Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Confessions of a Movie Hound

By Lucy “in Disguise” Wells

I’m a dog, a Pembrook Welsh Corgi to be precise. The name is Lucy. Full given name: Lucy in Disguise. Don’t ask, because I can’t tell you. The man and woman who live in my house claim some story about how my coloring made it look like I was wearing glasses when they fetched me from the farm. They just think they’re clever if you ask me. What can you do? They’re mine, so I guess they’ve got that going for them.

They also have two pups of their own. The older one pretty much keeps to himself. Sometimes I just bug him so I can hear him whine out my name. That’s fun. What isn’t fun is the little one. I try to put him in his place by barking, growling and nipping at him. That usually produces crying and blows to my head. Don’t they understand that I am trying to give the boy valuable character lessons and survival instincts? Anyway, they call him Jude. British Invasion band obsession much, people?

I don’t have that problem that so many dogs have of thinking they are people. I know I’m better than those mules who fill my food and water bowls every day. As long as they continue to allow me to live in the lap of luxury while they run around cleaning up after their pups and me, they can believe they run this place for all I care. I’ll always be happy if I can just keep them getting their steam up by poking at them and shoving my toys into their laps whenever they think they’re doing something important.

Get this. They have this stuffed cat that they make hit me on the snout as if it is attacking me. They honestly believe I think it’s a real cat. But they’re cute, so I humor them.

The man concerns me though. He may be spending too much time enjoying himself and not catering to my needs. You see, he has this kind of light box on the wall of our basement. He got a bigger one after I allowed him to live with me last year. I think he spends far too much time watching it. Sometimes the woman joins him, and they stare at the light box on the wall for a couple of hours at a time, but the man spends much more time staring at it.

I’ve tried it a couple times, but I guess I don’t get it. It usually just puts me to sleep. Every once in a while another dog shows up in the light box and I have to run up to the wall and bark at the box until the other dog goes away. And those fools just sit there and watch while their lives are clearly in danger. Sometimes the light box will attack them in other ways, with loud noises and thunder and lightning; all the while those foolish people just sit there and watch.

Now, the man seems to have developed an addiction of some sort to the light box. Rarely an evening goes by when he is not sitting in front of it at some point. Sometimes he’ll sit watching the box for several hours, then pull out his little fold up light box and start tapping away at the insides of it with his finger tips. I think he is collecting his thoughts about the big light box when he does this. It seems strange to me that this practice would require a second smaller light box. I’m quite concerned. It’s as if he’s feeding his addiction with another addiction. I’ve seen other dogs addicted to their own poop try to supplement it with other dogs’ poop, sometimes even cat poop. It isn’t pretty.

Even more disturbing than when he uses his little light box to comment on the big light box is when he falls asleep on the couch watching the big light box. Doesn’t he realize one of those poop addict dogs could come rushing out of that light box at any moment? I’ve never seen him fall asleep in front of the little light box. I don’t think a dog could fit through that one anyway, but I suppose their poop could.

I try to protect him from himself. I’ll often curl myself into a ball at his feet, ready to spring like a steel trap at anything that threatens his life. Sure he thinks I’m lazy and take that time to snooze, but as a Corgi my ears are like finely tuned satellite dishes constantly searching the skies for enemy threats. When I’m at his feet, he may think I’m just enabling him to feed his disgusting addiction, but it is the duty of us superior beings to protect the lesser life forms of our world. I may not understand the primitive working of his mind or his sad addition to that light box, but that does not free me of the responsibility of caring for my environment. Plus, it takes two of them to remember to feed me every day.

One day I may need to initiate an intervention for this sad creature who is under my care. I dare not intervene too early however, since quitting any addiction cold turkey can often have devastating effects on everyone within the environment of the victim. I can only hope that one day this man—who occasionally fills my bowl with food and plays the cat attack game with me—will one day realize what danger his light box addiction is placing him in and take the hard path to recovery. Until then, I will be at his feet or in his lap, ready to fight off the forces of the box and all the poop addict dogs hiding within.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Definitely, Maybe / *** (PG-13)

Will Hayes: Ryan Reynolds
Maya Hayes: Abigail Breslin
Emily: Elizabeth Banks
April: Isla Fisher
Summer: Rachel Weisz
Hampton Roth: Kevin Kline

Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Adam Brooks. Running time: 112 min. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content, including some frank dialogue, language and smoking).

Divorce is ugly and complicated, especially when a child is involved. But as much as children understand things like love and family on a basic level, even adults tend to view these things simply unless they really step back and look at them. So it is no surprise that Hollywood so often turns to worn-out templates for stories of romance. This is why a movie like “Definitely, Maybe” is such a surprise. It is a delightful and fresh observation of the ways in which people can fall in and out of love with each other, and how our initial dreams and goals can both hold us back and lead in directions beyond our control.

The story begins with a well-intentioned miscalculation by a New York City public school. When Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds, “Just Friends”) shows up to pick up his daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin, “Little Miss Sunshine”) one afternoon, he is met with a scene of chaos and terror suggesting that something horrible has just happened. The atrocity in question is sex education given to students perhaps too young to handle it. This leads Maya to grill her father on the technical details of her own conception. However, Will is in the process of divorcing Maya’s mother and is not keen on the idea of perpetuating the memories of their love for his daughter.

Maya persists, so Will decides to tell her the story of the three women in his life that he truly loved. He changes the names and some facts, and Maya must figure out which woman is her mother. He tells her about Emily (Elizabeth Banks, “Invincible”), his college sweetheart with whom he made “a life plan” before leaving for New York to work as a speech writer on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign; April (Isla Fisher, “Wedding Crashers”), who worked as the photocopy girl at campaign headquarters but held no political views of her own and with whom Will became fast friends; and a writer named Summer (Rachel Weisz, “The Constant Gardner”), who was once a friend of Emily’s, and when Will met her was the girlfriend of an eccentric English professor played by Kevin Kline (“A Prairie Home Companion”).

As Will tells his story, he stumbles into some adult pitfalls when relating situations that fall beyond a child’s security clearance.

Maya: What’s a threesome?
Will: It’s a game that adults play sometimes… When they’re bored.
Maya: …Whatever.

He shocks her with details about things adults should not do. She discovers that he used to smoke and drink. He describes life way back in 1992, “before cell phones and e-mail.” And he waxes nostalgic about the lost political landscape of the ‘90’s, before he realized its corruption and its relative innocence compared to what the next decade would bring. His recollection of throwing his dinner at the television when watching Clinton try to dodge “what the definition of ‘is’ is” was very similar to mine at the time.

Writer/director Adam Brooks, whose previous credits include writing “Wimbledon” and directing “The Invisible Circus”, does a wonderful job keeping the script intelligent. He doesn’t dumb down Will’s story because he is telling it to a child. Nor does he vilify any of the women. They are who they are; and for an intelligent man such as Will, they provide intelligent counterparts and varying world views. Emily has more layers than her pure projection first suggests. Summer is a unique woman who forms unique but loving relationships with at least two of the men in her life. And April seems to be as much the object of Brooks’s affection as she is the center of Will’s. The fact that Brooks spends more time with April may seem to suggest a predictable conclusion, but Brooks doesn’t confuse sentimental love with the gravity of the events that unfold. The answer to Maya’s mystery of which woman is her mother is as complex as the relationships that develop between Will and these three women.

The performances are equally complex and intelligent. Reynolds continues to prove he has the chops to carry a film, this time utilizing his skills as both a comedian and a dramatic actor. None of the women oversell either their romantic strengths or weaknesses. Banks isn’t given a whole lot to work with as Emily, but her choices are believable. Fisher is instantly likeable as April, the friend many men have who is cherished in a way that romantic pursuit could destroy. Weisz has the most difficult job as Summer, who must show how she loves two very different men in very different ways. Maya doesn’t want Summer to be her mother, but that doesn’t rule her out.

Thankfully, Brooks does not try to flower up divorce for an audience looking to be entertained. Romantic comedies tend to oversimplify relationship problems to serve a plot that people might expect. I feared a happy ending would be forced into the plot, but I was pleasantly surprised, not only because the plot did not turn toward a typical happy ending but also because the smart ending was still happy and satisfying for a romance.

“Definitely, Maybe” is not a great movie, but it is a good one. It is about being happy with the choices you’ve made, but it doesn’t try to suggest that everyone is. It isn’t a heavy movie, nor is it a cheery romp. If perhaps it plays its game a little safe, it avoids becoming something dark and depressing. It doesn’t overplay the drama or the comedy. I’d like to see a similar film from the woman’s point of view, looking at three of her past lovers. Something like that could become painful for us male viewers, but I hope it would walk the same understanding path as this film.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Grammys vs. Oscars

Last year at this time an old friend of mine—who is just as passionate about music as I am about movies—asked me what I thought of the Oscars. He said that he was very discouraged by the Grammy Awards. “Lame” I believe is the word he used. The fact is the Grammys don’t really reflect his progressive musical tastes despite the fact that the Grammy’s are supposed to encompass the entire musical landscape.

The Grammys don’t reflect my musical tastes very well either, which in itself could explain why neither of us is as thrilled about them as I am about the Oscars. Admittedly this person is greatly responsible for helping to form my personal musical landscape in high school, but I did always like to meander closer to the mainstream of music than he did. I haven’t watched a Grammys telecast in about ten years. I never watched a Grammycast with the enthusiasm of an Oscarcast, even when music held a higher rung on my obsession ladder than movies. So perhaps the difference between the two is a matter of presentation.

So I sat down to watch the Grammys for the first time in ten years Sunday night. I didn’t finish. I made it about an hour and a half, and I wasn’t very attentive during that time. I was surprised to learn that Herbie Hancock had won Album of the Year for his Joni Mitchell tribute album. Frankly, I didn’t even know the album existed. It made me think of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack album winning back in 2001. It’s always nice when something out of the ordinary wins the big one. Meanwhile Amy Winehouse swept all the other big awards, which I suppose was well-deserved considering the sizable splash she made in the industry last year. Although, I have trouble getting all that excited for her success since I haven’t heard her album, just a few tracks here and there. I liked what I heard but didn’t run out and buy it.

The Oscars on the other hand are a different beast entirely for me. I like to watch from start to finish. I even watch the Red Carpet show, although I usually wish I hadn’t. It isn’t quite as intense as the Super Bowl. I prefer to skip the female oriented advertizing of the Oscars and never understand why they don’t advertise more films throughout the event. I also don’t tend to jump around and yell at the screen as often during the Oscarcast, certainly never as much as I did with this year’s Super Bowl where my Giants snatched the trophy from those “destiny” bound Patriots. Giants win! Giants win! Giants win! Even as an extreme film fanatic I can’t imagine flying the victory ‘V’ in the air when Javier Bardem wins best actor over Casey Affleck and the other nominees. In your face Hal Holbrook!

As an Oscar viewer I also can’t stand to risk interruption from others who don’t really care as much. I prefer to watch the Oscars in the privacy of my own home, rather than at an Oscar party. I attended some Oscar parties in college, and it was really just a social event for everyone else while I was taking the evening quite seriously—hurt when my favorites didn’t win, excited when someone who wasn’t expected to win did. But the Oscars can at least inspire people to schedule a social event around it. I’m sure people within the music industry have Grammy parties, but you don’t hear of it too often outside the industry.

But what do the shows amount to beyond a business opportunity for both industries? It is no mistake that films released in the spring are generally ignored by Oscar nominating committees. “Zodiac” was a critically lauded film that found its way on many critics’ top ten lists, but failed to secure even one Oscar nomination. The DVD was released in the fall and has for the most part played itself out with audiences. So that film’s distribution companies opted to promote other films, like “Michael Clayton” and “There Will Be Blood” for Oscar consideration. Warner Bros. even put “Clayton” back in theaters for a theatrical run last week before its DVD release next week, and Paramount has been slow burning the theatrical release of “There Will Be Blood” over the past month or so to allow the Oscar buzz to usher its audiences in. There has been a steady stream of Oscar nominated films released on DVD over the past couple of weeks, a trend that only grows through next Tuesday’s DVD releases. And that Grammy Nominees album has been shuffling off the shelves at Wal Mart over the past couple of months. I’m sure a Grammy Winners album is on the way.

In the area of mainstream entertainment, everyone knows it is the spectacle that sells. Now, spectacle doesn’t always swallow so easy for people like me and my friend who are looking for something different. There are only so many ways to wow people through spectacle and infinitely more ways through depth and substance. But spectacle is what gets the visceral reaction. There was a time when the Oscars were heading down the road to spectacle hell, with musical numbers involving Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sheena Easton firing laser beams across the stage. Then along came Billy Crytal as the host, lampooning the garishness of the Oscar spectacle with a solo song and dance routine that turned the Oscarcasts around and added thoughtful humor to the proceedings.

The Grammys on the other hand are a little less dependent on a host; in fact it has been years since they have employed an MC. Although it lacks the cohesive guidance of a ceremonial host, this does serve the spirit of the music better in that less time is spent on the presentation of the awards and more time is spent with live performances by the artists. While this is a good trend for the awards to take—it is a music awards show after all—the problem with placing musicians in a concert situation when they only have a limited time to perform one or two songs at the most is that they never really get a chance to develop the spectacle they would in their own concert venues. It was great that the producers moved the Foo Fighters outside to perform, creating a closer to genuine concert experience; but they still only had time to perform their Grammy winning song, not enough time to really get into their live performance groove.

Then there is each show’s necessity to give proper reverence to the past. These moments provide the most spectacle for the Grammys. This year those moments I stuck around to see included a Lifetime Achievement award for The Band, the opening duet between Alicia Keys and old footage of Frank Sinatra, Beyonce teaming up with Tina Turner for some of Turner’s classics, and two visual interpretations of Beatles hits from the movie “Across the Universe” and Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas dance extravaganza “Love”. My favorite of these was the Alicia Keys duet with Sinatra, but that may have more to do with looking at Alicia Keys than anything else. The Band deserved to have a bigger deal made out of their award; and while Tom Hanks is a universally respected star, it would have been appropriate to have Martin Scorsese, director of The Band’s concert film “The Last Waltz” and many wonderful music documentaries, involved in the presentation of their award. As for Beyonce and Turner, well I’m just not sure how much Beyonce’s fans care about Turner. But it would be the Beatles tribute that really turns music lovers off to this sort of thing. Cirque du Soleil certainly has the oddities of The Beatles psychotropic-inspired lyrics down in their appearance, but a show like theirs really takes the focus off the music rather than highlighting those wonderful chords and melodies as it should.

The Oscars make a point to honor their past as well. Most of this is done in the form of film montages, one of my favorite parts of the ceremonies. The great thing about honoring the past with film is that they provide the same images everyone remembers, the same memories for everyone. You don’t have to try to recall how Tina Turner could really dance like a “Private Dancer” before age naturally slowed her down enough for Beyonce’s legs to upstage her. Oscar also gives out the special lifetime awards, which are probably only exciting for extreme film buffs. To most viewers, listening to some old men and women give speeches probably mark the lowlights of the ceremonies. Time to grab some more chips and open another beer. And they really need to rethink having that reunion of past Oscar winners every couple of years. Nothing is more boring to listen to than someone reciting a list of past winners, even when you have the people on that list to gape at and wonder just how Oscar could have condemned them all to the obscurity that followed their careers since their wins.

The greatest disparity between the Oscars and the Grammys is the amount of categories each academy offers their respective fields. The Grammys has 110 different categories to the Oscars’ 24. The Oscars air the awarding of all 24 categories during their telecast. I don’t think the Grammys aired even 20. I’m glad I get to see all the Oscars, but I doubt much of anybody would want to sit through an entire day of Grammy awards, or Oscars for that matter. Well, I would for the Oscars; but I’m a bit sick. The drawback of only televising a fraction of the awards is that most people don’t get to see the awards that interest them the most. The Grammy organizers try to spread around the telecast awards enough to cover the popular genres—one rap award here, a country award there—but most nominees get shafted in the coverage of the Grammys. I doubt this endears the awards to fans.

The frightening thing is that probably neither of the academies gives out a broad enough spectrum of awards to cover the true artistic achievements found within each industry. The film industry is constantly crying out for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to add new categories. The Screen Actors’ Guild decided to add a category for stunt work to their awards this year after campaigning with the Academy for years. And looking through that long list of categories for the Grammys might be overwhelming, but it doesn’t take an industry expert to see some gaps. How about an award for unsigned artists since their popularity and accessibility has skyrocketed in the mp3 age?

The truth is most fans of any kind are genreists, interested in a select type of music or film that appeal to their unique tastes. This is what invalidates both awards shows in most people’s minds. The comedy fan is wondering why Academy voters don’t give Will Ferrell a fair shot. The sci-fi fan might believe that “Transformers” deserves something beyond a technical award. The hip-hop fan wants to see more hip-hop in the show. The spoken word fan is wondering how they can lump the entirety of the book recording market into only five nominees with two of them just happening to be political rivals at the moment.

Of course, the only way to alleviate these problems is to expand the categories. In the case of the Grammys this would further alienate the audience from the categories presented during the telecast. And with even greater expansion necessary to include genres like musicals, comedies, sci-fi and horror, it would send the Oscarcast down the same path as the Grammys. And where would that leave the more obscure Oscar categories which already exist? Surely, short subjects and documentaries would be the first to be omitted from the Oscarcast, which allows these films with little distribution the exposure to actually get seen and purchased by cable companies for wider public broadcast.

Voting—already an issue for the more specialized categories in the Oscars—would become even more complex and controversial with category expansion. I checked out the voting rules for the Grammys, and I couldn’t make sense of them, even for the four major awards—Album, Record, and Song of the Year, and Best New Artist. I can’t imagine the voters have time to figure them out, which would mean many ballots are not properly filled out, therefore not properly tallied.

The Oscars have come under a great deal of fire this year for their eligibility requirements for their Foreign Language Film award, and have been highly scrutinized in the past for documentary nomination procedures. Ironically, their music categories need serious scrutiny as well. Eddie Veder’s and Johnny Greenwood’s scores for the films “Into the Wild” and “There Will Be Blood” respectively were disqualified from the musical score category because they were “too song oriented.” Then why weren’t their songs considered for the Song category? (Actually Veder’s “Guaranteed” was one of nine songs he wrote specifically for the movie that was eligible.) Meanwhile the song “Falling Slowly” from the movie “Once”—admittedly a great achievement in music—was nominated even though it had been released as a recording on an album by writer Glen Hansard’s band The Frames in early 2007 and on his 2006 solo release “The Swell Season”. But the movie was filmed in 2006, so perhaps its inclusion is fair. Whether the song was written specifically for the film or not, the rules are blurry.

So it seems both these award institutions are heavily flawed in their awards process. Even the shows themselves don’t hold up well under scrutiny, so it really comes down to whether you like this type of entertainment or not. Something did go wrong when someone decided to turn the awarding of artistic merit into a form of entertainment, but if it’s your thing—as the Oscars are mine—it can be hard to turn it off. As for the difference between the two ceremonies and why the Oscars seem to have a broader appeal, perhaps my six-year-old can offer some enlightenment. When he saw Beyonce and Tina Turner singing “Proud Mary” together Sunday night, he didn’t notice Beyonce’s legs, or Turner’s relative stiffness. He made no judgment on the song or the performance. He said, “I think they’re pretending to be the slugs [from the movie “Flushed Away”]. The girl slugs, I mean.” Movies win!

Photos courtesy of Grammy.com and Oscar.com.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Mad Money / ** (PG-13)

Bridget Cardigan: Diane Keaton
Jackie Truman: Katie Holmes
Nina Brewster: Queen Latifah
Don Cardigan: Ted Danson
Bob Truman: Adam Rothenberg
Barry: Roger Cross
Glover: Stephen Root
Bryce Arbogast: Chris McDonald

Overture Films and Millennium Films present a film directed by Callie Khouri. Written by Glenn Gers, based on an earlier screenplay by John Mister and the screenplay “Hot Money” by Neil McKay and Terry Winsor. Running time: 104 min. Rated PG-13 (for sexual material and language, and brief drug references).

“Mad Money” opens with Diane Keaton’s character discovering that her husband, played by Ted Danson, is selling their high-end upper middle class house because he has been without work for more than a year and they are over $200,000 in debt. She has no idea they owed so much and is doing her Diane Keaton high-pitched panic thing while Danson flops around on the couch whining that he was downsized by his company and that the spiraling economy doesn’t hold much immediate promise for big business management. Sure these two actors can pull this material off, but these people should be far past the panic point. Their problems are severe, and any conversation they might have about them deserve a weight and reverence that is just not present. They are too smart to believe histrionics will provide any sort of relief.

In fact, “Mad Money” is filled with characters who are smarter than the situations in which they place themselves. Keaton plays Bridget Cardigan, who takes a job as a janitor at the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank to curb her financial woes. It is the only job an English lit major who hasn’t worked in over thirty years can get with benefits. There she meets two other women whose jobs involve the process in which the government destroys worn out bills to be replaced by newly minted cash. Queen Latifah (“Hairspray”) is Nina Brewster, a single mom with concerns about her boys getting fair opportunities within the American education system. Katie Holmes (“Pieces of April”) is Jackie Truman, an apparent airhead willing to commit federal felony just for the hell of it.

Bridget approaches these two women with a plan to steal the worn out money in the middle of its destruction process so it will be untraceable. Neither Nina nor Jackie has as strong a motive to commit such a high risk crime as Bridget, so it is hard to believe they would join her scheme involving a Masterlock padlock that can be purchased at any hardware store. Nina is by far the most intelligent and has the most to lose—her boys. Jackie is handled like a ditz who might have a drug problem. It turns out that she has early onset diabetes, a fact that is never revealed to anyone but the audience and never factors into the plot. But Jackie turns out to be very intelligent, a contrast that is never used to advance the comedy or the plot.

Director Callie Khouri uses one heist movie gimmick to frame the story. All the characters involved in the caper tell the story after the fact in individual interrogations with the police. The only character not telling the story is Bridget, whose fate remains in question until the end. This style of storytelling works and offers most of the successful comedic moments, including highlighting the real ditz—Jackie’s husband Bob (Adam Rothenberg)—and proving that Danson retains the charm that brought him fame on “Cheers”.

But Khouri doesn’t employ any other stylistic beats traditionally—or even not traditionally—found in caper films. Instead, the movie as a whole plays like a vehicle for Keaton to act like Keaton, doing that same spaz shtick she has built a career on from “Annie Hall” to “Because I Said So.” This disappointment begs two questions. First, why must directors and producers insist that Keaton be herself and forget that she is also a talented actress when playing characters that don’t reflect her own personality, as she’s proved in films like “The Godfather” trilogy, “Little Drummer Girl”, or “Marvin’s Room”? Keaton has a great comedic personality, but watching her bumble her way through as she conspicuously scopes out her score only brings more attention to the fact that there is no way these women could really pull off this crime.

The second question is how such a talented screenwriter has Callie Khouri, who wrote the Oscar-winning script for “Thelma & Louise”, can so easily forget the relationship between story and style and settle for such mediocrity in the script she’s chosen to direct. Why only use one aspect of the caper style? Instead of showing Keaton goof her way around the high security, she could lay the plan out verbally and embellish the story while the images show she doesn’t have the cool she pretends.

“Mad Money” isn’t a terrible movie. It provides likeable characters that will make its target audience smile. It’s harmless, but it could be so much more daring. It has the seeds of a scathing indictment of the American economy but plays it safe, avoiding direct attacks at a society with a president whose solution to everything from recession to terrorism is “Go shopping!” I can imagine a much better film made with the same cast and the same basic story. Just think how Woody Allen might handle this material, with witty dialogue highlighting the character quirks instead of just introducing them to differentiate the names and faces. Or maybe Wes Anderson could make sad sack heroes of this band of misfits, instead of just leading them down a predictable road where it takes no brains to outwit people who should be the best at what they do.