Friday, July 31, 2009

Video store Darwinism

So if you were following my "Most Recently Seen" updates (to the right), you may have noticed that I finally broke down and saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen last Friday. Yep, that was my big punishment to Michael Bay for making another noisy piece of idiocy full of racially insensitive robots -- to wait exactly 30 days after its release before adding my $17 to the coffers.

Hey, my friend wanted to go. I was just trying to be social.

(And yes, I did feel terrible spending more money on this movie than I have on any previous movie. It appears they've hiked the IMAX prices again, and since I bought mine online, there was a $1 service fee as well).

As with the first one, I suspect I liked it more than most of my friends -- those who saw it, anyway, since most of them were unwilling. I guess there's something about the character design of the robots (when you can see them properly), and the large-scale havoc they create, that goes straight to my id. But I did like it less than the first one, and the end was so long and overblown that I was actually falling asleep. There, Michael Bay -- there's your ultimate indictment. I fell asleep during your grand finale.

Apparently, though, if you check my "Most Recently Seen" feature again, I must have liked it well enough. Well enough to go out and rent Transmorphers: Fall of Man, anyway.

(Pause for laughter.)

Yes, you read that right: Transmorphers: Fall of Man. It's in the video store now. Go take a look if you don't believe me.

I rented it because I thought it was finally time to write about a phenomenon that has both bugged me, and made me laugh my fool head off, for a couple years now. Namely, "quickie" straight-to-video knockoffs made in order to coincide with the theatrical release of legitimate big-screen blockbusters. These pretenders have been crassly produced with the sole purpose of trying to convince a flustered consumer walking the video aisles that they're renting the Real McCoy.

Hey, it's a dog-eat-dog world out there -- if you are parted with your money over one of these hoaxes, you clearly weren't fit enough to survive.

Me? I was parted with my money (or rather, a free online trade-in) for the purposes of science. Because I write a movie blog, I thought it was finally time to see one of these movies, even though I missed Transmorphers when it was released to coincide with Bay's first Transformers in 2007. I usually try to avoid seeing sequels before the original, but I made an exception in this case.

(Pause for laughter.)

I say that it was finally time to see one of these movies. Well, what exactly do I mean by "these movies?" (What do you mean "you people?")

How about this?

Or this?Or this one?

Or any of these?

(A couple notes on this last group. While Clawed is about the Sasquatch, the poster is so shamelessly modeled after Saw that it hardly matters if the subject matter is different. The Terminators actually appeared as a trailer on my Transmorphers DVD (along with the awesomely-titled Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus). And Pirates may be the most pernicious of the bunch, as it appeared not in some special section of the Blockbuster, but in the same new release area where Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest would have appeared. I'm sure some hopeless parents were confused into buying a softcore porn starring reformed hardcore porn stars, such as Janine).

They're all funny, these naked attempts to steal our money by insulting our intelligence. Then again, maybe we deserve it -- the only way these films would even be worth making is if people bought and rented them.

But the funniest has got to be Transmorphers: Fall of Man, as even the part after the colon is an attempt to fool us, with the words "Fall of Man" clearly echoing "Revenge of the Fallen." You see, it's all about making something click in our minds. We half-remember the title -- maybe this was it after all. And since the poster art is ten times fancier looking than anything in the movie -- especially since there's nary a skyscraper nor a tank in it -- a person can almost be excused for getting confused.


And so it was that I decided I should actually view Transmorphers 2 before I wrote this post.

What did I learn?

1) It's not bad as you'd think it would be -- nor is it the least bit good.

2) Its only recognizeable star is Bruce Boxleitner. That's right, the erstwhile Scarecrow to Kate Jackson's Mrs. King.

3) It really has a lot more to do with the Terminator mythology, plot-wise, than the Transformers mythology. Yeah, the robots are disguised as everyday objects, such as cars and cell phones, initially, but once they "transmorph" a single time, they pretty much don't go back. Then they seek to bring about the end of the world -- or at least, the end of the small patch of California desert outside Bakersfield that's in the film's budget. I assume the original Transmorphers was a lot more Terminator-oriented, as this is a prequel (how sophisticated these knockoffs get) from before the machines took over. At the end, this one dude -- played by the perfectly named actor Shane Van Dyke -- becomes "leader of the resistance." His name is Con Jonner. (Okay, I made that last part up.)

4) If you are making what's known in the industry as a "mockbuster" -- I just now learned this term from wikipedia -- it doesn't actually matter if your movie is like The Terminator, or Transformers, or Driving Miss Daisy. All you're really trying to do is get people in the door. Once they've rented (or if they're really stupid, bought) the movie, you don't care if they're satisfied with their purchase or not. You're not looking for repeat customers. You're looking for a quick clutch at the money, then hopping a plane to somewhere far far away.

The article on wikipedia also reminded me of another title I'd tried to find, but struck out on: The DaVinci Treasure. Apparently, most of these monstrosities -- including a "competing" version of War of the Worlds released on video at the time of Steven Spielberg's, and this year's The Land That Time Forgot, starring C. Thomas Howell -- are the brainchildren of a "film studio" called The Asylum. Now I know.

Of course, when I told a couple people that I'd be watching Transmorphers, they wondered aloud whether it had a chance to be better than the newest Transformers. If I were a lot more mercenary or a lot less honest, maybe I'd tell you that it was. But no -- Transmorphers is pretty ridiculous, even if it wasn't as howlingly ridiculous as I hoped it would be.

Besides, when you're watching the howlingly ridiculous parts of Transformers, at least you feel some sense of the cleanliness and legitimacy that Hollywood has bestowed on it.

And, unlike those poor saps who walked away with Ratatoing, you know what you're getting yourself into.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The funniest person in Hollywood?

On the eve of the release of Funny People, I thought I'd ask a question that my more savvy readers will certainly know the answer to:

How many films do you think Judd Apatow has directed?

Ten? Fifteen?

How about three?

That's right, Funny People is only the third film directed by this comedy giant. For even casual fans, the other two should jump readily to mind: The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up.

Yet it feels like Apatow has had his distinctive stamp on almost every comedy released since 2005, when Virgin came out.

Truth be told, the list of films on which he received a writer or producer credit is a heckuva lot longer. Which goes to show, of course, that directing is not the be-all and end-all of cinematic achievement behind the camera.

But what really amazes me is not how few films he's directed, but how many films we feel like he's probably directed, or produced, or written, or in some way birthed into existence. In short, almost every comedy with a certain feel to it that comes out these days seems like it should be credited to him, even if his greatest contribution was watching a screener copy of it in his living room.

Strangely, though, of the list of films he's actually worked on, many of them are considered duds: The Cable Guy (producer), Celtic Pride (writer/executive producer), Kicking & Screaming (the Will Ferrell one -- executive producer), Fun With Dick and Jane (writer), Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (writer/producer), Drillbit Taylor (producer), You Don't Mess With the Zohan (writer) and Year One (producer). (I have to add an asterisk on The Cable Guy, which is one of my all-time favorites -- but it's quite true that at the time of its release, it was considered a massive dud.)

If I'm going to list the duds, I should also list the movies that were mostly considered a success: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (producer), Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (producer), Superbad (producer), Forgetting Sarah Marshall (producer), Pineapple Express (story by/producer) and Step Brothers (producer).

There are a couple interesting things about these lists:

1) Other than the three movies he both wrote and directed, most of his actual screenwriting credits are sort of duds. Does that mean he's the only one who can translate his own vision, or were they just bad scripts?

2) Many of them do not feel like what we consider to be "Judd Apatow movies." Celtic Pride? You Don't Mess With the Zohan? Year One?

So what is a "Judd Apatow movie," anyway? It seems in his three directing hits (ha -- I'm already assuming Funny People will be a hit), he's established a certain template. Namely, ordinary shlubs get into generally ordinary jams that are made more funny by the extraordinary prism through which Apatow observes them. Funny People may diverge from that a bit -- Seth Rogen's character is ordinary, while Adam Sandler's is a famous comedian. But it's the Seth Rogen part that really feels like bona fide Apatow.

When Apatow goes high concept, on the other hand, he flames out. (I discussed this a bit here.)

Now let's look at another list, one that I've come up with, of movies that seem to owe their existence to Apatow, and we see how big the phenomenon really is. The Hangover. Observe and Report. The Promotion. Sex Drive. Tropic Thunder. I Love You, Man. Old School. Miss March. I'm probably missing a few obvious ones, but you get the idea.

Yeah, some of those are mostly because they feature Apatow regulars -- Rogen is the star of Observe and Report, Ferrell appears in Old School (though that was released before Apatow got big, so it's cheating to include it), and Tropic Thunder featured Apatow collaborator Ben Stiller as director and star. In fact, Tropic Thunder is kind of like the high-concept Apatow, only good -- and if we're going there, we could include films like Get Smart (featuring Virgin star Steve Carell) and Land of the Lost (featuring Ferrell).

But am I crazy, or do you automatically look for Apatow's name on IMDB when these films come out? Like only a handful of other creative talents of his time (such as Steven Soderbergh and, to a less interesting extent, Tim Burton), Apatow has developed a posse of actors with whom he regularly works, which we identify with him. And because that posse is both ever-expanding (in quantity) and extremely successful (in quality), Apatow's influence fans outward likewise.

I don't know if these scattered collection of thoughts have produced a coherent point. But if there is one, it's this: Apatow has reshaped comedy in his own image, and like no single person who's been working this decade, his very name gives a project instant credibility -- instant wanna-see-ability. And we tend to forget/overlook/forgive how many of them actually failed to deliver.

Sure enough, I wanna see Funny People.

Meet you in line this weekend?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Step aside, Baron Cohen

I haven't seen Bruno, but I have the sense it could be the beginning of the end for Sacha Baron Cohen.

It seems to be liked by only a small percentage of the people who liked Borat, banking less than half of Borat's $128 million box office and quickly dwindling with only $3 million and change this past weekend. He doesn't have any more guerrilla personas left to play. And let's be honest -- he's a bit too weird-looking to play just "regular roles" in the movies. How many of his characters do you remember that don't have five-letter names starting with B?

Well, who needs Sacha Baron Cohen when you have Russell Brand?

When I first started writing this blog, I envisioned a periodic feature called "In praise of ..." and then the name of some film personality (most likely an actor or actress) who I was feeling particularly jolly about at the moment. The first one was to be "In praise of ... Emma Stone," and was to have hyped the co-star of The House Bunny and Superbad, the spunky young talent who's like an intelligent version of Lindsay Lohan. But that was right at the start, when I had a million other fertile ideas (or ideas I considered to be fertile -- not the same thing). This hypothetical post got pushed too far away from my viewing of House Bunny to seem time sensitive.

Well, even though I'm not calling this "In praise of ... Russell Brand," it's going to function as the de facto first in that series anyway.

Now I should say that I'm not exactly breaking fresh ground by praising Brand. In fact, I have a feeling he's already been through a couple praise cycles -- praised, then hated for awhile, then praised again, and now maybe hated again. I don't really know. I understand he's been a "love him or hate him" host of the MTV Video Music Awards. And that he made some kind of prank phone calls that got him kicked off the BBC.

Whatever. I'm here to praise his movie work. Not only was he the perfect final ingredient to push Forgetting Sarah Marshall over the top, but he just added a much-needed spice to Bedtime Stories. Well, he didn't just add it -- but I just saw the movie tonight, so I thought I'd write a little something about him. (Could that just be because I have two longer features I'd like to write before Friday, and can't summon the energy/organization/research for them now? Perhaps.)

Is he really very similar to Baron Cohen? Probably not. They're both lanky comedic personalities from England who like to push the envelope, especially in terms of staging elaborate stunts. Though Brand is known for marketing his own persona, whereas Baron Cohen is famously a chameleon without a knowable "self."

But I will say I've been enjoying him better at the movies than Baron Cohen.

Let's take his role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Given that he plays a foppish, uber-hip rock star from England who steals the hero's girl, nine scripts out of ten would have also made him a total prat. But not this script, and not this performer. Sure, he's got some unendearing qualities, but overall, Brand's Aldous Snow is as likeable as anyone else in the movie -- I'd say more likeable, except that one of the most commendable things about the script by Jason Segel and Judd Apatow is how they give sympathetic dimension to all the film's characters. (Sarah Marshall herself is more insecure than insensitive). Instead of amassing artificial jealousy for his rival, Snow reaches out to Segel's Peter Bretter and befriends him. But not in some gooey way, either -- he's a beguiling mix of glamorous artifice and insightful forthrightness, a space cadet with his head screwed on correctly. And boy does he have style and personality.

Bedtime Stories is a lot more of a standard script -- Brand plays a hotel employee who's the best friend of Adam Sandler's character. And yes, his scenes feel a bit shoehorned in for additional comic relief. But Brand can make a bit about his character having night terrors funnier than that standard material would suggest. A lot funnier. And then there's the part of him -- his Brandness, you might say -- that you can tell has to be an improvisation from what was written for him. In his strangely-not-annoying sing-songy British accent, he weaves intelligently goofy and wry observations about the world, and pushes laughter out of us, just with his turns of phrase. My wife and I needed a pick-me-up tonight, and we both started smiling as soon as he sauntered on screen.

So what if I'm out of synch with the praise cycle for Brand. Maybe I'm supposed to hate him right now. I don't know. These "controversial" figures fall in and out of our good graces at the drop of a hat. Maybe I'm supposed to be "so over his shtick." But I'm not.

This is my blog. I can praise whoever I want.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Blockbuster goes literary

I just swung by my local Blockbuster to pick up a video at lunch, and came across a strange sight near the beginning of the new releases:


That's right, this Blockbuster video store had about a dozen best-selling hardcover novels for sale. (I assume they're for sale -- renting them would probably not be a great option).

And they weren't the novelizations of popular movies either. Just regular old best sellers, or what I can only assume are best sellers, without having a) walked close enough to see what titles they were, or b) any knowledge whatsoever of what is currently on the best seller list.

"Books," I said to the clerk, with a whimsy in my voice. "That's a new one."

I thought my little comment would prompt an explanation. But there are two types of video store clerk -- the chipper kind who will volunteer oodles of information, such as how much they like the video you're renting and any deals they're currently having, and the kind that just collects a paycheck. This was the paycheck guy.

He kind of shrugged and half-smiled.

I thought I'd find an explanation for this little business endeavor back at the office, but even googling with all the relevant search terms I could think of produced no useful results.

It's not that books and movies aren't complimentary forms of entertainment, in a way. After all, a good percentage of the movies you see originated as books, and, as I mentioned earlier, a number of the rest of them become books after the fact to reap a few more bucks.

But I do think that reading, in itself, is a strange thing to endorse at the video store. People come there specifically looking for an alternative to reading.

Maybe when I return my video, I'll find the chipper clerk, and she'll give me the skinny on why they're doing it ... and if they're moving any product.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Costly rentals

In movies that grapple with the abstract concepts of fate and chance, characters often discuss how such-and-such wouldn't have happened if they'd only been following their normal routine. Or not following their normal routine.

It can be good -- "If I hadn't stopped to tie my shoe, that falling piano would have crushed me" -- or bad -- "If only I hadn't stopped to tie my shoe, I would have missed that falling piano." (This last example would probably come from a movie about the afterlife).

Well, my own personal example of "routine followed/not followed" is bad -- though not "crushed by a piano" bad. And, of course, because it's me, it also directly involves movies themselves.

I was driving home from work Friday afternoon. In the way I'd originally envisioned the day, I planned to go straight home, collect my gym stuff, and stop at the library on the way to the gym. The library was where I needed to return three movies before 6 (or else they'd trigger a $1/day overdue fine), as well as pick up The Four Feathers and two others. The plan was to get started on watching The Four Feathers at the gym. Why The Four Feathers? Well, until my latest request list gets approved, I'm out of movies that I've seen but not yet reviewed. This one was approved for me ages ago, and I knew it would be available at this branch.

Good plan, right?

Until the part where I got reeeaaaalllly tired during the day. And decided that I'd skip the gym. We planned to go for a bike ride on Saturday, then I'd play basketball as usual on Sunday. There would be plenty of exercise in my future.

But I still had to return Gran Torino, Fool's Gold and Flash of Genius (which I did not watch) by 6 p.m. to avoid the $3 fine. So I decided to alter my route home to go by the library, which left me on the 405 North for about three exits longer than usual.

It was during that stretch, of course, that I got into a car accident.

Everybody's fine. The hood of my car is a little messed up, but it too will be fine after some body work. Body work that will probably use up most if not all of my deductible. But hey, money comes and money goes, right?

It was really stupid the way it happened. Somehow, I got the position of my feet screwed up so that my right foot was no longer aligned with the brake. I don't know if it was underneath the row of pedals or what. But when I was floating along at a placid two miles per hour in stop-and-go traffic, and it came time to avoid hitting the Lexus SUV in front of me, all my foot found was floorboard. And before I could even figure out what was happening, my Golf was humping the back of the aforementioned SUV. I say "humping" because it wasn't even a single hit and then the car stalling out. No, I must have made some kind of semi-correction involving the gas pedal, though I honestly can't remember that. At any rate, the end result was two distinct thrusts into his car before the incident ended.

A tall blond Russian kid -- even taller than me -- got out of the car and was immediately reassuring me that it was okay, even clapping me lightly on the shoulder to show his good-natured response to the event. It was the first of many extremely pleasant interactions related to my first car accident in 10 years. In fact, everyone was so pleasant -- from Yaroslav and his girlfriend, to the police officer, to the woman on the phone from the insurance agency -- that I was almost not in a bad mood about it at all. The most important thing was that his car was almost completely undamaged (a little scuffing on the rear bumper), and that they did not seem a) hurt, or b) like the kind of people to make up a fake injury just to screw me.

However, it didn't take long for me to think "If I only didn't have to return those videos ..." or "If I'd only maintained enough energy to go to the gym ..."

Of course, these are the kind of "if only"s we all want to have. If you're in a car accident, and the biggest thing that happens is you need to get some superficial body work done, you've got it a lot better than people who were seriously injured or died as a result of "not following their regular routine." That "movie moment" usually doesn't work out nearly so well for the protagonist.

Yep -- not a single falling piano in sight.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bad recording, or bad output?

While watching Gran Torino last night, we had to do something that we usually only do for movies released in the 1930s: We turned the volume up to the maximum, without observing any measurable difference in how well we could hear the dialogue.

(There's a joke in there somewhere about Clint Eastwood being from the 1930s, about how it doesn't matter how loud you turn up the volume for deaf old men.)

We could have turned off the fan, but it's July in Los Angeles, and it's finally been really hot for the last three weeks. So we strained and squinted (because squinting helps you listen better, don't you know?) in order to hear Eastwood's gruff whispering and the the less-than-perfect English of the teenage Hmong actors. (I'll let them off the hook for their less-than-perfect acting).

Like I said, we're used to this in films that were made during the Roosevelt administration, when the original sound recordings can't be improved upon by remastering. But Gran Torino from 2008? What gives?

And it made me realize something: When reviewing a film, I will almost never criticize the sound, because I haven't figured out how to be confident that the problem is in the film, not in the equipment that's projecting it.

I think it was while watching The Da Vinci Code a couple years back that I recognized an inability to judge these things just by listening. There was something weird and warbly in the soundtrack during the final reel, and it was quite distracting. However, this being a collaboration between Ron Howard and Tom Hanks with a budget over $100 million, I knew it couldn't be a flaw in the film itself. The projection had to be at fault.

And so I've over-applied this logic to other movies with lesser means. When I've had to turn the volume down because the music came in too loud, but then turn it up again to hear the dialogue, but then hurriedly recoiled again to quieter levels when the guitars blew my ears out, I've blamed the projection, not the movie. It has to be either my TV, my DVD player or the actual way the DVD was pressed. Not the original movie. Right?

But some movies clearly deserve to have their sound mixing criticized. How am I supposed to know which ones?

It's not a rhetorical question. If you have the answer, let me know. Seriously.

I guess the domination of one type of sound (music) over another (dialogue) probably is a good tip-off, after all. But then I think about the fact that I never have this problem in the movie theater itself -- only at home. Given the number of movies where I have to do this, odds are that I'd see some of them in the theater, right? And that, therefore, it must have to do with either the DVD or my home equipment.

But my Da Vinci Code example demonstrates how you can't always trust theaters either.

Are any of my readers actual critics? If so, let me know how you handle this.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The perils of prejudging

I've slammed Matthew McConaughey several times on this blog, both directly and indirectly.

But I believe in fairness, and when I actually like a Matthew McConaughey movie, I'll say it.

Such is the case with Fool's Gold, the re-teaming of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days co-stars McConaughey and Kate Hudson. Usually when you re-team a pair of likeable stars, it's because their first go-around was terrific -- leaving the second one inevitably inferior, often by a huge margin (Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in The Runaway Bride, anyone?). In this case I found that the reverse was true -- that How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days was insufferable, and that Fool's Gold was actually quite charming.

(And if I may interrupt myself for a moment -- Fool's Gold is another case of a director who gravitates to similar titles. Andy Tennant also directed the only other movie I've seen that starts with the word "fool:" Fools Rush In. It's like Brian de Palma with Mission: Impossible and Mission to Mars all over again).

I'm not going to say I loved Fool's Gold or anything, but it did succeed quite well for me in terms of turn-your-brain-off escapism. The leads are not only charming, but have oodles of chemistry. They're involved in generally funny scenarios while trying to find sunken treasure off the coast of the Bahamas and/or the Florida Keys, many of which feature McConaughey escaping death in absurd ways. The tone is generally light (despite a modest body count), and damn it if I'm not a sucker for the setting -- even though my own trip to the Florida Keys was something less than I was hoping, that setting still holds a certain romanticism for me. I say it's "turn-your-brain-off escapism," but I don't mean that as a backhanded compliment either; I thought some of the dialogue was actually quite witty. I guess I should really call it "ignore-the-snobby-part-of-your-brain escapism."

Unfortunately, I'm the only one who seems to think Fool's Gold was worth more than a squirt of piss. Which makes me a little bit the fool, don't you think?

I called this post "The perils of prejudging" in part because that's what they had to do at my website. The film remains unreviewed -- it was one of 25 on a request list I submitted on Wednesday, and by watching it, I took a leap of faith that they'll actually approve me for it. (Now that new releases take up all the staffers' time, no one is scrambling for a Matthew McConaughey vehicle from February of 2008 -- no one but me, that is). But even without a review, it still gets a star rating -- a star rating that they determine from a general consensus of critics out there.

That star rating for Fool's Gold? One-and-a-half. Out of five.

Unconvinced that everyone else could really have hated Fool's Gold this much, I checked some of the other websites that tabulate critical responses to movies. And 1.5 stars summed it up pretty accurately.

Metacritic? Twenty-nine percent out of 100. "Generally unfavorable reviews."

Rotten Tomatoes? It gets even worse. Only 14 out of 137 critics considered it "fresh," the other 123 going for "rotten." Leaving it with a freshness rating of a measly 10%. Granted, the strict thumbs up/thumbs down scale is a bit more rigid, but still. That's as low as it gets.

The funny thing is, this doesn't mean I have to write a 1.5-star review of Fool's Gold. In fact, as I have been told, there's no such thing as a review that's too positive. After all, many of the websites that buy our content are in the business of selling these movies as DVDs. An honestly given positive review is perfect -- not only is it sincere, meaning the critic can live with him/herself, but it also helps move product.

Does it lose me credibility with my colleagues, though? Eh, only if I make a habit of it.

The one thing I do wonder -- any time I like a movie much more than other people -- is what I'm seeing that everyone else couldn't see. Am I a fool? On some level? And does a movie like Fool's Gold function as my fool's gold?

Well, I stopped analyzing any of that too closely years ago. Sometimes a movie just works for you. And as for concerns about the respect of my peers, I've been writing for them for nearly a decade. If I was going to lose credibility with them, it would have happened a long time ago.

I'm just glad that there are movies like Fool's Gold that come along sometimes -- movies I'm reviewing that I've prejudged as terrible, but end up satisfying me more than I expected. I can think of others like it, though I almost hate to list them here. Okay, twist my arm: Inspector Gadget. Without a Paddle. Swing Vote. The Story of Us. Numerous others I can't remember right now. They're all movies I reviewed, expecting to hate them; in fact, using my expected hatred -- of the star, the director, the genre -- as a reason to want to write about them in the first place.

But if these movies were all bad, that means I'd spend even more of my life's hours on drivel. Much better that some of them provide me a modicum of guilty enjoyment -- maybe even not-so-guilty enjoyment.

Fool's gold? Heck, I'll take it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Kristin Scott Thomas goes French

When some actresses reach a "certain age," they undergo the acting industry's version of menopause. (Which, I guess, probably coincides with real menopause). The romantic lead roles they were accustomed to are no longer offered. Now they're cast as the mother of the lead, if they're cast at all.

Other actresses, like Kristin Scott Thomas, go to France.

Scott Thomas -- who first caught our attention in Four Weddings and a Funeral, before etching her place in the Movie Romance Hall of Fame with The English Patient -- is 49. That's two years younger than I guessed she was. Not that Scott Thomas looks 51. Just that I always find these people are older than you think they are, so I guess on the high end.

I've always been a fan. Kristin Scott Thomas redefines the word "elegant."

To say she has only just now gone to France is, of course, inaccurate. She's been living there since she was 19, and she's actually been getting cast in French films almost as long as English-language ones (1987 vs. 1985).

But much of the moviegoing world has perhaps not been aware of her bilingual abilities until this past year. I myself was not aware until I heard the raves for I've Loved You So Long late last year. By the time I finally saw it, last night, I'd seen Scott Thomas show up in another French film, the thriller Tell No One, a couple months earlier.

I think the reason this interests me so much is that we are accustomed to seeing foreign actresses come to Hollywood to forge a career, but we usually don't see established English-speaking actresses go the other way. And since I'm a short-sighted American, I'm a lot more impressed by an English speaker who learns another language than a foreigner who learns English.

Again this does not particularly relate to Scott Thomas, per se -- as a 30-year resident of France, she certainly didn't need to "learn" anything for her roles in I've Loved You So Long and Tell No One. Nor did Jodie Foster, I guess, when she appeared in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement. After all, Foster is a fluent French speaker who attended a French school in Los Angeles. I guess she dubs her own lines in the French-language versions of her movies.

But can I still be impressed? Is that allowed?

What I like in particular about Scott Thomas' emigration to French films is that the roles promise to continue to be interesting for her there -- to make excellent use of her elegant fragility, her steely resolve, even into her 50s. (I see she'll be in a movie called Partir later this year, which will probably hit us sometime next year).

Because just look at what she has to do here. You'd think, since she's a French citizen and actually identifies more with France than with England, that gracefully transitioning into intelligent French films would satisfy her. Unfortunately, the lure of Hollywood is still strong -- strong enough to convince her to make twaddle like Confessions of a Shopaholic. Maybe she thought her role as a terminally stylish magazine editor would give her a prominent platform like the one Meryl Streep had in The Devil Wears Prada, but I remember just feeling sorry for Scott Thomas when I watched Shopaholic. The movie wasn't worthy of her, and it brought her down to its level.

But since then I've seen Tell No One, in which she played a whimsical middle-aged lesbian, and I've Loved You So Long, in which she plays a woman returning to the world after 15 years in prison for murder. I'd say she was brilliant in both, but her role in Tell No One was relatively inconsequential to the plot. In I've Loved You So Long, though, she's front and center, and knocks your socks off.

The vintage Kristin Scott Thomas is still with us -- even if we have to read subtitles to get her.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The magic of 300

No, not the number of Spartans who tried to fight off the entire Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae.

Rather, the word count of my film reviews.

That's right, I've been on a strict self-imposed diet of 300 words per review since about 2001. I say it's self-imposed, but the guideline actually originated with my employers. I don't recall the actual wording of their passage on this in the style book, but it conveyed the fact that we should be able to say what we needed to say about a film in 300 words or less -- whether it was Freddy Got Fingered or Citizen Kane.

Since many writers regularly broke it without penalty, the guideline was just that -- a guideline. But I thought it made sense, especially since we weren't breaking up our reviews into multiple paragraphs. One big chunk on a page gets a little unwieldy after 300 words.

As a newcomer, I was amazed by the thrilling economy displayed by some of my predecessors. In fact, although it certainly could have been beefed up, the review for Raiders of the Lost Ark feels pretty much complete, even at a scant 154 words.

I've never been able to be anywhere near that concise, nor would I really want to be -- even though I don't get paid that much, I feel like 150 words is stealing their money. But what strikes me as funny is that I pretty much do end up writing 300 words, whether it's a frivolous movie I hate, or a classic movie I love. The few times I've broken the rule, deciding that this or that film was good enough to deserve 375-400 words (a decision fully endorsed by my editors), I've always felt a bit like a failure afterward -- like I indulged, like I couldn't make tough choices, like I couldn't consolidate my commentary to what really mattered. Even though I break this rule only when I have too much to say about a movie I love -- say, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer -- I still feel bad afterward, like a less-is-more approach would have served the movie better.

A lot of time, I take these 300 words literally. I know no one is counting but me, but 301 words is one too many. You can always find a word to cut, no matter how tight you think your writing is. And it's a good lesson -- it makes you a better writer. It's not a lesson I follow too often on my blog, I'll grant you that -- I let the flab hang out. (Maybe I'm not as concerned about the consequences, even though I certainly should care whether you keep reading or not.) But I love the challenge in my reviews. Even when I'm up to 325, and I don't think it's possible, I can always get down to 300, and I'll have that much better a piece of writing to show for it.

Of course, such brevity is only possible due to the unique structure of the website I write for. Until recently, the reviews themselves bore no responsibility for explaining the plot. That task was left up to the plot synopsis, a separate piece of writing on a separate tab of the movie's home page. When our reviews appeared on other websites without such tabs, the synposes would appear alongside them, an indispensable companion piece to the review. This allowed us to just get straight down to it, to use our 300 words for breathless praise or snide sarcasm, rather than the who's who and the what's what.

Lately, however, there's been a change. My company's business is to provide content to other websites, which is why I see my name pop up in the darnedest of places. Lately, the company has become the sole provider of new online reviews for an institution with whom you are well acquainted -- in the interest of blogger anonymity, I won't reveal it here. And as a result of this new agreement, the review and the synopsis now appear as one, bulging the review's total size out to 700, 800, even 1,000 words.

The new system is a lot more like a regular long-form review you'd see in the newspaper, or in a magazine. But it's a lot less like the format I've gotten comfortable with over nearly ten years of writing only the review portion. I've written exactly five reviews of new releases in this format, and in each case, I've agonized over it. And in each case, I've breathed a sigh of relief when I could return to my regular format, the one I use on the back catalog of older films -- you know, like Seven Up, the documentary released in 1963, which I reviewed today.

This is a problem for two reasons:

1) Every critic aspires to write long-form reviews.

2) Every critic aspires to review new releases.

To hide behind my perfect 300 words is to shy away from both those goals.

The funny thing is, my consternation is not because I'm no good at writing plot synopses. I've written some 50 synopses for the site over the years, and they're much faster than reviews. I find it pretty easy to encapsulate what's important to know about a film without crossing over into that slippery territory of spoiling the surprises. In fact, if all I did was synopsize films all day, it would almost be a good substitute for reviewing them.

It's working the synopsis organically into the body of the review that really gets me.

I've found no better way than to follow this paragraph structure: 1) Opening with general thesis about the movie; 2) Synopsis; 3/4) More substantive analysis and closing thoughts.

So what's wrong with that? Eh, I don't know, it's just been bothering me.

I feel like there should be a good way to weave plot into my criticism, but I just haven't figured it out yet. I know other critics can do it. But I haven't figured out how to do it without that line of demarcation between plot and opinion, the line of demarcation that comes at the end of a paragraph.

And now I realize what it is -- it's not going over that perfect 300-word threshold that bothers me. It's going into that second paragraph (and the third, and the fourth). I don't really want to "outline" a review -- to figure out what I might say, when. I just want to string the sentences together from my witty opening to my zinging final line. Forget all the "structure" that comes between. A couple reviews I've written in the past have been split into two paragraphs. I've always thought it didn't look right, because I didn't write it to be split.

It's worked for me for nearly 10 years -- why change now?

Well, the answer is, it's worked for me for nearly 10 years. Comfort zones are made to be broken. Aspirations take effort to achieve. Who knows what forms my future reviewing will take, but if I stay content with 300-word reviews that earn me only slightly more that my costs, what will I really have?

A long, unchanging career where I must always keep a primary job to stay afloat.

So maybe 300 words is as much my curse as my blessing. Maybe, on my next assignment, I'll bust it open with pleasure, and indulge in those freedoms that more words can give me.

Hey, I guess it works on my blog, if you're still reading this.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Who says foreign movies don't sell?

I will have you know that according to this week's Entertainment Weekly, the 20th highest grossing film in the U.S. last week was Kambakkht Ishq, with a whopping $300,000.

While I was all prepared to make a joke just based on the funny title with its smattering of consonants improbably slammed together, I went online and discovered that it's a Bollywood film that actually features appearances by such notables as Sylvester Stallone, Brandon Routh, Denise Richards and Carmen Electra, all as themselves.

Ah, well, that explains it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Posters I don't like: We Are Marshall

I've never seen We Are Marshall.

And there are a number of reasons why I'm not that interested:

1) Although I'm a huge sports fan, I don't really like sports movies. This will be the subject of a longer post at another time.

2) It's directed by McG.

3) This poster.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this a movie about a football program that rises from the ashes of a plane crash that kills the entire team? And makes a heart-warming return to Division I viability a very short time afterward?

Why, then, do the two Matthews (McConaughey and Fox) wear the exact same incredulous smirk on their faces?

I'm not one for excess solemnity, but solemnity certainly seems to be warranted in a movie about the untimely deaths of an entire college sports team. I've always worried about this kind of thing happening to an entire professional team. Imagine that. Not that that would be more tragic, just that the people would be more famous, so it would seem like a bigger deal. Famous people dying always trumps unknowns dying.

Yet when the task arose to distill a single image from the film that would convey what it was all about, and thereby make people want to see it, they chose an image in which McConaughey and Fox both seem to be saying, "Are you shitting me?"

I can kind of piece together why they have this look on their faces. Someone off screen is doubting that they can do the thing they're trying to do. Someone off screen says, "You can't build an entire football team out of rejects and second-stringers and try to make them competitive." And, taking exception to that charge, the Matthews return a look that captures their amused disdain.

But as the single defining image of the movie? It doesn't work.

And even if one of them wanted to have that expression, did they both need to have it? The exact same one?

I said earlier in this post that I had no interest in seeing We Are Marshall, but lo and behold, I now see that it's currently unreviewed on my site. Well well, that changes matters.

Maybe I'll get to see what all that smirking, you-think-you're-better'n-me bemusement is all about, after all.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Misnomer: The Rise of Trevor Benton

On Monday night, I was taking my break from baseball by watching more baseball. Not only did I watch the Home Run Derby from start to finish, but then I watched them recap it on Sportscenter. This was all background to other stuff I was doing, but it still struck me as funny that I didn't use my three-day respite for any of the other pastimes I find compelling. A sad commentary on my enslavement to the sport.

I believe it was during Sportscenter that they played one of those interstitial messages -- you know, "Sportscenter is brought to you by such-and-such." In this case, it was "Sportscenter is brought to you by G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra."

I chuckled. And as I always do in situations like this, I thought of Trevor Benton.

If you're less anal than I am, you may not have noticed anything wrong with what the announcer said. But I did. He added an extra "the" that does not actually appear in the title. The true title is G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, without the second "the." And though it shouldn't make that much difference, those of us who are anal grammarians know that it does. Without the definite article, "Cobra" signifies what it's supposed to signify: the name of an evil organization bent on world domination, led by Cobra Commander, Destro and some laboratory Frankenstein supervillain whose name I can't remember. With the definite article, however, "the Cobra" sounds like some kind of giant snake -- and since cobras are actually capable of elevating the front halves of their bodies, "rise" has a humorously literal meaning.

So where does Trevor Benton come into all this?

Well, Trevor Benton is a kid I went to school with. That's not his real name, but it's close enough. Although I haven't seen him in almost 20 years, I really liked Trevor Benton -- he was a funny and genuinely nice guy. And he therefore does not deserve to be made fun of, as I'm about to do.

But a single incident involving Trevor Benton caused him to live on in infamy in my group of friends. It was a totally innocuous incident, you'll agree, but as totally innocuous incidents often do, it stuck to him.

So what did Trevor do?

He got the name of a movie wrong.

I remember the morning quite well. For the fall of my freshman year in high school, I used to start each morning in the cafeteria of a building on campus called D House. For some reason (I really don't recall) I was arriving at school a half-hour or so before my first class, and I would sit in the cafeteria with Trevor and this guy named Bill. We shot the shit, like freshmen in high school did at the time.

One morning, Trevor said, "I really want to see that movie Push Momma Off the Train."

The rest, as they say, is history.

Needless to say, I recounted this story to a number of other friends. And it took hold. If you got the name of a movie wrong, it came to be known as an act of Bentonizing.

In the nearly 22 years since Throw Momma From the Train hit theaters, I have certainly heard numerous other Bentonizations of movie titles. Sadly, old age now prevents me from remembering many of them. I do remember a time when an airline pilot (the perfect guy to make a Bentonization) said we would be seeing Bridget Jones Diary 2: The Edge of Reasoning (actual title: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason). I also remember when my friend Pres once referred to the movie as Trainspotters. That gave me a good laugh -- though not to his face. I kept it private and then shared it with like-minded friends later on. (And in the retelling with one particular friend, the story has become apocryphal -- we now say that Pres called it Carspotters instead of Trainspotters).

Is the difference between Trainspotting and Trainspotters really that important? Of course it isn't. Which is why Pres is no more an idiot for his slip of the tongue than poor Trevor was for his. (And that's probably why we had to change the story to make it more obviously wrong and more obviously humorous.)

But there is something undeniably funny about it. It's like that old game Operator, where you whisper a phrase in your friend's ear, then he/she whispers to his/her neighbor, and so on, and so forth, until it gets back to the start of the circle, and the phrase has transmogrified into something totally different. It's a failure to properly assimilate information given to you -- even if you mostly got it right.

The reason why it strikes a film buff like me as funny is precisely because movies are as important to me as they are. Titles imprint themselves on my brain when I first hear them, often because I know that they will later on mean something to me. But that doesn't mean I'm perfect, either -- just maybe that I don't "try out" a title in conversation until I've got it down. When I first saw the trailer for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for example, I'm pretty sure I did not remember the exact adjectives or nouns in the title. And I probably used some approximation of the title just to indicate which movie I was talking about -- the same way Trevor knew that someone's mother was being hurled off a locomotive, but did not remember the exact form that hurling took.

Heck, just earlier this year at the Super Bowl party I attended, I referred to Angels & Demons as Gods & Monsters -- though I was pretty drunk at the time. And then there are movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, whose title was often intentionally botched even by those who knew the correct sequence of the words, simply as a means of critiquing what they considered to be a needlessly complicated title.

But the point in this whole thing is not to be superior, even though I do admit, from time to time, to indulging in some unjustified superiority over titles and their accuracy. The point is that getting a movie title wrong can simply be funny in and of itself, in a vacuum, without context. It was for this reason that friends and I brainstormed other potential Bentonizations, even if they never really existed. One of them was, "I really want to see that movie Gigantic," referring to the film about the sinking ship starring Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. I suppose it's not that far removed from the kind of critique of old people we deliver when we say things like "I'm going to go look it up on the worldwide interwebs," or when Marge Simpson talks about "Bill Crosby and David Letterson." The joke is, "Here is what someone who is clueless would say."

I don't want to pick on Trevor or Pres or any other civilian (including myself) who gets a movie title wrong. But, conversely, it is really fun to pick on professionals, people in and around the movie business, who are guilty of the same thing. Either they should know better, or if it's a prerecorded piece, as in the Rise of the Cobra sponsorship spot, they should do enough research to make sure they have it right.

And so it was that I let out a loud howl as I was driving past the cheap movie theater a couple miles from my house earlier this year. I've told you about this theater before -- this theater is king of the Bentonizations. It's where we saw Autralia (the S was dropped on the ticket stub) and where I saw Baby's Mama.

So what was playing on this particular night when I drove by?

He Is Just Not That Into You.

Trevor Benton would be proud.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cosmic vs. personal significance

In the last week, a couple movies I wrote about in the abstract earlier this year have come home to roost on video. First it was Push last Wednesday, which was as god-awful as I predicted in this particular piece of satire. Then Saturday it was Knowing, whose numerological theme inspired me to come clean about my own obsession with numbers.

I liked Knowing not only a lot more than Push -- a LOT -- but a lot more than most other critics liked it. In fact, some of these critics, including the one who reviewed it for my website, considered it sub-Shyamalanesque in the epicness of its failure, the epicness of its ridiculousness. I'm betting the fact that it's a Nicolas Cage movie predisposed them against it. When The Wicker Man and Bangkok Dangerous are swimming close to the surface of your memory as you watch, it's hard not to be affected by that.

Well, I'm siding with one of our most prominent film critics, Roger Ebert, in liking the movie, though I won't go to the lengths he has to defend it. You have to at least like its ambition. I won't say too much about it, because part of the fun is making eerie discoveries as you watch. Heck, even if you decide you hate it, part of the fun would be discovering the hilarious ways it's worth hating. And even if you just watched it for things like the crash pictured above, you'd at least have that.

But I have to admit I have my own reason for liking it more than your average person, a reason most people couldn't possibly share with me. And given how the movie is about Fate, and Destiny, and Predetermination, it's a pretty eerie reason at that.

You see, the movie takes place in Lexington, Massachusetts. But it was shot in Melbourne, Australia.

I grew up in Lexington. My wife grew up in Melbourne.

Ooooh, spooky.

The weird part is not that it was shot in Melbourne. That's becoming a popular spot to shoot your big-budget movie on the cheap, especially for Cage, who also shot Ghost Rider there. Sure, anyone in the know would yell "That's not the Charles River! It's the Yarra!" But most people aren't in the know. (Just how most people wouldn't know that if the plane crashed "two miles short of the runway at Logan Airport," it could not possibly have crashed in Lexington.)

No, the weird part is the Lexington part. The only movie I'm aware of that even has a scene in Lexington was Roland Emmerich's The Patriot, and that's because it takes place during the American Revolution, where two of the most famous battles occurred in Lexington and Concord. So why Lexington for Knowing, a movie where an astrophysicist is trying to predict large-scale disasters involving significant loss of life?

Then add to that the Melbourne connection, and the fact that the movie is about patterns, numbers, and quite possibly the end of the world ...

Ooooh, spooky.

But even if our personal geographical origins weren't involved, Knowing is still spooky, which is why I'm recommending it -- despite some episodes of overacting, and yes, some moments that might remind a person of latter-day M. Night Shyamalan.

"Spooky" ain't easy -- just ask Shyamalan himself, who lost that touch years ago. Alex Proyas, the director of Knowing, seems to still have it. Yeah, you'll get some Dark City here -- hopefully more Dark City than I, Robot.

And if you don't? Well, I guess a movie can't have both cosmic and personal significance to everybody ...

Go find your own!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Zeitgeist viewings

There wasn't any part of me that wanted to see Twilight.

Except, that is, the part of me that wanted to be able to reference it.

You see, I have a general contempt for youth culture. I'll be the first to admit it, and I'll also be the first to admit that it makes me just like all those other "grownups" who swore to remain forever committed to embracing what's "young" and "hip." (Or failing "hip," at least "popular.") Well, there's a reason that "young" and "hip" things don't appeal to us that much -- they also strike us as frivolous, as something we'd never have had the poor taste to endorse when we were that age. (This coming from a generation who worshipped New Kids on the Block).

But film critics can't afford to be so removed from "what the kids like these days," because we may review a movie that requires that knowledge at any given time. Just because I, a 35-year-old film critic, am not interested in Twilight, doesn't mean that the person I'm writing for isn't. Even if I'm not actually reviewing Twilight itself.

Okay, Vance, I get why you might need to keep an open mind if you were reviewing Twilight. But why watch it if you're not reviewing it?

Well, because I never know when I might want to make a snide reference to it in some other review, or some other piece of writing altogether. And you can be a lot more confident in your own snideness if you've actually seen the product in question.

I've seen a number of movies that capture the zeitgeist for this very reason. One that comes to mind is High School Musical, which I also watched when my wife was out of town. She wouldn't do anything more than shake her head and laugh, and she'd even get my reasoning. But I would have been self-conscious. It still strikes me as silly in some way, as me regressing into the mind of a teenybopper. So she'll have to check out my "most recently seen" section of my blog if she wants to know I saw Twilight. (Eh, I'll probably tell her.)

Teen movies are one kind of movie I see in this way -- another is movies that ruled the box office. I remember that I had to see The Passion of the Christ (in the theater, no less) because I wanted to get "what it was all about." I felt it was important, as a critic and fan, to have this movie in my personal database. It's for this same reason that I sometimes feel myself moving toward Paul Blart: Mall Cop on the new release shelf. I want to understand what it was that made American moviegoers shell out $146 million in ticket sales for it. (By this same logic, I will eventually have to relent and see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, even after deciding against it upon hearing the hoots and howls over Skids, Mudflaps, and all the other Michael Bay-related ridiculousness).

So of the movies I've just mentioned, how many was I actually glad I saw? Well, all of them, in a way, even though the only one I'd say I liked was High School Musical. (In fact, I may consider seeing the sequels at some point.) I did not think that much of Twilight, at least not after the promising first 30 minutes. The movie has major structural/pacing problems, most notable from the point when the vampires are involved in a casual game of vampire baseball, and then barely 10 minutes later, the plot has progressed to a hurried and silly climax. And you pretty much know the deal on Passion of the Christ -- it's unmitigated masochistic torture almost from start to finish.

But whether these movies are good or not is pretty much beside the point. People have asked me why I would intentionally see movies I know are not good, and usually I can answer that I'm reviewing them, thank you very much. But there are also movies you should see just for the sake of it. It's gotten past the point where this kind of reference would have any currency, but I still feel like I must eventually sit through Gigli, even though I understand it is not "so bad it's good." Sometimes you have to see bad things just because they are bad -- and because famous bad movies are just as important to know as famous good movies.

I don't generally like writers who are always engaged in "cultural name dropping" -- it's a bit like those shows (Psych is one) that think the only thing you need for clever writing is to make as many pop culture references as possible. But a well-placed, relevent reference can really bring something home to a reader. How else could I have ever written this opening line to my review of White Chicks, which I happen to still enjoy, even though my references are totally random?

"There were certain things audiences were just never going to accept: 1) that everyone in Weekend at Bernie's really thinks Bernie is alive, 2) that Denise Richards plays a nuclear physicist in The World is Not Enough, and 3) that two Wayans brothers in whiteface, looking more like carnival freaks than drag queens, could be mistaken for prominent teen socialites by everyone in the Hamptons."

Hey, it's not Shakespeare, but it's as close as I'm going to get.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Not so fast

Speaking of Saw movies, this may look like the poster for the next Saw movie, but the only thing torturous about Death in Love was sitting through it.

(Editor's note: Since this movie has yet to be released, for legal purposes, the above comment is hereby classified as a "joke" or a "play on words," and not any kind of judgment about the actual strengths and weaknesses of the film in question).

And so we see the other side of this fancy club I was so excited about joining on Monday, this League of Extraordinary Film Critics: Sometimes you see ponderous misfires (again, this is to be considered a joke, following naturally from the previous joke), and sometimes your name isn't even on the list. And sometimes you get to see the movie even if your name isn't on the list, which makes you wonder why there is a list in the first place.

Actually, Death in Love, which I saw Tuesday night, wasn't that bad -- no worse than any other movie about aging, the Holocaust, masochistic sex, mental illness, masturbation, vivisection, con games, suicide and self-loathing. Wait, there aren't any other movies like that.

But I really wasn't on the list. I actually looked at the list myself, and I wasn't on there.

It didn't prevent me from getting in, but I did wonder how it happened. Later on I realized that although I was cc'd on an email from one guy at the website to another guy at the website, asking him to contact the distributor about putting me on the list, I never actually received an affirmative reply from the second guy. Simple mix-up, but it did make me feel a little embarrassed.

When I told the woman my last name, she repeated it a couple times in that way people do when vainly trying to recall information. Then she asked me who I was with. She'd heard of us, but she said, "Aren't they, like, far away?" My answer must have satisfied her that I was not some opportunist coming in off the street: "They're in Michigan, but I cover things for them in L.A."

The rest of the screening was uneventful.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

My Achilles' heel (please don't sever)

I have a confession to make:

I'm the reason they keep making Saw movies.

Didn't know that? Sorry. My bad.

I saw only two of them in the theater, but as of Sunday night, I've now seen all five. All five that have come out like clockwork each of the past five years, during the week leading up to Halloween. In fact, I can't remember any other series of movies coming out with such machine-like regularity. Even the ever-prolific Friday the 13th movies came out at random, albeit short, intervals, as opposed to one predictable time each year. The closest any series has come to Saw would be the release of Lord of the Rings movies in three consecutive Decembers -- but that was always planned that way, not some rushed reaction to the continued viability of each sequel as a box office force.

And why do the Saw movies continue to have such viability? Because of people like me.

I don't know why I keep giving the Saw movies chances, I just do. I think it's a little bit of the Saturday Night Live syndrome. Just like the Saw movies, Saturday Night Live has its devoted fans who will watch every week (every Halloween), and yuk at even the lame skits (shriek at the stupid deaths). But then it also has its more discriminating fans, who watch not because they are consistently entertained, but because they want to be there when SNL does, on occasion, get it just perfect. It's the remembrance of past glories and the hope for future ones that keep these viewers tuning in.

And so that's why I continue to tune into the Saw movies. Damn that awesome opening kill in Saw II.

But let's go back to the beginning.

1) Saw (2004, James Wan). Viewed: October 31, 2005. Although I'd been curious about Saw based on the trailers, I did not see it in the theater, due primarily to the laughably negative review given by two of my friends. I believe this review was why I ended up liking the first Saw movie as much as I did; I carried in exceptionally low expectations. So I wasn't bothered by -- and in fact, was prepared for -- the indubitably hammy acting of Cary Elwes. Instead, I was swept up in the catch-22 philosophies of Jigsaw's games -- in order to save your own life, you have to hurt yourself (or someone else) really, really badly. It had an elegant simplicity and forced people into instant action, either to summon the courage or pay the consequences. Plus there were some chilling, splattery deaths that were especially effective on me, it being Halloween and all.

2) Saw II (2005, Darren Lynn Bousman). Viewed: November 12, 2005. The original Saw left me hungry enough that I sought out the second one in the theater, just 13 days later. A friend was visiting, and it didn't take that much convincing to get him and my then-girlfriend (now-wife) to come with me. They hadn't liked the first as much as I (nor were they as fresh from seeing it), but both had various levels of interest. At first, we thought we might have hit the fear jackpot. The opening scene of Saw II blew our minds: A guy with a trap around his neck, which will crush his head like a melon, must use an exacto knife to cut out his own eye, in order to retrieve the key that will unlock his trap -- which has been sewn behind the eye. He has 60 seconds, and you can guess how it ends. Unfortunately, as good as that opening scene was, the rest of the movie is that bad. In fact, I found this movie so ridiculously, laughably incompetent, that I actually ranked it last of all the movies I saw in 2005.

3) Saw III (2006, Darren Lynn Bousman). Viewed: October 30, 2006. Considering what I've just told you about my hatred for Saw II, you are certainly justified in asking how I ever got to Saw III. Well, I'll tell you -- it was conveniently timed as the second half of a double feature I saw on my last day of freedom before the first day of my current job. (The first movie was Catch a Fire, and no, it was not a particularly memorable double feature). Plus, that opening scene in Saw II left enough of an impression that I was willing to give Saw III a shot. If Saw III had been as bad as Saw II, that probably would have ended my affair with the Saw movies right then and there. But the third movie managed to improve on the second enough that I actually gave it a thumbs up. A tentative thumbs up, to be sure, but I couldn't deny that I squirmed a bit, and ultimately found it sort of clever. (Emphasis on "sort of.")

4) Saw IV (2007, Darren Lynn Bousman). Viewed: October 27, 2008. However much I sort of liked Saw III, apparently it was not enough to send me back to the multiplexes when the fourth came out. I took a two-year break this time, and saw Saw IV while Saw V was in theaters, again as an accompaniment to my personal Halloween season. Saw IV did not manage to be totally incompetent, like Saw II -- but it does contain one of the most bogus, convoluted, chronologically inconsistent/ambiguous wrap-up scenes I've ever seen in a movie. I believe I literally shouted "What??" at the screen. The other hilarious thing about this movie was the tagline on the poster: "It's a trap." Um, yeah, you think?

5) Saw V (2008, David Hackl). Viewed: July 5, 2009. Okay, so now I'm clearly just ticking them off my list, going for the complete collection. I watched this Saw movie in the middle of summer, planning it only in the sense that my wife was out of town -- so she wouldn't laugh at me for continuing to watch this drivel. It's the third best in the series, which isn't saying much -- but at least it makes sense for the most part. It's still not possible to believe that everything could be set up so perfectly, with Jigsaw having spent each of the past two movies dead. (I'm sorry if you consider that a spoiler; I will be sure to pray for you.) But if you are looking for plausibility, you shouldn't be watching Saw movies.

What I've discovered about myself is that I don't keep watching these movies because I'm some kind of horror junkie. In fact, though I love being scared, I find horror to be the most consistently disappointing genre out there. The movies I'm most excited about seeing -- of all the movies out there, in all genres -- are the ones that I think will genuinely unnerve me. But I can smell it a mile away when I know they won't, so I don't even usually get close to most of them.

What's different about the Saw movies, and other movies in the subgenre known alternately as "torture porn" and "terror porn," is that you aren't waiting for something to jump out of the shadows at you. Slasher movies have become so hackneyed precisely because of that startle scare, when the violins shriek, and a cat jumps down onto a character's shoulders. (Followed about 10 seconds later by the actual killer, who splits the character in two). No, torture porn posits the inevitability of slaughter, allows you to wince as it approaches -- as the character fails to crush his own hands in exchange for avoiding a knife on a pendulum that will split him in two. It's the same reason I was drawn to Hostel, and even to the wretched Captivity.

And I guess what fascinates me is the eternal question: What would I do in that situation?

Could I muster the courage to cut out my own eye, if I knew it would save my life? And if I had only 60 seconds to muster that courage?

As long as Saw keeps making me ask these questions, I'll keep coming, even if the returns are increasingly less satisfying. Even if they are totally unsatisfying.

And I'll get my next chance when Saw VI comes out on October 23rd.

It's being billed as the last in the series -- but I'll believe that when I see it.

As long as there are those of us still seeking that one perfect kill that blows our minds, and genuinely gets into our gut, and as long as we translate that desire into box office dollars, I wouldn't be surprised if Saw VII, Saw VIII and Saw XXXIV weren't far behind.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Today I became a film critic

I've always been the kind of film critic who says "I'm a film critic, but ..."

But what?

But I'll tell you:

1) "... but it's not my full-time job."

2) "... but most of the films I review are not new releases."

3) " ... but most of the time I have to get to the movies myself, or rent them, though I do write them off on my taxes."

4) "... but they only pay me $20 per review."

But then there are days like today, which make me realize I really am part of this club.

I was originally scheduled to have last Friday off, but I'm really glad my boss switched me to today. It meant I was able to oblige when my editor sent me an email late last week asking if I could make an 11 a.m. screening of Soul Power today on Sunset Blvd. Soul Power is a documentary 35 years in the making, focusing on the three-day 1974 concert in Kinshasa, Zaire that was supposed to accompany the "Rumble in the Jungle" boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Except Foreman cut his lip -- which I suppose is a serious vulnerability when you're a boxer -- and postponed the fight by six weeks. The concert -- featuring such luminaries as James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, and dozens of amazing African artists -- had too many moving parts to postpone, so went ahead as planned.

I attended my first three critics' screenings earlier this year, all within the space of about six weeks in the early spring. But I hadn't gotten the call again until this last week. Not only did they offer me Soul Power, but I'm also seeing a movie called Death in Love tomorrow night. Nice to be back in the saddle.

Under ordinary circumstances, 11 o'clock on a Monday would be right out for me. But this is what real critics do -- attend screenings in the middle of the workday. So the planets aligned for me, and by 10:15 I was on the road up to the screening room. I'm glad I made it on time -- I forgot I needed to gas up, plus I had some dodgy moments at the intersection of La Cienega and Sunset. Anyone who drives standard needs an assist from the hand brake while making that left turn from the traffic light at the top of the hill, else they'll slide back into the car behind them while putting the car in gear. I usually try to avoid that intersection because of the stress it inspires. Today I forgot.

A few squealed wheels later, my car arrived no worse for the wear at the garage below the building with the screening room.

It was a smaller screening room than usual, seating no more than 16. And less than half of those would be used today, as there were about six people total in attendance. I checked in with the guy and passed through a couple people milling about in what passed for a lobby. I selected a leather comfy chair in the middle of the three rows, then saw how small the screen was and decided to move up front. I ended up being the only one in the row.

I was calculating whether I'd have enough time to go to the bathroom when I heard a familiar voice outside. An unmistakable voice, actually -- a voice I hear every Friday on the radio, or more realistically, via podcasts automatically downloaded to my ipod every time I synch up.

That's right, of the six people at this screening, one of them was me, and one of them was Joe Morgenstern.

Joe who?

Joe Morgenstern is the film critic for The Wall Street Journal, but that's not how I consume any of his work. Rather, I hear him on KCRW, the local NPR station, where he reviews films every Friday afternoon.

If the voice I'd heard in the other room had been Bob Mondelo, Elvis Mitchell, or any of the other personalities who occasionally cover film on KCRW, I would not have been nearly as geeked. But in the last three or four years, Morgenstern has come to influence me like no other critic. "Influence" is probably the wrong word -- I don't know how I could begin to approximate the brilliance he produces on such a regular occasion. But he's the current critic who most drives me to be better.

There was no doubting who it was, but I peeked my head out anyway. Yup, it was him -- I'd entered his name in google images only recently, just to see what he looked like. Same affable-looking, white-haired seventysomething I'd seen online.

I quickly found out we were starting on time -- a rarity at these things -- so there was nothing I could do at the moment. Except text my wife: "Joe Morgenstern is at my screening!!!" We aren't much for exclamation points, so that tells you how excited I was.

He took a seat in the back row along with his guest (possibly his wife -- to give you some idea of his star wattage, he was once married to actress Piper Laurie). Then the guy we checked in with, who was in a lively mood, came in and asked us if we were all alert. Morgenstern (can I call him "Joe"?) responded in the affirmative, and re-addressed the question to the rest of the room. I turned around with a smile on my face and answered him directly: "Yep, I am!"

As the movie started, I was distracted with the inevitable thoughts of approaching him afterward. I've lived in Los Angeles long enough that I hate bothering famous people, and only do it on extremely rare occasions. (In fact, I can't even remember the last one.) But this was different ... this guy was an actual, dare I say it, colleague. Right? Wait, does a colleague mean you already know someone, or just that you're in the same field? And I'm not sure how famous he really is, despite the Piper Laurie connection. At least not someone most people could identify if he weren't actually speaking.

But I still went back and forth throughout the movie, and it took about 15 minutes for me to really settle down enough to lose myself in the picture. (Which was wonderful). As the running time drew to a close, I felt myself getting a little nervous -- knowing that I should talk to him, but fearing making a fool of myself, or worse, annoying him. I suspected he was a nice man, but who knows?

Then there was another issue at hand, one that made seeing him even more funny. I had just finished reviewing, less than a week earlier, the movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble -- you know, the TV movie (some would say after-school special) about the kid with no immunities, released in 1976 and starring a young John Travolta. (See what I said above about not usually reviewing current releases).

The reason it's funny is that this happens to be the only produced movie, television or otherwise, that Morgenstern (Joe) has been credited with writing. In fact, I even mentioned this in my review.

But I decided that if just introducing myself to him didn't freak him out, my complicated explanation about why I was just now reviewing a TV movie that came out in 1976 certainly would. I've learned my lesson from the time I met Jennifer Love Hewitt (for the second time), and launched into the stumbling, awkward recollection of how I'd met her some seven years earlier, most of which involved trying to explain to her which elevator it was in which building on Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood. My friends still give me crap about that one.

As the lights came up, I looked back to see him with a wide grin on his face, aglow from the joy of the movie. Okay, he was in a good mood. It was decided.

I stood around nervously outside -- no more than 30 seconds, but still -- and waited for an opening to approach him. "I hate to bother you," I started, "But I'm [my name], and I write for [the website I write for]. I just wanted to let you know that I'm a huge fan of your work. The mellifluous (bad choice -- I stumbled on it) way your words flow is incredible. Your work makes me strive to reach your level."

This is a paraphrase, and I think he inserted some friendly encouragers in there. But this is what stuck with me: "Why thank you, I'm truly touched."

Is it possible that I made Joe Morgenstern's day? Even though I later wondered if my hands were too clammy to make a pleasant handshake, or my use of the word "mellifluous" turned me into a stuttering fool?

Well, at least I know he made mine.

I like this club. I wonder who I might see tomorrow?