Friday, August 31, 2012

Dewey Cox, live and in concert

When I woke up yesterday morning, I couldn't have known I would finish my day at a Dewey Cox concert.

Yet these were the true facts of my Wednesday.

I had already been planning to hijack our normal Wednesday night routine of dinner followed by whatever shows on our DVR seemed to exert the greatest pull on our attentions. I was planning to ask my wife to be excused from our normal viewing schedule to fit in the final of three John Cassavetes movies for this month's Getting Acquainted, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I'd give her the option of watching it with me, but rather expected that I'd confine myself to the bedroom to watch it there myself.

Little did I know that the evening would be hijacked in an entirely unexpected and wonderful way that was wholly different from that.

At 6:16 p.m. I received this text from my friend: "Hey man, any chance you want to go see John C. Reilly performing as Dewey Cox with me tonight in Hollywood? I'm sitting on a ticket."

Now, as a husband, a father, and someone who is generally always tired from a day that involves a 50-mile commute round trip, my first instinct was to reject the offer. There were plenty of reasons to do so. If it weren't the uncertainty of how this offer would affect my role in my son's bedtime routine, or the fact that I'd be putting another couple dozen miles on my car, my mere exhaustion would have been reason enough.

But clearly I wanted to do it, having not seen this friend I like very much in about a year, so I simply read the text to my wife to gauge her reaction. No sooner had I finished reading it than she was basically ushering me out the door with a big smile on her face. "How often do you get an opportunity like that?" she asked. Since the show didn't begin until 9, no immediate ushering was needed, and it wouldn't even affect putting my son to bed, which was only 45 minutes off.

Seeing John C. Reilly performing live as the title character in 2007's Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story would have been incentive enough even for people who don't like the film, but who appreciate the actor in general and would love to see this little experiment in Andy Kaufman-style showmanship play itself out. As it happens, I love the film, as described in this post, which was meant to be the beginning of a series of reflections on unexpected gems under the banner "Overachievers." I haven't actually written another post in this series since then. (Two days later, I wrote a piece about The Terminal under a similar "Underachievers" banner, and haven't continued that series either.)

So at 8:45 I found myself outside a bar on Beverly called Bootleg, which is more properly in Silverlake or even Echo Park than Hollywood. I couldn't believe this was actually the place. The crowd outside was sparse, to say the least. As I waited for my friend to arrive with the tickets -- off to the side, since a sign discouraged gathering at the bar's entrance -- only a couple people trickled in here and there, and most of the time it was just myself and the bouncer.

When my friend arrived and we entered, I was struck by the intimacy of the space. I didn't see any signs which delineated the capacity, but I figured it could be no more than 200. Even though Walk Hard was not a huge hit and is now five years in the past, I expected that an appearance by Reilly as Cox could summon a much larger audience and fill a much bigger space. Of course, I was thrilled that it wouldn't and hadn't.

We met the other two in our party -- a woman I hadn't met, and a guy I'd met about seven years ago but hadn't seen since -- and the place started to fill up a bit. The reason there were only 37 people there when we first entered was that there was an opening act, Mike Andrews, whose appearance consumed nearly the first two hours of the evening, as it turned out. This was fine by me, as I was immediately under the spell of his ensemble, which grew to about six people at its largest. In fact, remind me that I'm going to look up this guy on itunes when I get home tonight. He has a cinematic connection as well, as Andrews mentioned working with Mira Nair on an upcoming movie (which must be either Words with Gods or The Reluctant Fundamentalist, her two upcoming credits on IMDB). His band's music did indeed have an Indian flare, and at various times reminded me of The Beatles, Phish and Donovan -- all bands I really like.

I'm glad I was genuinely grooving on the music, because otherwise the wait for Dewey Cox to come on stage might have been interminable. I could only imagine the frustration of those who didn't dig it, as the opener actually went on a ten-minute break before resuming, and the clock sailed past 10:30 and toward 11. I came to realize that Andrews was more properly the headliner, and Cox -- the star attraction -- was actually more of a guest doing a mini set. We'd already gotten to that point where each song figured to be the last one, when Andrews finally revealed that they still had three more songs. At least then we knew how soon Reilly would take the stage. And to reassure me that there was no great misunderstanding about what the evening had in store, at least I'd already seen him twice -- once to come out to the bar to get a quick drink (or maybe just make an inquiry of the bartender), and once when I went to the bathroom and saw him strumming his guitar around a certain corner. It was funny how open the venue's back was, how I basically could have just intruded right in on Reilly gathering his thoughts as he reviewed his upcoming songs. I was reminded of the fact that one of the things about the character is that he thinks about his whole life before he goes on stage, so in a way, you could say that's what Reilly was doing as he prepared.

Andrews didn't actually leave the stage at around 11:10 when it was finally Cox's turn -- to our surprise, Andrews' band was Dewey's band, at least for the purposes of this show. Changing the nature of their sound considerably, they welcomed Cox on stage with a roar from the crowd.

I'd wondered what incarnation of Cox from the movie we'd see. Probably not this one ...

... but I considered this one a real possibility:

Of course, the actual incarnation he chose made a lot more sense. If we were to believe that Cox was a real person -- the back story that was teased was that he had faked his own death and had instead been living by the Salton Sea for seven years, a fate worse than death for anyone who's been there -- then he would most certainly appear as the Fat Elvis version of Cox:

And in fact, this was the exact outfit he was wearing. On my two-year-old Blackberry 8530 with its shitty camera, this is how he looked last night:

Yes, that's really the best picture I have.

I'm glad to say that the man really committed. He danced around. He grooved. He sung his heart out. Yeah, he had to rely on a discreet little teleprompter at the front of the stage from time to time, but Reilly is a professional -- he never let it affect his stage presence. And he'd semi-memorized enough of his songs that only for one or two of them was he beholden to this crutch. Even the word "beholden" is unkind, because he never stumbled, never missed a word, and emoted exactly as the songs demanded.

I found myself wishing that I'd brushed up on the movie -- which I'd only seen once, despite my fervent desire for a second viewing -- but then again, how could I have? There was no way to know it would be necessary. Which meant I didn't have the kind of familiarity with the songs that a recent viewing would have given me.

But I was glad to see my recollections come rushing back. He played the title track as his second number, and in another song or two was on to "Let's Duet," the memorably raunchy-sounding love song that constantly reveals itself to be less raunchy than it originally appears. (Sample lyric: "In my dreams you're blowing me ... some kisses.")

Now, a side narrative that had been occupying me was whether we were going to get a guest appearance from any of the movie's other stars. If this were a road show -- which I seriously doubt it will become -- there would be little chance that anyone else would devote it the time or the energy other than Reilly himself (and his band, of course). But here in Los Angeles, it's easy to imagine someone popping over on a lark, since they live here anyway.

The someone we might be likely to see was Jenna Fischer, aka Pam from The Office. If you're considering Walk Hard to be a straight parody of Walk the Line, Fischer played June Carter Cash (Reese Witherspoon) to Reilly's Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix). "Let's Duet" was ostensibly sung by Fischer in the movie, so it was certainly conceivable that she'd make a cameo here. And since I've always loved Fischer, I was seriously hoping for it. In fact, early on in Andrews' set, I thought I'd seen her pass me in the crowd. I engineered a fake trip to the bathroom to confirm it, but it wasn't her.

And she didn't take the stage either. Instead, a woman named Angela Correa took the stage. There was a reason I said that Fischer had "ostensibly" sung the song -- it was because this woman Angela Correa had actually provided the vocals. Predictably, she knocked it out of the park here.

This incident illustrated one of the ways the evening verged on breaking down the wall between the character and reality. In order to explain why it was Correa on stage rather than "Darlene" (Fischer's character, who would be an ex-wife to Cox at this point), Cox told us that Darlene was tone deaf and that Correa had to stand off stage and sing any time she performed. So that was a plausible cover.

Reilly did refer to the film on a couple occasions -- "You don't know how it feels when your life story is a bomb" he said, paraphrasing -- but it was as though the film existed as a documentary of his life, not a fiction film. Another good cover there. At one point he actually asked the audience if anyone present had not seen the movie, and a man in the front row copped to it. He brought him up on stage and handed him a copy of the DVD, saying it's now available for "only $20." It was part of a running gag that Cox's reappearance on stage was motivated by a desperate need for money. In a great bit of theater, he actually extracted a twenty dollar bill from the guy, and as far as I can tell never gave it back to him. Damn, I would have paid that twenty bucks.

The comedic highlight was his encore, which he performed after running through the crowd, over the bar, around back and back on stage again, in another great bit of theater. (In fact, he jostled the table next to us as he went by, knocking a glass beer bottle to the ground and spilling beer on my friend.) This was the third song I was sure I recognized: "(Have You Heard the News) Dewey Cox Died." The three of us guys (the woman had mysteriously disappeared by this point) in my group laughed hysterically throughout this number, which is an impassioned imagination by the singer of the popular reaction to his death. Rarely has death been so funny.

After this encore, Cox/Reilly concluded what had been about a 30-minute set and left the stage for good this time. While that's brief by the standards of most musical acts, it's a rather impressive length for an out-of-shape 47-year-old actor who does not do this kind of thing for a living, and has not (to my knowledge) inhabited this character either on camera or off in about five years. During the final roar of applause and cheering, I felt dizzy with enjoyment.

As it turned out, we lingered for a lot longer afterward than I had expected to linger, especially given that I needed to be at work by 7 a.m. this morning. This was due in part to the fact that I recognized another person in the crowd, a friend of mine who I only see every couple years, but who plays a significant role in my marriage. You see, this guy -- an actor working in obscurity, but regularly enough to pay the bills -- appeared as Bob Crachett in the performance of A Christmas Carol where I met my wife. If this guy hadn't been in it, our mutual friend wouldn't have invited my wife and me (among others) to see it, and I never would have met her. So I'm quite fond of this guy, even though I see him rarely.

Anyway, talking with him and his girlfriend, and introducing them to my group, led to the aforementioned extended lingering. As various people in our extended group peeled off to use the bathroom, it prolonged the whole post-mortem socializing out of a polite deference to waiting for the most recently departed person to return before saying goodbye. The conversation flowed easily enough, but I was conscious of the fact that it was now after midnight.

But what lingering allowed me to do was go up to Reilly afterward and congratulate him on a great show. As the crowd thinned out, he appeared out in the area where we had all stood for the past three hours watching the show, and mingled with members of the band. No longer dressed as Dewey, he wore jeans, a light blue shirt and a hat that can best be described (by someone with my limited understanding of the different species of hat) as a tan-colored bowler. Given the intimacy of this show and the fact that he was essentially making himself available to the public, I felt no qualms about going up to him.

I tapped him on the shoulder and offered him my hand. I said "I just wanted to tell you that you did a great job, that was awesome." Or something similarly innocuous but not inane. Having a couple beers allowed me to sound less inane than I sometimes do in these situations.

To use an Australian term favored by my wife, he seemed really chuffed. "Oh, thanks a lot," he said. "I really appreciate it. Thanks so much for coming out." In fact, his words trailed behind me as I was walking away, almost as though he would have talked about it more if I'd wanted.

The best thing is something I haven't even told you about. Do you know how much this whole thing cost?

Ten bucks. Or, $13 with the convenience fee.

Here's hoping that $13 goes straight into Dewey's pocket, so maybe he can finally move out of that shitty mobile home on the edge of the Salton Sea. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

What in the hell is this ...

... and why is it opening in theaters? (Today, in fact.)

And don't try to throw in a bunch of B-list voice talents (Christopher Lloyd, Jaime Pressly, Cloris Leachman, Cary Elwes, Toni Braxton, Chazz Palminteri) and tell me it's something legitimate.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The era of partial viewings

My son turned two on Saturday.

Before the day was out, he had seen both Up and Toy Story.

Parts of them, anyway.

In his two years of existence, we've had a strict rule not to introduce him to TV. That doesn't mean we'd make sure the TV was off if he were in the room. We just made sure that whatever was on TV didn't interest him. Baseball has been my programming of choice in that regard. It doesn't interest my wife, either -- two birds with one stone.

But we always knew that when he turned two, we would slowly introduce him to the kind of programming where he was the intended demographic. I decided to take that literally by showing him Up on the morning of his second birthday, even though he technically didn't turn two until 9:35 a.m.

Why Up? I have no great love for it. I appreciate it more upon every viewing (this would be my third), but I still consider it to be in the lower half of Pixar's movies. We only own it at all because my sister gave it to me as a Christmas present that year. Loved the idea of trying to get me DVDs she thought I'd like, and though she scored only a minor hit with this one, she scored a major one with Inglourious Basterds.

I considered showing him Inglourious Basterds, thinking he might really get something out of the scene where Eli Roth cracks open that Nazi's head with a baseball bat. But Up was the movie of choice, because my son had taken it off the shelf a couple times and given a long look at Kevin, the colorful bird sought out by Charles F. Muntz come hell or high water. (As I've always said -- just go back to society and show everyone you've invented a collar that translates the thoughts of dogs into speech. Much more impressive than proving the existence of an elusive bird.)

"Duck!" my son proclaimed upon looking at Kevin. In his world, all birds that look even vaguely like a duck, are a duck. (He loves dogs even more than ducks, but the satellite dish around Doug's head may have kept my son from identifying Doug as a canine.)

So I decided to show him the movie with the duck in it for his birthday.

Of course, the duck doesn't come into the movie until 30 minutes in. So I had to ask myself: Do I show him Up from the beginning, or from 30 minutes in?

But the question was really this: Am I showing him Up for him, or for me?

You see, if you know me, and if you read this post way back in 2009, you know that I don't really love watching parts of movies. This wasn't always the case. But when I started keeping track not only of the new movies I watched, but also of the favorites I revisited, everything started to "count." Strict adherence to lists has a way of doing that. Since I didn't want to face the dilemma of whether watching 25 minutes of a movie means that it "counted" as a viewing, I decided to just stop catching bits of movies here and there. I'll either watch all of it or watch none of it.

See, that kind of absolutism is not possible with children. And I ought to resign myself to it sooner rather than later. My friends who have older children have seen parts of some Pixar movies in the multiple dozens of times. I imagine I soon will be that guy, too.

Soon, but not yet.

Terminal completist that I am, I showed him Up from the beginning.

And was amazed at his apparent capacity for absorbing the movie. He sat there, sucking his fingers, staring raptly at the screen, long past the point I dared hope he'd do so. Those first 30 minutes, until Kevin makes his entrance, are pretty adult-oriented, all told. Yeah, you get a little bit of young Carl and young Ellie, but then you get a montage of their life together and old Carl's cantankerous interactions with various city officials. It would be easy for a child of four, let alone two, to lose his focus during that part.

And so I breathed a sigh of relief when Carl unveils the massive bunch of balloons that will carry him to Paradise Falls. I knew this would hold my son's attention for a bit longer, even if it had been flagging to that point. And it did hold his attention, though his attention hadn't seemed to be flagging.

Strangely enough, it was right at about the point that Kevin was ready to appear that he finally stopped being interested in the movie. And maybe he's just my son in that regard. He knew that the movie was on track until that point, and that it kind of starts to meander once Carl and his rotund boy scout stowaway Russell land near Paradise Falls. Maybe he, like me, thought it was a curious choice to shift the action from their wondrous airborne adventures, to their adventures lugging around the house like an overgrown kite, followed around by an annoying bird and an idiot dog. 

He did show limited interested in both Kevin and Doug, but by then, he had other jobs around the living room that needed his attention.

Me, I kept watching as long as I could. I missed big chunks of the third act while preparing his birthday pancake breakfast, but I still felt that it "counted" as a viewing, and recorded it in my lists as such.

When my wife decided to show him Toy Story in the afternoon, I caught little bits, but mostly decided to stay out of it. I watched about 20-25 assorted minutes and decided that this did not "count." (Besides, we just watched Toy Story earlier this year, and I didn't want to have my enjoyment of it ruined by another viewing so soon afterward -- especially since my most recent viewing was the least enthused I had felt about it in any of my half-dozen viewings.)

But if my son's childhood is anything like the childhoods of my friends' kids, I'll soon have my appreciation of plenty of terrific animated movies ruined.

Maybe I'll just strategize to buy him only the crappy ones, so I won't care if I start hating them.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Quicksilverzzzzzzz: The Sequel

In 1986, a Kevin Bacon vehicle called Quicksilver hit theaters, immediately sending my 12-year-old self into fits of giggles.

I don't know why I knew, even then, that it looked lame, but I did. Twelve-year-olds can be surprisingly discerning.

For the record, I have no idea whether Quicksilver is lame or not. I never saw it. All I know for sure is that a couple friends of mine started referring to it as Quicksilverzzzzzzz. I don't know if the "zzzzzzz" was actually supposed to be part of the title, or just a noise that followed it, but the "zzzzzzz" represented the sound of the gears of Bacon's bike, whirring at impossible speeds, as featured prominently in the trailer.

As I have spent the last 25 years referring to this movie as Quicksilverzzzzzzz on the rare occasions it comes up (maybe once every three or four years), I decided to watch the trailer again just now to see if that gear-whirring sound was actually prominent as our urban lore suggests it was. Because of this wonderful little thing we have called the internet, it was easy.

Okay, yes. Bacon spins a gear in his hand, which is almost certainly where we came up with the "zzzzzzz" suffix on the film's title. But like most things that turn into enduring jokes, the source material had to be exaggerated significantly. (I love that the trailer uses still imagery. When was the last time you saw that? Also, check out the young Laurence Fishburne, back when he was called Larry.)

What made me think of Quicksilver today was, of course, the release of Premium Rush, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I doubt it really has much in common with Quicksilver, plot-wise -- it's just that so few movies are made about bike messengers that I couldn't help but link the two of them. Kind of like how Donnie Darko reminds you a bit of Harvey, because so few movies are made about six-foot-tall talking rabbits.

Here are the plot summaries from IMDB. First, Quicksilver:

Jack Casey ('Kevin Bacon' )used to be a hot-shot stock market whiz kid. After a disastrous professional decision, his life in the fast lane is over. He loses his nerve and joins a speed delivery firm which relies on bicycles to avoid traffic jams of San Francisco, is attracted to a fellow bicycler, Terri, and befriends Hector, a budding entrepreneur. Can Jack regain his nerve and his self-respect, and rebuild his life on a more sound basis?

(I love how Bacon's name appears in quotation marks.)

And Premium Rush:

In Manhattan, a bike messenger picks up an envelope that attracts the interest of a dirty cop, who pursues the cyclist throughout the city.

(I guess they've really streamlined the plot summaries on IMDB.)

It's interesting to consider how the former movie could never be made today. Unless there's some bit of criminal intrigue that is not being mentioned in this synopsis, Quicksilver is basically just a story of personal redemption set against the background of Oliver Stone's Wall Street. Way too simple for 2012. In 2012, there has to be dirty cops, MacGuffins and the constant fear of death and dismemberment.

Much as I shake my head at the commercial demands of modern cinema, I bet Premium Rush is the more interesting watch.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Question: What's the most frustrating minor annoyance during a movie screening at home?

Answer: When the dialogue doesn't match up with the actors' lips by just a smidgeon of a second.

Okay, it would probably be more annoying if the dialogue were off by a second or two. But in that case, you just wouldn't keep watching. When it's off by a nearly imperceptible amount, it's not enough for you to abort the viewing. You persevere -- and are just annoyed enough not to love a movie you might otherwise love.

We've been watching our Netflix streaming movies like this for maybe a month now. The most recent example was two Sundays ago, when our viewing of Nicholas Hytner's The Crucible finally transpired. When we acknowledged the problem early on, and our several attempts to fix it were unsuccessful (stopping and re-starting, powering off our BluRay player and powering it back on), I became certain that my wife's first viewing of this movie I love would be tainted beyond repair.

We did persevere, and eventually, were involved enough in the drama that we stopped being distracted by the inexactitude of the lips. (It helps that the second half of this movie is significantly stronger than the first.) I breathed a sigh of relief afterward, as we discussed the ideas and themes of the movie with an intellectual vigor that indicated a successful viewing. If the unsynched dialogue had killed the viewing for us, we probably wouldn't have had much to say at all. Phew.

I was especially relieved because I've been conscious of a desire to re-watch this movie for several years now, and my wife has been excited about it ever since we made our trip to Salem (the movie's setting) back in early July. We got all stirred up about the famous witch trials, and she even bought a novel that occurs in that setting that she's been really enjoying. If you have experience with trying to introduce somebody to a particular film, you know you don't want to blow your only chance by watching it under the wrong circumstances. The time you choose to watch it is key -- but so is whether you have a flawless technical experience.

I'm telling you about this now, ten days after our viewing, not because I have so many ideas for blog posts backed up that The Crucible is just now getting its turn. Rather, because last night I decided to do something about it.

My sister-in-law is in town from Australia. And since she a) loves movies and b) can't really watch the TV shows we watch with us because she's not caught up on them, her visit will give me a chance to see a couple extra movies than I ordinarily would during a given week. But last night was her first night in town, when she was working on about an hour of sleep in the last 30. (Like me, she likes to fill the long flight from Australia with movies -- she mentioned four of them she watched, which tells me she didn't devote much time to sleep.) So instead of a movie, my wife decided to show her an episode of a British detective show called Murder in Suburbia, which was also available on Netflix streaming.

I guess I didn't notice the dialogue mis-match, but my wife did, and she mentioned it again.

My sister-in-law didn't make it to the end of the episode, and as someone familiar with the cruel deficits of jet lag, I could certainly sympathize. So my wife and I finished the episode -- her for the second time -- before I decided to go to work.

Like a true IT guy, I wanted to start ruling out various factors. So I decided I would remove the BluRay player from the equation as a possible source of the problem. Our new TV connects to our wifi, so we can actually watch Netflix straight from the TV, without using the BluRay player. We haven't, a) because the picture looks really bad, and b) because the interface to select your movies isn't as much to our tastes. (Which is strange, because both the BluRay player and TV are made by LG -- why wouldn't they both use the same Netflix interface?)

So we watched the same episode of Murder in Suburbia long enough to determine that the lips and words are synched when coming directly through our TV. We then discovered that you can change the picture settings within the Netflix control panel on the TV, and we got it to the setting that looks right to us (which is called Game, oddly enough).

Problem solved, right? Not quite.

Although we had a potential new way to watch our movies on Netflix streaming, there was still the problem of the wonky interface. So I decided to see if I could adjust some settings on the BluRay player, hoping to bring the dialogue in sync through that particular device.

It seemed like a pretty hopeless task. The audio settings on the BluRay player were the opposite of user friendly, full of jargon that might only make sense to a person with an advanced degree in auditory sciences. And not only that, but each choice had a menu of sub-choices you could tweak and toggle. So there were at least a dozen different permutations I would have to test to see if I were making any progress.

And testing? It meant exiting the Settings screen, choosing Netcast from the home screen to get Netflix among our options, choosing Netflix, loading Netflix, landing on the default screen (our instant queue), moving up to the Recently Watched section, choosing Murder in Suburbia, choosing Episode 1, hitting the Resume Watching button, and then waiting for that to load.

But I was determined. And on only the second permutation, suddenly, the lips were pushing out the words at the exact moment we were hearing them.


This was probably a very long way of telling you a very simple story, which can be summarized as "I fixed an audio glitch on my BluRay player."

But the sense of satisfaction I got from it made it feel like my greatest accomplishment of the week, if not the month.

If you love movies like I do, you understand.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sight & Sound 250: How'd I do?

As a film fan who always tries to push his comfort zone, but must admit he has mainstream tendencies in general, I find few things more frustrating than when a group of critics gets together to coronate a bunch of films I've never heard of.

And so it's natural I'd find myself a little defensive over the Sight & Sound 250, which has a film I've never heard of ranked as high as #12.

Yep, you got me -- I had never heard of Jean Vigo's 1934 film L'Atalante. I am a heathen. I am a philistine. I am a miscreant.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, well, where have you been the last few weeks? The influential British film magazine Sight & Sound has just released the results of its latest poll of international critics and directors on the best films of all time. Each critic/director mentions ten films they believe qualify. This poll happens every ten years on years ending in 2, and it often produces some really curious results. This time curioser than in the past, as the magazine has seen it fit to list the top 250 films that received the most consideration from the 846 critics and 358 directors. (As well as other films that received votes from at least one critic, if you dig deeper -- Hitman, anyone?) After five decades on top of the list, Citizen Kane was unseated by Vertigo, hence the artwork accompanying this post. I'll save my lukewarm feelings on Vertigo for another time.

You could say that no more democratic system exists to determine the experts' definition of greatness in cinema. That doesn't keep it from infuriating me on some level. I contend that because these critics will see each others' votes, they are in a constant race to out-impress each other. None of these critics wants to go on record with more than a token mainstream choice, a Star Wars or a Pulp Fiction. And so it is that a consensus of critics tells us that Chantal Akerman's 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is the 36th greatest film of all time.

I don't know, maybe it is. I chose that one as an example simply because of the long title and because I hadn't heard of it. But the point is, it raises red flags that this list might just be a form of intellectual showboating by those who voted. "I'm deep -- absorb my brilliance."

Hey, I understand the impulse. One of the little games we film fans play with each other is to show each other how fancy our tastes are. Even if you do admit you're a fan of the mainstream, it's a part of yourself you have to shun. And every once in awhile you have to cleanse your palette by subjecting yourself to some exercise in narrative torture, just because it's "important," just to prove to yourself you can.

But let's assume that everyone who voted (over 1,000 people, so that would be quite the conspiracy) was genuine, and let's take their picks at face value. I thought it would be interesting to see how well I've done over the years, keeping up with the movies other people think are great.

So I looked at the list and divided the movies into three categories: Those I'd seen, those I'd heard of but not seen, and those I'd never heard of.

It would be great if the first category ended up being the majority, if I'd seen more of these movies than I hadn't seen. But at least it was the highest total of the three categories. As it came out, I had seen 103 of the 250 movies, heard of another 93 and never heard of the final 54. So that's a little more than 40% of the list I'd seen. Okay, I guess.

If you take just the number of movies I'd never heard of, it's a bit disturbing. It accounts for over 20% of the list. See my previous argument about pretentious assholes trying to make me feel bad.

On the plus side, I'd seen 8 of the top 10, 13 of the top 20, 28 of the top 50 and 52 of the top 100. So I guess I've still got some shreds of my credibility intact.

But enough of my intellectual inferiority complex. I'd like to go through the list and just make a couple random comments about certain films. I'm sure there are a ton of bloggers who have done this kind of thing, but each blogger will find different films comment-worthy. So, here's mine. (Note: There are a lot of ties.)

3) Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu) - When I watched this for a film class in college, initially finding it deathly boring before embracing its themes and writing an A paper, I never could have guessed that it was so prominently respected in the greater film community.

5) Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau) - Highest ranked movie I haven't seen. See my earlier comment about being a philistine.

9) The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927, Carl Theodor Dreyer) - Just watched this for the first time earlier this year, and it's as astounding as they say. Each of the three Dreyer movies I watched for Getting Acquainted and some I didn't watch made it into the top 250. They are all great, but it's things like this that make me wonder about that possible conspiracy.

16) Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson) - When the guys on Filmspotting watched this for a Bresson marathon earlier this year, I had no idea it was about to be considered one of the top 20 movies of all time. I had never even heard of it. In fact, I had not heard of Bresson. PHILISTINE!

24) Rashomon (1950, Akira Kurosawa) - Highest ranked film where I've appeared in a stage version of the story. (The Wizard of Oz doesn't come until later on the list.)

28) Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch) - Pure pretentiousness here.

29) Shoah (1975, Claude Lansmann) - The shortest of four versions of this film is 544 minutes. Could enough people who voted even have seen this film?

33) The Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio di Sica) - It's "thief." THIEF!

43) Close-Up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami) - Nice surprise here. Saw this earlier this year (another Filmspotting marathon) and loved it. 

50) La Jetee (1962, Chris Marker) - Short films? (Un Chien Andalou and A Trip to the Moon to follow later.)

59) Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick) - Yes, this appears ahead of A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Dr. Strangelove. I haven't seen it, but ... isn't it lesser Kubrick?

73) Nashville (1975, Robert Altman) - I never really got the appeal of Nashville. Not when compared to the rest of Altman's films, at least.

84) Fanny and Alexander (1984, Ingmar Bergman) - This list is, not surprisingly, a Bergman love fest, and Fanny and Alexander is very good. But ahead of The Seventh Seal?

93) A One and a Two (1999, Edward Yang) - The way these films are listed really puzzles me. Many of them, especially the French titles, appear in the native language, meaning I had to look some up to be sure I had never heard of them. Yet this film -- which I haven't seen, but I hear is wonderful -- is listed in English, even though most people are familiar with the title as Yi Yi.

102) The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick) - Roger Ebert ultimately decided to include this in his top 10, choosing it over Synecdoche, New York -- even though he had it ranked only third of all the movies he saw last year. Now that's what I call inconsistency.

110) The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges) - When I saw this earlier this year, I saw it as a whimsical throwaway -- charming, but hardly "great."

117) The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) - Seen the Korean horror "remake" with the same title, but not the original. This directing duo has a huge number of films on this list, and I have seen none of them. Guess I have to remedy that.

117) Amarcord (1972, Federico Fellini) - Fellini love fest. I did not really care for this film.

127) Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee) - 'Bout time.

127) Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino) - 'Bout time.

154) In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray) - I hadn't heard of this film until about a year ago, and now I can't go a month without it coming up in something I read. Guess I better see it.

154) My Neighbor Tortoro (1988, Miyazaki Hayo) - Unless I missed one, this is the highest ranked animated movie of all time. I haven't seen it.

171) Star Wars (1977, George Lucas) - 'Bout time.

183) Paris, Texas (1984, Wim Wenders) - I have been meaning to see this ever since the name caught my attention among my mom's handwritten labels on video tapes of movies she recorded off cable when I was growing up. Didn't realize it was considered to be this great.

183) Faces (1968, John Cassavetes) - Saw this two days ago. Comments to follow in this month's Getting Acquainted.

202) Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick) - Every one of Malick's films made the list except for The New World. Badlands should have been the highest, but it's the lowest. 

202) Wall-E (2008, Andrew Stanton) - Highest/only Pixar. That's not the same Pixar filmography I've watched. However, you could say it's the most pretentious Pixar film, so it fits right in.

202) Videodrome (1983, David Cronenberg) - A huge (and pleasant) surprise. Saw this for the first time within the past year as well. Guess I've been picking well lately.

202) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul) - Weerasethakul love fest. Two of his movies appear on this list. Uncle Boonmee was pretentiousness incarnate, as far as I am concerned.

202) Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini) - I hear this is really, really hard to watch. Sounds right up my alley.

235) The Piano (1992, Jane Campion) - Surprising.

235) Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier) - Most recently released film, I think. Von Trier love fest (Breaking the Waves also appears).

Okay, I'll close with some unexpected titles that got at least one mention. Note: I won't say whether I'm pleasantly surprised or laughing my fool head off at these inclusions. They just struck me as noteworthy, when you consider that at least one of the voters thought these titles belonged among the ten best of all time. Of course, I'm sure there are some really bizarro choices whose titles I am just not familiar with. These are only the ones I'm familiar with. (In the interest of time, I'm omitting years and director names except where the title might refer to multiple films.)

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Anvil! The Story of Anvil
The Arbor
Black Swan
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Khazakstan
Carlito's Way
Cosmopolis - note, only just released in the past two weeks
Crash (1996, David Cronenberg)
Dead or Alive 2: Birds (technically not familiar with this title, but it just sounded so random for a list like this) 
Eyes Wide Shut
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
The Fog
The Funeral
Funny Games
The Game
Get Carter (1971)
The Girl on the Bridge
Gran Torino
Grey Gardens
Grizzly Man
The Headless Woman
Hero (2002, Zhang Yimou)
The Host
The House of Flying Daggers
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The Kids Are All Right
The King of Comedy
Let's Scare Jessica to Death
Lost Highway
Marie Antoinette
Match Point
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
Morvern Callar
The Nutty Professor (1963)
Office Space
The Outsiders
The Pajama Game
Paradise Now
A Perfect World
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Plan 9 From Outer Space
Point Break
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Santa Sangre
A Serbian Film
A Serious Man
Starship Troopers
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
They Live
Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Ulysses' Gaze
Velvet Goldmine
We Need to Talk About Kevin
The Wicker Man (1973)
William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet
Y Tu Mama Tambien

Okay, so maybe they aren't such a bunch of pretentious snobs after all. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Using real movies to date shelved movies

It was surreal last night watching Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan's long long LONG delayed opus about a teenager girl processing a fatal bus accident she may have caused.

That's in part because none of the teenagers are even close to being teenagers anymore -- and one of the adults looks so young in this movie, he could actually play a teenager.

Margaret was "released" -- sort of -- last year, and has hit DVD within the past month. But it was shot at some point in the increasingly distant past, although at first I couldn't guess how long.

But then, that central teenager (Anna Paquin, now 30) goes on a date to the movies with the boy who likes her (John Gallagher Jr., 28, who now appears as an adult on The Newsroom). As they arrive at the multiplex, very clear in the shot are the names of three films that were really playing in this theater during principle photography: Flightplan, Roll Bounce and Serenity.

All three of which were released in late September of 2005.

Now that's what you call a long gestation period.

When making Margaret, Lonergan couldn't have known that his follow-up to You Can Count on Me would languish epically, on various shelves and in various states of turnaround, due in large part to debates about the length it needed to be to tell the complete story. Had he known, he surely would have been careful to shoot around the names of movies that could have dated his production so definitively.

But you needn't share this particular compulsion of mine -- figuring out when movies were shot using real-world background information -- to identify Margaret as a relic from another era. You need only look at the baby face of Matt Damon, playing the math teacher upon whom Lisa (Paquin) fixates. He could have been playing her classmate rather than her teacher.

Now, Damon has always had a baby face, and he shot Margaret right around his 35th birthday. But just think about how many other movies he's worked on between then and now. In fact, you could argue that the seven years since have witnessed the ascension of Damon onto the A-list. Using that September 2005 date as a starting point, Damon appeared in Syriana, The Brothers Grimm, The Good Shepherd, The Departed, Ocean's Thirteen, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant!, Invictus, Green Zone, Hereafter, True Grit, The Adjustment Bureau and Contagion, all before Margaret was finally "released" (on only two screens) last September 30th. Although there was ultimately a token expanded release to a few more screens, the $12 million film ended up grossing less than $50,000.

Of course, those intervening years have also featured Paquin's entire run on True Blood, in which she has developed quite a different appearance, including being blonde most of the time.

Who else looks really young? Well unfortunately, much of the rest of the cast is comprised of people old enough so that their appearance doesn't change too dramatically over a seven-year period, such as Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Allison Janney and Mark Ruffalo. But two other younger actors seemed even younger than they are: Olivia Thirlby, whose career has built some heat in the last couple years, and Kieran Culkin, the middle Culkin brother, whose younger brother Rory appeared in You Can Count on Me (as did Ruffalo). Though to be fair, it's hard to specifically say which Culkins look what age, because they don't work regularly enough not to be confused for one another.

I could tell you more of what I know about the troubled history of the production, but I got a lot of it from this compelling article, so I suggest you do the same. If you need extra incentive, I'll give you this: None other than Martin Scorsese took a crack at editing this movie.

What I will tell you is that Margaret is a big, ambitious, scattershot but ultimately rewarding contemplation of, well, almost anything you can think of. In a movie that would not otherwise seem to require it, the film tackles a bunch of post 9/11 New York stuff that reminded me a lot of Spike Lee's 25th Hour (perhaps because Paquin appeared in that one as well, only three years before Margaret was shot, and there are some similar themes surrounding her character). It's the kind of film that doesn't only develop its main characters, it develops its side characters, and spins them off on tangents that have only a flimsy relationship to the rest of the plot. Somehow, it works, and Margaret is worth the 2.5 hours, if you have them. (Having rented the movie from Netflix, I didn't have the option of checking out the three-hour Lonergan cut. I guess if I ever intend to, I'll have to find somebody who champions the movie enough to buy it.)

If Lonergan ever summons the courage to make another movie, I'm guessing we'll see a) a shorter script, and b) no movie theaters where you can read the marquees. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

My first repeat Soderbergh

Given how many feature films Steven Soderbergh has made (26), and how many of those I've seen (17), and how many of those I've really liked (10), it's kind of surprising that I've never seen any of his films more than once.

That's the situation I found myself in Friday night, when we decided to wade through the hundreds of offerings in the on-demand offshoots of the four movie channels we still get for free for another two weeks. We found Out of Sight in Cinemax OnDemand, and decided to watch it then and there, despite the fact that it was 9 p.m., we were both tired, and the movie is two hours and three minutes long. (The memory of how gorgeous the last movie we watched on demand -- Terminator 3 -- looked on our new TV surely spurred us on.)

"We" quickly became "me" as my wife fell asleep 30 minutes in, and went to bed after another 30 minutes of sleeping on the couch. I pushed through for the last hour.

After I'd finished, I wondered why I'd waited so long to revisit one of Soderbergh's greater achievements.

I first saw Out of Sight at a critics screening, when I was reviewing films for the regional entertainment section that appeared in each of four town newspapers in the East Bay of Rhode Island. I spent most of my hours working as a reporter for one of these papers, but near the end of my time there -- in the waning months before I left for journalism school -- I summoned a healthy dose of gumption and convinced them to let me write reviews. It wasn't a very tough sell. I set up contacts with the PR companies that handled the release of these movies, and ended up reviewing about a dozen of them before I left for greener pastures.

I tell you this not because I have a larger point, but simply because it makes me realize how long ago and in what a different time that was. I hadn't even gone to New York yet, where I lived for three years before moving out here. Moving out here was 11 years ago now.

And those ensuing 14 years contained nary a second viewing of Out of Sight. Until Friday night.

I've been a bit down on Soderbergh, even though I'm counting Contagion as one of those ten films I "really liked." Even while appreciating that movie, I still felt how cold and clinical his approach was, and the disappointing Haywire did nothing to convince me it was a creative anomaly.

So it was refreshing to see the relative quantity of heart in Out of Sight. That was a younger Steven Soderbergh, one who believed in ... wait for it ... romance. Nothing he's made since then has been remotely romantic, outside of a couple scenes in Ocean's Eleven (which, not coincidentally, also feature George Clooney). Since he had such a knack for it, one wonders why he didn't go back to that particular well more often.

Simply put, the scenes between Clooney and Jennifer Lopez define the word "chemistry." It seems these days we notice chemistry more often when it's absent, when an actor and actress clunk their way through every scene together. But a handful of memorable scenes in Out of Sight are some of the most moody, sultry and downright romantic scenes between a man and a woman in recent memory. (Does 14 years ago still qualify as "recent"?) That's old-fashioned movie star chemistry, and just because it's enhanced by some funky ambient jazz doesn't diminish anything in those performances and that direction.

But Soderbergh got to have his cake and eat it too. There are some awfully fun set pieces in this movie, and a pretty high hip quotient to the overall proceedings. But not yet hip in a way that's bothersome.

I also noticed that merely 14 years ago, we (the societal "we") were not nearly as concerned about racial politics as we are today. The film's two most reprehensible characters are black dudes, as both Don Cheadle and Isaiah Washington are memorably fierce and intimidating. At least Ving Rhames is there as Clooney's partner, his heart of gold balancing things out.

I don't have a way to tie in all these collected ramblings, and I could probably say a lot more about the film if I really wanted to "review" it. But I already did that in a newspaper back in 1998. Maybe I ought to dig it up and see what I wrote.

Well, I've got more work to do if I really want to revisit Soderbergh properly. Flickchart tells me that Out of Sight is only my fifth favorite Soderbergh movie, though last night's viewing makes me wonder if I might have some re-ranking in my future. While Sight ranks a very solid #527 out of the 3369 films I've ranked (I'm about 175 behind), Erin Brockovich (#325), Traffic (#360), Bubble (#401) and Full Frontal (#517) all come in ahead of it.

But none of them have anything like The Trunk Scene.

Avoiding expendability

If G.I. Joe: Retaliation hadn't been pushed to 2013, Bruce Willis might have been the biggest movie star of the summer.

Not the summer of 1992. Not the summer of 2002. The summer of 2012.

If G.I. Joe had come out on June 29th as originally planned, The Expendables 2 (releasing today) would have been the second of three high-profile Willis action movies coming out before the end of September. The third is Looper, which I wrote about last week. Don't forget he was also in Moonrise Kingdom, though that was obviously a very different kind of role.

Methinks Willis' cameo in The Expendables in 2010 was some kind of career wake-up call. Maybe the title didn't only refer to a bunch of soldiers of fortune whose lives were of no consequence. Maybe the title referred to former action stars of his age group, who were teetering on the age of their own expendability.

Having a more significant role in the sequel to Expendables seemed like a good start.

And once he started, it seems like he couldn't stop. Willis is also credited as appearing in an action movie called Fire With Fire alongside Josh Duhamel and 50 Cent, which is supposed to be releasing just two weeks from now. However, this could be straight to video, as I'm having a hard time finding much promotional material on it. And some movie called The Cold Light of Day, which features Henry Cavill and Sigourney Weaver, is supposed to get a limited U.S. release a week after that.

2013? In additional to the delayed G.I. Joe, how about A Good Day to Die Hard, the video game adaptation Kane & Lynch, and Red 2?

Okay, Vance. Maybe Willis is just a busy guy. So what?

Except he hasn't really been. It's not like Willis turned away from acting or even action movies in the five years since Live Free or Die Hard came out. But he had been doing a lot fewer of them. He had a small role in Planet Terror in 2007, though that actually came out before LFODH. Then What Just Happened in 2008, Surrogates in 2009, Cop Out in 2010 and Red later in 2010. Last year brought a pair of very limited releases, the more prominent of which was Catch .44.

I know careers have their ebbs and flows, and the events of a person's private life can have a significant impact on their professional life. (Willis got married in 2009, so perhaps he was just dutifully devoting a couple years to his new wife.) But Willis' current pace of making movies gives the impression that he has stared into the abyss, and didn't like what he saw. The man is 57 years old, and perhaps he figures it's now or never if he wants to appear in 19 more action movies before he gets too gray. (Not that his bald dome would actually reveal any encroaching grayness, though the beard he grew for his role in What Just Happened certainly did.)

The nice thing about Willis relative to some of the other stars of The Expendables 2 is that he doesn't look dramatically different from how he did in his prime. Granted, the other two of the film's informal holy triumvirate -- Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger -- have nearly a decade on him. But their faces have become puffy and misshapen -- not altogether surprising for guys facing the latter half of their sixties, but funny indeed for action movie stars.

So go forth, Willis. Make The Expendables 3 and Red 3 and G.I. Joe 3 and Die Hard 6 and Cop Out 2 and Moonrise Kingdom 2. I'll keep watching.

Starting with Looper, that is. If Expendables 2 is anything like The Expendables, I'm sitting it out.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Safe Men stars became safe bets

Although I quibbled with some of Entertainment Weekly's choices for its 50 Best Movies You've Never Seen, a recent feature that has gotten more publicity than I thought it would, one I can't quibble with after seeing it on Friday night is Safe Men, a 1998 safecracker comedy from writer-director John Hamburg. I don't know about "best," but it's certainly pretty delightful, and I certainly hadn't seen it.

In fact, it's kind of a surprise this film doesn't have a higher profile considering some of the stars it begat.

It's not that the actors appearing in this movie hadn't previously had careers. But most of them were just on the verge of hitting it big, and if I had seen this movie when it was first released, it would have been my first exposure to some of them.

Let's consider it:

Sam Rockwell 
Plays: Sam, a would-be professional singer who can't hold a tune and performs at retirement homes, who is mistaken for a world-class safecracker
First film: Clownhouse (1989, Victor Salva)
First time I became aware of him: Galaxy Quest (1999, Dean Parisot). "Is there air? You don't know!!"
Since: Charlie's Angels, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Matchstick Men, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Moon, Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens

Steve Zahn
Plays: Eddie, the other half of the delusional singing duo, whose father coincidentally happens to have been an actual safecracker
First film: Rain Without Thunder (1992, Gary O. Bennett)
First time I became aware of him: Not 100% sure if I recognized his contribution in Reality Bites (1994, Ben Stiller), but definitely by That Thing You Do! (1996, Tom Hanks)
Since: Out of Sight, You've Got Mail, Stuart Little, Stuart Little 2, Joy Ride, Sahara, Chicken Little, Sunshine Cleaning

Paul Giamatti
Plays: Veal Chop, a low-level Providence gangster (referred to as the "intern" to a senior gangster) who assumes, based on circumstantial evidence, that Sam and Eddie are the safecrackers he's looking for
First film: Past Midnight (1991, Jan Eliasberg)
First time I became aware of him: Private Parts (1997, Betty Thomas) -- who could forget Pig Vomit?
Since: Man on the Moon, Planet of the Apes, American Splendor, Sideways, Cold Souls, Win Win, The Ides of March

Mark Ruffalo
Plays: Frank, one of the actual safecrackers, who is still in love with his ex-girlfriend (Christina Kirk), Sam's current love interest
First film: Mirror Mirror 2: Raven Dance (1994, Jimmy Lifton)
First time I became aware of him: You Can Count on Me (2000, Kenneth Lonergan)
Since: The Last Castle, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Zodiac, Where the Wild Things Are, Shutter Island, The Kids Are All Right, The Avengers

Peter Dinklage
Plays: LeFlore, a "cleaner" type who comes in at the end to, well, clean things up
First film: Living in Oblivion (1995, Tom DeCillo)
First time I became aware of him: The Station Agent (2003, Tom McCarthy)
Since: Elf, The Baxter, Death at a Funeral, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Ice Age: Continental Drift, Game of Thrones
Note: This is not how Dinklage looks in the film, but this is probably about how old he was. I guess I tested the outer limits of the internet when I tried to find a picture of Peter Dinklage in Safe Men.

Incidentally, all five of these actors are between the ages of 43 and 45.

The film also features Michael Lerner and Harvey Fierstein, but it would be fair to say they were both already established by then -- and haven't done all that much since.

In fact, the one woman in Safe Men -- literally, almost the only woman in the cast -- is the only one who did not go on to greater things. Christina Kirk has worked consistently since then, but the fact that I had to look her up means that she did not go on to have the kind of career she thought she might. She couldn't have been blamed for thinking that this role, as a romantic lead in a small comedy whose male actors were all on the verge of big things, might set her up for her own career of prominent Hollywood showcases. Her wry delivery and undeniable cuteness might suggest she deserved it.

But she did not ultimately have "it," so Kirk has occupied herself in such roles as "party hostess" in Along Came Polly. She has appeared in a couple films I've liked, though: In addition to Polly, she has also appeared in Bug, Melinda and Melinda and Taking Woodstock.

I guess not everybody can become the Incredible Hulk.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Life's little moments of funny timing

At 9:30 on Thursday night, when my wife unexpectedly announced she was going to bed, I did the quick math and determined I could squeeze in a short movie and still get to bed at a reasonable hour.

After perusing the options on Netflix, I decided on The Mill & the Cross, a 2011 feature by Polish director Lech Majewski, which at least one critic I read had raved about. This single bit of praise (when I had otherwise not heard of the movie) earned it a spot on my instant queue, and I decided its 95-minute running time met my needs for Thursday night. Little did I know that the movie would have very little dialogue, and long stretches where little to nothing was happening. At least the dialogue it did have was in English, a concession to the native language of its stars: Rutger Hauer, Michael York and Charlotte Ramplling.

 The movie has a very interesting concept that is executed with a great amount of beauty. It imagines, fancifully, the circumstances surrounding the creation of the 1564 painting "The Procession to Calvary" by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Hauer). Since art history was a late-college discovery of mine in the spring semester of my senior year -- the course I took was specifically about Flemish art from this period, and featured Bruegel heavily -- I immediately knew I'd made the right choice of what to watch. (I hadn't realized what this movie was about until I read the Netflix synopsis.)

Here is that painting:

So you can imagine the beautiful landscape that appears on screen, with that epic windmill atop that monolithic rock as an impressive centerpiece. What would seem to be a consummately analog project, however, has a few enthralling digital details that make it burst with a modern sense of freshness. As this busy image is being staged, it is often shown with frozen human actors in the foreground and a matte painting in the background (though an actual set of the background figures into the action regularly). That matte painting is not entirely stagnant, though -- stick figures in the distance, distant cows, and other elements of the background move silently; digital creations brought to life. The effect is mesmerizing.

The frozen actors up front, recreating the painting down to the detail, reminded me instantly of The Pageant of the Masters. If you aren't familiar with this, it's a festival held in nearby Laguna Beach for a couple months in the summer, and it features precisely this: actors fastidiously staging two dozen or so famous paintings. They stand against matte paintings and pose for minutes on end as a speaker describes the circumstances of the creation of the painting and puts it into a historical context. The paintings follow a particular theme each year. The pageant figured prominently into an episode of Arrested Development once.

My wife and attended in I want to say 2006. I enjoyed it, but not as much as I expected to enjoy it. My wife's appreciation of it was diminished by the fact that the combination of her contact lenses and the binoculars lenses meant she couldn't examine anything in detail. Both of us tend to forget that the pageant itself was something of a disappointment, because we had such a nice afternoon and dinner in Laguna Beach leading up to it.

The point of me telling you this is that while taking a break from the movie -- I took a couple breaks to stay awake -- I checked my email, and lo and behold, I had an email waiting for me from Pageant of the Masters.

It's not like it's the first time they've ever emailed me. I do get messages from them from time to time. But they're not the kind of organization that bombards you with spam -- it's way too hoity toity of an institution for that kind of behavior. And I usually get messages from them a couple months before the season begins, not with three weeks left before it ends.

If the fascinating "Procession to Calvary" were one of this year's paintings, I might just have to go.

Hope hype

I know, I know, Hope Springs opened on Wednesday, not today. But I decided not to subject you to another round of "why I don't think the Bourne movies are so great."

How do I know it opened Wednesday? Well, just because I generally follow these things, as do you I'm sure.

But also because of the billboard I saw yesterday, which is what I'm writing about today.

I took a detour to avoid traffic that brought me through my old neighborhood. Down a sloping stretch of Sepulveda Boulevard near the Howard Hughes Center, there's a digital billboard that frequently advertises the arrival of new films, often counting down the number of days until they hit theaters.

Usually these are for movies featuring superheroes, or other things that make people go geek-crazy.

Yesterday, it was for Hope Springs. But since the movie had already opened, it said simply:

Hope Springs


This made me chuckle. "Hope Springs, Now playing," sure. "The Dark Knight Rises, Now," sure. But "Hope Springs, Now"? That's a bit of a misread of the intended demographic of this movie and the kind of advertising psychology that speaks to it.

Let's imagine it ...

Seventeen-year-old kid with messy hair rolls down Sepulveda Boulevard in his mom's Dodge Caravan.

Sign: Hope Springs

Kid: "Oh shit! Hope Springs! I am all over that shit. When does it open?"

Sign: Now

Kid: "Oh my God. It's already open. Ho-lee shit."

Makes a hard right into the Howard Hughes Center -- brakes screeching, tires smoking -- to plunk down cash for the next showing at Rave Cinemas.

"Now" basically implies such rash behavior. "If you wanted to, you could go see this movie RIGHT NOW." It's the language of addiction, which seems like a bit of a disconnect with the retirees most likely to spend their pensions on a ticket. 

I'm just wondering why "Now" isn't late December. With its two aging stars and romantic comedy trappings, Hope Springs has all the hallmarks of this year's Nancy Meyers movie, which means it would come out at Christmas (see here for a fuller discussion). Or at the very least, it could come out in April to have a tie-in with the title.

Well, we'll see after this weekend whether the great Meryl Streep and a bold stroke of counter-programming pay dividends at the box office.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The hyper-stylization of Joseph Gordon-Levitt

What have they done to Joseph Gordon-Levitt??

Whatever it is, I like it.

The first time I saw the trailer for Rian Johnson's Looper -- which was not the other night, though that second or third viewing inspired me to write this post -- I thought there seemed something a little off about the young actor's appearance. His features seemed sharper, his eyes wider. There was an airbrushed quality to him.

I thought it might just be that the actor worked out for this role, or that the man who has always looked sort of like a little kid (perhaps because we met him as a little kid on Third Rock from the Sun) was finally maturing. But the changes still looked a bit too extreme. He looked like a cartoon character or something.

After this last viewing, I decided I had to investigate.

It turns out that during the Looper shoot, the actor had to submit to three hours a day in a makeup chair in order to achieve the appearance you see above. Much of that had to do with grafting on a larger chin.

So what was wrong with Gordon-Levitt the way he was, babyface notwithstanding?

Here's the cool part: They are trying to make him look like a younger version of Bruce Willis. Not just because they wanted him to have a "Bruce Willis aura" to him -- but because he actually plays a younger version of Bruce Willis.

And don't tell me that you aren't getting a Bruce Willis vibe from those eyes. I don't know how they did it, but to me, it seems clear as day.

I find all the trouble they went to to be especially interesting, because that's usually the last thing anyone cares about in a movie: whether the actor they got to play the younger version of a character (or the older version) really looks like the actor they got to play the older version (or the younger version). Actors are usually hired because they are right for the part, and they bear at least a passing resemblance to the actor who has already been cast. Like, they need to have the same hair color, though that itself is not an insurmountable obstacle. Being the same race certainly helps.

Here though, Johnson and his crew decided it would add to our appreciation of the film if JGL and Willis really looked like the same person. I'm sure there's something about this intriguing story that will make us appreciate all the more that they made that decision.

We'll find out on September 28th.

Looper -- about a present-day hitman who is hired to kill the future incarnation of himself -- is the kind of big idea movie that would ordinarily shoot straight to the top of my "most anticipated" list. It hasn't, which is primarily because in the maybe two years since I first heard about it, I have known it was from the creative team (writer-director and star) behind Brick.

I've mellowed on my dislike of Brick after a second viewing, but I still feel like it contains altogether too much posing and posturing for my tastes, and it turned me against JGL for a number of years. I refused to see Johnson's follow-up, The Brothers Bloom, just because of his involvement.

But this is a new and improved Gordon-Levitt -- literally -- and I have since heard Johnson appear as a guest host on my favorite film podcast, Filmspotting. So I'm ready to open my arms to him again as well.

There will be no teenagers tripping over their noir jargon, so at least there's that.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

One expected Schwarzenegger movie, one unexpected Schwarzenegger movie

On Saturday I saw two films featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, though I really only expected to see one.

The one I expected to see was, of course, Total Recall. You know this if you read my Friday post.

The one I did not expect to see was ...

... The Long Goodbye, the 1973 Robert Altman film featuring Elliot Gould as the (then) modern-day version of Phillip Marlowe.

You may rightly ask if I'm kidding. I'm not.

You may then rightly ask, "What the hell was Arnold Schwarzenegger doing in a 39-year-old Robert Altman movie?"

The answer is, not much. He wasn't even credited. But he was in the movie, which I thought was absolutely hilarious.

If this seems impossible to you, don't forget that Schwarzenegger made his film debut in 1969, in what I am sure is a great cult classic: Hercules in New York. I've really got to see that. He was billed as Arnold Strong in Hercules, and he didn't even get to use his own voice -- his lines were dubbed because his accent was too heavy. (Arnold Strong is an especially funny stage name, because that movie also features an actor named Arnold Stang.)

The Long Goodbye was his second appearance on film, and apparently, having starred in Hercules did not warrant him even getting credited as Goon #2. He plays a thug who appears in the office of Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), the gangster who's trying to recover a bag of cash he thinks Marlowe knows something about. Language skills weren't a problem this time, as he never opens his mouth. He does, however, reveal that body builder's physique, as the scene requires Augustine and his goons to strip down to their skivvies. (If that doesn't sound like it makes any sense, see the movie -- it's just one of the wonderfully outside-the-box moments in this terrific film.)

I laughed when I saw him. It seemed like such a disconnect. At this stage in his career, I expected Schwarzenegger to appear in marginal movies, not in classic films by the great Robert Altman. In fact, an argument could be made by certain segments of movie lovers that The Long Goodbye is the best film in which Arnold ever appeared.

I probably prefer some of Schwarzenegger's more iconic roles, as they are the ones I have grown up on and loved for years. But after finally seeing The Long Goodbye, I am convinced of its absolute brilliance. It has immediately become one of my favorite Altman films, which is saying a lot. Gould is simply perfect as Marlowe, a private dick who seems in a perpetual state of semi-confusion about the world in which he finds himself, yet nonetheless can maneuver in this world using a copious amount of street smarts and a clever sense of how to manipulate people and anticipate their next moves. A friend over the weekend described Gould as wearing a second skin of Phillip Marlowe -- you can't tell where Marlowe leaves off and Gould begins. I could go on about the world created in The Long Goodbye -- Marlowe's apartment complex alone, featuring a neighboring apartment of free-love hippies in various states of undress, might warrant an entire post. But the fact is, I've got to get to work.

And I'm pleased to say that one of those iconic Schwarzenegger roles -- Quaid/Hauser in Total Recall -- still holds up. Sure, some of the effects are dated. But with a script this tight and a performance by Schwarzenegger that has genuine sympathy and nuance -- he had come along way in those 17 years since The Long Goodbye -- I didn't care one bit about the only thing the 2012 version of this film can probably do better.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Getting acquainted with ... Clara Bow

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Getting Acquainted series.

I took a two-month break to move, and then settle from the move. And though it would be inaccurate to say that I am truly "settled" (and who knows when I will be), I wanted to get back into this series -- for my sake, if not for yours. (Let's be honest -- you read these pieces out of a sense of duty, if at all.)

When I was in journalism school, I wrote a piece on a practice that was commonplace in 1999: entertainment media outlets (usually magazines, specifically Entertainment Weekly) anointing this or that young actress the "it-girl." The idea was that the young starlet possessed the intangible quality of "it," meaning that she either actually was, or was being positioned to be, the go-to commodity for casting directors. In short, it meant that her career had some heat.

The thing that struck me was that these entertainment outlets could not, or perhaps did not want to, come to a consensus about who the "it-girl" of the moment really was. The title seemed to imply exclusivity: This person was "it" at that particular moment, and no one else had legitimate claim to the title. But the phrase "it-girl" was being thrown around with such abandon, and so little certainty that the person they had crowned would actually live up to the hype, that it had become ridiculous. There were a number of names discussed in my piece, but my inspiration was an actress named Gretchen Mol, who was dubbed the "it-girl" by Entertainment Weekly in the spring of 1999. Mol's most significant credit at the time was the poker movie Rounders, starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton. You could argue that she has not had a more significant credit since then, meaning that the title was indeed bestowed upon an unworthy subject.

Anyway, as I learned from entertainment types I interviewed for the story, the origin of the phrase "it-girl" more or less dated back to a 1927 movie called It, starring Clara Bow. I had not previously heard of Bow, but her name quickly became one of the focal points of my piece. She was the original "it-girl," and seven decades later, her legacy had borne fruit in the form of this phenomenon: magazines trying to commodify the zeitgeist in a quick, two-word phrase that would jump out at you as you walked past the newsstand.

But in the 15 years since I wrote that piece, I still had not seen one of Bow's films. This Getting Acquainted series seemed the perfect opportunity to remedy that. Who was this star who had burned brightly, but perhaps not brightly enough to become a household name? This charismatic flapper who had taken her own control of the zeitgeist in the late 1920s, though perhaps not for much longer than Mol supposedly did 70 years later?

In July, it was time to find out.

The Plastic Age (1925, Wesley Ruggles)
Watched: Saturday, July 14th
One-sentence plot synopsis: A promising college-bound athlete (Donald Keith) finds himself distracted from his studies and his training by a wild girl (Clara Bow) who frequents speak easies and dance halls.
My thoughts on the film: I've seen somewhere around 20 silent films (a pathetic total, I will admit), but until The Plastic Age, I had not seen an unimportant silent film. That's probably because the lesser films of that era, the disposable entertainments with no lingering artistic value, have been lost, or have not been deemed valuable enough to make available on modern media. This film itself doesn't really register in the places you'd expect it -- for example, I couldn't give it a star rating on Letterboxd because it's not in the database. But it was available for rental from Netflix (packaged with a movie I did not watch, The Show Off), so it became my introduction to Bow. The movie is basically a romantic sort-of comedy involving a love triangle between the two leads and a third man (Gilbert Roland), which climaxes in a big football game. There isn't a whole lot more to say about the plot, except that it involves an initial flirtation between Bow and Keith, Keith disappointing his parents by failing to live up to his academic or athletic expectations as a result of Bow's partying lifestyle, an eventual split between the two, and an eventual rekindling of their romance after Keith's football team wins the big game. Plus Roland's presence sometimes mucking things up for them, and sometimes helping them. So instead of the filmmaking, I'll concentrate my thoughts on Bow. Although it's clear that she has a certain charisma, I'd say that this film doesn't make maximum use of her talents, and she seems to disappear for sizable chunks of it. Let's just say this film did not make it clear to me why Bow was considered to have "it."

Wings (1927, William A. Wellman)
Watched: Wednesday, July 18th
One-sentence plot synopsis: Two young men from the same town (Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen) in love with the same woman (Jobyna Ralston) are called into service to fight in World War I as aviators, each trying to survive and return home to the woman they both think loves them.
My thoughts on the film: I was interested in Wings more as an excuse to check a best picture winner off my list than as a chance to appreciate Bow and her talents. In fact, Wings was the first best picture winner (along with F.W. Murnau's Sunrise -- they split the award between the best technical achievement and most artistic merit back then). And although a 139-minute silent film is not really compatible with my current lifestyle, I jammed it in one night when my wife was out, without too many comestible stimulants to keep me awake. The film is, indeed, incredibly impressive in sheer terms of its technique. The numerous air battles must have been very tricky to film, but it was some of the less-obvious, smaller-scale stuff that actually caught my attention the most. Very near the beginning of the film, a camera is mounted on the front of a swing that is holding Arlen and Ralston, and the effect is startling for a film so old. Wellman also makes terrific use of tracking in a shot at a French nightclub, as it travels along a path going "through" a number of small circular tables, capturing a snippet of action by each couple at each table as it goes by, and culminating in the table where Rogers is getting plastered on champagne with a French girl. In order to capture Rogers' drunken stupor, bubbles appear on screen as a recurring and very early type of special effect. (It also made me realize that this film would have never flown -- pun intended -- only a few years later when the Hays Code was introduced.) Unfortunately for Bow, she gets left kind of on the sidelines in this film. Not only does Rogers not realize until very late in the film (and in a pretty contrived, convenient way) that she is the girl for him, but since much of the action takes place in Europe, the film struggles to keep her involved -- though it does manage to arrange a plot point where she goes to war in the capacity of a nurse, and has a brief interaction with the drunken Rogers, whose blurred sight keeps him from recognizing her. Wings also has a notable and brief appearance by future Hollywood legend Gary Cooper -- and since I haven't seen all that many Cooper movies, I was pleased to identify him so quickly. The film has enough good melodrama to register beyond its undeniable technical accomplishments.

It (1927, Clarence Badger)
Watched: Wednesday, August 1st
One-sentence plot synopsis: A department store clerk (Bow) sets her sights on the handsome owner of the store (Antonio Moreno), despite the fact that he continues to fail to recognize her, even though his goofy friend (William Austin) labels her the very personification of Elinor Glyn's concept of "it."
My thoughts on the film: At last, the film for which Bow was famous (at least to me) -- and at last, I see what all the fuss was about. There's something so wonderfully coquettish about Bow in this film, that I didn't see either in a role where she should have displayed it (The Plastic Age) or one where that characteristic was being underplayed because she was playing the underdog role (Wings). It's striking how much Bow stands out in a scene involving a bevy of other clerks, all of whom are in the same neighborhood of beauty as Bow, but none of whom have ... well, "it," the way Bow does. She bats her eyes, teases and flirts in a way that is truly memorable in this film. What's more, the film is pretty fun, even if pretty square. The fun part: Bow and Moreno go on a date to Coney Island, where they ride all sorts of unusual contraptions that function as carnival rides, including a spinning centrifuge that steadily spits its occupants off to the side. (She and Moreno stay on board the longest before being dumped into each others' laps on the side.) The square part: The entire second half of the film is consumed by a Three's Company-style (don't you love what my mind produces as a point of comparison) misunderstanding, in which Moreno believes Bow is an unwed mother because she claims ownership of a child in order to save a friend under scrutiny from child protective services. Although this obstacle to their relationship is very much in keeping with the morals of the day, a modern viewer like me can't help but see it as a bit stodgy -- in today's romantic comedies, a leading man could never possibly judge a woman because she already had a child. In fact, in the modern-day portrayal of romantic comedy heroes, having a child would actually be a selling point for him. Balking as he does, Moreno seems stiff and judgmental, and the misunderstanding seems to go on forever, when a single word by any number of key characters could clear it up. One thing I did find surprisingly modern about the film, however, was the character played by Austin, who seems impossibly effeminate, and even refers to himself as an "old fruit." I can find no reference on the internet to Austin actually being gay, however. Lastly, one thing that stood out was the humorous period slang on the dialogue cards, such as "Sweet Santa Claus!" and "I'm so low, if I were on stilts I could walk under a dachshund!"

Conclusion: Clara Bow has "it." At least one out of every three times.

Favorite of the three: Wings

August: After four of my last six Getting Acquainted films (dating back to Carl Theodor Dreyer in April) were silent films, I desperately need to move forward in time. So I'm going to check out the work of actor/director John Cassavetes, in his capacity as a director. I've seen only one Cassavetes-directed film -- Gloria -- and I simply must add to that total to consider myself a true cinephile. So I'll be watching Shadows, Faces and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I'd love it if you'd like to check them out with me.

See you next month ...