Thursday, August 20, 2009

Bring film criticism back to the nerds, yeah!

I tend to be slow when it comes to news of great personal importance. If it doesn't air on CNN or show up on the Twitter pages I follow, I have no idea that it happened.

When I read this, I wanted to make a post about this, even if blogs all over the web have already had their say. Being a lifelong fan of At the Movies since the Ebert & Roeper days (and then watching pioneers, Siskel and Ebert battle it out on the web archives), this piece of news interested me greatly.

I made my monthly Internet trip to Stop Ben Lyons! yesterday and nearly died of extreme happiness. Disgraced film critic, Ben Lyons was recently fired from At the Movies, along with his co-host, Ben Mankiewicz.

Lyons is the son of film critic, Jeffrey Lyons. Before his stint on At the Movies, Lyons made frequent guest appearances on his father's film criticism show, Reel Talk, which was canceled earlier this year. Obvious nepotism aside, he eventually became the supposed "movie expert" of E! Entertainment and wrote a column for E! Online called "The Lyons Den." In recent years, he is infamously known as the joke who referred to I Am Legend "the greatest movie ever made."

Last year, ABC hired Lyons and Mankiewicz in hopes of taking the TV icon of film criticism, At the Movies in a new direction, or most importantly, to attract younger viewers. Mankiewicz, grandson of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane) and grandnephew of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Cleopatra, All About Eve), was previously known from his introductions of classic films and cartoon shorts on Turner Classic Movies and as co-host the talk radio show, The Young Turks.

Ratings for At the Movies dropped by 23% during the 2008-2009 season. Many placed the blame on the new set (instead of the traditional balcony, they had a very un-cinematic high-def TV screen), the lousy music, and the critics' round-up (which I admittedly liked, and was disappointed to see it fizzle out), but mostly, the show's two critics had to carry most of the malicious burden--especially Lyons. Sites and articles criticizing Lyons populated the Internet, such as Stop Ben Lyons!, Criticwatch's Ben Lyons Quote of the Week, and Roger [Ebert's] Little Rule Book.

On August 5th, it was announced that ABC made the wise decision (that they didn't make last year) to replace Lyons and Mankiewicz with A.O. Scott of The New York Times and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, both of whom filled in, rather fantastically, as Richard Roeper's co-host during Ebert's absence from the show.

Who said free speech is dead? I'm sure the constant attacks had something to do with the inevitable axing of Lyons.

I'm not someone who likes to see people fail. I was actually hoping that Lyons would become a better film critic as time passed, but it never happened. He constantly had that ridiculous smirk on his face and felt a neccessity to praise the most obscure actors in a movie. It seemed like he never recovered from his controversial decision to place the Twilight trailer on his "3 To See" list earlier in the season. I initially thought it would be fun to watch Lyons week after week making strangely idiotic comments, but I could only suffer so much.

The things that Lyons have been criticized for are things that I might be guilty of doing at one point or another, so I do feel an iota of empathy for him. But then again, I don't get paid for making a fool out of myself on national TV while being considered by some as a legitimate film critic.

The new season is set to air on September 5th. And that is also when I will start watching At the Movies again. Scott and Phillips are both insightful, clever, and witty film critics. These two have the potential to create brilliant banter and I wish them all the best as the new hosts of At the Movies. This partnership has the potential to rival the good ol' days of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Just maybe...

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Low Presidential Approval Ratings on Film

W. | dir. Oliver Stone | rel. 2008 | 4/5
Nixon | dir. Oliver Stone | rel. 1995 | 5/5

I've always found tragic figures to be the most fascinating people of all. Winners have always bore me and always will. It's probably because I'm cynical product of an adolescence shadowed by unjust wars and a corrupt government where "winners" and "heroes" seem more relevant in fairy tales, not in Washington D.C.

Failures, at one point or another, wanted to be great, even heroic; they have been easily captivated by the heroic storybook image of the knight in the shining armor or the prince charming on his glorious white horse. Those images are often sold--a product, shamelessly marketed--that represents an almost unreachable dream that America has once promised. But these tragedies are truly provoked enormous ambitions, which usually provokes the final downfall.

Throughout the years, my disappointments and failures have easily eclipsed what many would consider moderate achievements. In a world of flaws, we have been taught that it is okay to be worth less than we really are; being the loser once in a while is only human. Failure builds characters; losers are the more complex characters in literature, anyway.

In director Oliver Stone's presidential biopics, W. and Nixon, Stone delves into the lives of two disgraced American presidents who couldn't be any more different from each other. Richard Nixon would have hated George W. Bush; Bush completely epitomized the silver spoon mentality that Nixon detested.

Being someone who lived through the fear, insecurity, and economic uncertainty of the Bush presidency, I was able to understand W. more than I did Nixon. Although Stone could have given the Bush presidency a more proper biopic treatment, W. is a fair attempt at portraying an unpopular president. It's a breezy, entertaining, and sympathetic look at a clueless, ex-frat bro POTUS, who really belonged on a living room couch, sipping beer and watching ESPN, not in the White House. Stone emphasized Bush's desire to impress his father as a motivation for his political ambitions, despite Bush's disinterest in the career, which does make Bush a more sympathetic, even tragic, figure in the film's context.

But no matter how great a performance Josh Brolin gives as a sympathetic Bush (the voice, the mannerisms--all spot-on), this does not excuse what Americans had to go through in the eight years of the Bush presidency. Unlike so many, I've never been under the impression that Bush was "stupid" or "clueless" about what was happening to his country. Yes, Bush may have been slightly manipulated by those around him--this film hints that Bush was just another pawn in VP Dick Cheney's (Richard Dreyfuss, delivering a terrific impersonatnion) empirical ambitions--but that never stopped him from doing what was beneficial to him and those who were close to him. Bush is not a brilliant politician by any means, but he barely blinked as his country crumbled.

On the surface, especially in interviews, Bush has given me an impression of a potentially fun uncle, a family man, a guy who enjoys a cold beer, football, and backyard barbeques. Brolin's performance and Stone's script almost embraces that idea; too often, we're convinced that Bush is just a regular Joe, not one of the worst presidents Americans have ever elected into office (and even that is questionable). But these are precisely the reasons that make Bush a fascinating subject for a biopic--he seems too much like the good guy to ever be the bad guy. Maybe he genuinely thought God wanted him to be president--who knows? I can't fall for every single bit of sympathy Stone wants his audience to feel, but I can understand where everything is coming from.

It's too early in the post-Bush Administration phase to fully care for W., but this film has the potential to have more worth over time. We'll just have to wait and see.

Since Stone's Nixon was released more than twenty years after disgraced president Richard Nixon resigned, the film was able to allow more time for history to reflect itself than W. allowed (W. was released when Bush was still in office). While watching Nixon, I was reminded what Roger Ebert wrote in his Frost/Nixon review: "Nixon was thought to have been destroyed by Watergate and interred by the Frost interviews. But wouldn't you trade him in a second for Bush?" My sentiments, exactly.

It seems like Nixon will never be forgiven for Watergate. At the time, he was the only president who has ever been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Presidents before him have performed even more outrageous tactics, but they had more charm, charisma, and magnetism than Nixon ever possessed. Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Nixon insists that the president was a decent man who was hated by his people. And once again, Stone plays the sympathy card.

I was born long after Nixon's presidency ended. This lessens my ability to have strong opinions on Nixon. I don't really know anything about Nixon, other than what I've learned from history class and what I've seen in short news footage. There are people who think Nixon did an excellent job with foreign policy (with help from Henry Kissinger, here played magnificently by Paul Sorvino) and there are people who could never forgive him for the cover-ups that led to the inevitable Watergate scandal.

But since I did not live through Nixon's presidency, I was allowed to view Nixon the way Stone wants his audience to see his subject: I saw Nixon as a tragic Shakespearean figure that nearly equals the sympathy I had for the fictional Michael Corleone. He only wanted his family to be proud of him and his wife (Joan Allen) to support him. It made me wonder: Would a viewer who has never lived through the Bush presidency feel the same way about W. and Bush himself?

I tend to have the same sympathies for fallen greatness as Stone does for Bush and Nixon. I feel a great amount of compassion for those who have been disgraced by the public and have been labeled legitimate failures by the media. It is with this attitude that I find Bush, Nixon, Pierce, and other presidential failures far more intriguing than Kennedy, Washington, Clinton or Jefferson ever will be--maybe with the exception of Lincoln because that's a "winner" with multitudes of complexities and contradictions.

Second chances aren't easily attained. Most publicly humiliated failures evaporate forever. What also evaporates is their shot at greatness. Instead, things unfold differently. Tragedies often happen to people who have the potential to be great.

W. is a flawed film. It has choppy editing. It falls into the annoyingly shaky camera pitfall. The film feels a little incomplete at times, like it's missing several scenes. Sometimes the film wants to be a satire, sometimes it want to be a serious biopic. There are moments where I feel like I was watching a SNL skit with a higher budget. But I enjoyed the film immensely; I was finally watching a film that highlighted a period of history that I lived through.

In comparison, Nixon is the far more ambitious film and the better-made film, by miles. Stone returns to black-and-white flashbacks technique that he used in the Oswald flashbacks in JFK. Hopkins doesn't look like the Nixon I remember from the photographs, but he brings a certain warmth to the man, which many seem to find inaccurate to the former president's character--I found it all too appropriate. If I had to sit through a three-hour film about any character, I have to feel a connection to the character. So if that means Hopkins had to soften Nixon a bit, I'm all for it. Hopkins' delivery of Nixon's farewell speech may be the most touching moment I've ever seen in any film and I do not think if that moment would be as effective if Hopkins portrayed Nixon as a calculating, heartless crook throughout.

Because Stone and I seem to be kindred spirits on the subject of tragic public figures, I gladly applaud the director's ambitious visions to capture what may have occurred behind closed doors and to find the missing pieces of the puzzles to these somewhat misunderstood men.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Headline News

It's past midnight and I can't sleep. So, random question: What is your favorite political film(s) and why?

This would make a splendid blog-a-thon. Considering how amazing this idea is, I wouldn't be surprised if someone has already given it a whirl.

I ponder this question because I just recently watched Oliver Stone's latest biopic, W. and since I'm a casual Stone fan, I liked it quite a lot. I was expecting an over-the-top SNL-esque dramedy, but I was surprised by its serious yet sympathetic approach to a disgraced president.

I'm watching Stone's Nixon this weekend. I still don't think Anthony Hopkins looks anything like Richard Nixon, but seeing how everyone loves the performance and considering how it's Anthony Hopkins and all, my expectations are still fairly high.

Expect reviews for W. and/or Nixon. Possibly. Or I might be too busy mourning summer's inevitable end.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Divorces happen, get over it

Fireproof | dir. Alex Kentrick | rel. 2008 | 2.5/5

I try not to reveal details about my more personal life on this blog, but since the film that I'm about to discuss does touch upon a certain detail about my faith, the subject seems appropriate.

I'm a self-described on-again, off-again Christian. For the past few years, I've been a little more like Gandhi when it comes to Christianity; Gandhi once said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

I've been going back to church in the past few months in hopes of well, improving my life one way or another, and honestly, I've never felt so isolated, lonely, and frustrated in my entire life. The people there are certainly nice, but they all go to the same schools, have the same interests, and I can't seem to connect to them on a more friendly, personal level. I don't know if it's because I'm such a hard shell to crack or I just hate hiking, camping, and attending dinner parties with people I don't feel completely comfortable with.

I think what I'm trying to say is that I've associated with Christians for my entire life. The ones who aren't crazy are generally nice people who just want everyone to be friends and love each other. The ones that are crazy think Bush is a great president just because Bush claims that he loves God. My own mom is a devoted, socially conservative Christian and I love her, despite our differences.

But ultra-conservative Christians can't seem to keep up with the modern world. Things change, and sometimes I wish The Bible is as open to interpretation as the United States Constitution. Many Christians don't think so, although what they believe is what they believe. They have the right to exercise their freedoms and no one has to force them to change their minds.

Although we can all appeal to them and beg them to reconsider--and we'll have to do that again and again. They're a tough crowd...

I'm not trying to tackle any of the star controversial issue (gay marriage, abortion) but something much simpler: divorce. Yes, divorce. I don't understand why divorce is so wrong in the grand scheme of things. There is actually a small snippet in the Book of Matthews that discusses how horrible divorce is and I simply don't understand. My parents were divorced when I was very young and I've always thought it was rather fitting. I guess it would've been nice if I were raised in a nice, happy family, but shit happens--not just in my life, but in stormy marriages that were just not meant to last.

This brings me to the church-funded movie, Fireproof, a piece of Christian propaganda opposing divorce. It's about a married couple played by Kirk Cameron (yes, the kid from Growing Pains) and Erin Bethea who just fight all the time about the most stupidest of things; the wife complains that the husband's always looking at dirty images on the Internet and saving up for a boat they don't need when they could be using the money for repainting the back door and the husband complains that the wife nags too much about everything.

So it obviously seems that this couple are headed for a divorce. The wife is the PR of a local hospital and she is even being wooed by a nice doctor--so why bother staying in an awful marriage to a constantly pissed off firefighter? But the husband's father comes to the save the day by putting the husband on a "love dare"--a project that will save the marriage. The project puts the husband on a 40-day (lol why couldn't they name Kirk Cameron's character Noah?) journey of tips on how to save the marriage. Tips include not saying negative things, doing nice things, planning a nice dinner, etc. for each of the forty days. After a magical talk with his father, the husband immediately converts to Christianity. It's nice how miracles work.

Having the husband as a dedicated firefighter allows the writers of this film to include some horrible analogies of the responsibilities of a firefighter and the responsibilities of a spouse. And they are all relentlessly cheesy and lame. Halfway through this movie, My Mom The Christian actually turned to me and said, "This movie is a lot like a Hallmark movie," a genre that we've often made fun of since our viewing of Loving Leah.

But what bothers me about my mom and the bulk of Christians (even more than the fact that they think God wanted Bush to be president) is that they think a movie is immediately 200% more awesome if God is somehow positively involved in the plot as the central moral compass. There are some great movies where God plays a positive role, such as The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings, but why must they flock the theaters to witness something as meritless and lame as Fireproof?

I mean, it's not like Fireproof was directed by God, anyway.

Fireproof offers nothing refreshing about "saving" a marriage. It's an amateur, yet admirable, piece of filmmaking. The "admirable" part comes from the fact that it was made with a relatively low budget--but that's about it. The script is a Hallmark rip-off and the acting is stiff and laughable. The comedic moments are well, amusing, to say the least, but there is one scene that I can't get out of my mind...

There is this scene where the husband (I can't even bother to IMDb their names, so I'll just call him Kirk Cameron) is surfing the net and checking out boats (his fave hobby) and this random ad with this girl pops up on screen with the words "Wanna See?" underneath. Since he's a fan of pornography, he has this amazing internal struggle. He walks away from the computer, opens his "love dare" book and it says that he has to resist temptations such as pornography. So Kirk Cameron has no idea what to do.


As you can probably tell, I LOVE this scene. I couldn't stop laughing. It's probably THE funniest scene I've ever seen. I mean, he could've saved the computers to download Christian rock songs and sermons off the Internet but NO he chose to annihilate his entire computer!!!

Watch the entire moral dilemma unfold here:

I think I actually wrote everything preceding this video just because I wanted to build up to the climatic moment that IS THIS VIDEO. The entire scene is actually more hilarious (with the neighbors watching) but this video really builds up all the intensity that makes the scene awesomely...bad and amazing at the same time. Because it's unlikely I'll find anything funnier than this.

Anyway, I think I kind of love Fireproof the same way I kind of love the "Bet On It" scene in High School Musical 2. Fireproof reminds me of the videos I had to watch in my freshmen year health class. It's an uncomfortable film to sit through, has way too many random montages set to random Christian rock songs, and it doesn't enlighten its audience with anything new. The Kendricks Bros. (who also made two other Christian-centric movies) probably had their heart in the right place, but this film is so cliched-muddled, lame, unintentionally hilarious, and to top it off, a message that is so backwards, that no scene ever feels truly genuine.

Even as the end credits roll, I still believe that well, DIVORCES HAPPEN, GET OVER IT.

But this film is so funny...I just CAN'T GIVE IT A BAD RATING. So I'm just going to do some sort of a weird breakdown:


Okay, that brings my total down to a 6.5/10...pretty impressive (a 2.5 on the 5 star scale). Anyway, I kind of want to watch this movie for my next hypothetical slumber party. I would love to do a commentary throughout this movie because that's all I did last summer on AIM with my friend with the "Bet On It" Youtube video.

So anyway...why am I so lame again?