Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why I stopped blogging

Hello friends. Some of you have never seen this version of my blog, which I created in July of 2009 when I just couldn't stop blabbing about every damn thing that popped into my head. I could use this space for anything I wanted, as opposed to my Daily Herald blog, which I used for ... well, anything I wanted, as it turned out.

But this blog has been dormant for just a little over two years, and my Daily Herald blog hasn't been updated since July of 2011.

In fact, the Daily Herald blog won't be updated ever again.

Last year brought a lot of changes to my job; our web staff was decimated by layoffs, which meant that all of us on the copy desk had to learn how to manage That was a harder thing than I ever imagined it would be, it consumed a lot of my time, and it added to my already epic levels of worry and stress. So blogging took a backseat.

Not long after that, we learned that our website would no longer be completely free. Parts of would become "Premium Content," meaning that you couldn't even look at it without a subscription. All of the DH's blogs would fall under that label, and I could not, in good conscience, ask anyone to pay for the "privilege" of reading my blog. I barely see any movies, I don't even have cable anymore, and I'm at work when most of you are out there consuming pop culture; any reactions or insight I could provide on my blog would be coming well after the fact -- which is fine, if you're reading it here, on this free site, that doesn't pay me.

But if I'm going to write something that represents the third-largest newspaper in the state, it should be current and unfettered. My DH blog was neither of those things. So I stopped writing it.

Someone at the Herald finally noticed as much, and I decided right then and there to put it out of its misery. The worst part of it is that I'm now in the market for a new computer -- I had convinced TPTB at work to give me a company laptop early in 2011, so I could update my blog "as news happened." I actually used the laptop for that purpose for about, oh, two months. (Though I did use it to work on my actual job from home on more than a few occasions.)

Once I decided to kill the blog, I could no longer keep up the charade of needing a company laptop. (I'm typing this entry on my parents' computer. And yes, I'm also doing laundry for free in the middle of the night.) Of course, now that I'm free of the shackles of my Daily Herald blog, I feel like I can start writing again -- but now I have no computer of my own to write with. Hopefully, that will change soon.

So that's why I haven't written anything aside from tweets and FB posts since July. (Some of you probably think that's more than enough.) I plan on seeing enough movies in the next month or so to make a halfway decent Top Ten list for 2011, so maybe that will bring you back here soon.

Hope to see you then.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The worst movies of the '00s

I take no pleasure in making lists such as this; every movie here was one that I actually paid to see, whether it was at the theater or in my mailbox. But I've been reading a lot of these decade roundup pieces lately, and more than a few have listed "Crash" -- my No. 2 best film of 2005, and that year's Oscar winner for best picture -- as among the worst films of the decade. People hate that movie because it's preachy and manipulative, which I believe is precisely that film's mission. (They also hate it because it won the Oscar in the year of "Brokeback Mountain," which is no reason to hate any movie. Is it "Crash's" fault that voters preferred it over the other four candidates?) I like it because it plays as a series of very well-acted, well-constructed vignettes, and at least three of those would be the best, most memorable scene in any other movie.

My point is that no movie that won an Oscar, that inspires passionate, intelligent debate, and makes everyone who sees it think about something substantial can be the worst movie of the decade. I give kudos to any movie that inspires thought and thoughtful discussion, which is why, awful as it is, you won't see Eli Roth's "Hostel: Part II" on this list, for example. (Was the movie misogynist or about conquering misogyny? I lean toward the former.)

So here are the ten worst movies I suffered through this past decade. If you can offer an impassioned defense of any of them, let's hear it!

• • •

1. "Starsky & Hutch"
(Todd Phillips, 2004)
OK, I'll admit it -- I have not seen this entire movie. But it belongs atop this list because it is literally the only movie I have ever walked out of. If you went into this movie knowing absolutely nothing about it, you might not know it was supposed to be a comedy until 15 or 20 minutes in -- and then you would realize that you're not laughing yet. I called it quits about halfway through when the film's big comic setpiece turned out to be virtually identical to "Zoolander's" show-stopping dance-off. The difference, of course, is that "Zoolander" was hilarious. So I got up and walked across the hall, where the Riders of Rohan were about to charge the Orcs at Minas Tirith. I think I made the right choice.

• • •

2. "21" (Robert Luketic, 2008)
The first of three films starring Kevin Spacey that appear on this list, and he plays a teacher in all of them. Hmm. There are so many reasons to hate "21," starting with the decision to turn the Asian protagonists of the real-life story it's based on into white kids (with token Asian friends, of course). Then there's the painful, insulting narration from star Jim Sturgess, which "helpfully" explains everything we are looking at, ostensibly because we're too fucking stupid to follow them movin' pictures. The film's worst sin is going to great lengths to explain how card-counters arrive at "The Count" -- a number telling players how many high-value cards are left in the shoe -- without actually explaining what it is or how they use it to their advantage. What a spectacularly inept film, with another absurd, showy performance from Spacey, who has been squandering his considerable talents for ten years now.

• • •

3. "The Devil's Rejects"
(Rob Zombie, 2005)
In the era of "torture porn," no film was as disgusting, humorless and just plain worthless as this sequel to Zombie's "House of 1,000 Corpses." Zombie's heroes are a depraved family of hillbilly serial killers, which would be fine if anything in this film had the hint of irony or satire. I found nothing funny about a scene where a woman is forced to wear her husband's face over her own, moments before she is splattered across the highway by a semi. It's not scary either, which is the point of a horror film, yes? The final scene, in which the killers are canonized by Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" while the cops gun them down, is execrable.

• • •

4. "Pay it Forward" (Mimi Leder, 2000)
Appearance No. 2 for Spacey, who plays a deformed teacher who finds love with Helen Hunt's cocktail waitress in this Las Vegas fairy tale about a magical boy who inadvertently starts a national trend of kindness. Naturally, he's knifed to death by a Latino stereotype at the end of the movie. (And I laughed, laughed, and laughed some more.) A respected TV director who delivered solid action films in "The Peacemaker" and "Deep Impact," Leder killed her feature-film career with this sappy head-slapper. All it's missing is a whisper from above: "If you kill him, they will come ..."

• • •

5. "Loser" (Amy Heckerling, 2000)
This came dangerously close to being the first movie I ever walked out of, but Holly insisted we stay. Wrong decision. There is not a single genuine moment in this entire film, which all but ensured Jason Biggs would never have a hit outside of the "American Pie" franchise. It doesn't help that the de facto villain of the piece is played by Zak Orth, who must be one of the most loathsome actors working today. (An unfair prejudice? Perhaps, but I'm all about honesty when writing about films.) The only good thing to come out of this movie was the music video for Wheatus's "Teenage Dirtbag."

• • •

6. "Vacancy" (Nimrod Antal, 2007)
At one point in this trapped-in-a-motel-room thriller, Luke Wilson goes outside to use the phone booth. A car speeds directly toward him. He runs out of the phone booth and gets back in the room just as the car plows into the side of the motel. What's the first thing out of wife Kate Beckinsale's mouth? "Did you get anyone on the phone?" Yes, this is another one of those films whose plots depend on everyone in the story being a complete idiot, and Wilson and Beckinsale are perfectly cast, that's for sure.

• • •

7. "Date Movie" (Aaron Seltzer, 2006)
Thankfully, this is the only one of the post-"Scary Movie" parody flicks I've seen. I'm sure if I had seen "Epic Movie," "Meet the Spartans," "Disaster Movie" or "Superhero Movie," they would all appear on this list somewhere. Painfully inept, unfunny, and made for about a buck and a half, "Date Movie's" worst sin is wasting its beautiful and talented star, Alyson Hannigan. We're not through with these awful cash-ins; 2010 brings us "The 40-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It." Yes, that's an actual movie.

• • •

8. "The Life of David Gale"
(Alan Parker, 2003)
The last of Kevin Spacey's trilogy of terror pretends to be an "important" movie about the death penalty, but winds up being a cheap, gotcha thriller that insults the audience and those on both sides of the real-life debate. The outcome of the movie depends on reporter Bitsey Bloom -- yes, Bitsey fucking Bloom -- getting a videotape to the courthouse in time to save the title character's life. But guess what? Her car breaks down! What a joke.

• • •

9. "Battlefield Earth"
(Roger Donaldson, 2000)
An obvious inclusion, I know, but it cannot be ignored. It's hard to pick the film's single worst attribute: the ugly production design? The grotesque makeup? The endless cavalcade of dutch angles? The idiotic screenplay? John Travolta's performance? Forest Whitaker's performance?

• • •

10. "Nim's Island"
(Jennifer Flackett & Mark Levin, 2008)
Or "Product Placement: The Movie." When Jodie Foster looks back at her long, storied career, this will be the one she will block out of her mind -- the one where half her dialogue consisted of unnecessarily using brand names. Her character in this children's fantasy is obsessed with Purell hand-sanitizer and Progresso soup, and never lets us forget it. She also helpfully explains that she booked a flight on Expedia. I quote from my Daily Herald blog to fully demonstrate just how shameless this movie is:

"Foster's very first scene shows her children's author run out of hand sanitizer. She calls a pharmacy. 'Hello. Do you have PURELL? How many bottles? I'll take them all.' A delivery boy comes by. 'Just leave them on the stoop! I paid with a MASTERCARD!' She goops up her hands and sits at her APPLE computer, when she lets a phone call go to answering machine. It's her publisher, who says, 'I can just picture you there, alone in your apartment, eating your PROGRESSO soup...' An absolutely masterful shot then shows Jodie's PANASONIC phone with a caller ID readout: RANDOM HOUSE, her character's publisher, and, naturally, the publisher of 'Nim's Island,' the hit book by Wendy Orr!"

• • •

So there you have it. Avoid those ten films at all costs. What are your worst of the last ten years?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Let's go to the movies

There is an abundance of great films playing in your local theater. Disney's hand-drawn "The Princess and the Frog" is a bright, warm and funny return to form. Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" works as a history lesson and as a truly inspiring sports movie. Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" lives up to its name, and its director's body of work. Roland Emmerich's "2012" is self-aware, expertly made cheese. And of course there is the usual parade of Oscar hopefuls, led by "Precious."

But everyone who loves movies needs to see "Avatar" and "Up in the Air."

They're an unlikely pair, but these two films taken together gave me everything I go to the movies for. One is as beautiful and shocking a spectacle as we've ever seen, the other is a perfectly drawn, insightful character study. They are two of the best movies of the year.

I'll spare you the back story on "Avatar" because A) you've heard it a million times already and B) you can read it a million times more in every other article about it. So I'll cut right to it: He did it. That magnificent bastard did it.

James Cameron spent all that money and took all those years to make this movie, and the effort is all up there on the screen. Other filmmakers have created dense, detailed alien worlds with new creatures and fantastic vistas and so on, but none of them feel real. Pandora does, not just because Cameron's legion of animators have seamlessly blended their work with live-action footage -- at least, I think there's live-action footage in there. But I can't tell, which means they did their job -- but also because Cameron actually understands how 3D should be used.

Even now, most films use 3D just to goose the audience by making them think something is flying at them. Oooh! Ahhh! But Cameron uses 3D to completely immerse the audience in his world, and there were moments where I just plain forgot I was watching a movie and felt like I was there, and that there were too many things to take in all at once.

Now, these kinds of hyperbolic statements have been made by many, many, many people about many, many, many movies, but they are actually true about this one. I have to believe this immersive effect was Cameron's main objective and motivation for making "Avatar," and he has succeeded. For the first time, a commercially released 3D film is as dazzling as the kind of 3D or 4D attractions you see at Disneyland or Universal Studios -- and it is sustained for 160 minutes.

There are long stretches of "Avatar" where every shot is straight-up unbelievable, whether it's the Na'vi natives flying amongst their planet's floating mountains atop irridescent dragons, or the literally jaw-dropping final battle sequence.

As you've probably guessed, the story and the characters can't live up to the world that Cameron has created. As he proved with "Titanic," you don't reinvent the narrative wheel when you're making the most expensive movie ever made -- "Avatar" is every bit as reminiscent of "Dances With Wolves" as you've guessed, and the dialogue is mostly pedestrian. (Sadly, James Horner's score is also pretty bland.) The only character that really leaves an impression is the Na'vi huntress Neytiri.

But what an impression. Actress Zoe Saldana and Cameron's techies turn a 10-foot-tall blue cat into a living, breathing and, yes, sexy woman. The facial animation is shocking, particularly the mouth, the teeth and, most importantly, the eyes. Eyes are the hardest things for animators to bring to life, as proven by "The Polar Express" and "Final Fantasy." In "Avatar," the actors don't get lost under the technology (especially Sigourney Weaver, whose blue avatar is unmistakably hers), and Saldana can probably call herself the queen of motion-capture acting alongside king Andy Serkis, who played both Gollum and Kong for Peter Jackson.

But the star of the film is James Cameron. If you hate going to see movies just for the spectacle, this is the movie you make the exception for, because there's no way this experience will ever be replicated at home. (I know, I know, 3D TVs are coming. But those TVs aren't 30 feet tall, are they?) You may have to pay $14 to see "Avatar" in 3D, depending on where you go; it will be worth every penny. (Just don't sit too close to the screen, because you might get some double vision from the 3D glasses. Sit about halfway up the stadium seats, or halfway back in the auditorium.)

"Up in the Air isn't much of a spectacle; there are some shots from high above America's big cities that are pretty spectacular, but we've all seen those from the window of an airplane. But "Up in the Air" does have something "Avatar" does not: A terrific screenplay.

Jason Reitman's third film is about a "termination facilitator," a lifelong business traveler who basically lives in Hilton hotels and American Airlines jets. Those two corporations' logos are all over this movie, and it would be easy to accuse it of blatant product placement, but their ubiquity is part of the film's effectiveness: everything about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is corporate, even his de facto home.

"Up in the Air" is a perfect film to come along at the end of this decade. Any film about air travel will undoubtedly conjure up memories of 9/11, and the film hits us right away with Bingham's security-line routine. Many of us have either been fired or know someone who has been fired in recent years, so we can identify with both sides of one of Bingham's terminations. How can you tell someone that their lives are about to be upended? And how can you be expected to accept such news?

The film ultimately becomes the story of how the perpetually disconnected Bingham gradually tries to reconnect, whether it's with the young grad who wants to make his firings more impersonal with a Web chat system, the ridiculously gorgeous kindred spirit who falls into his bed when their paths cross, or the family back in Wisconsin who barely know who he is anymore. Bingham's ultimate destination may seem obvious, but this film does not fall into obvious Hollywood conventions.

Sean Tuohey said he couldn't sleep because he was thinking about it all night. I think it will have that effect on a lot of people who see more of themselves in Ryan Bingham than they'd like to admit. It's not that Bingham is a bad person, it's that he doesn't live the life he wants, or that everyone else thinks he should want. And just when he thinks he's got it all figured out, the game changes.

He's a complicated, human character, the kind that classic movies are built around -- and "Up in the Air," with its thoughtful observances on modern America, is going to be a classic movie, make no mistake. Of all the great films I've seen this year, this seems like the one that will be sticking with us, the one we'll keep coming back to.

Reitman has to be considered one of the great directors now, making films that defy categorization and convention. He already has a reliable stable of collaborators -- Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons and Sam Elliott all make return appearances here -- and clearly gets the best out of all his actors. Clooney is guaranteed an Oscar nomination, and co-stars Anna Kendrick (the young grad) and Vera Farmiga (the gorgeous kindred spirit) probably have them coming, too.

"Up in the Air" should be depressing, but the more I think about it the more I find it reassuring: Yes, we all feel this lonely. Yes, we all make mistakes. And yes, there is reason to keep going.

Try a double feature this weekend. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

10 Years, 10 Performances

In October, I attempted to rank my 100 favorite movies of the last 10 years, and now I'll attempt to single out the ten performances that impressed me the most from those ten years. Ten are much, much easier to come up with 100; on my films list, I completely forgot about one of the most underrated, underseen films in recent memory ("Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"), and omitted a movie that would almost certainly be in the top 10 or 15 had I seen it before this past Saturday ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).

I know I'm prone to lists, but hey, who doesn't like reading a list? So here they are, in alphabetical order. (Some of them are pretty obvious, I realize ...)

• • •

Amy Adams as Princess Giselle, "Enchanted"

How did Adams go from obscurity to ubiquity? By completely throwing herself into the role of a Disney cartoon princess brought to life by an evil stepmother's spell. She has a joy of performance in "Enchanted" that elevates what could have been a very slight, very forgettable film; her performance is anything but. (Of course, the combination of Disney and comedy killed her chances at Oscar time.)

• • •

Bjork as Selma Jezkova, "Dancer in the Dark"

SPOILER WARNING: This is the final scene of the film

A performance so devastating that Bjork vowed never to act again, thanks in large part to director Lars Von Trier's demanding methods. Aside from the musical sequences, the film is shot cinema verite style with handheld cameras, and Bjork appropriately never seems to be acting. It supports my belief that Bjork is one of those genius artists who would excel in any medium she worked in.

• • •

Russell Crowe as Maximus Decimus Meridius, "Gladiator"

Best quality I could find, I'm afraid...

The epitome of a star-making performance, and Crowe even won the Oscar for it. He had the bulk and the menace to sell the action scenes, but he also brought gravitas to the gladiator's tragic personal story. His scenes with Richard Harris are particularly touching, as is the finale in which his wife beckons him to the afterlife.

• • •

Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, "There Will Be Blood"

Well, duh.

• • •

Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl"

Perhaps the most iconic character of the last ten years, Capt. Jack made a pop classic out of a movie that seemed ludicrous in concept. Separated from the hype, none of the three films holds up -- they're all too long, too complicated, and just too much -- but Depp's work will be remembered by generations of kids (from 8 to 80).

• • •

Dakota Fanning as Pita Ramos and Denzel Washington as John Creasy, "Man on Fire"

OK, I'm cheating a little bit by counting these two performance as one, but this really is the most unexpectedly wonderful on-screen pairing. Amid Tony Scott's frantic, exploitive film, these two actors quickly form a relationship so real that it truly hurts when Pita is kidnapped about 40 minutes into the film. The final scene on the bridge is heartbreaking, between Fanning's all-or-nothing performance and Washington's quiet resignation as she runs toward him.

• • •

Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, "Cast Away"

Tom Hanks' co-star in this movie is a volleyball. And the movie is tremendous. Enough said.

• • •

Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"

For me, the success of the entire "LOTR" trilogy hinges on this one performance. Gandalf is as much our guide and father figure as he is Frodo's, and we can think of no better reason to make the journey than to make him proud.

• • •

Uma Thurman as Beatrix Kiddo, "Kill Bill Vol. 2"

I believe this is what you call a "tour de force." Uma does it all in the second part of Tarantino's martial arts opus: she's a lover, a fighter, a mother, a student and, of course, a rampaging fireball of revenge.

• • •

Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, "Inglourious Basterds"

Maybe Tarantino's greatest contribution to American cinema was bringing this German actor to our attention. Waltz dominates the screen in a film populated by bigger-than-life actors and ideas. His Col. Landa is creepy, yes, but also strangely endearing -- a particularly bitter pill for the audience to swallow, seeing as he's a Nazi. The film toys with our notions of good and evil and with WWII history, and Waltz's sick grin might as well be pointed at us.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Not with a whimper, but with a bang

I'm not gonna lie: I enjoyed the hell out of Roland Emmerich's "2012," the latest bit of disaster porn from the same man who brought us "Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow" and the execrable 1998 remake of "Godzilla." Emmerich has become a bit of a joke amongst film buffs -- he probably rates thismuchlower than Michael Bay on the hate-o-meter -- but the movie lover in me has to admire his seemingly endless quest to perfect a formula that Irwin Allen probably thought he perfected back in the 1970s. (Mick LaSalle from the San Francisco Chronicle says it better than I can.)

What sets "2012" apart, aside from its downright brilliant CGI sequences, is the sense that everyone in the movie is in on the joke. Emmerich knows how ridiculous it is for him to make another disaster movie, so he pushes the genre as far as it can go by destroying the entire goddamn world. You get the airplane escape and the White House destruction from "Independence Day"; the shadowy government plan from "Deep Impact"; Michael Bay's casual attitude toward the killing of millions of people; seafaring and underwater adventures from "Titanic" and "Poseidon"; the towering fireballs of "Dante's Peak"; and the ham-handed racial harmony message from "Volcano."

And it works because Emmerich has populated his film with really good actors who all understand the mission at hand. It's an entire movie full of people winking at the audience while they're winking at the audience -- the one-liners are so corny, they parody themselves.

Consider the scene inside the supermarket, where Tom McCarthy's doctor tells his would-be wife, Amanda Peet, that he feels like "something is coming between us." Just then, a crack opens up in the supermarket floor right between the couple while they hold hands. Emmerich and his co-writer (and composer), Harald Kloser, couldn't have thought that was a genuinely funny line, and neither can Peet and McCarthy. But we laugh anyway, because it's so clearly not funny that it becomes funny again.

The whole movie is like that, a cheerful send-up of an entire genre. We should be horrified by a lot of the images in "2012," but we're so astounded by their audacity that all we can do is giggle. The sequence made famous in the commercials, in which limo driver Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) outruns a series of earthquakes in Los Angeles, is awe-inspiring on the big screen. Ten minutes race by in a blink, and look as if they must have cost about a billion dollars to achieve.

The full cut of this sequence, seen in the theater, is as exciting as anything I've seen all year.

But somehow the actors win the battle against the visual effects. Cusack, whom you could reasonably assume would phone it in for a movie like this, is as engaging as ever, particularly in the few scenes he shares with Woody Harrelson.

Ah, Woody Harrelson. It's so easy to forget about him! But then he shows up and hit another home run, first in "Zombieland" and again in "2012," where he rehashes Randy Quaid's conspiracy nut from "ID4," only with a bigger helping of crazy. I defy anyone to see Harrelson's performance here and tell me "2012" takes itself seriously.

This scene is a clever nod to "Titanic," in which old Rose is shown an animated simulation of the boat's sinking.

Is "2012" better than "Independence Day"? Oh, surely not. Few popcorn movies could ever hope to be as fun and funny as that, and no one here has the star power of Will Smith or Jeff Goldblum. But it does feel like the nail in a genre's demise; what else is there left for Emmerich to destroy? Heaven and Hell?!??