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.