Saturday, December 31, 2011

Birth of a Movie Muller

I've always loved movies, but I can pinpoint exactly when that love became a bit of an obsession down to the date: January 1st, 1982.

It was on the beginning of that new year that I decided to start writing down the titles of all the movies I'd seen, when I'd seen them, and rate them. I had an old ledger book, something I believe I found in a dumpster across the street from our apartment, (a tale for another time), and it seemed a good enough journal for my obsession. (See image of page one above.)

I decided my ratings would be based on a scale of one through five, with one being "Poor" and five being "Great!" Since I was a 12-year-old, my cinematic tastes weren't exactly refined, and I think I ended up giving out a lot more fives than I would (and do) today, but hey. I was a lot more easily entertained then.

Along with the ledger book, I also started to keep a scrap book I called the "Genre Book," in which I'd paste in movie reviews and newspaper ads from what I considered genre films--those being anything that would be categorized as horror, fantasy, or science fiction.

That book fell by the wayside after about two years, but it is with some equal bits pride and embarrassment that I can tell you I kept track of the movies I saw, and rated them in that same ledger book, for 30 years. Including this year, as a matter of fact.

I'm not giving up the practice, mind you. I've just run out of pages in that book, and I figure it's time to move that bit of anal-retentiveness to the computer, most likely in the form of a boring spreadsheet. (I wish there was some kind of template that could duplicate the pages of my beloved ledger book.)

I felt the closing of that ledger book deserved some kind of recognition, and hence, this blog was born.

For the next year I am going to look back at those movies I saw and rated 30 years ago in 1982, and write about them. I'll do my best to remember the experience of those first viewings as best I can--I often have great recall about just what theater I went to see these things in--but I know for others the memory is going to be a bit muddled, and my mullings vague.

But I'm looking forward to this looking backwards, and I hope anyone who stumbles upon this blog will join in on the mullings, since that level of interactivity is something my 12-year-old brain would have only deemed possible in the movies.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Waste Of A Good Monkey: We Bought a Zoo

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"We Bought a Zoo," the new film from writer and director Cameron Crowe, is about a newly-widowed father who decides to take his two children into space on a rocket ship to Mars.

Just kidding! It's about a family that buys a zoo. They really buy a zoo. And thus this movie falls into that genre of films wherein all you really need to know about it is right there in the title. Much like "Hotel For Dogs," you know what you're getting into.

Except in this case, you kind of don't. Yes, the story centers on Benjamin Mee, (Matt Damon), a journalist whose wife has recently died, leaving him alone to father his two kids, seven-year-old Rosie, (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), and troubled 14-year-old Dylan, (Colin Ford). Not feeling inspired in his job at a local paper, (no, this doesn't take place in the 70's), he up and quits, and decides to make a fresh start somewhere new, away from noisy neighbors and uninspiring schools.

So, of course when a private zoo somewhere outside of L.A. presents itself, complete with animals, a quaint house, and a staff of quirky characters, Ben jumps at the opportunity, much to the chagrin of his more practical brother, and accountant, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church).

You would think that the introduction of the "zoo" aspect to the movie would result in lots of comedic scenes with kooky animals, and heartwarming moments of bonding with beasts. You would think that. And yet, the animals here are, for the most part, nothing more than background scenery.

On the one had, I kind of appreciate Crowe not taking the easy route by resorting to animal movie cliches. But on the other hand, there is a monkey in this movie, and all it really does is sit on Patrick Fugit's shoulder. That's it. That's a waste of a good monkey!

And that kind of sums up the whole movie. There are good actors in here, but it just feels like a waste of talent. Aside from Damon and Church, Scarlett Johansson is also on hand as the head zoo keeper, and Elle Fanning is her younger cousin, Lily, who runs the zoo restaurant, and develops a complicated but sweet relationship with Dylan. John Michael Higgins is the requisite villain, a government inspector who will either grant the zoo permission to open, or shut them down if they aren't up to code by the beginning of summer.

I've been a huge fan of Crowe's, ever since I read his book "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" when I was in junior high. "Say Anything" created a perfect character in Lloyd Dobler, and "Singles," which I saw when I was the same age as the characters in the movie--and going through a similar phase of flannel clothing and romantic heartbreak--just sealed it: I loved his movies. And yes, I include "Vanilla Sky" in that love.

"Elizabethtown," not so much.

It was with that movie that he seemed to lose his touch. Where in previous films, quirkiness was not a replacement for real character development, in that one, quirk was all there was, and it felt hollow.

At one time, Crowe could be incredibly sincere and sappy, and yet, it worked. (Mock the "You had me at hello" line all you want, but dammit, it killed in Jerry Maguire.) But in "We Bought a Zoo" the emotion feels uncomfortable and mawkish. He holds the camera on his actors for too long during scenes of high drama, giving one the urge to look away until the awkward moment passes. And all the heart-to-heart dialogue, (and there is a lot of it), just doesn't feel genuine. In scene after scene, none of it works.

But I will give him this: He still has a knack for child casting. That kid in "Jerry Maguire" was cute, but he's nothing compared to Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who plays young Rosie here. I have to say she is, without a doubt, the cutest damn kid I've seen in a movie in years, and a natural actress to boot. Pair that girl up with the monkey, and you've got yourself a hit.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Nothing We Haven't Seen Before: The Sitter

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

There are so many things about the comedy "The Sitter" that perplex me, with perhaps the ultimate thing being its very existence. Who read the script and thought it was a good idea? I want names!

To start with, I find its star Jonah Hill a bit perplexing. He has made a consistent career out of playing characters that are just so loathsome and unlikable that I can't imagine anyone saying to themselves, "Hey! Jonah Hill stars in this. I love him!"

Then in the past year, he lost a bunch of weight, and I always find the whole falling-into-line-with-Hollywood-standards-of-attractiveness thing to be kind of sad, be it actor or actress. (Of course, I can't really know why he decided to lose weight, but it wasn't exactly surprising.) And he's been making the talk-show rounds this year, with the releases of "Moneyball," and now "The Sitter," and he's actually a likable and humble guy in real life.

So we have an actor who I kind of feel sorry for, actually kind of enjoy in real life scenarios, yet can not stand to watch on screen.

Pair this with the conundrum that is director David Gordon Green, whose early career is filled with some astoundingly beautiful and heartfelt films, like "George Washington" and "All the Real Girls," but who has recently turned to directing a series of pretty stupid and unmemorable comedies, including "The Pineapple Express" and "Your Highness."

But even those two strikes don't necessarily doom a film to failure. Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing redeemable about "The Sitter."

Heavier Jonah Hill stars as Noah, a twentysomething slacker who lives with his mother and gives regular oral sex to a girl named Marisa, (Ari Graynor), who he'd like to think is his girlfriend, but who is really just using him for his oral sex skills. (This bit opens the film. Do not think because there are kids in this that it is in any way an appropriate movie for children.)

He gets roped into babysitting a trio of kids because this is the movies, and in the movies, parents will leave their kids with anyone. One of the kids is a high-strung tween boy with anxiety issues. Another is a young girl who wants to be a celebutante, and paints her face with bad make-up while singing dirty rap songs. The third kid is the family's adopted Hispanic son, who enjoys fire and setting off bombs in toilets.

"Girlfriend" Marisa promises Noah a night of sex if he will pick up some coke and meet her at a party, so Noah packs up the kids in the family minivan--despite having a suspended license for a DUI--and the quartet head to Manhattan. Of course, the coke deal goes bad, and eventually Noah and the kids are being chased by a drug dealer played by Sam Rockwell.

It seems like director Green thinks that by being raunchier, "The Sitter" will somehow surpass other more family-friendly babysitter movies like "Adventures In Babysitting" and "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead." But the movie goes both too far, and not far enough.

The situations Noah and the kids find themselves in are nothing we haven't been seen before. Crazed and eccentric drug dealers who WANT THEIR MONEY BACK; the black gang that hates on the white boy at first, but then respects him; the babysitter who hates kids, but then teaches them valuable life lessons.

There's even an exploding bag of cocaine. At least in "A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas" when the coke exploded, the kid actually got high. "The Sitter" doesn't have such balls.

And because there is nothing really funny here, most of the time one is just left thinking that Noah is nothing but an asshole for putting these kids in such danger. "The Sitter" doesn't go far enough into the realm of dark comedy to be anything but an unpleasant viewing experience about an exceedingly unlikable guy put in charge of some seriously messed-up kids who could all use some attention from a good child psychologist.

My only hope is that this will completely flop, forcing Jonah Hill to take on more roles like his stint in "Moneyball," and director David Gordon Green to either go back to the dramas he does well, or at least find a comedy that is actually, you know, funny.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Joyful Viewing Experience: The Artist

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I admit that going into the movie "The Artist," I was a little skeptical. I feared a black-and-white silent movie made by a French director would be a boring slog about the death of REAL Cinema, and was thankful that its running time was a mere 100 minutes long. Indeed, "The Artist" is black-and-white, and silent, (for the most part), and in classic Hollywood's square aspect ratio; it's about as far from a modern 3D epic as one can get.

And thank goodness for that.

I'm glad to say my negative assumptions about it were completely wrong, and I probably haven't had such a joyful viewing experience since my first viewing of "Amelie."

Set in Hollywood during the final years of silent movies, the film focuses on George Valentin, (Jean Dujardin), a Douglas Fairbanks-type action star who acts solely with his eyebrows and a smile that's a mile wide. His sidekick, both on screen and off, is his faithful Jack Russell terrier.

An accidental meeting between him and an ingenue fan, Peppy Miller, (Berenice Bejo), gives the young acting hopeful the break she's been hoping for, and soon her star begins to rise.

Meanwhile, Valentin refuses to believe talkies are anything but a passing fancy, and when the studio boss (John Goodman) axes his next picture, George decides to use his own money and produce and direct the silent epic himself. History can tell us how that works out for him.

Director Michel Hazanavicius's eye for detail is spot-on and there are moments in the movie when it really does look and feel like a classic silent film, albeit a really sharp and good looking one.

At times, it plays more like a film that would have been made during the era, than a film about the era; the goal is not historical accuracy, but historical homage--to the great silents, but also to classic talkies like "Singin' In the Rain" and "A Star Is Born."

And while there is a lot here true film geeks will love, it is not stuffy film fandom wankery. It is, first and foremost, a fun movie.

Of course this is not new territory for director and star, who have also made a pair of spoofs/homages to 1960s spy movies, ("OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies" and "OSS 117 : Lost in Rio").  But "The Artist" is a little less jokey than those films, and has a lot more heart; the two leads bring both brilliant comedy and pathos to their roles. (Dujardin does multiple takes of eyebrow acting that bring the laughs each time, and Bejo's moment of pantomime with a tuxedo jacket is something I'll never forget.)

I imagine for people who have never seen a silent movie, "The Artist" might be a tough sell. But what makes the movie work so well is how it is able to utilize silent movie form in a way that never feels intrusive, or overshadows the film's sentiment. The intertitles are used sparingly, but you are never lost wondering what people are actually saying because the acting and visuals are so strong.

The movie isn't perfect: The music, which, in a silent movie, is going to be ever-present, is a tad generic and annoying, (apart from one sequence which inexplicably uses Bernard Herrmann's "Scene d"Amour" from Hitchcock's "Vertigo"). And the middle part of the film, which takes the story from romantic comedy into the realm of melodrama, is a tad too long.

But even that, in the end, works in the film's favor. Just as I reached the point of frustration with George Valentin's stubbornness and pride, the answer to the question, "Why doesn't he just make a talkie??" is revealed in a brilliant bit of dialogue that both perfectly ends the film, and sums up everything I felt while watching it.