Friday, February 27, 2009

Theme Night

I recently rediscovered the joys of watching a movie in a themed setting. Except it was quite by accident. Two nights in a row.

Let me explain what I mean by a themed setting. I mean when you watch a movie in a circumstance/environment that enhances its themes/ideas/plot, and ultimately makes the experience more enjoyable. I'm sure you can think of many examples, but one would be a decorated theater. On two very different occasions, for example, I had themed viewings in Disney's El Capitan Theater in downtown Hollywood -- The Princess Diaries, when it was decked out with tween-bait princess furnishings (hey, I went with a guy who was in the movie), and a recent re-release of The Nightmare Before Christmas, when the place was given a ghoulish makeover (and a live organist pounding away on some sort of Tim Burton-ish contraption).

But it doesn't have to be quite as overt as that. There was the time when I saw Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby at the drive-in theater -- a car movie while sitting in a car. Most bizarrely, there was the time I went with some friends to an artists' loft in downtown LA and watched what can only be described as "puppet pornography." As the 1976 schlockfest Let My Puppets Come, directed by Deep Throat helmer Gerard Damiano, unspooled before my eyes, I happened to look over to my right to notice two stuffed muppets watching along with us. That's right, it was none other than Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show -- you know, the grumpy old men who sit in the balcony, naysaying and cracking themselves up. I later found out that those two stuffed dolls sat on that particular ledge for all the screenings that occurred there -- it just so happened I was there when they watched the puppet movie.

Well, on my trip to Bisbee, Arizona last week, I added two more to the collection.

First I think I better tell you why my wife and I chose Bisbee as the destination for our road trip. Several years ago, we'd heard about a vintage trailer park in Bisbee called The Shady Dell, where guests can stay the night in Airstream trailers and other mobile homes from the 1950s. This might not be everyone's idea of an exciting adventure, but it's a testament to our compatibility that we both fell in love with the idea. We finally got the trip on the books last week for my wife's birthday, and started driving east last Wednesday night. By Thursday afternoon we'd passed through Tucson and made our way an hour further south to Bisbee, just minutes from the Mexican border. And not only was the old mining town absolutely adorable, but The Shady Dell was everything we'd hoped for and more.

Wanting to stay a night in each of the 12 trailers on the grounds, but being forced to choose just two, we selected the Spartanette for Thursday night and the Tiki Bus for Friday night. (And just in case you didn't notice the embedded links, I thought I should point them out to you.) As soon as we stepped inside the Spartanette, I began mentally calculating how to fit in all the ways I wanted to appreciate it -- in the sadly finite period of 16 hours, half of which would be spent sleeping.

One of the most charming things about the Spartanette was its antique home electronics. No sooner had we stepped in the door than we were throwing Dean Martin and Harry Belafonte on the record player, and trying to discover if the old TV actually worked. We'd assumed from the shots on the website that it was decorative only, but finding a DVD player connected to it -- hidden discreetly in the closet to preserve period authenticity -- immediately challenged that assumption. Not to mention the dozen classic DVDs that were provided along with the room.

After giddily flipping through all sorts of wonderfully kitschy titles -- like It Came From Outer Space (1953) and The Woman Eater (1957) -- we decided on And Then There Were None, Rene Clair's 1945 adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel. And after a yummy steak birthday dinner and a few glasses of wine, we settled in.

At first, the TV did not seem to work. But we later discovered this was just its inevitable cranky warm-up period, which lasted maybe four minutes. It started with a blank screen whose slight change in hue was the only indication the device was even powered on. This then changed into typical between-station fuzz. When we turned the DVD player on, an image appeared. Of course, it took several more minutes for this image to stabilize -- isn't that what they used to call it, the vertical hold? -- but when it did, there was the title menu for And Then There Were None.

And what followed was an absolutely authentic viewing experience. The sound was terrible, the contrasts were sometimes impossible to make out, and if you stopped the movie for any reason, you had to fight the vertical hold for another couple minutes. (Granted, those first two probably had more to do with the original print of the film than the TV). But I tell you, I wouldn't trade this experience for anything. Sitting in this vintage trailer, watching this old movie, it was easy to imagine that I was actually in the 1950s -- and since this movie would have been ten years old in the mid-50s, it's theoretically something the networks might have actually seen fit to play on a Saturday night. I tickled myself with the unlikely -- though narrowly possible -- notion that someone may have watched And Then There Were None in this very trailer, decades earlier, when "DVD" was just a meaningless acronym.

Just because it would have made for such a jarring anachronism, I had hoped to follow this up with an episode from the Californication DVD I'd brought with me. But we were both too tired.

Fast forward to the next night. We survived a trip into a mine shaft and a day in town, and now we're in the Tiki Bus. This is a giant blue bus that's been tricked out with a kitchen, a breakfast nook, a bathroom, an outside tiki bar, and a double and single bed on either side of the aisle. Plus, it's got a forest of straw hanging down from the ceiling and a couple heads like the kind on Easter Island, to complete the effect of being in Hawaii, or somewhere Polynesian in nature. This lodging also has a record player and a half-dozen vinyl albums, most of them Hawaiian in theme. But no TV.

Never fear. I've brought my portable DVD player with me. In fact, this is only its third usage since I had to replace my old one. It's what I'd been expecting to use the night before if the TV hadn't worked.

But what was really crazy was the movie I'd brought with me, and since I used it as my art with this posting, the title should be no surprise: Forgetting Sarah Marshall. What's crazy about that? Well, for starters, the movie is set in Hawaii.

You planned that, Vance. Actually, I didn't. I've already seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and my usual M.O. when at the video store is to find something that neither my wife nor I have seen. You know, always wanting to expand our horizons. In fact, I had a couple such choices in my hand already when I came across Sarah Marshall on the shelves. I saw it last year when she was out of the country, thinking she didn't have much interest in it, which was actually true at the time. But she came around on it and mentioned it recently, so I picked it up as a surprise choice for her birthday trip. See, that's the problem with a movie neither of you has seen -- it might totally suck. I wanted to stack the deck in our favor this time, so I picked it up. There was no consideration to the idea that we might watch it in a giant blue bus wearing a Hawaiian outfit.

But that we did, and so for the second night in a row, I was washed over with a certain surrealism. Yes, it was surreal just to be watching a movie (and sleeping, and making a pasta dinner) in a blue bus with track lights running along the bottom and hula girl bobblehead dolls on the dashboard. But the subject matter made it more so. The image was crisp and clear on my DVD player, and the movie was enjoyed by one and all.

I'd be remiss if I closed this post without singing the praises of the people at The Shady Dell, who were perfectly wonderful in every way you'd want them to be. Jen, Justin and their staff took great care of us, and we wished we could have stayed a week longer. (And kudos to the refurbished Dot's Diner, which just reopened a few weeks ago, a classic diner located just steps from the trailers that was transported from Los Angeles in the mid-1990s). If you are ever traveling through Southern Arizona, you have to put The Shady Dell on your itinerary.

I'd love to hear about any memorable theme movie experiences you had, my dear readers.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

It's not a vacation without a movie

Call me crazy, but one of the things I like to do most when I'm out of town is see a movie.

I understand this is not normal. And just to show you how not normal I understand it to be, I'm including the poster of a movie I saw while spending a scant four days in Paris. That's right, I'm in the city of lights, surrounded by culture and history, and all I want to do is hear what Christian Bale sounds like in French. (Actually, we went to see the version original -- pronounce that with a French accent -- which had Bale's words and French subtitles.) My now-wife, then-girlfriend wasn't going to come, but then it started raining. It turned out to be the perfect thing to do, as our feet were totally destroyed from several days of museums and famous cemeteries.

This is the extreme example of a thing I like to do all the time. No, I don't like to sacrifice the meat and potatoes of a trip to see a movie I could see at home just as easily three days later, but I do love to squeeze one in. The circumstances might be similar to those above: it's raining, you're too exhausted to do anything else, or it's too late at night to do anything else anyway.

This last was my reasoning behind seeing Confessions of a Shopaholic in Yuma, Arizona this past weekend. We'd driven five hours that day, Yuma proved to be mostly strip malls rather than the charming Old West town we thought it would be (actually, all we really knew was that trains used to go there), and it was 10:30 on a Saturday night, so hell yeah I signed myself up. My wife passed -- it was all she could do to keep her eyes open through dinner. I kind of felt the same, but that wasn't going to rob me of a golden opportunity for a Vacation Movie. Heck, the theater was right down the street -- I didn't even have to seek it out.

So what's the fascination? The inside of a theater pretty much looks the same wherever you are, doesn't it?

Yes it does, and that actually gets at part of my reasoning. Seeing movies, by necessity, has a certain sameness to it. You usually go to one of a half-dozen theaters that are conveniently located to your house. You also tend to seek out the same kinds of seats, assuming they're available -- some people like it closer, so the screen fills up their whole field of vision, and some people like it farther back. You often even order the same snacks, and most people tend to go to the same kinds of movies. In a way, it's like you're trying to recreate the same experience over and over again.

Why not switch up the geography?

The fact is, I remember a movie a bit better if I see it out of town. You get different ads before the movie. Sometimes, the ads are even in different languages. And the world looks different when you exit. Maybe it's even similar to how Will Smith's character describes his reasons for having sex in Six Degrees of Separation. Paraphrasing: "When you're happy, you try to make it better by having sex." Maybe I try to make the happiness of being on vacation better by something else I love -- going to the movies.

Just to prove to you that seeing a movie on the road is more memorable, here's a selection of movies -- recalled purely from memory -- whose viewings I remember better because I saw them in a circumstance outside the norm:

The Black Hole (1979, Gary Nelson). Yes, this phenomenon stretches a long time back for me. It was Christmas Day, and we were in Bryan, Texas, where my grandmother lived. But we weren't celebrating Christmas, because we'd had it the day before -- my uncle had to fly back early for work. That left moviegoing for Christmas Day. (And may have started a tradition in that sense as well).

Breakin' (1984, Joel Silberg). In Columbia, South America, visiting a friend whose family had returned home to Columbia the year before. If this weren't exotic enough, we actually saw this at the drive-in, my first-ever such experience.

Jewel of the Nile (1985, Lewis Teague). Texas again, but I don't remember the circumstances of our visit this time.

Ghost (1990, Jerry Zucker). Watched this in a small-town theater in upstate New York while on a road trip looking at colleges with my mom.

She's So Lovely (1997, Nick Cassavetes). Saw this in an Atlanta mall while in town for my cousin's wedding.

Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg). On a rare day not totally consumed by driving, saw this with two friends in Park City, Utah, while on a three-and-a-half week baseball road trip that saw us visit 14 major league parks.

William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999, Michael Hoffman). Saw this in New Orleans when in town for the wedding of a college friend. This one I regret a little -- I probably missed out on some good socializing time, and the movie itself wasn't good enough to justify it (even if that isn't really the point).

Pitch Black (2000, David Twohy). Saw this in the Atlanta mall mentioned previously with my dad and sister while visiting my aunt, uncle, cousins and grandmother.

Pay It Forward (2000, Mimi Leder). So as not to pay any more money forward to the casinos, I ducked into the movies to kill two hours on an extra day in Las Vegas. An already-long four-day business trip had been extended because the person who booked our tickets booked them for the wrong day, meaning we missed our red-eye home by 24 hours. I was getting killed at the tables. Found it kind of funny to watch this movie, which is set in Las Vegas, while in Las Vegas.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001, Chris Columbus). Saw this in the same Atlanta mall, yet again, when I arrived for Thanksgiving a day earlier than the rest of my family, and my aunt and uncle were trying to figure out something to do with me.

Robots (2005, Chris Wedge). Another Vegas business trip, this time only 24 hours, and this time much more successful. Met a friend who lived there for an afternoon matinee.

Batman Begins (2005, Christopher Nolan). Paris. As discussed.

War of the Worlds (2005, Steven Spielberg). Business trip to Secaucus, New Jersey, of all places.

Hot Fuzz (2007, Edgar Wright). Saw in a mall in downtown Melbourne, Australia. This was actually an advanced screening, as the movie wasn't due out until a week or two later.

Sunshine (2007, Danny Boyle). Saw immediately afterward in the same mall, when we realized the director (only two years from becoming an Oscar winner) would be present for a Q & A. Not only that, but the movie wouldn't be released for several months. This ended up being extraordinarily memorable for a number of reasons -- not only did actress Rose Byrne (who was in the movie) sit in the row in front of us, but they showed the reels out of order, and eventually had to stop after about five reels when they realized the damage was irreversible in the time they had. So we had the weird experience of a Q & A with Danny Boyle when we did not even see the entire film.

Charlie Wilson's War (2007, Mike Nichols). Actual viewing was in 2008, near West Palm Beach, Florida, on a business trip.

Atonement (2007, Joe Wright). Just a few days after Charlie Wilson's War, but this time in Chicago, with a friend, before the second half of the business trip commenced.

I could go on, but I'd just be wasting yours and my time. I think you get the point.

So if you haven't tried it, why not give it a shot on your next vacation? Don't miss out on the Louvre or the Sistine Chapel or the Grand Canyon or scuba diving. But when you're near that theater, and it's late at night, and a movie you kinda want to see is starting, ask yourself what you'll remember more: those extra two hours of sleep, or the exhilaration of a familiar activity in a foreign land?

As for Confessions of a Shopaholic? Yes, I'll remember it too. It was how I spent part of a Saturday night, exhausted from road-tripping, in Yuma, Arizona. And even though the movie itself wasn't that good, I wouldn't trade the experience.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Obligatory Oscar recap

Question: What do Mickey Rourke and Bill Murray have in common?

Answer: They have both now unjustly lost an Oscar to Sean Penn.

(At least this time around, Penn deserved the Oscar almost as much as Rourke. The first time, all I remember from that performance was him howling "Is that my daughter in there? IS THAT MY DAUGHTER IN THERE?" Meanwhile, I remember almost every detail of Murray's performance from Lost in Translation, as well as the crushed look on his face when his name wasn't called.)

But I am digressing even before I've started.

I don't have that much interest in your typical Oscar recap story -- in part because I've got two other postings inspired by my recent trip just bursting to get out -- but this is a film blog, and I think I would be remiss if I didn't weigh in on film's most prestigious awards show.

But before I go into specifics of tonight's telecast, I thought I should tell you that I originally wanted to title this post "My diminishing interest in the Oscars." Ultimately, I think what I went with was funnier, and it speaks more to the dual purpose of this post. But the sentiment is still there -- I am still a lot less interested in the Oscars than I used to be. So let's start with that before we get into the show particulars.

I remember a time when the month of March was when every obsessive thing I cared about crossed my plate at the same time. I used to tell people that March was my favorite month of the year hands down, and there were three factors that contributed to that: 1) It's when college basketball holds March Madness, a tournament I follow with rapt attention despite not watching any other games the rest of the season (thank you, gambling); 2) It was usually when I held my fantasy baseball auction/draft, though even when that slipped to the first weekend of April, my obsessive stats studying and following of spring training consumed most of the month; 3) Back in the day, it was when they held the Oscars. It was on a Monday night then -- remember?

But in recent years, as the number of other awards given out have multiplied (or at least multiplied in my awareness of them), and as the prognostications have become not only more sophisticated, but proffered by almost anyone and everyone, the actual ceremony itself has lost some meaning to me. I'm not going to give you the typical Oscar spiel about the telecast being too long or there being too many dance numbers -- especially because that last really only returned in full force this year. I'm simply going to say that a lot of the suspense was lost for me. It's not that there weren't any surprises -- usually bad ones, I found -- but rather, even the surprises lost their ability to really shake me. Nominees who don't win always say it's enough just to be nominated -- but for me, it was true, the nominations themselves came to be the moment of interest.

But this year, I noticed that even the nominations felt like a foregone conclusion to me. I got up at 5:30 LA time to watch them as I always do, but none of them really surprised me, perhaps because I'd already seen those names and titles bandied about by people in the know. And with the exception of The Dark Knight not getting nominated for best picture, there really weren't too many other surprises. Nowadays, the main reason I look forward to nomination day is because I use that as my (somewhat arbitrary) date to cut off my rankings for the previous year. I make that act itself -- finalizing the list -- much more monumentally important in my brain than having the next best picture winner narrowed down to just five choices.

And so it's gotten to the point that the thing that really interests me is the first stage of guessing. That's when the real front-runners start to take shape, when you first come into contact with the next title that's going to be added to that select list. (A select list that includes titles like Crash -- watch while I stifle my laughter). Anyway, that means that the true Oscar excitement usually hits me around November. Poor timing indeed.

These days, I'm lucky if I even get to an Oscar viewing party. Tonight makes two years in a row that my wife and I have watched the show by ourselves. Last year, this was due mostly to a lack of options we were interested in doing; this year, we returned to town an hour after the red carpet stuff began (thank you DVR), but that doesn't change the fact that we didn't have any credible invites. Maybe we stopped seeking out credible invites because the Oscar party we attended two years ago was marred by a drunk girl yelling at the screen throughout the speeches. (And, because we watched with about 30 other people on a giant screen in an old brewery building converted into a studio space, there was no going back eight seconds on Tivo.) More likely, though, it's that a lot of our friends dropped their Oscar obsessiveness a year or two before we did. (Though I should say, I do miss the Oscar pools.)

Okay, enough of that. On to some random thoughts from the evening:

- Very happy with the best picture winner. I ranked Slumdog #3 for the year, and it was the highest of the best picture nominees on my list. I'm noticing something of a pattern, that in even-numbered years I am pretty happy with the winner. Unfortunately, it's not much of a pattern as it dates back only to 2002, and skips 2004. But if you take out Million Dollar Baby in 2004, Chicago (2002) and The Departed (2006) were also my highest ranked best picture nominees. I'm not even going to tell you where I ranked the aforementioned Crash, but it was slightly lower, relatively speaking, than No Country for Old Men last year.

- Generally speaking, good speeches by the prominent winners. Danny Boyle was such a breath of fresh air after the aloofness bordering on hostility displayed by the Coen brothers last year. Also liked Penn's speech, even though I didn't like him winning.

- I got into the extended bouts of acting praise as the evening went on, though I must admit feeling very wary when I first saw the device used for best supporting actress. I think they must have quickened the pace a bit as the evening went on.

- Why did I need to see all the sucky animated movies from last year that weren't nominated? They actually showed several clips of Star Wars: The Clone Wars during the Oscars. For shame.

- Hugh Jackman was lively and I really enjoyed his opening number, though I think I would have preferred it if he'd stuck to just the best picture nominees, the way Billy Crystal used to. Adding in additional references to only The Dark Knight and The Wrestler tended to confuse what the rules were for his song. However, I did not need the extended salute to musicals, which also played by the rules fairly poorly. By the way, weren't musicals actually "back" in 2001 with Moulin Rouge?

- The stage looked pretty good and I was on board with the thrust of the overall concept. I think it needs some fine-tuning, but giving out those awards in bunches, according to their logical placement within the production schedule of a typical film, worked, and did not belittle the categories in the slightest. I would, however, have given out best animated short before best animated feature. There are some things that are just logical. They'll get those next time, I assume.

- Ben Stiller's bit as Joaquin Phoenix was sort of funny but it went on too long. If they were going to nail Joaquin, why not also nail Christian Bale? Answer: Bale's still an actor, and Phoenix claims no longer to be. Once your own quits the team, you cast them out.

- I was happy that Kate Winslet won, but doesn't it seem like Meryl Streep really deserves to win another Oscar eventually? She's not only the most nominated, she has also lost the most. If not for those two wins, you'd call her the Susan Lucci of the Oscars.

- My biggest surprise of the evening is that I am going to be reviewing the underdog winner for best foreign film. (And by the way, when was the last time a best foreign film winner came from Japan?) In an arrangement that's actually fairly unusual for me, and makes me feel like a "real" (as in full-time) film critic, I am being sent to a critic's screening of the Japanese film Departures a week from Wednesday. It'll be nice to already know that the film won an Oscar. Being able to incorporate that kind of information into a review that will exist perpetually on the internet is always helpful, as it lends more to the sense of timelessness. (More on this another time.)

- Did they mess up on opening that curtain at the beginning? I thought I heard someone telling someone else on a headset to "Go."

- Jerry Lewis gave a great speech, and I was glad he got an honorary Oscar. For all we tease him about having made comedy that only a Frenchman could love, the man is a damn fine humanitarian and a credit to Hollywood.

- I know it was pretty much a Slumdog sweep -- I think it lost one category -- but I was fairly surprised that the Oscar voters actually distinguished between the two nominated songs and didn't split their votes. My bet is that Bruce Springsteen would have won if he'd been nominated for his Wrestler song, anyway. The Wrestler, my favorite movie of last year, definitely deserved to walk away with at least one Oscar.

- My wife and I hastily made our picks when we returned home from our trip. In that haste I picked 15 categories correctly. Not too bad for not having pondered the nominations too much. Unofficially, I believe I beat her by one category, but we didn't actually tally her sheet, and she's asleep on the couch now.

There's probably a lot more I could say, but this kind of stuff you can find in any of the 7,332 other recaps available online.

Back tomorrow with material more typical of The Audient -- for better or worse.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

When watching movies is work

I'm going on a mini vacation to Arizona starting tomorrow after work. It's the road trip my wife and I have been dying to take for awhile now, and after a number of other ideas were tossed around, it's actually the destination we first brain-stormed almost two years ago: Bisbee, Arizona, just miles from the Mexican border, where we'll be staying in a vintage trailer park full of vintage trailers. Please don't steal our stuff while we're gone.

Even though I'll be missing only two work days, I still always feel like I need to tie up loose ends before leaving on such a trip. It just so happens that most of them this time had to do with the movies, not the tech support trouble tickets, that were on my docket.

That's right, during the 40-hour period from Sunday afternoon to early this morning, I finished three very different movies that felt like chores for three very different reasons. No one ever said being a film critic was "thumbs up" 100% of the time.

Let's go chronologically:

1. The Big Red One: Reconstruction (1980/2004, Samuel Fuller). A movie released in two different years? I should probably explain. This is a World War II epic whose director hated the cut that the studio forced on him, and six years after he died, film critic and historian Richard Schickel decided to release a reconstructed version based on some newly discovered footage Fuller shot back in the late 1970s.

The Big Red One: Reconstruction was not something I would have ever known anything about, and it was only recently that I realized it's an update of an older film. My editors assigned it to me over a year ago because they were surprised it wasn't yet reviewed. Most of the films I review are ones I've requested, but the first list I ever received back in 2000, plus two more since then, have been films they asked me to review. I tend to take these more seriously because I know it's content they actually want, unlike some of the funny titles I throw their way that they approve anyway.

But this one eluded me for quite some time, as until recently it was listed as "Very Long Wait" on I realized my only shot to get my hands on it might be if my wife helped me out by loading it on her Netflix queue, so I gave this title to her among a list of others with indeterminate availability. As irony would have it, The Big Red One: Reconstruction freed up on Blockbuster at just the time it arrived in the mail through Netflix. That worked out anyway, because only the Netflix copy was watchable -- Blockbuster had sent me Disc 2, featuring only the DVD extras, contrary to their own email notifcation. This isn't the only time Blockbuster's dunces have sent me the wrong movie. I recently got the 2007 version of The Hitcher when I had requested the 1986 version (which actually isn't as good as the remake). But as usual, I'm digressing.

In order to properly judge the success of The Big Red One: Reconstruction, however, I first had to watch The Big Red One. While there may be some debate about whether you need to first read a novel to judge its film adaptation, it's pretty clear that a review of a re-released film has little worth if you haven't seen the original. So set about seeing it I did. I returned the useless disc of extras (and didn't even bother to report it as a problem), triggering the sending of the original version of The Big Red One, which I watched last weekend. And which I thought sucked. I instantly understood why Mr. Fuller was so bummed about their evisceration of his pet project.

So as you can imagine, it wasn't very appetizing knowing that The Big Red One: Reconstruction -- a full 45 minutes longer -- was awaiting me. Not only that, but I couldn't procrastinate on it, because my wife's Netflix plan allows the sending of a new movie only once you've returned the previous one. And no, I don't get paid more for watching two movies instead of one.

So I started slogging through it last Tuesday at the gym. And then Thursday at the gym. And then Saturday at the gym. This got me through the first hour and 20 minutes only. I finally finished the second half on Sunday afternoon, but that was in two sittings as well, since I slept for about 20 minutes in between. So if you're counting, that's five different distinct viewings to get through all 158 minutes of The Big Red One: Reconstruction.

Happily, I can report that at least this version was much better. The movie had a much smoother flow once the bridging scenes had been restored to the cut. And hey, if I'm going to exercise before work on machines with 20-minute time limits, I should expect that a two-hour-and-forty-minute movie is going to take me awhile.

2. Ten Canoes (2006, Rolf de Heer). This was another film for review, one that I'd requested. It's the first-ever film featuring only Aboriginal actors, and it captures the Aboriginal traditions in a way that both respects them and makes them narratively lively and absorbing.

So why was this one a chore? Well, I can say it was absorbing now that I've watched it. But before that, it felt like a daunting task. A daunting immersion into a totally foreign world. So daunting, in fact, that this was the third time I'd rented it from the library.

I discovered this when I was cleaning out the car on Sunday in prepration for this road trip. It had obviously been awhile since I'd done a proper cleaning, as I found two different receipts for library rentals, both of which featured Ten Canoes as one of the three titles you're allowed to rent on any given visit. One from August and one from December. I'd picked up Ten Canoes a third time last Thursday, really intending to watch it this time. But it was late Sunday afternoon, I already knew how the rest of my day was going to play out, and frankly, I knew my schedule would be pretty busy before leaving on this trip. (In fact, the only reason I'm writing this now is because I'm at work and all my bosses have gone home). And the videos were due back before the library opened on Tuesday, after a rental period that had already been elongated by the library's normal Sunday closure and its Monday closure for Presidents' Day. The fact that my wife, a native Australian, has already seen it tended to further disincentivize my viewing.

Well, it seemed like too much of an indignity to this little movie to force myself into an eventual fourth rental. So I carved out the time Monday evening to watch it, even though the DVR was already stacked with shows, which would need to be cleaned off to make way for the ones that would record while we're away.

I was distracted a handful of times by the needs of the evening, but made it through just before 9, right as a delayed dinner was coming out of the oven. And damn glad I did -- it's a fine piece of filmmaking, and not the least bit alienating. One thing that's good about films like this and like Apocalypto -- which is similar in ways, but very different in others -- is that in addition to all the exotic culture they show us, they also remind us how similar all human beings are. As it turns out, the Aboriginals make fart and dick jokes just like we do.

3. The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggietales Movie (2008, Mike Nawrocki). On this one I have only myself to blame. When I saw the billboards for this movie a year ago, I thought it seemed ridiculous. Yeah, I know I'm not the target audience for Veggietales. But the unwieldy title of this movie seemed to be a particularly artless spoof of the recently completed Pirates of the Caribbean series. I fixated on the idea that it wasn't even a good parallel with Pirates of the Caribbean in terms of the naming structure. In which of these titles -- Curse of the Black Pearl, Dead Man's Chest, and At World's End -- is what the pirates actually do even hinted at? In one of those moments where I've started writing my review early -- in this case, a year early -- I planned to request this movie to review when it became available on DVD.

So I rented it from the store two Sundays ago. Blockbuster is pretty good about in-store returns now that they've tacked on a week's grace period to all their return dates. With this system, even the hot new releases won't cost you anything until you've had them out for nine days. With older releases, like Veggietales, you get more than two weeks to return them without penalty.

However, by Monday night, I realized that if I didn't get that movie watched before the trip, I'd be perilously close to late fees by the time we returned. (Plus, our immediate viewing priority upon returning will be the Oscars). The only thing worse than watching this Veggietales movie -- aren't these vegetables supposed to be Christian vegetables or something? -- would be getting charged a fee to either watch it or not watch it.

So at the ridiculous hour of 12:46 a.m. last night, I put it in the DVD player. It's slightly less ridiculous when you consider that I don't report to work until 9:30 on Tuesdays, but still, it's ridiculous. And I had one of those experiences that I'm sure some of you have had before, when you're fighting the return deadline of a movie and you absolutely can't fall asleep while watching it. Of course, this only makes you more likely to fall asleep.

Which I did. Several times. But like a good soldier, I kept on watching. I'd watch for five minutes, then take a nap, then watch another five minutes. I got through about the first 20 minutes by 2 a.m. this way. But then I had to pack it in for what was left of a full night's sleep. I woke up at 7:30 to watch the last hour, and am proud to say, made it to the finish line.

And what do you know? Pleasant suprise #3 out of 3. No, I'm not about to tell you that The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything is high art, or anything even close to that. But I will say it's not quite as baby as I thought it would be, not nearly as Christian as I thought it would be (I noticed nary a sign), and on a good day, it can be characterized as cute. On a bad day, at least it's inoffensive.

I've earned my vacation, wouldn't you say?

And sorry for my long-windedness. You probably won't get another update on The Audient until next Monday, so I've got to get everything out now. I guess I should have told you earlier to break this up over multiple sittings.

After all, I happen to know all about that kind of thing.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Defending my recommendation

I really should call this post "Taking my own advice," or something like that, but that wouldn't be a play on words with the movie title I'm about to discuss, now would it?

I may have selected the poster art for Kissing Jessica Stein for my discussion of potential Valentine's Day movies -- and I swear, I didn't notice it was covered with hearts until afterward -- but when it came down to it, I ended up going with a different choice from my ten recommendations for my own Valentine's viewing. And funnily enough, I do have my own blog to thank for it.

My wife and I were standing in line waiting for our free advanced screening of The International on Wednesday night. Those of you who read my blog closely -- I think I have one or two out there -- may have seen me bag on my prospects for liking The International, and then notice it land in my "Most Recently Seen" section off to the right (where it still resides as of this typing). So I wanted to let you know that a) it was indeed a free screening, thanks to my wife's subscription to Creative Screenwriting magazine, and b) despite some memorable scenes and some great technical achievements, it was, in fact, a ho-hum thriller overall. But as is my custom, I'm digressing.

So as we were hopping around trying to keep warm -- yes, it does sometimes get cold in Los Angeles -- I was telling my wife about some of the selections from that day's post. And I discovered that she hadn't yet seen Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life, in which Brooks also stars with Meryl Streep (and a hilarious Rip Torn). So my gears immediately began turning.

I knew it would be hard to find this at a video store. The brick-and-mortar places tend to stop carrying even great films like Defending Your Life if they stop getting rented. I found this out the hard way when writing a story that required me to revisit The Full Monty. I tried to pick it up at Blockbuster, and expressed my bemusement to the clerk that they didn't carry it. He/she explained that if a title doesn't get rented once within a given year, or some similar time frame, they remove it from the shelves. That seems like a rather draconian standard, but it also makes a certain amount of sense, as there's a finite amount of space on those shelves, and a steady flow of new additions to the inventory.

By Wednesday night it was also too late to get it through the mail from my account (more another time on why I prefer Blockbuster to Netflix), even if I had a movie to exchange for it, which I didn't. So that left the good old library. On Thursday I went online to search for where I could find it, having remembered seeing it on the shelves at one of the two branches I frequent. Sure enough, they had it at the branch closest to my house, and the Los Angeles Public Library website could even tell me that it hadn't been checked out. So I picked it up, setting in motion a low-level giddiness about getting reacquainted with this wonderful film.

That giddiness continued as I sat on the couch last night, filled up with pasta and wine, taking little glances to my right to see my wife with a silly grin on her face for most of the movie. It's a silly grin kind of movie, and I'm so glad she felt the same way, since I'd come dangerously close to over-hyping it in the preceding couple days.

And I got an additional something out of this movie that I hadn't consciously recognized before, which speaks to something I'm working on in my reviews. Among all the little things this film does well, one of the best is its score. It manages to be both sweeping and deliciously light on its toes, in keeping with the tone of the movie in general.

Movie scores are not what they used to be, and I almost never mention them when I'm reviewing films. But it's nice to know that if they are really good -- like Michael Gore's is in Defending Your Life -- I will store that information away in a little place in my brain to refer to later. In checking out Mr. Gore's other credits on IMDB, I was disappointed to see that although he scored some pretty grand films early in his career -- such as Fame and Terms of Endearment -- he hasn't composed a score since the unlikely choice of Superstar, the Molly Shannon vehicle and expanded SNL sketch that came out in 1999. Oh well. I hope he's living large off his early successes somewhere out there.

Now excuse me while I go brainstorm my President's Day posting. Or not.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Please stop confessing

I'm pretty fascinated with titles. I don't think a title makes or breaks a movie, but a bad title definitely hurts a good movie, and a good title definitely helps a bad movie. Fewer people will be induced into seeing the former, and more into seeing the latter.

I've noticed patterns over the years, some of which I may touch on in other postings. A couple years ago, for example, it seemed like every movie that came out had more than five words in the title, usually with a colon jammed in there somewhere. Then for awhile after that, as a market correction, every movie title was just a single word, or a single word preceded by the definite article (The). In fact, one could say that's still going on. (I really do have a post planned for this one. Patience.)

A lot of people don't notice these things, but I do.

But throughout all this, there has been one constant. (There's probably been more than one, but I'm focusing on one in particular today. That's kind like saying "My favorite thing is," when all you really mean is "The following is something I would like to discuss.") The constant is that cinema has seen a slew of films titled Confessions of a So-and-So. Yesterday, Confessions of a Shopaholic was released, continuing the tradition.

I was curious to see how wide and deep this tradition runs, so I searched IMDB by the word "confessions." There were 12 hits that were considered an exact match, some of them just called Confessions, some of them using Confessions as an abbreviation from the more common full title. (The fact that some movies have several different titles, often depending on the country in which they're being released, is also a subject for another post). Beyond those 12, there were 210 partial matches.

I know we're talking about all movies and TV shows that have ever existed, plus anything else that IMDB tracks (video games? plays? instructional videos?), but 210 still seems like quite a lot.

To name just those from this century, in the order they were listed from the search results (most searched?):

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (2002)
Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004)
Confessions of a Sociopathic Social Climber (2005)
Big Shot: Confessions of a Campus Bookie (2002)
Confessions of a Head Hunter (2000)
Confessions of a Superhero (2007)
Confessions of a Thug (2005)
Confessions of an American Bride (2005)
Confessions of an Animation (2004)
Confessions of a Burning Man (2003)
Confessions of a Late Bloomer (2005)
Confessions of a Pit Fighter (2005)
Confessions of a Porn Addict (2008)
Confessions of a Teen Idol (2009)
Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman (2006)
Confessions of a Dangerous Mime (2004)
Confessions of a Diary Secretary (2007)
Confessions of a Drag Queen (2006)
Confessions of a Gambler (2007)
Confessions of a Go-Go Girl (2008)
Confessions of an Action Star (2008)
Confessions of a Bondage Lover (2003)
Confessions of a Dog (2005)
Confessions of a Gangsta (2006)
Confessions of a German Soldier (2008)
Confessions of a Hustler: The Movie (2000)
Confessions of a Matchmaker (2007)
Confessions of a Memory Eater (2009)
Confessions of an IRA Informer (2004)
Confessions of an Italian American (2007)
Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie (2010)
Confessions of a Peep Show Junkie (2006)
Confessions of a Rat Pack Party Girl (2010)
Confessions of a Reluctant Bra Buyer (2005)
Confessions of a Slacker (2007)
Confessions of a Sociopath (2002)
Confessions of a Telecommuter (2004)
Confessions of a Wall Street Shoeshine Boy (2009)
Confessions of Captain Freedom (2006)
The Day I Turned Uncool: Confessions of a Reluctant Grown-Up (2009)
Stan Collymore: Confessions of a Premiership Footballer (2004)

Aren't you glad I restricted myself to only years that start with the number 2, and only titles using the construction "Confessions of" somewhere in them? Disclaimer: Some of the above titles may be porn movies.

So why are all these people confessing? Well, it would stand to reason, a person who has something to confess is a person who has sinned. That fits many of the people on this list -- though there are certain ones where it doesn't seem to (Confessions of a Superhero, for example). That's where the second meaning comes in -- a "confession" as a way of shedding light on a heretofore obscure or mysterious person/job, the details of whose day-to-day life would fascinate someone's socks off. Either way, when a movie is titled Confessions of ..., you're supposed to feel like you're getting the real skinny on the way that person operates.

So how did this tradition begin? It had to have its origins in literature, right? Well, even though the internet helped me out by finding all those movie titles, it failed me in terms of researching what inspired them. I tried all kinds of combinations of relevant search terms in google, but that brought me no closer to figuring out where this whole thing began. was no help either. My English professors would be so disappointed in me. However, this might bring back of their some pride: I can tell you that Thomas de Quincey wrote an autobiographical work called Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in 1821, because I read it. What I can't tell you is whether or not his title was paying homage to previous writers.

I think the question really is, can we retire this already? I understand that it's probably more interesting to call the movie Confessions of a Shopaholic than The Shopaholic or I Was a Teenage Shopaholic or Shopaholic: The Life and Times of Rebecca Bloomwood or just plain Shopaholic. But it should take no further evidence than IMDB's exhaustive list of confessional titles to realize that this is totally played out.

Of course, in this particular case, it was based on a book of the same name. But this blog is called The Audient, not The Reader, so I'm stuck pointing fingers at the movies.

Now excuse me while I go change my blog title to Confessions of a Frustrated Film Critic.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Gimmicky release dates

If you're a fan of schlock cinema -- or at least maintain an awareness of it -- you probably know that the Friday the 13th reboot coming out today is actually the 11th movie to use the Friday the 13th brand, or perhaps the 12th, if you count 2003's Freddy vs. Jason. Which I guess you probably should. So when they release the inevitable sequel to this reboot -- and I say it's "inevitable" with confidence, because they've already started working on it -- it'll be number 13 in the series. Whoa, watch out then.

But it may surprise you to know this: Only four of the previous 11 movies were actually released on a Friday the 13th. And since Friday is the day 95% of movies get released, you'd think there would have been a lot more.

I used the adjectival form of the word "gimmick" in my post title, so you may think I'm against this kind of thing. But really, I'm for it. Call me simple, but I think if you are going to make a Friday the 13th movie, it's incumbent upon you to release it on a Friday the 13th. You usually get about two of these a year. Can't you pick one of them and go with that?

Yet those who have shepherded this franchise through 12 release dates have chosen a Friday the 13th for only five of them, including today. (And since this 13th falls during a non-leap year February, whose length of exactly four weeks means the dates fall on the same days next month, they had the option to release it March 13th of this year as well).

Let's take a look back. And forgive me if the following paragraph reminds you of a scene from Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming, where the characters quiz each other on the titles of all nine movies that existed to that point. (And by the way, if you thought Saw movies came out with impossible regularity, just look at the first eight movies in this series, released within the space of just over nine years).

Okay, deep breath ...

Friday the 13th was released on May 9, 1980. Probably expecting it to be just some one-off horror movie, the studio didn't think too much about the release strategy. They hadn't yet gotten their act together for Friday the 13th Part 2, which came out less than a year later on April 30, 1981. But the ducks were finally in a row for Friday the 13th Part III (and forgive the inconsistency -- the source I'm looking at has regular numbers for Part 2, and roman numerals for Part III), using the opportunity of the series' first 3D movie to also get the first Friday the 13th release date: August 13, 1982. They kept that going for the next film in the series, which they foolishly titled as though it would be the last: Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, which came out on April 13, 1984. But then they inexplicably abandoned the strategy again for Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, which hit theaters March 22, 1985 -- perhaps because they would have had to wait six more months to get a Friday the 13th. (And in case you're scoring at home, it took them less than a year to both reverse themselves on the decision to wrap up the series with that fourth installment, and to actually release the movie that "revived" the series.) Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives hit theaters on August 1, 1986. Granted, they were dealing with a pretty manic production schedule to churn these out so regularly, but if they'd been six weeks faster, they could have gotten a Friday the 13th that June. The planets aligned again for the release of Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, though granted, they allowed themselves almost two years this time: May 13, 1988. They couldn't work it out for the following year, releasing the movie that acknowledged the series had totally devolved into self-parody, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, on July 28, 1989. The workaholic series finally took a hiatus of sorts before Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, again failing to accurately project the longevity of the series, but getting a Friday the 13th release date by benefit of waiting more than four years: August 13, 1993. That logic didn't hold when it took another nine years for the next movie, Jason X, to be released on April 26, 2002. It being the first Friday the 13th without the word "Friday" in the title might have had something to do with it. By the 11th movie, Freddie Krueger had hijacked part of the spotlight from Jason, and Freddy vs. Jason was released on August 15, 2003 -- though again there was an available Friday the 13th two months earlier.

Whew! Can you imagine how much trouble this kind of research would have been before the internet?

So I've got my Friday the 13ths down cold. What disappointed me as I prepared to write this was how few of the other prominent gimmicky release dates I could remember. Probably almost every Friday the 13th has seen the release of one horror movie -- sometimes more than one, though it would seem like box office suicide for two horrors to take each other on in the same weekend. (Last year's Friday the 13th, which hit in June, saw the release of M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening, which features a monster far more ferocious than Jason: a light breeze.)

But Friday the 13th isn't the only gimmicky release date you can have. Over the years, various movies have prominently featured either dates or numbers in their titles or themes, and been released accordingly with a calendar date. I just seem to be drawing a blank on them here. (If you would be so kind, you can help me out in my comments section.) I thought of Independence Day, but that was released a day early to better capitalize on the holiday box office. Here's a good one: The post-apocalyptic animated film from Shane Acker and Timur Bekmambetov, 9, whose trailers look pretty awesome, will be released on 09-09-09. Fortunately for them, that date happened to land on a Wednesday, the next most popular release day after Friday. If it had been a Sunday, they would have been shit out of luck.

I can think of one good missed opportunity that came just last year. Columbia Pictures had it lined up perfectly to release the blackjack movie 21 on Friday, March 21st. Except they inexplicably waited a week and released it on March 28th instead.

They must have really feared the stiff competition from Drillbit Taylor and Meet the Browns on March 21st.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ten date movies you might not have considered

Come on, admit it. You're a romantic at heart.

No, you don't like to be force-fed the date movies that Hollywood says you're supposed to like. You're just not that into He's Just Not That Into You. But you do like to watch something romantic around Valentine's Day, just like you like a good scare around Halloween. It's whether there are brains behind these scares or sighs that makes the difference.

Since you instinctively recoil from anything released between February 1st and 14th each year, especially if it stars Drew Barrymore or Matthew McConaughey, and you've already worn out all the classics, like When Harry Met Sally ..., you need another method for discovering a good date movie. A date movie that doesn't come prepackaged for the lowest common denominator, but still gives you that tingling sensation of a perfectly constructed love story.

What to do?

Well, I've decided to make your burden a little lighter in the form of ten good date movies you may not have considered. They're not obscure in the sense that you've never heard of them, but maybe you never saw them as a date movie in the first place, or maybe I don't think they ever got their proper due. I just hope I haven't waited too long to tell you about these gems. By publishing this on February 11th, I'm hoping you technically still have time to promote one of these to the top of your Netflix queue for a Saturday delivery. Either that or go seek them out at your local video store, if you trust their inventory. (Warning! Renting a movie on Valentine's Day not recommended as a date option for people in a relationship less than two months!)

And don't think me overly romantic -- I know there are just as many of you who like to snub your nose at this Hallmark holiday and watch something totally profane in protest, as well you should. But your choices for that particular goal are limited only by your own imagination, and I can't help you there.

These are not ranked -- I know, what a shock -- so I will just list them in alphabetical order. (Compulsiveness, however, still requires me to use a numbering system.)

1. The Baxter (2005, Michael Showalter). Writer-director Showalter stars as the guy from the title, but that's not his name -- it's his character type. In a brilliant riff on romantic comedies as an institution, the film posits that a "Baxter" is the guy in every movie love triangle who loses out -- he's the safe doofus who's a tad too boring for our heroine, so he gets left at the altar. Think Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle. The Baxter is told from his perspective, and told perfectly. But don't fret for poor Elliot Sherman (what a perfect name) -- he's got a love interest of his own in the form of the darling Michelle Williams. Elizabeth Banks and Justin Theroux are hilarious as the other members of this quartet. Showalter is part of David Wain's troupe of alumni from The State, so fans of Role Models and Wet Hot American Sumer should also like it.

2. Before Sunrise (1995, Richard Linklater). If you think Linklater is too chatty by half, and the presence of Ethan Hawke only makes it worse ... well, you might be right. But Before Sunrise was made long before that reputation had been cemented for either of them, and it's far more earnest than jaded/superior. Before Sunrise is the consummate love story for the intellectual, as two travelers (Hawke and Julie Delpy, who have great chemistry) collide in Vienna, and proceed to immerse themselves in each other's thoughts and life philosophies over the course of a single day together. The thoughtful dialogue leaves viewers feeling like they've consumed a large and satisfying meal, and Linklater's focus on only these two characters heavily invests viewers in their apparent soul connection.

3. Confetti (2006, Debbie Isitt). This British import follows Christopher Guest's mockumentary tradition, but diverges from Guest by refusing to indulge in the kind of misanthropy that's become his style of late, especially in For Your Consideration. Instead, director Isitt loves these characters: three couples competing in a magazine-sponsored competition for the most novel wedding concept, in exchange for having their ceremony paid for, and a $500,000 home for the winners. A fourth couple, the gay wedding planners who help each couple execute their chosen concept, are also smartly, subtly, and sweetly realized. Rarely does a film that's going for laughs show such insight into the different ways that relationships work.

4. Defending Your Life (1991, Albert Brooks). Not nearly enough people are aware of what I consider Albert Brooks' best movie, this sweet, charming, and extremely funny look at the recently deceased trying to argue for the legitimacy of how they spent their time on earth. If it sounds like a downer that the film's leads -- Brooks and an exceedingly relaxed Meryl Streep -- are dead from the outset, then you're in for a wonderful surprise. Rarely has a film with real substance been so light on its feet, and Brooks' conception of the afterlife is quirky and fun. You may be able to eat as much food as you want without gaining weight, but the heart still falls in love with just as much glee, and just as much potential for breaking.

5. The Guru (2003, Daisy von Scherler Mayer). Not to be confused -- PLEASE -- with last year's Mike Myers vehicle The Love Guru, this is the story of a young Indian man who comes to America wanting to be an actor, but ends up playing the role of a guru who gives sexual advice to rich people, with the help of a porn star. Not what you had in mind for a date movie? Well, consider that Heather Graham is the likeable porn star, Marisa Tomei is a sweetly dopey rich person, and Jimi Mistry is the hopeful young man with charisma to spare, and you've got a truly endearing fairy tale with a nice sprinkling of Bollywood in it. I sing the praises of this underdog movie whenever I can, and I'm always hoping to make more converts.

6. Kissing Jessica Stein (2002, Charles Herman-Wurmfeld). Because its subject matter is totally different, it's impossible to accuse this movie of stealing from When Harry Met Sally ..., but it does borrow one essential ingredient from that film's success: From its soundtrack to its excellent use of the city as a stage, it makes New York City seem like the best place in the world to fall in love. Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergenson are terrific as two intelligent New Yorkers who are trying on lesbianism for size, and the great thing about the film is, it presents their experimentation without reducing it to a simplistic gimmick. There's a pretty dynamite heterosexual relationship in the film as well, plus a scene between Jessica and her mother (Tovah Feldshuh) that still gets me after about four viewings.

7. Once (2007, John Carney). This may be cheating a little bit. After their wonderful performance at the Oscars last year, and then winning the trophy itself, and then amazing intimate audiences around the world as the touring band The Swell Season, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova are not under the radar. But if you haven't seen this film, you may think it's only about the music, about creating art with your bare hands. In addition, Once is a splendid love story, even if it's not one that proceeds along a traditional course, or one that ends up like you might expect it to. Anyone who hasn't seen this one-of-a-kind gem should make it a priority, Valentine's Day or no.

8. Return to Me (2000, Bonnie Hunt). A seemingly forgettable romance about a widowed architect (David Duchovny) who falls in love with the woman who received his wife's donated heart (Minnie Driver) may seem not only contrived, but a little perverse. But trust me, there's something wonderful about this movie, something beyond the chemistry of the leads and the sweetness of their performances. It's just the kind of movie that leaves you feeling good, and it needs no further intellectual justification than that.

9. Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991, Anthony Minghella). You know the late director for his sweeping romance The English Patient, but did you happen to know how skilled he was at capturing life-sized romance? Truly, Madly, Deeply could be called a British Ghost if that didn't tend to cheapen the exquisite subtlety and heartwarming magnanimity of Minghella's movie, which features a dead musician (Alan Rickman) returning to comfort the woman (Juliet Stevenson) he left behind as she grieves his loss. Despite the essential fantastical quality of the setup, this is a very grounded look at love and loss, and how memories can help a person cope and move forward. And it's not nearly as sad as I've made it sound.

10. Wriscutters: A Love Story (2007, Goran Dukic). What is it with this death theme? As in Defending Your Life, the characters in this film are already dead -- but unlike Defending Your Life, here, they all killed themselves. In fact, Wristcutters takes place in an afterlife populated entirely by suicide victims. But does that make it bleak? Hardly. Wristcutters isn't lying when it calls itself a love story, as this film establishes a tone of wonderful wistfulness, its characters discovering things about themselves that would have made their lives worth living -- and might in fact make their afterlife worth living as well. The tentative and low-key fondness that develops between Patrick Fugit and Shannyn Sossamon plays out in very satisfying ways, and really, you won't feel the least bit depressed. Trust me.

Bonus Material! (Since you haven't been reading long enough already)

Five Movie You Might Think You Should Watch on Valentine's Day, But Shouldn't:

1. The Break-Up (2006, Peyton Reed). Trust the title. It stars Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, and they actually struck up a relationship on set. But this movie is basically one long argument. That doesn't mean I think it's bad -- you just shouldn't see it on February 14th.

2. Date Movie (2006, Aaron Seltzer). Don't trust the title. Anyone who sees this movie on a date will break up immediately afterward, because it had to be somebody's bad idea to go, and that person deserves whatever happens to him/her.

3. Paris Je T'aime (2007, various directors). Again, don't trust the title. In almost none of the 18 vignettes in this film will you feel the romance of Paris. In almost all will you feel pushed and pulled in different directions by a concept that should have stayed at the concept level.

4. P.S. I Love You (2007, Richard LaGravenese). In the first scene, Hilark Swank and Gerard Butler are going to have a 10-minute screaming match. Then in the next scene, he's going to be dead of a never-before-mentioned illness. Then, she's going to follow an intricate design of posthumous clues he's set out for her to find her bliss. Yes, it's as bad as it sounds.

5. Shopgirl (2005, Anand Tucker). This is what happens when mopey meets gloomy. Steve Martin narrates the film and constantly says things like "Ray Porter felt loss" and "Ray Porter was sad." Too bad, as Clare Danes really tries to be charming in this film.

Happy Valentine's Day, or not, whichever you prefer.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Not "how we do it"

Time Warner Cable is trying to render my favorite comedy from last year a lot less funny.

If you really like a movie, you prefer it in unaltered form -- whether that's Spielberg not replacing the guns with walkie-talkies in E.T., or just a line you think works really well the way it is.

But in Time Warner Cable's spot advertising Step Brothers, they've seen it fit to change one of these lines, presumably to get across the humor in a broader, less specific way. The problem is, Step Brothers was already facing an uphill battle against being considered too broad and unspecific. When it transcended those limitations excellently (see it if you don't believe me), it was a victory over our preconceived notions. The pay-per-view spot -- which I don't for a minute assume was actually commissioned by Time Warner, rather, simply aired by them -- undermines all that, and stops the discriminating viewer dead in his/her tracks.

Let's see if you've seen this ad. It features that moment when, in one of the movie's most regrettably famous scenes, John C. Reilly jumps on the upper bunk of a structurally unsound bunk bed, which he and Will Ferrell have just assembled with a delicate combination of two-by-fours and spit. The upper bunk immediately falls (and presumably crushes) a helpless Ferrell below.

For starters, I don't think this is among the 20 best scenes in Step Brothers. However, it does appeal to that middle-of-the-road, "I know what's coming but will still laugh" mentality that presumably sells lots of tickets. So I guess I get why it's considered a moment they want to showcase.

Actually, the film's writing team of Ferrell and Adam McKay make the moment a lot more absurd because of what Reilly says at the time of that ill-fated jump. I'm paraphrasing, but as he takes flight, like an excited six-year-old he spits out: "I forgot to ask you: Do you like guacamole?" Pretty random thing to be asking, right? Funny.

Except in this ad, his dialogue is changed to "This is how we do it!," sung "in the style of" (to use karaoke terminology) Montell Jordan, the artist who recorded and popularized the frivolous hip hop tune "This Is How We Do It" in the mid-1990s. I have to assume Reilly actually sings this song sometime in the movie -- even though I've watched it twice and don't remember that happening -- but it's certainly not during the bed-bounding incident. Oh, and to throw in an extra little something: They follow it with a surprised yelp from Reilly, which I believe also originated in a different scene, if it appears in the film at all.

This may seem like a lot of "column inches" (to use the old newspaper term) to devote to a fairly simple and inoffensive ruse. Trailers are nothing if not compressed, mashed-up versions of films, where information is imparted in a specific sequence not because that's how it unspools in the film, but because that's how it communicates essential details to the viewer in a limited amount of time. I get that. And I understand profanity is sometimes a consideration, as well. When watching Coraline among scads of elementary school kids -- many of whom were too young for the scarier shit in that film -- we saw a trailer for another Ferrell film, Land of the Lost. For the fragile ears of these youngsters, Ferrell's already-signature exclamation "Matt Lauer can suck it!" has been altered to "Matt Lauer can eat it!" The linguists among us can argue whether sucking a dick or eating shit is actually the more scarring image for a six-year-old, especially when "eat it" can also be interpreted as eating a dick. But nonetheless, there's no doubt it was changed to what was considered the less offensive term.

But how does John C. Reilly covering Montell Jordan really improve the bunkbed gag? Answer: It doesn't. It just drives away prospective viewers who are already looking for a reason not to discover one of the best surprises of 2008.

Well, I guess that just means I gotta work a little harder here on The Audient ...

Monday, February 9, 2009

Hello, 2009

At last, I have something to rank again.

Even though it's been just 17 days since I finished my 2008 year-end rankings, that's an eternity for a list addict like me. And so it was that yesterday and today, I finally broke the seal on my 2009 rankings. And it was only today that I had to make an actual ranking decision, since the movie I saw yesterday, Taken, was both the best and worst movie I'd seen to that point. Today, it became the worst -- a ranking that is actually somewhat justified given the broad dialogue and the film's essential xenophobia. But hey, it was entertaining at least.

In case you're interested, here is how my list looks so far:

1. Coraline
2. Taken

Astonishing, my process, isn't it?

Jokes aside, the first movie I see in a given year is actually a subject of interest to me. As indicated above, I don't like to go too long without getting my rankings going again. And so each year I ask myself: "Am I going to start this year's list organically, or inorganically?" In other words, am I going to make the first film I see something I'd see anyway, or am I going to force it just to get the list going?

I've taken different approaches in the past. Two years ago, for example, I severely regret my decision to jump-start the list. I remember feeling an actual agitation to get started on 2007, and that's what led me to fork out movie theater prices for Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer's Epic Movie on January 28, 2007. I went to this film with full knowledge of how much I hated their previous effort, Date Movie, and yet I went anyway. It helped that I had approval to review it, and to this date I don't know which review of mine is more vitriolic, Date Movie or Epic Movie. Let's just say that Friedberg and Seltzer are two of the men I respect least in Hollywood.

Last year, I didn't have to worry about it, as one of my most anticipated films of the year was released on January 18th. I actually saw Cloverfield twice in the theater before I'd seen any other film once. Yeah, I know I like that movie more than most people do, but come on -- it was good.

Three years ago, I got my 2006 list started before 2006 itself even started. I went to an advanced screening of Eli Roth's Hostel in December of 2005, and at the time, I loved it. I haven't seen it again since then, but I'm thinking it probably doesn't hold up. The year before that, I was big-time organic, waiting all the way until February 21st to finally find a film worthy of my attentions: Constantine.

So how about this year? I'd say it was semi-organic. I hadn't been expecting to see Taken, but I saw it under circumstances that kind of render that question moot: I saw it with a friend. Some of our great viewing compromises come when seeing a movie with a friend, and that's actually part of the fun -- you get exposed to things you wouldn't otherwise see that way. We were actually close to seeing Fanboys, another inorganic choice, but decided to push our evening back a half-hour and catch the 10 o'clock showing of Taken. (Push had also been briefly considered and rejected, and if you saw this post, you know that viewing would have been quite inorganic for me indeed). I was actually tempted to accompany him to The Wrestler, my favorite film of last year, but hey, I already closed that list.

As it turns out, if I did jump-start things, I only jump-started them by a day, since the wife and I went to see Coraline (in 3-D!) today. Quite a feast for the eyes, though I ultimately felt a similar emotional disconnect as I feel when watching The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. The Tim Burton-Henry Selick combo can sure create alternate-universe odyssesies, but I guess I don't have a special place in my heart for them. Still, since I'd guess some of you actually come to this site to see what I think about the movies I see -- not just my pontifications on the process of seeing them -- I'll give Coraline an enthusiastic recommendation.

It feels good to be back in the saddle again.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The career makeover of Ben Affleck

There are a number of things that interest me about He's Just Not That Into You, which hits theaters today, in plenty of time to rack up word of mouth before you have to make your Valentine's Day plans next weekend.

1) Now that it's being released, does this mean I can finally stop seeing trailers for it? I swear, I've seen the theatrical trailer for this film about six times. And I'm not even going to movies that would be logical candidates to get the trailer, on the basis of their subject matter. So yeah, they were really saturating the marketplace with this one.

2) Speaking of ads for He's Just Not That Into You, I've broken my own tradition and included two posters for the same film with my posting. I've included the one with the nine (!) heads on it as part of some points I'll make later on, but I also wanted to include the one with the candy heart on it, because I thought it was a clever approach. Those candy hearts have always had the absurd role of making Valentine's-related prognostications, almost as though they were miniature heart-shaped magic 8 balls, so squeezing the self-help title of this movie onto one of them was a smart reference to our collective consciousness. (It's also a cheeky acknowledgement that films like this have no greater raison d'etre than to take a grab at your Valentine's Day disposable income). So I wondered: Could it bode well for the film in general?

3) Speaking of those nine heads, is this movie going to explode from diva overload? I remember the first time I saw the trailer, I thought, "Okay, it's a Jennifer Aniston movie ... wait, it's a Drew Barrymore movie ... wait, it's a Scarlett Johansson movie!" This is to say nothing of Jennifer Connelly, and I understand Ginnifer Goodwin is actually the "you" of the title. I'm not suggesting that any of these actresses has a really large ego or is difficult to work with on set, but I do think each of them (excepting Ms. Goodwin) is accustomed to carrying her own movie. How director Ken Kwapis is going to dole out enough screen time for them all is anybody's guess.

4) And speaking of massive egos ... have you noticed that Ben Affleck is a supporting character in this movie? Equivalent in stature to Bradley Cooper, Justin Long and Kevin Connolly, who have all made careers of supporting bigger names? This is what I really want to talk about, as you probably noticed from the title of this post.

It's tempting to say "Ha -- look how far Ben Affleck has fallen. He's almost an afterthought in an ensemble romantic comedy." It's especially tempting because everyone has gone through at least one phase of hating Ben Affleck. (Even those of us from Boston, who share his rooting interest in sports. If we never again saw his face in the front row of another Red Sox game, seeming to speak for all Boston sports fans, it would be too soon. Thankfully, Stephen King has basically taken that role from him in recent years).

And truly, Ben Affleck has deserved our hatred. After Good Will Hunting shot him and Matt Damon instantly into the stratosphere, Affleck's trajectory was initially far more promising. But while Damon made smart and often understated choices, Affleck went for as much fame as he could, even if it meant starring in Michael Bay schlock (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) and ill-advised pairings with ill-advised girlfriend Jennifer Lopez (Jersey Girl, Gigli). What's worse, he didn't really seem to appreciate his fame -- he seemed to carry himself as though he deserved it, and he couldn't have imagined any different outcome for his life. Let's just say that when the market corrected itself, and Damon started getting recognized for his relative humility and intelligence, while Affleck began crashing and burning, legions of film fans cheered the scales of justice finally tipping the right way.

And then Affleck disappeared. Poof.

Did you notice? Did you happen to notice that in the last four years or so, Ben Affleck has been basically invisible? Except he hasn't really disappeared. He's been shrewdly remaking his image as a person who thinks about his choices, both in Hollywood, and in his personal life. In fact, you might say that his relationship with Jennifer Garner -- whom everybody has always liked, and whom Affleck didn't seem to deserve -- was the moment when the flip switched for Affleck. Right at the moment that most stars in his position would try even harder, would go even further down the wrong path, and would thereby reinforce all our negative impressions of them, likely resulting in total calamity and cinematic irrelevance, Affleck started to turn it around -- out of the spotlight and totally on the DL.

If you want to choose a rock bottom moment for Mr. Affleck, there seems no better choice than the disastrous Christmas movie Surviving Christmas, which had the singular indignity of being released on DVD in the same Christmas season in which it was released in the theater. How is that possible? It came out on October 22nd, that's how. Not only is that a totally obnoxious interpretation of the beginning of the Christmas movie season, but it also meant the thing was gone and forgotten by Veterans Day. Desperate to recoup any little bit of their investment in the film, the studio released it on DVD exactly two months later. I wouldn't swear to it, but that has got to be a first.

While movies like Gigli and Pearl Harbor seem like a much more symbolic indication of Affleck's downward spiral, anyone who saw Surviving Christmas (like I did) would recognize just what a low it was for him. Plus, it's also the last time we could really say "What were you thinking, Ben Affleck?"

Having worked on Daredevil with Jennifer Garner, Affleck married her in the middle of 2005, and things have been ever so slightly looking up for him since. (I have to assume they looked up quite a bit in his home life, but in terms of his career, it's been only slight). Around this time he made a movie that ended up going straight to DVD called Man About Town, which I did not see, and had a brief appearance in Clerks II, which I did not see, as "Gawking Guy." Since no one's ever heard of the first one, and since the last one was probably done as a favor to Kevin Smith (who helped get him started), let's leave them out of this discussion.

When I really noticed the change was when Affleck appeared in Hollywoodland, which I saw earlier this week. (It was one of two Affleck movies I am going to discuss that I first saw within the last week. Yes, I do my homework.) My first thought was "Ben Affleck is not the lead in this film -- how strange." (That honor went to Adrien Brody.) My second thought was "He's playing a guy who's already dead (former Superman George Reeves) when the story begins." Neither of these things seemed very Affleck-y to me. I was tipped off to something changing in the winds. And while I was actually disappointed in Hollywoodland, I do think it showed some new growth for the guy we assumed had stopped growing -- even though he's pretty wooden at times. A number of people seemed to disagree with me, as he won a couple very low level acting prizes, and was actually nominated for a Golden Globe. This was the fall of 2006.

In 2007, Affleck was in Smokin' Aces. I am going to eliminate this from my discussion because I don't even remember him in that film. However, I would consider it a step backward if I did remember him.

But then he actually put the brakes on acting altogether, and the movie coming out today will be his first acting role since then. Curious decision for a guy who had just experienced a comeback of sorts in Hollywoodland. I'm getting more intrigued.

The most obvious reason is that this is when Affleck decided to direct his first feature. And this is where he gets back a ton of the credibility that never seemed to fit him with his Good Will Hunting Oscar, which prompted some people to wonder how much of that script he actually wrote. Not only did he direct last year's Gone Baby Gone, but he also co-wrote the script. And this film, while imperfect in some ways, is such a startling achievement in other ways that it seems a feat of incredible maturity, especially for him. Not only does Affleck get Boston down perfectly in this film -- maybe we sports fans should let him speak for us after all -- but the way he gets down Boston is so much better than Clint Eastwood tried to interpret it in the over-acclaimed Mystic River. Unlike Eastwood, he didn't need to make up parts of Boston that didn't exist, and he seems to have an almost effortless understanding of the character types that populate Boston's seedier areas. The film is directed with an incredibly sure hand, and even though some of the character development is wanting, his brother Casey (a far more talented actor) really helps bring the movie home. (As does Amy Ryan, who was nominated for an Oscar for it). It would be a good achievement for a really acclaimed director -- for Affleck, it's downright astonishing.

And now this. His role in He's Just Not That Into You seems like an act of real humility. No, it's no great work of art -- without seeing it I can say that pretty assuredly. But for Affleck, it seems to say, "Hey, want to take a chance at liking me again?" Maybe it's baby steps back toward the old Affleck, the guy who might show up as the star of Transformers 3 in 2011 if he's not careful. But I don't think so. I think it's Affleck with his head screwed on right, willing to accept work for the sake of being a part of the industry he loves, not for taking a stab at the tabloid life he used to live. And maybe we have Jennifer Garner to thank for that.

I still don't love Ben Affleck. I still think he's as often challenged by acting as he is successful at it, and I still think there's something wooden about him. But I always like it when someone seems to recognize their limitations and live within them, while taking calculated risks -- like Gone Baby Gone -- which, if they fail, will at least result in noble failure.

If Affleck can keep doing that, maybe I really will like him someday.