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Movies

TV Censorship Sucks

You know when a movie or TV show is uncensored and makes sense, and then gets re-released for network TV and is censored and makes no sense?

My wife is a fan of the movie The Wedding Date, and she got really excited when it aired on TV. So we DVR’ed it (off TBS, I think) and watched it… or tried to watch it. Throughout the film, she kept exclaiming, “Wait! They cut out that whole bit” while I was exclaiming, “This movie makes no sense.” I think they cut about a half hour out of the movie to make way for commercials. Why? Why not just make the runtime longer to put more commercials in? Or just not show the butchered movie at all?

Just as bad as censorship-for-time-constraints is censorship-for-prudishness. Hey, I can be as much of a prude as the next person, but when prudishness takes the humor out of TV, that’s just wrong.

This prudish censorship makes Sex and the City unwatchable for SatC fans (I realize non-fans already think it unwatchable—whether it’s censored or not). In one scene, Miranda calls Skipper (while he’s having sex with another woman) to see if he wants to get together, and Skipper likes Miranda better, so he breaks up with the other woman. In the original dialogue, the woman says, “You’re breaking up with me while you’re still inside of me?” In the censored version, she says “You’re breaking up with me now?” Yeah. Hilarious.

Another great prudes-take-the-humor-out moment is in the censored version of Return to Me. Like Return to Me is just so risqué. At one point, Bonnie Hunt’s character is arguing with her husband (James Belushi’s character) and says, “Great. You taught him hell. That’s great.” He gets all defensive and suggests that it’s possible their child might have learned the word hell from the mother, who replies “I never said hell, you son of a bitch.” All the irony is lost in the TV version, of course, in which she says “I never said hell.”

Well, thank God for HBO and Showtime. They may cost a bit more than the regular channels, but they’ll at least keep the laughs in.

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Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Stark Sexism

I was quite looking forward to this new Iron Man film adaption. I’ve been a big Iron Man fan for decades (particularly fond of the alcoholism saga and armor wars of the 80s and 90s).

Well, last night, I saw an advanced screening of it at the Balboa Theater. I love this theater. With the special deal of advance-purchased tickets, my wife and I saw this film and had a “small” (what most movie theaters call “large”) popcorn with real butter, a jumbo hot dog, and a small (what most theaters would call “kids”) soda—all for US$23. The management gave out free posters to everyone and welcomed us at the beginning of the show, had two trivia questions with prizes, and apologized for the terrible Louis Vuitton commercial we had to sit through before the previews. It’s sad that independently-owned theaters like this are falling by the wayside in favor of megaplexes like the Metreon. The Balboa has personality and affordability. More importantly to me, it has a good mix of mainstream and artsy films. But I digress…

In terms of remaining faithful to the spirit the comic book and in terms of thrilling action and laugh-inducing jokes, the film is a success in spades. What is up with the sexism, though? I cannot imagine a film about a billionaire woman who is drunk all the time, sleeps around with and uses men like tissue, and is so incompetent that her personal assistant must do everything for her being doted on and admired by said personal assistant with the basic attitude of “Well, she may be a mess, but she’s my mess, and even though she’s kind of an asshole, I love her.” Who would watch that?

Of course, most people don’t really care if a male character is an asshole, as long as the film has laughter and well-animated violence. It just made me angry how the (terribly miscast) Gwyneth Paltrow assistant character is so pathetic. She’s basically Bond’s Moneypenny but without the wit and the sex appeal. Instead of Moneypenny, she’s a bit more like Sandra Bullock’s character from Two Weeks Notice. The only other prominent female character in the film is the sorority-looks-with-a-liberal-conscience reporter whom Stark has a one night stand with and then basically ignores.

My first reaction was to think, I thought we’d made some progress. I thought this was 2008. What is this? The 1940s? Then, I thought again and realized that roles for women in 1940s films were much better. You had the fast-talking Katherine Hepburn types and the film noir femme fatales. Most personal assistants and secretaries in films of those days had sass and could banter. Now we get the “You’re so bad and undeserving but I adore you. Tee hee!” women? I hope this backlash will abate soon, and third-wave (or are we on the fourth one?) feminism will come back in full swing.

Is it a sin to want an enjoyable action film with humor and just a little less sexism and misogyny?

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Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Ode to Jason Segel’s Penis

A few months ago, I marveled at the ability of Beowolf‘s animators to hide the title character’s penis, despite the fact he was naked and jumping and moving every which way.

Well, I just saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and I have to say I’m impressed. For a bawdy sex comedy featuring a male protagonist, it was a bit subversive in making the male nudity far more prominent than the female nudity. Sure, you briefly see a photo of Mila Kunis flashing her breasts (and you’re not even 100% sure it’s her breasts in that photo), but you see Jason Segel in the buff numerous times throughout the film and see his penis very clearly at least three times. I’m amazed that got past the MPAA (which typically has an inexplicable fear of the penis and no qualms about female full frontal nudity).

Even though Segel’s body isn’t fun to look at, in my mind, this is cinematic progress.

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Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

When will Asian-Americans get a Will Smith?

You may have missed it, but if you search for it, you will find it in abundance. It wasn’t played up a lot in mainstream media, but there was a little controversy about the hit movie 21.

Apparently, a lot of Asian-Americans were in an uproar about how the race of the characters had been changed from Asian-American to White. Some were even calling for boycotts. The argument went something like, “It’s hard enough for Asian-Americans actors to get good roles in Hollywood, but now that they would actually get the opportunity to play a lead role, the role suddenly has become ‘white-washed.'” Sadly, I don’t think it makes an economic difference whether or not Asian-Americans boycott a movie; we aren’t a significant enough demographic for Hollywood execs to consider. The film was a commercial success.

One person commenting on a blog or article (I forget which) thought people were overreacting and pointed out that the original novel I Am Legend featured a white character who was then ‘black-washed’ for the movie in the form of Will Smith. I think that’s just rubbing salt in the wounds even more, frankly. There is still a lot of racism against African-Americans in Hollywood, but there has also been a lot of progress, and the fact that Will Smith can carry off an “everyman” role like Robert Neville is evidence of that progress.

This is what it ultimately boils down to—Hollywood execs will cast whomever they feel will bring the biggest box office draw. If Asian-American actors brought in the dough (Harold & Kumar was profitable, which is why it gets a sequel, but it is not a Titanic-like blockbuster), they would be cast in lead roles more often.

Hollywood, through its amoral greed, is just providing a lens into the racism that America as a whole demonstrates through its ticket purchases. White Americans are just beginning to accept the notion of identifying with an African-American as “the everyman” (think Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks) in the form of Will Smith. Asian-Americans are still finding themselves identifying with White (and sometimes Black) protagonists, but White Americans never find themselves in the position of having to identify with only Asian-American protagonists.

Even though all of my examples so far have had to do with male actors, I think the trend applies equally as well to female actors. Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh have become household names, but how many movies or TV shows feature them as the leading lady. Lucy Liu has been able to be a main character side by side with Ally McBeal and the other two of Charlie’s Angels, but has she been the lead in anything by herself? Has Sandra Oh (without Ellen Pompeo or Diane Lane)? And, no, Double Happiness was not a box office hit.

It’s easy to put all the blame on Hollywood for being “racist,” but like corporate America in general, Hollywood studios are amoral, not immoral. If casting Asian-Americans in lead roles will make them profitable, they’ll do it. Hollywood is more a barometer of America’s racism. Most Americans still find it difficult to identify with an Asian-American protagonist—that’s the bottom line. I’m not sure how to change that, but clearly boycotting “white-washed” movies isn’t the way to do it.

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Life Movies

Celebrity Sighting at Bill’s Place

I was pretty tired after work yesterday, so when my wife suggested we go out to eat, I was less than thrilled with the idea until she agreed to go to Bill’s Place (they have the best cookies ‘n cream milkshakes). While we were there, I saw over her shoulder a customer getting up off the bar stool and then said, “Hey, that’s Robin Williams.” She turned around and said, “Oh, yeah. It is.”

It was a surreal experience. I’m not used to (not living in Los Angeles, after all) seeing random celebrities around. It was kind of nice knowing that Robin Williams spent his time at little dives like Bill’s, when he clearly could afford to eat at swankier places.

And there wasn’t a huge spectacle. No one ran up to him and said, “Oh, my God. You’re Robin Williams!” People pretty much went about their business. A few heads turned for a second, but he was left alone for the most part. He paid his bill, left, and put on his sunglasses as he walked down the sidewalk of Clement St.

I’d like to think if I were ever a celebrity that I’d have that luxury to just eat at a place, enjoy my meal, turn a few heads, and walk away.Good for Mr. Williams.

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Movies

Persepolis is Personal

I always read film reviews. Sometimes I read them beforehand to try to gauge whether I want to see the film or not. Other times, I go into the film blindly and then read the reviews afterwards to see if they would have helped me to decide on whether to see it or not. In the case of Persepolis, I was glad to have gone in to the viewing “blindly.”

The user (not professional) reviews seemed to be a battle of variations of “I’m Iranian, and this makes America think worse of Iran” and “I’m Iranian, and this seems to be a pretty accurate picture of what it was like.” As always, with something that purports to be autobiographical, it was attacked as twisting history or being inaccurate in this or that way.

As someone who knows very little about Iran apart from 1980s US propaganda that generally portrayed all non-Israeli Middle-Eastern countries as windy deserts full of dark-skinned, angry, violent terrorist types (yes, I’m that American); I found it to portray (accurately or not) Iran and Iranians rather positively. More importantly, I don’t think the narrative of the film (I haven’t read the graphic novels yet, so I can’t comment on any difference there) in any way tries to put in a master narrative that says “This is what really happened.” The story is clearly told in its entirety from the point of view of the protagonist. When recounting her experiences in both Europe and Iran, she is honest about the limits of her perception. Either way, it portrays (accurately or inaccurately) Iran as a beautiful country that has gone through a lot of strife, with most people just trying to get by while governmental powers, both within and without, screw them over.

If I had any criticism of the film, it wouldn’t be of the film itself but of the protagonist—much as we sympathize with her because she is the main character, she is still a brat, in the end. She comes from privilege. Her parents and grandmother are a godly model of love to her, way beyond what she deserves. When she ends up destitute in Vienna, it appears to be fully her own fault, so it’s a little difficult to feel sorry for her… same with just about every “tragic” situation in the movie that doesn’t involve someone dying.

The brat can be cute and funny sometimes, though.

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Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Ode to Beowolf’s Penis

Last night I saw Beowolf 3D—quite a technological feat. Most of the movie looked “real”; even the movement of the characters was very smooth. The nudity in the film was interesting, though. I think most people are familiar with the Hollywood nudity double standard, but in Beowolf it was pronounced to the point of being laugh-out-loud comical (to me, at least—I may have been the only one in the whole theater laughing).

There’s one scene where Beowolf spends a considerable amount of time jumping around naked while fighting Grendel. The way they planned the storyboards, there was always something covering his penis, though: his other leg, the table, someone else, Grendel’s arm, a sword, the smoke from an explosion. It seemed as if everyone item and being in the room was in a joint conspiracy to say, “Quick! Hide Beowolf’s penis!” And yet when Angelina Jolie’s character appears, they have no qualms about showing her every inch… multiple times even.

Really, what is so threatening about a glimpse of an animated penis? Why can’t the MPAA get past this? Well, at least the makers of Beowolf made a good spectacle out of the double standard. The film would be a great archaelogical find for a freer society centuries from now.

P.S. Robert Redford, this time the AMC theater did not show me any commercials beforehand, and yet they managed not to charge an extra $3 per person for such an “amenity.”

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Movies

Mr. Redford, you can keep your “amenities,” and I’ll keep my fee.

For Christmas, my boss was nice enough to give me a $25 gift certificate to the local Sundance Cinema in our area, so my wife and I decided to see Juno there. We’d been wanting to see Juno for a while, and we hadn’t been to that location since it had recently been converted from an AMC theater to a Sundance one. On the way to the movie, I asked her, “So what should we do with the extra money on the gift certificate?” She replied, “Maybe we can use it to get some popcorn or something.” We obviously were both thinking that movies (barring IMAX) do not cost more than $10.50, even for a Friday night showing. How wrong we were!

We walked up to the counter, ordered two adult tickets to Juno, picked our seats (Hong Kong-style) on the monitor, and the cashier said “That’ll be $27.” What?! I forked over my two dollars and asked what the extra $3 was. My wife looked at the screen and said “Yeah, what’s the ‘amenities fee’?” The cashier smiled and told us how their theater was an environmentally-friendly theater, and there are costs associated with that, and that they also do not show any commercials before the movies—only previews.

Like us, everyone else in the theater was audibly taken aback by this “amenities fee,” and these people probably did not get a gift certificate, so they were paying $13.50 a person to see this movie. People were really angry about it and grumbling to total strangers about how they actually like the commercials before movies and what were the amenities supposed to be? I have to confess, even though the theater got a remodel after changing from an AMC to a Sundance, I had trouble seeing what the amenities were. Maybe they could have called it a “remodeling fee.” And how were they environmentally friendly? They didn’t even have blow dryers in the bathrooms. And the picking seats in advance would be a wonderful thing to have for the opening night of a blockbuster like Harry Potter, but for an art house film to which people were showing up late and taking a long time to sit down (in the dark, it’s hard to find your seat), it was annoying.

Surely Robert Redford has made some money on his movies these past few decades and can cover the renovation costs for us? Or at least really provide some amenities? Honestly, it was a small screen in a small theater. The seats were not any cozier than I’ve experienced in other theaters. I didn’t get a massage before the movie or a free towel.

This is what the Sundance Cinemas website says:

Amenities and Fees Sundance Cinemas offers a movie theatre experience like none other. Our amenities include gorgeous furnishings from the Sundance Catalog, free wi-fi internet, six stadium seated auditoriums with plush rocking love seats, beautiful finishes and the best in art, independent, documentary and world cinema. We don’t show annoying television commercials, we offer a custom pre-show produced by the Sundance Channel, and we put real butter on our popcorn.

Okay, the furnishings were gorgeous, but they appeared to be attached to the bar, at which you probably have to pay even more money. No one mentioned anything about free wi-fi, and none of the patrons had laptops. The seats in the “auditorium” seemed the same to me as in other theaters. I actually don’t mind the “annoying” television commercials. And I couldn’t hear a damn bit of the mumbling in the “pre-show.” What a crock of horse dung.

Next time I want to go to the movies, I’m going back to the Balboa Theater. It’s a local business. The movies are $8.50. You can buy a movie card (5 movies on the card) for $30 (that’s $6 a ticket—yes, any time of the day). There are no commercials. The butter for the popcorn is real, and the popcorn is freshly popped. The theaters have more seats than in the Sundance, and any seat is a good seat. The people who work at the Balboa actually care about movies and make little nice decorations on the walls that are relevant to the movies playing. They’ll even sometimes open a movie with a trivia question related to the movie and then hand out little prizes to people who get the trivia questions right. That’s right, Mr. Redford, a neighborhood theater that’s better than your theaters and a lot cheaper. It’s a movie, not the opera!

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Life Movies

Watching Torture

Last night, I watched Pan’s Labrynth—not a bad movie. But I get squeamish when it comes to watching torture in movies, even if the actual act isn’t shown on screen. Reservoir Dogs is one of my favorite movies, but I always have to fast-forward the ear-cutting scene.

Oddly enough, I have a certain fascination with the Pinochet regime in Chile (mainly because the torture is often described rather than shown). I can watch Death and the Maiden many times (I’ve read the play, too). I’ve read some of Ariel Dorfman’s nonfiction writings on Pinochet as well and watched TV documentaries about it. There’s something very sobering and chilling about real-life accounts of torture, as opposed to the gross-out factor involved in most movie torture. The former makes me cry, while the latter makes me cringe.

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Movies

I’ve got to stop believing the purists

Even though I tend to shy away from scary movies of any kind, I’m strangely attracted to the Hannibal Lecter series. I’ve seen Silence of the Lambs many times (one of the few Jodie Foster films I actually like), and I’ve recently fallen in love with Red Dragon (whose spectacular cast includes Edward Norton, Emily Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Anthony Hopkins, Mary-Louise Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Harvey Keitel).

So I thought I’d give Manhunter—the original film adaption of the Red Dragon book—a chance. The purists on Netflix, after all, said the performances were subtler, the film was truer to the book, the suspense was intense. I rented it and was sorely disappointed. The soundtrack was mid-1980s hokey. The performances were dull (and I’ve seen all of those actors do better) and felt like high schoolers reading Shakespeare or the Lucas-induced robotic readings from the Star Wars prequels. There was very little suspense. I couldn’t get into this film. I kept thinking about how Red Dragon did it better.

Why do I keep falling for the lines these purists spout? With only a few exceptions (Psycho, for example), most remakes I’ve seen have been better than the originals. I like An Affair to Remember, Sommersby, and The Vanishing better than the originals. Blasphemy, I know, but that’s been my experience.

Maybe I’m not discerning enough. Maybe these purists have more refined tastes than I have. I may just be representative of “the masses.” Still, give me Anthony Hopkins’ over-the-top Lecter any day over dead-pan Brian Cox’s performance in Manhunter. If I want to see Brian Cox acting well, I’ll watch The Boxer or X-Men II, thanks.