Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Year on the Ropes

I don't enjoy talking about personal stuff online.

Or, to be fair, that's not entirely true.

I've become conditioned to not write about personal stuff online because it becomes a wedge issue. When it comes to Twitter and Facebook, I can't say that everyone who follows me or friends me is actually a friend. It could be because I said something clever, or because they know me from writing online, or because the matrix suggests I'm worth friending or following. Which leads me to also know that it's better not to engender hate or empathy from strangers because there's little to enjoy about feeling like someone's bragging or begging, as I've been on the other side of it. Mostly we don't care.  I view most social media as a place to plant opinions and crack wise. And whether or not I'm in good spirits or ill, financial gain or strife, I don't like talking about it because I don't know how it's being consumed. The internet shows that empathy is often in short order, even when some seem to be supportive.

There's also a sense of a spigot being put into a dam. Once a little is let out, a lot might follow. I'm of a generation that doesn't believe in oversharing. I live a life where it would be an insult to be compared to a Kardashian, and perhaps if I achieve or achieved mega-success, it's not so much bragging as the baggage of that lifestyle. I am and have been friendly with successful people. I see how they behave on social media. I get it. Acknowledge at best and move on.

There are two things that defined the last thirteen months of my life: 1) the woman I met and 2) the exercise I've been committed to. And a third thing: 3) A lack of permanent employment. I talked about one of those things on social media. Number 2.

Basically, at the end of June, Screencrave folded and Screencrush put me into a position where I could pitch things, but I was no longer functioning as an editor. I went from scraping by to having nothing to rely on. Both I could see coming down the pike. With the former, the site took a big hit in 2011 and never really recovered. With Screencrush, I went from having a staff of five to six people, and an eight hour shift to working with one other person for four hours. I went from Chud, where I got to write longform essays - which I did as a hobby mostly for fun - to writing about the latest trailers for whatever had just come out. And, honestly, it may have made me a worse writer. Churning out two hundred words about the third TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES trailer, a film I have and had no interest in, becomes a grind.

I was always told I could take my time, but my instinct was that such material should be served as hot as possible. Ben Affleck as Batman? First up means the most hits. There are at least a dozen sites covering the same beat. Ultimately much of the writing was about writing about advertising, and coverage. Fans don't want to read that you think the latest superhero film looks like doo-doo, unless everyone has already decided a film is crap - or your demographic has. But even then, you could invite the wrath of a publicist. And though Miles Teller and THE FANTASTIC FOUR might be toxic at the moment, that doesn't mean Fox or Teller won't remember.

My interest in cinema has always covered the spectrum, from silents to indies to everything in between, and it became obvious quickly what the beat was: Superhero rumors and blockbuster cinema, which is what it is. I would be just as happy to write about Hitchcock's filmography, but as we've learned, the internet isn't champing at the bit for that. So when I was cut loose, I wasn't actively pursuing other opportunities in the same field. I started online at Binaryflix (a long defunct DVD review site), and after fifteen years of writing online I was okay with basically churning out articles upon request and the odd review of Blu-rays for Collider.com.

The funny thing was that when I got the call from the editor-in-chief of Screencrush about my demotion, I couldn't have really given a shit. A week and a half earlier, I met a woman. She lived in my apartment complex, we met outside on a summer day, and I had charmed her. It also turned out she was famous. She suggested we hang out before she left town, and though I was reticent, when my roommate basically shamed me into asking her out (though I was building up to it), I contacted her. And we basically saw each other every day before she left town, going to an art thing, or out dancing, or just having some soup. The day I got the call, I was supposed to meet her to watch the World Cup, and my first thought was that it meant I was free to enjoy the date, and wouldn't have to run back to work.

The Lady in Question
She was leaving the next day, and my cinema-addled mind felt the whole thing had a taste of BEFORE SUNRISE, so more time was more time. The most beautiful woman I have ever known wanted to spend time with me and so how could I be bummed that I was out of work?

The other thing was that a friend told me he had a job for me when a project came together. We had talked about it a couple weeks previous, and it seemed like it could "go" shortly. What's a couple of weeks? My mom said she would help me out, and I still had some money coming in. The lady of my life was gone, but about two weeks later I sent her an email saying I missed her, and a flood of emails, with videos and messages went back and forth culminating in her mentioning a party she had to go to in Sommerset that weekend. I said I couldn't afford a flight. She said she had frequent flyer miles. I had never met my nephew before, and he lived in London, so how do you not?

And it was crazy. It was a mild notion on Tuesday and by Thursday I was heading to LAX bound for London. One of the many favorite parts of my trip was going through customs, where they asked me where I was staying and how long I would be there, and I honestly had no idea. The three days I spent with her in England were pure fucking magic, and I remember so many details. One of my favorite, the one I'll spare, is how we noted that my arms are as big as her legs, and we would compare the two. Sometimes the intimacy of a touch is the most meaningful.

I would never talk about any of this stuff online, though when friends would get in contact, I loved to share the story. You work out the rhythms of how to contract or expand the narrative for maximum interest, you judge how much people want to hear. I found that women tended to appreciate (or pretend to) the story more than most guys. Leonard Maltin told me about seeing THE POSTMAN on the Warner Brothers lot while we were attending a screening, and it was a great moment for me. I've always liked Leonard Maltin, and was happy to hear a great private anecdote, and was melancholy when I heard him tell the same story on a podcast. But I realized also that some stories are going to be dined out on for a lifetime. As I had one of those, I couldn't blame him for doing the same.

But I also know that mine is the sort of story that - even with close friends - can go be toxic. Morrissey had a point about how we hate it when friends become successful, and though that's not always the case, you don't want to alienate people with your great story or luck. Social media makes such confessions a minefield.

On a emotional level, I was happy it happened as weeks stretched into months, and prosperity seemed just around the corner. As with many movie-related enterprises, there is rarely an expedited process, and so what seemed like something that might start shortly kept moving the goal posts. All the while the Lose It app showed my progress. Eventually I won and went from around 300 pounds to around 200. I would walk for hours and hours, or hit the gym and burn as many calories as possible. I would go out dancing and count the minutes to see how much I was doing. I would also hit Linkedin every day and scour for work. What seemed right? I had a number of great jobs over my career, but they weren't exactly trade skills. Most fit into something akin to middle management, and most were jobs that I got through a friend (or a friend of a friend). Linkedin updates at the end of a day around six or so at night, so I would figure out walks and exercises that would keep me busy enough to come back and check in around then.

After a while craigslist and other sites enter into the picture. You take risks. You change what level of shit you're willing to eat. I found some things that felt like iron pyrite, but some I pursued in the odd chance it would lead to gold. At points I felt like Dave in the airlock in 2001, going into the atmosphere hoping that you could complete a task before the cold of space killed you. That airlock was something I felt a couple of times, but I have been able to scrape by- even if I have incurred debt along the way, signing up for multiple credit cards to help pay the bills. I hated a lot about my life, and when struggling like that, it makes you feel less sharp, less on point. Some days you want to see everything that's happening on Twitter, some days it just feels like being raked over the coals and you only check your mentions. You're not engaging in the world in a way you want to, you try to stuff any suicidal thoughts away as foolish, because you know that that thing is about to happen if you just wait and you also know that a beautiful woman once sent you to London to spend time with her, so how are you not awesome?

But when the months pile up, it's hard not to enter a perpetual state of depression, or at least feel a level of failure that wears on you, and it makes writing for fun or about anything a greater task. It makes reading stressful. And so her picture became a totem. And so I fought off the bad thoughts and lack of success with thoughts of when it did work, when I was in better straights, and thought about the end of the tunnel. And you keep looking for it. And you try your best to take a job doing something you know is beneath you, but you would be happy to work, because you would be happy to take anything.

And so often the forms and the amount of backstory needed becomes a hurdle. I'm 39, I've had lots of jobs. For the love of god, don't make me list every single one. I don't use drugs. Don't make me pee.

As of Monday, 8/17, I will have full time employment for a while. And it's something I'm comfortable with on a lot of levels. I am excited about the job as I will be working on the Sony lot. I will also not publish this until either late into Monday or sometime soon thereafter. Because I am superstitious, and because the last year and change have led me to not count anything as golden until it becomes concrete.

When I left her in the King's Cross station to return to her European home, I knew it was likely over as I had neither the funds nor the location to make a relationship work. I emailed from time to time, hoping she would want me as a plus one again, but did not count on it, though as one does when a relationship is virtually over, you hope a repeated trick has the same value the second time. As I've said, when it's a one and done, it is what it is, but when you get a sequel, you hope for a franchise. It was not to be, and we haven't spoken in a while, though my guess is if that I went to Europe on an extended vacation, I might be able to spend some time with her, if she wasn't otherwise disposed.

That said, her presence in my life is one of the things that has kept me going over the last year and change. Maybe in a good way in that I never hit levels of depression where I was thinking so poorly that I truly contemplated a real end to things, and maybe in a bad way, in that I didn't feel the fire under my butt until relatively recently.

I don't like FORREST GUMP, but I also accept that the feather metaphor isn't total junk. Sometimes we float through life. I am happy where I am right now, I'm happy to know I've got a steady gig for the next couple, even if it isn't permanent, and even if it just gets me through the next few months. But also, that's sort of the world we live in right now, at least for me, nothing feels permanent, but it's good to enjoy what's happening while it is. It sucks to be out of work, or doing jobs that feel like shit. I've been there, I've done it over the past couple. But also life can be great, and sometimes patience is required. Oh well. I'm not dead.

It also raised a question of my writing. For the last couple of years, without steady employment, it's been hard to write for fun. Oh, I've had ideas and things I've plugged away at, but without a safety net for mental security it's been hard to tinker with things without feeling guilty. Without hating myself coming to the forefront before tinkering.

If things work out, you may be seeing more of me here. Or working on projects that aren't here. But - with the break - I think I'm back to wanting to essay shit. And to work on other things. I wrote this, right?

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Cameron Crowe and Lloyd Dobler

ALOHA opened this past weekend to bad box office and even worse reviews, and you could see this coming for a number of reasons, not all of which had to do with the Sony email hack. Cameron Crowe has been in a rut for a while, which is unfortunate as he used to be a vital artist. I fell in love with Crowe's first film SAY ANYTHING when it initally hit home video and enjoyed his follow-ups for the most part until I had a breakthrough with ALMOST FAMOUS. I realized that it's kind of a bullshit movie, and then later hearing the commentary for SAY ANYTHING, it became obvious why I have never loved another Crowe film as much as his first film.

As for ALMOST FAMOUS, there's nothing all that wrong with an enjoyably full of shit movie if it's made well and is inoffensive (like GOOD WILL HUNTING, which requires as much suspension of disbelief as any superhero movie), but ALMOST FAMOUS is supposedly autobiographical. And that means that either Crowe never saw too much of the dark side of Rock and Roll, or he didn't want to show it. Both are possible (he was 13 when he started writing for magazines), and it's why the moments when the film gets a little darker, like when Billy Crudup shows that he's capable of violence, are where the film is at its most interesting. But when Crowe's/William Miller's first sexual encounter with a number of groupies is portrayed through hankerchief juggling... an act that if the character is 15 could be considered statutory rape (though likely gets the SOUTH PARK/THAT'S MY BOY "Nice" reaction from most), and if it was his first time... especially if it was three groupies it would be weird and awkward and likely quick. And you could argue that he tries to get that across in that William is more in love with Penny Lane, who seemingly gives permission to him to have sex but also maybe feels bad about it as well, but it also reveals the truth about Crowe: he's a nice guy. And it seems the best/worst thing to happen to him was John Cusack.

On the commentary track for SAY ANYTHING, Crowe talks about his initial conception of Lloyd Dobbler, which was based on someone that Crowe knew. He was a Southern gentleman who had the positivity of a motivational speaker. That was his concept for Lloyd, someone who could not be deterred, whose unerring sense of rightness would guide him to the life he wanted. And what Cusack brought to the part was the dark undercurrent. Cusack's Lloyd knew pain all too well and his positivity was a choice made in face of how much things sucked. When Lloyd is driving around in the rain, one doesn't get the sense that this is the first time his heart has been broken, it's that he can't understand what he did wrong (spoiler: he did nothing wrong). SAY ANYTHING seems grounded in a reality that Crowe knew, but the reason why the film works is because of Cusack, unquestionably. And for better or worse, Diane Court is one of Crowe's most rounded female characters.

SINGLES came out at an interesting moment, and it's mixture of romantic comedy and grunge documentary that's fascinating even if it's more charming than great. And then came JERRY MAGUIRE. I still like the film, though I haven't watched in a while, but what makes it interesting is how much Crowe actively paints himself into corners. The main character is a sports agent, seemingly the most detestable person imaginable. The love interests get married before they fall in love, etc. etc. But here, we start to see that Crowe is getting removed from regular people, and that he wants to emulate his success with SAY ANYTHING, though it doesn't comes as organically.

Post-ALMOST FAMOUS, Crowe made a remake for Tom Cruise with VANILLA SKY, which is a bro midlife crisis film that never meant much to me. Then there's his latest trilogy, and I go back to that commentary track. The big problem with these films, with ELIZABETHTOWN, WE BOUGHT A ZOO, and likely ALOHA - which I will eventually watch - is that Crowe likes to graft pain onto his main characters. In ELIZABETHTOWN - which due to the nature of DVD post-production work, is a film I have seen over ten times - it opens with the Orlando Bloom failing big and nearly committing suicide, in ZOO, it's that the protagonist's wife recently died, and in ALOHA, the main character was declared dead and left heavily injured in Afghanistan (though this was more fleshed out in the original script than the finished film).

The problem, especially in ELIZABETHTOWN is that it seems that Crowe only superficially understands darkness, and that's why ALMOST FAMOUS turned out as it did, but he still wants to have that dark energy in his movies. And when you realize that Lloyd Dobbler's character wasn't meant to have that weight, it explains a lot. Would ELIZABETHTOWN be a better movie if the main character wasn't suicidal? It strikes me that part of the problem is miscasting, but that Crowe's initial choice for the role was Ashton Kutcher suggests either that he's at the mercy of the studio system, or that he doesn't understand that pain. Other names that could have played the part are (according to wikipedia)  Seann William Scott, Colin Hanks, Chris Evans, and James Franco, so perhaps it is a generational problem. That film doesn't know how to mix pain with joy, the sweet and the sour. It's a hard chemistry problem to crack, perhaps even more so when you first did it accidentally.


There are certain things that I would love to have listed on my tombstone. A collection of the eccentric moments in my life that I’m – for better or worse – proud of having experienced. And I’m sure by the time Andre Dellamorte III sits on my lap, my story of having coffee and pie with David Lynch will likely involve me saving his life, or telling him a joke that made coffee and/or pie shoot out his nose.
Alas, such is not the case. I did have pie and coffee with David Lynch, and I’m sure I’ll be bragging about that for years to come, but it was because I was invited to attend a junket with David Lynch and Laura Dern at a nearby Marie Callenders, where we were served pie and coffee and got a chance to have a roundtable discussion with one of the few artists who managed to make transcendent work in the 80’s, and one of the stars of Jurassic Park. Though that’s not exactly fair to Dern, who has been one of the best female actresses going for nearly 25 years, with great performances in Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Citizen Ruth. INLAND EMPIRE is their latest collaboration. Lynch is a mad gesticulator, his hands were often in motion when answering questions, and not being able to transcribe those movements is something of a loss.
As David sat down with us someone commented that pie and David Lynch go together
David Lynch: It’s the Twin Peaks thing, I guess.
Someone chimed in "I’ll take Marie Callendar’s over Four Seasons any day."
Lynch: You and me both. (This place) is way more of a restaurant than I thought.

Someone asked if he’d tried the pie yet, as a chocolate cream pie was put at the center of our table.
Lynch: Not yet, not yet. I was thinking about Banana Cream Pie. What are you guys gonna have, you’ve got Apple pie? Nice. But now you want the chocolate cream.

So what’s your favorite pie?
Lynch: Well, I like cherry pie, I like blueberry pie, I like banana cream pie, and I like Dutch Apple pie, I guess those would be the top four.
How is Dutch Apple pie different than regular apple pie?

Lynch: Dutch apple pie has something on top. What is it, cheese? It has that crumbly top. Yeah, yeah yeah, that’s it, a real crumbly top. Killer pie, beautiful.

Do you have a least favorite?

Lynch: I don’t think I’d be wild about rhubarb
And at this point Laura Dern joins us.
Laura Dern: I love Rhubarb!

Lynch: Really?

Dern: Yeah.

Lynch: Wow.
David said he wanted banana cream.

Dern: Oooh, banana cream! Does that mean we get a piece of pie at every table we go to? Oh, this is fantastic. I should get a coffee.

Lynch: I’m getting a coffee, I think. I think so. (To us) Fire away!
How long were you guys in production on INLAND EMPIRE?

Lynch: Well, production is a weird thing, how long over from the beginning to the end was about three years, but we weren’t always shooting every day, you know what I mean? A lot of days we weren’t shooting.

(To Dern) So he’d just call you up every once in a while and say "I’ve got a camera, I’ve got an idea?"

Dern: Pretty much, right?

Lynch: Yeah. (pause, followed by laughter)
It seemed like there were a lot of different styles in this picture in comparison to some of your other work, handheld type of stuff, did you take a different approach to this project?

Lynch: Yes, because I was shooting DV with a small, lightweight camera. It was so beautiful to me, to be able to hold the camera and float around, and you know, let it move according to what I was feeling or seeing. Whereas before you’re behind a massive camera, in front of you is an operator and a focus puller, and you’ve got a kind of barrier, and if you wanted to move, if you felt a thing, it wasn’t possible. Like I say, on the next take you might say "can you drift in on this line a little bit like this," but it may not happen the same way on the next take, so it gives you this ability to really be in there and stay in there, because it 40 minute takes, it’s very beautiful.
(To Laura) How different was it for you, having worked with David on previous projects?

Dern: You know, again, I’ll almost repeat the same idea. The liberty that comes with working with DV, you’re liberated as an actor, in the same way David describes you never miss anything because you’re right there. You never miss an opportunity of being in the moment, because suddenly now – not just the performance – but the camera is offering that in the moment opportunity, you can catch anything, and he can hear what the actor – seemingly off camera – is doing and want to capture that and just flip around, and because of the luxury of a 40 minute take if you need it – I mean 40 minutes in the camera – that you can shoot an entire scene without ever stopping and he can get all the coverage he wants and we are staying within the moment of acting out this scene, and not cutting and resetting but in fact even while filming talking to me, because of the luxury of the lack of expense as well, to say let’s do it again, okay, go back to this line, let’s keep going. And you’re just, as an actor, it’s an incredible feeling to stay true the mood, the feeling that’s going at that given time.
David, could you talk about how this film relates to your other work? Because there seem to be similarities with Mulholland Dr, and we actually saw clips from Rabbits in this film. Is this film an extension or how do you view it?

Lynch: It’s different but… similarities, because it deals with – as Mulholland Dr. did – the movie industry. But… And it has, you know, a female lead, um (laughs)

Dern: Thank you (more laughs)

Lynch: You know, and then it kind of takes off and becomes different.
It felt a bit like a collage of some of your previous works, was that intentional?

Lynch: No. Ideas come along, and you pick an idea, and sometimes you catch an idea that you fall in love with, and you see the way cinema could do that. It’s a beautiful day when that happens, and the idea tells you everything. Now you – because we had our kind of mechanism, we kind of fall in love with certain kinds of things, but every film is different, and it’s based on the ideas that come. And they are the things you try and stay completely true to, and all the elements you try to get to be feeling correct before you walk away, and you go.
So, Laura, with this role, there’s so many different levels, so many different performances, various different versions of the same person, how was that working for you?

Dern: You know, more than ever, the day’s work was at hand, and what I had. Given that we shot in such a way that we would, David would a write and we would film that, and then he’d write another scene and we’d film that and so on, it forced me – very luxuriously – into the moment. I didn’t necessarily know what was coming before or what was coming after, and whether one perceives it that I am different people, or that I am aspects of one person, either way you can really only act one way, which is being the person you are in that moment. So in a way, not knowing everything, and trying to somehow get to what would be logically minded as an actor and try and help the audience understand how this relates to that, etc. I was freed from any of that, by David keeping me in the moment with whatever character I was playing, or whichever aspect of the story I was involved in. And that was extremely freeing, and in a way I think allows for more imagination as an actor, because as much as an actor wants to believe this is just for my own experience, that they are not informing the audience. There can be a pitfall of feeling like "because my character is going to do this five scenes from now, maybe I should give them a little taste of that, so they know that it’s coming," but as we see, human nature doesn’t work that way. Where people cry in the news when we hear "so and so, who seemed like such a nice guy, did this atrocious thing." And so being forced by the director, if you will, to just be this aspect of what I suppose this is for, I think made me get to be braver by default, not intentionally.
Would you only want to approach a movie with this scene-by-scene approach with David? Is he the only one you’d feel comfortable with?

Dern: Well, I’d rather only work with David, period. (laughs)

Lynch: You’re working with me now, but watch what happens next time "Oh, I don’t even want to work with Robert." (more laughing)

Dern: They know, we’ve met many times before when you weren’t here. (again, this entire exchange is peppered with laughter)

Lynch: Exactly. It’s all baloney! (more laughing, as per last sentence)

Dern: Going back from their lunch. "Can you believe it? Poor David Lynch, he doesn’t
realize that Laura has said that so many times today." But I think, for myself, I’ve watched David do this with many other actors on this movie, but I don’t know if I could have done this with many other directors, because, and we’ve been asked if we have a shorthand, in fact we have a remarkable one. And I’m sure he has it with the other actors he works with, but for me, I have the ability from knowing him since I was seventeen, separate from who he is as a director to me, to intuit what he means, and he can intuit what I’m going to express before it happens. So it’s not just what the movie’s about, or the character I’m playing, but even as an operator, a cinematographer, I felt like David moved his body and camera just into place just as I was thinking of moving that way. You know there’s that thing that happens…

Lynch: Laura actually directed this picture.

Dern: Wonderful.
With that scene by scene approach to filming, did you ever consider releasing it as a series of short films?

Lynch: No. (laughs)

Dern: A set of long films.

Lynch: No. After a while, the scene by scene revealed more. And then I wrote a lot of stuff, and then we went and shot more traditionally. We could shoot for several weeks, and have stuff to shoot, and organized like a regular shooting schedule. But it was just in the beginning that it was scene by scene. And those, were, could have ended up just being that, a scene, separate, by itself, for the internet or whatever. But I didn’t know what it was going to be, so I’d shoot a scene, and then I’d get an idea for another scene and shoot that scene, and lo and behold, after a bunch of them, a thing came out.
Your working process on this was different

Lynch: A little different.
So, with the freedom of digital video, do you see yourself making movies more in line with this, or this kind of process?

Lynch: Not this process, but with digital video. And I think, maybe, I would, it would be nice to have a script written up front, but it just didn’t happen this time.

Dern: But, as he said, there were chunks of the film that surfaced, that you wrote. Towards the end, I mean, we shot for a month.

Lynch: It all starts coming more and more and more.

Dern: But we shot for like, four or five weeks solid at one point, almost like a traditional movie.
So it was all linear?

Lynch: Totally linear. It’s a straight ahead linear thing. (laughter) No, it wasn’t all linear, but there were a lot of scenes that were there, some could have been back in time, some could have been here, and then a chunk right now, like that.
Laura, when you were shooting the opening sequence with the creepy old woman (played by Grace Zabrinski), was it as creepy to shoot as it was to do it?

Dern: Well she is the nicest, loveliest lady, but having met her on Wild at Heart, I’m just damned terrified of her every time I see her. I can’t get over who she has been made out to be by David when I see her. It’s the beauty of working with David, is that you are – speaking of being in the moment – you are there in the moment, you may have a sense that something is disturbing, or a sense that something is funny, but when you’re in it you’re just trying to make it as authentic as it is, and then when you reflect back, or when you see it as an audience something that even seemed straight while you’re shooting it to me is just hysterical. I pretty much think he’s the best comedy director going, you know other people don’t see it that way.

Lynch: Laura is seeing a psychiatrist.

Dern: Hilarious. Her speech is hilarious, but I was doing it she was terrifying, so I don’t know why it worked out that way because I wasn’t sitting across from her.
The last question call is given

Lynch: Whoa that was quick, how can we possibly get into this?
I have to ask, is Twin Peaks ever going to be released on DVD?

Lynch: For sure it is.
We’re still waiting for Season Two.

Lynch: Yeah, it’s coming out, I think next spring. I think so.
What about Lost Highway?

Lynch: It’s all color corrected, timed, high def masters ready, it’s, I think Universal owns it now, and Lost Highway did not make a lot of money at the box office, so they probably have it way low on some list for DVD, I don’t know when they’ll get to it, I haven’t heard a thing. You’re going to have to write to Universal.

INLAND EMPIRE is already open in New York and Boston, and opens in LA on Friday the 15th.

For the Record: TROLL 2

The Film: Troll 2 (1990)

The Principals: Michael Stephenson, George Hardy, shitty puppets, Claudio Fragasso (director)

The Premise: A young boy named Joshua (Stephenson) has been having conversations with his dead grandfather Seth, who keeps warning him about Goblins. His family decides to go to a town called Nilbog for vacation. Nilbog is goblin spelled backwards. Do the math. 

Is It Good: In the words of our foremost poet-laureate “Aw, hell no.”

This is a movie called Troll 2 that features no actual trolls. They’re all goblins. This was made by an Italian (Fragasso) in America at the tail end of the Italian horror renaissance. There’s a horror subculture that regales the Italians, but horror fans are often the most forgiving, and there’s a lot of terrible Italian horror movies. Oh sure, you can call Dario Argento a master, there is a case to be made for Lucio Fulci, and there’s no denying Ruggero Deodato has his moments. I’m not denying the Italians (hello, my name is inspired by Dellamorte Dellamore) but many of the other big names – like Umberto Lenzi and Bruno Mattei – made shitty knock offs that are mostly laughable. That’s also appealing in its way as their films often mimicked something successful in America. It says something about his gifts that Claudio Fragasso worked a lot with Bruno Mattei and co-directed Rats: Night of Terror (if you haven’t seen Rats, it’s totally worth seeing for the surprise ending).

I have not seen Best Worst Movie – though I will – but I was indoctrinated into the Troll 2 cult by old video store coworkers. A number of the girls there (it would be fair to call them hipsters) really got into the “so bad it’s good” type of cinema, and they were obsessed with this movie. And you can see why they were so stoked: It doesn’t take long into the movie to realize that the director’s command of performance and acting was non-existent. All the actors are uniformly terrible, though you build up sympathy for Stephenson’s Joshua because he’s trying and he’s a kid. The girls were obsessed with Stephenson. Side note: as Best Worst Movie was taking off I had dinner with Stephenson through mutual friends, and I had to tell those old coworkers about it. I was star struck, but in that way you might be if you saw someone you recognized from a porn video.

The driving force of the cult of this thing is apparent right away, which is the complete disconnect from good acting and the weird interpretation of standard movie tropes. It’s one thing to be bad, but it’s something way more awesome if you’re crazed. Joshua constantly talks to his dead Grandpa Seth, who acts partly as a Obi-Wan Kenobi figure and partly as a get out of jail free card whenever Joshua needs help. Which leads to a scene where Joshua’s family is about to eat dinner, so grandpa Seth freezes time and Joshua figures the only way to stop people from eating is to pee on their food. This actually happens, by the way. Though the actual score is fun, the poor music choices also help amp up the camp (up). The family sings “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” terribly (which Kirk, Spock and Bones did in Star Trek V, leading me to a new pet theory: any film that uses this song will be bad), and Joshua’s sister doing a workout to music obviously created specifically for the scene.

There is a war going on for the film’s tone, but you can tell there’s something of a fairy tale quality to the movie, as there is an evil witch and fairy tale logic. For example, eating the Goblin’s food turns you into Goblin food, and because the goblins are vegetarians, Joshua is able to ward them off by eating meat. Every once in a while things seem so uniquely terrible that you almost think the film is intentionally doing what it’s doing, but then those thoughts pass as shots linger on terrible actors. This is also – strangely – a dead teenager film, as Joshua has a sister who’s got a boyfriend who wants to go on their vacation, but instead takes an RV with his friends to follow the family, which means additional corpses. One of his friends dies eating corn on the cob that explodes into popcorn as he’s eating it.

And finally, man I love the Goblin costumes. My favorite has always been the one that looks like Edvard Munch’s Scream guy.

Is It Worth a Look:  It depends on your tolerance/appetite for good bad movies. There’s no denying the film has a charm because it is so uniquely terrible. I go back and forth on my feelings about liking a film for those reasons. Yes, I own The Room, and Battlefield Earth, but I don’t know how much energy should be spent on appreciating something terrible. Then again, I just bought this film on Blu-ray, so I’m kind of an asshole. Yummy! Mom is so good.

Random Anecdotes: The costume designer for the film was Laura Gemser. Gemser played Emmanuelle, and spent much of the 70’s in films where she was naked, having sex, getting raped (oh, the Italians!) and/or “exploring her sexuality” (read: fooling around with chicks). Sometimes this would start or end with her wearing a nun’s habit. I have no knowledge of what she did in her off hours, though her transition into costume design leads me to think it was knitting, and possibly darning. If I ever see Michael Stephenson again, I’ll have to ask him about her, though that’s possibly mentioned in his movie Best Worst Movie, which comes out on DVD 11/16.

For the Record: ONE FOR THE ZIPPER: LESLIE NIELSEN 1926-2010

If it weren’t for David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, the passing of Leslie Nielsen would have mostly been noted by fans of 1950’s sci-fi. Without ZAZ, Nielsen would be best remembered as the vanilla lead of Forbidden Planet. To be fair, Nielsen gave what the role required: a stiff resolve, and the look of the perfect American (or North American, Nielsen was a Canadian). But in terms of acting, the role didn’t require a lot of heavy lifting, and Nielsen was another in a line of handsome but bland actors who slummed in those (at the time) children’s pictures. After that, it would be probably be his role as the Captain of the ill-fated Poseidon in The Poseidon Adventure to which he was most memorable on-screen. Had it not been for his willingness to make fun of himself (and perhaps a vague similarity to Ronald Reagan), he would have continued on the road he was on for most of his career, which included guest spots on such shows as Fantasy Island, The Golden Girls, and Murder, She Wrote. Perhaps the autumn years would have been spent at cons getting horror fans to pay money for his autograph because of his brief turn in George Romero’s Creepshow. It was a career littered with special guest spots and lower-billed authority figures, the career path of many who came to close to becoming studio system stars, but didn’t have that extra oopmh.

But when Leslie Nielsen was cast in 1980’s Airplane! a second career was born, albeit one that took almost a decade to come into bloom. Nielsen was one of many older actors called on to mock their straight-faced demeanor and bland good looks in the hit comedy, and though both Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges would return to work with ZAZ, it was Nielsen who they based a show around with their dismal failure Police Squad (in Color!). Running an all too brief six episodes, Police Squad is one of those great flukes of television history, and one of the most unintentionally perfect shows ever to air. Nielsen’s Frank Drebin is an ingenious comic lead – he’s a clueless but effective police detective in the middle of a ZAZ world. The show cemented his rhythms for these roles – Nielsen was drop dead funny when he was completely oblivious. And the show wouldn’t work without such a great anchor. But even after that, it took time for Nielsen to catch on, so much so that he was cast in a relatively serious role in Barbara Streisand’s Nuts in 1987. It was when Drebin was resurrected for 1988’s Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad that he finally caught on. The film was a smash hit, and it cemented Nielsen’s comic chops (while also spawning two sequels).

Though Nielsen could be the highlight in some truly terrible comedies, he was limited by the quality of the writing. Too often he was called on to mug, which works against what made him so great – Nielsen’s comic persona is based around him not being aware that he’s saying something funny or outrageous. Unlike Bridges or Stack, or even Peter Graves, Nielsen’s lack of definition in the early part of career made him perfect as a representation of an earlier era without the baggage of well-known roles. But even if the movies were lesser, Nielsen had a joy about him even in something as flimsy as a Scary Movie 3. He knew what a gift his second career was, and even when he wasn’t funny, he could make a bad comedy that much more lively. 

The legacy of his work is undeniable, as his work with ZAZ was very influential on a lot of comic writers, but specifically in Nielsen you can see the template for Stephen Colbert, and Police Squad was obviously the blueprint for shows like Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Though the Naked Gun franchise has not aged as well as Airplane! or Top Secret!, the first film still has some great laughs (as do the sequels), and I’ve intentionally kept this piece from becoming a quote fest – there are just way too many great lines that Nielsen sold as well as any great comic performer. But if any work should be saluted as Nielsen’s greatest accomplishment, it should be Police Squad (in Color!). The show never lurched above minor cult status in America, but I suspect it made a larger impression in England. When I talked to Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper about Look Around You, Police Squad was one of their biggest reference points, and Edgar Wright also mentioned the show while noting Nielsen’s passing. If you have yet to experience it, here’s a taste:


For the Record: I KNOW: IRVIN KERSHNER 1923-2010

Peter Bogdanovich: “Isn’t it too bad she (Greta Garbo) only made two good pictures out of forty?”
Orson Welles: “Well, you only need one.”

I moved to Los Angeles in 2004 – in fact I moved in the day of the presidential election, which reiterated what the most of my year had essayed. It was a tough but hopeful move, and one of the nice things I had to look forward to was that my friendship with Jeremy Smith and my writing meant that I could do something I had wanted to do since they started appearing on Ain’t It Cool News: I was going to be a part of their Jedi Council. Okay, admittedly, it was silly and a bunch of geeks bickering over what had already been a wounded franchise, but I am a nerd and even if my first go-around was an off night (Drew McWeeny couldn’t make it), what did come of it was great. I not only got to meet some of the people who would become some of my closest friends, I also got a ticket for a screening of The Empire Strikes Back at the Arclight with director Irvin Kershner in attendance.

Watching the film again on the big screen brought back many memories. My parents say that the first movie I saw in the theater was Star Wars, but I have no real memory of that. Instead, what I remember was seeing Empire. I think we came in during a scene where they’re getting the troops together on Hoth, but that can’t be because that comes after the scene with the Wampa, and I know that I spent much of pre-school hanging upside down (but still using one hand to support myself) and trying to use the force. I was four then, and the color scheme of the film’s epic final confrontation, and the power of that whole last stretch of the film was imprinted on me. Something reinforced when I watched the film again almost ten years later when I wanted to buy a laserdisc player, and my friend Chris showed me the film in widescreen. Or when I worked a shit job just so I could afford the $250 laserdisc box set of the trilogy (all in CAV, with sparse commentary tracks!). But – at the Arclight – it was the special edition cut of the film (unfortunately), the one that my friends and I went to see repeatedly. When that version came out in 1997 I was working at a video store and going to college, and my best friend and I went to the Eastgate theater to see the first show. He wanted to live it, so he spent the night outside the theater with a number of other die-hards. The special edition – fixes and slapdash “new” stuff – still worked like gangbusters. And watching it in 2004, I noted what has come to be my trigger with the movie, as I always fall into the film at the same point. It’s the push-in on Carrie Fisher as the shield doors are closed.

It’s film-making 101 right there: we know that Princess Leia is concerned that both Luke Skywalker, and now Han Solo are locked outside the base in the deadly freezing temperatures of the planet. We are told that they both have a very low probability for survival. Leia doesn’t break, because she’s in a leadership position (even though everyone is being sensitive around her) but the push-in lets us know cinematically that she is feeling that door closing. And here Kershner shows what he brought to the table, because this (mixed with the great blues and whites of this section of the film) doesn’t seem to come from Lucas. There are elegiac moments in the first Star Wars movie, but Kershner’s work deepens the characters, and gives a greater sense of visual poetry to the universe. The audience at the Arclight was into the film, and then they brought out Kershner to a standing ovation.

Watching the Q&A was weird, because you want all great directors to be great storytellers, and Kershner at first didn’t come across as a great speaker, but he eventually came to life. He covered the usual bases (“who wrote it?,” etc.) but the longer he spoke, the more it crystallized in my mind: Irvin Kershner is Yoda. Not only does Kershner’s voice resemble the Jedi master, but Luke Skywalker was always a George Lucas surrogate, and Irvin Kershner was one of Lucas’s teachers at USC. Yoda spends much of Empire schooling Luke, just as – for many fans – Empire takes the ideas and characters from Star Wars and takes them to the next level. Such might explain why they never captured the Yoda of Empire again.

In fan circles, there’s always been a question of who to credit for the success of the film. There are those who give a lot of love to Leigh Brackett (who all involved now says got a tribute credit for her work, which was mostly discarded), while there are a number of Lawrence Kasdan partisans, and others who give it up to George Lucas’s bank-betting production (less so now that Lucas has returned to directing). Regardless, it’s easy to wonder how much Irvin Kershner had to do with the success of the film. On the positive, when you take out Kershner and put in someone else you get Return of the Jedi, which was written by Kasdan, and had Lucas – some say micromanaging – on the set . But then there’s also Kershner’s post-Empire track record, which includes Never Say Never Again (which I recently revisited and enjoyed, though at the time Disco’d out, video game playing Connery Bond was a huge disappointment), and the wrongheaded Robocop 2. And now there’s the J.W. Rinzler making of book, which goes into greater detail on the making of that film. But all evidence is that Kershner was no Tobe Hooper, no Christian Nyby.

But for those Star Wars fans who go digging, Kershner’s body of work offers few answers to how he did it. Perhaps best known of his earlier films is the John Carpenter-penned The Eyes of Laura Mars, which Pauline Kael flipped for but never made a great impression on me. I was fond of A Fine Madness, which is a fascinating pop-art late 60’s movie that tried to help Sean Connery shake the bonds of Bond, but is very modest in the scheme of things. S*P*Y*S reunited Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland post-M*A*S*H to little greater ends. And the intersection between Auteurism and fanboyism has never led to DVD releases for The Flim-Flam Man, or The Luck of Ginger Coffee. If nothing else, perhaps Kershner’s passing will drum up some interest in the rest of his body of work, even if thirty years post-Empire has done little toward that. But Kershner – and his role in creating what is one of the great and defining works of cinema fantasy – has earned his place in the canon, because regardless of how it came out, he created a masterpiece, and his fingerprints are undeniable. As Orson Welles said, you only need one.

For the Record: The Tourist

What does it mean to win a foreign film academy award? In the modern world, it means you can go to America. Not everyone does, of course, but usually the awarded film features great performances. Director Andrew Dominik said of his Chopper that when you make a film like that, actors want to work with you, and such seems the case for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who came out of The Lives of Others looking like a champ. For geeks, he was the man who denied Guillermo Del Toro an Oscar, but the film was considered one of the best of the year.

Regardless, his work caught a lot of people’s attentions, which is why he was able to make The Tourist with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. Depp stars as Frank Tupelo, the titular tourist who takes a train ride with Elise Clifton-Ward (Jolie). She is being followed by international agents (headed up by Paul Bettany) as she is the lover of a mysterious accountant Alexander Pearce, who is worth a couple billion dollars and is wanted by the British government for $775 Million in back taxes. Elise is contacted by her lover to go on a train and find a dupe, who turns out to be Frank.

The film starts with a set-up that’s both familiar and new, and von Donnersmarck and his fellow scripters Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellows (in adapting the French film by Jerome Salle Anthony Zimmer) obviously are careful of their Hitchcock. That’s the activating agent for this film (and likely the original), as the two strangers meet on a train, but Depp’s Tupelo is no Roger Thornhill. Tupelo is a bumpkin, touring Europe after the death of his wife, a math teacher who smokes an electronic cigarette. Elise chides him for his behavior, and coaches him how to act as a man. It’s a charming scene, and though everyone involved seems to know what they’re riffing on, it’s still got enough sharp edges to make it pop a little.

When the two de-board, it’s revealed that the police know he’s a dupe, so they back off, but enough information leaks out that illicit gangster Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff) is on his trail. His order to his men: you can kill Elise, but Frank must be left alone. Elsie invites Frank on a night on the town, and the come close to consummating a relationship, but he is weak and is aware that there is another man. From there the film becomes a chase, as Shaw wants his money, and chases Frank without knowing that he has nothing to do with anything, though word is that Pearce has gotten plastic surgery, so any one is possible. But it’s also about Frank becoming the man he’s always wanted to be, and a man of derring-do (which is the theme of all these sorts of films).

What’s unfortunate for this film is that Brian De Palma ruined Hitchockian riffing. Where De Palma was able to steal from Hitchcock and turn it into a game, his knowing acknowledgement makes those that follow come across as less clever. The Tourist feels familiar in its To Catch a Thief meets North By Northwest trappings, and there’s a sag to the film because it comes across as a xerox. There’s no edge here, there’s nothing more than feeling like a riff until the final reveal, which I will cover in a spoiler section. And if you like a reasonably well made riff on Hitchcock then this will surely fulfill your needs, but it feels like exactly that (and no more). In every way this film feels like a movie out of time, as this sort of thing seems to be something best done two decade or more ago. But if I don’t dislike the film, it’s because it feels old school, with a nailed down plot and enough twists and turns and practical action to keep a viewer engaged.

What I think makes the film is the ending, which moves us into spoiler territories, so beware. End of line, I modestly liked the film, and there’s some appearances by actors I didn’t know were in the film that lifted the movie for me, and as a star showcase, character actors having fun sort of film, I found it to be harmless fun.


What I think makes the film is that in the end moments, there’s a twist ending (which the writing credits might make more evident) where Tupelo is revealed to be the sought after man in question. What I like-to-love about this ending is that Johnny Depp is our everyman, just as so many ultra-famous people have been before. What makes the ending for me is that it says that what we trusted was that everyman is revealed to be a billionaire. In that way, the film is a very interesting comment (intentionally or no) on so much of pop culture and films like this. And that was enough for me to view this film as a minor success.

For the Record: THE DEFT TOUCH: BLAKE EDWARDS 1922-2010

With the passing of Blake Edwards, the world has lost a master, and an important link in the development of American comedies. Edwards is the bridge in comedic sensibilities from the more urbane and droll sex comedies of the pre-Hayes code era (think Ernst Lubitsch) and the modern sensibilities that moved more towards the explicitly sexual and scatological (say, Judd Apatow).

For modern audiences, the work of Edwards will always seem of period. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but works as diverse as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Party and the Pink Panther series feature racial stereotypes that temper more politically correct enthusiasms. But just as D. W. Griffith is one of the greats, Edwards legacy is only tarnished but not ruined by such elements. Like most comics, his films were a reflection of their era, and a commentary on them, and it takes some distance to find the truth underneath the polyester period trappings.

Like most from his generation, Edwards’s directorial career started in television, after writing a number of B westerns and films for Richard Quine. His early efforts are most notable for the cast, with Operation Petticoat the best remembered of the bunch (with Tony Curtis and Cary Grant). Television served him well, as he created Peter Gunn, and set a tone of cool that would dominate his 60’s work.

In 1961 came Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Audrey Hepburn’s filmography is reasonably long and she is an international sex symbol, so it says something that Holly Golightly is her career-defining role. Her fashion sense (that black dress!) and the extended cigarette holder here are as immortal as Bogart’s trench-coat, or Harold Lloyd’s glasses. Though the film is scarred by Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of an annoyed Asian neighbor (which might be forgivable if we weren’t supposed to laugh at the abuse he takes for wanting quiet simply because he’s a wacky Asian), it was here that Edwards matured into a great director. So much of modern comedy is performance-based, but if you watch the party scene in this movie, it’s a musical number of comic choreography. If released today, the film would be seen as the Hollywoodified version of a much tougher novel, but that also goes to show how wrong modern concerns for fidelity can be. The film exists right on the precipice of the new freedoms regarding sex on screen (European films had already started to feature nudity), which is why the film can only intimate the fifty dollars Holly gets to powder her nose is a euphemism for sexual favors, but it – like so many of the films of the past – it gives the film a couple layers. Some viewers may think she’s on the verge of real prostitution, others may never get what’s going on, while others can see the sad truth of her “profession.” Regardless of the retroactive schmaltz associated with “Moon River,” the ending of the film works like gangbusters, and the film deserves it place as one of the great romantic comedies.

In 1962 he stretched his muscles, doing a thriller/noir with Experiment in Terror, and – one of his personal favorites – the melodrama The Days of Wine and Roses. The latter is more effective than the former, but both are good movies, and showed that Edwards had a range. With Roses he showed that he understood pathos, which is the key to any great comedy. In another career, these would be crown jewels, but the next year he made The Pink Panther. For those who are only familiar with the franchise in passing, or through Inspector Clouseau’s fights with Cato (Bert Kwouk), what’s fascinating about the first film is that it’s a European heist movie with an international cast that includes David Niven, Robert Wagner and Cappucine. But Peter Seller’s Clouseau was the role, which led to A Shot in the Dark a year later. The franchise waned dramatically as it went on – and also led to a bizarre spin-off in 1968 with Alan Arkin – but it had enough audience pull to lead to eight official movies in total (including one with Ted Wass and another with Roberto Benign) or an even ten if you include the Steve Martin remakes. It’s a comic legacy of diminishing returns, but between the first two films and The Party, Edwards set a tone for how comedies were made in that era, and films like Casino Royale and What’s New, Pussycat? are inconceivable without Edwards.

The Party has a rabid fan-base, as it’s an effort that either delights from beginning to end or puts you off with its dated approach and its mild case of racism. The film stars Sellers (and other than Stanley Kubrick, it’s hard to argue that Edwards wasn’t Sellers’s best director) as an Indian actor who is mistakenly invited to a party, and manages to turn it into full-on chaos. The movie is a perfect time capsule of the era, and as it was made in 1968 you can feel the film torn between the counter-culture (which gets a watered down representation) and a more staid sensibility. There are lots of bubbles, and an elephant. Slightly more fun is Edwards’s The Great Race, which has Tony Curtis reuniting with Some Like it Hot co-star Jack Lemmon, along with Natalie Wood and Peter Falk. It’s very arch and silly – a live action cartoon – and all the more enjoyable for it.

Edwards had no problem cashing Clouseau paychecks through most of the 1970’s, though his relationship with Sellers crumbled, and the comedy got more and more labored, but he did get to make a World War II film with his wife Julie Andrews in Darling Lily, and the Western The Wild Rovers with William Holden and Ryan O’Neal. But in one of the great flukes of right place-right time, he turned Dudley Moore into a leading man with his 1979 film 10, which was a cultural phenomenon (there are still jokes made about Bo Derek’s hair in this film). Edwards was always interested in the social mores of sex, and the film hit a cultural button. Moore plays a guy who keeps seeing what he considers the perfect woman (which in 1979 was defined in the dictionary as Bo Derek), and contorts his life and nearly ruins his current relationship to be in a position to fuck Derek’s character. In that way Edwards showed his great gift for torture and near-missing in comedy.

It was a build-up to his last great picture with 1981’s S.O.B. The story of a filmmaker who wants to get someone known for their wholesome image to do a nude scene – featuring Julie Andrews going topless – was Edwards at his sharpest, and is one of the best satires of Hollywood. He followed it with Victor/Victoria, the still-funny sex comedy about a female drag queen played by his wife, who falls for a man who doesn’t realize she’s a woman. It was a great rebirth, but turned into his last great run of quality.

Like most great directors, Edwards worked long past his prime, and the rest of his films from the 1980’s were misses. There are moments in Blind Date and Skin Deep, but they’re few and far between. He knew the blueprints, but it’s hard to imagine how much cocaine made Ted Danson and Howie Mandell in A Fine Mess seem like a good idea. Comedians and comic directors don’t tend to age well, as we’ve seen with many of his contemporaries (Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks).

But if anything, Edwards marks the end of the age of elegance in comedies and comic directors. John Landis is one of the last, but so much of comedy – even from names like Judd Apatow – are driven by dialogue and the performers more than visual wit (you see more of that internationally). Edwards knew that certain angles and certain cuts could be hysterical, and he used the language of cinema to enhance or create a joke. For that – among many other reasons – is why he’ll be missed.

For the Record: Real Genius

The Film: Real Genius (1985)
The Principals: Val Kilmer, William Atherton, Gabe Jarret, Robert Prescott, Michelle Meyrink, Jon Gries, Martha Coolidge (director)
The Premise: A genius-level fifteen-year-old named Mitch (Jarret) gets recruited to a prestigious college to work on a laser for Doctor Jerry Hathaway (Atherton), and work with somewhat more famous genius Chris Knight (Kilmer). It turns out the world of a college for nerds is no different than high school (or life).
Is It Good?: Yes, but let me start by saying I don’t know if any of you follow me on twitter (@houx), but The Social Network came out Tuesday, and like many I watched the film that night (actually my review should be up on Collider shortly), and I thought to myself and then tweeted “The Social Network would make a great double feature with Real Genius.” I got some retweets for that, and I do think it’s interesting to compare the two as the big problem Mark Zuckerberg runs into is he doesn’t know how to relax. But then I realized something: Scott Tobias from The A.V. Club (which I esteem as the best pop culture site on the internet) was about to do it as an entry in the Cult Cannon series he does every other Thursday. I hate to follow in his footsteps, but that was the movie I watched last night, and his thoughts are here.. My approach will try and compliment his as we both agree it’s a darn good movie, so I will try to avoid double dipping, as it were.
Like a lot of people my age, I grew up on the movie, watched it repeatedly, and my fandom has never subsided (there are recent pictures of me with Eddie Deezen wearing a I Heart Toxic Waste shirt). At the time – between this and Top Secret! – Val Kilmer was a hero, and I couldn’t wait to see how his career developed (answer: sadly). Tobias brings up the slobs versus snobs aesthetic which gripped films of this sort, but one of the things I love most about the film is that the bad guys are also smart people too. I think this reflects a reality of any sub-culture in that once you hit a certain critical mass there’s always going to be factions. Chris Knight has his friends, and so does Robert Prescott’s Kent. (News to me: Prescott was in Burn After Reading, and Jarret was in Frost/Nixon) Ultimately, in this highly rarified air, Kent knows he’s been outdone by many around him (arguably he was used to being the smartest guy around), and now that he’s surrounded by people like Knight, his response is petty insults, and being a sycophant to Hathaway. But Martha Coolidge makes him – in his way – sympathetic. He’s a boob, but one whose domain is so small and petty that he’s ultimately more pathetic than evil, and when he sabotages the laser it’s born of pure resentment.
One of the things I love about the film is that – though it sets up the dangerous nature of the laser – the heart of the movie is about Chris helping Mitch and vice versa. Mitch has always applied himself, and the film takes for granted that these people are smart – so much so that the writing seems sharper than anything is most adult films these days. We want Knight to succeed with the laser, even with the looming military threat, but that is so backgrounded that when they make it work and the machine is whisked away, such begins the third act in one of those great “transitions of interest.” For the first two-thirds it’s about getting to understand Knight and his swagger, and see why it’s good, while also preparing Mitch to deal with a world that isn’t just his work, while the film concludes with them working together to stop their work from being misappropriated.
And to this first part I think the film is a great lesson in the same mold as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but I think this is better because we believe these people are geniuses, and we understand that some people are so driven that sometimes the socialization process gets away from them (cue The Social Network). Jarret is great casting in that he comes across as a miniature adult, but not in a freakish Tin Drum sort of way, but he’s at the exact right age where his body and face seems in transition to adulthood. He’s already partly there, but mostly not. But I love how the film moves into the final section of the movie. It sets up that the goals have changed, and the characters are reacting to a new and much higher level of come-uppances.
As Tobias notes, because of the influence of Animal House the structure for most of these films are based on getting even or back at people, and that comes more into focus for the end. And I think that’s why the film is so loveable – for the most part the big prankish stuff the guys pull is not against other people, but just being clever. Set pieces like the pool party or the ice skating in the hallway suggest that Knight and company are just trying to have fun, and as long as they’re doing the work, it makes sense. This also extends to the oddity of having a character that lives in the closet. Lazlo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries) is used to represent what could happen – the guy who worked so hard he couldn’t handle other people, and Gries plays him like everything’s a little off-tempo. It comes across as someone not used to speaking.
And Val Kilmer. Oh Val Kilmer. This is – for me – the defining performance. It’s a special magic to play this sort of role: Kind of a jerk, but likeable. He’s the sort of guy who would be unbearable if he wasn’t your friend. The character as written is one of those guys who have an oversized personality, and Kilmer finds all the right notes to give him humanity, and showcase that there’s so much going on in his head that he can’t help but crack wise all the time. But – like all great slightly assholish comic leads – he happens to be funny, and most of what he says in the film delivers.
He’s got a great foil in William Atherton, and as great as his Walter Peck was, Atherton’s best is Real Genius. Atherton could be a solid supporting actor, but like fellow Die Hard Alum Paul Gleason, it was always a pleasure to see him spew contempt. Here he does nothing but offer insult after insult. Hathaway is a public TV star, and one of the great unspoken elements of the film is that the laser he’s working on has been farmed out to his students. Like Kent, there is a level of resentment and lack of expertise to his character. When Lazlo tells Chris that he’s memorized all of Hathaway’s test questions it serves to suggest both Hollyfeld’s genius and Hathaway’s laziness.
Is It Worth a Look: I would say – slightly guardedly – yes. I have no idea how much I romanticize this film as one of my childhood favorites, and watching it again it serves slightly as comfort food. But it’s got good jokes, a great structure, winning performances, and the deft touch of Martha Coolidge. Coolidge seems underrated in the scheme of things, because between this and Valley Girl I prefer her films about teenage lust and life to most of the other 80’s films about teens.
Random Anecdotes: Dean Devlin, later of Independence Day and Godzilla fame, has a small role in the film. When Tim League came to LA with Four Lions, I rode around on a Karaoke bus with Jon Gries. We both ended up singing the chorus of Cheap Trick’s Surrender at each other very loudly. How’s that for random?


So who are you and why are you doing this?
Well, my name is Andre Dellamorte, and I’m doing this cause Nick and Devin asked me to.

So what makes you think you’re some kind of expert on guessin’ how movies are going to open?

Honestly, I don’t think I am. Predicting a film’s box office is much like predicting the weather in Chicago, though there are always tells. To wit, Spider-Man 3 will open big, and Lucky You will open small. I AM A GENUIS! The question is how close to being right you can get. For the most part, I will be wrong more often than not. And I say this (and have said it repeatedly) with no ego, because nobody is ever that right. So much of successes and failures are due to all sorts of mitigating factors that could be categorized under the butterfly effect. Hopefully, I will be consistently in the ballpark, or my errors will make sense within the scheme of things. That said, I spent five years in the film business working on the exhibition side of things, so monitoring the numbers is something I have done in a professional capacity. When I say exhibition, I don’t mean I worked at a movie theater; I worked within the organization of a theater chain and my livelihood was based on being more right than not. Then again, knowing that certain films will make money and certain films won’t is also not that hard. The real analysis comes on Sunday once the numbers are in.

How, then, do you arrive at your guestimates?

Through a couple of things, but most importantly by tracking. Those are the numbers the studios gather to get a sense of how things are going to play out. These numbers are also always wrong, and tend to miss out on the children’s market because those numbers cannot be tracked as efficiently. Such may explain why predictions on kids films are usually off the most. Last weekend Disturbia blew out its tracking, but that has to do with its target demographic.

How do you feel about the numbers?

I hate them. They are one of the worst things about the business.

Then why write about them?

I’ve always felt that box office results, Oscars, and top ten lists are the bane of filmgoers’ and critics’ existences, but all serve very important functions. With the latter, they are more important politically than they are as a measure of any relative worth. Judging 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as the better film over Shaun of the Dead comes down to splitting hairs and personal preference – at some point, there are great movies and then there’s everything else. Making a list is usually an act meant to alert readers to the best movies to see and the ones to avoid (or, at least, it shouldn’t be used to confirm tastes, as the AFI does). Also, many great films emerge after the fact, and some films grow in time as others diminish. United 93 is a film of its moment, but who’s to say how it will be viewed in twenty years? That doesn’t make it a lesser film. And with the Oscars, if winning one helps get Charlie Kaufman financing on his next project, the world is a better place. And if Rachel Weisz’s win for The Constant Gardener makes more people see it, then I hope they like it. It’s all about the small victories. The same could be said for box office results, because few great films make that much money. There are numerous reasons for this, but the main one is that often the most profound works of art aren’t all that commercial. But whereas Eternal Sunshine and Shaun were outperformed by Shrek 2, The Day After Tomorrow, Catwoman, National Treasure and Shark Tale (not to mention Ladder 49, White Chicks and The Stepford Wives), it’s fair to say their legacy will stretch further.

And your point is?

To understand what’s going on in the business, you have to watch the numbers – even if they’re depressing. The old coot William Goldman said it before, but the truth is that good business for one film means others like it will come after and box office sets the trends. And sometimes bad sex comedies generate good sex comedies, bad horror movies beget good ones, and, every once in a while, a pretty good movie makes money and a pretty bad one doesn’t. But to understand the why’s, you have to watch week in and week out to understand why what works works and why what doesn’t doesn’t. A release date can make a winner or a loser out of some titles, simply because of what else is out there. But usually audiences want something that will simply entertain them – they want to get out of the house, and often they are drawn to something that won’t challenge them and that delivers exactly what was promised by the trailer, be it Martin Lawrence in a fat suit, or Spider-Man slinging his web.

So what does it mean when a film does a lot of business? What does it say about Joe Six Pack?

I think there’s a common misconception, and often a disconnect from the critical community and the "regular Joe" who goes to see a movie, and it’s this: buying a ticket for a normal person is not intentionally voting with their dollars. They may not consider what it means to support Wild Hogs or Norbit, and they certainly don’t think of it in those terms. For the most part an average movie viewer just wants to see a movie, and they may make apologies for what they’ve seen because they’ve spent money on it. (Side note: I remember walking out of a screening of Men in Black where the people in front of me were saying how much they liked the film in a way that suggested they were talking themselves into loving it. I don’t think this is uncommon). When a film does a bunch of business these days, it tends to mean that the advertising was successful. Word of mouth effects DVD rentals, sales and art house pictures (where word of mouth and critical support are key), but otherwise the story of a film’s success is written by the first weekend’s numbers (since 1999, only The Sixth Sense and My Big Fat Greek Wedding have been true word of mouth phenoms), and that’s why those numbers are so important. And yes, some people do enjoy "bad" movies, but cinema has always been a vehicle (especially in America) for escapism. So it’s no surprise that audience flock to films that appear weightless and predictable. And I don’t know if the world would be a better place if Robert Bresson’s au hasard Balthazar challenged Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood For Love for the top spot of worldwide box office.

The bad part about the films of Adam Shankman, Shawn Levy, and Brian Robbins, etc. doing well is that these filmmakers have very little craft in their work, and it helps denigrate the language of cinema, which most audiences understand without necessarily being able to articulate it. The bottom line is that critics have to watch countless movies a year, and as such, their tastes are honed in a way that someone who goes to the movies even once a week can’t imagine. The more movies you see, the more you write about them, the more you analyze your own taste, the more you understand the craft, then the better your understanding of what makes a film good or bad, and it makes you less tolerance for the mediocre – which is often what an audience will settle for. The effort it takes to truly study cinema is something wholly removed from simply watching movies, as loving and understanding film requires dedication, while going to movies requires having about two hours of free time, and most people simply don’t love movies (though they may love going to the movies). And I understand that some people want to go to McDonalds, spend five bucks and get a meal to which the process from ordering to consumption can take less than ten minutes. But I have to agree with Devin when he wondered what can be more important to consider in these lives that make McDonalds and Wild Hogs so successful. Studios are more than happy to exploit that divide between the critics and regular folks whenever possible, except when they need critics to help sell their wares. And with anti-intellectualism a point of pride for many in America (though this is a worldwide concern, popcorn films make money everywhere) a lot of audiences become defensive of their movie night selections. Ultimately, for me to continue talking about this would cause me to speculate less kindly about the masses, and nothing I could add to the discussion would be anything more than biases, and frankly I would like to remain an optimist. There is a chance that a lot of people just don’t care, and maybe they shouldn’t. I do, and that poisons my viewpoint.

But, that noted, when a movie does a lot of business (say over a hundred million) it only ever means that a lot of people bought tickets. But it doesn’t mean they liked it. This is a critical point that is rarely addressed in a film’s success or failure. Repeat business is only a mere fraction of what it once was, and using the numbers as a touchstone for what people like is device of the past. It must be let go. In six months, any film is going to be on DVD, and so many will see a film once and pick it up for $15.99 at Walmart (how many times it’s watched after that is anyone’s guess). Sure, for a film to do $300 million or so there will be people who go back again and again, but the majority of pictures that do that sort of business now are franchise films, where the audience is geared by years of Lucas and Spielberg training to see the film repeatedly (and I’m willing to stake the Pixar name as a franchise as well). The only notable exception is The Passion of the Christ, though it too could be called a franchise film (though doing so might make New Line weep). Let me end this argument (with myself, such as it is): Night at the Museum made 250 million, and made no dent on pop culture.

So, how do you gauge a film’s success then?

Easy, you do it by looking at how much it cost to make. Now it used to be that a film would have to make twice as much as it cost to be profitable. That’s due to all sorts of things, including making the prints, advertising, the theaters getting a cut of the profits, and production deals, etc. Nowadays, with ancillary markets and DVD sales, the line is blurred, and then when you throw in product placements, shooting in Germany, etc. how much was spent is anyone’s guess. Michael Bay talked about the budget for Bad Boys: Part One being closer to eight million (versus the posted-on-Box-Office-Mojo $19) because of all the pay-or-play deals involved with the title, where how much a film like Superman Returns or War of the Worlds costs is something the studios will hide as much as they can. Studio accounting is a racket, and you don’t have to dig up the corpse of Art Buchwald to know that it takes really good lawyers to get the real numbers. So even the numbers used to judge a film’s success are slightly wonky. Wonky, I say, wonky.

Films tend to be weighed against what the industry expected it to do, regardless of whether that goal is realistic or profitable. That’s why numbers seem to be so confusing, but since the system dictates what was successful and what wasn’t, it’s the only line that matters. Yes, Peter Jackson’s King Kong made $218 million stateside. But with a listed production budget of $207 (that may or may not include prints and advertising, and likely doesn’t), and Jackson getting 20% of the gross, you don’t have to be a mathamagician to see why that’s considered a bad investment. And then, of course, the argument goes to foreign box office, and to those previously mentioned DVD sales and ancillary markets. And yes Kong didn’t lose money. Hulk didn’t lose money, and The Matrix sequels were also profitable. But this business is also about openings, wagging phalluses, or more to the point, bragging rights. Doing break-even business with a highly touted film is not why you invest $207 million dollars.

And that’s not to mention Superman Returns, which deserves its own article (if not a book), but to tell it briefly, whether you like it or not, for that film to do the majority of business within the first seven days and have Warner Brothers essentially limp the film to a $200 million dollar total means that it was not successful, especially when the projected budget on the film is quoted at $270 million – and that may be lowballed. But the story isn’t over; Warner Brothers feels that they must have put a good spin on this, and have suggested a sequel is in the works. It’s the Hollywood equivalent of "heckuva job, Brownie." Why this is important to understand is that even three years ago a film hitting $200 million meant something totally different than it does now. Though with the internet such as it is, the bald face they put on may not have fooled many; still, it’s their job to try and make something that obviously missed look appealing. With the industry as it is now, the franchise business is the strongest kind going, and with the industry afraid of failure, they’re going to play to what has worked in the past, hoping that if you didn’t love it the first time, they might just fix it the second (ala Hulk 2)

So it’s all bullshit?

Yes, because a production budget can often include a studio paying itself for rental of space, or props, or all sorts of addendums; ergo, the studios are going to do their damndest to keep this from public scrutiny. It used to be that the studios owned the theaters, and could play a film into profitability; with multiple DVD releases, and all sort of other schemes, it is rare that a film does lose money. But, again, what’s more important is how that changes the playing field. There was a time, not but forty years ago, where the big money was spent on musicals. It busted the genre to the point that a film as commercial as Dreamgirls becomes that much harder a sell (not to mention Rent, The Producers or The Phantom of the Opera). We’ve seen westerns go the same route, and both of those genres were the main ones less than half a century ago. Things change. There’s peaks and valleys.

And so the problem when bad crap sells well is that it opens the market to more crap.

This is nothing new. If you can find a copy of Pauline Kael’s Taking it All In, she wrote an essay called "The Numbers, or Why the Movies are So Bad," and she nails everything that is currently wrong with the studio systems as they are now. They are conglomerates where art is often an accidental byproduct. But, and there’s always a but, the next Shankman may end up being a Tony Scott. The machine always needs fresh meat, and if those smugglers (God bless them) achieve some success, they may get the opportunity to make their great products. Home teamer Guillermo Del Toro has been working the classic "one for me, one for them" philosophy with his films to great creative rewards, but each smaller project is a struggle – which is hard on them, but great for us. And, as crap triumphs, we’ve seen in the last four years some of the best films of my lifetime.

Ultimately, you have to approach it all with a Zen-like appreciation to not go crazy with what works and what doesn’t, and most people want to insert their preferences for why things work or don’t. You don’t have to read some other prognosticators takes to see how bias slips in. And yet the Lord of the Rings films made as much money as whatever altogether too successful summer entertainment that deserves to be bitched and moaned about. Sometimes the public likes good things.
And so you have people guessing what something is going to gross, which reflects on the numbers presented which are fictional. And that’s entertainment. That’s entertainment.

days of speed and slow time Mondays
pissing down with rain on a boring Wednesday
watching the news and not eating your tea
a freezing cold flat with damp on the walls

That’s Entertainment. That’s Entertainment.

And I’ll be here twice a week to talk about this.