December 30, 2007

Honoring the year's funniest in film

Everyone knows that the Oscars have always been a terribly serious affair. The last real comedy that won Best Picture was Annie Hall in 1977, and before that there were only a handful of others throughout the ceremony's history. (I am not counting Shakespeare in Love, because that's more of a "wave fans and giggle" period comedy, which are never actually funny.) This year was a great one for comedy, boasting everything from the crass chuckles of Knocked Up to the quirkfest that is Juno. Sadly, these comedic achievements will probably go largely unrecognized during awards season, despite often unanimous critical acclaim. Hot Fuzz has the same Rotten Tomatoes rating as Sweeney Todd, The Simpsons Movie has the same rating as There Will Be Blood, and Superbad has a slightly higher rating than Atonement - the latter example in each pairing being the Oscar bait (check out if you want to do your own sleuthing). So, until the Academy wakes up, I will make it my duty to honor the movies and people that brought the funny this year.

BEST FUNNY PERFORMANCE, FEMALE: Ellen Page as Juno MacGuff in Juno
Is there any contest here? It's sad that funny female performances seem so rare (or good female performances period). I can die happy the day a female Superbad comes out, because I know girls who talk and act like that (I'm one of them!). That being said, I'm not trying to downplay Page's excellent work in this film. She's kind of like a typical best friend - but with substantially better one-liners.
RUNNER-UP: Keri Russell as Jenna Hunterson in Waitress
A different kind of funny in a movie you can watch with your mom. Jenna's sweet and Southern, but also spunky enough to refuse her obstetrician's offer for a coffee date with, "I can't have coffee, it's on the bad food list you gave me. What kind of doctor are you?" She also names homemade pies after how much she hates her husband, which is amazing.

FUNNIEST PERFORMANCE, MALE: Jonah Hill in Superbad (and Knocked Up)
Is it fair to include someone with two movies? Maybe not, but the fact remains that Jonah Hill is one funny bastard. His vulgar and profane tirades and comments in Superbad are nothing short of hysterical, and he proved to be a repeat scene stealer in Knocked Up. The best part is, you can tell that he's improvising most of what he says, and that he's just a funny person in real life. (Note to Jonah fans: check out the bonus features on the Knocked Up DVD to see his character complaining about the lack of man-on-man action in Brokeback Mountain.)
RUNNER-UP: John C. Reilly in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (and Year of the Dog, briefly)
The funniest thing about Reilly's role in Walk Hard is that he actually plays it completely straight. While the other cast members are clearly just goofing around (see the "Beatles" cameo below), Reilly almost makes you believe that Dewey Cox is real. Having said that, he perfectly embodies a parodied version of several decades in American music, ranging from a mumbly and Dylan-esque Cox to a LSD-fueled Cox who needs indigenous chanting in all his songs. He's also great in Year of the Dog, as Molly Shannon's hunting-obsessed neighbor.

BEST RUNNING JOKE IN A MOVIE: Beard mockery in Knocked Up
Who knew something so simple could produce so many laughs? Ben (Seth Rogen) and his roommates spend the entire film teasing pal Martin (Martin Starr) about his beard, trying to persuade him to shave it so that he will lose a bet. The insults include, but are not limited to "Robin Williams' knuckles," "Martin Scorsese on coke," "Matisyahu" and of course, a vagina. There's even a deleted scene on the DVD where Jonah (Jonah Hill) just torments Martin for a solid three minutes about the beard.
RUNNER-UP: The sink gag in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Remember in Walk the Line, where Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) tears a sink off a wall out of rage and despair? Well, Dewey Cox does that EVERY time he's upset, culminating in ripping off all the sinks in a public restroom.

I remember the uncomfortable wave of laughter that swept across the audience when I saw Spider-Man 3. Peter Parker gets possessed by the evil goo from space, which causes him to do such evil things as get an emo haircut, give suggestive looks to women, Was this supposed to be funny? I don't know.
RUNNER-UP: Everything Billy Mitchell says or does in The King of Kong
Billy Mitchell would seem like the world's most poorly written character if he wasn't a real guy. His mannerisms and delusions of grandeur in this ridiculously entertaining documentary make you wonder how people like that exist functionally in this world.

BEST COMEDIC DUO: Michael Cera and Jonah Hill in Superbad
These two are like funnier versions of every adolescent male I know. Just when you thought the funny fat guy and skinny straight man pairing was getting old, Cera and Hill give it a fresh and raunchy spin.
RUNNER-UP: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in Hot Fuzz
Pegg's overachieving and devoted cop Nicholas Angel and Frost's slacker slob Danny are - hey, it's a fat and skinny guy again!

FUNNIEST CAMEO: Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Jason Schwartzmann and Justin Long as Paul, John, Ringo and George (respectively) in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
One of the main reasons I wanted to see this movie in the first place was from the oh-so-brief clip of this Beatles cameo in the trailer, and it was even funnier in context. The four guys all play their own Beatle with a fair degree of accuracy, but at the same time act utterly absurd.
RUNNER-UP: Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
I guess this isn't technically a cameo, since he's billed fifth. But then again, he's in and out of the story pretty quickly. His role would be hilarious even if he didn't open his mouth, because his hair and outfit are sublimely ridiculous. The icing on the cake, however, is his outrageous singing voice and demeanor. Plus, in the back of your head, you're definitely saying, "OMG it's Borat!"

THE WES ANDERSON AWARD: Mike White, for writing and directing Year of the Dog
No offense, Wes, but I think it was all downhill after Rushmore. The person I believe most fit to carry on your legacy at this point is Mike White, creator of Year of the Dog. The film was saturated with your influence - right down to squarely framed shots of random objects - but had actual emotion instead of just hipster music. And doggies!
RUNNER-UP: Jason Reitman for directing Juno
Juno doesn't have a whole lot in common with the typical Anderson output, save one thing: the music. The soundtrack kicks in at unorthodox moments and features a slew of fresh, quirky artists and songs that define the tone of certain scenes.

I didn't say best movie, or best-written, or most likely to change your life. I said funniest. Sheer volume of laughter. And that title, my friends, goes to Superbad. Finally, a film that acknowledges how funny teenage boys can naturally be. No stupid subplots, no contrived love stories, no moralizing. Just hilarious, rowdy, clever, and even a little touching comedy. All written by a pair of 14-year-old boys (a young Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg). If that isn't a smack in the face to all other comedies, I don't know what is.
More people need to acknowledge the genius that lies in the triumvirate of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright. Together they do great things, such as the top-notch British cop spoof Hot Fuzz. Their brand of comedy is hard to classify - it's British but accessible, lowbrow but smart, gruesome but funny, honoring but parodying. It's like nothing else. And accents make everything funnier.

I acknowledge that this list is incomplete, because I have not yet seen four films I believe would have a place on here: The Savages, Ratatouille, The Simpsons Movie, and Lars and the Real Girl. What do you think? What are your picks for the funniest of 2007?

December 16, 2007

Shameless self-promotion

Okay, so you guys like movies, right? That is SO convenient, because I just made one! It's a project for class that gave me increasing amounts of gray hair all semester, but I think it turned it pretty darn good. So check it OUT! If that didn't sell ya, this will: it's about Waldo. Yeah, that Waldo.


December 14, 2007

Actual ridiculous things customers have said at work

I'm reposting this classic from Facebook, and adding some new stuff.

I work in a video store and customers blurt out all sorts of gems that I just could not keep to myself. Here's all the wacky customer questions, comments, and concerns that I could remember. They are as close to verbatim as possible. Also, all of these people had memberships already and thus had rented before.

Woman: Do you have "Mr. and Mrs. Will Smith"?
Me: Um...I think you mean "Mr. and Mrs. Smith".
Woman: No, I'm positive it was "Mr. and Mrs. Will Smith".

- Do all movies in theaters come to DVD?

- Do you have the movie "Rocky Mountain Horror Show"? (They meant "Rocky Horror Picture Show")

- Woman (holding a 1-day rental): Is there any way you could make this, like, more than a 1-day?
Me: Like what?
Woman: Like...maybe...a five-day rental?

- What does "One Day Only" mean?

- Woman on phone: Do you have "An Inconvenient Truth" for the VCR?
Me: You mean VHS? No. They don't make VHS anymore
Woman on phone: That's capitalism for ya!

- Me: You have some late fees, you returned this four days late.
Response of many people: No I didn't, it's a five day rental, so it's actually a day early.
Me: No, you had it five days and then four days more. Five and four is nine. Nine days.
Many people: Oh. Yeah. I guess so.

- Man: Ugh, I can't find anything I want in here. I've seen all the movies in here.
Me: We have thousands of movies! Seriously?
Man: Yeah, probably like 20 percent of them.

- Man (after being charged a $4 late fee) You know what? This is ridiculous. That's it. I've had it. I'm switching to Netflix. I'm not coming back. Cancel my membership.
Me: We can't cancel memberships, they just expire after a while, and cancelling implies that you're paying for the membership, which you're not.

- Old Lady: Where would I find "Hustle and Flow"?
Me: Excuse me?
Old Lady: Oh right, I mean "Kung Fu Hustle."

- Man: Do you have "Women and Children?" (He meant Children of Men)

- Man: Do you have "Badass?" (He meant Superbad)

- Some of our frequent porn renters don't even bother going downstairs to look at the titles like everyone else. They just strut up to the counter and go "Show me the latest." One fellow did this and sifted through the pile. He slammed them all down, heaved a sigh, and told my coworker, "You're outta gas, kid."

- Old lady: Do you have that new movie that was well reviewed in the New York Times...what was it...oh yes. Babe!
Me: (I know they meant Babel, but just to fuck with them a little, I said this) Oh! Pig in the city?

- Man: Do you have videos of older women having sex with 13 and 14-year-old boys?
My coworker: (stunned) Um, no. That's illegal.
Man: No, I mean very loving and tastefully done and consensual.
My coworker: Um, no. That's illegal.
Man: Because I know some people, I mean, I know them now, but when they were younger, they were involved in these relationships and it was very loving and beneficial.
My coworker: Um, okay.

-Woman on phone, day before Halloween: (this is the first thing she said, no greeting or anything) The woman in 101 Dalmations. Glenn Close. What's her name?
Me: Uh, Cruella de Vil?
Woman on phone: Yes. Cru...Cruella, am I saying that right?
Me: Yes. Do you want to rent the movie?
Woman on phone: Is she the one with the headpiece?
Me: Well, she did have a big fur hat.
Woman on phone: The headpiece with the asp. [I'm pretty sure that's a kind of snake.]
Me: Huh? No, it was just a big hat.
Woman on phone: Well then, who had the headpiece with the asp?
Me: Um, I dunno, Cleopatra?
Woman on phone: Cuz I'm sitting here with this asp headpiece, so now what do I tell people I am for Halloween?
Me: Um, I dunno, Cleopatra?
Woman on phone: Um...are you sure?
This conversation went on like this for about 8 minutes.

- In general, if a movie title has more than two words, it's gonna get butchered or just shortened to two words. Case in point: ever since I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry came out, I have not heard a single person call it by its full title. They just ask for "Chuck and Larry," so much so that we just keep it under "C." I feel that this information should be made known to studio execs somehow.

-Assorted people, in reference to pornos: This DVD skips. I couldn't watch all of it. (Good god, those things are like 4 hours long! Do you really need all of it?)

- A woman came in complaining that she had rented a DVD that when she tried to play it, only showed a menu of special features. The movie was the documentary What the Bleep Do We Know?. While my coworker tried to figure out the problem, I jokingly said to her, "Since it's a documentary about the nature of existence, maybe it's trying to mess with you." She gave me a stone-cold glare and said, "No it isn't. It has Marlee Matlin in it."

- Tons of people: Would the movie [movie title beginning with "the"] be under T? (Or) Would the movie [movie title beginning with indefinite article "a"] be under A?
- Me: No, because then 90% of the store would be under A or T. (Silently to myself: aren't you familiar with the basic principles of alphabetization?)

- Crazy man in motorized scooter, at the front counter, speaking at an ungodly volume with several people around: DO YOU HAVE SHE-MALE PORN?!

- Porn customers write down the numbers of the videos they want, and often times they make a long list in case some are out. One guy handed me such a list, to which I asked a very simple question: "How many would you like?" It could have been a one-word answer. Instead he replied, "All of them. I've got all day today, all day tomorrow..." EW.

- Guy on phone: I rented Pan's Labyrinth, but the version you gave me is in Spanish!
My coworker: Sir, it's a Spanish movie.

And finally:
- Man (holding a DVD) Is this a DVD?

Movie restaurants quiz

Think you know a lot about movies, tough guy? Then name what movies these fictional restaurants are from - from fast food to fine dining. Scroll down for the answers...NO CHEATSIES. I won't lie to ya...some of these are ridiculously hard. Good luck!

1. Rick's Cafe Americain
2. Jack Rabbit Slim's
3. Pizza Planet
4. Mildred's
5. Chotchkie's
6. Hukilau Cafe
7. The Two Windmills
8. Joe's Pie Diner
9. Sal's Pizzeria
10. Mr. Smiley's
11. The Frosty Palace
12. Mudka's Mud Hut
13. Harryhausen's

1. Casablanca
2. Pulp Fiction
3. Toy Story
4. Mildred Pierce
5. Office Space
6. 50 First Dates
7. Amelie
8. Waitress
9. Do the Right Thing
10. American Beauty
11. Grease
12. The Emperor's New Groove
13. Monsters Inc.

What Oscar categories really mean

I know it's not Oscar season yet, but those little golden men have been on my mind lately. If you think about it, a lot of Oscar categories mean things more specific than just best such-and-such. Here's my handy guide to decoding what some of those tricky buggers mean. (And please, don't compile a nerdy and meticulous list of exceptions and send them to me. This is meant, on some level, to be humorous).

-Best Picture
Actually means: best drop-dead serious drama preferably about war or other actual events

-Best Actress
Actually means: whoever got fattest or ugliest

-Best Actor
Actually means: whoever most effectively portrayed a real person

-Best Supporting Actor/Actress
Actually means: best spunky sidekick with awesome one-liners that, if they were the main character, would not have won an Oscar. Comes with high risk of never winning an Oscar again.

-Best Costume Design
Actually means: best costume design for a period piece

-Best Documentary Short Subject/Feature
- Actually means: most depressing documentary, preferably about AIDS, the Holocaust, or genocide. I remember watching the awards last year and telling my friend how pissed the directors of some of the documentary short subjects must be, because they were up against one about AIDS and didn't stand a chance.

-Best Foreign Film
Actually means: most depressing foreign film

-Best Directing
Actually means: whoever directed Best Picture

-Best Original Screenplay
Actually means: quirky movie that should have been nominated for Best Picture but was not a drop-dead serious drama about war or other actual events

Some categories are legitimate wildcards though. "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" winning best song? Who could have seen that coming?

December 1, 2007

The decline of the strong female character - and 10 ladies who defy the trend

In regards to actors and actresses, I typically subscribe to the school of "they just don't make 'em like that anymore." In other words, I can't really think of too many actors/actresses who can even hold a candle to those of yesteryear. This dichotomy becomes particularly striking when it comes to women. There is no modern-day equivalent to a Joan Crawford, a Barbara Stanwyck, a Bette Davis, a Katharine Hepburn, etc. People would line up to see any movie they headlined, because they delivered the goods. People today aren't gonna line up for a Hilary Swank movie, they're gonna crowd the theaters of a Jessica Biel or Scarlett Johansson movie because they're hot. Yeah, I know old-timey actresses were hot too, but the attraction was more all-encompassing - Myrna Loy was called "The Perfect Wife," not "The Perfect Piece of Ass." Obviously, women have always been relegated to an inferior position in society, but cinema was one of the places where they could be equal, or even superior. One day, I was in a feminist sort of mood, and started compiling a mental list of strong female characters. "Strong" doesn't have to mean the character herself has a strong personality, but rather that she is well-written, multifaceted, sympathetic, and compelling. I could think of tons - Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce in Mildred Pierce, Mae West in anything, Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, Lauren Bacall as "Slim" in To Have or Have Not, the entire cast of The Women...basically I could have gone on for days. But then I realized something...none of these are even remotely recent. So I shifted my focus to recent films of the last 10 years or so. I could still think of tons - Audrey Tatou as Amelie in Amelie or as Mathilde in A Very Long Engagement, Franka Potente as Lola in Run Lola Run, Eihi Shiina as Asami in Audition, any female character in a Pedro Almodovar movie, any female character in a Wong Kar Wai movie, and on and on. But wait - these are all foreign films! Exasperated and disheartened, I tried to think of strong female characters in American movies from the last 10 years. And it was really, really hard.

Females on the silver screen are becoming an endangered species. Warner Brothers recently issued a statement that based on the poor performance of recent female-led films (namely, The Invasion and The Brave One), they will stop making movies with women in the lead. (Read more about it here.) Wait, WHAT?! So maybe the aforementioned films weren't that good...must all women be punished for that? Women's rights attorney Gloria Allred wisely notes in the article, "when movies with men as the lead fail, no one says we'll stop making movies with men in the lead." Lead roles aren't the only place where a female presence is diminishing - according to 2004 figures from the Screen Actors Guild, men outnumber women onscreen in a ratio of 65 to 35 percent. I'm sorry, can I just take a break from my eloquent and composed blogger demeanor to say WHAT THE FUCK.

Before I completely depress you (and myself) beyond all reason, let us turn to the few and the proud - strong female characters in American films of the past 10(ish) years. This list is not definitive, and I welcome your suggestions - obviously, I haven't seen every film made in the past decade, but I really couldn't think of many to begin with. My requirements are as follows:

- The character can be any type of person, but "strong" implies, as I said earlier, well-written, multifaceted, sympathetic, and compelling. It's not just a synonym for "kickass," and this list isn't just going to be a list of action heroines.
- Must be from an American film
- The character cannot be based on/ be a portrayal of a real person, because those characters are "pre-written" by history, so to speak. So Marie Antoinette or Aileen Wuornos wouldn't count.
- The characters cannot be creations of another time - i.e. based on novels written 100 years ago or featured in a film that's a remake

- The character cannot be animated, because I'm not giving this distinction out to fish and toys and shit.

Onto the list - as always, in no particular order.

1. Uma Thurman as The Bride in Kill Bill: Vol 1 & 2.
The Bride is most definitely kickass. Among other feats, she fights a mob of several dozen ninjas, plucks out another chick's eye, has special samurai training with a crazy old dude and punches her way out of a sealed and buried coffin. But Quentin Tarantino (who develops some very interesting female characters) doesn't just leave her as a two-dimensional action figure - he gives her pathos and weight. The first film opens with a black and white image of The Bride bloodied, breathless, and pregnant, pleading for her life, and then her fiancee shoots her and leaves her for dead. She is driven by a quest for vengeance, but also, in the second volume, the quest to reunite with her daughter. Thus, the masculine notion of revenge and her maternal urges are combined to form a multi-dimensional character.

2. Kate Winslet as Sarah Pierce in Little Children
Things are not going well for Sarah Pierce. She hasn't quite figured out her role as a mother yet, and she just discovered that her husband is addicted to internet porn and chats with scandalous strangers. The only highlight of her life is her hunky neighbor Brad, with whom she starts an affair. The thing I appreciated about this movie was that winning Brad over does not come easy for Sarah. She desperately purchases a sexy swimsuit from a catalog, kisses him randomly on the playground to shock some neighborhood mothers, and still in a voiceover Brad says that her eyebrows are "bushier than necessary." She's desperate and sympathetic, nuanced and realistic. I think she could have totally won the Best Actress Oscar this past year if it wasn't for the awards season wrecking ball named Helen Mirren.

3. Rachel Weisz as Evelyn Anne Thompson in The Shape of Things
All four characters in this film are great - due in no small part to the fact that it is a direct adaptation of a play, with the same actors and director (Neil LaBute). Evelyn is an art student with funky hairstyles and a penchant for spraypainting ancient statues. In my opinion, she goes from annoying to intriguing to sociopathic. It's really hard to explain too much about this character without giving the movie away, but let's just say that she achieves drastic and morally questionable measures through meticulous emotional manipulation. Fun night at the movies!

4. Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo
McDormand received a well-deserved Academy Award for this role. Under her adorably Midwestern exterior, she's a no-nonsense policewoman. She gets the job done without being rude and abrasive, but without backing down. After reining in all the bad guys, she cuddles into bed with her husband, who rubs her pregnant belly. They are completely unglamorous, but ridiculously cute. Plus, she wears the pants in the relationship (her stay-at-home husband makes her breakfast).

5. Natalie Portman as Sam in Garden State
I have a permanent beef with Natalie Portman for being so girl-next-door-sy gorgeous, but I'll let it slide momentarily. What struck me about this character was, for lack of a better word, how real she was. After I saw the movie for the first time with some friends, they all turned to me and said, "Julie, the character in that movie was YOU." And for them to compare a character to someone they know well, the character has to be pretty well-formed. I would be kind of offended if they compared me to, say, a Bond girl. Sam is unafraid to be random, make funny noises, and laugh at life. After a really intense and emotional conversation with Andrew (Zach Braff), she blurts out, "I can tap dance. Wanna see me tap dance?" That line made me smile so much, because that's how people's brains really work (er, mine anyway). She's also an epileptic, a habitual liar, an animal lover and a former figure skater. What's not to love?

6. Judi Dench as Barbara Covett and Cate Blanchett as Sheba Hart in Notes on a Scandal
This movie kicks ass. It proves that you don't need anything fancy to make a good movie, just two awesome actors going all out. The plot of the film is simple: Sheba is a new art teacher at the school where Barbara teaches, and starts having (consentual) physical relations with a young male student. She confides in the reclusive Barbara, who has warmed up to this intriguing newcomer. Barbara then uses this secret to manipulate her. Yeah, the plot by itself sounds kind of eh, but that's why the performances are so important in making this movie great. Judi Dench is ridiculously creepy, pathetic, and a quasi-lesbian, and Sheba is desperate, sympathetic but also morally questionable. It gets real ugly between these two lovely ladies. The strength of these characters is probably due in no small part to the fact that the film is an adaptation of a female-written novel.

7. Keri Russell as Jenna Hunterson in Waitress
Who knew that cute little gal from "Felicity" had such a great role in her? Waitress is a sweet story about a Southern waitress who discovers she's pregnant with her loser husband's baby, and starts an affair with her doctor. What could have been a Lifetime movie is most decidedly not - Jenna is sweet and vulnerable, but spunky and sassy. She channels her emotions into the original pies she makes, giving them such names as “Baby Screaming Its Head Off In the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie.” She is also surprisingly un-maternal for the majority of the film, which is pretty radical if you think about how much of cinematic female identity is centered on the motherhood role. She leads a double life - aggressive, passionate and loved by her doctor, and frustrated, bored and almost enslaved by her husband. The female supporting cast is great as well, probably due again to the fact that the film was written and directed by a woman, the late Adrienne Shelly.

9. Helena Bonham Carter as “Woman” in Conversations with Other Women
Hans Canosa’s sophomore effort is a split-screen tour de force, featuring Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart going at each other both verbally and physically. It’s hard to describe the plot without giving too much away, but I basically saw this film as a kind of boxing match between the two perfectly matched opponents. They both have dirt on the other’s past, they both know how to make the other happy, sad, jealous, or lusty. In a way it reminded me of a edgier, modern Tracy and Hepburn dynamic. This movie is an actors’ piece, and Carter really shines, being alternately abrasive, nonchalant, and helpless.

10. Catherine Keener as Trish in The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Oh, Judd Apatow. I can’t say anything about you that hasn’t already been said in the trillions of articles praising your existence and calling you the next big thing. Like those articles, I will echo the sentiment that you have redefined the “date movie,” and found something that both men and women can enjoy: realistic depictions of themselves. Trish is a single mom who runs her own eBay store, gives out her number to shy Andy and tells a supposed telemarketer (actually Andy) to fuck his mother. She also fights with her daughters and feels undesired by Andy (due to the titular problem). In the character of Trish I can see a very real woman who resembles actual forty-something women I know.

This list is not all-inclusive, but I also had trouble thinking of more that really fit. If there’s a character here that you think was left out, chances are I considered it and decided it didn’t fit the criteria or just, well, didn’t move me enough.

At this rate, the future of female roles in film looks pretty depressing. Hopefully I can become a successful director some day and do my part to get women back in the roles they deserve!

November 23, 2007

Dream Celebrity Family

I was commiserating with a friend recently about family woes, and had an idea that turned into a kind of car ride game (sans the car). What if you could construct a dream family of celebrities? Who would be in it? Now, this can't just be a matter of celebrities you think are cool - like, would you really want Angelina Jolie as your mom? She might ignore you because you're not from a third-world country. You can't just pick celebrities you think are hot, either, because we're talking family here, and incest is so not okay. We decided that "celebrity" includes all famous people, regardless of profession. Fictional characters of any type are not allowed. We also decided that you could resurrect one person from the dead.

My family looked a bit like this:
My dad would be either Steve Carrell or Will Smith. I know this whole exercise is based on arbitrary character judgments of people you don't actually know, but I just feel that these two would be good dads.
My mom would be Reese Witherspoon, but a version of Reese Witherspoon that didn't make crappy romantic comedies constantly. I am not a devoted Reese fan by any means, but I am basing this choice solely on a tidbit I read in an interview with her, where she said that the only Barbie she lets her daughter play with is President Barbie. Girl power!
Cameron Diaz would be my sister. Many silly sisterly montages abound.
Jonah Hill would be my brother. Hilarious and vulgar - and would probably behave in a rowdy fashion that would make me look even better to my parents. (But then again, I have cool celebrity parents now, so they're probably way chill).
Conan O'Brien would be my fun uncle (funcle), Sarah Jessica Parker my hip aunt.
Shirley MacLaine is one of my grandmas. She can regale me with stories of the Rat Pack, and we can have sing and dance-alongs.
Ian McKellen is my cool, knighted British gay grandpa, and Tim Gunn is his partner, my effortlessly suave, stylish and classy gay grandpa.
For my resurrected celebrity family member, after much consideration, I decided that Alfred Hitchcock would be my eccentric grandpa with a dark sense of humor. Oh, and he'd slide me into the movie biz real easy.

I couldn't decide on cousins, more aunts and uncles, and another grandma, though. In discussing this with the aforementioned friend (and other friends later), some names that were suggested were:
Bill Murray for a dad
Bill Cosby for an uncle
Nancy Sinatra for a grandma
Paul Rudd as a brother (I think that came up with two different people)
Craig Ferguson as an uncle
Dustin Hoffman as an uncle
Meryl Streep as a grandma
Morgan Freeman as a grandpa
Jimmy Stewart as a dad
Chris Farley as an uncle
Mel Brooks as a grandpa
Karen Allen as a mom
Howard Zinn as a dad
Vincent Price as a grandpa
Seth Rogen as a brother-in-law (one friend got very specific and drew an actual family tree)

Who would you want in your celebrity family? (If there are good suggestions, I am SO imaginary-snatching them.)

November 13, 2007

Boston in Cinema

I am a proud Masshole. I don't say "pahk the kah," but I do say "wicked." I'm indifferent to sports, but part of me still hates the Yankees. I refuse to sell out and go on a duck tour. I don't think of Boston as "New York junior," which some people seem to do. I love this town.

Thus, it distresses me how my beloved city is shown on the silver screen. I recently saw Gone, Baby, Gone, which is an excellent film worth checking out. But I had the same problem with it that I had with Mystic River, The Departed, etc...they portray Boston as a shithole. And mind you, some parts of the city are shitholes - but not all.

I have concluded that Boston movies are of two main varieties - films about gangsters and thugs with ludicrous accents, and movies that take place at Harvard (or MIT - here's looking at you, Good Will Hunting). Really? That's it? There is so much culture and vibrancy here - why are we reduced to those two depictions?

The Harvard one is obvious - nobody can control that one of the nation's top institutions of higher learning is in our fair state. But why all the thugs? Well, New York has lots of gritty crime movies, you say. True. But for every Taxi Driver, there's a Manhattan, or a West Side Story, or a Spider-Man, or Breakfast at Tiffany's. New York has hosted comedies, musicals, dramas, romances, sci-fi, mysteries, action - anything you can think of. It's not typecast. With Boston, however, the only films of note that are not Harvard-based or crime sagas are Fever Pitch and Next Stop Wonderland. Due to recent tax incentives for filmmakers shooting in Boston, there's been an influx of movies shooting here, such as Bachelor No. 2 with Dane Cook, a remake of the 1939 classic The Women, and the Pink Panther sequel. Okay, that's a start. But the infuriating thing is that often, since Boston is now cheaper to film in than New York, the films shot here are just said to take place in New York! Or the reverse happens, where "genuine" Boston movies like The Departed are shot largely in the Big Apple.

Boston does have a crime history. We do have white-trash people with funny accents that kill each other sometimes. And I totally support that being exploited for its cinematic value. Except here's my other problem: Boston is a big city. It's not homogenous. Everyone knows that New York has very different parts - even a random farmer in Iowa is probably going to know that Manhattan and Brooklyn might as well be two different planets. But people outside of Boston are not as widely aware of the city's segmentation - it's all one thing to them. Take Gone, Baby, Gone , for instance. It's a "Boston movie" by all definitions - it's based on a novel written by a native, directed by the local Ben Affleck, and takes place in the city. Or does it? There are actually only a few fleeting shots of Boston proper. The bulk of the movie takes place in Dorchester, which is an adjacent city that is really dangerous and trashy. It's "the bad part of town." It's where people have Boston accents - which, for the record, nobody in Boston proper has. It's a separate zip code, a separate way of life. The movie also takes place in Chelsea and Everett, two towns that while bordering Boston, are a pretty far hike from it. And lord are they trashy. They really have nothing to do with Boston. And while natives of the city are going to see the movie and know the difference, other people won't. For all they know, Everett could be the name of a downtown Boston neighborhood. Same with The Departed and Southie - they take place in South Boston, which again, is a different zip code and a different way of life. In recent years, Boston's image and tourism industry have been hurting (read more here). Maybe this is jumping to conclusions, but perhaps out-of-towners see these unglamorous and downright unpleasant depictions of the city - again, with no counterpoint - and decide against the city as a travel destination.

I tried to play devil's advocate and think of another American city that is typecast like this, but came up dry. I've already mentioned New York, but other cities - even ones where not many films take place - have varied depictions. San Francisco, for instance, hosted a string of film noirs in the 1940s, but broke the pattern and now hosts films as varied as Dirty Harry, Sister Act, The Hulk, and Basic Instinct. Chicago has Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Barbershop, Risky Business, and The Man With the Golden Arm, to name a few. Los Angeles has a ton of showbiz-oriented movies, but also romances and action films. Some cities don't really have films that take place there, but perhaps that's better than being stereotyped.

After seeing Gone, Baby, Gone, my boyfriend and I joked that there should be a crime caper set in Boston's South End. Heard of it? Not to be confused with South Boston, it's an area of the city known for expensive and fabulous dining, posh shopping, tiny dogs and its large - dare I say predominantly - gay population. Or how about Beacon Hill, with its combination of students and bigwigs, quiet streets and political protests? There's the lovably snooty Back Bay, the college student jungle of Allston, the quirky culture of Brookline, the hippies of Cambridge. Where are these on screen? I'm not asking for a movie where people dance around holding lobsters and baked beans and screaming "wicked pissah" all the way down the Freedom Trail, but what would it hurt to shoot your romantic comedy in a cheaper city, throw in a few shots of the skyline and actually acknowledge where you are?

P.S. - while I'm on the subject, nobody knows your name at Cheers. It is a horrible tourist trap that locals avoid at all costs.

October 24, 2007

10 Standout opening title sequences

Opening title sequences. Most movies have 'em, but very few are memorable. In the early days of film and continuing up through about the 1960s or so, it was always the same format - diagonal lines of credits with an overture. Often it's just text thrown haphazardly and almost begrudgingly over the beginning of the movie, but in some cases the filmmakers actually elevated the creation of title sequences to the art form it deserves to be. After all, it's part of the movie, so shouldn't it be as good as the rest?

I have to acknowledge how incomplete this list is from the start. I couldn't make this a "top" list because most movies have opening titles, so right off the bat I am forgetting dozens, nay, hundreds of excellent candidates. It's not like making a list of say, dinner table scenes. So rather than try to make a definitive list, these are just examples that stuck out in my mind and are worth checking out.

1. Napoleon Dynamite. I don't care what you ultimately thought of this movie. When you saw the credits spelled out endearingly on or with lunches, school supplies and chapstick to the sweet sounds of "We are Gonna Be Friends" by the White Stripes, you thought it was pretty awesome.

2. The Graduate. A good title sequence sets the tone of the film, and The Graduate is an amazing example. Simon and Garfunkel accompany Dustin Hoffman's seemingly endless journey down the moving sidewalk in the airport... into his future!

3. Catch Me If You Can. The movie is basically acted out here in the span of a few minutes by little retro animated figures. Fun!

4. Amelie. This whole film is pretty dreamlike, and the titles set that up by showing a young Amelie playing and making silly faces with some surreal effects. Really beautiful. (Titles are a little bit into the clip.)

5. Sweet Charity. This is one of my favorite "day in the life" type of sequences. It shows Charity skipping around New York City, going about her morning in her cheerful Shirley MacLaine fashion, occasionally using a colorized freeze frame to freeze her in a goofy pose and slap some credits on. Really captures the essence of the character. (Clip not available - boo.)

6. A Hard Day's Night. I included this as more of a fan favorite, because if you pay attention, you'll notice that the actual credits here are pretty sparse. It's more of just an opening sequence, but oh well. Endlessly imitated and parodied, there is still a sense of silly fun in the John, Paul, George and Ringo's attempts to escape their maniacal female fan base. See also the opening credits of the first Austin Powers, which is a loving homage to this. Speaking of Austin Powers...

7. Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Austin frolicks about naked, while words or objects obscure his junk. Then there's a synchronized swimming sequence. Two things: first, this means that people actually sat around and thought of ways to obscure Mike Myers' junk, and second, I feel that as a cast or crew member, it would be an honor to have my name obscuring Mike Myer's junk.

8. The Women. This bitchy classic even has bitchy credits: each elegant star is introduced with her name accompanied by a clip of her smiling, and then an image of the animal she most resembles. The cunning one is a fox, the fat one is a cow. Ouch! (Clip not available - perfect excuse to watch the whole fabulous flick!)

9. Spider-Man 2. In the first Spider-Man, the credits were spelled out into a spiderweb, accompanied by Danny Elfman's kickass score. The second film's opening keeps the web motif, but cleverly adds clips to sort of recap what happened in the first one, and also mixes in comic-style illustrations. Engaging, energetic, and gets you totally pumped.

10. Anatomy of a Murder. Ah, Saul Bass. This whole list could have been just Saul Bass work, but I decided to have just on entry from him. If you don't know who he is, learn! My pick for my favorite Bass sequence is this Otto Preminger classic with Jimmy Stewart. He took a simple motif - a fragmented body - and whizzed it around the screen to a Duke Ellington score. So simple, yet visually arresting and snappy.

What are your favorites?

October 4, 2007

The cinematic guide to insulting, putting down, and generally pwning others

One of the reasons that movies are so awesome is because people always have the perfect quip or comeback at the right moment. This, of course, never happens in real life, where ideas for a witty retort come to you somewhere between minutes and years later. However, if you study my handy guide, you will never be left defenseless again! Note to lit nerds: there are no Shakespeare (movie) insults here, cuz that's a whole other barrel of monkeys and they already have t-shirts listing all the best ones and stuff.

Situation: Your girl is stone-cold cheating on you.
Use the approach of: Robert Gold (Dirk Bogarde) in Darling (1965)
Procedure: Remain cool and nonchalant. Go out on the town with her. When she suggests taking a cab home, veto her suggestion casually but firmly. When she asks why, you're ready with this zinger. "You're a whore, baby, that's all, and I don't take whores in taxis."

Situation: Old business partners that were hostile to you suddenly want you back now that you have power and/or valuable resources.
Use the approach of: Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) in Ace in the Hole (1951)
Procedure: In Charles' case, he had the exclusive rights to news coverage of a major event. His old employers tried to bribe him back, but he wasn't biting. They may try to appeal to your level and say, "We're all in the same boat." To this, you coolly reply: "I'm in the boat. You're in the water. Now let's see how you can swim."

Situation: Someone is pointing a gun at you, and all you have to defend yourself is your wit.
Use the approach of: Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) in The Big Sleep (1946)
Procedure: Laugh it off, and say: "My, my, my! Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains! You know, you're the second guy I've met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail." And they won't shoot you, because you are ridiculously cool.

Situation: You're not interested in the advances of a suitor.
Use the approach of: Lady Lou (Mae West) in She Done Him Wrong (1933)
Procedure: If a fresh fella tries attempts to, or asks if, he can hold your hand, brush him off with, "It ain't heavy, I can hold it."

Situation: Someone is having difficulty recognizing that you are better than them.
Use the approach of: Blake (Alec Baldwin) in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Procedure: Strut into the room and don't take shit from nobody. Don't even bother to introduce yourself. If someone asks, "What's your name?" you reply: "Fuck you. That’s my name. You know why, mister? ‘Cause you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight, I drove an eighty thousand dollar BMW. That’s my name."

Situation: You're dealing with an abrasive personality.
Use the approach of: Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) in As Good as it Gets (1997)
Procedure: Say up front, "Try not to ruin everything by being you."

Situation: You're dealing with an abrasive personality, part II.
Use the approach of: Oliver (Ryan Philippe) in Igby Goes Down (2002)
Procedure: Declare, "I think if Gandhi had to spend a prolonged amount of time with you, he'd end up beating the shit out of you, too."

Situation: You are surrounded by incompetence.
Use the approach of: Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) in The Departed (2006)
Procedure: If anyone questions your credentials, simply respond: "I'm the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy."

Situation: Someone is boring you to death with their uninteresting babble, and you need to shut them up quick.
Use the approach of: Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) in Dinner at Eight (1933)
Procedure: Cut them off abruptly with a scathingly sarcastic "How EXTRAORDINARY! We must talk of the Civil War someday, you and I."

Situation: You feel compelled to put down an obnoxious group of pseudo-intellectual pricks.
Use the approach of: Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) in Manhattan (1979)
Procedure: Mutter, "They probably sit around on the floor with wine and cheese, and mispronounce 'allegorical' and 'didacticism.'"

Situation: Your marriage has, um, seen better days.
Use the approach of: George (Richard Burton) in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Procedure: Whenever your significant other starts to irritate you, say, "(Their name), in my mind you're buried in cement right up to the neck. No, up to the nose, it's much quieter."

Situation: Someone unattractive is trying to elicit a compliment about a new outfit.
Use the approach of: Fletcher Reede (Jim Carrey) in Liar Liar (1997)
Procedure: This technique is only recommended for very advanced insulters - even in the movie, Fletcher only blurted this out because he was under a truth curse for 24 hours. Perhaps it is only justifiable if this person has done something mean to you. In any event, when they ask "Do you like my new (shirt, necklace, etc.)?", respond with, "Whatever takes the focus off your head!"

Situation: You want to write a totally scathing review of a band.
Use the approach of: An anonymous writer in This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Procedure: Write, "What day did the Lord create (name of band), and couldn't he have rested on that day too?"
Situation: Your friend is ragging on you for something you're interested in.
Use the approach of: Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) in Garden State (2004)
Procedure: Casually snap back, "Don't tease me about my hobbies. I don't tease you about being an asshole."

Situation: You need to put a bitch in her place.
Use the approach of: Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) in Gone with the Wind (1939)
Procedure: The line that shook the world: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." Especially effective for use in the 1930s, when this one line contained the same volume of profanity as the entirety of a Quentin Tarantino movie.

September 30, 2007

My Impact on Hollywood

Today, at long last, I was noticed by industry professionals from Hollywood.

It did not, however, transpire in the manner I had always imagined.

There are two major films shooting in my native Boston right now: The Women ( and Bachelor No. 2 ( They're both all over the city, so I figured it would only be a matter of time before I stumbled onto one of the sets. Yesterday was the day. My boyfriend called and said that Bachelor No. 2 was filming near his apartment, if I wanted to come down and be a creepy celebrity stalker with him. Um, of course I did. So we follow the big trucks and sure enough, we come to a little set in an alley. There's a moderate crowd, and at first I don't see anyone famous. Boo. Then we see my boyfriend's roommate, who has apparently been staking out at this location for a while, and he has a prime viewing location. He points out Dane Cook to us, who I did not initially recognize because of his now-black hair. I found it weird that Mr. Cook, notorious fan-lover and MySpace celebrity, deliberately had his back to the crowd the whole time and looked pretty grumpy (oh and by the way, he's a native Bostonian). Then we see Jason Biggs on set too. I try to act cool, but I'm not. I am a starstruck tabloid whore, no denying it. I start taking pictures like everyone else. Of course they're sorta far away, and they're hard to see in the pictures even on maximum zoom, but it doesn't matter - I HAVE REAL-LIFE PIX OF CELEBRITIES OMG. So they're doing multiple takes of this one scene, and after a few times I figure out Dane's blocking so that I'm ready to take his picture when he gets as close to me as possible. I am always very vigilant about turning off my flash, primarily because it doesn't look as good but also in this case because it will mess things up. The crew seems kind of annoyed by the crowd and keeps telling us to be quiet and no flash photography, which I am complying with. I've turned my camera on and off a few times at this point, but I turned it back on when I was about to snap the money shot of Dane. I took the picture.

My flash went off.

It was at the very end of the shot, so they finished it up. But then everyone just stopped and looked really pissed. The crew started asking "Whose flash was that?" They were going up to random onlookers and asking if they were the culprit. I was petrified. I stood nailed to the spot. Somehow they didn't suspect me, even though I was pretty much front and center. I whispered to my boyfriend that we should go. We backed away slowly, and then sort of galloped away. And that's when I realized it:

I ruined a take of a major Hollywood movie.

This will be something I can hopefully confess with a laugh when I am a famous director years down the line, but for now, it's my dirty little secret. I may end up seeing the finished movie for this sole reason, knowing deep down that for like 73 seconds on September 29, 2007, Jason Biggs and Dane Cook were pissed at me.

September 8, 2007

What movies get wrong about sex - and why it matters

Movies get a lot of things wrong about sex. Most notable is that the majority of people that a person has sex with in his or her lifetime are not going to look anything like people in the movies! But things like that I begrudgingly accept, because movie stars have always been unnaturally good-looking. However, there is something I've noticed lately that I think is genuinely troubling and should be addressed - and changed.

In cinematic sex, there is no foreplay.

My boyfriend and I were recently having a discussion (which partially served as the inspiration for this post) in which we tried to think of non-pornographic American movies that featured "second base," or a man touching a female's breasts in a consentual sexual situation. I could think of only one, he could think of one where it may have happened (The Secret Lives of Dentists and The Squid and the Whale, respectively). That, my friends, is really fucked up. Boob contact has always been a very obvious, mainstream component of heterosexual intimacy. I remember when I saw the aforementioned The Secret Lives of Dentists - I was perhaps 16 years old. The film focuses on a married pair of dentists experiencing marital troubles. In one scene, the two of them start to get it on in their living room. They start, as is typical, by kissing, but then he unbuttons her shirt and starts to feel her up. I remember being stunned by this - not because it is strange or perverse in any way, but because I absolutely could not remember another movie in which it had happened. We're not talking about the dirty Sanchez or gay incestuous orgies here - we're talking about sexual touch of one of the more notoriously sexualized parts of the female anatomy. What's the deal?

I know that American media can be very prude - you need only see five minutes of a European film to figure that out. And if it was the 1940s and the only intimacy you ever showed was kissing, that would be fine. But for god's sake - American movies feature SEX! The original sin, the act that some consider to be so sacred or vile that it can only occur between spouses, the act that gay people are ostracized for performing - this act can happen anywhere from crappy action movies to surreal arthouse cinema.

I'm not just concerned with the lack of boob-grabbing, but the lack of foreplay in general. Europe, again, is better with this issue - the Pedro Almodovar film Matador, for example, features what has to be at least a two-minute shot of a man's roaming tongue. But I'm not even asking that it be shown - just acknowledged. Because like it or not, people learn about sex from the movies. And in the same way that movies get criticized for teaching society bad lessons about violence, I think they should be criticized for teaching society bad lessons about sex - but not in the way that some conservative people think.

Here is the average sex scene in an American movie: the foreplay consists solely of two people wanting to get with each other for a while. When they do, they make out for a bit, then rip off each other's clothes and shag real hard. And the woman always orgasms within, like, seconds. If you didn't grow up with liberal sex therapist parents, this might be your primary source of sex information.

But it's so, so wrong.

Here's something that even some married men don't know, let alone confused teenagers watching movies: the average woman usually requires at least 20 minutes of foreplay if she is to orgasm. Even if it's sex with Brad Pitt, it is a biological fact that it will take more than some passionate movie star kisses for a women to become naturally lubricated enough for penetration. According to sex therapist Dr. Ava Cadell, for every 30 minutes of sex, only a quarter to a third of it should be spent on actual intercourse. Ian Kerner, Ph.D. and author of "She Comes First: The Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a Woman" recommends at least 10 straight minutes of oral sex on a gal before you even think about penetration.

Hm...I can't remember the last time I saw anything remotely like that on a movie screen. Why is this detrimental? Because seeing inaccurate sex like that can make men, women, and couples frustrated and ashamed. Women may think, if Actress X can be over the moon with pleasure after a few thrusts from Actor Y...then why can't I? Men may form the impression that women don't really need foreplay to achieve pleasure from sex. Unlike movie-star looks, where there is well-documented knowledge of the disconnect between fantasy and reality, silver screen sex has yet to be widely exposed as fiction. People know that things like impossibly perfect mood lighting and music won't occur in real life, but there's no public outcry about how misleading the actual sex is.

Also, women in movies orgasm at the drop of a hat (or pants) - or at least reach a state of howling ecstasy within seconds. This, too, is a gross exaggeration. According to Women's Health magazine, only 25% of women surveyed achieved orgasm every time they had sex, compared to 90% of men asked the same question. So when the average girl without much sexual experience of her own sees these multiorgasmic super-creatures on screen, she may feel inadequate. This, too, is something where the fallacy has not been widely addressed. Mothers may tell their daughters "don't compare yourself to celebrities, honey, because they're're beautiful how you are," but I doubt that most will tell their daughters "don't worry, honey, achieving orgasm is a complicated process that requires an attentive partner and lots of foreplay."
So what is to be done? I am not asking for literal 20-minute sequences of foreplay. Rather, it would be a big relief to see at least some acknowledgement of the facts stated above. Perhaps show the beginning of a man's migration south of the border, leaving the audience to assume what happens next. Have a woman start out with soft whimpers, show a leap in time on a clock, and then show her wailing. Use fades to show the passage of time. Show a variety of positions. Show the women's face with the implication that the man is pleasuring her. Show sex not working. Or if all of this is too revolutionary, just show them afterward and avoid showing the sex at all. Whether they know it or not, filmmakers should feel a sense of responsibility to their viewers. You might argue, then, that it's irresponsible to show crazy violence. It's not. Most of us with have sex in our lifetimes; very few will get caught up in a violent mafia ring.

As a final, somewhat related issue, people having sex in movies rarely use any sort of protection. Oh, perhaps the girl is on the pill, or it's assumed that a condom was applied at some point, but this isn't good enough. Yes, I know it wouldn't be very sexy or cinematic to show someone laboriously putting on a condom, but there's no artistic harm done with a quick shot of a frenzied hand grabbing for one. Again, consciously or not, movies are in a position of power to educate and influence. Take the recent crackdown on smoking in films - not only has it sharply declined over the years, but now Disney has announced that smoking will be a factor that contributes to the rating of a film. The idea is that showing this irresponsible behavior without showing the consequences can glamourize the behavior and falsely educate impressionable audiences. Why shouldn't the same idea be applied to safe sex? I'll tell you why it won't happen - because some think that promoting safe sex to young people means promoting sex, period. But if people in movies are going at it anyway, then why shouldn't you show them being responsible?

September 2, 2007

Five lost classics worth checking out

Okay, I know that my use of the term "lost" will probably draw ire from some. I don't mean that they were literally buried in some vault, but rather that they inexplicably did not draw the attention they deserve. They all feature able directors, solid casts and Oscar nominations in some cases. Some are the "lesser-known" projects of famous directors. And before you get your panties in a bunch, I acknowledge that a few readers will claim to have known about these films since they were in utero. But I consider myself fairly well educated in cinematic history, and some of these I didn't even know existed until I saw them on a movie store shelf. So check them out and give them the attention and respect they desperately need.

1. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
How is Spencer Tracy so cool? Whether he's bitching out creationists in Inherit the Wind or bantering with Katharine Hepburn in one of their many comedies, he's just always the man. But I didn't realize how much he was truly the man until I saw this John Sturges film. He plays a one-armed stranger who comes to the sleepy town of Black Rock on a mysterious mission - and let's just say that the locals there don't like strangers. (According to IMDB, the character's disability wasn't in the original script, but they wanted Tracy so badly that they wrote it in, because they claimed that no actor could resist playing someone with a handicap.) Saying too much more would give it away, but I love movies where protagonists can defeat villains with their compassion and intellect instead of just guns, and Tracy takes all the hatred and ignorance with dignity. Received Oscar nominations for best screenplay, director, and actor for Tracy.

2. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Before Eddie Murphy was making movies where he was basically the entire cast, Alec Guinness did the same thing in this British film where he plays the complete extended family of Louis (Dennis Price). Basically, Louis vows to avenge his deceased mother's disinheritance by killing off all the family members that stand in his way of the money. It's black comedy at its darkest. Price is a suave, horrible and compulsively watchable slimeball with deadpan narration, and Guinness is a riot as eight vastly different characters. Despite its relatively below-the-radar status, it's in the IMDB Top 250 (as rated by users).

3. Night of the Iguana (1964)
I rarely rent a movie that I have not heard anything about previously - it takes a lot to sell me on it straight from the shelf. When I was checking in returns at work and this film dropped into my hands, however, I had to see it. A John Huston adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play with Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr? How had I not heard of it?! It certainly delivered, though, and launched my mild Richard Burton obsession. He plays a heavy-drinking, defrocked clergyman who now makes a living guiding tours in Mexico. Over the course of a few fateful days, he gets pursued by the criminally young Charlotte (Sue Lyon, reprising her Lolita shtick), meets up with old flame Maxine (Gardner), and does some soul-searching with stranger Hannah (Kerr). Like any Williams piece, it's talky and heavy, but the actors give amazing life to the material. It won an Oscar for best costume design, and was nominated for best cinematography, art direction and supporting actress for Grayson Hall (who plays the relatively small role of a bitchy group leader). I was seriously shocked that the three leads didn't get more recognition for their roles. You'd even think that the fame of the Huston name would have made it more well-known, but it has somehow slipped from everyone's memory.

4. Ace in the Hole (1951)
Billy Wilder seemed hell-bent on being impossible to classify. He could produce comedies, dramas, mysteries, satires, and noirs with equal ease. In his brilliant career, this film somehow got shuffled out of view - perhaps intentionally, because it was too dark and controversial. You thought Sunset Boulevard was cynical? This film makes that look like Mary Poppins. Kirk Douglas gives in a stunning, tour-de-force performance as a reporter who tries to make a media circus - and a career - out of a mine collapse (particularly relevant in the wake of the media-infested mine collapse in Utah). The message is clear, although Wilder doesn't violently smack you over the head with it. It might sound kind of boring, but the fact that the stakes are crazy high for every character from the get-go makes it utterly compelling. In describing it to a friend after viewing, all I could say was "scathing." Douglas deserved an Oscar and a half for this performance, but the film's only nomination was for its screenplay.

5. In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Where is the love for this film?! I mean, it did win a shitload of Oscars including Best Picture, but I feel that it was immediately forgotten afterward. (They did just include it in the new AFI list, which made me happy). I think it's because people approach Racial Issues Movies with apprehension. Done well, you can get Do the Right Thing - done poorly, you can get Crash (don't get me started on that). The key, I think, is subtlety. People running around screaming "I VEHEMENTLY DESPISE ALL BLACK PEOPLE" just makes for sloppy storytelling. Another reason that it may be fuzzily remembered is that in the very same year, star Sidney Poitier was in a similarly themed but ultimately very different movie - Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Somehow, that emerged as the more famous of the two (it did pack the Hepburn-Tracy punch) - but I personally consider it to be the weaker one. In Dinner, Poitier plays Token Friendly Black Guy That Shakes Up Supposedly Liberal White Household; in Night, he's Awesome Badass Detective That Won't Take Rod Steiger's Shit. A sign of a good Racial Issues Movie is that characters express their racism through actions or even just stares, as opposed to spelling it out with words. Steiger had a good sense of this, and got an Oscar for his efforts. Oh, and there's also a totally sweet soul soundtrack that features Ray Charles doing the title song. This film rises above being a Racial Issues Movie to just being an incredible drama that excels in every aspect.

Bonus: All that Jazz (1979)
I made this a bonus one because I felt kinda funny labeling a 1979 film a "classic." Still, I couldn't leave it out entirely because it's a semi-autobiographical musical about death starring Captain Brody from Jaws SAY WHAT?! This is the musical that could beat up other musicals in a dark alley. Roy Scheider plays a slightly fictionalized version of director/choreographer Bob Fosse, whose destructive lifestyle causes him to have a heart attack and reevaluate his life. Song and dance numbers range from a highly erotic and highly naked avant-garde piece in a dance studio to a morbid but razzle-dazzle finale featuring women dressed as human hearts. I feel cliche saying this, but it really is like nothing I've seen before.

What "lost classics" can you recommend?

August 21, 2007

10 movies I am supposed to like, but don't - and why

You know that awful feeling when you don't like a film that has received unanimous critical and popular acclaim? You're sitting around with your friends, and they're talking about how great it is, and you don't know whether to pipe up with your opinion and risk being ridiculed and ostracized. Well, I am about to take that risk, and share with you movies that I am "supposed" to like, but don't - and why. Hopefully none of you know where I live. WARNING: Spoilers follow.

- Children of Men
Why I should have liked it: Several Oscar nominations, solid cast, promise of a good story.
Why I didn't: As promised, this film delivered amazing cinematography and visuals - I can't deny that. And I was very intrigued by the premise that woman worldwide suddenly became infertile and the human race risked extinction. Too bad they didn't flesh out that idea AT ALL. I wasn't looking for a scientific play-by-play of why...I just wanted them to explore it more. The film, despite praise for its provocative rendering of the future, is so minimalistic and unexplained that it's basically a glorified road/chase movie. A girl becomes miraculously pregnant (again, no reason given) and Clive Owen and Co. have to smuggle her to The Human Project, which they don't explain either. The characters get killed off carelessly. Julianne Moore, whose character shows promise and an interesting backstory with Owen's, dies unceremoniously about 8 minutes into her screen time. That, my friend, is a waste of Julianne Moore. Michael Caine gets offed too, and Clive-dawg dies right at the end. I get it. These individuals have to die so mankind can survive. What's that vague throbbing pain I feel? Oh, it's this movie whacking me violently over the head with its message. Plus, they just show the pregnant girl (who has since given birth to her baby) arriving at a boat that supposedly contains members of The Human Project. They don't even show her getting on the boat! I kept thinking how funny it would be if the boat didn't see her and left. Maybe her baby is sickly (um hello, it was about six weeks premature and spent the first couple of days of its life in a war zone) and it dies the second she gets on the boat. Oops, sorry, human race.

- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Why I should have liked it: Won the coveted 5-Oscar sweep (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay), inclusion in the AFI Top 100, Jack Nicholson finally channeling his craziness into a movie about a mental institution.
Why I didn't: You'd think that a movie about crazy people would have a lot of energy, but this film just seemed lethargic to me. Maybe it's the 3-hour running time. You see, I have a short attention span. I am not opposed to long movies, but if it goes for one nanosecond over two hours, it better be fucking captivating. I had absolutely no problem with Gone With the Wind being four hours long, because I feel that every minute was entertaining and justified. But a film this slow and psychological just can't be this long. Plus, everyone's obsessed with Louise Fletcher's performance as Nurse Ratched (for which she won an Oscar) but I wasn't terribly impressed. She just reminded me of my uptight 11th-grade chemistry teacher who really needed to get laid.

- M
Why I should have liked it: It's a universally praised 1931 German thriller by Fritz Lang starring Peter Lorre as a child killer! Fun!
Why I didn't: Seriously though, I was kind of excited to watch this. It let me down. In fact, I only got through about 30-45 minutes. Petey didn't even show up til pretty far in, so it was just a bunch of unknown German actors running around with mild concern because they couldn't find their kids. I could see that at a playground. Maybe it gets better later on, but I don't know if I can sit through enough to find out.

- Blade Runner
Why I should have liked it: Hailed by some as the greatest sci-fi movie ever, just got included in the revamped AFI Top 100 list, cult favorite.
Why I didn't: In the film's defense, I think its 78 different versions hurt it. Okay, there's only about 6, but that's still a few too many versions. I saw the director's cut, just because it was the version available to rent. I did think that the futuristic vision of L.A. was pretty cool. But Harrison Ford's acting ineptitude is just unbearable to watch. I recently read an article that accused Ford of constantly having his mouth hanging open to look dramatic and pensive. It's painful. He shows the dramatic range of celery. The still unanswered question as to whether Ford's character is a replicant is also problematic. It'd be fine to just leave it open, but Ridley Scott and Ford keep having these arguments about it (Scott allegedly said he was a replicant; Ford said that he and Scott had explicitly agreed that he wasn't) that I think weaken the film. The love story seems forced, and Daryl Hannah's character is just fuckin weird. Sorry, Blade Runner.

- Lord of the Rings
Why I should have liked it: The third one won best picture and got included in the new AFI Top 100, film snobs and Tolkien nerds alike hold it in high regard
Why I didn't: I only saw the first one, but I already know I couldn't deal with the other two. I think to fully enjoy them, you have to have a huge boner for the books, or at least the characters. I didn't. We read "The Hobbit" in 7th grade and I was not impressed (although I did deliver a stunning performance as Thorin in our class' movie adaptation). Also, I am not interested in movies with such an epic scope. Whether it's the Civil War or Middle Earth, I don't like wrapping my brain around that much in one movie. I prefer movies that focus on the lives of just a few people. When Return of the King won Best Picture in 2003, resulting in a united asthmatic wheeze of joy from nerds everywhere, I found it strange that among its numerous nominations, there was not a single acting nomination. How do you have a strong movie without good acting?

- My Fair Lady
Why I should have liked it: Won Best Picture and Best Actor, inclusion in the AFI Top 100, my undying love for musicals.
Why I didn't: The movie should really be called "An Hour of Audrey Hepburn Screaming, Followed By a Forced Love Story." Seriously, the beginning of this film made me want to honorably retire my ears. I get it, she's a Cockney flower girl - but I didn't know that "Cockney flower girl" was synonymous with "autistic indecipherable screaming bitch." Once Rex Harrison's character "tames" her, she falls for him. Because if there's one thing women love, it's men that spend months torturing and ridiculing them until they have proper grammar. At the end, AuHeps runs away, decides she loves him, and goes back, and then it ends with him telling her to get him his slippers. Great. A blissful life of chauvinistic domination awaits her. Oh, and did I mention that it's 3 hours long?

- The Sting
Why I should have liked it: It won Best Picture in 1973, and it stars Robert Redford and Paul Newman.
Why I didn't: I made it through about an hour. It's all fine and good, but I realized the problem - it has no oomph. It was in the drama section at the video store, but it's not dramatic. It's not that funny either. It's not really action-packed. It was just kind of matter-of-fact, like someone describing their day at work. That's not what I want from movies. Oh, and I think I was expecting Paul Newman to look as delicious as he did in the 1950s. Damn aging!

- Sideways
Why I should have liked it: I liked Alexander Payne's other directing work, Oscar for best adapted screenplay, seemingly indie and quirky.
Why I didn't: I saw this in the theater, and perhaps my impression of it is tainted because I was new to driving at the time and got terribly lost on the way home. Anyway, this must have come out amongst a sea of pure cinematic crap, because it got hailed as the most unique and indie thing of all time. It's not. Writer/director Alexander Payne is very hit or miss. He wrote the (adapted) screenplays for Election and About Schmidt...but he also wrote the screenplays for Jurassic Park III and some softcore porn. Hm. Thoms Haden Church's character is fun, but Paul Giamatti's character in this is just plain unlikeable. He's a grumpy, frumpy, whiny alcoholic. As we all know, women totally go gaga for men like that, and Maya (Virginia Madsen) is no exception. That would never happen. The part where I really threw up in my mouth a little, though, is when Maya and Miles (Giamatti) are talking about pinot wine, during a Deep Moment of Mutual Sharing. What transpires here is a Blatant Comparison of Miles to Pinot As Written By A Developmentally Delayed Third Grader. "Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression"?!?! Oh wait, you guys, see, like, Miles is socially challenged, so I think A. Payne is actually talking about MILES here and saying you have to be patient with him or something. WHOA.

- Manhattan
Why I should have liked it: I like Woody Allen, and this is hailed as one of his best.
Why I didn't: I don't like watching Woody Allen carry on a relationship with a 17-year-old for two hours. It was just too creepy - and prophetic. Plus, the entire movie was just really depressing, but then Muriel Hemingway says some catchy happy bullshit at the very end and it's all better? Not.

- Vertigo
Why I should have liked it: I'd never met a Hitchcock movie I didn't like, it soared up the AFI list this time around.
Why I didn't: I don't know. Something just didn't click with me. I found the plot confusing, the characters unsympathetic, the ending weird. I know I am probably alone here.

So there you have it. I have probably made many enemies here today, but hopefully I've also made some friends who can sympathize with the feeling of not liking a popular movie. What movies tickle everyone's fancy but yours? Comments welcome, but please don't try to convert me to liking the above selections. Live and let live, people.

Wild Hogs Bonanza

At the video store I work at, the manager ordered 14 copies of the movie Wild Hogs.


Let me give you a sense of scale here. We're not Blockbuster, we don't have 50-75 copies of the hottest new movie. We're small and independent. Some numbers for you:

- Norbit, which was a box office success and highly asked about in the months preceding its DVD release: 4 copies
- The Departed, which eventually won the Oscar for best picture, boasted an amazing cast and director, and had everyone from film snobs to grubby townies excited because it took place in Boston: 20 copies (I think 20 is our maximum)

So that puts Wild Hogs, which had been asked about to a moderate degree, nearly in a league with arguably the most popular movie ever to hit our store. None of the employees can explain this. There are just too many. One employee decided to have some fun with it.

This employee is usually rather quiet and serious, so I wouldn't expect this from him. His claimed that the maneuver was in the name of profit, but I think it was a dry sense of humor. He mentioned something about a Wild Hogs "section" that he organized. I went over to take a look, and found that he had arranged the copies to take up an entire shelf, and added the following sign:

Yeah, the manager might be mad, but this employee has his last day this week, so it doesn't matter. So awesome.