blue beams of light come down from the heavens to save the righteous from the impending apocalypse. Eventually, the characters start to realize that the key to their salvation is to be better people, and so they make various attempts -- both genuine and not so genuine -- to accomplish that. It works for a couple of them, and they get in to heaven -- a white and puffy paradise in which everyone's having a great time lighting joints off the heat created by their halos. (This is Seth Rogen we're talking about here.)

In this version of heaven, you get to have anything you wish, and all you have to do is think of it. One character (I'll stay vague) wishes for a Segway, and bam, he's riding on it. Another wishes for a performance from one of his favorite bands, and suddenly, we're seeing them from behind, just the backs of their heads, as though an epic reveal is on the horizon.

Except the reveal wasn't so epic for me, because it revealed ... the Backstreet Boys. All decked out in heavenly garb. (Heavenly garb = hip clothing that's all silver and white.)

I was already in my late 20s when the Backstreet Boys hit the scene. Goldberg and Rogen, however, were in their late teens. In other words, that's right in their nostalgia wheelhouse.

That moment when the Backstreet Boys start singing "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" -- yep, I had to look up the title, which speaks to the point -- is supposed to be a rush of kitsch awesomeness for the audience. If you're digging on this movie's groove, it's supposed to be a cathartic "Yeah!!!" And you're supposed to be taken back to the moment in your life when you experienced the guilty-pleasure thrill of boy band goodness that this song is supposed to indicate in this moment. (It's also a callback to earlier in the movie, when the song plays during a montage of stoner activities between Seth and Jay Baruchel in Seth's house.)

Except, I never had a moment like that with the Backstreet Boys, because I was too old. There was no part of what they represent that spoke to my experiences, so it didn't give me a genuine thrill or even much of a kitschy thrill. The resulting scene is executed with enough evident joy that I appreciated it on that level, but it didn't speak to my own life.

If this movie had come out ten years ago, the band that appeared in heaven at the end would have been something like Duran Duran or maybe even Bon Jovi. But it wouldn't have been New Kids on the Block, which would have been my era's version of the Backstreet Boys. See, there's another generational shift. The generation ten years younger than me actually thinks it's cool to ironically reclaim the Backstreet Boys. Today's 40-year-olds would never reclaim New Kids.

So I guess this really is the end, or the beginning of it anyway, for me being the demographic that receives these cultural references in their intended manner. The writers are going to keep getting younger -- relative to me, anyway -- and I'm going to keep heading north of 40.

Still got four months more, though. I'll live 'em up, and listen to as much Duran Duran and Bon Jovi as I can.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Zack Snyder's ultimate test

Zack Snyder is a figure of some controversy among knowledgeable movie fans.

There seems to be near-universal acclaim for his debut feature, the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. But from that point onward, the opinions on him diverge sharply. Some see him as a masterful shepherd of big pictures with big ideas; others see him as a latter-day Joel Schumacher. However, even those who are in his corner seem to recognize that there's something not-quite-right, something impure about championing him as one of today's true visionaries.

So far, this has not mattered all that much, because the "big pictures" Snyder has directed have been big in scope and budget only. Movies like 300 and Watchmen are definitely "big," no question about it -- but it's largely because of how they were marketed to us. Most people were not readers of the graphic novels/comic books that inspired these movies, so our expectations of them were limited to being excited over the first trailers we saw. We had few preconceived notions of what he might ruin or might do correctly. And indeed, some of us were disappointed in 300 (me) and in Watchmen (certainly not me), but it was only because of how they were executed within themselves. It's not because Snyder "got them wrong" -- unless, of course, you were one of the limited groups of fanboys who did have a passionate love for the source material.

Then his next two films, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole and Sucker Punch, were genuine flops, disliked by many if not most of the people who saw them. Sucker Punch in particular, with its problematic gender politics, contributes as much as anything to the negative opinions people have of Snyder. However, again, these were not "big movies" in the sense that they had to either live up to, or fail to live up to, our expectations. Sucker Punch, in fact, was a completely original concept -- a first for Snyder.

So this all changes today, when the latest Superman reboot comes out. Now Snyder can genuinely ruin something we all care deeply about ... or make it transcendent.

You never know which way Snyder's going to go.

The funny thing is, I'd say that I generally like (Dawn of the Dead, Watchmen) fewer of Snyder's movies than I generally dislike (300, Guardians, Sucker Punch), yet I feel like I'm one of the aforementioned Snyder apologists. I think it's that I liked what he did in those two movies so much, I tend to forget that I didn't like some of his decisions in the other movies. The good decisions outweigh the bad ones, especially in the case of Watchmen.

One thing I like about Snyder is that he makes errors of commission, not errors of omission. Anything he does that doesn't work is not for lack of trying. He puts bold ideas out there. Sometimes they don't work. In fact, sometimes they fail miserably.

Then again, you could say that Michael Bay also makes errors of commission.

But I choose to be plenty excited for Man of Steel. The only other pure superhero movie Snyder made, Watchmen, is my favorite of his movies. I do think he has the ability to take this material and make it transcendent, and the original trailers I saw for it (I've tried to avoid them more recently) only confirmed that notion for me. Plus, Michael Shannon as Zod? I'm there.

Just not this weekend. Sunday is Father's Day, but my sister is in town, and Sunday is also her birthday. I do actually think we'll see a movie that night, but I think it'll be This is the End.

Then again, perhaps I should reconsider promoting that movie more than the others that are out there ... since she arrived on Tuesday, I've shown her both Tucker & Dale vs. Evil and Galaxy Quest, and neither of them were the hits with her I was hoping they'd be.

Perhaps comedy is not the right choice for her ... though I doubt that superheroes would be either.

So I may need to seek a compromise. That's the price I pay when I share "my day" with somebody else. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The exact consciousness level of a zombie

This post contains some spoilers about 28 Weeks Later and Warm Bodies. 

One of the reasons I ultimately didn't like 28 Weeks Later -- and more to the point, the main reason I regularly tell people I didn't like it -- is because (spoiler alert) Zombie Robert Carlyle stalks his own children.

That's right, he's been bitten by another zombie and so he becomes one himself, divorcing himself from all remnants of his former life. (I know, I know, they're not "zombies" -- they are infected with "the rage"). Yet when he crosses paths with his children, which I believe happens more than once, he breaks away from the horde to follow them.

I allow this complaint to stand in for a number of other problems I have with the movie, because sometimes it's easier just to focus on one thing. But I did really find it to be a serious problem. The movie sets up a world where zombies are unthinking killing machines who harbor no ability to make distinctions between their prey, or to have the capacity to prefer one prey over another even if they could make distinctions. In fact, pretty much every zombie movie you've ever seen sets up that same world.

The reason I didn't dig 28 Weeks Later ends up being the same reason I did dig Warm Bodies, which I saw on Friday night. Some people may find it problematic. I found it endearing, and ultimately, incredibly emotionally rich.

It may be clear from this movie's setup -- a zombie boy falls in love with a living girl -- that the zombies you're getting in Warm Bodies are not your typical shuffling, shambling brain-eaters. Oh, they eat brains alright, but it's for a specific purpose: Eating the brains of their victims allows them to experience the memories of those victims, just for a minute or so. It's like the zombie version of a powerful drug, a drug that temporarily reminds them what it felt like to be alive.

This alone I liked, but Warm Bodies is a unique take on a zombie movie in a number of other ways as well.

The desire to experience another's memories underscores the ways these zombies are still human. And that's kind of what Warm Bodies made me realize: Zombies don't have to be unthinking killing machines. Why couldn't they be just human beings struggling with their new mode of existence? Human beings who feel a newfound compulsion toward cannibalism that they loathe, but that they must yield to in order to survive?

Warm Bodies smartly establishes these former humans as beings in a state of limbo. They certainly aren't alive, but there's another brand of undead that's far more gone than they are. In the parlance of the movie, the zombies we're talking about are referred to as "corpses." However, there are also "skeletons," who look like this:

Essentially, skeletons are corpses who picked all their skin away, like you or I would pick at a scab. Although the movie doesn't specifically state this, you might surmise that the inability to stop tearing away loose flaps of skin escalates at the same rate that they degenerate irrevocably into madness. Corpses aren't really sure what they're doing; skeletons are fully committed to being the eating, killing ids that they are.

Put a bit more directly: Corpses might still be saved.

This idea that the zombies of Warm Bodies might not be lost causes allows for suspensions of disbelief that would otherwise be quite problematic. Like, the fact that our main zombie, dubbed R because he can only remember the first letter of his first name, can speak, a little bit. Like the fact that he makes moral choices. Like the fact that he returns each night to a makeshift home in an airplane, where he plays old vinyl albums that he collected when he was still alive. Like the fact that he falls in love.

If any of these things had happened in 28 Weeks Later, I would have laughed them out of the building. And in fact, because something sort of like this does happen -- a violation of the rules the movie has established -- I consider 28 Weeks to be lesser.

Warm Bodies establishes its own rules, and I quickly decided that I dug them. Zombies movies, on the whole, have always been part of a satirical tradition. They got their start as a means of commenting on us and who we are, and the comments were never positive. That's the big difference with Warm Bodies. It does have that satirical edge, most notably in a flashback scene in which we're all seen interacting with our phones more than each other. But it also has room for the optimism that human beings are characterized by their desire to improve. Zombies aren't content being what they are; they want to fight their basest impulses to become something more enlightened. They want to rise above.

The fact that the movie is narrated by R, as though he were a fully conscious and capable narrator trapped inside the body of the undead, is just one more indication of the kind of zombie movie this wants to be. It wants to explore our capacity for change, and the everyday heroism of overcoming our limitations. That makes us human as much as all our regrettable pettiness.

So I'm okay with a zombie who still sort of remembers what it was like to be human, and wishes he could get there again. It lends extra poignancy to his primitive attempts at rescuing the girl he loves from danger. If it's going to deliver me the kind of emotional catharsis this movie did, I'm okay with a zombie who thinks, who chooses, who decides. 

Besides, R has a really great record collection.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Internship crashers

There have been a couple things I've noticed about the advertising for The Internship (opening today) that have bothered me, at least enough to write a post. (Subject matter has to meet a pretty low threshold in order for me to write about it.)

For one, it's pretty obvious that they're trying to make us think of the most recent and perhaps most successful -- and only? -- collaboration between Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, which was Wedding Crashers.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course -- except that I didn't really like Wedding Crashers, and I want to like The Internship.

Anyway, yeah -- the tagline is "Crashing the System," which is one of those felicitous phrases that has both a literal meaning (a malfunctioning computer, appropriate in a movie about Google) and a subliminal meaning (the allusion to Wedding Crashers).

The other thing that "bothers" me about The Internship is the blank looks on the faces of Vaughn and Wilson in all the posters. They owe more than a little bit of a debt to this:

and to this:

Now you might say "Vance, Steve Carell and Matt Damon are smiling, and Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are not." You'd be right, of course. But I still think there is an intentional borrowing of the same ad campaign.

However, if you're going to go with that campaign, at least do it in a way that makes sense. In other words, Vaughn and Wilson have their mouths open and those vacant looks on their faces because it's ironic to think of them as "fresh-faced interns." Wilson is 44 and Vaughn is 43.

But I've seen this poster on a lot of bus stops around LA:

If you're going to stamp INTERN on a character's forehead, it should represent a disconnect, as it does with Wilson and Vaughn. Right? The other two are age-appropriate interns, so it makes no sense. There's no disconnect.

Now, you could get away with the design above if the bottom two appeared on the top, indicating that these on the top row are your normal interns and these on the bottom row are not. Reading the poster from top to bottom would indeed convey that. However, you can't do that because then you are effectively giving these two unknowns top billing.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The story dies at the beginning


If you are asking yourself how someone can spoil a movie that grabbed attention by spoiling itself through its very own title, read on. However, if you don't want to know anything about John Dies at the End, you should stop reading now.

What's the biggest problem you can have if you are a movie called John Dies at the End?

I'd say that it's if John does NOT die at the end.

Actually, I should probably be more specific. John can not die at the end, and that's okay, as long as whether or not John is going to die at the end is a key part of the ending. Otherwise, why even call the movie that?

That's one of a dozen questions I might ask about Don Coscarelli's long-awaited follow-up to Bubba Ho-Tep.

Well, it may not have been long-awaited, but at least it was a long time coming. Bubba Ho-Tep came out over a decade ago in 2002. Coscarelli shouldn't have been stuck in directorial limbo for ten years after that charming little slice of weirdness. After this less-charming and less-weird movie -- which mistakenly thinks it's weirder than Bubba -- I'm not so sure if I'll cry for Don Coscarelli if he can't make his next movie until 2024.

So if John does not die at the end, as I think I've established, why is the movie called that? The easy answer is: Because the book is called that. Why is the book called that? I don't know, I guess I'd have to read it.

The John we are spending so much time fretting about is a secondary character here, kind of the sidekick to the main character, the narrator, a guy who is not Chinese despite being named David Wong. John is David's partner in some kind of supernatural detective agency, but he gets David involved in something far more sinister -- a drug known as Soy Sauce, which allows the takers to see things before they happen ... and time travel ... and possibly survive their own deaths. A bunch of this is more than a little bit unclear, and the rules -- such as they are -- seem to be made up as the movie goes along.

This is what I mean about the story dying at the beginning. Because you can't possibly know it's going to go everywhere and nowhere, for about 20 minutes you're lulled into thinking you're watching a specific thing with a specific set of rules/ideas that may lead to something interesting. What you think you're seeing gets killed off pretty quickly, though, and you soon realize it wasn't going to lead to anything remotely coherent anyway.

But let's get back to John dying or not dying.

John does "die," of sorts, in John Dies at the End. However, it happens at something like the 27-minute mark. In other words, nowhere near the end. And of course, John's death is not fatal to him -- not hardly. This alone would be a problem, even if we're setting aside the whole betrayal of the movie's structure as promised by its title. If you're going to cheekily "ruin" the ending of your own movie in a ploy to get people interested (it definitely worked on me), you should also have the death of this character actually be important in some way. It shouldn't be a moment that barely registers because it a) occurs off-screen, and b) doesn't mean anything like what a death would mean in most movies, because another version of the supposedly dead character begins immediately telepathically talking to the protagonist from another timeline. (He uses a cell phone as his medium at first, so as not to scramble David's brain, but then shifts to speaking to him through a bratwurst, just to prove the whole thing is telepathic.) Pretty soon John shows up again in fully body form and is pretty much around for the rest of the movie.

To call this movie confusing, however, is to give it too much credit. Things that are confusing often have the benefit of being deep or profound, but John Dies at the End is neither. It's a mess of half-formed ideas masquerading as some kind of coherent narrative, but the half-formed ideas themselves are not even all that interesting. If you took the worst impulses of Joss Whedon, David Cronenberg and Sam Raimi and jammed them into a blender, you'd get John Dies at the End. (In fact, Coscarelli makes several rather blunt homages to each of these talented individuals.)

So what does happen at the end?

To be honest, I have already forgotten. I watched this movie on Thursday night, and by Tuesday, I already have blocked out significant portions of it. I do remember that the very end -- when the credits are rolling -- has something to do with John and David traveling forward in time to the year 5189. We find out that it's 5189 because one of them picks up a newspaper on the ground. (Newspapers won't exist by 2189, let alone 5189.) Then some beings show up in some kind of rocket capsules to greet them. Then I think there's an explosion.

What annoys me so much about this movie, other than the way the title pointlessly messes with us, is that it's likely being given a pass by altogether too many people who want to credit it merely for being "weird." As I mentioned earlier, it's not "weird" in the way it clearly wants to be -- it's a very mainstream type of "weird" that is better described as "disorganized," "cheeky" or "lame."

Bubba Ho-Tep was the good kind of "weird." Bubba Ho-Tep features a retirement home being attacked by mummies, defended by a guy who looks a bit like Elvis Presley, who says/believes he's Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell), and a guy who looks nothing like JFK but says/believes he's JFK (Ossie Davis). Beyond that, it's pretty simple, and that's what makes it so damn enjoyable.

John Dies at the End is about drugs and supernatural detectives and time travel and telepathy and imaginary spiders and disembodied arms (there's that Sam Raimi reference) and spirits given a corporeal presence as a bunch of cuts of meat all woven together. There's nothing simple about it, yet there's also nothing good about its exhausting and sloppy "complexity."

Plus, the title lies.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Nottie the results you would expect

On Thursday I announced I was making The Hottie and the Nottie the next film I'll watch in my monthly series Famous Flops.

God help me.

So I jumped on Netflix to add it to my queue, and couldn't help noticing the second movie that came up when I searched for it.

That's right, it's the terrific monster movie from 1954 about giant radioactive ants, called Them!

That's a much different kind of scary than the scary I'm going to get in The Hottie and the Nottie.

I can't for the life of me figure out why this fun 1950's movie comes up when I search for Paris Hilton's dreadful 2008 vehicle.

Some of the ones that come up later in the search make a little more sense. The next one after Them! is 1945's And Then There Were None -- also a very curious choice until you parse what the Netflix search engine must be doing. It's seeing the consecutive letters T-H-E-N in "the Nottie" and finding you titles with Then in them. That theory also easily explains the next search result (And Then There Was One) and the one after that (Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer, which also has the consecutive letters T-H-E-N across two words -- a pattern you'd think it would share with literally hundreds of movies, though).

The next three results -- Rosemary & Thyme, The Thief and the Cobbler and Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement -- bring us right back to square one. None of those titles have consecutive lettering in common with the title I searched, though oddly enough, the middle title shares a structural convention with it. But so do a dozen other movies that don't appear here.

Maybe Netflix is just trying to give me some reason, any reason, to find something other than The Hottie and the Nottie to watch.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Making Jaden Smith happen

Will Smith has spent the better part of the past decade more interested in whether his son has a career than whether he has one.

And because he is such a Hollywood heavyweight with so much muscle -- both financial, and the more abstract power of his reputation -- it's hard to say whether Jaden Smith is "happening" organically, or merely through the force of Will Smith's ... well, Will Smith's will.

Put more simply: Is Jaden Smith really a star, or is Will Smith just succeeding in telling us he's a star?

What got me thinking about this was a billboard I saw recently for After Earth, which opens today, in which neither the senior Smith's name nor his face appears. It's kind of like the one you're seeing in this picture here, except it was horizontal rather than vertical, and there was no companion billboard feature only Will's name and face. (You'd be wise to ask, however, which is the elder and which is the younger. Starting with the Seven Pounds billboard a few years back, I swear they are doing some kind of reverse aging thing on Will Smith.)

Jaden Smith's solo billboard is designed to make us think that Jaden himself can open a picture, even without his daddy. But is that real, or is it just hype?

It'd help to take a little look at his career thus far. He's only 14 (for about another month), so this should be pretty quick.

Jaden of course debuted alongside his dad in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness, which I actually thought was great. I don't have a strong memory of Jaden's performance in the film, but I suspect he seemed pretty natural -- a chip off the old block, as they say. It goes without saying that Jaden would not have appeared in this film without Will ... yet I just said it anyway.

His next feature was two years later in 2008, the awful remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. And already, at not yet 10 years old, Jaden blows my theory out of the water. IMDB does not show Will Smith's name anywhere on this movie. Surely he worked his magic behind the scenes, but he wasn't so involved with the movie that he got a producer credit or anything.

Not the case for Jaden's next movie, which came out at another (parentally responsible) two-year interval: The Karate Kid in 2010. This movie probably makes the best case for Jaden being a true breakout star able to exist on his own merits, but I'll have to take other people's word for it because I still haven't seen it. And daddy definitely helped here: Both Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are credited as producers.

That brings us to After Earth, which reteams the buddy comedy duo from The Pursuit of Happyness. (That's a joke.)

Jaden got such an early start that it only feels like he's been around forever. At not even 15, Jaden probably isn't feeling desperate to get out of his father's shadow just yet. Though if I were him, I'd probably think twice about co-starring with his father again, at least not until he's in his 20s and the elder Smith is trying to make his first comeback. Time for this baby bird to spread his wings and fly.

Then and only then will we decide if this baby bird can carry his own billboard, let alone his own movie.

Of course, the elephant in the room about After Earth has nothing to do with either of the Smiths. The elephant is that After Earth is M. Night Shyamalan's latest attempt to reclaim the creative glory that has eluded him for something like six movies now. I'd say it was his last chance, but that's what I said when he made The Last Airbender, which ended up being one of his biggest flops. Yet here he is again, even though studios have long since stopped using his name to help market his movies.

So maybe Jaden catches a break here. If his movie stinks, maybe it won't be any kind of commentary on his star power after all.