June 21, 2010

Movie Memories: The Little Mermaid

Writing of my deficient movie youth in the last post, it nudged me to finally start a new feature I had long been considering called Movie Memories. The idea is simple: recall notable movie-viewing experiences from my life. Unlike many of my other hastily aborted features, however, I think this one will stick better because I have 23 years of material to work with already. So let's begin at the beginning, with the first movie I ever saw in a theater: The Little Mermaid.

It's 1989 and I'm two and a half years old, still an only child. My dad is taking me to a movie theater, a big, dark, cavernous place, to see something called The Little Mermaid. We pass by the concession stand and my dad offers to buy me a treat. The world stops for a moment.

You see, my mom is a strict sugar Nazi, who fervently denies me access to sweets, except on the rarest of occasions. My dad, however, doesn't care. I consider my options carefully, but there is really no contest - I choose my favorite, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. This is far more exciting than the notion of seeing a moving picture.

We settle into our seats, and I stare up at the looming screen. I rarely ever consider this now, but especially before stadium seating became the norm, poor kids across the world must have been craning their necks at almost impossible angles to see the screen in spite of their stature. I can't bear the wait any longer and I devour the first of my two Reese's, cupping the other in my hand to save for later.

The lights dim, and what seems like a very long series of cartoons begins. I now realize two things: those were trailers for upcoming animated movies, and it wasn't long at all. It's pretty wild to think about how slowly time moved when you were a kid - everything that I can remember from before age five or so seems like a feverish dream. I recall it seemed like about 45 minutes of "cartoons," one of which was advertising an entry in the Land Before Time franchise.

Then the movie begins, quickly solidifying a love of the film that continues to this day (except that Ursula, both then and now, may be the most terrifying thing I've ever seen). After I feel that a considerable amount of time has passed (it probably hasn't), I decide that it is now appropriate to eat my other Reese's. But do you know what happens to chocolate when cradled in a warm palm? I sure didn't, and I look down to find sugary sludge where my treat once resided. I start crying. My dad saves the day, however, by ducking out of the theater to buy me a replacement. If my math is correct, then, I might have actually scored an extra Reese's in the process.

Thus begins a lifetime of watching a flickering screen in the dark with strangers. Only now I don't sit there clutching chocolate in my bare hands.

June 20, 2010

Catching up on a lost cinematic childhood

I will begin by saying that I was NOT raised Mormon, or any other religion that forbids its followers from viewing or otherwise experiencing certain media. What does that have to do with anything? Well, it might be your first assumption when I reveal the surprising list of films I did not see growing up.

If it was a classic loved by children and young adults from the 80s (or thereabouts), I almost certainly missed it. Back to the Future. The Star Wars trilogy. Ghostbusters. Honestly, I don't know what happened. Your parents are your first source of pop culture influence, and my parents couldn't care less about it. They never prevented me from seeing anything (within reason, of course), but they never encouraged me to watch anything either. (It was the same with music - I don't think I was even exposed to the Beatles until high school, and I had to seek them out.) The lone exceptions were the time that my mom held me hostage when I was home sick and made me watch The Sound of Music, and the fact that my dad often tried to convince me and my sister to watch violent action movies on TV with him. Not even good action movies, either - but drab, explodey ones with the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren (I seem to recall one where Lundgren freaks out anytime he sees anything white?). I didn't get great movie exposure from friends either. So suddenly I found myself as a college student who hadn't seem some of the most beloved films of my own generation.

I feel pretty good about my standing with the film history/film snob canon, but I'd be remiss to dismiss its popular cousin. So, under the guidance of my boyfriend (who had a normal childhood), and a contribution from a similarly-normal ex, I sought to rectify this situation. It's strange and a bit sad to experience this films solely as an adult, but frankly, I'm not sure how much I would have liked a lot of them when I was younger. The best jokes would have gone over my head, and anything remotely unnerving would have scarred me for life (I'm still a relative wimp, but I once ran away screaming from slightly ominous segment on "Sesame Street," to give you an idea). Plus, I'm free from the constraints of nostalgia, or even nostalgia's nameless relative wherein I didn't even particularly love something as a kid but I'm still unable to evaluate it objectively. (For me, that's The Wizard of Oz. I don't even know if I liked it, but it's just the goddamn Wizard of Oz!).

So here is my progress so far. I have viewed all of these films for the first time at age 20 or older.

Alien (1979)
Wow. Wow wow wow. Can you believe that this film is over 30 years old? I can't. The set and prop design and special effects haven't aged a day, and the cast maintains a pitch-perfect sense of tense restraint. The suspense is orchestrated beautifully, and I didn't see the twists coming at all (maybe I was just lucky enough to avoid hearing about them). Definitely something that darling little girls don't typically see, but all the boys did and I owed it to myself as a film fan. I'm not naturally predisposed to sci-fi/horror, but this one won me over hook, line, and sinker.

Aliens (1986)
So remember everything I liked about the original? Well, remove that, and you end up with Aliens. I've detailed my troubled relationship with James Cameron already, and this is no exception. I understand that it's an action movie instead of sci-fi or horror, but it wasn't really working for me on that level either. Sure, there are impressive moments, but I was bummed that Cameron traded the sterile, futuristic environment for something resembling a flashy 80s music video. A lot of the compositions felt frenzied and cluttered, and almost all the characters (Ripley excluded) were goofy 80s stereotypes. Ripley's ascension to heroine was of course fantastic, but we all agree that Newt is annoying and lame. I know she needs to be there for the maternal themes, but how awesome would it have been if Ripley just kept saving her lesser male comrades? Also, I felt an overwhelming sense that they were trying to disguise a lack of actual aliens. The "don't show the monster" approach can be effective in low-budget, atmospheric horror, but it just seems pathetic in an action blockbuster.

Back to the Future (1985)
Most of the time, the three-act structure seems like a drag - "oh, now it's time for the low point!", etc. But it was not originally intended to weigh films down, but to give them life, and sometimes there are films that execute it so perfectly that they freakin sparkle. BTTF is a well-oiled machine that glides along without so much as a hiccup. Everything works, be it Michael J. Fox's boyish charm, the quaint world of the 1950s, the lovably insane Doc Brown, the incalculable menace of Biff, or the thrill of a ride in a souped-up DeLorean. It's good clean fun that never takes itself too seriously. It's a shame I didn't see this as a kid, but as you can see, it's never too late!

A Christmas Story (1983)
My reason for not seeing this one as a kid is simple: it's about Christmas. Being raised Jewish, Christmas was just that stupid day that I never got to be a part of, so I didn't feel compelled to participate in any of its cinematic traditions (even though many are good films in their own right). But when I watched the movie a couple of years ago, I realized that it's something that even a surly Scientologist could enjoy. The depictions of a wacky family transcend all generations and religions. I might even go so far as to say that it's the perfect holiday movie - it has the same theme as all of them (family and loved ones are what matters most at Christmastime) but wrapped in a twisted, sweet-and-sour package that includes scary Santas, f-bombs, leg lamps, BB guns, and a Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant. The introspective voiceover also keeps the proceedings from getting too treacly. Pity I didn't catch any TV showings of it when I was little, but I have many Christmases to come.

Dumb and Dumber (1994)
As I wrote in a previous post about "dumb comedy", don't let the title here fool you - this is a smartly-executed flick. A testament to its comedy is the fact that the things I laughed at the most had much more to do with the actors' delivery than the actual lines. Some of the more scatological gags weren't really my scene, but Carrey and Daniels play off each other with such impeccable timing that I'm not really sure how you couldn't dig this one.

Ghostbusters (1984)
In a word: yay! I was lucky enough to see it in a theater, even, no doubt filled with people who loved it in their youth. I realized that I was primarily familiar with Bill Murray's "serious" work, so it was great to see him play freewheeling and silly while still maintaining a deadpan edge (the rest of the gang is great too, of course). I think a trap that many comedies run into (particularly in the 80s) is that they try either too little or too much to make you laugh. Too little when they expect you to find the most basic of premises and situations funny, and too much when they're really straining for yuks. Ghostbusters hits the sweet spot, though - a pleasant and zany ride with demented supernatural elements (giant marshmallow man?!).

Jurassic Park (1993)
Action or effects-driven movies can often be like softcore porn: you have to sit through the silly talky parts to get to the good stuff. In Jurassic Park, the dinosaur sequences, particularly the T-Rex chase in the rain, are stunning. But the characters and everything else fall flat. Am I asking too much when I want my popcorn movies to be consistently entertaining? I don't think so, because those movies do exist. I also have trouble with the notion that an insanely brilliant scientist would put GIANT AGGRESSIVE CARNIVOROUS BEASTS in his park, when a park full of herbivorous dinosaurs would earn him just as much money and acclaim.

Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The problem with some sci-fi/action films that are intended as franchises (or that just end up being one) is that the first one has to go through the motions of establishing the world and the character histories. Sometimes this can be fun ("I was bitten by a radioactive spider and now weird things are happening!"), but even at its best, it's typically more fun in the sequels when you can take everything you've established and just play. Thus, I found Empire to be much more enjoyable, because it could build on the somewhat dull foundations of the original. Han was more charming, Luke more heroic, Vader more villainous, the situations more dire, the Force stronger...you name it. The first one seemed to be more about "look at these crazy planets and creatures I made up!". The prevailing theory is just that Lucas is a weak director. Who knows. For me, Empire offered some genuine thrills, which I just found to be lacking in the first. I have yet to see Return of the Jedi - look for that in a future installment!

The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
I have rarely felt James Cameron movies to be anything more than vehicles for technological innovation. If he was in charge of the special effects and left the writing and directing to someone else, I think the final product would be infinitely better. The Terminator films at least have an interesting premise that Cameron cooked up himself, but he struggles to carry it. Even if he did do it first, the fact that the world must be saved by a helpless-looking and unlikely candidate is unbearably cliched by now. The goofiness of the doctors and cops who don't believe Sarah Connor is over the top, Edward Furlong is annoying, some of the effects are distractingly bad (which would be fine if others weren't amazing - clearly there are capable people working on this, and it's the disparity that's the problem), and it's a little troubling to see Sarah fall for what might be nothing more than the most elaborate pick-up attempt of all time. The presence of Ahnuld makes for automatic camp, and I wish they had given in to that lighter tone more instead of making these films the deadly-serious affair that they are.  

That's it for now, but I still have to see Die Hard, the Indiana Jones films, Return of the Jedi and any or all Bond films, at least.

What childhood classics did you catch up on later? How did they stack up?

June 4, 2010

My own TV/Film University!

There's an awesome graphic that's been circulating the interwebs recently, called "TV University." It's somewhat of a misnomer, but it basically creates the faculty of a college out of film and TV characters. Many of the choices are utterly inspired, like having The Dude teach philosophy or Franklin (GOB's politically incorrect, ebonics-spewing puppet on Arrested Development) teaching African-American history. It got me thinking about who I would put in my own version...

First of all, they have some real people (not characters) in there, which is no fun, so I replaced them with fictional picks.

Dean (currently Clint Eastwood): I'm not sure if they mean a specific Eastwood character - I think they just mean the man himself. And he's cool and all, but if you want someone who's cool, fictional, and has experience running a successful school, then look no further than Professor X from the X-Men series.
Public speaking (currently Billy Mays): Is there a smoother talker on screen than Nick Naylor in Thank You for Smoking?
Choir (currently Neil Patrick Harris, apparently just as himself): Will Schuester from "Glee"! Come on! He actually plays a choir teacher! And he's just wonderful.
Film (currently film critic Armond White, who admittedly seems made up sometimes): The obvious choice is Guido Conselmi from 8 1/2, but a much more fun choice is the title character from Ed Wood. He's just so resourceful and innovative!
Culinary arts (currently chef and professional shouter Gordon Ramsay): Jack Tripper from "Three's Company!"
Dean of the art school (currently PBS painter Bob Ross): It has to be someone who has a demonstrated interest in multiple art forms...how about Maude Lebowski of The Big Lebowski? Or if you want to get more obscure (well, not for people my age), Doug's artsy sister Judy Funnie from "Doug" worked across many mediums.
Music (currently John Williams): Cosmo Brown, the sharp and snappy composer in Singin' in the Rain. Give the man a job so he can stop suffering and finally write that symphony!
Football coach (currently OJ Simpson): I'm not too well versed in football flicks, but I saw Remember the Titans once and bawled my eyes out, and I assume this had something to do with Denzel Washington as coach Herman Boone being inspiring and heroic.

Bill Nye can stay, because he's Bill motherfucking Nye. And I think there are some more real people on here, but I don't know who they are.

Next are the categories for which they have appropriately fictional choices, but ones I felt could be better.

Dean of the business school (currently Gordon Gekko from Wall Street): Gekko's a little too 80s. In these times we need a quick thinker and good adapter, which is why I nominate Jack Donaghy from "30 Rock." The man created porn for women, for chrissakes!
Dance: I'm not sure who the girl is in the current picture, but can she be a better dancer than ballerina Victoria Page from The Red Shoes?
Student advisor: Again, I don't know who the guy in the picture is (I think he's from "Lost"?) but the man with all the answers, all the time, is Mr. Feeney from "Boy Meets World."
Political science (currently Merkin Muffley from Dr. Strangelove): Muffley doesn't really seem to know the ins and outs of politics. Two people who do: Jefferson Smith from Mr Smith Goes to Washington (using his powers for good with his impassioned filibuster for justice), and Mrs. Iselin from The Manchurian Candidate (using it for evil by manipulating her husband's corrupt senate campaign).
Psychology (currently Hannibal Lecter): Lecter used to be a psychiatrist, but as of late he's pursued...um...different interests. I'd pick someone who's still fresh in the field - Martin Dysart from Equus. Unlike many other films that deal with psychology in a gentle, touchy-feely way, the majority of this flick is just doctor and patient going brutally mano a mano.

And finally, if the university received a generous endowment and could add more departments and beef up their staff...

Accounting: Louis Tully from Ghostbusters!
Agriculture: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (one fat, one short, one lean!) from Fantastic Mr. Fox are disgusting and terrible people, but they run pretty tight farming operations.

Anthropology: There are very few anthropologists on screen, and even fewer that are tap-dancing bombshells from 1940s musicals. That's right, I'm talking about Claire Huddesen from On the Town (you can see my more in-depth look at Claire and her cohorts here).
Broadcast journalism: Ron Burgundy from Anchorman. After all, he IS the balls.
Creative writing: Jack Torrance from The Shining. His writing is definitely...creative...
Community advocacy/leadership: Leslie Knope from "Parks and Recreation!"
Education: Bertram Cates from Inherit the Wind (and real life). The man is arrested for teaching evolution to his students in the 1920s, and but keeps fighting for his right to teach it. That's dedication.
Environmental science: Pochahontas, of the eponymous Disney film, will teach you to understand and respect your world. And through song, dammit!
Hospitality management: For the restaurant sector, it would be Rick Blaine from Casablanca (he's doing something right if everyone goes to Rick's) and on the hotel side of things, Norman Bates from Psycho (despite some stabby tendencies, he's quite diligent about motel upkeep).
Nursing: Carla Espinosa from "Scrubs!"

Negotiation: Vito Corleone from The Godfather - how much better of a teacher can you get than someone whose offers are never refused?
Religion: Why not go right to the source? Jesus on "South Park" seems like a laid-back, easy to talk to guy.

Zoology: Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs! (And no, I'm not implying that the dwarves are animals, but she has that animal posse.)
Director of student life: Max Fischer from Rushmore. He's so good at overseeing a multitude of clubs!

Head of the dining hall: Chef from "South Park!"
Career services: Frank Abagnale from Catch Me If You Can. He can show you the path to any career you want. No, seriously, any career, if you're not too finicky about illegal activity.

Who would you hire?

June 3, 2010

The blame game

Why do bad movies happen?

I used to defy the conventional thinking, which blames it all on the big evil studios, and point my finger at audiences. They're catering to us, after all, and our dollars guide their decisions. If people just avoided dumb blockbusters, Hollywood would strive to create different fare (maybe). But I'm starting to realize it's more complicated than that. Studios are partially to blame, but not quite for the reason everyone thinks.

Hollywood is a business, and it wants to make money. For that, I do not begrudge it one bit. It has every right to try and turn the biggest profit possible. But the way they try to go about that is quite often misguided. I call it the "patchwork quilt" problem.

Take Robin Hood, for example. Universal probably thought they had a sure bet. The teaming of Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe had produced some huge hits, Cate Blanchett was also starring, and it focused on a legendary figure that everyone knew. The film, however, landed with a thud, and even with a strong opening in other countries, the film has barely made back its budget. So here's the problem: piecing together successful elements from other films (directors, stars, plots, styles) does not a hit make. Stars don't matter anymore, and neither do directors (with perhaps a couple exceptions) or any particular subject matter. There's no Midas touch effect where because Sam Worthington was in Avatar, every movie with Sam Worthington in it will be a smash. Avatar was a success because, like any cinematic success, it created a perfect fusion of various elements. There's no extractable "mojo" like with Austin Powers (the actual character, not the films).

Again, I don't begrudge studios for trying to recreate success. But it's starting to become pathetic that they haven't realized there is no secret formula. If there was, there would be no reason to make a movie that was not a clone of a high-grossing film. Every movie released would be an Avatar knockoff. Sometimes stars just align in surprising ways, for better or worse. The seemingly unstoppable Sex and the City and Shrek franchises, for instance, just disappointed at the box office. Ensemble comedies like The Hangover and Knocked Up that lacked famous names were huge hits. Paranormal Activity become a must-see film with an unbelievable profit margin, considering it was made for virtually nothing. Audiences obviously like movies with explosions and boobs, but then why doesn't every film that has them make Transformers money? There might be trends, but there are no sure bets. Ever. Will Hollywood ever learn?

So what's a studio to do, in such uncertain times? Make good movies. Simple as that. Now when I say "good," I'm not necessarily saying that they have to all be auteurist masterpieces. Those are obviously nice, but really what I mean is just films that are coherent and of a unified vision, films that are for the film's sake and not the fans. Films that the studio believes in and feels confident about. In fact, some of the biggest hits of recent years weren't pandering to audiences at all, they were just the committed products of a strong team. The Hangover was considered groundbreaking for its success without big names, Avatar is pretty crazy when you think about how much money was spent on creating a whole new world, language, and race of people that audiences could very easily not take to, Slumdog Millionaire had a tiny budget and a Bollywood flair but grew steadily through word of mouth and made a huge profit, The Dark Knight put a lot of trust in a director who went on to become a household name because of it, and How to Train Your Dragon has had unbelievable legs at the box office because of the above-average animation and story. Even the grim Gran Torino grossed slightly more than Mamma Mia! and earned a significantly greater profit!

To use a dating analogy (bear with me), it's like if a girl keeps changing herself to impress a guy. She'll always be a step behind, will often misinterpret signals or get things wrong, and will appear slippery and fake in trying to keep up the charade. That's why people always tell you to just be yourself, and that your natural confidence and genuine persona will always be much more attractive. So take that to heart, Hollywood. Just be yourself. You're bending over backwards trying to impress us and it's just embarassing (and often ineffective).

What do you think?