December 1, 2011

The year in dog

Movies and dogs are pretty much my two favorite things in the world. So when you combine the two of them, I'm in hog heaven. This year, some canine talent burst onto the scene that could easily be compared to the star power of Asta or Lassie. Beyond those career-defining roles, various films this year were positively peppered with pooches. I'm not just calling them out for being cute, but I truly believe that they were all strong screen presences, even those with limited screen time. Oh, and they're cute!


Uggy in The Artist

We'll start with the pup that won big at Cannes. Yes, Uggy is the lucky recipient of this year's Palm Dog award, which the Cannes jury awards every year for best canine performance. (I pretty much died when I found out that this was a real thing). To call Uggy a scene-stealer would be to call Citizen Kane a pretty good flick. Director Michel Hazanavicius knew the star he had on his hands, so he cleverly cast him as a spunky sidekick, both onscreen and off, to the film's actor protagonist. When I saw the film at the AFI Fest gala event, Uggy was in tow with the film's cast, as if to scoff at the notion that he wouldn't be.

"Arthur" in Beginners

Not only does it appear to be the year of the dog in cinema, but more specifically, the dominance belongs to the Jack Russell terrier. The breed is no stranger to showbiz, having popped up in everything from The Mask to "Frasier," but 2011 was the year it would really shine. In addition to Uggy, Cosmo the Jack Russell gives a great leading performance as Arthur in Beginners. "Leading performance" was not a typo - this dog is in nearly every frame, and has the expressiveness of his fellow actors. Costar Ewan McGregor was so taken with him that he wanted to adopt him after filming, but his trainer wouldn't let him go. And honestly, who would?

The Doberman and dachshunds in Hugo

You'd think that anyone would disappear into the shadows acting alongside the theatrical Sacha Baron Cohen, but someone found him in a perfect foil in the form of a stone-faced Doberman. Cohen's character essentially regards the dog as a human sidekick, and their relationship is all the better for it. There's also a single shot of the two of them that I won't spoil, but it might be the most delightful doggy moment I've ever seen onscreen. The film also features, in a much smaller role, a hot-tempered dachshund that finds love.


"Skeletor" in 50/50

Although Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) is hardly the best girlfriend to cancer patient Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), she does bring an adopted greyhound into his life as a coping mechanism. Adam doesn't quite take to Skeletor at first, but the dog's mournful eyes from his past life in a shelter radiate empathy, and the two become inseparable. There's a part where the two are snuggled up in bed where I seriously thought I was going to cry. As a doggy bonus, I believe Skeletor also briefly encounters a bulldog when out on a walk.

Laika in Le Havre

Even though the Palm Dog went to Uggy this year, a special jury prize was given to Laika. I'm not sure if that means Laika is a runner-up or actually superior, but either way, the adorable mutt provides a reassuring and super cute presence in the film.

"Jankers" in Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil

(Full disclosure: the spelling of that name is a rough approximation extrapolated from a hillbilly accent.) Like the scary-looking but sweet titular characters, Jankers' odd exterior (indeterminate bulldog mix, different-colored eyes) hides a mellow and sympathetic disposition. Correctly assessing how much he means to Dale, one of the college kids even takes the dog hostage! (Jankers comes through okay though, don't worry.)

The bulldog in Hipsters

Ever wish "Glee" was more like Grease, and in Russian? Have I got news for you! Hipsters is a charming little film about the rockabilly subculture of Russia in the 50s, complete with some of the catchiest songs and swell fashions of the year. Cool cat Fred, self-appointed leader of the hipsters, extends his style even to his dog, who has dyed fur and accessories for every occasion.
Rowlf in The Muppets

He plays the piano. Nuff said.

Also notable, though I couldn't find a picture: the mutt in Take Shelter. Despite its totally laid-back demeanor, the mentally unstable Curtis (Michael Shannon) starts perceiving it as violent and keeps distancing it from his family. And let's not forget the veritable cornucopia of Golden Retriever puppies appearing as party favors in Bridesmaids! Despite the one pup per guest rule, feisty bridesmaid Megan (Melissa McCarthy) helps herself to a whole armload, and later admits she might have gotten carried away.

And even though I haven't seen Young Adult yet, I'm going to go ahead and include its featured pooch. Just look at it!

Did I miss any? What were your favorite dog performances of the year?

November 4, 2011

Films that should have been something else

It's rare that films come into being because the idea was best suited for that particular medium. Adaptations obviously happen, as well as transformations during development ("Glee," for instance, was originally envisioned as a film), but it's not like a variety of artists are all chasing the same material. Consequently, it occasionally happens that you wind up with a film that (at least in my opinion) should have been something else, where the strengths play to a different medium entirely and the choice of art form drags it down. Here, then, are some films that I think were "born into the wrong body," so to speak.

Scarface (1932) as a graphic novel
When I finally got around to seeing Scarface, I felt like I was missing something. I love a good gangster picture as much as the next guy, and even Scarface's notable contemporaries like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy seemed much more lively. To me, the film lacked the manic energy that made similar films work. There was too much dead space, too many awkward stretches, too much focus on plot. So I propose it would feel right at home as a graphic novel, where the pace can be more relaxed while still holding interest. The machine gun fire would explode in big graphic rat-a-tats, and stylized artwork (black and white, perhaps) would do the heavy lifting instead of mostly novice actors. I'd read it!
The Producers (1968) as a musical
Now, I'm aware this is sort of cheating, since the film HAS been made into a musical (albeit one I haven't seen, so I'm counting it). It's perhaps because I am aware of the musical that the film felt to me like a musical with the songs cut out. The plot is oddly arranged, the shtick gets old fast, and the vast majority of it is two actors stuck in a room getting hysterical at each other. The fundamental premise is so goofy that I think the full musical treatment would really highlight it and bring the absurdity to the max. (I'm clearly right, if a six-year Broadway run and 12 Tonys are any indication).

Beetlejuice (1988) as an art exhibit
Unlike many, I neither unconditionally love nor blindly hate Tim Burton - I take him one film at a time. My frustration with Beetlejuice was that it had wonderful production design - and that's it. The acting, directing, cinematography, editing and story were indifferent. He probably knew that he could get more financing for building a whimsically gothic collection of giant beasties if he shot a film with them. I've been to the recent Tim Burton art exhibit that's been touring the world, but the focus there is more on two-dimensional works and isolated movie props. Ideally, the world he created for Beetlejuice would have been transplanted into an immersive gallery environment where you experienced it firsthand, not once removed through a movie screen.

Once (2007) as an album
Once is about music. Any plot developments or character arcs, most of them minor, are entrenched in the music. So why not just leave it as music? The film plays like a long music video, although that's not even the best description because music videos exploit their visual component. Once does not - the characters just sit around either playing music or just kind of hanging out. Make no mistake; the music in question here is absolutely fantastic. They just didn't need to build a movie around it.

The Man From Earth (2007) as a play
I had heard a ton of great buzz about this little indie, but it proved to be a huge disappointment. There's an interesting premise buried underneath terrible acting, shoddy production values and elevator music: an immortal, non-aging man has seen all of human history unfold. Instead of being a 20-part history epic, however, the format is a bunch of intellectuals sitting in a room and talking. I don't have an intrinsic problem with this format and have seen many films that use it well, but TMFE is a textbook example of what not to do. Take a few of the sillier indulgences out of the script, cast a powerhouse ensemble of actors, and it could be a pretty great stage play. (Frankly, the way the film is made I was surprised to learn it wasn't adapted from one.)

Black Swan (2010) as a ballet
I'm well aware that the film uses the ballet Swan Lake as a launching point. But Aronofsky's dark, sexy, weird version of the ballet at the end of the film is like no Swan Lake I've ever seen. The offscreen drama of the finale is fantastic too, a virtuosic opera of madness that melds perfectly with the ballet performance. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is Natalie Portman whimpering and clipping her toenails. I'm not dismissing the film entirely, since the ending was one of the more inspired moments of cinema I saw last year. So why not combine the ballet of Swan Lake with the story of a ballerina going mad preparing for it? The histrionics fit the tone of "dance-acting," the production design can remain the same - just cast actual dancers who have been trained to emote through their bodies. 

Le Havre (2011) as a photography series 
Aki Kaurismäki's latest film immediately pulls you in with its stunning lighting. It's a strange thing to single out, but it's highly theatrical and makes the rainbow palette of the film really pop. The rest of the film, however, isn't nearly as notable - flat characters, a story that overestimates its importance, and barely enough energy to keep the thing moving. But viewing stills from the movie, they look like a carefully choreographed photography series spring-loaded with possibilities. I can totally picture them in a gallery or museum. The nature of film as a moving picture really does these compositions an injustice.

What do you think? Can you think of any films that seem destined to be something else?

October 19, 2011

Second-tier and loving it

They can't all be winners.

Even the strongest, smartest, most talented directors will misfire occasionally. It happens, and it's forgivable. But what about the works that lie between masterpiece and failure? The films that, far from being nonentities, are proudly second-tier? It often seems that you can learn more about a director from these films than from their best works. Sometimes in plumbing the depths of a director's filmography I'll discover a film that I either consider generally underrated or actually superior to the anointed classics. But that's not what I'm talking about here - today I'm celebrating films that, despite being far from the big leagues, are still worth your time. After all, you have to have SOMEWHERE to turn after you've seen all of the best and brightest. So here are some of my favorite second-tier films, listed by director - because "minor (name of director)" doesn't always have to be an insult.

Alfred Hitchcock
Masterpieces include: Psycho, Rear Window
But do check out: Foreign Correspondent (1940)
I've long contended that a Hitchcock film is never a waste of time. Even if it's not a classic, there will be memorable scenes, shots, and tricks from the Master of Suspense. FC takes a bit of time to get going, but its greatest strength is that you never know who you can truly trust. Joel McCrea is fine in the lead, but it's the suave support team of Herbert Marshall and George Sanders who truly shine. Hitch's keen eye for imagery also gives us visual treats like a chase through a sea of umbrellas, and a tense encounter in a windmill. It never quite coheres in the manner of, say, North by Northwest, but it's entertaining nonetheless.

John Huston
Masterpieces include: The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
But do check out: Key Largo (1948)
Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson face off as a hurricane traps them (and others) in a hotel. It's Bogie being Bogie and EGR being EGR, but I could watch that all day. Lauren Bacall's unique appeal is held back to "generic female" levels, but Claire Trevor steals the show as a pathetic, boozy broad (and won an Oscar for doing so). It's stagy, and not quite as tense as it perhaps should have been, but sweaty gangsters pointing guns at each other while the wind howls outside does cast a certain spell.

Michael Curtiz
Masterpieces include: Casablanca, Mildred Pierce 
But do check out: Young Man with a Horn (1950)
Curtiz' output is divided into two categories: Casablanca, and all the other stuff. In picking through the "other stuff," however, I've discovered that he was one of the most talented of the studio system's journeyman directors. Even without a distinctive style, per se, the consistent quality of his films suggests more than coincidence. So while I could go on and on about, say, Four Daughters or Life With Father, I'll focus on one of his more modest successes. YMwaH stars Kirk Douglas as a troubled jazz trumpeter (based on 1920s cornetist Bix Beiderbecke), and he elevates the film from the "forgettable studio system film" gutter it might otherwise occupy. He modulates perfectly between charm and pathos, all against a great soundtrack. Lauren Bacall costars as his tempestuous wife, and Doris Day is also on hand to play a shyer, more nervous version of herself. Even though the film opts to have the protagonist reform instead of dying the early death that Beiderbecke did, it's still fairly intense in its depiction of downfall (considering the era).

Otto Preminger
Masterpieces include: Laura, Anatomy of a Murder 
But do check out: The Moon Is Blue (1953)
Preminger is associated with noir and drama, not sex comedy. So it's a pleasant surprise to watch his deft handling of the latter. Known more as a curio that significantly weakened the Production Code, it's actually quite funny. The trio of William Holden, David Niven, and the otherwise unknown Maggie McNamara outwit and outflirt each other as they get into increasingly ridiculous situations. Oh, did I mention the main plot is that they're both competing to deflower her? The bad news is that it's pretty talky and starts to drag, and one can't help but wonder what it might have been like in the hands of a Hawks or McCarey. Still, it's quite amusing, with a knockout performance by McNamara as a horny ingenue (in 1953!).

Stanley Donen
Masterpieces include: Singin' in the Rain, Charade 
But do check out: The Pajama Game (1957)
Donen is one of my favorite directors, a man who, like Curtiz, has a body of work riddled with hidden treasures (Two for the Road and It's Always Fair Weather, for instance). So after watching The Pajama Game, I didn't think too highly of it. But later, in describing it to someone else, I found myself saying "Yeah, it's okay except for this one part. Well, and this other part. Okay, so just these three parts. Well..." The thing is, Donen can stage a musical number better than anyone in town. Add in choreography by Bob Fosse and the numbers here are truly special, from the sultry sizzle of "Steam Heat" to the no-holds-barred insanity of "Once-a-Year Day." If the film was all song and dance, it might be truly sublime - but since it isn't, the end result is rather uneven.

Nicholas Ray
Masterpieces include: Rebel Without a Cause, In a Lonely Place 
But do check out: Party Girl (1958)
My boyfriend prefaced my first viewing of Party Girl with "It's like, not that good objectively, but there's just something about it." Frustratingly vague as that is, I was forced to agree. Cyd Charisse is luminous but not exceptional, Robert Taylor is good but not memorable, and Lee J. Cobb is just straight-up hammy. Charisse's two dance numbers are bizarrely incongruous but entrancing. The plot is thin, but it all looks gorgeous. It's campy, tense, sad, and fun all at once. There's just SOMETHING about it!

Joseph L Mankiewicz
Masterpieces include: All About Eve, Julius Caesar
But do check out: Suddenly Last Summer (1959)
This somewhat campy offering is unusual fare for Mankiewicz, known for his solid studio films. On one hand you have Katharine Hepburn absolutely feasting on the scenery as a demented and delusional recluse, and on the other you have up and coming star Elizabeth Taylor giving a heartbreaking and shattering performance (with Montgomery Clift pulled between them). And let's not forget about homosexuality, cannibals, and lobotomies - oh my! It's based on a Tennessee Williams play, and it was as faithfully and competently adapted as possible considering the weirdness of the source material. It's been viewed alternately as a cult classic and just a regular classic, so watch it and decide for yourself!

Billy Wilder
Masterpieces include: Sunset Blvd, Some Like It Hot
But do check out: Irma La Douce (1963)
Does reuniting the leads from The Apartment, relocating the action to Paris and making everything ten times sillier sound like fun to you? It is! Irma lacks the sophisticated sparkle of Some Like It Hot, the dark bite of Sunset Blvd, and the pathos of The Apartment, but it does have Shirley MacLaine as the world's cutest hooker and Jack Lemmon as a suitor pretending to be different customers so he can have her to himself. The humor is broader than in Wilder's other films, which isn't a bad thing but might seem that way to those familiar with his work. Some sources claim it's the first major Hollywood film to address prostitution head-on, and consequently there's a bit of a giggly feel to it all - but you'll giggle right along with it.

Pedro Almodóvar
Masterpieces include: Talk to Her, All About My Mother
But do check out: Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (1980)
It seems a bit improper to put a debut film on this list, but of the many Almodóvars I've seen, this seems to fit the bill best. Perhaps that's because it meanders amiably without getting into the more twisted stuff he became known for (although people DO pee on each other). It's good-natured anarchy that stays enjoyable, not awkward, as you watch an auteur find his voice.

Woody Allen
Masterpieces include: Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters
But do check out: Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
I still can't believe that Allen has essentially cranked out a movie a year for the past four decades. When you're that prolific, you have the opportunity to touch on a variety of genres: slapstick, drama, crime, romance, mockumentary - and the musical! Despite the typical trappings like pop songs and choreography, this is hardly a traditional musical - his ensemble cast was told about the musical element only after they signed on, and he made everyone use their own singing voices, no matter how unimpressive. Viewers consequently discover that Edward Norton and Alan Alda are rather good singers and Julia Roberts is not, while navigating a feather-light plot through lovely locales (and a Groucho Marx party). Directors often trip up when working in homage, but Allen takes a relaxed enough approach here that everyone (audience included) has fun.

Joel and Ethan Coen
Masterpieces include: The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men 
But do check out: Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
The Coens' track record is so damn near perfect that any slight fall from grace is especially glaring. I actually avoided this film for a while because of its bad reputation, but was quite surprised to find it was a perfectly charming homage to screwball comedy (if there's such a thing as cool, even-tempered screwball comedy). Perhaps it's just my low expectations talking, but George Clooney steps nicely into the archetypal Cary Grant role (what an original comparison, right?) and Catherine Zeta-Jones proves to be an effective foil. Unlike classic screwball cinema, however, the Coens have some trouble maintaining the needed level of energy and rhythm of dialogue. Yet it's a nice throwback to a genre that peaked 70+ years ago.

What are your favorite second-tier films of acclaimed directors?

October 3, 2011

Eight outrageous Pre-Code moments

When you watch a lot of movies, like I do, it really takes a lot to shock or surprise you. I can sit through the most depraved sexuality or most graphic violence and not blink an eye - it's just a matter of expectations. A sudden blood-soaked battle royale in a Pixar film, for instance, is going to elicit double takes from even the most jaded viewers because you're not expecting to find it there. Fans of cinematic dissonance, then, would be well-advised to check out some Pre-Code cinema.

Long-time readers are probably familiar with the Code, but for those of you just joining us, The Production Code was a system of Hollywood film censorship in place from 1934 to 1968. Naturally, the existence of said Code means there was an era before it, which is generally considered to be between the birth of talkies and the strict enforcement of the Code (it was technically implemented in 1930, but without teeth). Consequently, films of this era could get away with a lot. Pre-Code transgressions, at least for me, fall into two categories: dryly anachronistic ("ah, since it's Pre-Code, that criminal act can go unpunished") and the truly startling ("WTF? I'm rewinding that!"). I'm not expecting that the average viewer would be scandalized by a lack of petticoats, but just to prove you can really get some kicks from the early 1930s I've compiled some of my favorite "wait - WHAT?" moments from Pre-Code cinema.

Lesbian kiss in Morocco (1930)
Marlene Dietrich, who was probably personally responsible for at least one film censor's heart attack, plays (what else?) a slinky cabaret entertainer who eventually falls for Gary Cooper. But before that, she finds time to plant a smoldering kiss on a female patron, mid-performance, FOR ABSOLUTELY NO REASON. My use is of all caps here is not to express indignation or disgust, but rather to underscore how profoundly random this moment is. It doesn't serve the story and is never mentioned again - it's just Marlene being Marlene. She was openly bisexual and added the kiss to the script herself - and insured its inclusion by taking a flower from the woman that would create a jarring continuity problem if the shot was cut.
Oh, and she's wearing a top hat and tux.

Laughed-off murder in Night Nurse (1931)
The perfect film for those who enjoy seeing Barbara Stanwyck prance around in lingerie, this film has it share of sordid and tawdry moments but none top the ending. Stanwyck's Lora has been engaged in courtship with a gangster, whose method of conflict resolution is sending a couple of thugs to rough up the person in question. Being a kind and reasonable person, she's initially horrified at this approach. But in the very last scene, a dead body (I won't say whose!) is delivered to the hospital, and we cut to the gangster admitting it was his thugs' doing as the two of them drive away smiling into the sunset. It's hardly prudish to say that a nonchalant murder makes a strange ending to a film that has otherwise upright morals.

"Jazz Up Your Lingerie" from The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
If your lover abandoned you for someone else, you'd probably be pretty upset and/or angry. Franzi (Claudette Colbert) is both of these things when she loses the lieutenant in question to a virginal princess (Miriam Hopkins), but by some insane twist of logic she figures that the guy might as well have good sex. So naturally she sings a song to her rival called "Jazz Up Your Lingerie" that is exactly what it sounds like. Really, it's the only logical outcome when one woman demands of another, "let me see your underwear."

This will be stuck in your head all day. You're welcome.

Cocaine use in Three on a Match (1932)
I would expect to see cocaine use in a movie (even a Pre-Code one) about the dangers of drugs. I was not expecting it to casually pop up as a byproduct of one woman's moral decline (particularly seeing as she is part of an ensemble cast). After her character is offscreen for a while, she reappears with dark circles under her eyes and a distinct nose-wiping twitch. Lest you think you're imagining it, a hoodlum played by Humphrey Bogart (!) chides her with "Oh, that" while mimicking her gesture. Her lover and some of his underlings appear to have the habit too, making their apartment a bona fide 1932 crack den.

Marijuana in Jewel Robbery (1932)
Before Danny Ocean, before Thomas Crown, you could get your sexy, suave criminal fix from William Powell. Playing a jewel thief whose heists are like acts of seduction, he has Kay Francis at hello. But since not all of the witnesses are equally charmed, he subdues them with his secret weapon - marijuana cigarettes! They're not explicitly referred to as such, but the giggly behavior of those smoking them makes it pretty obvious.

The dress gag in This Is the Night (1932)
This film opens with Thelma Todd snagging her dress on a car door and having it ripped off. This causes virtually the entire population of Paris to stop what they're doing and excitedly sing "The lady has lost her dress!" Throughout the film, it seems that the inanimate objects of the world are conspiring to see Ms. Todd in her skivvies, as her dress is ripped off over and over. In fact, the film is wryly summarized in the BFI database with the single sentence "Comedy in which a flirtatious wife keeps getting her dress caught in doors."

The premise of Design for Living (1933)
What if you were in love with two people and didn't have to choose? That's the notion put forth in the film adaptation of the Noel Coward play, though one of the lines of the love triangle (the one connecting the two men) is removed. Scheming Gilda's solution to the fact that she's been sleeping with two best friends is to have the three of them move in together. They explicitly declare that there will be no sex in this arrangement, but let's just say that if they were successful at maintaining that rule, the film would be a lot shorter. The scandal is somewhat lessened by the fact that Gilda somewhat staggers the ensuing affairs and has them in different locations, but ultimately the film seems to endorse polyamorous relationships.

The premise of Baby Face (1933)
I almost didn't want to mention Baby Face because it's so obvious - anyone can tell you it's basically THE Pre-Code film. But you can't avoid it. It's about Barbara Stanwyck sleeping her way to the top of a corporation. It makes "Mad Men" look subtle and progressive. Some of the setups seem like the start of pornos, except the characters shut the door on the audience instead of letting them watch.

I also want to give a shoutout to Ecstasy (1933), which I can't technically include since it's not an American production, but it features gratuitous female nudity and an extended scene of female orgasm. In 1933!

Let me offer the disclaimer that not all Pre-Code films are this racy, or even very good. But there's a lot of fun to be had, and with many of these films running about 60-80 minutes in length you don't have much to lose. 

What are the most outrageous Pre-Code moments you've seen?

September 6, 2011

I know it's wrong, but I prefer...

In my interweb travels, I have picked up a fun little meme called "I know it's wrong, but I prefer..." (scientists are working round the clock to come up with a catchier name). Basically, you name a universally revered film, and then offer up the name of a similar but less-acclaimed one (same director, similar plots, etc) that you like better. The "I know it's wrong" element could reflect either actual guilt or just reinforce the fact that you're in the minority. So here are some of mine...feel free to debate, berate, etc., but offer yours in return! 

I know it's wrong, but I prefer...

Of Kurosawa: The Bad Sleep Well to Rashomon
Of Ford: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to The Searchers
Of Fellini: Nights of Cabiria to 8 1/2
Of Altman: 3 Women to M*A*S*H*
Of Bogdanovich: Paper Moon to The Last Picture Show
Of early Jimmy Cagney: Picture Snatcher to The Public Enemy
Of Jack Nicholson: As Good As It Gets to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Of hobos: O Brother, Where Art Thou? to Sullivan's Travels
Of absurd comedies: Zoolander to Airplane!
Of musicals with dramatic heft: Pennies from Heaven to West Side Story
Of Brontë adaptations: Jane Eyre (2011) to Wuthering Heights (1939) (and yes I realize those are two different Brontës)
Of 30s screwball comedies where a rich and daffy matron hires a hobo butler who falls for her daughter: Merrily We Live to My Man Godfrey
Of courtroom dramas: Either Judgment at Nuremberg or Inherit the Wind to To Kill a Mockingbird
Of 2009 animated films: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs to Up
Of early Universal horror films: The Invisible Man to Dracula and Frankenstein
Of expressionist German cinema: Pandora's Box to Metropolis
 Of this year's releases: The Green Hornet (Hornet, not Lantern!) to almost any of this summer's blockbusters except maybe X-Men: First Class

What do you prefer, despite knowing (or being told) that's it's wrong?

August 25, 2011

What's in a CinemaScore?

Every so often, an entertainment journalist rediscovers CinemaScore and declares it to be a near-perfect predictor of box office performance. For the unfamiliar, CinemaScore is a simple survey passed out to filmgoers who give the movie in question a letter grade (typically administered in the very beginning of a film's run). Recently, much fuss has been made over the fact that The Help received a coveted and rare A+ rating, and the guaranteed box office success that entails. It's a tempting analysis to make - what better indicator of a film's resonance can you find than man-on-the-street opinions?

It's true that many high-rated releases performed well and vice versa - you can't overlook the correlation. But I think for the most part, analysts aren't looking at what CinemaScore data actually measures. They're a bit too hasty in dismissing the results that don't support their hypothesis. The entertainment industry at large likes to rely on shortcuts and trends to guide their decisions, and they hear what they want to hear. It's a lot easier, for instance, to interpret the success of The Dark Knight as an audience hunger for an easily replicated "gritty feel" than to admit that a particular film had a certain alchemy that people responded to. Similarly, it's nice to be reassured that your newly released film will have a long and fruitful run. But I think they're missing the point.

First, let's look at the participants. These are paying customers that want to see the film anyway, and so much so that they're there on opening weekend - predisposed fans, essentially. I'm guessing that Justin Bieber: Never Say Never got an A not based on its objective merits, but because the audience was filled with diehard Bieber fans. Tyler Perry films always have glowing CinemaScores, because the man has a devoted empire. Most kids' movies score pretty high too, probably because they're mostly attended by kids.

So what about the failures? It's true that there aren't a whole lot - on the whole, the reviews typically hover between A- and B-. Because of that fact, a C or less is considered a kiss of death. Here's a list of some films that haven't fared with with CinemaScore: The American (D-), Rango (C+), Hanna (C+), Priest (C+), the remake of Solaris (F), The Box (F). Do you notice anything these releases have in common?

I do - these films were all either deliberately or accidentally misrepresented to audiences in their marketing campaigns. The American, which plays like a contemplative European film of the 60s, made a risky grab for its opening weekend by marketing itself as an action movie with lots of running. Rango was assumed to be a kids' movie because it's animated, but it's a bizarre spaghetti western full of grotesque characters. Hanna features a slew of elegant Oscar-nominated talent coming together for an violent action thriller. The very title of Solaris conjures up images of a space adventure, but it's really a moody melodrama that's rather coincidentally set in space. I haven't seen the other two films listed, but my understanding is that their advertising contained ambiguities that left people disappointed.

From this data, it's hard to see CinemaScore as anything other than an evaluation of expectations versus reality. I suspect that the A+ for The Help stemmed from the fact that it was based on a best-selling book, and fans of the book rushed out and received exactly what they expected and wanted. I'm not being cynical - many films receive the CinemaScore they deserve - but with this system set up as it is, I can't really fathom what else it might measure. 

The best objective measure of any film's quality would probably be to show it to a group of people in some remote tribe that was unfamiliar with it and all affiliated talent. After all, how often are our feelings toward a film just a reflection of our expectations or preexisting prejudices? Audiences were downright angry with Inception when, despite being a solid film, it failed to be the savior of a remake and sequel-filled industry. Conversely, movies that people have low expectations for often turn out to be hits.

And what about that outlying data I mentioned? Not every well-CinemaScored film is a hit - far from it. Many films garner enthusiastic responses in niche or sparse audiences and nowhere else. Akeelah and the Bee, Cinderella Man, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Lottery Ticket, Life As We Know It, Burlesque, Soul Surfer, and Monte Carlo all scored within the A range (many with a perfect A+) but failed to set the box office on fire - some didn't even make back their budgets. There's also plenty of films that scored in the B range that didn't gross a fraction of what comparable B-scoring films did (True Grit and The Next Three Days both received a B+).

Will The Help be a hit? Yes, but I'm guessing it's because it's based on a book that just about every woman in America has read. Unfortunately for studio bigwigs, there's no crystal ball - sometimes you just have to sit back and see what happens.

August 17, 2011

War of the sexes

***Friends and countrymen, I have returned! The excuse I offer to my millions of devoted fans is that I got a job at Paramount - yes, that Paramount - and have been going through a grueling training process. But I'm back, and ready to dish up more of the wit and biting insight that you all adore. Onward!***

It's no secret that the media influences (and reflects) society. Most people agree on that point, but can't reach a consensus on the what or how. The most famous argument is that movies and TV (but also video games, commercials, etc) promote and glorify violence. Conservatives complain that the media is too liberal, and vice versa. Minorities lament their poor representation, or complete lack of it. TV shows like "Glee" are accused of promoting a gay agenda. You could have endless debates on any of these points, but I'm not going to focus on any of them for the time being. Instead, I'll direct your attention to a media trend I not only find quite troubling, but very insidious and rarely addressed.

I worry that the media is driving men and women apart.

Let me back up a bit and refer to some history. In films of the late 1930s and into the 40s, men and women were quite often equals. No matter how different their backgrounds, they could typically spar, scheme, and dream on the same wavelength. Screwball comedy comes to mind as the best example of this, but film noir typically had a dame that was just as cunning and deadly as her leading man. It's no coincidence that this period in cinema coincided with WWII - women were supporting most of the homefront war effort and leading scrappy, independent lives. 

Then the war ended and, as we all know, Americans retreated into the suburbs and women retreated into the kitchen. Rosie the Riveter was dead; long live the housewife and mother. The cinema of the time reflected this change, and many romantic comedies become downright antagonistic. The plot was typically that the woman was trying to trap a man into marriage, while he was trying to trick her into sex (the films that Doris Day and Rock Hudson made together are a perfect example of this). To paraphrase the author of a great article that I unfortunately cannot find, the cinematic couples of the 30s-40s played with each other, but in the 50s they played against each other. So that brings me back to my main point: when you turn on a TV or walk into a movie theater these days, the gender dynamic is often 1950s 2.0.

This dynamic is usually played out in stereotypes that make both sexes look bad, but typically the onus is on the woman, depicting the Castrating Wife. The CW can take one of two forms: 1) a woman who makes totally unreasonable requests of her male significant other, or 2) a woman who makes totally reasonable demands, but it still portrayed as unreasonable and controlling. Having a character be the former is lazy; having her be the latter is just unfair. 

Leslie Mann's character in Knocked Up is a good example of the first type of CW - many criticized Judd Apatow for creating that type of character, but he's hardly alone in doing so. Stu's fiancee in The Hangover is so strict that he flees into the arms of a stripper. Nick's wife in Hot Tub Time Machine somehow bullies him into hyphenating his last name after their marriage (because they can't just discuss it like adults, apparently). In Grown-Ups (or the trailer, anyway - I respect myself too much to watch the movie), Kevin James looks on in helpless disgust while his wife continues to breastfeed their four-year-old son against his pleas. In The Proposal, Sandra Bullock forces Ryan Reynolds to marry her for a green card. These are not little indie movies. These are movies that made a ton of money. I also watched a couple episodes of the new ABC sitcom "Happy Endings" recently and, despite the otherwise sharp writing and younger, hipper audience, the character bio of Brad on Wikipedia is just that "he does whatever his wife says."

The other type of CW is found more frequently on TV, in both shows and commercials. The main premise of "According to Jim" was essentially that Jim Belushi hates women. Debra Barone on "Everybody Hates Raymond" looks like a jerk for trying to get Ray to help around the house. As much as I love "Scrubs," Carla would sometimes fall on this spectrum.  In the five or so minutes I saw of one episode of "Two and a Half Men," Charlie is annoyed that his girlfriend wants to do something other than have sex, so he pawns her off to his brother so they can do totally lame shit like see movies and have meaningful conversations. The CW also runs rampant in advertising (as does her counterpart, the Castrated Man), such as the Coors Light commercial where a man lies to his girlfriend about studying for the bar exam so he can go out drinking. Dockers' "Wear the Pants" campaign blames disco and salad bars for "leaving men stranded on the road between boyhood and androgyny." There was a similar commercial a couple years back (I don't remember what it was for) about reclaiming your manhood by rejecting your wife's requests to do completely reasonable things like clean your hairs out of the sink after shaving.

These are just what I can think of at the moment. How many times on screen has a man chafed at a request to do housework? How many times has a woman made it her mission to keep her man from attending guys' night out? Why do men and women seem to hate each other so much?

I want to blame the predominantly male writers. But the new NBC show "Whitney," created by comedienne Whitney Cummings, is being promoted with nuggets like "women are like emotional ninjas." So that can't be it. Plus, it hardly helps my crusade to point my finger just at men.

Is it the chicken or the egg? In real as well as reel life I wonder why men hitch themselves to women they seemingly can't stand, or the other way around. Men tell their sons things like "the woman is always right" and try to prep them for dating high-maintenance women; mothers tell their daughters that they can expect men to be infantile and need constant care (my own mother said as much). We perpetuate and enable the worst of each gender by creating conditions in which the bad apples thrive. I always joke that if men knew that women like me existed - women who don't really like girly stuff and take an uncomplicated, rational approach to life - the diva types would die out, Darwin style.

You may notice the pattern that all the examples I cited are comedies. I think another reason that these archetypes rub me the wrong way is because I think that comedy of differences doesn't really make sense in modern culture. I think comedians of all stripes have fully explored all differences between races, sexes, ages, etc. - there's nothing left to say, and in a fragmented society like the United States, why would you want to keep saying it? I'm not saying everyone has to hold hands and be super PC all the time; I love offensive humor as much as the next guy. I just feel that comedy of "isn't it silly when men do this" or "ever notice how all black people do this" is stale and played out. My favorite comedians, sitcoms, and comedic films focus on the humor in either specific individuals or the human race as a whole.

So what, you say? Well, this is a movie blog, and I'm always fighting the good fight for better content on our screens. But furthermore, despite all the real-world knowledge we acquire to the contrary, people still draw on fictional media characters on which to model their own relationships, whether it be a notion of a fairytale Disney romance or the procedure and biology of sex. Honestly, a fair share of couples in sitcoms or comedies are fundamentally mismatched and dysfunctional and are only together for comedic value. But it seems entirely plausible that single and/or younger people viewing this media mistake these relationships for healthy ones. Or perhaps commercials that side with men in saying that cleaning your hair out of the sink is too much to ask will subconsciously bolster their resistance against their wives. It's hardly the downfall of Western civilization, but I do believe that these types of signals are absorbed and digested in ways that can't be quantitatively studied. Pushing past these types of depictions might provoke not only unity, but more creativity as well.

What do you think? Have you noticed this phenomenon, or am I just overthinking it?

July 6, 2011

The renter's lament

Remember when Netflix had everything?

Or more accurately, remember when Netflix was enough?

My history with movies by mail goes all the way back to 2005, when my local Blockbuster couldn't keep up with my hunger for classic films. My subsequent subscription to their online division kept me more than satisfied, and after returning home from my freshman year of college I resumed the service. Although the local library made a noble effort, my little Massachusetts burg had virtually nothing to offer the film lover, so Blockbuster Online was an embarrassment of riches. I rented everything from the Chaplin classic The Kid (1921) to the Emir Kusturica epic Underground (1995). I received every blue envelope in the mail with a kind of bashful gratitude - "Really? For me?"

When I started dating my boyfriend in college, I "married into" his Netflix account by default. He still made all the final decisions, but he weighed my input and together we sampled everything Netflix had to offer. He made the leap to the Blu-ray plan when the time came. Around the time we moved in together, Netflix started offering their streaming service. It was a cinephile's heaven, and for a paltry monthly sum!

As the honeymoon phase wore off, some of Netflix's faults became more apparent. We had forgiven it the occasional out-of-stock film in the past. We found ourselves having to go to Movie Madness (our local video store at the time and probably the best one in the universe) to get the preferred version or edition of some titles. We could live with these concessions. But then my boyfriend began to get quite peeved at their omission of some Criterion (and other classic titles) on Blu-ray. From my perspective, there was hardly enough evidence to constitute an epidemic, so I dismissed his concerns as nitpicking. 

But time proved him right. Several months later, Criterion announced that they were formally "divorcing" Netflix in favor of Hulu Plus. This meant that Netflix would slowly remove all Criterion titles from streaming and stop purchasing physical copies, whereas Hulu would eventually be streaming the entire Criterion library (plus hundreds more titles that Criterion has the rights to). Coupled with the fact that we were already relying on regular Hulu for TV shows (but skirting the fee by connecting my laptop to the TV set), we started plunking down the $9 a month for Hulu Plus.

THEN one of us noticed that the revamped Blockbuster Online (now Blockbuster Total Access) carries all the Criterion Blu-rays. We went ahead and snagged their free two-week trial, but didn't cancel it in time and now we have it for the next month. Or two. Or three...

When does it end? Currently we have three subscription services, as well as a membership to a local video store and cards for three local library systems. And that's not even considering that we live in LA and see at least two movies in a theater per week. By my count, that's eight different means by which we can watch a movie at any given time. And we don't even have cable - but when we can afford it, you'd better believe we're snatching it up for TCM and AMC. (And that's not even counting single-serving options like Comcast On Demand or Amazon Instant, which we've dabbled in.)

Look, I'm all for competition - it's the cornerstone of capitalism. I'm not one of those people who think that the wide variety of ketchup brands in the supermarket is the downfall of civilization. But at present, all systems of media rental seem to have been ingeniously designed by some evil overseer to each lack a key feature, which necessitates having all of them. Netflix lacks Criterion titles. Hulu lacks movies of any value outside of Criterion (and now Miramax). Blockbuster lacks unlimited streaming. Cable lacks a wide movie selection. Video stores lack flexibility. Libraries frequently lack Blu-rays and can have a limited rotation of new releases. You try to play Jenga and see which services you can add or remove. Maybe getting cable would remove the need for Hulu? Nope, because of the Criterion thing. Well, maybe the library would suffice instead of Netflix? But then you lose streaming.

Again, let me state how grateful I am for the opportunity to see more movies and TV shows than ever before. But with that opportunity comes a compulsion in the hearts of all cinephiles to keep every possible avenue of media open in order to maximize consumption. It's exhausting, and it gets expensive. 

What configuration of media services do you have? Is it working for you? Do you want to add or cut down?

June 15, 2011


Today's IMDb Hit List spurred me to two film-related discoveries you might want to check out - one for residents of Los Angeles, and one for anyone with a computer.

First, I just found out today about the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Memorabilia Collection. It appears that Reynolds has been collecting bits of classic Hollywood for decades now, with the hopes of turning it into a museum. Bizarrely, despite featuring over 5,000 props, costumes, and even whole sets from some of history's biggest hits, no investors were interested and the collection is instead headed for auction. Now, again, let me emphasize that this is not obscure ephemera - the collection contains, among other things, Charlie Chaplin's bowler hat, Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and Marilyn Monroe's famous white dress from The Seven Year Itch! There are rumors that her insistence on having her son manage the collection destroyed many potential deals, but that's neither here nor there. Starting this Saturday, these pieces of movie history can go home with whoever ponies up the most cash. "But," you protest, "I am but a shallow-pocketed cinephile who sits around reading second-rate movie blogs! I cannot afford such decadence!" Of course not. But luckily for you, the collection will be open to the public at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills, today through Friday. You can find details here and here. I happen to work nearby, so you better believe that I'll be sneaking over on my lunch break!

For non-Angelenos, here's something everybody can enjoy. NPR has a neat piece about the "secret musical life" of Jack Lemmon, who apparently was never very far from a piano. The article briefly mentions that he released an album of jazz and standards called A Twist of Lemmon in 1959. Intrigued, I hopped on Amazon and found that the 25-track album is available for download! Even if you're just mildly curious, you can check out a preview of each track. It's pretty surprising to discover that the man who played perpetually flustered and nebbish characters is quite the crooner, and a pretty slick pianist as well. I wasn't even totally convinced it was him, until his very recognizable voice crept through in bits. Download one or download em all at Amazon.

June 14, 2011

Between the lines of "His Girl Friday"

I found this gem yesterday and just had to share. Somebody edited out all the parts of His Girl Friday (1940) that feature someone talking, leaving an 8-minute short film that still essentially communicates the plot and humor of the full-length version. If you're not familiar with HGF, it's a screwball comedy known for containing one of the highest ratios of dialogue per square inch. It constantly overlaps and barely offers the cast (or the audience) a chance to catch their breath. The wordless version, then, reads kind of like an alternate reality, even though the material is all pulled from the original. Whether or not you've seen the film, you'll love this (particularly if you're a fan of the funny noises Cary Grant makes in his comedies). I've embedded it below for the lazy, or you can find a higher quality version here. Either way, enjoy!

May 31, 2011

Auteurist amusement parks

Today's IMDb Daily Poll asks an intriguing question: which filmmaker's work most deserves its own theme park? "Deserves" is probably the wrong word choice, but I got to thinking about which directors' oeuvres are most suited to a theme park. Cinephiles and thrill-seekers alike, rejoice!

Steven Spielberg
Main attraction: By my count, at least four Spielberg films have been adapted into actual theme park attractions. But none of them compare to the thrill of the Minority Report Tilt-A-Whirl, which boasts consistently short lines because anyone who even thinks about riding it is preemptively arrested.

Martin Scorsese
Main attraction: Travis Bickle's Taxi Ride. An animatronic Bickle guides you through the seedy underbelly of a small-scale New York. Hopping out and providing guidance to the various underage prostitues scattered about is encouraged.

Steven Soderbergh
Main attraction: It's hard to say...all the rides are so different...are you sure this is all the same park?

Federico Fellini
Main attraction: The 8 1/2 Coaster. Enjoy the delightful Nino Rota music in the background and pay no attention to the fact that they're building the coaster as you ride it.

Quentin Tarantino
Main attraction: Quentin's Scrambler. The ride itself is an homage to this obscure underground Scrambler that Tarantino rode once in Japan.

Christopher Nolan
Main attraction: Inception Teacups. You're spinning around in a teacup...which is inside a bigger teacup...inside a bigger teacup...

Lars von Trier
Main attraction: Lars' Freefall. It's an excruciating descent into the ground and upon impact, everybody dies.

Robert Altman
Main attraction: Altman's Bumper Cars. Up to 30 people can ride it at once, frequently  crisscrossing and interacting.

The Coens
Main attraction: Rooster Cogburn's Wild West Show. With a script completely devoid of contractions!

Woody Allen
Main attraction: Woody's Wooden Kiddie Coaster. See, it's small cuz uh, I get indigestion and the scary rides remind me of my mortality, ya know? JEW already go on it?

Alfred Hitchcock
Main attraction: Hitchcock is the most obvious candidate for his own theme park - where to begin? Get soaked on Marion Crane's Psycho Shower Water Ride. Swing on the Lifeboat Pirate Ship. See the whole park from the Strangers on a Train Miniature Railway (comes with one free murder of your choice), or L.B. Jeffries' Observation Deck. There also used to be a Vertigo roller coaster, which has since been torn down and replaced. Butif they just gave it a new coat of paint, it'd be a dead ringer for the old one...

Stanley Kubrick
Main attraction: Humbert Humbert's Carousel. You must be less than this tall to ride.

What auteur amusement parks would you like to see?

May 17, 2011

Tick tock

Be honest - hearing the phrase "24-hour video installation" makes you recoil a little. It sounds like work, not fun - something you experience because it's "good for you," like medicine or exercise. But if you're lucky enough to see a part of Christian Marclay's The Clock, it may be one of the more fun and exciting cinematic experiences you can have this year or any other.

The Clock is a 24-hour film that assembles thousands of movie clips to create a cinematic clock, with shots of timepieces and/or characters stating the time. It also corresponds to real life - when a clock in the film shows 2:37 pm, it's really 2:37 pm. Now, that might be a bit of punishing exercise if that's all there was, but Marclay also lets most clips run a little longer, letting viewers in on the action, suspense, comedy, romance, or horror that made the source film compelling in the first place. Additionally, at least half the clips feature a clock in the background where you'd never notice it otherwise, meaning the primary focus is elsewhere. LACMA (LA's primary art museum) played the film in a good-size theater for an uninterrupted 24 hours, and I managed to head over and watch an hour and a half's worth. In that time, (5:30-7:00 pm), I watched Derek Zoolander and Hansel puzzling over files "in" the computer, Bernstein reminiscing about Charles Foster Kane, George Wells explaining his time machine, Roy Munson making out with Claudia, Guy Haines playing tennis, Rose Loomis getting a refund on a now unnecessary train ticket, Margo Channing taking a car ride, Troy and Gabriella running down the hall, Mr. Banks singing about the consistency of his life, and more. It's the ultimate movie montage, starring every actor and actress imaginable. (Plus, you never need to check your watch!)

I think that's why it's such a hit - when it screened in a tiny gallery in New York, people waited for hours in the cold to catch a glimpse. It doesn't talk down to you. It's egalitarian. It gives equal weight to undisputed classics and throwaway B-movies. You can ponder what its structure means about the passing of time, or you can just have fun trying to identify the clips. You can watch as much or as little as you want. There's truly something for everyone, and as an LA Weekly piece noted, it's rare that a single work generates this much interest.

Anything popular receives an inevitable backlash, however, and many in the art world scowl that it's mundane, unoriginal, or - gasp! - too accessible. I say that anyone complaining about people coming out in droves to experience art is way off base. If nothing else, you can make the Harry Potter argument - "hey, maybe the books aren't masterpieces, but at least it's getting kids to read." To me, The Clock has the earnestness and transparency of, say, an 18th-century portrait; the artist in both cases is saying "I used my skills to produce something aesthetically pleasing that I hope you enjoy."

And lest you think Marclay is merely a passive curator, let me stress that his editorial skills are indeed stunning. With grace and humor, he intercuts clips to create themed sections or new meanings. Characters from different films have telephone conversations, eyelines match, someone opens a black and white door to a color world, various cinematic train stations are cut together as one. The audience loved, for instance, when crosscutting made it appear that Helen Morse in Picnic at Hanging Rock was flirting with Kurt Russell (in some film I couldn't identify). A surge of chimes, shrieks, and whistles often signal the change of an hour. I'm also told that it gets really exciting at midnight, but I can't verify that personally.

So why am I telling you this, since it was a one-day only engagement that has just ended? To gloat! (Kidding, kidding!) Seriously, though, if you live in LA, you still have a chance to catch The Clock, at least partially. Apparently LACMA formally acquired the piece, and will have it playing in some capacity in their Art of the Americas wing through the end of July. Unfortunately, it will only be during regular museum hours, so the 9 pm to 11 am portions will remain a mystery. And don't hold your breath for a DVD release - holy rights issues, Batman! I could see it having sort of a roadshow presence in years to come, however, in a similar fashion to the similarly clip-laden Los Angeles Plays Itself. Basically, if any opportunity arises to see it, GO! Even the most modest of cinephiles will get a kick out of it.

Angelenos, New Yorkers, or Londoners: have you had a chance to check out The Clock? Or would you want to?