Thursday, January 28, 2010

Five Reasons Why The Departed is Overrated

(This entry is part of the Netflix Project series.)

Apparently, The Departed won a lot of awards. Cool. And enough people have made references to it, either direct or oblique, that I thought it merited consideration toward the top of the Project.

I didn't think it was that bad a movie. The problem is, I just didn't think it was that good a movie either. Given the critical acclaim that it received, this might be surprising; given my generally lukewarm attitude to a vast majority of movies out there, it's perfectly in character. Why am I unlikely to commit The Departed to any of my "top movies of all time" lists?

1) This movie is long. Generally, I think that movies are best suited to the hour-and-a-half to two-hour range. Longer than two hours is okay as long as you've got something really interesting going. Two and a half hours is in many ways a point of no return where my attention span tends to stray irreversibly. And three hours is only ever acceptable if you're adapting a fantasy novel to film. The Departed weighs in right at that 2.5 hour mark, and boy does it feel like all 150 minutes.

Here's something interesting. Leonardo DiCaprio, while able to produce films of wildly varying quality, seems uncompromising on their length. Consider:

--Titanic, 1997, 194 minutes, awful
--Catch Me If You Can, 2002, 141 minutes, actually quite enjoyable
--Gangs of New York, 2002, 166 minutes, pretty good
--The Aviator, 2004, 169 minutes, sort of okay
--The Departed, 2006, 151 minutes, meh

2) The characters are all the same. If you want to make a film where 10 of the 12 most important characters are white dudes from Boston with Irish ancestry, that's fine, as long as we can tell them apart. Jack Nicholson's not-so-merry band of thugs are especially interchangeable, and it took until half of them were dead for me to be able to distinguish them.

Also, the worst part of setting a 151-minute movie in Boston? You're necessarily doomed to hear the Boston accent (the single most irritating of the American accents) for two and a half hours.

3) The love story was completely unnecessary. Tell me that the movie would have been any different without "little miss Freud", and you'd be lying. She appears as a convenient excuse at the end to have Matt Damon's character (whose generic Irish-ish name I can't remember) come to terms with his double life, but you know what, any other character could have happened upon those tapes and the result would have been exactly the same.

4) The plot was overly MacGuffin-y. A briefcase full of super-powerful microchips that have some vague appeal to the Chinese because of their William Tell-like ability to pinpoint cruise missiles from halfway around the world? Come on. That amounts to an admission that you're using the entire plot as a mere excuse to play around with your characters. There's nothing wrong with that necessarily, but for a film to be truly great, both the plot and characters have to be excellent.

5) Soul-crushing determinism. Let's look at the material lessons of what happen to the characters in this film. You're a high-up in a crime syndicate, you die. Okay, I can get behind that. You're the crime syndicate's rat in the police, you die. Fine. You're the ho-bag psychologist who can't keep her pant suit on; you don't die, but your life is irrevocably messed up. Yep, you deserved that one.

But... you're the police secret agent in the crime syndicate, you die. You're the honest cop who just wants to do the right thing, you die. You're the upstanding police captain (and just about the only sympathetic character in the film), you die. Virtually nothing positive happens to anyone in this movie, whether "good guy" or "bad guy".

Currently listening: "Ignorance", Paramore (nope, the Paramore binge hasn't ended yet)

The Great Netflix Project

I'm a recent devotee of Netflix.

That's not because I'm a great lover of the cinema. It's not because I find myself drowning in disposable income, and I feel that I must buy something. It's not that I'm hopelessly bored and cannot devise anything else to do at all.

No, it's because I'm tired of people looking at me like I have lobster stalks growing out of my skull when I tell them I haven't seen some movie. Here's a conversation, circa 2009:

Roommate #1: Ooh, Terminator 2 is on. Let's watch it.
Roommate #2: Okay.
Roommate #1: This is so much better than the first Terminator, right?
Me: Uh, actually I haven't seen either one.
Roommate #1: (silence)

Oh man. The stalks must have sprouted eyeballs by now. Now, contrast that conversation to this one, circa 2010:

Friend #1: Who played Linda Hamilton in Terminator?
Friend #2: That doesn't sound right...
Me: No, Linda Hamilton was the actress. She played Sarah Connor.
Friend #1: Oh, yeah, you're right.

See? Netflix makes people like you! Seriously, though, there are a lot of movies in the annals of cinema that I just haven't seen, and I feel like I'd benefit from doing so. As I work through the list, I'll be posting my thoughts on each.

(Micro review of Terminator: the movie was undoubtedly groundbreaking for its time, and I buy that it influences sci-fi even now. That said, judged on its own merits, the movie has not aged well, and the Governator probably couldn't act his way out of a wet paper theater.)

If you have any suggestions for my cinematic education, please let me know.

Currently listening: "Misery Business", Paramore (damn it all...)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

2009 Music in Review

(or: "Really, musical artists, that's the best you can put together?")

2009 was not a banner year for music. Or, rather, it was not a banner year for listenable music. For the past few weeks, I've been lamenting various "best" lists: Pitchfork's is egregiously bad, and the Onion AV Club's is not much better. Decide for yourself, but a vast majority of the albums on that list seem more like disjointed slurred noise than actual music.

Therefore, here's my own "top albums of the year" list, picking through the very little from this past year that didn't suck so bad.

Best album that Pitchfork more or less got right: Two Suns, Bat for Lashes

It's not a wall-to-wall masterpiece. Two Suns has its weird operatic moments that are easily the worst bits of the album--as my friend and fellow music critic Andrew put it, "oh, no, Bat for Lashes, don't get all Nightwish on me." It has its share of songs, apparently a prerequisite for albums released in 2009, that sound more like atonal background noise than anything you'd listen to on purpose.

But I have a professed love of indie girl singers with pretty voices, and singer Natasha Khan's voice is both pretty and girly enough that it carries the album's better parts past its worse. Number seven album of the year? In a normal year, no, not even close. In 2009? Sounds about right.

Best album that most critics admit is pretty good: Middle Cyclone, Neko Case

It took me an embarrassingly long time to come around to this album. Pretty redhead indie girl singer/songwriter with a folkish voice that compares to Jenny Lewis's? Shouldn't I be all over that? Well, yes, I really should. Case's music is a delightful combination of "indie", pop, and folk that just barely survives its brush with country. In Cyclone, Case seems so determined to make her sound unique that she takes a carefree, at times reckless approach to song structure. Her method of "do what feels right" comes off as odd if you're expecting something conventional.

But like those cyclones, conformity to convention is never going to be Case's strong suit. It's not like we should expect it to be--this is coming from the woman who sings more love songs about animals than people and who's ready to pounce on some unfortunate passerby with a katana on her album cover. Instead of working yourself up into a structuralist frenzy, just take Case's voice for the treasure that it is.

Best album derived from American folk music: Among the Oak and Ash (self-titled)

Paste Magazine is better than Rolling Stone because Paste doesn't jam leftist politics down your throat at every opportunity (just occasionally). And Paste is better than just about any other music publication out there because it takes a truly unique approach to the music it likes. Pure-indie rags are a dime a dozen; the "why sing when you can autotune?" trash that's so popular now gets sufficiently covered everywhere else.

But Paste has no qualms about picking ludicrous genres and showcasing the best of them. Adult contemporary/adult alternative? Passe? Yes, usually, but Paste recognizes when that genre produces a worthwhile album. Americana, the sort that our great-grandfathers played with three-strong banjos? Boring? Not at all, says Paste--both important to our culture and an opportunity to develop something intensely artistic. Among the Oak and Ash, which I've already reviewed, is a fine example of all of that.

Best vocal performance of the year: Stages, Vedera

Stages is not going to win any prizes for originality, bound-pushing, or ground-breaking, and I realize that. But I absolutely love Vedera anyway. They're fantastically nice people, down-to-earth and caring towards their fans. Their music is relatable and pop-sensibly singable. And Kristen May, I'm convinced, gives the best vocal performances of anyone who's making music today. Seriously, I challenge you to prove me wrong.

Best Broadway musical disguised as an album: The Hazards of Love, the Decemberists

And here I was under the impression that the musical community as a whole liked the Decemberists... on the contrary, I think the only "top of the year" that Hazards showed up on was Paste's. Hazards is an album that I realize is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and that's mostly because it's only tangentially an album anyway. It's a story, and you have to have the patience to bear with plot, character development, and even literary devices to get the most out of it.

It toes the line of campy, and mostly I see that as a sign that the Decemberists don't take themselves too seriously. But, even more importantly, they know how to make a hell of an entertaining experience.

Best tongue-in-cheek funk: Single Entendre, Here Come the Mummies

Here's a concept: ten or so dudes in full mummy wrappings play some of the most energetic funk this side of 1978. Why the mummy costumes? Tough to say, but rumor has it that they're a stealth funk supergroup, some of whom are signed to other bands or labels, and don't want to reveal their identities because that might represent a breach of contract. Now consider that their music is largely humorous, rife with sexual innuendo (just look at that album cover), and tell me this isn't the best band ever.

Currently listening: "The Tain" (part I), the Decemberists

Monday, January 04, 2010

How to Make Any Movie Good, plus Avatar review

I always say that I'm not so much a movie person as a movie-neutral to slightly movie-averse person who ends up seeing a respectable number of movies anyway. (Actually, even that has fallen off a bit recently--besides Avatar, the movie I saw most recently in the theater was Inglourious Basterds back in August.) Avatar, I think, illustrates my relationship with the theater perfectly.

But for the suggestion and company of my good friend Jessica, I probably would not have gone to see Avatar. For instance, the dilemma "it's a slow day... either I can screw around on the internet for a few hours, or I can go see Avatar!" probably would not have presented me with an overly difficult choice, and the internet would have won handily. I'm glad I did see Avatar, though, if only because it helped me define better what I think a good movie is, and by extension, how to make any movie seem good.

(Well, okay. It probably wouldn't have helped Aliens Versus Predator: Requiem, and nothing in the world could have saved the second Transformers movie from being by far the worst movie of the year. We'll go with "almost any movie".)

Rule #1: Play to the movie's strengths. No movie is going to be able to fulfill every single cinematic desire that every single viewer might want. For example, if you're interested in clever, witty banter, a behemoth historical epic is probably not the best place to look. And a romantic comedy can hardly be blamed for not having enough explosions.

So going into Avatar expecting dramatic characterization, an original premise, and realistic dialog is sort of missing the point of the movie. Avatar is predictable, its characters are flat, it's a rehash of a story you've seen a dozen times, and the script is clunky, but it doesn't seem to care--and neither should you.

Instead, focus on the things that the movie is good at. Avatar is a movie that lives and dies by its setting more than the story that takes place in that setting. So focus first and foremost on the visuals and graphics, and second on the verisimilitude and the believability of the setting that it's created.

"Okay," you might be thinking, "that's fine and good, but what if I'm not at all impressed by any of that either?"

Rule #2: Lower your expectations. Frankly, this is the easier part of the plan. Take the parts of the movie that you're not focusing on, and expect literally nothing out of them. Take the parts of the movie that you are focusing on, and pay attention to them all, but don't expect to be blown away by any of them.

In retrospect, I think this is why I liked Inglourious Basterds more than Pulp Fiction. From Pulp Fiction, I was expecting a coherent, insightful cinematic experience. Instead, I got confusing, pointless, over-the-top violence. From Basterds, I expected only over-the-top violence... and instead, I got humorous, thoroughly entertaining over-the-top violence.

When you watch Avatar, expect the dialog to be abysmal, and when it's merely bad, you won't be disappointed. Expect the characters and story to be terrible, and if they elevate all the way to average, you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Final thoughts on Avatar? It's a movie with a strong sense of purpose. It knows exactly what it wants to be and what it wants to do. And mostly, it accomplishes those goals. Obviously, Avatar is a gorgeous movie. From conception, through design, and all the way to execution, the visuals are excellent.

A note on the graphics: Jess and I agreed that the least impressive graphical achievement was the now-notorious blue people. If you're going to go out of your way to make a distinctively non-Earth setting, why make the indigenous people so humanoid? Everything else was fantastic: the flora and fauna, the sky and atmosphere, the geological features, the inexplicably floating chunks of rock.

And what about its second purpose, trying to create a believable, immersive setting? Avatar does okay there too. Frankly, it's far from the best example of world-building that I've ever seen. Fans of epic fantasy will recognize the names Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin; their Wheel of Time and Song of Ice and Fire series are many times more complex and convincing than Avatar. There's even a litany of video games that deliver settings better than Avatar's: Dragon Age: Origins and the Elder Scrolls games (Morrowind, Oblivion) immediately come to mind. But here I'm comparing apples to oranges: surely it's easier to craft a setting in 900 pages or 8 gigabytes than 3 hours. Given the inherent limitations of the medium, Avatar does a respectable job.

(Yes, Avatar is three hours long, or very close, and yes, in classic James Cameron fashion, it feels like all three hours.)

I could sit here and complain more about the characters, plot and dialog. I could echo the hundreds of other reviewers who point out (correctly) that Avatar is more or less a rehash of Pocahontas and entirely a rehash of Dances with Wolves. But then I wouldn't be playing by my own rules. Instead, focus on what's good. Watch Avatar entirely focused on the setting, and you'll almost certainly enjoy it.

Currently listening: "(Do You Wanna Date My) Avatar", The Guild (which I had stuck in my head for at least half the movie)