Friday, May 31, 2013

Famous Flops: Xanadu

Welcome to the latest edition of Famous Flops, in which I watch one movie per month that was considered a massive failure either critically or commercially.

Sites like Rotten Tomatoes are interesting because their metric to examine the quality of movies is open-ended. By that I mean, the freshness rating of an old movie is never closed. A critic -- one who has met the site's eligibility requirements -- can declare a movie rotten or fresh whenever they want, even if the movie came out 50 years ago. Filmspotting host Josh Larsen created a stir recently when he sullied the previously unblemished record of 12 Angry Men by submitting the one negative review of it. We'll leave the discussion of whether this makes Larsen admirably brave or utterly foolish for another time.

What we can discuss now is whether this is a bit of a cheat. I think it is. On some level, it seems only fair that the published critical consensus about a film is what critics thought about it at the time it was released. Now, there are certainly occasions where a film has grown in esteem over the years, so if you were to judge only the initial reaction critics had (wasn't it Roger Ebert who didn't like Alien?), you would not be getting the full picture. However, in a case like the one above, the opposite may be true. Larsen seems to be judging 12 Angry Men by 2013 standards (in fact, I think he saw it and made his fateful judgment in 2012). Does Larsen really believe that he would have judged this (apparently not indisputably) great film so negatively in 1957?

Enter (finally) Xanadu, the Olivia Newton John bomb from 1980. The film that was meant to confirm and build upon the star's Grease popularity, but instead likely short-circuited her acting career.

However, I'm looking at it through 2013 eyes, and as a result, I'm a lot more forgiving. (Which I guess makes the Ebert/Alien example more germane in this situation.)

I know, watching Xanadu today, that it's a failure on many levels. But I'm also a person who has grown up in an era of movie fans who fully appreciate camp, and how can I not see Xanadu as glorious camp? If I'm judging a movie on the standard of how disagreeable it was to watch, I have to say that I liked Xanadu.

The story concerns a young artist named Sonny (Michael Beck) who has a fairly unique job, as movie jobs go -- he paints larger versions of album covers so that they can be displayed promotionally. In a fit of frustration over one particular painting, Sonny tears it into pieces and scatters those pieces into the wind. The pieces float until they find a mural outside an old disco club? roller rink? who knows. (Wikipedia describes it as an "art deco auditorium.") The mural contains a half-dozen beautiful women in all their late 1970s disco/sci-fi/album cover glory, and the shreds of painting bring them to life. One in particular, named Kira (Olivia Newton-John), is bequeathed a pair of roller skates, and "bumps into" Sonny along a Santa Monica bike path. When the artist sees his muse appear on an album cover he's supposed to paint later that day -- even though she wasn't a paid actress on the shoot -- he starts to wonder what the meaning of it all is. The long and the short of it is, she's there to assist in the meeting between Sonny and Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly), a former orchestra leader who lost his own muse years before. The two are destined to open the "art deco auditorium" as a new club called Xanadu. Oh, and did we mention that Kira is a literal Olympian muse, from Mount Olympus?

If you are a bit lost/confused, don't worry about it. The movie is incredibly simple to follow, and actually requires a handful of song-and-dance numbers to make it to feature length.

It's probably obvious that this is the stuff of a great cult hit, which is how I suspect we would describe Xanadu nowadays. It's certainly oddball enough, most notably with the appearance of Hollywood legend Gene Kelly. At the tail end of his career, Kelly is a bit fragile here -- but he's also a lot lighter on his feet than you would expect, and has a ton of contagious gusto for the material. His first dance number starts out modestly, as though keenly aware of his limitations, before picking up steam and demonstrating that Kelly has still "got it." It may just be that Kelly's million dollar smile added at least a half point of a star rating for me on its own.

Newton-John is pretty sweet here, too. She has a couple fabbo musical numbers, in additional to ethereally roller skating in and out of Sonny's world. It's plenty charming. Beck as Sonny is pretty bland, but two out of three ain't bad.

Of course, this must have all seemed like a train wreck in 1980. When none of the aesthetic stylings of a movie are the source of nostalgia or the epitome of kitsch, your only choice is to face them on their own terms, and that must have been tricky for audiences at the time. It was especially tricky for critics -- that we know for sure.

But watching it 33 years later, I can't help but be charmed by one of the climactic numbers, which involves an army of clubgoers on roller skates (led by Kelly) clapping in sync and chanting the movie's name.

So, I guess I'm glad I saw it now instead of then.

Okay, on to next month. After hating each of the first three movies I've seen in this series less than I thought I would (and actually liking at least one), I've stacked the deck for epic hatred in June. I'm watching -- yes, I'm really going to do it -- the Paris Hilton vehicle The Hottie and the Nottie. It's supposed to be just awful, and I'm really, really hoping it is.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Four hundred S movies, and other absurd film nerd observations

I have seen 400 movies whose titles begin with the letter S.

This is the kind of absurd milestone you can mark when you keep the kind of fastidious movie records I keep.

I hit 400 S movies on Saturday when I watched Fisher Stevens' Stand Up Guys, which also happened to be the first movie from this year I've watched on video. (That's a milestone I also notice, if you remember this post last year.) I guess I should place a small clarification on that last claim, because I did watch Upstream Color as an itunes rental two weekends ago. That, however, was available as a rental at the same time it was in the theater, so I think of that differently than the movies that had a theatrical run and then a subsequent DVD/streaming release.

ANYway, yes, it was #400. Here are the other 399:

S. Darko
Safe House
Safe Men
Safety Not Guaranteed
Saint, The
Saint John of Las Vegas
Salem's Lot: The Movie
Salton Sea, The
Samourai, Le
Samson and Delilah
Santa Claus: The Movie
Santa Clause, The
Santa Clause 2, The
Santa Clause 3, The: The Escape Clause
Santa Sangre
Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic

Admit it -- you really thought I was going to list all 399, didn't you?

In case you were wondering, S movies are far and away in the lead. The next closest is, strangely, the letter B, which will hit its own milestone (300) the next time I see a B movie. (So I better throw in an old Roger Corman movie tonight, har dee har har.)

Here are some other milestones/observations about my viewing habits:

May 26th, a great day to watch movies

I have seen a movie each May 26th, dating back to the year 2006.

I know this because I keep a list of movies in which the viewing date is the primary filter (as discussed in another old post, here). Note: This list is of new viewings, not repeat viewings.

When I added Charade to that list this morning, I noticed that I have an unbroken streak dating back to 2006. That's unusual, because that stretch includes a ton of weekdays. (Well, exactly four.) In a typical week, I'm lucky to get in one movie from Monday to Thursday nights. But I got in each of those weeknights (the leap years didn't skip any of them) for the recent May 26ths.

I will list these, because it's a lot shorter:

Friday, May 26, 2006: Who is Cletus Tout?, The Omen (1976)
I was reviewing Cletus Tout (which I actually sort of liked), and watching The Omen later that night with my wife (I believe she'd seen it, but I hadn't). The Omen really held up.

Saturday, May 26, 2007: Away From Her
Went to the theater to see this with another couple. Loved it. However, that's the only movie date we've done with that couple.

Monday, May 26, 2008: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
My wife and I like to save "epic" movies for holidays, so we watched this one at home on video on Memorial Day. This is one of those Potter movies whose details utterly escape me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009: Surfer, Dude; Water
Ha, funny theme. I was reviewing S,D and watched Water with my wife (sounds like 2006). If you're wondering how I got in two movies on a Tuesday, I seem to remember starting S,D on Monday night and finishing it early Tuesday morning, which made Tuesday the official "viewing day." Then Water would have been an ordinary evening viewing.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010: Easier With Practice
Another movie I ended up reviewing, which my wife received as a screener copy. Didn't really like this one.

Thursday, May 26, 2011: House of 1000 Corpses
Yep, it was more gruesome than Rob Zombie's second film, the sequel (though I didn't know it at the time) The Devil's Rejects. Watched this one late at night, appropriately.

Saturday, May 26, 2012: The Omega Man
My wife and I watched this one for a laugh -- actually, we tried to watch it seriously, and eventually realized that the only way to watch it was for a laugh. I remember trying to see how long it would take her to realize it was the film that inspired I Am Legend.

Sunday, May 26, 2013: Charade
I decided I wanted to make last night's viewing something that came out before 1960. I missed. Charade came out in 1963.

The question now becomes whether I can keep the streak going -- and whether it's legitimate if I do. If May 26, 2014 rolls around and I specifically note the day, then the whole process becomes tainted. If I realize only after the fact that I was keeping a streak going, then we're good. It'll be a Monday, which doesn't naturally land itself to movies ... but then again, it'll also be Memorial Day, which does lend itself to a flick or two.

It'll probably be Tuesday, May 26, 2015 that's the real challenge.

An important blog milestone

My milestones/streaks/bits of trivia don't only relate to watching movies. In an uncharacteristic failure on my part, I neglected to acknowledge my 1,000th post on The Audient.

It was this post, which went up on Thursday the 16th. I must have subliminally known this was the one, because it was a whole nother week before I got the chance to replace it as the top post.

Nothing too special, all told. A post about tearing pages off a movie trivia calendar.

But that's what I've been doing on The Audient for 1,000 posts now -- or, 1,004 posts, including this one. I've been celebrating the Movie Mundane.

Oh, I've tried to get at the big issues from time to time. But throughout the entire four years, four months and 24 days I've been writing this blog, I've been writing it quickly, in brief free moments, mostly without the luxury of heavy research or obsessive restructuring of my writing. It's always been expedient for me to write something fast, something that can flow out of me quickly without a lot of fact checking and other kinds of journalistic thoroughness. You might say it's been a perfect fit, in that sense -- my disdain for journalistic thoroughness was one of the reasons I quit actual journalism.

So yeah, nearly four and a half years of the Movie Mundane. More than 1,000 posts worth of Cinematic Slightness. 

But you're still reading, so I must be doing something right.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Dreamworks' inadvertent rival pimping

This is the story of how my son's interest in watching Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit always ends in a viewing of Toy Story.

My son is allowed to watch as much as two hours worth of TV when he wakes up on weekend mornings. Scoff all you want, fellow parents. Deep down, you know you treasure those two hours as an invaluable time to do things around the house. (Even if the things you're doing are not very meritorious, such as updating your blog.)

So each morning after I get him up, we go through an often-circuitous rigmarole about what he wants to watch. This process is complicated by the fact that he sometimes doesn't know the name of the thing he wants to watch. Often I use our Recently Watched section of Netflix streaming as a major crutch, and many mornings, we fill these two hours by stringing together a number of half-hour shows.

However, a feature also does the trick of getting us most of the way there. This is where it gets a little tricky. When he's requesting Cars, does he want to watch so-called "Fin Cars" ("Different Cars"), a series of tall tales told by Mater, which runs 36 minutes? Or is he talking about the two-hour feature, which we just bought about a month ago?

Another area of ambiguity relates to Wallace & Gromit. The short films (A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave) used to be available for streaming in a package. I don't think they are anymore, so when W&G get requested nowadays -- as they did this morning -- I put in our DVD of The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

And then usually take it right out again.

See, something about seeing the Dreamworks logo come up makes my son want to watch Toy Story instead.

I had no idea what it was until this morning, when the phenomenon happened again.

"Ina watch Toy Story," he said in that tone of voice that's almost a whine, but not quite, as those balloons float up into the clouds, and the boy starts fishing on that crescent moon.

This morning I tried to take note of what is causing this association in my son, and it occurred to me pretty quickly once the Toy Story BluRay had gone in.

See, the opening screen of the BluRay, where they ask you your preferred language for the disc options, is Andy's wallpaper -- which happens to be a big screen of blue broken up by regular intervals of clouds.


You know, Dreamworks' is probably screwed no matter what it does. I'm kind of surprised the Dreamworks logo doesn't make my son want to watch a different Pixar movie, Up, which we also own. After all, the logo prominently features balloons as well.

Then again, it's very unlikely that my son knows the title Up. It's a bit abstract for a child. When he does request it -- which is rare -- I believe he refers to it as "Balloons." Or "buyoons," which is how he pronounces it. (My son is learning Spanish at daycare, and may have heard that word spoken with the Spanish convention of turning double L's into a Y sound.)

Of course, if we're talking patterns, here's another predictable one that also relates to my son changing his viewing preferences based on a visual trigger:

Once he's set up with his viewing option, I like to set myself up with my laptop at our kitchen table, which looks in on the living room where he's watching his shows. If I can see him, he can see me, and my laptop immediately reminds him of his absolute favorite viewing option:


"Daddy, ina watch diggers," he says/whines.

See, before we showed him any TV, we allowed him to watch construction equipment ("diggers") on youtube on my computer. In time, "diggers" came to refer to anything watched on the internet on daddy's computer -- trains, helicopters, even shows on potty training. Although TV is now an option for him and has been for almost a year, "diggers" has never been fully supplanted.

And more often than not, when I've got my computer out, my son will slink over and try to start climbing up on my knee, and begin full-on whining if he is even remotely denied.

So here's another skill parents have gotten down: adaptation. Now, I bring my work computer home every weekend, so he can watch diggers on my work computer, while I use this one to write this post, the one I'm finishing right about ...

... now.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Midnight surprise


(That disclaimer is primarily for Nick's benefit.)

One of the benefits of being really busy at work and barely posting on your blog and not keeping up with movie news and basically having your head in the sand in general is that you can roll up to your computer on a Thursday to scan the options for a matinee movie on a potential early-release Friday before Memorial Day weekend, and learn that all of the sudden, Before Midnight is in theaters.

(Run-on sentence intentional, which Nick will also appreciate.)

I mean, I knew that the third (and final?) movie in Richard Linklater's Before series was hitting theaters in the month of May, and I knew we had only one week remaining in the month of May. However, being really busy and barely posting and having your head in the sand means that you forget what you knew. Allowing nice little surprises like this one.

Even better, it's playing at a perfect time (2:05) for my potential early release (1:30), while still giving me plenty of time to pick up my son at daycare (5:00).

What I'm most curious about with regards to this third meeting of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) is the emotional impact it will have on me.

I watched the brilliant Before Sunrise on March 25th, 2002, when I was about three weeks into a relationship with a woman who I thought would become my wife. Even at that point I saw everything lining up perfectly. We shared a geographical background (both from New England), we shared a mindset (less than I thought it turns out -- she's more conservative than she admits) and most importantly, we shared an attraction. It was one of those situations where you just know it. Of course, those feelings are not always correct, since we did not get married.

However, in that dizzy spell of early-relationship romanticism, I encountered Before Sunrise at just the perfect time. What some people might interpret as a melancholy story was, for me, a warm embrace of the possibilities of life and love. I ate it up.

It was a different story when I saw Before Sunset on July 23rd, 2004. The aforementioned girlfriend and I had been broken up for eight months, though it was only within the past couple months that I had started to think there was no possibility of us getting back together. It was one of those situations where I did the breaking up, then regretted it, and expended countless hours and numerous increasingly desperate ploys on trying to get us back together. By July 23rd, 2004, I was pretty sure it wouldn't happen. So as I walked into the theater to see Before Sunset, my heart was heavy. As I left what many people consider an equally brilliant film to its predecessor, if not better, I felt a bittersweetness that was more bitter than sweet.

It'll be interesting to see how Before Midnight strikes me today.

Today, I have been married for five years and been in a relationship with my wife for more than eight. In fact, I met her only about five months (almost exactly) after seeing Before Sunset. Our marriage is a happy one, though of course it has its share of the kind of difficulties that are part and parcel to the institution. We don't always agree and it's not always easy, but overall, it's an "easy" marriage by marriage standards. One I'm thankful for and lucky to have.

So I don't expect to emerge from Before Midnight feeling especially melancholy, at least not for reasons external to the movie. Though I do wonder how this movie will, like its predecessors, speak to the place I currently find myself. I haven't learned a lot about the plot of Before Midnight, but I understand that perhaps Celine and Jesse have been together since Before Sunset, meaning that domesticity is the dominant mode of their relationship nowadays. Of course, that may be wrong, but if it's right, it could very well have a lot to say about how a person's core "relationship" is affected by marriage or a close facsimile thereof.

Now, I just need to get that early release. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Cinematic cold feet

I love it when things work out perfectly.

Last Saturday night, my wife, my sister-in-law, my son and I stayed in a hotel in Encinitas, in order to hit Legoland in Carlsbad (about seven miles up the road) the next morning. All three of them had been going to bed pretty early, so I knew Saturday night would be a good opportunity to catch a movie -- a "vacation movie" at that, which is all the better.

Earlier in the day, I'd done some research and discovered that Encinitas boasts a single-screen theater, which was playing The Croods earlier in the day and then The Place Beyond the Pines a single time at 8:15. The Place Beyond the Pines had been one movie I was certain I was going to see in the theater, except it was starting to look like that wasn't going to happen. Then, bam! Along comes this opportunity. And it even started during my preferred window for an evening movie: 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. The 7-8 time slot is often too early, the 9-10 time slot often too late.

However, I still wanted events to play out naturally over the course of the day, rather than broaching the idea of me seeing this movie at 10:30 in the morning. Odds were that my son would be asleep by then and my wife and sister-in-law would be content to part ways with me for the evening, but I didn't want to take that for granted. So imagine how nice it was when we drove by the theater naturally, and they both pointed it out to me before I had the chance to point it out myself. Score.

We wrapped up our Mexican dinner at about 7:45, and I was on my way. I couldn't buy my tickets right away, though. In a perfect sign of small-town quaintness, the box office was empty, with one of those little signs in the window with a clock and adjustable hands, indicating the time the box office would again be occupied by a person. The hands of the clock were set to 8:05.

I returned at about 8:10 and found about five people ahead of me in line -- which is this town's idea of a crowd. I knew I obviously wasn't going to miss anything, but I was excited enough by the opportunity to see this movie under these circumstances that I felt a bit antsy nonetheless.

So it was with some about of impatience and, in fact, incredulity that I listened to the guy ahead of me ask the following question to the woman sitting in the box office:

"Have you seen The Place Beyond the Pines? Is it good?"

You're at the theater, you're in line, you've got your money pulled out ... and now you're not sure you're going to go?

He may have just been making conversation, but come on. You're already here, and now you're going to let someone else's opinion dictate whether you're actually going to plunk down your nine bucks?

First off, this woman is trying to sell you a ticket to see the movie. It's a small-town single-screen theater, so chances are, it loses a ton of money. They need that nine dollars, and they need it bad. So it's not even in her interest to tell the truth.

However, this woman did indeed tell what seemed to be the truth -- that she hadn't seen it, but that her brother had seen it and it was supposed to be great.

The guy bought the ticket.

What I found annoying was that he wasn't only spoiling his own viewing of the movie, but possibly spoiling mine. What happened if this woman had said she didn't really care for it? I'd already decided to buy my ticket, even if he hadn't. I didn't want my own excitement to be tainted by a negative appraisal.

And what if the woman had said she didn't care for it, and he went in anyway? Then he would have proven that this whole exercise was just a waste of everybody's time.

In truth, I did already have some tempered appraisals of the movie under my belt, because I'd already heard the movie discussed on Filmspotting -- meaning I already knew about the movie's unconventional structure. (If you don't know about it, I'll just leave it at that.) However, everyone agrees that at least one part of the movie is incredibly great -- myself included.

One other funny/charming thing about this small theater? The movie started ten minutes late, but then didn't include a single commercial or trailer. Just straight in to the action.

And what action it is: The movie starts with a two- to three-minute unbroken take that ends with what appears to be Ryan Gosling riding a motorcycle inside an enclosed sphere with two other motorcycles, defying death in front of our very eyes.

This shot is reason alone to see The Place Beyond the Pines.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Too easy, too hard, and sometimes inept

I'm involved in something kind of funny tonight, which should tell you a thing or two about the kind of person I am.

I'm catching up on four months worth of calendar that I didn't tear off at the time the days passed.

Why am I telling you about this on a movie blog? Well, it's a movie trivia calendar. It's called Film Fanatics. It might be Australian. I'm not sure.

Why am I actually doing this? Because my wife's sister is coming to visit tomorrow, and I want her to think I've been diligently keeping up with the calendar she got me for Christmas.

That's the kind of person I am -- the kind who pays attention to the details that might hurt somebody's feelings. People usually laugh at me when I tell them not to post about a party I had on Facebook, because I don't want the people who weren't invited to see the post. Me, I think I'm going the extra mile to keep someone from having a bad day. (Yes, I flatter myself by thinking that not getting invited to my party could ruin someone's day.)

So, when my sister-in-law walks into our bedroom, I want her to see that I have been actively using the present she got me -- a thoughtful present that's probably one of the biggest gifting successes she's ever had with me.

These calendars where you tear off a page each day are the perfect example of a thing that's better in theory than in practice. Every time I get one of these calendars -- always as a present -- I'm excited, and full of optimism that this is the year I'll finally keep pace. In practice, however, I tear off sheets dutifully until about January 15th, then never again.

Twenty thirteen might have been another year just like that, except that when doing some cleaning for my sister-in-law's arrival tonight, I noticed the calendar, still on my nightstand but utterly neglected. I decided to spend 45 minutes to un-neglect it. (Now that I'm writing a post about it, that 45 minutes has turned into about 90.)

The good thing about going through 120 pages of calendar in 45 minutes is that you don't bother agonizing over any answer for too long. If you don't know it after 20-30 seconds, you just peek at the answer and move on. 

It's actually a pretty decent source of movie trivia, as these things go. That kind of thing is by no means a sure thing. I've seen movie trivia along the lines of the following:

What's the name of Luke Skywalker's little green friend?

A. Yoda
B. Chewbacca
C. E.T.
D. Charlie Brown

In fact, that's much more common. 

However, just because this one exceeds that low bar, it doesn't mean I can't have a laugh or two at the expense of the 2013 Film Fanatics calendar. See, one of the recurring puzzles is a title scramble, where they give you two familiar words that you have to unscramble into the title of a popular movie. They'll even give you the year.

I'm usually good at word scrambles, but these ones were stumping me. With the first four I came across, I just couldn't see the title in my head. They were the following:

FIERY WELL (1993 movie)

ROMAN POPE (1973 movie)

RUN FLYING (1968 movie)

RAISED RYE (1969 movie)

I'll give you a minute to think on them, if you want.

Okay, answers:

Free Willy, Paper Moon, Funny Girl, Easy Rider

Lame. I should have gotten at least one. (Even if I've seen only one of them -- Easy Rider -- all the titles were obviously familiar to me.)

Perhaps the calendar sensed I needed to be thrown a bone, because on February 22nd, this was the so-called "Marquee Mix-Up":

INEPT ICON (2010 movie)

If I had been taking a sip of my drink at the time, I would have spat it out.

Hello? You have to do more than move a single letter to qualify as a successful scramble. Literally, the C is moved from after the first N to after the second I. That's it.

I suppose they were trying to stick with the rules of making real words. However, they weren't sticklers for all the rules, because they took a one-word title and made it two.

I mean, would this have been so hard?


Thanks, I thought it was a nice point, too.

Maybe all I needed was a little time to warm up. I easily got the next two:

FLIP UP TONIC (1994 film) and CHOIR SEXTET (1973 film)

And ... time's up:

Pulp Fiction and The Exorcist

However, then Film Fanatics had me again on the April 26th page, as I failed to get WORMY PATENT (1990 film). A shame, because that's a great phrase, WORMY PATENT. Turns out it was, of course, Pretty Woman.

Fittingly, today's page was the last one: LEAF PHOTOS (1998 film). It took a minute -- longer than the 20-30 seconds I had been allowing myself -- but I eventually got Hope Floats.

And now, when my sister-in-law gets off the 14-hour flight from Australia tomorrow, she'll have one more reason to have a nice day.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Steven Sondebergh and Sylvia Coppola

The Cannes Film Festival is opening today. Shows how closely I follow Cannes -- I always thought Cannes was in June.

I know about the opening of the festival because I heard a bit on NPR this morning, mentioning that The Great Gatsby (which I saw last night and liked quite a bit) will be opening the festivities, even though it's not in contention.

However, according to the NPR story, films by "Steven Sondebergh" and "Sylvia Coppola" will indeed be in contention for awards.

This despite the fact that the film by "Steven Sondebergh" is actually a TV movie (Beyond the Candelabra). At least "Sylvia Coppola" has a legit movie in The Bling Ring.

I know people make mistakes, but a) an NPR reporter? and b) two in the same story on two very prominent directors?

Okay, just a quickie for this Wednesday. I know I haven't been writing much lately -- that's a combination of me not bursting with interesting thoughts, and not having the time to write about the interesting thoughts I am having. Here's hoping you'll be seeing posts more regularly from me soon.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Unperrying a Tyler Perry movie

Peeples is the Tyler Perry movie Tyler Perry wants me to see.

Me, a white guy who is almost 40.

That's the only conclusion I can draw from the utter absence of the man's name from the advertising, especially when Perry's name is usually all over the advertisements for his movies. In fact, normally Peeples would be called Tyler Perry's Peeples, wouldn't it?

Yet here, his name is visible only in the most modest of skinny movie poster fonts above the title, reading "Tyler Perry Presents" -- though only if you squint real hard to read it.

Okay, okay, Perry isn't even the director here. The writer-director is a woman named Tina Gordon Chism. Turns out she also wrote ATL and Drumline, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit.

Usually, though, whatever Perry's involvement was, it would be played up. If he attended a test screening, they would somehow work that into the movie's advertising campaign.

However, this movie is clearly not directed at Perry's usual audience.

Want to know our first indication of that fact?

Craig Robinson.

Now, no one's calling Craig Robinson an Uncle Tom, or less legitimately black than any one else in any way. However, he has made a career thus far of being the token black dude in movies and TV shows starring mostly whites, and aimed at that same audience. He's been conspicuously absent from the African-American ensemble movies that are Perry's bread and butter.

Let's look at how most of us first became aware of him: The Office. He's played Darryl Philbin -- or really just "Darryl," because they use his last name so rarely that I had to look it up on IMDB just now to figure out what it was. He was originally a surly member of the warehouse staff before being promoted to the white collar (note that) area of the building to give the show more color. He's a valued member of the ensemble and one of the show's best characters, not merely an instance of tokenism. However, you can't escape the fact that he's being offered to us as a touch of soul that legitimizes all the white folks.

His relationship with the Judd Apatow posse has kept getting him roles that more or less recreate that dynamic. He appeared in Knocked Up. He appeared in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. He appeared in Pineapple Express and Zach and Miri Make a Porno. He's also the only black guy in this summer's This is the End. If Seth Rogen or Paul Rudd or John C. Reilly has made a movie, he's been in it.

So my first reaction upon seeing him in a movie with two other black leads (David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington) was "Craig Robinson's in ... a black movie?"

Then again, Grier and Washington also have plenty of crossover appeal. Sure, Grier became known to us as a member of a primarily black comedic troupe (In Living Color), but he's skewed a bit more white in his choices ever since then. He even appeared in one of the most conservative-leaning films of the last five years in An American Carol, which relentlessly skewered Michael Moore and liberalism. Washington has a more diverse career -- she's worked with Perry previously (For Colored Girls), as well as Spike Lee (She Hate Me) and Chris Rock (I Think I Love My Wife) -- but she may be most famous to us as having appeared in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. (Though I guess Quentin does have a fair amount of soul for a white guy.)

This post is by no means intended as a test for these people to "prove how black they are," but I do think these were probably conscious casting choices, so the movie would not appear to be designed exclusively for its black audiences.

Will we see that small box office uptick this weekend, the result of a few extra white viewers?

That's hard to say. The Great Gatsby is also opening, and with a glamorized vision of the 1920s and Leonardo DiCaprio -- not to mention 3D -- it's right in white people's wheelhouses. (Including this white guy, who's been waiting for this movie for over a year and will surely try to schedule it for early next week.)

Monday, May 6, 2013

How my wife snubbed Shia LaBeouf

So we had gone out for some errands on Ventura Blvd. yesterday afternoon, and had finished it off with lattes at a cafe we'd been meaning to check out called Crave. I also got a warm peanut butter cookie, but because of the peanut butter, I couldn't share any of it with my son. (We still don't know whether he's allergic.) However, that didn't stop me from sharing my whipped cream, and in fact, he got most of it. I even got him to say please for each additional mini-scoop, and he obliged in the cutest way imaginable.

Not only did he get the whipped cream, but he also got the spoon from my latte, which we had been using to deliver him the cream. But we didn't notice this until we were back at the car, putting the stroller away.

We could have just gone home with one of Crave's spoons, and the world would have gone on just fine. But we decided to swing by and drop it off. We have enough spoons.

I pulled up next to the curb and my wife jumped out. Just in front of us, unloading something from a shiny black pickup truck, was a thin man in a white t-shirt with sunglasses and a very large number of days of scruff. As my wife walked by him, he tried to give her something for free. She shrugged away as if he'd been thrusting a hot poker at her.

It was Shia LaBeouf.

I was certain of it. When she got back to the car, I said "Why didn't you take that thing? That's Shia LaBeouf!"

We couldn't be sure, because of the sunglasses, but I'd heard a snippet of dialogue from him as he continued unloading with a friend, and I was pretty sure that was Shia.

It was a comic book. The man had told my wife "Happy holidays! Would you like a free comic book?"

I was planning to google "Shia LaBeouf" and "comic books" when I got home, to ascertain whether this could have actually been him, but forgot.

However, fate intervened to confirm. A friend had just posted on Facebook that he had gotten a free comic book from Shia LaBeouf. This inexplicable transaction was quickly explicated: Saturday was Free Comic Book Day.

And it turns out, Shia LaBeouf wrote this comic book. As far as I can tell, it's either something called I Am
Beard or something called Meds. Shia LaBeouf wrote and self-published these comic books, and it appears that he unveiled them about a month ago.

And we could have had one, which would have been fun.

My wife is hopeless about identifying people, but was kicking herself last night.

Me, I'm alright. It had been ages since I'd seen someone famous, which feels kind of like a cruel joke for a cinephile living in Los Angeles.

Besides, I got a blog post out of it. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Dwayne Johnson's unused skateboard

So as I mentioned yesterday, I did indeed see Pain & Gain on Thursday night.

As I also mentioned, I liked it.

There's some, though not as much as you would expect, of Bay's usual bombast, and there's some, though not as much as you would expect, of Bay's cheesy musical cues.

There's about as much slow-mo as you would expect. 

Overall, it's probably best described as Bay's attempt to make his own version of Goodfellas. Or really, any other of the many crime movies that feature unintended escalating consequences and regular doses of humor, though a couple key decisions remind a person of Goodfellas specifically. (The heavy reliance on voiceover being one.)

So yes, I did just mention Goodfellas and Pain & Gain in the same sentence. Of course, Goodfellas is a five-star movie and Pain & Gain is a three. I did momentarily consider giving it a three-and-a-half.

The thing I want to talk about, though, is Dwayne Johnson's unused skateboard.

At several times early on in Pain & Gain, Paul Doyle (Johnson) is shown carrying a skateboard. Never riding the skateboard, mind you; only carrying it. There's no explanation given about this skateboard.

One of these skateboard-carrying scenes is the one you see above, which is an iconic shot of Johnson, Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie strutting along, looking on top of the world. The fact that Johnson is carrying his unused skateboard at the time makes the shot slightly absurd. Here, I've taken the liberty of cropping out the other two dudes and pointing it out to you with a handy little yellow arrow. You can see the black and blue end of the board and the green wheel.

Now, Doyle is a recovering cocaine addict who spent time in prison, so it could be surmised that the skateboard is his mode of transportation because he no longer has a driver's license. A key scene later in the movie involves him driving a car, but enough criminal behavior has transpired by then that not having a license is probably the least of his worries. Still, without some mention if it, it sticks out.

While I won't go so far as to call this unexplained skateboard a distraction or an actual flaw in the film, it is the kind of thing that draws attention to the parts of Pain & Gain that were left on the cutting room floor. You figure there must have once been a scene that showed Doyle skateboarding, or at least a scene explaining why he's got one.

To go back to Goodfellas, it would be like just saying he's called Jimmy Two Times, without the "I'm gonna go get the papers, get the papers."

Where have all the Avengers go-o-ooone?

Yes, you are supposed to be thinking of that Paula Cole song right now.

The following may be about the most obvious and unoriginal criticism that has been levied against Iron Man 3, but I came to it independently (some months ago), so I figured I might as well wheel it out here on the day the third Iron Man movie opens. It'll definitely be a lot more stale by the time Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: Winter Soldier come out, I can tell you that, so today's the day.

One of the biggest problems about splintering the Avengers back off into their own movies, after they came together in last summer's phenomenally successful The Avengers, is that it creates an immediate need to explain where all the rest of them are.

If Tony Stark is going to be facing a crisis that could result in the end of the world -- and he damn well better be, or the stakes for this movie won't be as high as this type of movie demands -- then why aren't all his Avengers buddies helping him out on that?

I've heard the argument from comic book fans, whose hair-trigger defensiveness knows no bounds, that they are all "off doing their own things." That sounds like comic book rationale if I've ever heard it.

So what, we're supposed to believe we live in a world where not only is there one impending threat to our way of living, but as many as five or six -- at one time?

Even if Captain America or the Hulk or even frigging Black Widow have other things they're dealing with at the same time that Tony Stark is fighting off the Mandarin, what are the chances that those other things are reaching a crisis point at the exact same time Tony's issue is reaching a crisis point? Even if Captain A. is fighting off the so-called Winter Soldier -- and I have no idea if that character is actually that movie's villain -- then couldn't he put one of his interns on the issue for maybe 12 hours while he goes off and tries to prevent Tony's Malibu house from falling into the ocean?

It's one of those areas where we are supposed to suspend disbelief, and that's fine. I'm sure that whatever criticisms people ultimately have about Iron Man 3, the absence of Hawkeye and Thor won't be one of them. I've cast the comic book nerds as the ones who err on the side of forgiveness in matters like this, anyway. You'd be right to ask me who the comic book nerd is now if I do the blog equivalent of pushing my glasses up higher on the bridge of my nose and asking William Shatner about the physics of Star Trek's beaming technology.

But I do think there should be some cake/eat it too backlash on Marvel for its relentless ambition about squeezing as many movies as possible out of these characters. We are bound to be scratching our heads over it eventually. Because it's not just Tony Stark who will be left to fend for himself in Iron Man 3. As I've mentioned earlier, in movies that will both hit theaters by next summer, Thor and Captain America are also going to be left by their lonesome to face equally apocalyptic challenges.

And then there's going to be the challenge of bringing them all back together again in The Avengers 2. "Okay, so all your previous end-of-the-world crises weren't really that bad ... but this end-of-the-world crisis? Let's get the band back together again."

Marvel also finds itself limited by the all-or-nothing approach. Like, let's say that only the Hulk were available. After all, what could the Hulk be doing? Every movie about the Hulk has been about his origins, not about his "ongoing projects." The very nature of the Hulk means he is not advising any national security councils or trying to ferret out terrorists from holes in the ground. He's a volcano trapped in a human shell. Can't the Hulk just come and help Tony? Maybe he could stop and get Nick Fury on the way.

So it's one of those situations where "movie reality" doesn't align with "reality reality." And really, that's probably okay.

I actually had an opportunity to see Iron Man 3 last night -- I mean, of course I had an opportunity, since it midnight-screened everywhere from here to East Bumchunk, Iowa. So I should say I had an easy opportunity to see Iron Man 3, one that didn't require me to stay up until 2:30 a.m.

See, the midnight screening time is really only a restriction on the east coast. Out here in California, they can start showing that movie as early as 9 p.m., since 9 p.m. is midnight in New York. And so it was that I came out of a 7:35 showing of Pain & Gain (liked it) and had the chance to choose IM3 as the second movie in my double feature rather than Oblivion (wish I had). In fact, IM3 was playing in the theater directly across from Pain & Gain -- the theater where Oblivion had been showing all day. Since I had to leave P & G as soon as the credits started just to be sure I'd make it to the start of Oblivion, I had no time for dilly-dallying, and when Oblivion wasn't there, I could have just seated myself for Iron Man. There were only a half-dozen other people in the theater.

Instead, I ventured into the theater's other wing and found the spot where Oblivion had been moved to accommodate the "midnight" screening.

And it probably was some amount of anti-Iron Man bias that caused me to pass up this easy opportunity. I liked but didn't love the first movie, and I guess I'm pretty much alone there. I didn't really like the second movie, though in that case I have more company.

And now three with these missing Avengers?

I'm not saying I might wait until DVD, but ... I might wait until DVD.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Like Flamingos or be square

It's very rare that I give a movie a half-star rating on Letterboxd. Very rare.

How rare?

So rare that of the 2867 movies I have entered on the site -- a good 800+ shy of the actual total I've seen -- only 17 have a half-star rating.

It was 16 until last night.

Yes, the day finally came when I saw John Waters' Pink Flamingos. It has indeed been a long time coming. In fact, I felt like I reached a critical mass on my need to see it back in September of 2009, when I was out of town with friends and we were talking about it. I knew of course about the famous scene in which Divine eats dog poop, and I knew it was supposed to be repulsive in many other ways. However, that was something I embraced, since I'm always interested in seeing things in movies that I've never seen before. Like a horror movie that you know is supposed to be so disturbing that you have nightmares for weeks, I was geeked to see just how much Pink Flamingos would gross me out.

Well, it turns out, quite a lot.

In fact, the movie was so irredeemably gross and so utterly without point that I felt inclined to give the movie my lowest star rating possible.

How irredeemably gross and utterly without point?

Let's start with the utterly without point part. The entire plot of this movie is about how two "families" -- Divine's bizarre extended family and a husband and wife who are their rivals -- both want to be known as the filthiest people alive. This is, indeed, their only goal. Divine already has the title, and this other couple -- the Marbles -- want to wrest it from her.

And now the irredeemably gross part. If you want the grossness of Pink Flamingos to be withheld from you, or simply don't want to read this while you are eating lunch, please look away now until the numbered section ends.

Here are some of the things that happen in Pink Flamingos:

1) A man and a woman have sex while at least one live chicken is sandwiched between their writhing naked bodies. The chicken is killed during the intercourse and its blood spatters on their skin.

2) A man flashes women while a length of salami is attached to the end of his penis.

3) A shemale flashes this man back.

4) A man takes off his clothes and dilates his asshole by moving only his sphincter.

5) A man masturbates into his hand and injects his semen into an unconscious woman using a syringe.

6) Divine gives an actual blow job, seen on screen (but at least not to fruition), to the character who is supposed to play her son.

7) A man's penis is cut off.

8) Divine eats the dog shit, and you know it's real because you see the feces come out of the dog's rear and get scooped directly into Divine's mouth. It's something of a relief to realize that Divine is human enough to actually gag on the shit, though she does her best to hold the smile.

That's enough, don't you think?

So yeah, at the end of this movie, I felt utterly repulsed. I tried to analyze my sense of revulsion and decide if I was just too much of a prude, but no, I decided that it was genuine revulsion, and I didn't have to pretend I found it anything other than revolting just to appear open to what Waters was trying to do.

But then something kind of frustrating happened. John Waters himself came on in an segment that was recorded in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the film. He hosted a number of outtakes as well as the trailer that New Line showed when trying to advertise this consummately unmarketable movie.

For one, the droll cheekiness of Waters is just too much to resist. I just like the man and enjoy his outre perspective on the world. It was hard to stay mad at his movie when he was basically saying to us "You're right, this is disgusting, and it was out of a pure sense of anarchy that I even subjected you to it in the first place."

But what really got me was the theatrical trailer for Pink Flamingos. Waters starts by telling us that not a single moving image from the movie was shown, which is certainly understandable given the content of those moving images.

So what they do show is a bunch of Greenwich Village hipsters, hippies, artists and latter-day beatniks coming out of the movie with goofy grins on their faces and talking about how it was "magnificent." How it was "hilarious." How they had already seen it three times. The mere transgressiveness of it was something they obviously respected.

Am I a square for not feeling the same way about Pink Flamingos?

Obviously, those were different times. Forty years ago, no one had ever seen anything like this. Okay, even 40 years later, I hadn't seen anything like it either. But not ever having seen anything like it was an act of social disobedience, the purest expression of the counterculture that these Village twentysomethings so embraced, with Waters as the agent for that expression. It felt invigorating to them just to see something that would turn standard conventions upside down, that would essentially laugh in the face of The Man.

To me, today, in a world where we have 2 Girls 1 Cup, I guess I'm just not that impressed. So when it is just disgusting for disgusting's sake, I don't feel the boundaries of good taste being gleefully shattered. I just fixate on the low budget, the sloppy production values, the non-existent story and the hateful and malicious characters.

If that's what it is to be a square, I don't want to be hip.