Sunday, October 25, 2009

I'm (kind of) taking a week off.

I must apologize to both of my loyal readers, but I don't have anything for you this week. I just couldn't find the time to write anything decent. I promise I'll be back next week to entertain you with a new half-baked theory about some movie.

However, I did find something I wrote a year or so ago that I'll post today. It's a list of movies that aren't too well known that I think you (yes, you) should see. I don't know who I wrote this for originally, so just pretend that I wrote it for you. These are not very well written mini-reviews, but they get the point across.

Accepted – A teen movie that somehow is completely formulaic but still hilarious and kind of touching, probably mostly due to the cast. Justin Long is Ferris Bueller-esque.

Beautiful Girls – A “chick flick for guys” in that it deals with guys trying to figure out what they want in life and how they deal with the women in their lives. It is hard to make it sound appealing, but it is a great movie with a couple hilarious monologues.

Before Sunset – If you saw Before Sunrise and thought it was decent and missed the sequel, see it. It makes the first one way better and it’s a great examination of how people can change and stay the same in 10 or so years.

Cop Land – Sylvester Stallone playing a role that is different from the norm for him in a great cop movie. It is clearly strongly influenced by classic westerns, notably 3:10 to Yuma.

Confidence – Cool little con-man movie. Dustin Hoffman is annoying as hell in it, but outside of that it is certainly worth watching. And since it’s DuHo you can let it go this one time.

Control – Biopic about Ian Curtis’ (lead singer of Joy Division) struggles with epilepsy, depression and relationships. A biopic that isn’t painfully formulaic!!! Who knew?

Death at a Funeral – If you like British comedy, see this immediately. If you don’t, stay away.

Gattaca – Is genetic modification of humans okay? What is going too far? How brooding can Ethan Hawke look? All three of these questions are examined masterfully in this movie.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints – Great acting (oddly enough the exception being Robert Downey Jr.) from a huge cast, and a great “coming of age tale.” Fuck I hate that term, but that’s what it is. Shia LaBeouf is the main character growing up in New York in the 80s, and he actually has to do something other than just being himself, which is cool. Channing Tatum is also incredible… if you haven’t seen this movie, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters – A documentary about professional Donkey Kong players. It is structured so well to make you hate the one guy so much, and cheer so loudly for the other, and some of the supporting people are just completely hilarious. A highly entertaining documentary.

The Lookout – Great concept, and very well executed. Easily one of the best crime movies I have seen in the last few years.

Love Liza – Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the best, and this is more or less a one man show. Crazy depressing, but very good.

Manic – Indie wunderkid* Joseph Gordon Levitt stars as a teenager who gets put in a mental health facility. Don Cheadle (!!!) is the kids’ teacher, and it’s a good, non-cliched examination of troubled youth. Zooey Deschanel is also in it, for those that appreciate beautiful ladies with acting skills.

P.S. – Kind of up and down, it’s a far from perfect movie, especially since one of the main plot points is kind of absurd. BUT, it has Laura Linney and Topher Grace each turning in great performances. Fuck Marcia Gay Harden though, I don’t like her.

The Proposition – In my opinion, the best modern western with maybe the exception being the Assassination of Jesse James. It is dirty and grimy as hell, and is exhausting to watch.

Saved! – Hilarious satirical look at Christian high schools, and Mandy Moore is funny as shit in it. So long as you are not particularly religious, this movie is highly recommended.

The Savages – Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are my favourite actress and actor, respectively, and in this movie they both prove me right. They play a brother and sister who have to find their father a home to live in as his health is declining. It is a very balanced mix of drama and comedy, and is handled in a way that the drama adds to the comedy, and vice versa. The jokes are really funny because you care about the characters, much like the best episodes of Six Feet Under. 2007 had some truly great movies (No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton, etc.), but this is the one that will sadly probably be forgotten.

Six Degrees of Separation – The acting and dialogue is all great, and it keeps you guessing the whole way through.

Spellbound – This one is about the national spelling bee, and holy shit it is good. My favourite documentary of all time by a mile, because the kids are so entertaining and the contest is quite suspenseful.

Sunshine (2007) – Another one of the great movies from 2007 that will be quickly forgotten about. A team of astronauts has to reignite the sun to save Earth from dying, and this film deals exclusively with their mission. It takes place entirely within the spaceship, and deals only with these 8 people. It is directed by Danny Boyle, and bears many similarities to 28 Days Later in that it deals with how people in a small group handle their mortality in a possibly apocalyptic situation. It takes a bit of a sketchy turn late, but it is so good up until that point that you can easily get past it.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – Tommy Lee Jones should have been playing sheriffs exclusively for his entire life, because he is great at it. Another good modern western.

The Woodsman – This movie is unbelievably creepy and at times unbearable because of that, but if you can handle the subject matter it is definitely worth a watch. Also, one of Kevin Bacon and Mos Def’s scenes together is among my favourite scenes ever.

*If you read my 500 Days of Summer post, you will notice that I used this ‘joke’ then, too. I am nothing if not repetitive.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Why do critics hate crowd pleasers?

I originally wrote this months ago, and in the time that passed since then have realized that I did not see Taxi Driver and Transformers on the same day (I saw Taxi Driver and the Hangover). Everything I talk about here did happen, it's just that the time line has been rearranged a little.

The answer to the question is simple: they generally don’t watch movies with other people, and therefore don’t take an audience’s reaction to the movie into account. Within Roger Ebert’s scathing review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, he basically said that anybody who likes the movie has poor taste and Ebert hopes that these Transformers fans’ tastes elevate.

Well, fuck you Ebert. I loved Transformers, and I can also appreciate “serious films” as well. I recently saw Taxi Driver at the art-house theatre in town, and then hours later saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen at another theatre. I am not going to try to argue that Transformers is a better movie than Taxi Driver (“Movies better than Taxi Driver” isn’t a long list though), but it is damn sure entertaining. Each of these two movies succeeds in achieving their goals: Taxi Driver is a great movie about Travis Bickle’s isolation and frustration with society, and Transformers is, well, awesome.

When I saw Taxi Driver recently, the crowd was almost completely silent, and walking out of the theatre, I didn’t hear a word – likely because Taxi Driver isn’t exactly a pleasant piece of cinema. The Transformers theatre, however, was completely different. During the movie there were laughs, slight cheers, and even moments where brief applause could be heard. I’m not saying it was like a party in the theatre, but it was a notably different experience. Walking out, you could hear much of the crowd’s approval of the movie, and I have noticed similar things each of the three times I saw it in theatres. I am not saying everybody liked it, because I really doubt that is the case. I am merely arguing that Taxi Driver and Transformers offer completely different film going experiences, and that neither one is necessarily better than the other.

The filmmakers behind each film have very different goals – Martin Scorsese and his crew likely set out to make a serious film to be taken as art, while Michael Bay’s crew set out to make a calculated piece of entertainment. Movies like Transformers need an action scene every 25 minutes or so, a certain amount of laughs per scene, and they almost always end happily. To ensure the audience gets the maximum enjoyment possible from the movie, there are generally lots of test screenings employed for these types of movies.

Bay did not start this democratic method of filmmaking, but he and other action directors happily participate in it. Bay has said that he doesn’t make movies for critics, but instead aims to please Middle America. And honestly, I don’t see why film critics seem so angered by the fact that people sometimes want to engage in movie going exclusively to have fun. While some movies are more of an isolated experience, like Taxi Driver, movies like Transformers are perfect to see with a group of people.

Bay orchestrates his movies so that he can get reactions from his audience, and other directors who try to make crowd pleasers undoubtedly do the same. These filmmakers want to hear laughs, screams, applause, cheers, and most of all, they want their audience to leave smiling. They want a trip to the theatre to be more than just seeing a movie – they want it to be an “experience.”

I’m alright with this. Most of my favourite memories from being in a movie theatre come not from the movie itself, but the audience. I will never forget laughing along with the rest of the audience at the ludicrous writing in Lady in the Water, the people who cheered “ROCK-Y! ROCK-Y! ROCK-Y!” during the climactic fight in Rocky Balboa, and seeing a full theatre collectively jump during 1408. I will probably never watch any of these movies again, for they are far from good movies (okay, Rocky’s awesome), but it’s unlikely I’ll forget these experiences.

To be fair to Ebert and seemingly every other movie critic, I would happily trade all of these experiences to have legitimately great movies such as Synecdoche, New York be the commercial hits that the masses flock to see. But what critics seem to disregard is that Hollywood takes any movie that is a huge commercial hit and attempts to replicate it, and in doing so often bastardizes everything that was so great about it originally. I think that I would rather keep things the way they are and just deal with the fact that there are movies made to provide people with a fun couple of hours, and there are films that are made to be seen as art.

Not everybody likes a movie like Taxi Driver, just like some people aren’t fond of movies like Transformers. But just because some would rather watch Transformers than Taxi Driver does not make those people stupid. What makes movie critics stupid, however, is that they often expect their word to be taken as the only correct way to feel about a movie.

For those wondering, here is the quote that set off this rant:
"Those who think "Transformers" is a great or even a good film are, may I tactfully suggest, not sufficiently evolved. Film by film, I hope they climb a personal ladder into the realm of better films, until their standards improve."

Monday, October 12, 2009

{Look} at HOW [indie] eye/ \yam?

SPOILER ALERT: This week's post features spoilers for Paper Heart and 500 Days of Summer. There, I warned you.

This year has seen some great and interesting romantic comedies, including Adventureland, I Love You Man, and Away We Go. The ones I am going to be taking a closer look at, however, are Paper Heart and 500 Days of Summer (although I will not be putting the 500 in parentheses, for they are [ridiculously] unnecessary). These movies both put forward interesting ideas about the idea of love, ideas which stuck with me weeks after seeing them.

Paper Heart stars Charlyne Yi (the Asian stoner girl from Knocked Up) and Michael Cera (Hollywood’s favourite zip-up hoodie enthusiast) in a “documentary” about Charlyne’s quest to find out if love exists. Most of the interviews with real-life couples appear to be unscripted, but the film as a whole is still mostly scripted (and there is even an actor playing the film’s director). The whole thing is excessively postmodern to tell you the truth, and I love that about it. But that’s not the point here.

Charlyne doesn’t believe that love exists, so she decides to make a documentary about what other people feel love is. In the process, she meets Michael, and the documentary starts to follow their relationship while still trying to maintain its original goal of questioning the existence of love.

Charlyne’s confusion as she appears to fall in love for the first time is great to watch, and as far as I’m concerned, true to life. Falling in love for the first time is weird, and you never really know what to think. Charlyne is one of the better on-film examples of this I have seen: nothing about the early stages of a relationship is smooth, and Charlyne’s performance is nothing if not awkward.

The same goes for when there are signs of trouble in her relationship with Michael – she is once again confused and unsure of what to do. While Charlyne does appear to find love, or at least the beginning of love in the movie, Paper Heart conveys the idea that love is a product of fate: Charlyne was just going about living her life when Michael literally walked into it.

Tom Hansen (indie wonderboy Joseph Gordon-Levitt) would surely agree with this idea of love at the beginning of 500 Days of Summer. He seems to believe in true love, and Tom thinks that Summer Finn (indie wondergirl Zooey Deschanel) is that girl for him, even though she refuses to even acknowledge him as her boyfriend. The film is an examination of their whole relationship, from the day they meet until Tom gets over his heartbreak.

Summer is a good character in that she feels like a real person, but she is not a particularly likeable one. It’s hard to articulate how, but I can definitely see how Tom would fall for her. Well, if a girl as gorgeous as her told me that she was a fan of a favourite band of mine, I think I would fall in love with her too. I have, sadly, fallen for a girl’s CD collection before, and it will probably happen again. Certain things can blind you from unlikable elements of a person, and Summer does enough loveable things that Tom can’t see that she is in fact, unlikable.

The most interesting part of 500 Days of Summer is how Tom eventually gets over Summer. When they run into each other and hang out at a wedding months after they broke up, Tom sees a second chance at his true love. In one of the more brilliant scenes I’ve seen in a while (for those that have seen the movie, you should already know I’m talking about the expectations/reality scene), we learn that Tom is wrong, and Summer is done with him for good. Tom’s friends already knew this, and tried to help Tom get over Summer, but of course Tom was blinded by the idea of true love. He has built Summer up into what he wanted her to be, for he no longer has a realistic perspective of who she is (and maybe he never did).

In a memorable monologue, Tom’s friend Paul explains how there are no perfect women, and that his long-term girlfriend is perfect because she is real. While it is unknown whether Tom hears this, his younger sister helps him realize that he made Summer the perfect woman when she never really was. He may have thought she was “the One,” but the people around Tom knew that wasn’t the case.

500 Days of Summer is a hopeful movie, but it does not advocate a belief in fate like Paper Heart does. The ending thought of 500 Days of Summer is that in order to continue living, one has to take control of their own life and avoid being blinded by concepts – if you chalk things up to fate, you will be stuck reliving the same thing for your whole life.

Neither Paper Heart nor 500 Days of Summer are conventional stylistically, but they each have conventional ideas fueling them. I think a choice between which of these movies you like better probably says a lot about what you think of love: Paper Heart is a vote for fate, while 500 Days of Summer says that we have a bit more control over our own lives. To tell you which of these movies I like better would give you far too much insight into who I am*, but just know that these are both good movies that attempt to give their opinion on an unanswerable question. Are you Charlyne, or are you Tom? Either time will give you an answer eventually, or you’ll find out on your own. Good luck.

*and I worry that there are already too many metaphorical cards on the metaphorical table of metaphors.