April 26, 2010

What movies have you done a 180 on?

I can be finicky about rewatching movies. I often feel guilty watching something for a second time when there are thousands of movies out there I haven't seen a first time. But, in my increasing wisdom and maturity and under the guidance of a very pro-rewatching boyfriend, I am discovering the world of the multiple viewing. This is especially important in that I've deemed everything past two years ago "the time that doesn't count," meaning a time when my film-assessing judgment was not the finely honed tool it is today and thus many of my opinions of films watched during those years are void. Allow me to share a couple of times that rewatching turned me around on a film - for better or worse.

The first case was Barton Fink. I rented it when I worked at a video store, since I loved everything Coen and it was recommended by a fellow employee. I blame the back of the DVD box for setting me up for a hilarious screwball experience - which, needless to say, is completely inaccurate. The closest movie I can think of to Barton Fink is A Serious Man, another Coen outing that one might classify as a surrealist/absurdist deadpan period satire. So I was particularly unprepared for some gruesome violence and a pervasive atmosphere of dread and doom. The whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth. Some time later, there was a Coen Brothers festival at my local rep theater, and I was convinced to attend the Barton Fink screening. With a better idea of what to expect, I absolutely loved the film. It's genius - the blending of tones and genres, the perfectly crafted characters bursting with personality (even Steve Buscemi as a hotel clerk does wonders with his, like, three lines), the superlative use of John Turturro and John Goodman. Everything. It now ranks as one of my favorite Coens (especially because I now know when to look away for the icky part!)

The opposite happened when I rewatched Knocked Up. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I wrote a research paper about this film, and the act of dissecting can hamper your enjoyment of anything, so that might be a factor. I found that the jokes that were riotously funny the first time were rather tepid the second. I don't want to belittle that, however, since the film made me laugh very hard once and it's a pretty tall order for any filmmaker to create something that is a rewarding experience every time (especially goofy comedies). Upon closer analysis, I also found the gender politics of the movie to be rather troubling. On the first viewing I thought everyone was taking it too seriously, but even allowing for the shrewish depictions of the women, the fact that at the end Ben basically earns his manhood and respect by yelling at a woman who hasn't really done much to him is unsettling. By contrast, I think The 40-Year-Old Virgin holds up very well to repeat viewings.

There are also less dramatic instances when I just didn't get what the fuss was about the first time, and the second time I didn't get why I didn't get it, such as M (which admittedly I didn't get all the way through at first) Vertigo, Manhattan and The Third Man. I am ashamed of those, but at least I gave them another go and saw the light at last.

What about you? What cinematic 180s have you done? No judgment here.

Movie nerd gift idea: magnets!

Movie-themed refrigerator magnets are obviously not a new idea. One need go no further than your local gift or novelty store to find magnets depicting everything from The Wizard of Oz to Scarface. But have you ever seen a The Young Girls of Rochefort magnet? The 1967 Jacques Demy musical? No, no you have not. But one exists on the fridge of my apartment. It was a handmade gift from me to my boyfriend because I am awesome. Joining it were magnets of Maude and the Dude bowling from The Big Lebowski and the Tenenbaums of The Royal Tenenbaums. If you have steady hands, a printer, some patience and a few bucks, you can surprise and delight the movie fan in your life with a practical but fun personalized gift.

Just purchase some adhesive magnet sheets (I used these), print out some images, stick them on and cut them out. There are two ways to approach your hunt for pictures. One is to use screencaps or images of movie posters, which is good if your skill with scissors starts and ends at "basic rectangle." What I did, though, which I think looks cooler, is found full-body images of movie characters and cut out around them. I will warn you that this can be very time-consuming, and probably requires some tiny scissors (i.e. nail scissors or the little scissors that come in sewing kits). It's also suprisingly difficult to find pictures where the full body can be seen, with not so much as a finger out of frame (because then it just looks weird), even for famous movies. But I found at least three that worked great, so I'm sure there are plenty of options for your recipient's faves. There are also magnet sheets that you can print on directly, so that saves you a step.

So whip some of these up for your favorite people, then come back and share your creations!

April 15, 2010

Is there such a thing as "dumb" comedy?

Some people, when watching comedies, will admit during or after that what they're watching is very dumb - even if they find it funny. They'll use justifications like "oh man, I know it's so stupid, but it made me laugh." I recently realized that this never happens to me. It might happen with drama, especially TV - "Oh, I know it's so poorly written, but I just get sucked in!" but never comedy. Even in viewing films that were widely enjoyed while still being called dumb, such as Dumb and Dumber and The Hangover, I did not feel that I was witnessing stupid, mindless entertainment. I propose that there is no such thing as smart and dumb comedy, and that instead we should use the classifications of effective and non-effective comedy. Some people think that jokes about lowbrow subjects automatically lessen the humor or that the funny quotient is raised by more intellectual gags, but I don't think that's being fair at all.

Consider, for example, The Hangover vs. Epic Movie. To be fair, I haven't seen the latter - but I saw the trailer, and it's pretty clear that their idea of comedy is just dressing people up like characters from famous movies. This, to me, is what's truly dumb. It is not effective at soliciting laughter. The Hangover, conversely, utilizes lowbrow subject matter, but has rewarding joke/gag constructions. They work. We laugh. I believe there can be "smart" comedy about bodily functions, and "dumb" comedy about nuclear physics. If it does the job of making the audience laugh, you can't really criticize the means it took to get there. You could argue that farting isn't supposed to be funny, but Nazis aren't supposed to be funny either, and that doesn't make The Great Dictator or To Be or Not To Be any less hilarious or acclaimed. Or to put it another way: think of stand-up comedy, where the playing field seems a lot more level. I have seen both "dumb" and "smart" stand-up about everything from relationships to smoking pot, often coming from the same person. Chris Rock can make effective jokes about race; Carlos Mencia cannot. It's all in the delivery.

Obviously there are shades of gray - you can probably ca
ll the humor of Annie Hall smarter than that of Animal House - but you can't really criticize either if you find them funny. So next time you feel guilty for laughing at poop jokes, just reassure yourself that the subject matter is irrelevant and that you're just appreciating well-constructed comedy. Or do you disagree, and think that lowbrow subjects automatically demean the humor and make it "dumb"?

April 12, 2010

Movie nerd gift idea: chirashi!

Isn't it lame when some blog or article claims to have a great gift idea for movie lovers, and it just turns out to be a Blu-ray of some blockbuster or a Regal giftcard? Finding actual good suggestions can be tough, so when something comes on my radar I will gladly share it, although the real credit goes to the good folks over at The Auteurs for this one.

Have you ever heard of chirashi? They're basically Japanese lobby cards - highly collectible 7x10 mini-posters that can only be found in Japanese cinemas. Some feature designs drawn from the original posters or a scene in the film, others have original artwork. I've poked around on eBay for them before, but the findings vary from day to day. So the cool thing is that this site sells thousands of them for between $1-$5, mostly on the lower end of that range. And it's $9 flat shipping to almost anywhere in the world, no matter how many you order! They have films from many different countries, from classics to anime, from Goldmember to Metropolis. I especially like that they have cards from film festivals and retrospectives, so you get a Woody Allen double feature of Annie Hall and Manhattan called "Films for The [sic] Nervous Lovers." Another great thing is that they're nice and small, but still more significant than something postcard-sized, so they're great for weird corners of your house/apartment that can't fit anything big but still look a little naked. It's not as imposing as "HAPPY BIRTHDAY, I KNOW YOU WANT THIS HUGE PULP FICTION POSTER TAKING UP YOUR ENTIRE WALL." So pick out two or three great ones that your cinephile friend would enjoy - just make sure to plan ahead, since shipping can take 2-4 weeks.

Here's the link: http://www.jmshop.net/index.html

April 2, 2010

Great rainy scenes in film

I currently live in Portland, Oregon, home of "it rains so much here that we stubbornly refuse to use umbrellas even though that doesn't make any sense shut up!" My former native cities of the last year include New York and Boston, both recovering from huge rainstorms that required emergency measures. April seems to be rainy everywhere, and while it can be a drag in real life, it makes for some great movie scenes. Here's a smattering of some great rainy scenes/films. (Spoilers indicated by an asterisk, but most of them aren't things you couldn't figure out yourself)

*The Public Enemy (1931) - In James Cagney's star-making turn, hardened gangster Tom Powers meets his end from a gunshot in a rainy street while wimpering "I ain't so tough." Incidentally, he would go down in literal flames in White Heat (1949).

Key Largo (1948) - The rain could almost be considered another character in this noir - it's what keeps the protagonists trapped inside a hotel with a crazed criminal and his goons, and keeps making menacing cameos through the windows or when the doors periodically blow open.

Gun Crazy (1950) - An obsession begins. Young Bart Tare stands out in the rain, lusting after the guns in a shop window. He impulsively breaks the window and steals one, but trips in the course of his getaway and sees his prize slide to the feet of the local sheriff. From there, reform school and then even worse, a woman...

The African Queen (1951) - It's a small moment, but a significant one. Katharine Hepburn's prim and proper missionary and Humphrey Bogart's rough and tumble captain are stuck together on his boat, and when it starts raining in the middle of the night Bogey tries for entry into Hepburn's makeshift tent. Appalled at his lack of propriety, she quickly shoos him out, but when she realizes how miserable the weather is she begrudgingly allows him in, starting on the path to getting over herself.

Singin in the Rain (1952) - The one and only. Rain is often used to indicate misery, intrigue or even passion, but rarely is it featured in scenes of unbridled joy. Gene Kelly is high on love, and he tap-dances through pouring rain with an umbrella as his partner in one of the great scenes in cinema history. The fact that he filmed the scene with a high fever makes it all the more impressive.

*Seven Samurai (1954) - How do you make one of cinema's most epic battles even more epic? Rain! It turns the village to slush as bandits (unsuccessfully, of course) attempt to do the same.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958) - At the core of Louis Malle's debut film is a heartbroken Jeanne Moreau wandering the streets of Paris in the rain, looking for her lover that never showed up after murdering her husband (he's stuck in an elevator, hence the title). Malle insisted she didn't wear makeup and consequently several labs refused to process the footage, but he persisted and the result is the very incarnation of bleak misery and heartbreak.

*Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) - Many films have a tearful and rain-soaked reunion of lovers at the end, but how many of those start as a search through the streets for a cat and end up featuring a wet and pissed-off cat smooshed into the final embrace?

Two for the Road (1967) - In this criminally underrated film, Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn play a couple reminiscing on their often joyous but often tumultuous marriage. In one of the happier memories, they are hitchhiking in Europe and get stranded in the rain, so they seek refuge in a giant concrete tube they find and fall asleep. When they wake up, they find themselves on the back of a truck (but without the "headed for a giant nefarious crushing machine!" cliche you would expect to find next).

*Blade Runner (1982) - Dying replicant Roy Batty becomes embroiled in a chase with Deckard in a downpour, but he ultimately can't outrun the pre-destined end of his life. He delivers a soliloquoy about his life, likening the events he's seen to "tears in the rain," a line that was unscripted but became one of the film's most memorable.

Jurassic Park (1993) - I wouldn't have guessed that rain could somehow make a T-Rex more menacing, but there you go.

Chasing Amy (1997) - A scene that you'd expect to be at the end of the movie, but here it proves to be only the beginning. Holden spills his love for his allegedly lesbian friend Alyssa in the pouring rain, in a scene that would probably be cheesy if it wasn't for Kevin Smith's characteristically great and down-to-earth dialogue.

The Ice Storm (1997) - The titular storm is rain before it's ice, and it serves as a catalyst near the end of the film that kills, reconciles, and teaches the self-absorbed characters what's actually important.

Pleasantville (1998) - A film that primarily takes place inside a 1950s sitcom, which is perfectly controlled universe until a brother and sister from the present arrive and cause all kinds of trouble. Sex, rebellion, and even color enter the black-and-white world, but a turning point is when Pleasantville gets its first rain. The teenagers react with delight, and the older generations respond with fear, panic and the notion that this is indicative of great evil. (I won't make the obvious political analogy for fear of the foaming-at-the-mouth comments it may incite.)

All About My Mother (1999) - A mother watches her teenage son get hit and killed by a taxi containing his favorite actress, whom he was chasing for an autograph. Apparently this scene is blatantly lifted from John Cassavetes' Opening Night both in style and plot (Pedro Almodovar said so himself), but where the latter uses that incident as a launching point to focus on the actress, AAMM focuses on the mother. Particularly heartbreaking since at the end of the scene the camera has the POV of the victim and spirals around his grieving and screaming mother.

Spider-Man (2002) - KIRSTEN DUNST'S BOOBS! KIRSTEN DUNST'S BOOBS! But seriously though, this scene was hot and original before it was iconic and oft-parodied. If you live under a rock and still don't know what I'm talking about, Peter Parker as Spider-Man rescues Mary Jane from some thugs and she treats him to a kiss in the rain while he's upside down. And because of the rain, you can kind of see her BOOBS.

And if you don't define rain strictly as water...

*Magnolia (1999) - It rains frogs. Even more insane than that is how not entirely insane it feels in what's otherwise a mostly realistic drama.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) - It rains everything from steaks to ice cream and of course, spaghetti and meatballs. This is rain I could get behind (imagine the savings on your food budget!)

And also...

Almost any movie with John Cusack, apparently - it seems pointless to isolate just one or two when this exists.

And a billion gazillion more - I apologize in advance for all the ones I forgot. What are your favorite rainy scenes?