Sunday, May 29, 2011

Squeezed out by a sellout

Way #42 to botch an illegal theatrical double feature: The second movie is sold out.

Actually, "botch" is not the right word for it -- some quick thinking actually saved me some potential embarrassment at the theater tonight.

See, I went to see a 7:45 showing of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (more on that in a moment), and the ending lined up perfectly with the beginning of a 10:15 showing of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. I'd lucked in to an advantageous positioning of the screening rooms, the kind necessary to pull it off -- once you pass the ticket taker, you have access to five different theaters, two of which were playing my movies.

The thing I didn't anticipate, but should have, was that the 10:15 showing of Midnight in Paris might sell out. I knew the theater had been crawling with people all day and that a lot of earlier shows had sold out, but the 10:15? It seemed at least reasonable that it would escape that fate.

So I got texted permission from my wife (no peeps from the baby) and headed in to the theater. By walking confidently I passed the three ushers at the front without any of them asking me if they could show me to my seat. The theater was probably 3/4 full and it was about 10:14. So I went as far back as I could and chose a reasonable seat.

I hadn't been sitting for more than 30 seconds when I realized that although I hadn't needed the ushers to show me to my seat (probably because I didn't have one), many others were not so confident in their own ability to follow a straightforward system of row letters and seat numbers. If the person who had my seat was the next one into the theater, the usher would point them to the correct seat and immediately see that I was in it. At which point an incident might arise where my ticket needed to be produced. A ticket I didn't have.

I quickly jumped into the aisle and pretended to be very involved in my cell phone. My intention was to wait it out until they dimmed the lights and reassess my situation. Actually, I did text my wife to thank her for allowing me to catch the second movie. But before I even finished the text, I changed its wording to tell her I was coming home after all. An usher came in to greet us over the microphone (standard practice in this theater) and told us that although it might not look like it right now, this show was sold out. Okay, that seems pretty straightforward -- time for me to leave. Which I did.

I don't know that I could have really watched a whole second movie after The Tree of Life sapped the life out of me. I spent the first hour of that movie enthralled by the experience of watching it, and the final 78 minutes checking my watch.

I've worked my way around to giving a grudging respect to Malick's poetic abstractions. I love Badlands (though I'm not sure if that counts as a Malick film the way we know it today) and I despised The Thin Red Line, though I did appreciate it better when I watched it again for my Second Chances series last year. In the meantime I also saw The New World, and was swept away by the beautiful cinematography, which carried me through the more Malick-y parts (of which there were of course very many). After tonight, Days of Heaven is his one film that has still eluded me.

And so I knew full well what to expect when coming in. I expected a beautiful-looking film with lots of character voiceover -- not to be confused with narration, because there's nothing about this VO that's expository in the slightest. I expected a dreamy quality to all the action and a non-sequential narrative. And I expected (though this is kind of covered by "beautiful-looking") some of the best cinematography you can find on screen today. I expected what some of the audience was obviously not expecting, as some of our audience walked out. (I couldn't tell how many, because some of them were undoubtedly going to the bathroom -- but any time I saw two people go out together, I doubted it was a bathroom break.)

And yet I still wanted something more concrete from Malick, even though I knew I shouldn't expect it. I hoped it would all lead to a more satisfying payoff than what I got -- even though again I knew I shouldn't expect it. The movie does have a payoff, for sure -- there's definitely Malick's version of a climax. But that climax didn't bring it all home for me.

And yes, I had trouble staying awake. I had a busy day after a night of sleep interrupted by baby feedings, so my inability to focus for the entire time was not exactly a surprise, especially in this film. I'd come prepared with Girl Scout mint cookies, Altoids and a five-hour energy drink, but none ultimately did the trick. I was especially disappointed in the five-hour energy drink, though this should come as no surprise because it's never worked for me in the past. I keep thinking that next time will be the time it gives me the jolt I need to make it through the end of a movie I started too late at night (7:45 may have been too late for this movie), but the swigs I took of it tonight actually seemed to make me more sleepy. I'd take a swig and close my eyes for one of those jolt-awake naps less than 15 seconds later. They should call it "10-second energy drink" instead.

I prioritized The Tree of Life over a myriad of other viewing options primarily because of its recent win at Cannes. However, the Cannes winners have always exemplified the iconoclastic spirit of that festival -- I sometimes think that Cannes gives out prizes only to films that they know will divide audiences, just to be contrarian. List of Cannes winners that fit this description in another post.

So if you like Malick, this film is defintiely for you. If you don't or are not sure ... well, are you willing to pay theatrical prices to see a bevy of astonishingly beautiful images on the big screen, even if that's all you end up taking away from it?

That's for you to decide.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Head-start Thursdays

If you're like me, you know your calendar by release dates.

If someone asks me what day of the week, say, March 23rd is, I'll be able to deduce it relative to the release dates of movies coming out around that time. If I know there's a movie coming out on March 21st and a movie coming out on March 28th, that means March 23rd is a Sunday.

For film fans this kind of thing becomes second nature. You see a release date on a poster, you internalize it, and voila -- just a little first grade math and you know what day every date of the month is.

So for a long time I thought that May 26th (today) was a Friday. I knew both Kung Fu Panda 2 and The Hangover II were coming out today, so that should make it a Friday, right?

Glad I didn't use that reasoning in any important situation, because today is of course a Thursday. I could have had dentist appointments and business meetings on all the wrong days.

Movies releasing on Thursday rather than Friday is nothing new, but it is a phenomenon that's only been around for five years or so. Prior to that, if you wanted to get a head start on a holiday weekend, you released your movie on Wednesday, not Thursday.

The reasons for getting the head start are clear enough. If you're like me, you're going to start celebrating your Memorial Day weekend tonight, rather than tomorrow. Everyone knows that tomorrow is a blow-off day at work -- many people even have half days (at my work, we expect to get out two hours early). But you do have to go to work, which means you can't leave for your weekend away until after work gets out on Friday. What better way to spend Thursday night (or in the past, Wednesday night) than at the movies, with whatever new blockbuster Hollywood has seen it fit to unleash on you?

Plus there's the whole psychology issue when it comes to weekend box office. If you want your movie to have the perception of a massive weekend -- which helps sell future tickets -- there's no better way to do it than to add an extra day, so the Sunday night totals look all the more impressive. Most prospective ticket buyers will just see the total, and not stop to consider that the movie had an extra day to reach that total.

But in both of those instances, doesn't it make sense to give yourself yet another day, and open on Wednesday rather than Thursday? A lot of us are probably blowing off the whole end of this week anyway, not just Friday. And the box office total might look all the more impressive with yet one more day.

But we're not seeing many movies open on Wednesdays anymore. It's always Thursdays now. I googled and couldn't find a useful explanation for this. I got some explanations about why they come out on Wednesdays rather than Fridays, but nothing about the shift from Wednesday as the traditional early day to Thursday.

When you take a step back, however, you'd think a Thursday opening would make more sense for a big-budget movie that had some amount of risk involved -- a Thor or a Green Lantern, where audiences might either embrace the character or reject him. The PR boost from the extra day of box office would seem to help a movie like this a lot more than it would help a movie with a built-in audience.

Yet there's a piling on effect with certain movies, isn't there? The Hangover II and Kung Fu Panda 2 are already being given the plum Memorial Day weekend release date, where lots of dollars can also be earned on Monday (though I think the totals are still reported on Sunday). Is the extra day in front of the weekend, as well, designed to give them the boost they need to possibly set records? For example, in the case of The Hangover II, highest opening weekend ever for an R-rated movie?

Lots of questions with only theories as answers -- at least, at the level I'm willing to google. (I stopped being a reporter because I was more comfortable with opinions and shallow research than facts and deeper research.)

Briefly, my thoughts on both films:

I liked Kung Fu Panda, but not as much as most people did. It was animated well and had some thrilling sequences, but there was a bit too much slapstick and a bit too much Jack Black-speak (everything was "awesome" or "righteous" or whatever word he felt like semi-improvising at the time. Oh yeah, I didn't really like the word "skadoosh" that he apparently made up, either). My reservations were significant enough that I'm not making a b-line to the theater for the second one. Plus, I might also like to start saving these kid-friendly movies for when my son is old enough to watch them. A movie I haven't seen to look forward to -- and if he loves it, I'll have one fewer viewing under my belt, meaning a delay in how quickly I get sick of it. (I've heard my friends with older children say they've seen certain Pixar movies 30 times.)

As for The Hangover, again I fall into the category of not liking it quite as much as most people did. I mean, that movie's really funny in spots and I'd definitely watch it again some day -- but from the trailers, I feel like I'd rather see the original again than watch the sequel. I think I resent the cult they're trying to create around this supposed "wolfpack." I don't remember why these guys started being called "the wolfpack," but I have to say I don't really like it. What's funny is that a term like that would normally be reserved for characters who are indisputably cool, but only one of our main three from the original -- Bradley Cooper -- has traditional "cool" credentials. Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis are both massive dorks. I'm not saying this is a problem, because dorks more closely reflect my own personal experience than cool guys. But don't try to make them seem super-cool by calling them "the wolfpack."

And that's all I got for this head-start Thursday. I'll probably write something tomorrow, but if I don't, enjoy your Memorial Day weekend.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hunger-y eyes

I've been having a staring contest with Jennifer Lawrence since last Friday.

That's when this issue of Entertainment Weekly arrived in my mail. It's been lying on the coffee table since, and it -- or more appropriately, she -- keeps catching my eye. And then it's an epic stare down.

Not really, but can't you tell this woman means business? In fact, she alone may be responsible for my sudden interest in The Hunger Games, a movie franchise I was ready to write off as another Twilight (partially because EW hyped it that way) until learning more about it recently -- learning that although it may involve teenagers, it's not a sodden romance meant to make 12-year-old girls swoon, and learning that some people whose tastes I respect have read the books and loved them. The first Hunger Games movie is due out next March.

I've had a developing fascination with Jennifer Lawrence over the four-and-a-half months since I first saw her in Winter's Bone. At first I was merely impressed by her acting, which carries an actor-heavy movie and doesn't for a moment seem false. Then, seeing her get cleaned up for awards shows, I was amazed at how she was able to disguise her natural radiance in Winter's Bone. I mean, hubba hubba. I'd thought she was an indie actress, someone with an unconventional beauty like Melissa Leo -- if you even want to call Melissa Leo beautiful. But no, she was a genuine looker, and had completely sublimated that part of her in order to play Ree in Winter's Bone. (The fact that the character never has anything to smile about might be partly responsible for that sublimation.)

My fascination kicked up a notch when I learned that she'd be playing the young Mystique in X-Men: First Class. Given that I already considered her something of a chameleon, just from the difference in her appearance between Winter's Bone and real life, the role of a shape shifter seemed to suit her perfectly. At about the same time last week, I saw the first pictures of her as Katniss Everdeen (the main character in The Hunger Games), a role for which she's dying her hair brown, and learned that she also plays a cheerleader in The Beaver, which I've been meaning to see. That's five roles (if you consider her real life to be a "role") in which she is completely different in each role.


It's so rare these days to find an actor -- especially a young actor -- who is capable of reinventing him or herself in every single role. Even most actors we consider to be really good don't necessarily have a huge amount of range. Just pulling out a random example, consider someone like Anthony Hopkins. Most people would say that he turns in award-worthy work in almost every film -- or at least he used to, before he was making the likes of Thor and The Rite. But even in his glory days, was Hopkins really demonstrating "range"? Or was every character he played some version of Sir Anthony Hopkins?

I realize this is sort of an unfair argument. Few successful actors are truly chameleons, because they get cast precisely for a trait they've displayed that makes them right for a certain role. And with Hopkins in particular, no, Hannibal Lecter is probably not a lot like Richard Nixon (though we Democrats might assert a similarity between them).

But there are two other names I always think of in this discussion, of actors most people like despite the fact that their range is minimal. I'm thinking of George Clooney, who's won an Oscar, and Jake Gyllenhaal, who's been nominated. Both of these guys are good basically every time out, but are they really different from movie to movie? Aren't they always some version, a very close version, of George or Jake?

I'm getting a little off track here, so let's return to the woman of the hour, Jennifer Lawrence. I'm concentrating on four films here, only two of which have actually been released, and only one of which I've seen. It's a bit premature to be discussing her range, especially praising her abilities respective to some of the indisputable titans of the industry.

But let's just say she's got my attention, and there's something about her presence that has me interested to see whatever she's going to do next. Lest you think I'm merely fascinated with her because she's pretty, please consider that I was raving about her after seeing her as an Ozarks redneck -- when I didn't even know whether she was attractive or not.

And something about those eyes -- this girl is intense. She'll stare you down. She'll make you take notice.

I might have to flip my Entertainment Weekly upside down before she starts making me feel uncomfortable.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The inception of Inception?

I came across this famous image over the weekend, not for the first time in my life, but for the first time in a good decade.

And my immediate thought was, "This image could be the inspiration for the movie Inception, in its entirety."

Others have probably already considered this, and given how much has been written about Inception, it's very possible there are entire essays out there devoted to how Scott Mutter's famous surrealist photograph influenced Christopher Nolan in the writing of this script and the development of this story. You might call it Nolan's inception to write Inception. But, seeing this image posted on the wall of the gym where I play basketball on Sunday mornings, I had this idea on my own for the first time.

Consider also the text that typically runs along with this image:

I am a pilgrim on the edge.
On the edge of my perception.
We are travelers at the edge.
We are always at the edge of our perceptions.

What do you think?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Buying back in to Pirates

If you're like me, you were charmed and delighted by the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, then hated the next two to varying degrees. (For the record, the second one is the worst. The third recovers slightly, but not nearly enough.)

Logically, the fourth movie in the series -- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, releasing today -- should represent even more creative bankruptcy and a desperate grab for the remaining possible dollars the franchise can scare up.

Unless ...

Unless there's enough of a pause in the production schedule of the movies that the fourth kind of seems like a reboot, rather than just your typical fourth installment.

The second and the third, after all, were made at the same time, and they made a kajillion dollars at the box office. Given their success, you'd figure Disney would have had Johnny Depp back out on a boat within a week of the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Or maybe even within a week of Dead Man's Chest's massive opening weekend.

But they didn't, content (at least for the time being) with having a trilogy on their hands. Such a quaint notion. Of course it couldn't last.

After a reasonable period (almost like after a spouse dies), you started to hear rumblings that Depp might be willing to get back out there for a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean. Then one day you're seeing trailers for it.

It's odd for me to be taking this critical perspective on the series, because really, the delay between the third and fourth Pirates wasn't much longer than industry standard. The first movie came out (and charmed our socks off) in 2003, then Gore Verbinski and his team went hard on production to churn out two sub-par sequels that were released a year apart, in 2006 and 2007. So essentially, the gap between the third and the fourth movie is only one year longer than the gap between the first and second movies. Hardly enough time for us to have forgotten about Captain Jack Sparrow et al.

But the psychological difference is enormous. The big difference in the cinematic landscape between then and now -- though you could argue about exactly when this started -- is that fewer and fewer franchises are considering it an obstacle that it's been five, ten, even 15 years since the last movie in the series. It's almost like we, as a moviegoing public, have collectively given Hollywood permission to tack on as many fourth and fifth installments to series as it wants to tack on. Whereas in the past, we might have been offended by this presumptuousness and demonstrated our ill humor by refusing to buy tickets, now it seems we just want the comfort of familiarity and brand recognition. Even when you're starting to see crooked numbers on the ends of these movie titles (though most of them, like Pirates, cleverly withhold the number from the title to help diminish your sense of the absurdity of it all). Like I said, you could argue that this has always been Hollywood's MO, but I'd counter that it has gotten all the more ridiculous in the past half decade.

So when it was clear that everyone involved in the Pirates movies went home, caught their breath, lay on a beach on the French Riviera for a few months, and then decided to make a Pirates 4, something about that seems to legitimize the process, doesn't it? Funnily enough, this is something you can argue both ways. If you're negatively disposed toward their intentions, you could say that the series was over and done, tied up with a bow, and they ripped the bow off because they just couldn't stand not to make more money on this brand. If you're positively disposed, you'd say that they were not on automatic pilot toward a fourth movie, even though the box office totals nearly demanded it, and only grudgingly did they wade back into the waters, possibly only because they had a really good script and a really good story to tell. (The truth, which I won't bother to look up right now, is probably that Depp originally said he wasn't interested and then ultimately changed his mind.)

But I think there's another reason why some skeptical fans, including myself, are keeping an open mind toward the newest Pirates. Namely, the movie seems to have trimmed some of the excess fat. In this case, the excess fat is probably the two thinnest and most beautiful people in the cast: Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom.

Now, I don't remember a whole lot about what happens in the last two Pirates movies -- in fact, so aimless were the events of Dead Man's Chest that I couldn't even remember what happened after I'd shut off the DVD. But I do remember feeling cumulatively fatigued about the melodramatic ups and downs of the relationship between Will Turner (Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Knightley). It was as if those characters worked for the original movie, then they couldn't figure out what to do with them for the sequels. But their presence was considered key to putting asses in the seats, so they were around, collecting new adventures and wearing our patience thin. I don't think it was the fault of the actors, mind you, who are both quite appealing. I just think there was a general narrative sense that they had overstayed their welcome.

And they're gone from Pirates 4. Again, this could be a case of both actors refusing to participate in further Pirates movies, either being happy with the bow that had been tied on the series, or as unhappy with those movies as I was, and not wanting to sully their names further by making another one. I'm again not bothering to look it up. But the landmark realization here, even if it was happened upon by accident, is that Captain Jack Sparrow is where this series' bread is buttered. Bring Sparrow back, surround him with some promisingly cast newcomers (Penelope Cruz), and return just a face or two among the minor characters (Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa), and you'll have the makings for a fourth Pirates. Heck, you might have the makings for a fifth and a sixth as well.

And more than anything, this movie just looks fun -- fun like the ride that inspired the series in the first place. I can't say for sure that this sense of fun was missing from the trailers of the second and third Pirates, but I feel like it probably was. The set pieces look clever and cheeky, and everyone seems to be having a damn good time.

I think I'm also interested in the controls of the ship being handed over to a new director, Rob Marshall of Chicago fame. Marshall has clearly proven his ability to make a movie that functions as spectacle, and I welcome what he might bring to this movie (and the others that seem sure to follow). I'm a huge Chicago fan, though I guess that's Marshall's only unqualified success -- Nine was only so-so, and I did not see Memoirs of a Geisha. Now, I don't really want Depp and Cruz to break out into song, but I'm not really expecting that to happen. This is not to say Verbinski is a hack -- I really enjoyed his latest movie, Rango, also starring Depp. But three Pirates movies was probably enough for him.

So yeah, here I am, pondering seeing the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie in the theater this weekend. Even though I saw neither of the previous two Pirates movies in the theater, and ended up hating them when I did see them.

Hollywood is a strange place sometimes. I mean, who would have thought that the fifth Fast and the Furious would be the one people seemed to like best?

I guess it's just proof that the quality of a movie is all about who you've got on board for this particular installment, not the baggage carried in by all the movies that might have come before it. What I can't decide is whether it's a good thing that movies have a chance to peak in quality very late in the timeline of their particular franchise. On the one hand, if it's a good movie, it's worth having around in the world. On the other hand, it'll just encourage more studios to send more franchises off into further and further chapters.

Especially when Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides makes at least $80 million this weekend. And possibly more like $100 million.

Friday, May 20, 2011


I'm picking my wife and son up from the airport in about an hour. I can't wait to see them again.

While they were gone for 11 days in Australia, I had planned to host a film festival for one. Not something I would curate or premeditate -- at least, not in total -- just a long marathon of watching films. A goal that would be complicated by my need to watch basketball and baseball games (I actually went to a Dodgers game on Monday) and to clear all my episodes of Fringe off the DVR, to compensate for the DVR rapidly filling up while she was out of town.

In the end, I watched 18 movies in 11 days. Which I think is pretty impressive, since there were two whole days (last Tuesday and this past Monday) when I didn't watch any. So that means an average of two a day on the days I was watching. Which is about how I planned it.

Here are the movies I watched, in order:

Get Low
Deep Impact

Moulin Rouge
El Topo
Something Wild
Crank High Voltage
Middle Men
Henry Poole Is Here
Enter the Void
Morvern Callar
Chariots of Fire
Blades of Glory
The Holy Mountain

And here are some stats:

- Seven were movies I'd seen, 11 were movies I hadn't seen
- 17 movies were in English and one was in Spanish
- 17 were movies I liked (at least a little bit) and one was a movie I didn't like (though to be fair, only 10 of these were new movies I liked -- I obviously liked all the films I chose to revisit)
- Three were in the theater
- One was from my own collection
- Four were Netflix DVD rentals
- Five were library rentals
- Four were Netflix streaming
- One was a Redbox rental
- Six were from the 2010s, six were from the 2000s, one was from the 1990s, two were from the 1980s and three were from the 1970s
- Six were dramas, three were action movies, three were experimental, three were comedies, one was a disaster movie, one was a musical and one was a horror
- Chinatown was chosen as the "closing night film" and was finished at about 1:30 this morning after a brief nap. Don't worry, I didn't miss a minute (and I'd already seen it anyway, just about two decades ago). As a result, it gets the poster art for this post.

Bonus points to anyone who can figure out which movies were which in all of the above categories.

So I ended up pretty satisfied with my movie binge. Were there movies I considered seeing that didn't get watched? Sure. But you can't see everything. Lord knows I've tried.

Now to figure out what movie to watch tonight when my wife inevitably crashes at about 8 p.m. from all the jet lag ...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Unlikely revisitations

You know those movies you're sure you saw when you were a kid, but they were more intended for adults at the time you saw them, and you aren't really sure they were good enough to bother going back and seeing again once you've matured into a film buff?

Yeah, I saw one of those movies this weekend.

For a number of months now I had been circling around Chariots of Fire, the 1981 winner for best picture. In fact, I may have rented it from the library once already, which means -- according to this rule -- I would have needed to watch it this time around, anyway.

But of more interest in my Sunday morning viewing was the fact that I wanted to have an adult reconciliation of the general feelings of awe and wonder I had toward the movie as a child. Was there more to this movie than just a captivating, memorable score and a bunch of people running in slow motion? And in fact, did I actually really see the whole movie, or do I just remember the snippets I might have seen of it when the highlights of the score were playing, possibly on Oscar telecasts?

Having sat through the movie a (probably) second time, I think it seems unlikely that I watched it when I was ten years old, which is when it would have been on cable. I know I never rented the movie (renting wasn't yet an option in the early 1980s), so cable would have been where I saw it. But despite the seeming unlikeliness, I guess I probably did, which is how I remember that scene where Eric Liddell is knocked to the ground in one of his races, but still comes back to win, or how Harold Abrahams races around the university courtyard faster than the 12 strikes of the clock bell, a feat that hadn't been accomplished in hundreds of years. (England is an old place.)

The thing I remember most, however, is being transported by those songs. I think this was the movie that introduced me to the choral hymn "Jerusalem," which still gives me chills -- but which was not used as prominently in this movie as I thought it was (though the words "chariots of fire" are from its lyrics). The score in general, however -- perhaps not even especially the famous theme song -- probably hit me in a way I couldn't comprehend at the time, because it was providing me one of my earliest introductions to electronic music. What wouldn't have struck me as anachronistic at that time, does so today -- it's interesting to see this movie set in the early 1920s containing this modern type of music. That's not a choice that bothers me, mind you -- going outside the box is one of the things that really makes me interested in a period piece these days. It just strikes me as interesting that Chariots of Fire, in particular, was a movie that did that. Maybe that's why it connected so well with the zeitgeist.

Because I must say, I found the narrative itself to be somewhat deficient. In the most basic sense it is structurally sound, in that the two main runners we're following (Liddell and Abrahams) are both on a trajectory toward running in the 1924 Olympic games. However, their supposedly parallel paths don't necessarily progress in the most satisfying way.

One thing I found strange is the subtle undercurrent of anti-Semitism in a movie that's supposedly out to defeat anti-Semitism. For starters, I didn't remember at all that the movie was about this, about how Abrahams, as a Jewish man, is constantly butting up against a Christian establishment that tries to marginalize him. What's strange is that the movie doesn't do a good job convincing us that Abrahams is a paragon of virtue, especially compared to the devoutly Christian former and future missionary Eric Liddell. Both men's religion factors intimately into who they are, but in Abrahams it is this aimless defensiveness that causes him to be excessively competitive, and in Liddell it is this guiding force that reinforces his moral principles.

Over the course of the narrative, it is repeatedly put forth that Abrahams runs to win and for personal glory, while Liddell runs to honor God. This seems not only simplistic, but sort of insulting. Abrahams' reaction to losing a race to Liddell (the only race they run against one another, about halfway through) is that he should give up if he can't win every race he runs. He obsesses about this one loss and it looks for awhile that he won't be able to get past it. He does win at the Olympics, but the movie suggests that it's a hollow victory, especially compared to that experienced by Liddell. Liddell is not perfectly honoring his God by forestalling his return to missionary work in order to run -- his sister makes him feel guilty about this. But by any modern standard what he's doing is perfectly acceptable.

However, one line he won't cross is to run on the sabbath, meaning that he's disqualifying himself from one of the Olympic heats that's scheduled for a Sunday. This is a big plot point at the end, and ultimately he doesn't run, instead running later in the week in place of a different runner, in an event that is not his main event. When he wins this race, it is the movie's climax, and Abrahams looks at his victory with some amount of personal shame, as if Liddell has followed the honorable path to victory, while his path has been tainted by self interest. It's a happy ending for both, as Abrahams is ultimately reunited with his love interest after shunning her in pursuit of his dream. But I can't help but think the movie looks at this Christian runner as the ideal and this Jewish runner as somehow compromised. It left me with a somewhat icky feeling -- not super icky, but somewhat icky.

I don't think Chariots of Fire is necessarily viewed as a great film anymore. I do see that the British Film Institute ranks it 19th in its list of 100 Greatest British Films, above such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Crying Game, Dr. Zhivago, Gandhi and The Full Monty. Then again, it's below a couple films I've never even heard of (Kes, Brighton Rock, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), so it could just be that we'll have to leave the Brits to their own unique view of cinema. (Or maybe it means I should see those films.)

So Chariots of Fire is probably the perfect example of a film the Academy would have chosen as the best picture that year, simply because it is pathologically unable to pick the actual best film in most years. After all, 1981 was also the year Raiders of the Lost Ark was introduced into our lives.

Or I could just be biased against its director. I've never heard of Hugh Hudson before or since -- not to say he hasn't directed any other films, just that I haven't been aware that he's directed them. The Academy gave Warren Beatty the award that year for Reds, meaning Mr. Steven Spielberg had to wait another dozen years to win his for Schindler's List -- a far more fully realized consideration of the difficulty, to put it mildly, of being Jewish.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Not offensive, just bad

I finally saw my first Uwe Boll movie over the weekend.

It was terrible. But it didn't offend me.

I watched BloodRayne as a literal "midnight movie" on Saturday night. I had already watched four movies on Saturday, two that I'd seen previously (Henry Poole Is Here and Morvern Callar) and two that I hadn't (Middle Men and Enter the Void -- I'd like to write a post about that last one, but frankly, I'm still processing it). I thought BloodRayne would make a perfect capper to my day's activities -- I knew it would be terrible, but I thought it might be gloriously terrible.

Nah. Mostly just boring. In fact, even with the help of a Red Bull, I couldn't stay awake. I had to finish in the morning.

See, I always knew Uwe Boll was supposed to be a hack -- there are fan-driven campaigns in existence to try to prevent him from making more movies. I figured this kind of hatred meant he was also some kind of degenerate sleaze merchant.

But I was pretty bored by the badness of BloodRayne. Oh it's bad -- there are no two ways about it. But it's bad in a fairly generic way. It's not usually laughably bad (though I did laugh a couple times). Mostly it's bad in the way many straight-to-video movies are bad, where neither the acting nor the effects are very good.

And I guess that's why Boll is the target of such scorn -- his movies are generally not released straight-to-video, where they would allow him a certain anonymity. (Though some of them are -- I understand that the BloodRayne sequel did not get released theatrically, and the third film, which is still in post, will probably also miss the theaters.) Not only do they get theatrical releases, they also have recognizable actors. In fact, BloodRayne boasts an Oscar winner in Ben Kingsley, looking as stiff and unmotivated as you can imagine in the role of an evil vampire lord. The rest of the cast has some B-movie actors (Michael Madsen) and some who are more respectable than that (Michelle Rodriguez). Kristanna Loken proves she was better as a mute killing machine in Terminator 3 than as a lead actress with actual lines, but she's a recognizable name/face, too.

To develop a really solid Boll theory, I'd probably need to see the other video game adaptations that made him famous for being so awful, namely House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark. (I wanted to do a Boll double feature but Alone in the Dark was not available on Netflix streaming.) But it looks like he's just an untalented person who has somehow convinced talented people to work with him, and has gotten theatrical releases on the strength of their names.

And I guess I should admit that BloodRayne does contain some actual sleaze. In a scene featuring Meat Loaf as a hedonistic vampire lord, Boll hired prostitutes to play his topless succubi, so he could pay them less. And there's a sex scene featuring Loken whose only narrative purpose seems to be to expose her breasts. But in terms of what's actually on screen, it's not morally reprehensible or anything. I should add that there are also limbs being severed and sprays of arterial blood, but they are so comical that they don't have the slightest ability to shock.

As I was watching BloodRayne, I considered the difference between a bad movie like BloodRayne and a bad movie like Troll 2. It's the difference between a bad movie you want to watch and a bad movie you don't. I can understand why fans have subjected themselves to repeat viewings of Troll 2 -- I myself would probably like to see it again. But BloodRayne, and by extension Boll's other films? Once is probably too many. BloodRayne is not "worse" than Troll 2, in most senses -- Troll 2 makes more obvious logical gaffes, has far worse acting and has even more ridiculous lines of dialogue. But the bad qualities of Troll 2 are a joy to behold, while Boll's cinematic sins are just tedious and dull.

Then again, maybe I should add Alone in the Dark to my Netflix queue before I can say anything for certain ...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Vapid pseudo-spiritual schlock

What hath The Exorcist wrought?

It's usually foolish to trace a cinematic trend back to its exact beginnings -- someone will always chime in and say that the movie you've chosen as your starting point was actually influenced by films X, Y and Z.

But I do think we owe our current spate of pretty looking, religion-themed action films to William Friedkin's The Exorcist, in which a heroic priest tried to expel the devil from the body of a young girl.

Only, The Exorcist was a brilliant classic, and the legion (pun intended, see later) of films influenced by it, in which the spiritual world hangs in the balance, are becoming increasingly hackish and insipid.

I've tried to be fair about prejudging the new releases I write about each Friday, but sometimes you can just tell a film is going to be bad -- or at least, that it comes from a bad or tired place. It seems to me that Priest, releasing today, is such a film. Starting with that poster, it looks over-dressed and under-thought.

Part of my instant impatience with this film is that it feels like even more of a retread than most, in the sense that star Paul Bettany was just involved in a terrible version of this type of film last year: Legion, which Scott Stewart also directed. In Legion, it's the apocalypse, and God has reappropriated his angels for the purposes of wiping the human race from the face of the earth. One good angel (Bettany) needs to fight the rest of the bad angels in order to prevent this from happening. The movie was ridiculous.

But movies like this have been coming at us for awhile -- movies where it basically boils down to God vs. the devil, with a lot of nice art direction and some supposedly cutting edge fight choreography thrown into the mix. Max Payne was kind of a movie like this (though it was hard to figure out what that movie was supposed to be about at all), and before that, it was Constantine. And Constantine wasn't even the first time Keanu Reeves appeared in a movie like this -- The Devil's Advocate is kind of one of these movies, too.

I suppose if you want to be generous to Priest, you could call it a vampire movie rather than vapid pseudo-spiritual schlock. But the fact that the title character is a priest, and that vampire movies always carry with them a religious undercurrent (you can kill them with a crucifix), means that the distinction may not be very meaningful. What positions it firmly as the type of movie I'm talking about is all the window dressing: the futuristic cityscapes, the goofy-looking motorcycles, the goofy sunglasses, and the crucifix painted down the middle of Bettany's face. Um, question: If you're a priest who hunts vampires, do you really want to advertise that to all the vampires by painting a cross on your own face? (The movie probably has an explanation for this, but I don't care.)

If I had a bit more energy today I would dig for other examples of this type of movie and why they are getting increasingly worse. See, I don't want to give the impression that they're all bad -- I actually had a limited fondness for Constantine. But especially with Priest, they've gotten ghettoized to the point that they're little more than marginal stories draped over some superficially cool iconography.

Don't be fooled by the May release date. This type of movie belongs in February, and it deserves to fail in February.

Okay, back to being fair and impartial -- for the most part -- with the May 20th releases next week.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The fight to finish a movie you've already seen

When I started Moulin Rouge, the second in my Monday night double feature, at 11:19 p.m., I knew there wasn't a very good chance I'd finish it before I went to bed. The movie is over two hours long, and even though I wasn't going in to work until 9:30 on Tuesday, sleep should overtake me long before the movie ended, even if I wasn't driven to bed by a practical need to wake up in the morning.

When I'd finished less than half (allowing for pauses) by 12:30 a.m., I reasoned there was some chance I wouldn't finish watching before the movie was due back the next night at 8. My Tuesday working hours would be 9:30 to 6, but I had to go to an event almost right after work.

Fortunately, my body clock is such that I was up by 7:45 the next morning, even though I didn't need to leave until 9:15. So I watched most of the rest of Moulin Rouge over my coffee and frozen waffles, with more pauses for things like showering and preparing the waffles.

But I still had around 20 minutes left when it was time to leave for work.

Game over? Not hardly.

At lunch time I drove to the library, and sat under a tree to watch the final act of the movie on my portable DVD player. The day had been busy enough that I was cutting it close, leaving only 40 minutes to drive to the library, watch the end of Moulin Rouge, and get back before my only other co-worker sitting on the help desk (we were operating two people down) would reach the end of his workday at 2:30. For my efforts, I was actually bombarded by one of the tree's acorns, right at a particularly tense moment of the action at the end.

You'd think a person would only go to this trouble if he'd never seen the movie before. But this was my third time seeing Moulin Rouge, first since 2002 or 2003.

It may seem silly. I mean, I know how the movie ends. There would have been worse things than missing the end on my third viewing, having certainly gotten the gist of the movie and seen my favorite parts already.

But not me. I'm a completist. When I watch a movie, I want to watch the whole thing. No matter how many times I've seen it.

Would you have done the same? Or would you have just returned it after the opening number of the terrifically named production of "Spectacular Spectacular," knowing that Christian changes into the costume of the narcoleptic Argentinian, throws a wad of cash at the presumably deceitful Satine, realizes that she was just trying to save him from being killed, dodges a couple assassination attempts and ultimately weeps over the body of his perished love?

Watching Moulin Rouge again confirmed a casually held opinion I have of it: It's one of the most romantic movies I've ever seen. Yes, I know that means I'm ignoring decades of cinema leading up to its 2001 release, and places me somewhat dubiously in a category I hate: People who think the movies began when they started watching them. But I have to be honest and say that how romantic I find a movie has to do with how much I was swept up in its spell. There may have been exceptionally romantic movies in the 1930s (Gone With the Wind is one), but if I wasn't specifically transported by their sense of romance, it's harder for me to recognize them as such, and that's just the God's honest truth.

But sweep me up Moulin Rouge did when I first saw it, and did again on Monday night/Tuesday morning/Tuesday afternoon. Its reappropriation of pop songs, its terrific chemistry between Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, its kinetic sense of whimsy, its lush set of an imaginary Paris in 1900, and its storybook bending of reality ... it's all just a delirious delight.

One reason I wanted to watch it again, however, was that I'd gotten a couple of its songs in my head from watching this season of American Idol. I wrote about American Idol a few weeks back, but was cagey about which contestant was the one my wife knew. Now I'll come forward with that info: It was Casey Abrams, voted off two weeks ago -- at least a week or two too early. But I'll save for later the discussion of how difficult it is to overcome Idol's vast network of country music voters.

Not only does my wife know Casey (his mother much better), but we ended up really liking his jazzy stylings, his stage presence, his ability to play almost any instrument, his playfulness, and the many things he could do with his voice. It was always possible that we'd like the guy but not his act. Fortunately, this was not the case.

One thing I noticed a couple weeks ago is that Casey must have an affinity for Moulin Rouge. In consecutive weeks he sang "Your Song" for Elton John Week and "Nature Boy" for Movie Week. "Your Song" is memorably tackled by McGregor's Christian atop the elephant-shaped building where Satine lives (love that set design) in my favorite scene from the movie, and "Nature Boy" is pretty much the movie's theme song, as a line from the song is the movie's mantra, repeated several times: "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return." For the record, Casey said he was singing Nat King Cole's original version of the song from The Boy With Green Hair, and no mention of Moulin Rouge was ever made.

Having already made the connection with those two songs, I was surprised upon watching Moulin Rouge this time that a third Casey song also appears. That's right, the song that probably got Casey the most attention, though possibly for the wrong reasons, makes an appearance in the beginning of Moulin Rouge as well: Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Two songs could have been a coincidence -- a third is something more than that.

Casey was noted for his unpredictability, but I guess he was a little more predictable than we all thought. (No less love for him, mind you.)

Maybe if he'd stayed on another week or two he would have tackled Jim Broadbent's version of "Like a Virgin."

ELE vs. EE

This is the story of how two acronyms denoting the apocalypse, each prominently using the letter E, chilled me to the bone.


Last night I watched Deep Impact for the first time since the late 1990s, and I'm happy to say it really held up. Held up? some of you will ask, since you're probably of the opinion that the movie didn't hold up even back in 1998.

Well, you're wrong, and part of that may be because you lump it in with Armageddon as one of the two asteroid movies that came out in 1998. But aside from the fact that both movies feature a deadly asteroid hurtling toward earth, and both movies feature teams of astronauts trying to drill nuclear devices into these asteroids to blow them apart, Deep Impact and Armageddon couldn't be more different. While Michael Bay's movie is all about jingoism, machismo and action, Mimi Leder's movie is actually a drama set against the potential end of the world, supported more by acting and characterization than by big set pieces. (Though it does have a really big one at the end, and it's worth the wait.)

But I think part of the reason I was more primed to enjoy Deep Impact than Armageddon, even back when I watched them both for the first time (and only time for Armageddon, I can guarantee you), comes down to a little three-letter phrase from the beginning of Deep Impact that always chilled me: ELE.

You see, a reporter played by Tea Leoni (who's quite good in this film) gets wind of what she thinks is a scandal involving a cabinet member having an affair with a woman named "Ellie." It turns out, Ellie is not a person but an acronym, ELE. She and the president (Morgan Freeman, great as usual), who she's quite surprised to see after being essentially kidnapped by FBI agents, have an entire conversation about ELE without being on the same page -- he thinks she knows that the earth is going to be hit by an asteroid, she thinks he's stalling and covering up a sex scandal. However, the movie's not trying to make her out to be a dummy -- she catches the president say "Ee-El-Ee" rather than "Ellie," and she realizes everything is not what she originally surmised. She does the 1998 equivalent of a Google search (the difference in technology reminded me how far we've come in 13 years) and finally comes up with the following meaning for ELE:

Extinction Level Event.

Did you just get the same chills I got?

There are few three-word phrases that can more quickly convey the gravity of a situation than "extinction level event." Like, this shit that's going to happen is going to wipe out everybody -- all humans. And who knows how many other species as well. And you can pretty much forget about the plants. The rocks may be okay, and possible the water.

Better get those astronauts on that shuttle to try to blow up that rock.

It wasn't until watching last night, however, that I realized that ELE shares letters with another acronym, this time only two words, that I saw in the movie Knowing two years ago. That also chilled me to the core in that context, in another movie dealing with the potential end of the earth.

Knowing is definitely a more ridiculous movie than Deep Impact, so I won't try to wade into its plot or fact-check myself for accuracy. But suffice it to say that Nicolas Cage's character has found, in a time capsule from the 1950s, a series of numbers that appear to be predictions of disasters around the world, incidents in which a significant number of people (more than 20) die. These handwritten predictions show the date and then the number of people who die in each incident, including such famous incidents as September 11th. However, the numbers run out at some point. The last date -- a date still in the future of the movie's present tense -- shows the date in question and then the number 33.

Except it isn't the number 33. It's the letters EE. Cage's character reads it as 33 because it's consistent with the pattern, where all the other incidents include only numbers and no letters.

But he eventually figures out what EE stands for, and I'm again getting chills as I write this:

Everyone Else.

That's right, on the last date predicted, an event occurs in which everyone else on the planet will die.

Everyone Else. The biggest number there is.

The woman who discovered this pattern of disaster and death went crazy. They find a room where she stayed, where every surface in the room was covered with the scrawled letters "EE" and the scrawled words "Everyone Else." Wouldn't you go crazy, if you discovered a pattern of death that continued to prove its 100% accuracy over the course of time, and the last incident involved the death of all human beings?

I would.

Damn, maybe I should watch this movie again this week as well.

I want to end with a few more words about why I like Deep Impact so much. It could be the feminine sensibilities director Mimi Leder brought to the project, but it's the best kind of disaster movie -- one where getting to know and care about the characters is of paramount importance, not showing explosions or other types of destruction. And in order to do that better, they cast good actors, actors who can actually make you feel.

One of the reasons I wanted to revisit this movie is because I did feel when I first saw it -- I felt a lot. In fact, I don't (but probably should) mind telling you that I got a little teary during Deep Impact. Not once, but several times.

Over the years since then, I decided that I must have been caught in an emotionally vulnerable place in my life, and that the movie couldn't be both as subtle and as affecting as I remembered it. Nope, wrong. It is subtle, and it is affecting. I'm pretty sure the same moments that got me last time got me again (more spoilers):

1) When Leoni's reporter (now anchor) reads on the air that no one over the age of 50 will be part of the lottery to see who gets government protection in underground caves. She's just been handed this text for the first time on air, and she pauses after reading the sentence, realizing what it means. Leoni doesn't go to some big emotion, she just sits there, looking down, thinking about what she's just said. Leder stages this scene perfectly, because we see it from the perspective of her mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who's watching her daughter read the announcement on her home TV. Redgrave doesn't go to a big emotion either, she just shifts her body in a way that indicates she knows what this means: She will not survive the asteroid strike. I tell ya, that combination really got me.

2) When Leoni gives up her spot on the helicopter to her friend and mentor, played by Laura Innes. The look of gratitude on Innes' face on the other side of the helicopter window, as it lifts into the air, at this moment that they know they'll never see each other again, is priceless. Sure, this moment or a moment like it occurs in hundreds of movies involving life-and-death scenarios. It's a tribute to these actors and this director that they got it just right in this one.

3) When the teenager played by Leelee Sobieski must make a split-second departure from her parents, just hours before the asteroid is set to strike. The amateur astronomer who discovered the asteroid (Elijah Wood), who's Sobieski's neighbor and new husband (they married so she could be saved along with him), has made a selfless trip on motorcycle back to find his wife. When the military convoy came to pick them up, she impulsively stayed with her parents after they weren't on "the list." Now he's come back for her, and her parents make her go with him, and take her baby brother/sister, knowing that it's their children's only chance to survive. Sobieski is wonderful in this anguished scene, where you realize how young she is -- "No, Mommy, I don't want to go!" Her frantic tears are just the kind of thing you can imagine happening in a moment when you have to leave your family, now, and you know you will never see them again. You don't even have time to formulate a proper goodbye. I was probably struck more by this scene even than I was the first time, now that I'm a parent. As her parents watch her disappear on the back of the motorcycle, it's devastating. Her mother breaks down in tears and her father, barely holding them back himself, hugs her from behind. It's emotional gold.

Going even further than recommending Deep Impact, I'm going to say that it should be used by any filmmaker trying to make an effects movie without sacrificing character. I've just hit on three really good, really gut-punching moments, but the whole thing is remarkable for its ability to involve you in the inner lives of its characters. It's not what studio execs demand first and foremost from a movie like this, but maybe they should.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out so well for Deep Impact -- it made $60 million less domestically than Bay's emotionally fraudulent competitor, and Leder has only directed two features since then: the 2000 flop Pay It Forward (talk about emotionally fraudulent), and the 2009 film Thick as Thieves, which also features Morgan Freeman.

Well, it had a deep impact on me, at least.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The twice-rented rule

When you rent movies from the library -- you can get up to three for two days at a time -- you end up renting/borrowing a lot of movies that don't end up getting watched. With no cost associated (for an on-time return, that is), there's no real incentive to make sure you watch what you've borrowed. But it also doesn't really make sense to rent fewer than three, even if you know you will only have the chance to watch one. What if you end up getting sick, and your cable is out? You'll be glad for the extra two. Not to mention the fact that it gives you options depending on your mood.

But I do have one rule that I've developed about renting/borrowing from the library, which is that if I don't watch a movie the first time I borrow it, I have to watch it the second time. Or, let's put it this way -- I try especially hard to watch it the second time.

That was part of the reason Lost in Space finally got watched this weekend.

On Saturday afternoon I stocked up for my first few days when my wife and son are out of town. Okay, "few days" is not exactly accurate -- I only have today after work before the movies are due back tomorrow. But since the Los Angeles libraries are no longer open on Mondays (and were never open Sundays), I needed to go Saturday if I wanted to have movies to watch when I get home today. (I've of course got plenty of options on Netflix streaming, but I sometimes like being inspired on what to watch by choosing from a finite selection -- hence the library.)

After sweeping through from A to Z, I was carrying about ten DVDs, which is pretty typical. You can rent only three, but until you've gone all the way through, you don't know which three those will be. I pared it down to two movies I want to revisit -- Moulin Rouge! and Deep Impact -- and I wanted to have the third movie be something I hadn't seen. I don't want to tax my brain too much on my first evening home alone, so I decided to go for something frivolous, and Lost in Space fit the bill just fine.

But after I left the library, I couldn't imagine a scenario arising where I would actually watch Lost in Space before it was due back. The first chunk of my afternoon/evening (I'm working the early shift today and getting off at 2:30) will be consumed by the Celtics-Heat game, and watching two movies after that may be a bit ambitious (as discussed here). If I were to watch two movies tonight, I knew it would probably be the other two, not the 130-minute Lost in Space, which I knew was probably not very good. (It's one of those movies I always knew I'd see eventually, and not being able to imagine any organic reason why that eventuality should arise, I figured I'd force it.)

However, then I thought of my informal "twice-rented rule." This would be the second time out for Lost in Space, which also came home with me over the long weekend last Thanksgiving, if memory serves.

And thank goodness for the twice-rented rule, because without it, I might not have discovered an excellent way to get an extra movie into my weekly viewing schedule.

You see, I'm always trying to figure out ways to get my son out of his mother's hair for a couple hours at a time. The time to do this on the weekdays is fairly short. I get home at 4, and the bedroom routine -- which starts with dinner and goes on to bath time and a story -- begins only 90 minutes later at 5:30. On the weekends, however, I can provide my wife really long blocks of open time. If, that is, I can figure out how to keep my son occupied the entire time.

Errands can cover some of that, but what if I don't want to spend any money? (Almost all errands involve money, don't they?) I realized this past weekend that I can take him in to work. My office has a skeleton crew on Saturday and no crew at all on Sunday. And even on Saturday, the skeleton crew is in other areas of the building, not the area of the building where I sit.

So this past weekend, I watched Lost in Space in two halves, one each day, while sitting at my desk. I wasn't bothering anybody, nobody was bothering me, and my son was just fascinated to be in a new location. Most importantly, my wife got some time at home to wrap up loose ends before leaving the country.

And Lost in Space? Well, I was digging it for the first half. I thought the effects were reasonably special, Gary Oldman was a treat in full-on mustache-twirling villain mode, and even the sci-fi concepts seemed to make a certain amount of sense. However, when the movie became too ambitious -- moving beyond spacial loss to temporal loss and time travel -- it fell apart. I admired almost enough about the movie to give it a thumbs up -- but not quite. Still, it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.

And if it paves the way to watching an extra movie a week in the comfort of my office, then it'll have been well worth the viewing indeed.

Thanks, twice-rented rule! You're the best!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A (mostly) successful dry run

I mentioned on Wednesday that I'm on the verge of a major movie marathon, as soon as my wife and son leave for Australia on Sunday night.

Last night I got a dry run to see how it would go.

As an early Mother's Day present, my wife took herself to a neighborhood motel last night. It's a cute place that we've always admired and in which our family has stayed, but in which we ourselves have never stayed -- for the obvious reason that you rarely need to stay at hotels that are less than a mile from your house. Since it's also cheap, it made a perfect place for her to get away for the night, without really being "away" -- a staycation to the extreme. Especially since she'll soon be the only parent looking after a baby with his body clock all screwed up, for 11 straight days, she desperately needed the treat of a full night's sleep -- her first away from the baby in the nearly 8 1/2 months since he was born.

Naturally, I lined up a double feature to watch at home, for after he went to sleep.

I had one Netflix movie I needed to return (Despicable Me), and I wanted to supplement that with a spontaneously chosen movie from Redbox (Skyline).

However, I didn't start the second movie until after midnight, and had to finish it this morning.

See, last night I discovered that it's very possible to be "out of practice" in watching movies.

What? you say. How's that possible? You just press play and passively watch what comes on the screen.

Except it's not quite that simple, is it? Watching a movie by yourself is a bit different from watching a movie with someone else. With someone else, yes, you hit play and watch. By yourself, however, you can be distracted by the many other things that compete for your time -- especially when you can spend that time doing whatever you damn please. You can hit pause whenever you feel like it -- there are no social repercussions.

And this "dry run" showed me some of the potential obstacles to watching quite as many movies as I think I'll watch over the next 11 days:

1) Sports. There will be a lot of sports I care about on TV while my wife and son are gone. You can start with the NBA playoffs, where my Celtics are fighting for their lives against the Miami Heat. They'll play at least one game while my family is gone (Monday night), more if they win tonight. Then there's all the baseball that will be on. You may remember that I'm in two fantasy leagues.

Last night, the start of the double feature was delayed by the fact that I wanted to watch the Lakers-Mavericks game. Even more than the Celtics winning a championship this year, I want the Lakers not to win one -- you see, one more and they'll be tied with the Celtics in terms of total number of championships (17). I'm trying to forestall that inevitability as long as possible, and last night's Laker loss to the Mavericks -- which put them in a historically insurmountable 0-3 hole -- took a big step toward delaying that tie at least one year. (And if the Celtics do somehow manage to win it all, even longer.)

2) The internet. I just got a new laptop last weekend, and its much-faster speeds make the internet a much more attractive option for wasting time at home. With my old machine, I had to keep the power cord taut at all times in order for the laptop not to power down. This has tended to discourage random browsing for a couple months now. Well, not anymore.

So I didn't start Despicable Me until around 9:20, and about an hour in, the beer I'd had with dinner suddenly caught up with me. So I took a 45-minute "nap" before finishing. I considered not even starting Skyline because it was so late, but I hate keeping a movie an extra day from Redbox -- in fact, I've never done it. And now was my window to watch it. So I started at around 12:15, and went to bed with about a half-hour left. Which I watched this morning over my coffee.

So what have I learned?

1) Watch the Redbox movie first. That's the one you have to return on time. The others will wait. You can expand that to "watch the movie from the library first" as well, because that also has a hard-and-fast deadline.

2) If you have a movie you don't really want watch, but are obligated to watch it as a result of circumstance (like having it out from Netflix), then just return it. I have to say, I was impatient with Despicable Me from about its first minute. I have spent the better part of the nine months since the movie came out growing increasingly grouchy about it -- first it was the omnipresence of those silly yellow minions, then it was my boredom with the whole animated supervillain concept (and I have yet to even see Megamind). I must say that Despicable Me did not surprise me, which I half expected it to, since most people say it's good. It was pretty much what I thought it would be, and I didn't really care for Steve Carell's performance -- I've written before about the fact that he's far more miss than hit for me at the movies. It didn't end up mattering in the end because I got the second movie in, but my disenchantment with Despicable Me nearly cost me the double feature.

3) Trust your instincts about the movie you want to see, even if people told you it was bad. I couldn't believe how much I ended up liking Skyline -- in fact, it help put me in touch with how much I've decided I dislike Battle: Los Angeles. For two movies about the city of Los Angeles being attacked by aliens that came out less than five months apart, Skyline is clearly the superior effort. First and perhaps most importantly, they're not afraid to show the aliens in Skyline -- and they actually look good (even if they are sort of indebted to War of the Worlds, The Matrix and District 9). Second, it's much more interesting to follow random citizens than the military in a movie like this. Third, Skyline didn't feel the need to cop out with a Hollywood ending. So, if you wanted to see Skyline but heard it sucked, you now have at least one person recommending it to you.

Okay, now for the real thing starting tomorrow night.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The next logical step after Shakespeare

In February of 2010 I wrote a post called "Who directed that?," which delved into the topic of movies directed by people you would not expect to be directing them. I used the release of Cop Out, directed by Kevin Smith, as my "news peg" for this idea.

But I clearly should have waited until this year. If I had, I would have gotten to include No Strings Attached (directed by Ivan Reitman), The Dilemma (directed by Ron Howard), and Thor, directed by ...

Kenneth Branagh.

Yep, you read that right. This generation's foremost interpreter of the works of William Shakespeare has reemerged as the director of a comic book movie.

For you younguns who may not be familiar with Branagh, a full five of the twelve features he's directed are adaptations of Shakespeare: Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love's Labours Lost and As You Like It. A sixth, A Midwinter's Tale, features a staging of Hamlet as one of its major plot points (not to mention that the title is kind of a nod to A Midsummer Night's Dream). Branagh is of course also an actor, and in addition to appearing in most of the Shakespearean adaptations he's directed, he also appeared as Iago in a 1995 adaptation of Othello, directed by Oliver Parker.

So how did the Bard's present-day voice -- at least in the cinema -- end up directing a movie about a Norse god appearing and fighting monsters in modern-day America?

Apparently, the story is that Branagh campaigned pretty hard with Marvel Studios to get the gig. He's supposedly a big fan of the comic book.

But let's set aside that public explanation and look deeper into it. Because what would seem like a plum job for most directors actually seems kind of like slumming for Branagh, doesn't it? Yeah, you've got a major studio's summer tentpole entrusted to you, but it's also total junk food compared to what you've been making previously, isn't it?

Then again, it's not like all of Branagh's previous projects have been highfalutin affairs that speak only to snooty college professors. Branagh also directed the lambasted 1993 version of Frankenstein, in which Robert DeNiro played the monster. (As weird as it sounds now, yes, that actually happened.) He also made the fun movie Dead Again, which basically amounts to a supernatural thriller.

But I have a hard time buying the narrative that Branagh saw his career naturally leading toward making a movie version of Thor. Fact is, he hasn't directed a film since the 2007 Michael Caine-Jude Law feature Sleuth, marking his longest layoff since he started directing back in 1989 with Henry V. You could argue that he hasn't directed a truly relevant film since 1996, when his four-hour version of Hamlet won general praise and an Oscar nomination (for best adapted screenplay, which is about the most hilarious thing I can think of, since the play was famously presented at full length). His oddball adaptation of Love's Labours Lost in 2000 was generally panned (for good reason), and I wasn't even aware he'd directed a version of As You Like It (in 2006) until preparing this piece.

So when I heard that Branagh was directing Thor, which I have always thought looks bad, my first reaction was a sense of sorrow for him. Even if many of his movies were better in theory than they were in reality, I always enjoyed the fact that we had a resident Shakespeare interpreter in the broader film community, and we could expect some new version of one of the Bard's works every couple years from him. Therefore, slumming for a Hollywood paycheck seemed like him failing his own standards of artistic merit.

And possibly out of necessity. Straightforward Shakespearean adaptations just don't fly anymore, do they? I think Branagh himself sensed this even back in 2000, when he made Love's Labours Lost a musical set during World War II. Which didn't work -- and how. But points for trying I guess. Reading up on As You Like It right now, I see that Branagh moved the events of that play to 19th century Japan. I guess that didn't work either, since the movie was not even on my radar.

Now it seems like the baton has been passed to Julie Taymor, who has twice adapted Shakespeare in her inimitable, colorful style: Titus in 1999 and The Tempest last year. Not that those movies raked in the dough either, even with the enthusiastic participation of many esteemed actors who wanted to wrap their lips around Shakespeare's words.

Well, Thor does at least deal with antiquity, in terms of this god who comes down to earth. I just hope Branagh feels genuinely okay about the whole thing.

Me, I think Thor's star (Chris Hemsworth) seems like a zero, and the movie seems like another unwarranted attempt to make bank on a fringe comic book hero.

Maybe Branagh is just trying to prepare us for his next Shakespearean adaptation -- Macbeth as a bad-ass crimefighter with the strength of Superman?

Friday, May 6, 2011

A second big sigh of relief

I met Travis Betz a little over three months ago, when I was a guest on his podcast.

Since then, I've seen two features he's directed -- Lo on Netflix streaming back in February, and The Dead Inside, just last night at the Los Angeles United Film Festival, held at the classic Los Feliz 3 theater in Los Feliz.

And just as I sighed in relief back in February, I sighed in relief again last night.

See, I don't know many filmmakers. I'm a big film guy, I live in Los Angeles, and I have a lot of crossover with the entertainment industry. But actual directors who make actual films? Not acquainted with many of them.

So when I watch a movie, I can almost always be sure I won't know the people intimately involved with making it. This frees me up to be as scornful as I want to be, if it's a bad movie. Which is really important, if you're a critic. You need to say you hate a movie when you hate it. It's part of the job.

Enter Travis. If I hated Travis' movies, the part of the job I've always considered easy would suddenly become hard. I'd be caught between my critical oath of honesty and my need to soften the blow to a friend. In fact, forget softening the blow -- if you don't like your friend's movie, you pretty much have to straight-up lie, don't you? I guess it depends on how good a friend you are. If you've known the person for years and you have the kind of relationship where you can razz them for a sub-par effort, then maybe you're honest. But if you've just met them and are not even sure if the relationship has progressed beyond the level of Facebook friend, well, it certainly puts a crimp in the budding relationship if you tell them their movie stinks.

Fortunately, Travis Betz' movies do not stink. In fact, quite the opposite.


They could actually be forgiven if they did stink, because they were each made for so little money. I don't have the exact figures at my disposal, but let's just say that both Lo and The Dead Inside -- which can be described as horror movies with a healthy dose of comedy, music and romance -- were shot largely in a single location. In the case of The Dead Inside, that location was Travis' actual apartment. However, part of what makes each movie so great is how much Travis has been able to do with a limited set -- dress it, redress it, and use camera tricks to make it look much larger than it actually is. The most interesting filmmakers out there are problem solvers -- people who are forced by limited resources to spin legitimate-looking cinema from smoke and mirrors.

Adding to the potential complication was the fact that I've been given the green light to review Lo. It's one thing to lie to a person's face and tell them you like a movie you didn't like; it's another thing to lie professionally, and praise a movie just because you know the director and you know he'll read the review.

Fortunately, Travis makes it easy by being both a good filmmaker and a good film fan. A horror genre enthusiast -- that description may actually be under-selling it -- Travis knows both how to make a good horror film, and to pay homage to the good horror films he's seen and loved. Lo is about a guy who draws an intricate design on his floor and summons a demon to help him find his girlfriend, who was stolen by other demons. The Dead Inside is about a creatively blocked horror novelist who seems to be undergoing a transformation into ... "other." (I'll leave it at that.) Both films display a terrific sense of humor, but don't want to be "horror comedies" -- they have more on their mind than just that. Oh, and The Dead Inside is also a musical, to boot. (Lo has a song or two but would not properly be described as a musical.) Travis displays a keen ability to pack a little something for everybody into his movies -- there's plenty for genre fans (including great makeup and gore effects), but there's plenty for most other movie fans as well.

You could say that I breathed a third sigh of relief last night as well -- which is that the movie got out so late that I left before getting to congratulate Travis on a job well done. This isn't a relief because I thought I'd have to manufacture my congratulations. It was a relief because I find the whole dynamic of congratulating somebody on a performance you've just watched to be awkward and stilted at best.

I think this dates back to my own days in musical theater. After the show ends, there's this ritual of your friends and family meeting you outside to tell you how much they liked the show, and you in particular. The thing is, live theater delivers such a high -- especially if you think you've given a good performance -- that no one in the audience wants to rob you of that high. So even if they would ordinarily give you honest feedback, they especially don't want to do it here -- what a buzz kill. So you get these generic words of congratulation that feel sort of empty -- you don't know whether to trust them, but the ritual demands that they give these words and that you receive them. Those who recognize the stilted nature of this scenario will try to go above and beyond, as if to prove to you that they're being honest -- only someone who really liked the show and your performance would go to such lengths to come up with such specific, unique words of praise, or at least that's the logic.

I've never liked being on either the giving or the receiving side in this situation. Even if I did truly love the performance -- and that's certainly not a guarantee -- I immediately place this pressure on myself to prove to the performer that my affection is legitimate, by finding words of praise that are different from what they might have heard previously. Maybe I'd even come up with an anecdote or something, so that my praise stuck in their minds as not just me fulfilling my end of the obligation. And when I was the performer? I'd get overcome with guilt that these people felt obliged to praise me, even when I probably wasn't that good -- it was one of the slow realizations of my young adulthood that I'm not particularly talented at either acting or singing.

So yeah, I was just as happy not to have to prove to Travis how much I liked his movie last night at midnight, when I was overly sleepy from a beer at dinner and a 5:30 a.m. awakening with my son. I'll email him today. That'll give me time to compose the perfect words of praise. Which, in this case, are justified, thank goodness.

If you want to see Travis' films, Lo is still available on Netflix streaming. As The Dead Inside has not had distribution yet, its destiny has yet to be written. But, it could be coming to a festival near you. Travis mentioned upcoming screenings in Hawaii and Oklahoma, if that happens to fit the particular geographical needs of any of my readers.

And since you don't know him, your only post-screening worry will be whether the movie deserved your money or not.

Here's betting you won't have to worry about that either.