February 21, 2010

Movie-vision

I am currently watching Step Up (Anne Fletcher, 2006) on ABC Family. Why? you may ask. You may even ask, Why, in God's name why?! The answer to both questions, as is my answer concerning most films that I watch on basic cable, is, Why not?

Step Up is basically Good Will Hunting, but with dance instead of math and Channing Tatum instead of Matt Damon. Down on his luck, rough around the edges janitor’s secret ______ genius is revealed while he’s mopping floors at a swank ______ school, changing his life, and the lives of the people who believe in him! Apparently, Channing Tatum is the inexplicable draw of this film, despite being once accurately described by one reviewer as “a violently unappealing mongoloid.” (I love you, Pajiba.) Channing Tatum, whose name sounds like a kind of heavy machinery, plays a character who is basically just that. His sole purpose in this film seems to be lifting a small, unappealing person in the air repeatedly, like a big dumb cherry picker. Tatum also has the habit of not so much saying his lines as muttering them at inexplicable speeds and pitches, though I don’t know that it does much damage to the film’s script. Somehow he emerged from this film with a legitimate film career, as evidenced by the recent success of Dear John, a movie whose title alone can make me feel like I’m about to wretch.

This is all brings me to my larger topic: watching films on television. Let’s call it, movie-vision. Movie-vision is like a free pass to behave badly, and to secretly consume cinematic fare you would never be willing to openly slide across a Blockbuster counter and pay for. I’m not talking about films made for television, since they are made with commercial interruption/etc. in mind. And they are consistently awful. Watching actual film on television is strange because it is the forcing of one media into another, whether or not it works. Film bends to television’s will, accepting multiple interruptions and heavy-handed editing/dubbing. Some films work better for television than others, and can be pretty reliably encountered on television every few weeks or so. Examples? Bring it On, Goodfellas, Gone in 60 Seconds. They never really seem to have much in common except for their broad appeal. Sometimes weird, unexpected films end up in repeated television circulation, like The Shawshank Redemption. Baffling, as that's like a five and half hour commitment via movie-vision. But maybe that’s the thing about movie-vision: most of the time people don’t actually sit through the whole thing. The film is like a network placeholder. Hm, what are we going to show between the hours of blah and blah? How about American Pie! Movievision films also tend to be things that people have seen; they aren’t often rare or long-forgotten films. They’re ones that you kind of remember seeing in theaters and sort of remember not minding and hey it has so-and-so in it and you’ve always sort of liked him and why not? Nicolas Cage features prominently in a lot of movie-vision. This probably has something to do with his role-choices, and his inexplicable appeal to American audiences. I mean, not to knock his acting ability. I have been known to enjoy me some Nic Cage from time to time (Moonstruck, Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas, Adapatation) but he has starred in some really, really, really unforgivably embarassing fare in the last decade—enough to make people forget that he was ever a lead in a David Lynch film.

Side note: Nicolas Cage has the best character name in every single awful or good movie he stars in, leading me to believe that that might be his criteria for choosing roles. Sorry Nic, I’m onto you. Let’s look at a random sampling from his career: Cameron Poe, Dr. Stanley Godspeed, Smokey, Sailor Ripley, Castor Troy, Speckles, Fu Manchu, H.I. McDunnough, Sergeant Joe Enders, Zoc, Johnny Blaze, and (my personal favorite) Memphis Raines.

Okay, Step Up was getting too painful. The joy of movie-vision: the complete and utter lack of any feelings of commitment or obligation. CLICK, and goodbye, Channing Tatum. I’m sure I’ll be seeing your obnoxiously vanilla, dead-eyed face occupying a square-shaped space on my silver screen soon enough. I’ve been having a good run of movie-vision in the last few weeks, even before I got HBO for myself for Valentine’s Day. Major upgrade here at the Nowhere Nickelodeon, people. I am excited. Lately, the TV networks seemed to have understood my deepest, darkest desires and filled the airwaves with films, both good and bad, that I am always pleased to partake of via the wonder of television. Because, of course, we all have our specific movie-vision favorites—the movies you will watch, piece by piece, time and again every time it magically appears on the TV in front of you, like a gift from the network gods. Some you can proudly claim to enjoy, even watching them in front of other people (Goodfellas, When Harry Met Sally, anything black and white) but some you would probably never admit to watching, even on movie-vision (City of Angels, Hook, Six Days Seven Nights, Con Air). Yes, I just admitted to watching all four of those films, and more than once. I am a secret City of Angels repeat offender. Damn you, Nicolas Cage!

But, more seriously, movie-vision is something of a weird gift, in my eyes. I have affection for it, even if I usually abuse it in order to watch something that I most likely should not be wasting the precious hours of my young life watching. I have affection for it because once in a blue moon I idly start watching something on television and it is amazing, and possibly more so because it came to me by pure chance and happenstance. Such was the case with Wings of Desire, or Dancer in the Dark, or The Station Agent. These films were very possibly the reasons I became interested in film as more than a dalliance, or an entertainment, and I saw them all, or even just a piece of them, for the first time on television. I suppose what I am trying to say is that there are worse things than channel surfing and landing on a film, new or old, and watching for a little while. You might be surprised what you might find out there, brave television voyagers. And should you find only Step Up, despair not. No one ever has to know.

February 12, 2010

Adventureland

I will never understand some of the marketing decisions made in the film industry. It’s truly incredible how a bad pitch can color a movie’s entire box office performance (see: Jennifer’s Body, or Jarhead). Admittedly, it is more often than not deserved. The film is awful, and its marketing is duly awful. However, given the crazy success of a lot of really, really awful films in this country, it doesn’t really make sense. Unless the film is pitched at entirely the wrong demographic, or misrepresented in a way that makes it unappealing even to the idiots who actually get excited about the Transformers franchise, there is no reason that shitty movie by that shitty director can’t make tons of money. I mean, G-Force people. G-FORCE. Turning a children’s film about ninja guinea pigs into box office gold. Nothing is impossible.

I like watching trailers. Even more, I like watching films and then watching the trailers for said films after experiencing the real thing. The packaging becomes so much more interesting when you can recognize what it is purposefully misconstruing. But when you see a trailer and go, meh, and then see the film and go ?! I am always left baffled. Why make a good film look stupid? After recently watching Adventureland I asked myself, Why didn’t I see this in theaters? I had access. I wouldn’t have had to pay for it or the delicious popcorn I would have consumed whilst watching it. And I was bored a lot around the time this came out, and I remember seeing some pretty bad films in theaters just to stave off this boredom. So why did I almost actively avoid Adventureland? Then I rewatched the trailer and made this sound: Oooooooooh. I understood, suddenly, why I had put it in the “maybe-rent” section of my film-brain. Because, based on the trailer, I had seen it already. It was called Superbad. Michael Cera look-alike? Check. SNL cast members playing supporting roles? Check. Snappy, culturally referential dialogue (sometimes I call this “Gilmore Girl Speak”)? Check. Lots of pseudo retro merchandise/costuming? Check. House parties? Check. Embarrassing situations involving boners and y-fronts? Check. And the things that made it look different from Superbad really didn’t seem like good enough incentives to justify me seeing the same movie over again. Ryan Reynolds? I don’t really understand the film-geek obsession with the guy. I mean, yes, very pretty to look at. Married to Scarlett Johansson. Delivers lines like a yankee Mathew McCaughnoehydhsudevufbay on speed. Next, Kristen Stewart. Really, marketing guys? If you wanted to give me a reason to see this movie, showing lots of Kristen Stewart in your trailer is not the way to go. I have compared watching her act to watching a box of rocks. The success of Twilight? Just a hint, marketing execs: tt has nothing to do with her. In fact, the casting directors really did a good job casting her, because she’s so boring and forgettable that the Edward Cullen obsessed tweens out there can completely pretend she isn’t there. It’s the same tactic they use in romance novels. And porn. What else? Oh, the whole “I just graduated from college and am now next to useless in the real world!” angle. Yeah. This may have been the real reason. I don’t need to watch a movie about post college malaise. I can just wake up in the morning.

For whatever reason, on this week’s trip to the nearest Blockbuster (45 minutes away, has a “Western” section, no foreign film section) I picked up the Adventureland DVD, shrugging and making non-committal sounds. I didn’t watch the film for a full 24 hours after renting it. Finally, it had me cornered. I had nothing else to do. I even cleaned the bathroom. The time had come.

And of course, it was great. The Michael Cera knock off guy was actually less Michael Cera like than the trailer would have had me believe. The script was honest and actually kind of gimmick-free. The supporting cast was great and funny, but never felt like it was there for the sole purpose of providing comic relief. In fact, some of the supporting cast was given its own storyline! I know! Multiple story lines? Fancy. Ryan Reynolds was perfect as that attractive but pathetic dude who never left his hometown and now fills the empty void left by his unfulfilled potential with barely legal tail (man, I can’t wait for my high school reunion). And get this, world. Kristen Stewart did not suck. I mean, she was no Meryl. She was not transcendent. But nor was she a place-filler for adolescent-female-vampire-porn-vixen. She carried her weight and interacted believably with the other characters; she even emoted, and no, I don’t mean just biting her bottom lip. And the film as a whole? The script was great, and the film’s feel managed to remind me really strongly of American Graffiti, which isn’t easily done. I mean, that film’s director can’t even halfway recreate that kind of brilliance (Lucas, man, what happened?). It also reminded me of The Graduate in the way it approached the post-college world. Adventureland’s post college ether, effectively manifest in the theme park itself, was a large part of the story, but it wasn’t the whole story (see: Post Grad.) Instead, the college limbo land that our main character lands in is just the lens through which we get to look at his whole life, past and present. He isn’t just a post graduate, and neither are the other characters which inhabit the limbo with him. I also thought the film was timely, given the number of college graduates who are falling off the end of the conveyer belt as we speak, trading in their philosophy and modern literature degrees for jobs at Starbucks and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I guess I am saying that Adventureland took a topic that is sometimes reduced to gimmick and sideshow in a lot of films and looked at it honestly, taking advantage of the surrealism that is post-graduate life to tell a really realistic story. And my question is, why did the marketing team for this film do everything it could to convince you that this movie was not that movie—that it was gimmick and comic relief and boner jokes? Thanks marketing team, but if I wanted to see a movie about bad corndogs… well. No. Why would I want to see a movie about that? The mind reels.

February 8, 2010

Fur

I am a compulsive movie re-watcher. It usually happens accidentally, or at least unexpectedly. I watch a movie, wander off, usually unimpressed, and months later suddenly think of it, and find myself thinking of it more and more. “Huh, (insert random film title here), interesting.” I ignore this. Then some time later, it happens again, but instead of a Huh it’s more like a ? and I really just can’t say no to a ?. Historically, this has resulted in midnight trips to the nearest video rental place. Here, at the Nowhere Nickelodeon, it is more difficult. Always, always, the film is unavailable via Netflix streaming. Or, even in the rare event it is, the internet has decided to do its best 90’s dial-up impersonation, rendering Netflix’s streaming capabilities impotent and embarrassed. Error messages abound, each more ashamed than the last. Finally, I relent. I visit my Netflix mail-order queue. For those who are curious, my Netflix queue is 363 films long, as of this very moment. Sometimes I view this queue with despair; how will I ever watch all of these films? When, if ever, will the mood strike me to bump the Orphic Trilogy or Julien Donkey-Boy to the number one spot? According to my Netflix account, I have seen at least 2,160 films. I look at that number and think, bah, not so many, but then I really start to attempt to calculate, according to standard movie length, the amount of time I have spent as a cinematic voyeur and I balk, and not only because I loathe math and lost my calculator.

So, understand me when I say that I have 363 films on my queue, 2,160 in the bank, and I sometimes watch the same film twice. Nay, more, if it is a true re-watch. It has to be a wake-me-in-the-night, can’t-rest-until-I’ve-seen-it-again type of urge. A few days ago I had that urge. As ever, its object was an unexpected one—a film that seemingly had no staying power upon its initial viewing. In fact, I may have disliked it the first time around. Even been bored by it (though given this particular film, that’s hard to believe.) And suddenly, last week, my brain said to me, unbidden and ever-stubborn: Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. Odd choice, brain. I rented the film via random video rental store for the first time shortly after its initial DVD release. I had seen the trailer and been intrigued; my father had given me a large book of Diane Arbus’ photography as a birthday present some years earlier, eliciting hours of fascination and horror. The film’s subject was, thus, intriguing, and its premise even more so: an “imaginary portrait?” I was immediately taken with this upending of the traditional biopic. Rather than the usual, a The Blind Side-esque claim of “based on a true story” this film was rejecting that entirely, favoring instead an openly fictional interpretation of a real person’s life. This I liked, particularly given its subject matter. If anyone was destined for a macabre film representation, it was Diane Arbus. And then there was the director. Steven Shainberg, whose resume still fell rather short on imdb. However, one of the few films he had directed was Secretary (2002). I adored Secretary. It was exactly the kind of film you could recommend to prudish romantic-comedy loving Meg Ryan’s, cackling to yourself. I remember offering it to a particularly straight-and-narrow college acquaintance, relishing the experience as one might watching your homophobic in-law watch Brokeback Mountain.

Anyway, Secretary was fabulous. So, when I saw this intriguing trailer, populated by a cast of interesting enough talent (Robert Downey Jr., Nicole Kidman) I was filled with glee. The kind of glee that film majors get over Quentin Tarantino, but better-deserved. On a side note, fuck Quentin Tarantino, and all the male films majors who worship him. Also, fuck Memento. Not because it wasn’t entertaining or vaguely innovative, but because the word was something like a mantra to the same previously mentioned male film majors. Say it three times fast. Memento Memento Memento. Tarantino Tarantino Tarantino. Congratulations. You now have a B.A. in Film and Digital Media.

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. I expected great things. This expectation was dampened by the somewhat lackluster, confusing reviews it received from film-criticism-publications I usually trusted and admired. If my bizarre, compulsive urges to re-watch certain, peculiar and seemingly unrelated films have come to teach me anything, it’s that I should really stop reading or trusting film critics at all. Inevitably, it turns out that the film I once looked forward to, then was disappointed by, and then woke in the night desperately needing to see again was one maligned by critics, and usually for no apparent reason. Often they are the films that garnered a rare bipolarity in film criticism: half loved it, half loathed it. Examples? Dancer in the Dark. The New World. Both films that I had a rather so-so reaction to until later, when frickin’ Bj√∂rk haunted my frickin’ dreams.

Fur is a completely off-kilter piece of film. Its production values make it almost seem mainstream, but its subject matter feels more John Waters than Jerry Bruckenheimer. It takes a loose biography of Diane Arbus’ life and fills in all the blanks. How did a beautiful, upper-middle class white woman come to be the photographic autobiographer of the American freak? That the films immediately embraces its own make-believe is genius; its storytellers assert that the most honest way to tell the story is to fictionalize it. What results is an oft-gothic, pleasantly disconcerting film. It takes the apparent mental epiphany/breakdown Diane Arbus must have had before endeavoring to capture what would become her disturbing body of work and externalizes it, personifying revelation as a fur-covered circus freak living just through the ceiling of Diane’s austere 1950s home. It is all very Blue Velvet and very Secretary and very, very Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete all at once, which is no mean feat. Think Beauty and the Beast meets sex, lies, and videotape (another now-beloved re-watch-film). Bipolar critical reception is all you can really expect of a film that marries Disney to Soderbergh. Downey is divine all covered with fur, and Nicole Kidman’s oddly manic-mannequin-like face really lends itself to her character. And the weird part is that it all really makes some kind of crizational sense, given Arbus’ work and life. It’s as if someone read her actual biography and was like, Ahem, I think not. I hope to live a life so absurd that someday someone is forced to fictionalize my entire biopic in order for the events within to make any sort of psychological sense. So, take that film critics. Take that, Walk the Line/Selena/The Aviator/Ray/etc. We don’t need your lip-synched musical numbers to appreciate the lives of our nation's mad geniuses! Nay, kind film-makers! Give us Robert Downey Jr. in a bear suit. Yes, please.

February 2, 2010

Neanderthals


Let us take a moment to consider 2010's Academy Award Nominations. It is the hip thing to do. First off, know that I am a shameless whore for the Oscars. I love the Academy Awards. Many film majors will not admit to this. Why? I do not know. I watch them every year, usually whilst drunk and eating copious amounts of Thai food. By the Best Director announcements, I am shouting obscenities at the television. I was raised watching the whole ceremony, and have very specific memories based on the experience. I could probably recite Julia Robert's Oscar acceptance speech. Some may remember my rabid tirades following Children of Men's cinematography snub at the 79th Academy Awards (2007), or my projectile vomiting following Crash's best picture win at the 78th. I suppose I was raised to believe in the Oscars the same way some kids were raised to believe in God, and every time someone shows me a absolute fucking Oscar flub i tend to react the same way the Christian Right does when you show them a Neanderthal skeleton. The Passion of the Christ nominated for three Oscars? No! NO! It can't be true! How dare you?! It's faked! It's all faked!

Nowadays I consider myself Oscar-agnostic. I am not yet ready to accuse it of complete meaninglessness, because it still obviously means a lot to a lot of people who work in the industry. This might have to do with the box office cash prize and the place on the movie rental shelf of history. Or it may just be, to this day, the most reverently spoken of award given Hollywood nonsense. The Oscars. This being said, given all of the Neanderthal skeletons I've been shown in the last decade, I can't believe that the Academy is all-knowing, all-correct, or all-good. I accept that it is a political and industry-savvy award's show, motivated to award prizes by more than just the pure artistic accomplishment of film-makers and actors. Heaven forbid such a thing exist. There is also the Razzies to be considered, which may be the best thing about the Academy Awards. I don't watch them, but their presence makes me believe that somewhere in the heart of hearts of the Academy members, there lies a little speck of truly bitter, snobbish, film-y criticism and vindictiveness, and that fills me with hope. Maybe they aren't as bought out and skid-greased as we in the film studies arena sometimes accuse them of being. Or they are, and the Razzies are a twisted little consolation prize to all the Paul Thomas Anderson shippers out there.

I guess this is all a roundabout way of saying that I care despite myself. The Oscars is the film community what the Superbowl is to football fans, whether we like it or not. We huddle around our television sets, mocking and fuming, secretly relishing the thought that someday, someday, we could be that awkward Japanese kid saying, "Domo arigato Mr. Roboto" to millions of anonymous voyeurs. So understand me when I say that this year's Academy Awards are the Darwin to our Bible. Is it all over? It might be. I submit, for your consideration, one of the ten (ten) Academy Award nominees for Best Picture of 2009:

What. The. Fuck. Yes, I said this was the Superbowl of the film world. BUT. BUT. It was meant as a analogy. I was being cute and comparison-y. I was not intending it to mean that the Superbowl and the Academy Awards should come together to form some kind of mutilated television abomination meant to please both football fans and Michel Gondry fans. No. That is not what I meant. To be clear, I don't care if Sandra Bullock was nominated for Best Actress. That's fine. Sometimes good actors and actresses get lost on film lots, wander into the wrong sound stages, and accidentally turn out great performances in bad movies. They should be rewarded for managing to keep it together while delivering lines that would turn most performers in Hayden Christensen.

Example: "You love me? I thought we had decided not to fall in love. That we'd be forced to live a lie and it would destroy our lives."
Example 2 (for good measure): "One day I will be the greatest Jedi EVER. I will even learn how to stop people from dying!"

Okay, so that was mostly an excuse to revel in the awesome badness of George Lucas' screenwriting. If Hayden had pulled off those lines, I would have personally handed him an Oscar. And then slapped him. Anyway. The Blind Side. This is a movie about white people who learn how to be better white people by adopting an emotionally traumatized, physically abused black kid. It is not about the black kid, or what he has been through. It is a movie about white people. He is the magical dog/retarded child/dolphin who teaches bored, emotionally stifled white people how to love. Yes, people. The artistic equivalent to Marley and Me is up for a best picture Oscar. It's Simple Jack starring Sandra Bullock. It's frickin' Pumpkin. It's Crash, but with football. Are we surprised? Probably not. It's the missing link, and Christianity is fucked.