Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Big screen/small screen

Let's get this out of the way upfront. Ideally, seeing a film at the movie theater is the best viewing experience. As big as televisions have become and as clear as their pictures can be, they cannot compare to the size of a theater's screen and the rich images presented from light projected through celluloid.

Whenever possible, I try to watch films, especially new releases, at the theater rather than viewing screener DVDs. Although I usually don't have the choice between theatrical or home viewing, more screener opportunities are available to me. There's also the entirely different matter of awards season when DVDs of in-release and upcoming films arrive in the mail as frequently as circulars featuring pizza coupons and tire sales prices.

For instance, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and THE WRESTLER showed up at my home Thanksgiving weekend. I waited until the local press screening to watch the Danny Boyle film. I felt that was the best way to see and evaluate it. Granted, this was no noble sacrifice. Holding off meant I enjoyed a better audio-visual experience than I could get at home.

Such thinking probably stems from well-meaning (and possibly snobbish) senses of purism and directorial intent--films are meant for the theater and should be seen there--although by no means have I lived by a hardline stance of projected film or nothing. There's respecting the art, and then there's trying to abide by an impossible standard. Film is better than video, but seeing is better than not seeing.

As an operating principle I still keep a preference for going to the cinema, but an HDTV and Blu-ray player have considerably weakened my resolve when both options are available. The small (or smaller) screen may not be better than or equal to the big screen, but the difference is much less noticeable than it used to be. I'm amazed at how stunning Blu-ray discs and upconverted DVDs look. Even non-anamorphic DVDs can deliver nice pictures.

With local theaters rapidly churning through specialty films that often open unscreened for press or available only on screeners, I've found it much harder to keep up with smaller arthouse fare with a theater-as-primary-option mindset. I suppose that's one reason why the theatrical vs. home viewing issue is on my mind. If I want to see these movies, chances are I'll need to do so at home. Additionally, IFC Festival Direct skips theatrical runs for video-on-demand, and Gigantic Digital is trying the strategy of opening in large markets while doing day-and-date online streaming for the rest of the country. A trip to the movie theater won't be an available choice.

While I hold the theatrical experience in high esteem--yes, even with the talkers and texters that threaten to, and do, ruin it on occasion--I'm ready to declare home viewing is now good enough to make me more flexible regarding what I'll watch where. (I've used home video primarily for watching films I couldn't see elsewhere.) Sure, HDTV and Blu-ray can't reach the thrilling heights of my personal moviegoing highlights, such as seeing 70mm prints of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and PLAYTIME on huge screens, but technology can now come closer than ever before to replicating the AV splendor at home. What a great time it is to be a cinephile.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

2009 Oscars predictions

Fearless predictions for a night of Academy Awards:

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

Best Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Best Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Best Supporting Actress: Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Best Adapted Screenplay: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Original Screenplay: Milk

Best Animated Feature: WALL-E
Best Animated Short Film: La Maison en petits cubes

Best Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Costume Design: The Duchess
Best Documentary Feature: Man on Wire
Best Documentary Short Subject: The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306

Best Film Editing: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Foreign-Language Film: Waltz with Bashir
Best Live-Action Short Film: Spielzeugland (Toyland)
Best Makeup: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Best Original Score: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Original Song: "Jai Ho", Slumdog Millionaire
Best Sound Editing: The Dark Knight
Best Sound Mixing: The Dark Knight
Best Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Must Read After My Death

MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH (Morgan Dews, 2007)

Conservative politicians and social commentators love to hold up the good old days of post-World War II America as the golden age of family values that contemporary society has abandoned. Men were the hard-working breadwinners, and women cheerfully attended to domestic duties, be it watching over the couple's precious little angels or serving as the perfect homemaker and hostess. The film adaptation of REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and the television series MAD MEN are recent examples of the many challenges to the LEAVE IT TO BEAVER myth of family life. Now comes the documentary MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH, which exposes the howling inner voices in a frayed marriage.

Filmmaker Morgan Dews' maternal grandmother left an archive of Dictaphone and tape recordings, silent 8mm home movies, photographs, and journals from the 1960s with the stipulation "must read after my death". Contrary to the smiling faces in the pictures and films, these source materials reveal a deeply unhappy home life completely unknown to Dews.

From outward appearances Charley and Allis were a typical couple. He slaved at a job that sometimes took him out of the country for four months a year. She stayed home in Hartford, Connecticut with their four children, three boys and a girl. The Dictaphone letters provided a way of communicating privately and were thought to be something the kids might cherish later, especially when Charley and Allis passed on.

While these recordings might sound like romantic correspondence, audio love letters from afar, they are anything but. Their words seep with anger and disappointment. The recordings may have permitted Charley to assert long distance control--he repeatedly stresses the importance of good housekeeping--while also revealing that he and Allis had an open marriage. Charley freely speaks of his dalliances in Australia, going so far as to have one woman sit in and appear on a recording, while Allis is more careful in describing the release she gets from being with another man.

The Dictaphone gives way to a reel-to-reel tape recorder that Allis uses to document her innermost thoughts, some of which were for the purpose of sharing with her psychiatrist. In naked detail she spells out family problems and frustrations with her own failings as a mother and a woman. The story she tells is a familiar one. Charley hates work, drinks too much, and accuses her of raising the children poorly. Allis feels trapped in having to conform to society's expectations and wishes she could run away. From what she says, her psychiatrist cautions against bucking the system but rather finding a way to meet what the culture demands from her as a wife and parent.

Credited as producer, director, writer, and editor, Dews builds MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH through the unhappy recorded voices atop counterpoint images more befitting of Norman Rockwell paintings. The obvious but effective tactic of contrasting words and visuals scrapes off the veneer of domestic bliss that people put on for the world and which gets pasted in scrapbooks and hung on walls. Dews wisely limits the narration to the Dictaphone letters and tapes to maintain the sense of being told secrets about lives of quiet desperation. Including other voices, even a neutral narrator, or perspectives with the benefit of intervening years, would break the confessional-like quality that makes the film so intimate.

MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH comes mostly from Allis' viewpoint, although Dews' editorial choices must be factored into the equation as well. Eventually one wonders how reliable her reporting is and what her purpose is in not only documenting her feelings but also in saving these recordings and desiring they be heard. It's fair to assume that she is speaking from the heart and considers these tapes to be a way for her to vent about the things that she cannot (or will not) say to her husband. Nevertheless, how calculated is it that the amassed materials provide the final word on Charley? This is her truth, but is it the truth or a full representation of it? Dews leaves these questions unanswered, which is all he can do as he tries to reconcile the grandmother he knew with the anguished woman uncovered to him.

This raises the question of what today's archived online lives consisting of blog posts, YouTube videos, and tweets will mean to future generations. For better or worse, interior lives have become more public. Will our self-penned MRS. DALLOWAY-like remembrances pull back the curtain on common human fears and desires through the ages and liberate us from social mythmaking, or is it all merely self-indulgent slop that sullies us in the memories of our descendants?

As a 1960s housewife's distressed expression of suburban ennui, MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH must be difficult for her family to hear and see, but her grandson has assembled these private thoughts into a compelling reminder that the challenges of marriage and parenting are the same now as they were in supposedly rosier times.

Grade: B

(On February 20 MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH is receiving a day-and-date opening in theaters and online from Gigantic Releasing. For those in markets where this independent film has not opened, a three-day, commercial-free, unlimited stream can be purchased at Gigantic Digital for $2.99.)

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Muriel Awards

The 2008 year-end awards keep trickling out. I'm one of the participants in Paul Clark's brainchild The Muriels. The winners are being rolled out on a daily basis through February 22, so check out what this ragtag bunch has selected as last year's finest contributions to cinema as well as 10th, 25th, and 50th anniversary picks.

These awards are voted on by a collection of cinephiles/critics from around the country. Unlike a lot of other awards, The Muriels aren't about influencing and predicting the Oscars or being the first one on the scene. While I'll be finding out the winners at the same time you are, past history tells me that they should be an interesting and eclectic bunch.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Next Tuesday Paul Markoff and I will tape our annual Academy Awards preview and Best and Worst Films of 2008 episodes of Now Playing. Our first show, taped in March 1997, was an hour-long special debating the Oscar nominees and predicting the winners. At the end we tacked on our own Top Ten lists for 1996.

Neither of us were seeing movies at the rate at what has become the norm with the show in production. It goes without saying that the movies I chose to see and pay for in my pre-critic days went through a filtering process more than the practically limitless abundance made available to me as a critic.

Naturally, that first pre-critic Top Ten list probably looked much different than it would have if I'd been reviewing films. For '96 I picked BIG NIGHT as the best film of the year. Would I still keep it in that lofty spot? I don't know--I think I've only seen it once--but I suspect I probably wouldn't. It takes time to develop critical faculties, and the person on the verge of reviewing films and engaging in the practice in those early years isn't the same person I am now.

As Now Playing nears the start of its 13th production year, it is interesting to look back at those films I've chosen to laud as the year's best with a critic's authority. I think it's a pretty respectable list--of course I would--and I don't regret any of these picks even if I wouldn't be averse to a tweak here or there.

If I were to replace any, the likeliest candidate is 2000 topper TRAFFIC, although what would assume its spot--off the top of my head, ALMOST FAMOUS, DANCER IN THE DARK, GEORGE WASHINGTON, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, and WONDER BOYS would challenge--is hard to say.

My Top Ten lists prior to 2003 are not on this website. I'm not sure if I even have all of them still. Nevertheless, I thought it might be fun to share what movies I selected each year. Perhaps there's a pattern to discern, perhaps there isn't. Anyway, enjoy.

1997: The Ice Storm
1998: The Truman Show
1999: Being John Malkovich
2000: Traffic
2001: Mulholland Dr.
2002: Punch-Drunk Love
2003: Gerry
2004: Dogville
2005: Kings & Queen (Rois et reine)
2006: The Prestige
2007: There Will Be Blood
2008: WALL-E