October 31, 2009

When do you turn off / walk out of a movie?

I have only walked out of a movie once in my entire life that I can remember. My dad, distraught that he had two daughters and no sons after growing up with three sisters, tried to interest my sister and I in all things manly - particularly sports and violent movies. This didn't quite take. Somehow, though, he convinced me to see Blade II with him in theaters, and at the time of its release I was 14. I didn't really like scary or bloody movies, but for some unknown reason I got really excited and spent the whole day bragging about it at school. Pumped up like some badass I wasn't, we strode into the theater.

Within the first ten minutes, some vampire got his brains splattered on a wall and I screamed and demanded that we leave. We did.

I'm not really sure what the problem was exactly. I'm not averse to violence, so I guess the supernatural/scary elements were too much for me. And yes, it's probably not even that bad, but I'm a wimp.

Nowadays it's different, because I pay for my own entertainment. If I paid to see a movie that actually turned out to be just a filmed blank wall for two hours, I would stay because I paid for it, god dammit, and I am very poor.

But on DVD, it's a different story. I used to be a lot more trigger-happy with the stop button, but I've developed more patience. There are three main reasons I will stop a movie:

1. Averse physical reaction
I had to stop Waking Life because the squiggly animation was actually making me nauseous. Then again, so was the pretentious dialogue.
2. It does not seem like at any point it will get better
The most recent movie I stopped was Happy-Go-Lucky. I had really wanted to see it for a while, and I got about an hour in, and realized two things: 1) This movie has absolutely no plot, and one's enjoyment of it is completely contingent on how much you like the main character 2) I did not like the character. I couldn't tell if you were supposed to like her or not. Maybe in the second half she gets kidnapped by a gang of pessimists who convert her or something, I don't know, but from the way the wheels had been set in motion there were only so many places the train could go.
3. I get interrupted, by a lengthy phone call for example, and then...well...don't quite get back around to the rest...
Pretty straightforward. If I like where a movie's heading, I'll return to it after the interruption. If I don't, well, I guess I was just looking for a way out.

The exception, what makes a movie basically unstoppable, is importance. If I'm watching Welles or Fellini, I'm gonna stick with it, because there's something in these films that makes people promote them to the pillars on which they reside. I haven't seen Seven Samurai yet, but when I do, I'm going to hang in there even if I hate every single minute out of the 200-plus because it's just too important. But, ya know, I'm really not gonna be a bad person if I can't finish Happy-Go-Lucky.

The one exception is that several years ago, I stopped M about 30-45 minutes in. I knew that made me a bad person, and when I watched the whole thing recently it was of course great. I guess I've just gotten more patient in my old age.

What does it take for you to stop / walk out of a movie?

October 25, 2009

Is this actually a movie? #7

Here we have Valentine's Day, a romcom from Garry Marshall (director of Pretty Woman) that's sort of an L.A.-based Love Actually. There's really nothing inherently ridiculous about that. But here's what's ridiculous: this looks to be a movie where a selection of Hollywood's most attractive people complain about how they can't get a date. There's suspension of disbelief, and then there's this. I can much sooner buy an invasion of Earth by alien versions of the reincarnated Abraham Lincoln than the fact that Jessica Biel cannot find someone to have sex with on Valentine's Day. It's one thing to have a movie where one attractive star complains about being lonely, but a dozen? Unbearable. This is when, in my opinion, a movie crosses over from "glamour and fantasy to aspire to and/or escapism" to "alienating to everyone who doesn't look like Jessica Alba." Also, there's a rumor floating around in the YouTube comments that someone is the "voice of the dog." Those four words have never bode well for a non-animated movie.

And yet, this movie will still make a bajillion dollars. Check out the trailer and its many cringeworthy moments below.

October 22, 2009

Fun and sweet married couples on film

The release of Couples Retreat got me thinking about married couples in movies (or Antichrist, for that matter...a very different kind of couples retreat). Somehow the world of cinema, especially in more recent years (let's say post-studio era), hasn't really done a great job of making marriage seem fun or appealing. If a couple is already married at the beginning of a movie, they're probably either going to a) break up b) have horrible fights and almost break up c) one of them will die d) one of them will only have a little bit of screen time. Why is this? It seems in older movies, there would be less reasons for couples to be happy...rigid gender roles, inability to divorce, sexual taboos, etc. And yet the studio era, despite the predominance of romances that resulted in marriage only at the end of the film, produced many silver screen couples that stayed together from beginning to end credits and loved (almost) every minute of it. Here's some of my picks for couples that prove that the flirtatious fun and happiness can continue even after swapping vows.

The Thin Man series (1934-1947) - Nick and Nora Charles
This is the original fun couple, the one that all others would be indebted to. Playful, flirtatious, witty beyond normal human capacity and a little wicked, these two love martinis, mysteries, and of course, each other. I say "wicked" due to classic moments such as Nick throwing Nora into a taxi and telling the driver "Grant's Tomb!" to get her out of the way.

Holiday (1938) - Nick and Susan Potter
The Potters have supporting roles, but are no less memorable. Edward Everett Horton plays Nick in both this version and the one from 1931, so naturally he's a much older friend of the main character in the second outing but he still gets a sassy wife. He and the missus have the kind of raised-eyebrow rapport that can only lead me to one logical conclusion: THEY HAVE A TON OF SEX. I doubt anyone else reached this verdict, but I really felt like they were doing it whenever they were offscreen. And that's awesome.

Heaven Can Wait (1943) - Martha and Henry Van Cleve
This movie is rather unusual in that there isn't really a conflict or villain, it's more just the story of a man's life, the good and the bad. In not trying to force a plot, the audience gets the treat of seeing a marital relationship unfold very naturally over the course of 40-odd years, from lusty youth when Henry steals Martha away from his loser cousin to sweet and gentle old age. And to the afterlife and beyond...(no spoilers here - come on, look at the title).

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) - Milly and Al Stephenson
This postwar readjustment drama still holds up today, largely due to the genuine performances of Myrna Loy, Harold Russell and Fredric March (the latter two snagged Oscars). Loy and March play a couple readjusting to married life in one of the more refreshingly realistic depictions of a long-term relationship from this era or any other. When their teenage daughter accuses them of never having relationship problems, Milly sighs and says there were countless times when they hated each other. "How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?"

Adam's Rib (1949) - Adam and Amanda Bonner
Two married laywers on opposite sides of a criminal case - conflict of interest much? Many agree that this is the best of the Hepburn and Tracy collaborations, and while I haven't seen them all, I'm not sure what else you could ask for. It's a battle of the sexes through and through, but by an unforgettable ending involving licorice you'll know that these two really love each other. (I didn't mean for the licorice thing to sound dirty - I promise it's really not).

Father of the Bride (1950) - Stanley and Ellie Banks
Spencer Tracy puts his grump persona to great use in this film as the frazzled title character, and Joan Bennett as his wife knows just how to handle him. For all their ribbing, though, the moment when Stanley sees his wife in her mother of the bride gown is really sweet and touching. And they share a slow dance after the sanity-sucking craziness of the wedding is over. It just shows that you can still be husband and wife even after you're mother and father (you know, sometimes).

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) - Norma and Rocky Graziano
Okay, I'm slightly cheating, because they're not married for the WHOLE movie (their courtship and marriage comes in the first third or so) but it's still not a final-reunion-in-the-rain-at-the-end-of-the-movie situation. At first you kind of wonder what the shy Norma sees in the belligerent, awkward, and inarticulate Rocky, but as their marriage progresses you figure it out (and so does she). She's the only one who can talk sense into him (he beats guys up for saying much less), and when Rocky comes home in a fit of rage after losing a fight, she puts a lamp right of front of him when he starts to swing and we realize they're a match made in heaven.

These are the only more modern examples I could think of:

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) - Larry and Carol Lipton
Not that much of a stretch, since Woody Allen was directly and visibly inspired by the Thin Man films - it's Nick and Nora, but 20 years later, neurotic and Jewish. Allen and Diane Keaton are reunited after his Mia Farrow period, and despite the Thin Man influence there's the classic Allen touch, with lines like "Save a little craziness for menopause!"

The Simpsons Movie (2007) and a TV series you might have heard of - Marge and Homer Simpson
While most of their time is spent having Homer drive Marge crazy, there's a love there unlike most other relationships in pop culture - and in being so, is actually quite like most relationships in real life. Maybe it's partially because it's had 20 years to develop, but the writers have really nailed the decidedly unglamorous but still sweet dynamic between average American spouses. Homer always manages to prove his devotion in the nick of time, and Marge remembers why she keeps him around. (On a somewhat related note, a Google image search for "Marge Homer" reveals SO MUCH DISTURBING SIMPSONS PORN THAT WILL HAUNT MY DREAMS.)

Fargo (1996) - Marge and Norm Gunderson
They don't share much screen time, and they're a far cry from the Park Avenue glamour of Nick and Nora, but the Gundersons are so cute you could puke. After a movie of abrasive characters and twisted violence, the final image of an expectant Marge snuggling into bed with her hubby is all the more tender.

And a controversial bonus pick:

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) - George and Martha
I first read this play and saw the film in an American lit class, where the professor introduced it as a love story. The first time you see it, all you can do is be shocked at how these people treat each other. That's fine. Get that out of your system. But I saw it a second time and realized that my professor was right. There is no one who could possibly be with George or Martha but the other. The games they play with each other, although seemingly unhealthy, are what sustain them. It's like how sadism looks painful and weird to most people but is a source of fun and intimacy for some. If you can get past the fact that it's two people screaming at each other and you were taught that two people screaming at each other typically indicates serious problems, then perhaps you'll see the romance.

This list is by no means exhaustive...who did I miss?

October 16, 2009

Great movies I discovered by virtue of their Criterion logo

There are a lot of movies out there and never enough time in the day. So, aside from classics, recommendations and films with directors/actors you like, how does one choose? Well, here's a personal shortcut: when I see a Criterion Collection cover, I know there's something worthwhile in there. Maybe it won't become a new favorite, but it's definitely worthwhile. The good folks at Criterion comb through a century-plus of cinema to find the good stuff for you, and there have been several instances where I discovered great movies simply because they bore the Criterion logo. Here are 7 movies that I plucked off the shelf due to their Criterion status, having never heard of them before, and loved. (And no, they're not paying me!)

1. Blast of Silence (1961)
A recent addition to Criterion library, I only really knew that this involved a hitman, a cool cover and a mere 77 minutes of my time. The film is not really groundbreaking in any respect, but it's taut and compelling nonetheless. It fits into a great genre that I call "post-noir" for lack of a better term - films of the late 1950s and early 1960s that incorporate noir elements but have a grittier, more realistic atmosphere (i.e. Sweet Smell of Success, The Man With the Golden Arm, The Hustler). The film has heavy narration written by the blacklisted writer Waldo Salt, which helps you get very close to the main character. A terrific and bitter little flick.

2. Mona Lisa (1986)
Neil Jordan's primary claim to fame is making that movie where the chick turns out to be a dude, but I had always heard that there was much more to him. The cover of this DVD, with a pretty woman yelling at Bob Hoskins in a car, had always intrigued me when I used to work at a video store, and last week I finally watched it. I'll admit that due to my rather pathetic inability to properly comprehend English accents, I probably missed a lot of the movie, but I was loving what I saw. I almost wanted to watch it again after I had finished - it's such a rich and dense film that I think it takes multiple viewings to fully appreciate. It's kind of a weird noir love story mystery, and Bob Hoskins is incredible. Michael Caine also has a small role playing a type you never get him to see him play. There's a planned Larry Clark remake that may or may not involve Mickey Rourke, so make sure to catch the original first.

3. Brute Force (1947)
Jules Dassin is most well known for his street-based crime films, from Night and the City to Rififi, but this one is set inside a prison. My interest was piqued because I'm a Burt Lancaster fan, and he's allegedly the star here, but it's really more of an ensemble piece with a scene-stealing performance by Hume Cronyn as the sadistic prison guard. A brilliant example of against-type casting, a role that would have typically gone to a macho, foaming-at-the-mouth type is pulled off by the mild-mannered Cronyn in what might be called a cross between Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter. It also tackles social issues of prisons in a way that's never preachy, and delivers a grittiness that is not often seen in overwrought prison pictures.

4. Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958)
Lured in by the bright yellow cover, I read on the back that this was a parody of caper films like the aforementioned Rififi. I couldn't say I had seen an Italian comedy before, much less a classic one - the closest thing was probably the highbrow satire of 8 1/2. It turns out this film is an absolute hoot despite its simple setup - a bunch of inept criminals planning a heist where everything goes wrong. All the characters have the lower-class European mannerisms that you see in films like Moonstruck or My Big Fat Greek Wedding (i.e. waving your hands and yelling "Mama mia!"), but here instead of groan-inducing stereotypes, they are accurate (and very funny) portrayals created by a true Italian director and based in truth upon the criminal classes of the day. It's not so much laugh-out-loud funny as it is clever, with a solid script and great performances from stars like Claudia Cardinale and Marcello Mastroianni (hysterical). If you thought Italian cinema was very formal and produced only things like neorealism, you're in for a real treat (with a great jazz score to boot!).

5. F for Fake (1973)
Every good little cinephile knows that Orson Welles made Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, and the second tier of Welles enthusiasts will know about The Trial and his Shakespeare work. But very few are aware of this bizarre and fascinating documentary he made about deception and fakers, from art forgers to Welles himself. I'm glad Criterion rescued this little nugget from obscurity, to strengthen the argument that there's a lot more great stuff to Welles than just Kane. Welles is a great actor, but he's equally compelling (and vaguely creepy) when he's just being himself.

6. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
I found this gem by browsing the shelves of the video store I used to work at. Drawn in by the interesting cover (sensing a theme here? Just goes to show that a well-executed design grabs attention much better than the generic plastering of celebrity faces on covers) and the premise, but having never heard of most of the people involved with it, I gave it a shot. It's British black comedy through and through, featuring a wonderfully deadpan performance by Dennis Price and Alec Guinness in eight (!) roles. This film may not be for everyone - some may find it too dark, some not dark enough, but for the right crowd it's a wicked pleasure.

7. Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
At the time I first became aware of this film, I only knew Louis Malle from Au revoir les enfants, which I saw in ninth grade English class and was to my cinematically uneducated self "That French Holocaust movie with the masturbating." But what's this? The noirish debut of an audacious young director featuring a Miles Davis score? You can't get much further from a French Holocaust movie with masturbating. So I popped it in one day and while my boyfriend and I agreed that the ending was a little sudden and that the whole movie would have never happened if cell phones had existed, it was still a captivating melancholic thriller that featured ample footage of a miserable Jeanne Moreau wandering the rainy streets of Paris in that "post-noir" (see above) style I love so much.

What about you? Do you have the same faith in the Criterion collection? Do you have any similar success stories of impulse movie viewings from their library?