Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Evolution Through Adaptation

(Note- Side Notes in the body of this piece contain spoilers)

Adaptation is it's own self fulfilling prophecy. It stresses over the concept of it's own making, rejects the concepts that would make it no more than dumb American trash, weaves three different films together and then employs those concepts anyway (poorly, of course, for comedic effect) as a way to make all of this work in an intelligent, engaging and fully involving way. It is also, above all, hilarious and thoroughly entertaining. At the end of the day, after all the stress, headaches, false starts and hair loss, it knows that it is both great cinematic art and still just a movie. It is, quite literally, the snake that eats it's own tail at least three times over. It is also, as far as American film goes, I think, nearly perfect.

So just what the heck do we make of all this information? Sometimes the best way to approach this big fragmented jumble of pieces is by laying them all out on the table. So we have three stories, in this chronological order:

1. Susan Orlean (a real reporter, played here by Meryl Streep) drives to Florida to do a report on an eccentric orchid poacher named John LaRoche (Chris Cooper) who is on trial for poaching endangered orchids out of the local swamp.

2. Orlean writes a best selling non-fiction book based on the response to the article called The Orchid Thief, which finds her exploring the idea of orchid collecting and ultimately finding interesting musings on the lines that divide passion and obsession through sad, beautiful prose.

3. The book is optioned to be made into a film. Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage), the mad genius screenwriter behind Being John Malchovich is given the job and, so the story goes, struggles so much with tying to figure out how to adapt this damn storyless book into a  narrative film that he ends up writing himself into his own screenplay.

And thus brings us to Adaptation, the finished film, a film about Charlie Kaufman desperately trying to adapt The Orchid Thief into cinema, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by the equally brilliant music video director Spike Jonze.

There are also two very important characters in the subtext of the Kaufman story. One is Charlie's twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) who, unlike the manic, paranoid, too-smart-for-his-own-good Charlie, is happy, free, liked by many but not too swift in the intelligence department. He's also decided, to add even more insult to injury, to became a screenwriter like his brother.

Side Note 1: Donald and Charlie represent the great writers battle between making great works and making popular ones. Alas, Jonze is very funny with the way he films Donald, looming behind Charlie and lit from below like a villain from a thriller. It's also fun to note the high canted angle, just moments prior, which sees Charlie looking into a mirror as Donald tells him he thinks he's going to put an imagine systems into his script and thinks it should be broken mirrors.

Side Note 2: Even deeper into the context of the film is the concept of Donald and Charlie's mother. It is implied constantly that Charlie rejects Donald's help as their mother favoured Donald and probably constantly told him he should be more like his brother. One gets the feeling that all Charlie needs to finish his script is the support of a good woman telling him he's doing a great job. It makes the phone call home at the end, probably years overdue, even more bittersweet. 

This leads them to Robert McKee (Brian Cox), a real life figure who does host regular screenwriting seminars where he will teach you, I suspect, not so much how to write a great story as how to properly structure a screenplay into three acts.

Let's break for a word on screenwriting. The rule is always Three. Three acts that each end with their own major plot point that shifts the story into the next act. What did Howard Hawks say when asked what a great movie is? "Three great scenes and no bad ones." Notice also how many stories we have already broken this film into, which also represents the three stages of adaptation itself.

From this advice Donald comes up with an idea for a benign to the point of hilarity horror script. What does he call it? The Three. See a pattern? Kaufman is poking fun at unimaginative screenwriters who make millions by churning out structured crap. Throughout the course of the film Kaufman so gleefully pokes fun at the conventions that are driving him insane but which without he could not finish his movie (thus explaining the ironic co-writer credit being given to Donald Kaufman in the film's opening credits)

Looks like Donald's script is going to be huge too. Charlie's agent thinks it will fetch him a pretty penny.Oh, and by the way Charlie, how's the Orchid movie coming? Even this man (played brilliantly by Ron Livingston), who has never seen a woman cross his path that he hasn't thought about fucking up the ass, tells the hard headed Charlie how to finish his damn script already, which of course, flies right over Kaufman's head.

The centrepiece of Adaptation is then the point when Charlie finally swallows his pride, listens to Donald and attends a McKee seminar. Charlie addresses McKee only to be scolded by the man, asking why the fuck he should waste his two hours on seeing his movie if it's not even going to be about anything? (It's also the funny moment he learns to stop using voice over).

This is the epiphany Charlie needs that leads towards the end of the movie in which the film abandons all connections to it's real world source material and creates a (rather shoddy) filmic narrative that brings all three stories together in a perfect dialectic (another principle of three).

Side-Note 3: When Charlie meets McKee after the seminar to ask for his help, his parting word on the final act is "And God help you if you use a deus ex machina." Now go watch that third act in the swamp again and get a good laugh. 

So what does it all mean? Well, quite literally, it's about exactly what it's title suggests. It is an adaptation. Actually it's three adaptations. It's also about the process of adaptation and, because adaptation is also a part of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, it's thus also, tied right back into real life.

It's about the three stages a story must evolve through along the path of adaptation and how/what changes about it each time. In the beginning John Laroche was a man, then his story was adapted into literature by Susan Orlean who recreated him based on her perceptions, which then became a movie in which Charlie Kaufman creates a story where they have an affair and become involved in a drug ring. Life needs stories, books need perspective and films need characters inside of stories where exciting things happen. That's evolution.

And that's also life. We meet people, change perspectives, realize our ways of doing things are not the best ones, become influenced by new people, places, pieces of information, etc. In the end, whether you like it or not, everything is Adaptation.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dawn Has Finally Broke: Twilight Is Over

So it's finally over.

Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson can go back to being kids parading as tortured artists; Taylor Lautner can continue to shit his pants that his claim to fame is a set of smoking abs and a starring debut of a film that upwards of no one saw (hopefully he doesn't have a drug habit that outstretches his annual income); Bill Condon can go back to directing great scripts that don't feature dialogue that reads like a mix of bad porno and high school lunchroom conversation; and we can all forget that for a brief moment in history the world was taken by storm by a novel that, as literature, was maybe one or two steps above a room full of monkeys at typewriters, which produced a five film quadrilogy that had, at 10 merciless hours, not a single thing of dramatic note happen. And yes, I do understand the concept of allegory. And no, this ain't it.

Actually, that last part is a lie. Something does happen in this final installment, albeit only to let us know, that nope, actually nothing is going to happen after all. It's a bigger dramatic cock block than the one that stretched over the first three Twilight films between Bella and Edward. At least it ends with a montage that features images from all four of the previous films. That's nice...right?

But, once again, who can you blame? Bad source material will always beget bad finished products. Condon especially raised the aesthetic stakes quite considerably across the span of Breaking Dawn's two parts, if for no better reason than to show how it's possible to make horrible movies look relatively good (or, in this case, better than they deserve). At least you earned your paycheck Bill.

There's a big lesson in film aesthetics and style in here somewhere, but then again, you didn't come this far because you care about any of that anyway, did you?

PS- Was anyone else weirded out by the use of what I can only hope was a computer generated baby in the first half of this film?

Be sure to check out my reviews for two of the previous Twilight films as well:

New Moon

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Punch-Drunk Love: The Best Movie Charlie Chaplin Never Made

Punch-Drunk Love is the best film Charlie Chaplin never made. Every time I see it it makes me want to just hug it and kiss it and whisper how much I love it into its ear.

It is also one of the darkest romantic comedies in, well, I don't really have a point of reference, so maybe ever?

It's a beautiful, sloppy, colourful, loving embrace of a film. It plays as if it's trapped somewhere between the cinema-as-a-state-of-mind of Scorsese's After Hours with the tender, loving touch of the Little Tramp starring in a classic Astaire and Rogers picture. This film's aesthetic is classic, simple, surreal L.A. through and through

This was to be a minor film for its writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson after his epic emotional train wreck of a masterpiece Magnolia (still my vote for the best film of the 90s for anyone who cares) and that about fit's this film's tone perfectly.

As opposed to the emotional vortex that threatened to destroy everything in its path that was Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love is a quite, more ephemeral love/art collage of a film about a sad/angry child trapped deep inside the exterior frame of a man so reserved in his day-to-day that he has reduced himself to simply getting by with being noticed as little as possible. It's a mini-masterpiece, jaggedly cobbled together from Anderson's love of Adam Sandler comedies, a sleazy mattress man, a beautiful muse and a stranger-than-fiction true story of a marketing mistake that allowed people to collect extra frequent flyer miles by purchasing cups of pudding.

This is Barry Egan, a strange man in a strange fitting blue suit. When we meet him he's opening up shop for the day. He runs a business that sells novelty bathroom plungers for which, I can only imagine, there is next to no current demand.

Barry has seven sisters who are planning a party this evening and keep interrupting his business meetings for phone calls that bark out orders and demean him based on his choice of words in expressing himself.

He smiles on, returns to reality, looks to the ground, buries the pain deep and manages to croak out the fewest syllables possible that, contrary to his belief, don't even go halfway to hiding his pain. This is a sad, unhappy, misunderstood child with no sense of how to escape his mind and grow into the man he should by now be.

But before any of this, Barry opens the shutter doors, looks down the parking lot with his morning thermos in hand and sees a horrific and completely unexplained vehicle accident, abruptly followed by a van, which pulls up, drops a harmonium just as unexpectedly onto the curb and leaves. Barry is horrified; doesn't know what to do; takes cover inside. Such a violent eruption followed by such a beautiful and innocent artifact. The tone for the film has been set.

Barry peeks out from around the corner. The harmonium is still there. He goes to fetch it. This is maybe the first source of comfort Barry has ever had in his life. The music they make together is sad and yet poignant to the point of beauty.

So Barry, very reluctantly, goes to a party his sisters are throwing where they all remind him of the time they were calling him gay boy and he got so mad he threw a hammer through the window. He claims he doesn't remember, the truth plainly being that he doesn't want to remember and doesn't particularly need to be reminded either.

He loses it, kicks in the sliding glass doors, and then asks his doctor brother-in-law if he can help him. Sometimes he doesn't like himself and cries for no reason. "Barry, I'm a dentist, “is the reply he gets. Barry is so far reserved from reality that even his attempts to get help come off as misinformed and pathetic. He needs help but doesn’t know where to begin in trying to get it.

Then two things happen. In a desperate need to talk to someone, Barry calls a phone sex line and ends up being blackmailed for money he doesn't have by a mattress man played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who's introductory shot is one of those great Hollywood look-who-it-is moments and comes, not as a mild surprise, but as if hurled at the screen with intent. Does anyone but Anderson shoot films like this in Hollywood anymore? Could anyone but Hoffman have made such an impactful entrance without yet a single word of dialogue?

He also, very reluctantly as well, meets Lena (Emily Watson, maybe never lovelier). She's a friend of the one sister who actually seems to want to communicate with Barry and thinks that they should go on a date. Barry doesn't agree but Lena talks him into it.

These are the two single most important events in Barry's life.

The remainder of the film sees Barry completely smitten with Lena, allowing him an outlet for all of the childish love and beautify in his soul that he only shared before with the harmonium to be given to and understood by a real person. He is capable of love and so desperately wants it but has absolutely no idea of how to act it out in physical form. Thankfully, Lena, the beauty in the red dress, isn't afraid to see past his exterior and to help him along, a little bit at a time. Maybe there truly is one perfect person for everyone after all.

In one of the oddest and yet most touching scenes that comes to mind, Barry, lying on top of her, tells Lena that she is so beautiful that he just wants to get a hammer and smash her fucking face in. In the span of no more than a second or two, she reflects, understands and responds that he makes her want to gouge his eyes out. His response to this is, as expected, quiet and awkward, but for him, plays more like rapture. Not only has he found a love in his life, but he's found his Venus de Milo.
No explanation is ever given as to why this angel would love this strange little man-child, and yet, just as when the blind girl laid eyes on the Little Tramp for the first time in City Lights, the moment is so poignant it's hard to hold the tears of joy back. All the while Anderson paints a beautiful visual portrait of light and colour around these two.

I wanted to have one final word on Adam Sandler. When Punch-Drunk Love first came out in 2002 most of the initial reviews felt the film was minor by Anderson standards but was still a point of interest for the deep notes of pain and internal strife that Adam Sandler was able to find.
Say what you will about Sandler and his usual angry-man-child with funny voices shtick, this is a great performance that understands the depth and sadness of Barry Egan and how he confuses not dealing with things as the same as concealing them from the world.  

And so now, for the rest of eternity, Adam Sandler will have his name on one, lone masterpiece in which he perfectly brought a character to life that stands totally on it’s one while also being worth comparing to the Little Tramp. He'll probably never be in anything this good again but that is, at the end of the day, more than most actors will ever achieve.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bad Boys: Whatcha Gonna Do?

Okay so wait!

There's these two black cops. They're partners. One, Mike Lowrey is a young, drop dead beautiful hunk of negro who, in the third person declares "Fuck anyone who don't like Mike Lowery", and isn't afraid to pull his gun and shoot first whenever needed, the law be damned. The other is short, slightly hot headed, has a wife, 4 kids, a lot of expenses and a desperate need to keep his job.

Their biggest bust at this point is like a kajllion pounds of heroin. In order to keep the toxic drug fumes out of the the evidence room and encourage air flow a ventilation fan is conveniently installed and acts as a way for a European criminal nutbag to break in and steal the entire bust. This dude is a strong case for tightening immigration laws in America. He's mean and killin' the holy fuck out of anyone who crosses him, one of  whom, in this case, just so happens to be, at the time, with a who also just so happens to know one Mike Lowery.

But oh wait. It thickens. Along for the job with the whr...escort is a friend, played by Tia Leoni, who witnesses both her friend and the client get taken out by that crazy Turkish fucker. Luckily, just moments prior to the blood bath she excuses herself to go to the washroom.

Unfortunately she's spotted and narrowly escapes a lot of bullets. In a panic she calls the one person who she feels she can trust: the dead escort's most recent contact, Mike Lowery. Only problem is when she makes the call to the station, Mike Lowery ain't nowhere to be found. Who is? Marcus, his partner.

Chief, played by the can-never-be-blamed-for-bad-material Joey Pants, has a brilliant idea. Have Marcus pretend to be Lowery. Marcus ain't doin' it. Does Marcus like having a job? Yeah. Then Marcus is doing it!

Marcus takes the phone and flubs the hello. The chief holds him up. Marcus says "hole on" and puts his hand to the receiver long enough for an extended conversation where the chief tells him that he must sound more like this man that this girl has never spoken to in her life.

Okay, back on track. Marcus gets Leoni's address and heads over there. On the way from the car to the entrance he talks himself up. He's gotta act and sound, once again, like this man she has never met. He knocks. Who is it. It's Mike Lowery. How does she know it's him. He says "Mike Lowery" again and then again, expecting, I guess, that she'll find the answer to her hard question in Lowery's name.

The door opens. She comes at him with a baseball bat. Yada yada. He has had enough. Listen lady. I'm here to help so you so stop coming at me with a damn baseball bat or you're on your own. The small talk is cut short when bullets start rippin' through shit.

They're on the run. Marcus has to take her to a safe place. He's got it! Mike Lowery's place. Ah, I see, Marcus has easy access to Mike's apartment through playing tough guy with the gets-a-boner-every-time-he-thinks-of-what-it-would-be-like-to-be-a-cop front desk clerk whose presence will only lead to a useless-as-tits-on-a-bull scene in which said desk man gets to tell Marcus how much he wants to be a help with his case.

Marcus takes Leoni up to Mike's apartment, where he doesn't know where the light switch is. He donno where anything is. He always redecoratin' 'n shit, he helpfully explains. He walks backwards and falls. He donno why he fallin' 'n shit in a place he live.

Mike gets filled in on the whole situation the next day by chief in a tough assed monologue which ends with him telling both of them that they are going to keep up this little act so they don't lose their only witness. What!? Hell naw. Mike don't want no one messing up his expensive stuff and Marcus has a wife who is never going to allow this. Of course he does. Without her there would be no scene in which he packs his bags as shecan't handle much more of this, which manages to somehow also name drop Coke not once but thrice.

Back at Mike's, Leoni looks at the wall of pictures and wonders who the man in them are. It is, of course, the real Mike Lowery. Oh shit, sometimes I don't look at my shelf, I forget all the pittures I got here. That's my partner Marcus. He kindly explains to her that it's a cop thing. At Marcus' house is all pittures of him. Oh, I see, because when she first saw it she thought maybe it was pictures of his lover. Ah nah. He ain't gay. She buys it. Sheez, sometimes cop work can be hard.

Fuck me dead, I feel stupid! And we're only about half way through!

No wonder people blame Michael Bay for how shitty his movies are even though his team is what keeps production value high and action/melodrama pumping steadily across the running time. Take away the hunks, babes, special effects and speed and just, honestly and sincerely, look at his movies as fast paced photography. Dude knows how to turn an abysmal script into a great looking movie. Just prepare to get stupider for having seen them.

Except The Rock. That movie is (Rock) solid.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Enter the Void At Own Risk

I'd love to write Gasper Noe's Enter the Void off as pretentious bullshit and go about my life. But I can't. It just isn't right.

The movie will probably most appeal to the 30-something university professors from around the world who dropped acid on their journey through academia and found that all of a sudden all the pretentiousness in the world suddenly made sense and they thus had to explain it to everyone else under their own pretension that we should give a shit. It's okay, I had him in third year too. And it's okay, he only gave me a B too. Yep, it's that kind of movie.

It will also appeal, maybe be a point of fascination would be a better way of putting it, to those who are too young or too inexperienced or too undrugged to not be able to tell the difference between colourful, strobing, psychedelic Eurotrash  and art. Maybe in some cases there isn't much difference?

But, alas, the movie is, I think, to my objective mind, a masterpiece. That doesn't mean you have to like it. I doesn't even mean I like it. Regardless, let's admit: here is a film with style, technical expertise, shots so impossible it's unfathomable for the mind to conceive how they must have been done and a vision that is, for better or worse, uniquely it's own. That is, no matter you're personal feelings or preference, always worth something.

I'm sure, somewhere out there, someone could explain every little minute detail of this film's big mess of a plot and how they all connect together to form some sort of beautiful, deep, profound artistic statement. All the power to them. Noe himself has gone on record to say that the film's central theme is that of "the sentimentality of mammals and the shimmering vacuity of the human experience." Helpful.

He's also said the film was inspired by his downing a lot of drugs in his adolescence and looking at the world through different eyes. That makes more sense.

There are also musings within about the Tibetan Book of the Dead and how the film is about the hero hovering over his life after being killed by Tokyo police and traveling back to the moment of his birth, cumshot towards the camera inside the vagina and all. Yep, it's that kind of movie.

But outside of the technical brilliance of the film (and it is technically brilliant), what it all really boils down to is an equally grating and fascinating three hour long look at what it must be like to hover over a story completely zonked out of your mind. Most of the film's experience can be likened to watching a film while yourself on shrooms about a person looking down on a city, while, you guessed it, on shrooms. Double potency.

For some, maybe most who actively seek it out, that will be enough to justify at least one complete sit through.

For me though, it's not the kind of masterpiece that invites you in and asks you sit and ponder for a while and then keep coming back any time. It's also not one that bowls you over with imagines of the kind of serene beauty you've been searching the world over but have never been able to find. And it's certainly not one that, at the end of which, you sit back and feel as though your outlook on life may be a little different tomorrow.

If anything, Enter the Void is a masterpiece on the level of it's own making. It doesn't matter what it's about. What matters is that we've not only never seen this kind of narrative before, we also haven't seen anything made quite like this before. Double potency again.

If there is any personal effect I found this movie to have, it is in the film's graphic honesty. Noe, who apparently likes to write scenarios and worry about finding his characters and dialogue on set, goes a long way to making you feel every seedy, graphic detail of this story, these characters, this city, etc.

That also ties directly into the film's aesthetic. There's nowhere the camera, as much a character as any of the actors are playing, can't and won't go, nothing that is too much for our eyes to see and no imagine that can't be twisted and changed under the influence of  unfiltered film style. I don't know about the "sentimentality of mammals" but Enter the Void is never boring to say the least.

So go ahead, go see it. Maybe hate it. But maybe also study it. Find things in it that no one else has ever seen and educate the rest of us to them. Write essays about art and life and culture. Of just pop some shrooms and buckle up for the next three hours.

I suspect though, if you're going to do that, being outside and rolling in the grass or going to the zoo may be just as, if not more, fun, adventurous, life affirming, what-have-you than sitting down with this arty-farty bloated trash heap of a masterpiece. Just maybe.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Surest Thing about The Sure Thing

The Surest Thing about the 1985's Rob Reinber/John Cusack romcom The Sure Thing is it's plot.

Whittled down to it's most bare essentials the film builds itself upon one of the most basic concepts of theatrical arts: If you put two completely different people in a room together and have them talk for an hour and a half, they will exit changed by one another. If not, it's tragedy.

This is at the centre of all human drama. First they begin by hating and/or misunderstanding one another out of possibly fear, selfishness or naivety but soon, once they are forced into a situation that requires them to communicate, they grow to learn from one another and fill in the blanks that are missing from their own lives.

12 Angry Men put 12 different men in a room; The Man on the Train had two people come to the philosophical realization that they may have been happier had they led the other's life instead and It Happened One Night found comedy in making the two of opposing sex and putting them on the road together. The list of examples goes on forever. It's hard to screw this kind of thing up.

If anything then, The Sure Thing is It Happened One Night remade for 80s teenagers. It features young, fresh faces, a hip soundtrack and an undiscovered bikini clad blond at the other end of the road.

The film was one of the first to star John Cusack who had graduated into a leading role after haunting the background of John Hughes' Sixteen Candles. Maybe he was always destined to be the leading man Hughes let get away? His presence, over a consistent and long career, in any film always seems to guarantee it at least some degree of enjoyment and Say Anything... still remains the best teen romcom that Hughes failed to make himself.

The Sure Thing -funny, light, enjoyable- in retrospect, is maybe best appreciated as a grounds for Cusack to work out all the kinks in what would later become his most iconic character of the 80s: Loyd Dobler from the aforementioned Say Anything...which came four years later.

Here his Gib is everything we'd come to appreciate about Lloyd: an open, adventurous, likable, charming and funny youth who thinks he's got it all figured out, until nothing ends up happening in his favor, from which he actually does end up getting it all figured out.

In this case he's flunking university English on the East Coast where he has a secret crush on the class prude (Daphne Zuniga) who's in the opposite boat as him. Her mechanics are perfect but writing lifeless. She needs to live a little.

Then, not on the best terms to begin with, they get stuck together riding West to L.A. for the Christmas break (with a funny showtune singing cameo from Tim Robbins). She's visiting her lawyer-to-be boyfriend who's idea of a good time is giving her the lead in a game of gin, and he's going to visit his high school bestie who's promised to hook him up with a sure fire West Coast lay (Nicollette Sheridan in her first film role).

You can fill in the blanks from there.

And yes, they do change, become better people, learn their lessons and so on down the line. That's why, as the age old cliche continues to go, opposites do attract. Most movie characters just need a cross country road trip to realize it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Weird Science of John Hughes

Many a moon ago I posted some ramblings on John Hughes, whether or not he deserved his own special memorial at the Oscars, a documentary about trying to secure an interview with him and just how realistic his films were, leading to a debate on what film realism truly is.

Not bad for a dude who's entire career could just about be summed up with one word: Bueller.

Maybe auteurism does exist in American film after all?

Why that word, though?

Well aren't all of his best films (save for Planes, Trains and Automobiles; the proof that he actually was a humanist and not just a teen sympathizer) about young men and women going against the societal norms laid out for them? Aren't they also about teens not only learning to dance to the beat of their own tune, but finding out just which instrument they are best suited to play? The Breakfast Club (Hughes' "masterpiece"?) bringing the whole band together in one place?

Last night I watched Weird Science, which, although I haven't seen She's Having a Baby or Curly Sue, I think it's safe to say is Hughes' most rambunctious film. For better or worse that is. But I don't know, I kind of admired that quality about it. No other Hughes teen comedy went quite so far, after all, as to have computer generated women, metal-faced leather clad biker dudes or a big brother turned into a life sized frog man.

Even big brother gaining access to the hero's bedroom via shotgun blast is a little out of this world. Although, a movie that features all the contents of a room being sucked up and shot out the chimney including the young girl playing the piano who is, god bless her, strong enough to hold on longer than her bra, can't be all that bad, can it?

So yep, the movie is fun. But what holds it all together and propels it up the ranks into note worthy-ness, as always, is John Hughes the humanist. Sure, Hughes the teen anarchist is what we love, but it doesn't work unless you can relate to the teens at the centre of the drama. 

So, just as important in the mix is the John Hughes that relates to the teens that don't fit. The two best buds who can't get a girl to even look at them, let alone get laid. The dudes who get picked on by the popular morons with the hot girlfriends.

If that's you, forget about the mechanics of plot or the depth of the reality. John Hughes was on your side.

And that's what I finally think has kept Hughes alive and relevant all these years. He played on both the emotions and imaginations of teenagers who don't understand that everyone goes through the same things and provided solace in knowing that maybe your older brother is a flaming douchebag as well,  but at least he's not blowing down doors one round of buckshot at a time, even if, sometimes, that's what it feels like.

I'm Now A Twit!

So I did it.

I'm on Twitter.

Tell your friends.

I figured why not, I'll give it a shot?

I will use it, not simply to promote this space (which I will do, obviously) but also as a place to simply collect my stray thoughts that don't belong on here or are not worthy of more than 100 characters.

And I promise I'll do my best to only post interesting stuff. Okay?

Should be interesting. We'll see how it goes.

So be sure to come follow me @Ml_Movies. If you click follow and also tell one friend to do the same you'll be forever in my debt.

Now that's a beautiful thing.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Shining

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is a masterpiece. Let's get that out of the way. How much of a masterpiece it is, I don't know, and whether it's a masterpiece on the level of 2001 or Dr. Strangelove is doubtful, but it is a masterpiece none the less.

And the single reason why it is a masterpiece is that it never gives any indication of how a viewer should feel about it.

Is it a story about a recovering alcoholic writer and abusive father who's former demons spark up when he relocates his family to live in an isolated mountain top hotel for the off season?

Or does he actually sell his soul to the devil for a drink in that scene at the bar, forever doomed to repeat this horrible experience for the rest of eternity?

Maybe it's a film about a mother who is desperately trying to save her son from a deranged and abusive husband who tries to murder them after falling off the deep end into insanity?

Or maybe it's about an emotionally abused child who buries his pain so deep inside that he creates an alternate personality and horror fantasy in his mind in which the abusive drunken father who terrifies him is driven into a murderous rage? Is the entire hotel a stand in for the kid's imagination?

How about it's an object of study because of it's mysterious auteur who rarely ever gave interviews and even more rarely ever spoke about his work? As if the artist has left his art in order for paranoid intellectuals to sift through in hopes of unlocking something about Kubrick's inherent inner genius?

But then the film is more yet. It's a brilliant psychological experience in which we encounter first hand the madness going on inside the head of each and every character. It's also an exercise in perfect film form and style.

Every note on the score is calibrated to coincide with what is happening on screen; every performance plunging deep into the madness and torment of these characters as it escalates. Every perfectly composed frame indicating a certain unease that must be lurking just below the surface.

It's also a European art film dragged through the dung heap of American popular culture.

And an adaptation of a great American horror novel.

It's also a perfect example of how to build tone and mood up until a breaking point in which all holy hell breaks lose, in this case, in an extended sequence of terror that is so frightening in how engaging it is that you don't care how it ends, just for the love of god let it end already.

And with that, it's also a hell of a genre flick.

At the end of the day, there is no relief from this film. That's why we keep coming back to it. That's why there is soon going to a feature length documentary trying to shed some light on it and explain all of it's mysteries.

So, The Shining is a masterpiece then not only because Kubrick gives us no easy in or out or indication of what all of this means, but because, no matter which angle you look at it from, it's nearly flawless from all of them.

Whether wanting to sift through the mysteries of the plot, look at pretty pictures for two and a half hours or just have the holy fucking bejesus scared out of you, you'll walk away feeling sure you've seen a masterpiece every time.

That's what truly makes it special: It's a masterpiece in it's details which all come together to create an even bigger masterpiece.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Book According to Lemmy

Here are some of the things, in no particular order, I love about Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister (as per Greg Olliver & Wes Orshoski's wonderful documentary Lemmy)
  • Lemmy is "famous not wealthy."
  • Lemmy's favourite drink is Jack & Coke.
  • You'll often find Lemmy haunting the slot machine in the corner at his favourite local L.A. bar.
  • This joke: Q: How do you make a dead baby float? A: Two scoops of ice cream and two scoops of dead baby.
  • Lemmy remembers a time before rock n roll.
  • Lemmy isn't influenced by any modern musicians or bands.
  • Lemmy is still alive.
  • Lemmy discovered that you need not be bothered with the down time between hits of LSD by just doubling the dose.
  • Again, Lemmy is still alive.
  • While other rock stars are out partying and blowing their income, Lemmy is probably somewhere writing a new Motorhead album.
  • When asked about drug use, Lemmy does not want to answer in detail because he doesn't want kids to mistake him as saying it is okay to live his lifestyle.
  • He isn't saying it isn't okay to live his lifestyle, either.
  • Lemmy has a house full of WW I and II stuff that would turn many a museum director into a quivering mess.
  • In spite of the above point, Lemmy has these things because he likes them. Never is there any indication that he cares about their wealth outside of their natural historical value. When he's dead, all the junk in his house, he muses, will be someone else's problem. No point, I suspect, in giving a fuck about much after you're dead.
  • Lemmy doesn't seem to give much of a fuck about anything other than being Lemmy.
  • The quote from a friend that if the entire population of the world were to be wiped out, the only things left on this planet would be cockroaches and Lemmy.
  • When asked about the rumor that he has bed over 2,000 women, Lemmy is modest and wants to set the record straight: In reality it is probably closer to 1,000.
  • One of those women was his son's girlfriend. One time they swapped.
  • Lemmy is funny and realistic about what his name means to his son's mother; who he admits was just "casual sex."
  • Once Lemmy, despite not being asked, wrote a letter to a female's husband letting him know that there was nothing between him and his wife.
  • Like his music or not, Lemmy is one of the few people that you can legitimately call a Rock God
  • Lemmy has a house full of everything anyone has given him over the years.
  • Lemmy is, I think, the real Chuck Norris.
  • The stories that Lemmy is willing to tell the camera are just as good if not better than the myths and legends that have built up about him over the years.
  • Lemmy is, in spite of all of this, just a man.
Now go and see the documentary which is. It's an excellent look, in mostly cinema verite style, at the current life of one of rock/metal/punk's greatest living legends.

It is funny, insightful, in depth and leaves you feeling refreshed by it's subject. We could all learn a thing or two about living and life from Lemmy

Friday, October 26, 2012

An Expression of (a Tree of) Life

Over the weekend the Siskel to my Ebert Vancetastic at The Audient left me a comment asking how I had decided to ditch my star ratings just as he is starting to implement his own. I do have an answer for him but unfortunately it won't be of much use to him, or anyone else, from a practical standpoint, but let me explain my rationing in full.

The truth is, my view of the world changed (expanded may be a better term) and so the way I related to it also needed to change. The best why to explain how it changed is to explain what it changed to and the best example to use, in remembering that this is a film blog, is Terence Malick's masterpiece Tree of Life.

If you trace the world back to the dawn of creation (let's leave God out of this debate just for argument's sake) it came into being as a physical thing. Who knows exactly how or why it happened but low and behold we have a huge physical mass that, eventually grew to be able to sustain life.

And so, life happened. But, the first man/creature/plant/whatever didn't have any knowledge to begin. This thing was among the Earth's new babies and so it was up to them to learn. From learning springs knowledge and from knowledge springs evolution, and from evolution springs conventions and ways of thinking/feeling/doing which we turn into tribes/cities/societies/any sort of governing body that helps us guide our lives based on a set of agreed upon theories/principals/modes of belief/whatever. That's why you can trace all knowledge back to a select few original things (5, 20, 100, pick a number). Everything since has just been different examples of these core human discoveries.

So that's, in my mind, how evolution worked. I don't know what a stove is, I put my hand on a hot burner, it hurts, I now know that heat will burn. Cooking requires heat, so don't put my hand on the stove top when it is hot. Every time I think of putting my hand there again I remember that time I was hurt by doing so. Now I will be cautious around any different thing that is hot. It all traces back to one instance.

But not only do I have knowledge, I can also share it. I can tell a friend, cousin, sibling, stranger or child this because I've already done my homework. Learn from my knowledge not my experience getting there. However, my example is not absolute. Who's to say, after all, that someone else can't do the same thing and experience no pain? I make my knowledge public but the experience it is based on is mine alone. (ed- Obvioulsy the person who doesn't feel heat would still get hurt, but let's not get off course with knitpicking).

So there's the problem. Knowledge is a human concept and being so it is flawed and open to interpretation. We don't trust one another, we lie, imagine, dream, make things up. Every one's minds are different, bodies are different and so on down the line. No two snowflakes are the same. If I say a shirt is red and someone else says it is pink then how are we to really know what the true colour of this object is in the real physical world that exists outside of our bodies, which are the only connections we have to it? My only knowledge of this colour is that which my brain deciphers through my eyes, all of which, because they are human, have a margin for error and are programmed differently than every other set of human eyes on this planet. And so, as Socrates said it, "All I know is that I know nothing."

That's all I know too. That's all anyone knows really if we trace life back to the very beginning. To go back to the stove: I didn't know something, I had an experience, now I think I know something and can do with that information as I please. I can judge all people who touch stoves as stupid and unsophisticated because they don't have my knowledge and I am certainly not stupid and/or unsophisticated; I can tell everyone it is a sin to touch stoves or I can keep it to myself and take pleasure in seeing other people discover the hard way as I did. Anything. Because knowledge is man made the key to it is that it only becomes knowledge worth knowing if a large body of people think about it and agree. The Earth is round, water is wet, the sun is hot, stoves burn hands etc. Sure, I have no real gain in arguing.

So all knowledge, at the end of all of this, is the extension of the experiences of the few forms of life that existed at the very beginning. What was it? Who knows? In Tree of Life it's dinosaurs. In 2001: A Space Odyssey it's apes. What it is isn't what's most important.

And so there we see it, in Tree of Life: a Dinosaur can kill another of its own and then decides to show what we now recognize as compassion instead. But it's not compassion. Compassion is 10 letters we have put together as a way of easily expressing what this dinosaur at the beginning of the world has experienced. And from the first time comes the second, the third, the fourth and so on for the rest of time until we achieve recognition of the thing without so much as a second thought.

From this one act of pity, the first of it's kind as far as we need to be concerned, comes something that we now base entire societies on. Did you're boss let you take the day off without hassle when you were sick or force you to work in your misery? Thank that dinosaur if he did. The concept dates back to the beginning. Plug in any example you want as a way to express it, the concept always stays the same.

Similarly, in 2001, from an ape realizing that a bone can first be used as a tool and then a weapon and then so on at the dawn of time we evolve to a time of huge, complex, vast space stations that are populated with technology that is unthinkably sophisticated and can, as everything before it, be both tool and weapon. Life being but a reoccurring instance of these core things just in different forms, which change as people pass their knowledge on down the line from generation to generation. People, after all, need different examples before they find one that clicks. That is, to me, the definition of clarity (being able to peel back the examples on the way to the core).

That's the groundwork laid, which Tree of Life takes roughly 20 of what can only be considered some of the most beautiful moments ever put on film, to establish. Present day and a boy is trying to decide if he should live like his sheppardly mother or his stern father. That's where this quest starts for everyone in their own unique way: at the level of family until it slowly extends outwards on the journey to the end where it can all make sense in one final and infinite way. What does one hold on to? What does one dismiss? Do I touch the stove or just take dad's word for it? Life, having evolved so far away from original experience and being so full of examples of knowledge that can either help or hinder, is big, messy and confusing.

Some people believe in gods to make sense of what happens in life. Some believe in science to unlock the mysteries on the universe. Some believe in the revelation of some true paradise after death. And some believe in knitting. Anything to give some purpose and direction to this jagged mess of possible meaninglessness. They are all wrong because none of them will ever know completely for a fact that any of these things are true. They are also all right for the exact same reason. The coin, after all, without exception, always has two sides.

The conclusion then that Tree of Life leads to (along with Citizen Kane as well if you need another reference point) speaks to me deeply and touches me profoundly. This is not because it houses some universal truth about life or nature or religion or anything, but because it places the entire history of the creation of the world within the story of one man and his family and ends in a place that, for symbolic purposes I guess is Heaven, but to my mind doesn't need to be that symbolic. It's the only place in life when everything makes sense. At the end. The picture is complete. At the end of Mike Lippert no new knowledge will enter his head or influence him to change who he is, how he behaves, how he thinks and how he relates to the world. The story of Mike Lippert has been written.

Which is why Tree of Life and Citizen Kane end where they do: in the one place, at the end, where every object or person that has ever influenced the lives of their protagonists can be found. Just as we can trace all knowledge back to it's origins, when we come to the end, the only true way of knowing  who a person really was is to trace all the objects in their lives back to the very beginning of it.

And that is why I believe there is no absolute knowledge, no right and wrong, no nothing outside of self analysis. We make of it what we will based on what we encounter along the road. If there's a God or aliens out there or whatever really isn't for me to know right now but I'm sure to always keep the possibilities close by. Everything, thus, is only as it appears to the individual. Everyone struggles so hard to define themselves, to live the right way, do the right thing and be the right person to the right people. It's exhausting and drives some to insanity, paranoia, obsession, you name it. There will always be comfort in others, but everyone, no matter who they are, what they do or where they come from, are in exactly the same boat as us: making it up as we go along. Some have an easier time admitting it than others.

It's only if we put all of the knowledge in the world together in one place all at once that  we would be able to establish some sort of clear picture of what it all means. It's the same for the individual. So now Socrates needs updating: All I know are the things I know even if I don't always know what they mean because I really only know nothing when it comes down to it. And so life goes.

So why drop the ratings? Because, who cares about them? I love discovering myself though film, not awarding star ratings. I watch movies because every once in a while you'll come upon a Tree of Life or a Citizen Kane or a 2001 A Space Odyssey which play before you and tell you everything you've ever thought was true or ever wanted to hear before.

And even when I just watch the movies to be entertained, who am I to judge a work created by people I don't know, under circumstances I don't understand unless the people involved want to make that knowledge public?

In the grand scheme of life then it seems like a worthless pursuit to try to reduce a film into however many symbols out of five. I respect film too much to do that to it. It's taught me so much about my own life and informed my thinking and actions so much over the years. It's the least I can do for it in return. 

But hey, that's just me.

Friday, October 19, 2012

October Fright Nights #3 - Scream

Looking back 16 years after its original release, it's interesting to think of whether Wes Craven/Kevin Williamson's Scream succeeded more for it's parodying of the worn down slasher genre or for it's ability to be a more than competent new entry into it? Maybe a bit of both back then?

Today, in 2012, the self referential dialogue feels a bit tired and worn (especially after four entries into this franchise alone). One must, in accepting it, realize that the appeal was that in 1996, save for Wes Craven's New Nightmare 2 years prior, no one else was doing anything like this (which is certainly what landed it the number 20 spot on my Movies that Made Going to the Movies suck list).

Back then it was uncharacteristic to have characters in a horror film who had watched and discussed the same horror movies that we had watched and discussed ourselves. This played as a sort of tongue-in-cheek reverse criticism. It already knew all the logical problems of the genre, becoming its own joke before the critics could make it theirs.

But today, as I wrote in my review of the already forgotten Drew Barrymore/Justin Long romcom Going the Distance " There was once upon a time, before Scream, when movie characters didn’t talk like they knew things that happened in the outside world. Now it seems as though movies feel that if they aren’t referencing the times they aren’t part of them." Couldn't have said it better myself.

So, what's surprising about Scream and what, I suspect, makes it hold up, is how well it embodied the slasher genre on it's own terms even before the need to make fun of itself. Look at the extended epilogue that opens the film as Drew Barrymore receives a mysterious call that begins with humor and character before it effortlessly, but not rushingly, descends into terror and then violence in exactly that order. The whole film is structured this way: character scenes slowly build into the unsuspecting bursts or terror and violence required to continue deepening the mystery.

The screenplay by Williamson is well plotted and never gives any indication of who the killer could be up until the big final reveal. Williamson was smart in that he offered the possibility that anyone could be the killer and didn't cheat in logic once the whole picture became clear. Watch especially the subtle way he gets (spoiler's) Matthew Lillard's character off screen prior to any killings happening.

It is, after all, the key to any big surprise ending that we are able to trace our steps back and have everything check out logically. Although the film has it's fair share of the generic, you never really see the mechanics of the plot openly grinding away in plain view.

And then there's Craven, an intelligent man already considered a master of horror two or three times removed from this film, and who has always been attracted to projects just one or two steps left of genre transgression. You can see as Craven and his cinematographer ring suspense out of every little detail: mysterious canted angles, subtle shifts in focus, long takes, and a score that underlines the suspense but doesn't substitute for it. This is, after all, the man who's debut feature film was a remake of an Ingmar Bergman classic.

And let's not forget Neve Campbell in the leading role: smart, driven, and strong willed. Campbell never reduces the character to dumb teen horror movie cliche. You feel her terror, her torment and her physical pain all along the way. That's not to mention the presence of Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette and Courtney Cox who all play characters that, when knives aren't slashing and blood isn't flowing, create a compelling human narrative, which is, at the end of the day, the ultimate success here. You feel you're part of this town, this group of friends and these ghastly murders. That's all any good slasher movie, at the most basic level, really needs to do.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

October Fright Nights # 2: The Brood

David Cronenberg's The Brood is the worst kind of trash: the kind that thinks it's smarter than you. Apperently based on the director's own experience with a messy divorce, it revolves around a women engaged in an experimental form of psychotherapy in which Oliver Reed delves deep into the minds of his troubled patients and helps them act out their buried demons, and the woman's ex-husband who can't understand why people from her past are being murdered one by one by mutant children. Think Jung with gore.

In typical Cronenberg fashion the film spends it's gruelingly boring first hour playing more like a Intro to Psych 101 course as all of Croneberg's intellectual favourites (Freud, Nietzsche, etc.) make their way into the the thinly disguised psychoanalytic allegory.

Only problem is that this material will not be on the final exam, and Croneberg, as he is want to do, throws all his academic mubo jumbo out and let's the shit that he's been hinting at the entire time royally hit the fan in the lo-fi horror trash heap of a third act where the random mutant children are finally explained in a typical psycho sexual fashion that has long been figured out before the honourable Dr. Reed gets to explain it all to us. The only thing missing is James Woods with a stomach vagina.

Cronenberg's main problem throughout his entire career has been that he's a man who thinks high and films low. His narratives often revolve around their intellectual pretensions as if the director fancies the musings of his mind above the construction of a coherent story to explore them within. The cold, detached visual aesthetic just solidifies Cronberg's belief that it's more important for an audience to think material his way instead of feel it out. Working through his oeuvre, one gets to wishing that he'd put down the text books and make the true trash horror masterpiece his name deserves.

Let's remember, when we trace it back to essentials this is a film about murderous mutant children. End of story. Nothing more. All else, despite Cronenberg's I'm-smarter-than-you condescension, when you get to the heart of the matter, is irrelevant. Too bad this film never got the memo. The Brood, in one form or another, is probably a good horror movie. Under David Cronenberg it isn't much of a horror or a movie at all.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

October Fright Nights #1: Don't be Afraid of the Dark

Counting the days until Halloween one horror movie at a time.

I've seen this one before. An emotionally isolated girl is sent away by her L.A. mother (no more characterization needed there) to live in Providence in an old haunted mansion with her oblivious to the point of cruelty father (Guy Pearce, wasted as the straight man) and his new squeeze / interior decorator (Katie Holmes). The kid is unhappy, lonely, unloved, etc. Computer generated demon things whisper out from the basement; the kid explores but no one will listen to her cries of imminent danger, because, for christsakes she's just a kid; even after the groundskeeper, lying mutilated and bloody on a hospital bed, doesn't stutter when he tells Ms. Holmes to get the kid and get the hell out of town.

In 1980 the horror of a belittled and abused child was called The Shining and was a masterpiece. In 2012 it's called Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark and treads the same waters but replaces the cold detached sarcasm of the internal drama with fantasy horror held together with the broad strokes of American melodrama, letting dad off to learn his lesson the easy way. From melodrama is born caricature and from caricature is born films like this, which visually is beautiful (even if it doesn't do enough to make the house the true main character), but is then, as where melodrama often leads, average to the core.

Dad is cruel and won't listen; the kid (Bailee Madison) mopes and cries; and the squeeze tries her best to relate to the kid so that she has a purpose in a screenplay that didn't want to write more supporting characters. And just in case anyone wasn't paying attention to the obvious, the screenplay is nice enough to take the kid to a doctor to warrant a scene where a psychiatrist suggests that maybe the kid is creating the creatures in her mind as a result of a weak mental state. Do you think dad listens? But it's okay, neither does the screenplay.


Welcome to You Talking to Me 2.0

The ratings are gone. One of the things I knew needed to happen while rereading every post I have ever written for this space is that the ratings had to go. It feels like liberation. I can beathe again.

Back in March 2012 when I came up against a brick wall (personally, mentally, physically) and pondered whether or not it was worth continuing a film blog, especially one I had grown unsatisfied with, one of the very questions swirling around in my mind was whether or not writing reviews even interested me any more. Had they, after so many years, begun to overshadow the love of film that got me into this in the first place?

For most of my (unprofessional) career, the review has been my method of choice. I could do snippets, capsule reviews or even drive a particularly inspired piece into the thousand word range. And then, one day, I just didn't care. The Joseph Conrad quote rang out in my mind: "Write because you have something to say not because you want to say something." And with that, I was done.

I thought I was dead, but then, upon further thought, realized I was just lost. Looking back at all of these crazy brain droppings I had left here over the past two years I noticed two things: some of the pieces provided valuable and insightful musings on how the individual relates to cinema as an art form and some of them were just plain nonsense.

I can't continue to say I stand behind everything I've written before today (or at least in the form it is written). Some of it, maybe most of it, is still true, but that Mike Lippert was one struggling to define himself through a never ending stream of movie consumption. It was about not only always having an opinion but always, in more cases than not, having the right opinion dammit. I'm proud my name's on all of it. I'm not sure, however, if it's still an accurate reflection of me. Alas, here is also the birth of Mike Lippert 2.0. The two are, after all, in a perfect world, one in the same.

Rereading I was surprised to find how much of myself there really was in the pieces without ever really knowing it. On my time off away from film writing my musings were (and still are) deep and varied: life, art, spirituality, friendship, romance, independence, positivity and, maybe most important, being oneself. And then I read the opening paragraph to my Tree of Life review and was almost bowled over to find the sketches of my entire new worldview right there in it's infancy. I was there, buried just under critical pretensions. Profound (at least to me) and yet compact and readable. God good film writing gets me going.

And then the review just got in the way. The one thing I found, above and beyond all, is that whenever I started to flip over into review mode, whatever greatness I may have had going on in my mind was pushed off to the side. And that's why the ratings had to go. I'm more important than the movies. The ratings were often arbitrary and in no way a reflection of what the writing was actually about: a reflection of my own personal experience. Some men build look at the stars. Some search the deserts for answers. Me, I turn to the cinema. You Talking to Me is a reflection of my findings.

And so the blog had to change, not drastically, but it needed a new personality and needed to be inspired by the films that inspired me to create it. It needs to be more personal but also funnier and, for the first time, gasp, uncensored, all while maintaining the format I have built over the years. My personality bridges the gap between several ways of thinking (film scholar, industry insider, satirist, cultural critic, movie geek etc.) and so this space, at it's best, will be alive with humor, insight, criticism and observations surrounding all kinds of movies, all filtered through and tied together by the one constant: me.

That's is, after all, the one thing I know better than anyone else.

Mike Lippert, October 16, 2012.

Monday, March 26, 2012

On Second Thought...

I realized over the weekend how to know when you've grown up. The conclusion I came to is that you've grown up when you start to hate everything that the newest generation of gullible teenagers shoot into popular culture. When I started listening to metal as a teenager it was performed by burly, bearded dudes with long, hair at least one of which was always wearing a leather vest. Now it's performed by lame kids in skinny jeans with auto-tuned clean vocals and club music slowly creeping its way in. Club music in metal? Give me a break. I hate it.

Similarly, I hate movies that are just wall to wall computer generated effects. I miss seeing, as I've written about before, that spaceship at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and wondering just how in the hell they did that. You no longer have that sense of magic and wonder anymore. You know exactly how they did it: on a computer. I hate it.

That's, in a way, what I meant to say in my last post when I said I was hanging up my hat. I now realize that I don't need to give up blogging, I just need to change my blog. I need to introduce You Talking to Me? 2.0 for all of those who want to come along into it. I'm no longer that guy who's going to run to the multiplex to see this week's new releases because, unless they are in limited release or the world is buzzing about them and I want to see what all the fuss is about, I probably am not going to like them. Life’s too short for completeism.

So, here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to take the summer easy. I'm going to join a volleyball league, I'm going to take my girlfriend out on dates to nice restaurants to try new things, and I’m going to hang out with friends on patios or invite them over for barbecues on the balcony. And I'm going to watch the movies that initially moved me to want to write about movies in the first place. The movies I could watch five times over and over again and still find new things to admire about them. I've seen my favourite movie of the last decade, Adaptation, around 6 times. The last time hasn't been since university. I hate that too, but that's the one thing that I have the power to change.

So, in September, I want to come back and focus on quality over quantity. If I only write one post a week, it'll be one of value and insight that says interesting things that people will want to read. It therefore will not be a review, but an essay, for people who have already seen the movie (which will be discussed in whole, spoilers and all) and want to engage in open discourse about it. And the movies I will focus on? Anything I want. The only criterion is that the movie be great and the central focus of every piece will be in trying to discuss why the movie is great. There will be no more worthless value judgments that reviews like to make about why they think you should go see a movie. The outlook will be more along the lines of: I watched this movie, I thought it was great and now I'm going to tell you why. It will be equal parts film criticism, cultural study, film history, psychology and sociology.

Why the change in content? Well, I was watching Point Break over the weekend, that 90s surfer/bank robber action movie with Patrick Swazye, where Keanu Reeves was still trying to be a huge movie star. I came to that infamous part where Reeves as cop chases Swazye as bank robber through back yards and over fences and what not, until Reeves hurts his leg and let's Swayze go even though he has a clear shot. The climax of the scene shows Keanu firing off his entire clip into the air while yelling in personal anguish.

I laughed at this scene, not because it is ridiculous (which it is) but because I studied this scene during my university Film Studies days, which, in retrospect, were, by and large, with the exception of 3 valued professors, four years of my life wasted. Why? Because films (and there are exceptions) are mostly not academia unless you are studying how to make them. Film style is the only thing you can discuss intelligently in terms of film because we can see it. All of it is within the film.

Academics however, like to take bits and pieces of outside intelligence into films in the hope of elevating entertainment into the realms of art. But film is not art, it is work. It is not the sole product of one absolute genius who farts unending creativity and originality. Nope, it's actually a collection of creative people (writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, editors and, most importantly, a lot of technicians) struggling to control their working environment as best they can to make everything work perfectly enough so that us ignorant consumers of entertainment can sit in a theatre and believe this story, documented before us in pictures and sounds, actually happened.

Academia treats films as intelligence. This was that reading from my feminist loving film studies professor on that scene in Point Break: because Point Break was directed by a woman the chase is showing the raw masculine energy of these two men. Then, Keanu falls, breaks his leg, taking away his masculinity; his ability to chase. But he still has a chance to take down Swayze, but then they exchange a look, edited together through alternating close up and a homosexual-like exchange passes between the two, making Keanu forget his masculine identity as a hot shot officer of the law and instead becomes feminized by his love for Swayze. He then points his phallic gun to the sky and unloads the entire clip in an orgasm of bullets, both the sexual response to the exchanged glance and the final step in Keanu's demasculinization.

I call bullshit. Do you think such a reading would exist if this exact same scene had been directed by a straight man? I can almost guarantee it wouldn't. But I certainly know that submitting the above as the thesis for an essay would have guaranteed me an A. Another example: There's a scene in John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate between Frank Sinatra and Angela Landsbury. The shot Frankenheimer wanted turned out a little out of focus so he shot it again, but the performances in that take just weren’t as good. So he kept the original out of focus shot in the movie and when the critics got their hands on this scene they praised the intellectual and artistic merit of filming such a key scene out of focus. Bullshit again. And don’t even make me try to remember that fascinating essay I read about how Hitchcock’s Psycho is centered all around images of toilets, human excrement and anuses.

So, what I want to write about in an ideal word, to continue with this example, is a break down of that Point Break scene and a discussion of why it works as a great action movie and a great entertainment. That's what it is, after all because that is what's on the screen. And that's what we should value because, to paraphrase William Goldman once again: making a movie is such a complex and sloppy process that we should just be happy that they get made at all, let alone get made well. Amen. I'll see you in September.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Gone But Not Forgotten

A pivotal thing happened to me in grade 12 that, depending on how you look at it, changed my life for the better or the worse and it's taken me this long, some 7 years later, to realize that I no longer need to be defined by that moment.

I'll set the context. Grade 12 was a busy year for me. Grade 11 was the year I decided I wanted to be a movie critic and thus was the year when I became "the movie guy." That was because that was the year I read Susan Orlean's brilliant book The Orchid Thief (after being deeply moved by Adaptation) and realized, in that one beautiful paragraph as Orlean is driving down a Florida highway, that movies were my passion and as such they helped give my life direction. They were the way through which I related to the world.

But there wasn't much time for movies in grade 12. I was doing a co-op placement at a local newspaper, was involved in the school production of Romeo & Juliet (I was Mercutio) and was also taking English through correspondence on top of a full course load because my guidance councillor didn't guide me very well, leaving me one credit shy of being able to apply for university. Needless to say, I could probably count on both hands the number of movies I saw that year.

Then I was at an event for the newspaper. The reporter I was with and I went up to the speaker afterwards to ask some questions and I was introduced along with my love of movies. She tried to relate: had I seen School of Rock, her daughter said it was very good? Or what about Mystic River, that's the one everyone seems to be talking about. I'd seen none of these movies. What kind of critic was I? I hadn't even seen the current movies that people wanted to know about?

When school ended, graduation was behind me and the summer was still just in it's infancy, I made a pact: I would see every new major release that came out from week to week. I was working part time at a pizza place so at that point I could afford to work a closing shift, come home and stay up until 4:00 am watching a couple of new releases and sleeping in past noon the next day.

I've been living like this ever since then and it has, quite frankly, ruined my life. When I was an overweight and unpopular loner it was fine, but I'm not that anymore. I got fitter, am more health conscious, bought a Playstation, met a couple of people who I still consider great friends and found a girlfriend who puts up with my anti-social, only child tendencies and has endured a lot of crap getting to this point. I still need to work on being more social and likable but, baby steps.

The reality is, I'm never going to be a paid movie critic. It doesn't exist anymore and I'm especially undesirable because I want to talk about movies as art and entertainment and as things that can have a profound effect on our lives. Things that movies just aren't anymore. I'm preaching to the minority. The new critics, thanks to blogs, are now overweight, facial-haired fanboys who know nothing about movies other than that they watch a lot of them and now have access to a place where they can type up their water cooler geek talk and pass it off as a serious and insightful opinion. It's depressing.

In order to maintain that I saw all the relevant new releases I subscribed to TMN (Canada's The Movie Network) and made a week by week list of what was going to be on demand and how long it would be playing and set out every movie I had to watch in a given week. But I don't have to watch any movie really. I only should want to watch the movies that I know and love and check out a new one every once in a while because it has built a positive buzz or because something about it appeals to me. And I certainly don't need to own so many DVDs. These Mike's DVD Haul posts have become ridiculous. It's like I'm involved in a dick measuring competition with no other dick to compete against.

Last night I watched Robert Rodriquez's Machete, a horrible feature length film based on the hilarious and completely unironic faux trailer from Grindhouse. In the first 15 minutes I was so happy. I though "How did anyone let this get into theatres." And then I realized why: Machete isn't an homage to grindhouse movies, it's a modern day parody of them. Too often it reduces itself to making lame jokes instead of being ridiculous with a straight face like original grindhouse movies used to be. You'll never find a grindhouse movie set in 2011 with jokes about texting in them. And back in the 60s you could show a group of rebel Mexicans riding their motorcycles in a pack through Texas because the 60s were a time of change, revolution and counter culture. People wanted outlaw heroes like Machete. To put it into a movie set in the present day doesn't make sense because you know, if that happened today, the FBI would be on site within minutes and it would be breaking news on every channel. We don't want change anymore, we want everything to be nice and conservative and equal and all of a sudden a movie that should rightfully be for adults is also trying to target teenagers at the mall as well, which is exactly what guarenteed it a wide release.

I was thus depressed at all that wasted potential so, for 15 minutes before bed, I popped in Napoleon Dynamite and laughed hysterically. Why? Because it was funny as hell. There is nothing out there like Napoleon Dynamite and nothing will ever reach it's level of uniqueness again. (ed note. I wrote this at a time in my life when not much made sense. So although I still believe the message here, the too hip for it's own good ND was not a good example to use).

You see, movies become part of culture because they do something we've never seen before, for better or worse. We'd never seen jump cuts or freeze frames before Breathless and the 400 Blows, we'd never seen Hollywood movies using distinctly cinematic techniques before Citizen Kane; we'd never heard dialogue or seen violence like that before Pulp Fiction and we'd never met such an unlikable loser before Napoleon Dynamite. That's why these movies endured. Because, not only were they well made, but they were made outside of the influence of the system by people who had a unique story and a unique way of telling it.

There was no high rollers on the set of Napoleon Dynamite telling Jared Hess and crew that the character had to change in the end, to become more likable, to work towards a happy ending. Napoleon starts out a loser and ends just as much if not more of a loser. That's how life works. And all of this unfolds after credits that look like the most expensive part about filming them was the cost of the camera. Movies used to be unique because they didn't have money to throw at them to make them look amazing. They shot what they could, on the budget they had and used their creativity and limited resources to make the movie as close as possible to what they wanted. Evil Dead didn't have the money to lay tracks for elaborate shots. It had Sam Raimi risking his life on the hood of his car with his camera. I'll remember Evil Dead forever. I can't even recall how the last Twilight movie ended.

The same thing happened with Easy Rider. In the 50s and early 60s America was about the family, being conservative, dad working hard, mom tending to the house and the children, raising them well. They gathered around the radio after supper to listen to a program because they were a good family and good families worked hard and loved each other. Easy Rider shook all of that up. Never before had we seen a movie that dared to have two rebels transporting cocaine across America in the gas tank of their choppers, stopping every once in a while to get high, have sex and talk about sticking it to the man, man. And then, of all things, they were killed at the end. Not a poetic, meaningful death, but a useless and violent murder. The tagline to that film was "They went out in search of America, but couldn't find it anywhere." How bold and shockingly blunt. Counter culture in cinema was born.

And for most of the late 60s into the 70s, true artists who not only had something to say but also studied and knew film, made some of the most potent and influential films every to be made in America because they were violent, they felt dangerous, they showed us that there was a world outside of the happy, sober, middle class existence we see on TV and in family movies. Movies were for adults, with ideas who weren't prepared to just bow down and accept whatever society or government or law were telling them to accept. That's where art and culture are born: from works that's transcend their given medium. These were more than films, they were statements. That's why they still live on today as part of the culture that defined that generation. They are a ligitimate part of history.

That's why good movies come around about ever 10 years because that's how long it takes for Hollywood to jump on a trend and figure out a way to commidfy it and sell it as popular culture. That's what my list of the 27 Greatest Movies that Made Going to the Movies Suck was about. We are right now, with some exceptions, in the worst period for art and culture that we've ever known. I won't get into it because that's another editorial, but know that I am no longer satisfied.

That's why I'm giving up being a critic and giving up this blog. I don't want to go to the multiplex and see the newest blockbuster so I can review it. I don't want to stay in instead of going to the beach or the zoo because I need to watch a movie so I can keep up readership on my blog. I'm no longer going to be defined by lists that dictate what I need to watch. I'm going to watch what I want to watch because I love it or because something about it appeals to me. I'm not going to be told that I can't celebrate a movie at the end of a year because of it's release date. I don't have a life that affords me the time to do nothing but watch movies and get paid for it. I need to use my free time to support my love of movies, not support my need to be a critic. And on top of all of this I'm going to be a normal friend and a normal boyfriend who just really likes movies. They are a part of me. I'm not a part of them.

The reason I brought up Napoleon Dynamite is because that is a perfect example. I've told people I've hated that movie for years. Why, because, intellectually (the tool of the critic) it offered me nothing. But why should I only be able to like things that I can justify intellectually? I like Napoleon Dynamite because it's hilarious, end of story.

The thing I've realized now about critics is that they don't know anything. William Goldman wrote that there are no good critics and he's right. Critics are just blowhards who watch movies but don't have the vision or talent to go make their own. I watched Machete and was embarrassed for it not for some critical reason but because I was screaming: why Robert would you set this in modern day, why would you film it on digital and why would you have so little respect for the grindhouse genre to ruin it with computer generated effects? Criticism is objective, any asshole can have an opinion. Filmmaking is not: a good movie is a good movie because it is well made and it is well made because it's makers had a combination of vision, technical know how and no one around compromising their vision in the name of dollars and cents. I could make a movie if I wanted to, but I don't, because I couldn't live that lifestyle. I wasn't raised that way. So that's why I'm going to stop writing. I love movies too much to undermine them with stupid criticism.

So this then will be my last post on here. I thank all of the people who read this space over the years and left comments, especially my most valuable reader Wild Celtic. I don't know if she's still around or still reads this but if so, know that you're the one reader I value most because you're not a critic your just someone who shares the same love of movies that I do. A love that I slowly worked at covering up when I decided to become a critic. That was when I was a boy. It's time to grow up now.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

One Minute Review - Your Highness or Why Stoner Comedy Can't Work

There is no such thing as a "stoner comedy." There are comedies about people getting stoned and there are stoner movies, but stoner comedy is impossible because it takes away the element that stoners love so much in there movies: that they are ridiculousness played with utter seriousness. For example:

David Gordon Green's Your Highness, an abysmal film that tries to be both funny and stoned, fails on exactly that principal: It tries too damn hard to be funny. If anyone should be able to make a stoner movie, it's Green who made 3 poetic indie masterpieces before making one of those great comedies about guys getting stoned in the form of Pineapple Express.

One of the main instigators in Your Highness' awfulness is co-writer and star Danny McBride, who has found success on HBO but has always been one of the most repellent aspects of any movie he's appeared in. His comedy is broad and utterly juvenile, without wit or nuance, and is delivered by McBride himself with the winking encouragement that we should be watching just how funny he is being.

The special effects, as horrible and 2 dimensional as any other $50 million movie, also don't help. They are so horrible that they draw attention to themselves as being computer generated. Much more inspired is a scene that involves a real puppet character who's eyes, somehow, actually look to be glazed over.

There's one brilliant, hilarious, moment in this film however. It's one where you understand why Green was the man for this job and how, with better material, could have made a fantastic, cheap, cult movie. It starts off with a wedding, performed as a musical number and ends, in sweeping, beautiful, Green fashion, with a stoned Mcbride running through a field of sheep.

It takes a lot to not make a stoner happy. Your Highness manages to do that and then some.

Friday, February 24, 2012

And the Winners Are...

The 84th Annual Academy Awards will air this Sunday. Some things I can predict for sure about the telecast are this: Billy Crystal will be funny and bring some much needed class to the show, there will be a lot of hyping up how movies aren't just video games anymore and, no matter what is going on outside, the Academy still values the movies that keep the magic and wonder of film alive. This despite how, outside of those nominated, and even some of those too, hardly anything released in 2012 will become a timeless classic.

Still, the Oscars continue to exist in all their prestige and glory and no matter how much we would like to believe otherwise, are a yearly staple for film lovers, especially those bloggers who feel compelled to write daily posts and predictions and updates leading up to the show. So, here is what I predict the show will look like in the major categories:

Best Foreign Language Film:

What Will Win: A Separation
What Should Win: A Separation

There's no real logic to this category for me. Every year I pick the film I feel the most people are talking about. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

Best Animated Feature:

What Will Win: Rango
What Should Win: Rango

This is a hard one. Most years it's Pixar vs the world. Not only did they not make the cut this year but there's also two films nominated that not many people in North America will have heard of. Last year, despite it truly being the best animated film, The Illusionist lost, so I'm discrediting those. Dreamworks has two spots but both of them were entertaining but thin, while Rango was the true surprise in that it appealed, not just to kids and not just to adults, but to the entire family without being winky or self referential. I hope it wins.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

What Will Win: The Descendants
What Should Win: The Descendants

In a lesser year Alexandr Payne's The Descendants would have been a front runner to sweep all the major awards. Seeing as this is a writer's movie and the Academy hasn't been afraid to honour Payne's writing in the past, this should be an easy call.

Best Original Screenplay:

What Will Win: Midnight in Paris
What Should Win: Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris is not only also a writers movie but it is a love letter to writing as a whole. That factored in with the fact that this has been Woody Allen's most successful movie and how Oscar loves a comeback should seal the deal over The Artist.

Best Director:

Who Will Win: Michel Hazanavicius

Who Should Win: Terrance Malick

The DGA has spoken and Oscar rarely ever disagrees. The director of the Artist will beat out the old masters, despite him having his name on the least interesting film of the batch. Will Oscar throw a curve ball and give it to Scorsese? I have my doubts.

Best Supporting Actress:

Who Will Win: Octavia Spencer
Who Should Win: Melissa McCarthy

The Oscars don't often honour character acting, especially in comedy. They much prefer "Hollywood acting" which is exactly the card that McCarthy doesn't hold. I'm often curious if the voters also take into mind what would make for good TV and after her teary standing ovation at the Golden Globes, who could deny Octavia Spencer the win?

Best Supporting Actor:

Who Will Win: Christopher Plummer
Who Should Win: Christopher Plummer

Plummer is a legend. Not only is his time due but look at his competition. This one is a no brainer.

Best Actress:

Who Will Win: Viola Davis
Who Should Win: Michelle Williams

This is going to be the year Oscar isn't going to be racist with the big acting awards. But Oscar also loves it when Actors play real people (especially one of Hollywood's own), so could Michelle Williams possibly sneak in with an unexpected win?

Best Actor:

Who Will Win: Jean Dujardin
Who Should Win: George Clooney

The Academy will honour the star of The Artist for no better reason than that we can't believe anyone anymore who could A) act in a silent movie while B) looking just like a silent movie star. Much more compelling, subtle and complex was Clooney who managed to shed his movie star hunk image to play a wounded everyman just trying to do what he thinks is best for himself and his family.

Best Picture:

What Will Win: The Artist
What Should Win: Tree of Life

My problem with The Artist, although not as deep, is the same as my problem with Drive: they confidently show that they are able to create homage to bygone days but, really, so what? The Artist is an entertaining but thin yarn about silent movies and the effect the emergence of sound had on the stars. And since this is the year Hollywood decided to go retro The Academy will award the film that went the most retro and picked up the most awards along the way. If Hugo had performed better at the box office and with the year end criticis' awards it would have been the undeniable front runner. Tree of Life, on the other hand was the most beautiful, personal, poetic and profound statement any film made this year. If it had come out 40 years ago it would be a timeless classic, but it also required the audience to work to find meaning in it and that's not okay anymore. Therefore the grand poet of the cinema and America's greatest living director will be put behind the film that knew how to rehash the old conventions in the most obvious and simplistic way. Sigh.