Thursday, May 28, 2009

Nothing personal, strictly business

The Girlfriend Experience
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Sasha Grey
78 minutes

Review by Scott Johnson

Steven Soderbergh can do more with a digital camera and a few months than most directors can do with tens of millions of dollars and years of development. This should not be entirely surprising--the paradox of making films in the corporate Hollywood environment is that seemingly unlimited resources are doled out with equally unlimited strings attached. Projects are given a green light based on their expected ability to return a profit and the only predictor for future success--in business terms--is past success. Stars, directors, and of course plot lines are regurgitated from previous box office hits, although box office bombs only doom the first two but do little to halt the latter.

Producing films like The Girlfriend Experience and Bubble gives Soderbergh a limberness that the Hollywood machine does not have. Not only are these films not necessarily submitted to the arbitrary rewriting process Hollywood executives demand--if for no other reason than to show that they put their stamp on a film--but his current film has a timeliness that is unlikely to be found in Hollywood any time soon.

If you know anything about The Girlfriend Experience, it is probably that it features porn star Sasha Grey as a high-priced prostitute in New York City. The film takes place shortly between the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September and the election in November--we know this because Grey's character Chelsea spends endless hours listening to her clients complain about the economy and the bailout while giving her advice on investing and how to vote.

The fundamental insight the film portrays is the way the free market distorts personal and sexual relationships. This is not entirely original--Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels made this same insight over 150 years ago in the Communist Manifesto, describing how the capitalist class turns women into commodities:

[I]t is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.

More recently, this same point was made by a prostitute interviewed by Studs Terkel in his oral history Working, who describes how women "hustle" legally all the time:

A hustler is any woman in American society. I was the kind of hustler who received money for favors granted rather than the type of hustler who carefully reads a women's magazine and learns what it is proper to give for each date, depending on how much money her date or trick spends on her.

What makes the film uniquely clever, though, is the way that this insight shapes the story. There are a surprising number of scenes in which our expectations are turned on their head--we come to expect that every man she talks to is a client, but it turns out that one is her boyfriend, another a journalist interviewing her, and yet another is working for Chelsea, not vice-versa. One of the best scenes involves film critic Glenn Kenny, whose character we think we have pinned down several times before we actually find out his real purpose for meeting with her. The conclusion to their meeting provides a bitter satire on the self-important critic.

It has been suggested that Grey's experience in pornography makes her particularly apt for this role and there is certainly some truth in that. As a young woman who sells her sexuality, she certainly knows something about the world Chelsea inhabits. But Grey's recent interview with suggests that she is an intelligent, experienced actress who did not simply fall ass-backwards into serious acting.

She does not exhibit the sort of confident emotional range of other serious young actresses, but I could not possibly imagine an Ellen Page or Anne Hathaway in this role. Grey has the sort of restrained, near-confident shyness that a 21-year-old inhabiting a foreign and intimidating world typically shows. She does not create a thoroughly nuanced and vibrant character--rather, she acts like a young woman who is smart and confident but also somewhat in over her head and keeps the men in her life--her clients and her boyfriend--at arms length. This may be the result of a nervous young actress working with a world-class director, but it creates an authenticity that is perfect for Chelsea's character. With a few exceptions, we never feel like we quite understand her feelings--whether she is enjoying herself or just going through the motions. But I suppose the men in her life feel the same way as we do.

The "girlfriend experience" that Chelsea is selling is about more than just sexual intercourse, although that is always hanging in the background of every one of her relationships. Terkel's prostitute describes this in her own experiences:

The favors I granted were not always sexual. When I was a call girl, men were not paying for sex. They were paying for something else. They were either paying to act out a fantasy or they were paying for companionship or they were paying to be seen with a well-dressed young woman. Or they were paying for somebody to listen to them.

This reality underscores how the combination of economics and sexuality distorts a young woman's relationships with men, which is the question explored throughout the movie. Chelsea's interactions show that "prostitution" occurs not only at the intersection of sex and money but often in interactions when only one of the two is present. The final scene also humorously raises the question of what can actually be considered "sex"--Bill Clinton's definition notwithstanding--in a world of alienation and personal isolation.

This scene--and the film, appropriately--ends far too soon.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A new movement

It's only a matter of time before marriage equality is achieved in this country. Tonight's protest were just a small part of helping to make that history. Decades from now, our grandchildren will wonder what all the fuss was all about, but that doesn't change the urgency to act and speak out now.

Below are some photos from the protest against Prop 8 in San Francisco tonight. The march went from SF City Hall to the Yerba Buena Gardens--that is the park between the Metreon and the SFMOMA, in case you have been here. The photos don't quite do justice to the size--I would guess there were a few thousand people on the march.

Day of Decision - Protest Prop 8!

Protest the California Supreme Court's upholding of Prop 8 tonight! I will be at the protest at San Francisco City Hall tonight at 5pm, check out Day of Decision for the local protest in your area.

Criticwatch - The Lyons Experience

Erik Childress at Criticwatch gives us the Ben Lyons quote of the week from At the Movies:

Lyons: And you really do lose yourself in these characters and yes it jumps around and the narrative can be a little difficult to follow. But when it does come together, there’s a sense of ahhhh, this is interesting. I see why now how it connects and I’m ready to move forward with the story.

Then Erik continues:

After finally running his positive/negative batting average to .500 on the year, it was a five “see it” show for Ben Lyons this week. Four of those “see it”s I’ve seen for myself and three of them are definite “skip it”s. I don’t play the “rent it” game. The only one worth anyone’s adult time is Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, which I’m actually shocked Lyons recommended after his fervent panning of last year’s Synecdoche, New York . . . He spends half his allotted time going through Soderbergh’s IMDB page and the other half-heartedly responding to Mank’s assertion that the fractured timeline hurt the film for him. Nothing to say about Sasha Grey’s performance. Nothing about it being set during the last Presidential election. Nothing to say about it’s a thinly-veiled guise for the world of art and film criticism. Those elements probably flew right over his head. He left it to Mank to get in talk about the film’s economical ironies. When people ask why we continue to give Lyons such a hard time, it’s for reasons like this. He doesn’t have the critical faculties necessary to discuss film. Even on the films that should be right up his little hypeboy alley – like Terminator Salvation.

Click here to read the rest of the story

Monday, May 25, 2009

At the Movies: Now he's embarrassed, too

See It!
The picture to the right gives some indication of the embarrassment Ben Lyons displays in his review of Terminator: Salvation on this week's At the Movies. You may think this still image is unfair to Lyons, but if you watch the video you will see that in fact the photo does not quite do justice to his level of embarrassment.

On the way to his "See it" recommendation, Ben tells us how convoluted the plot is and then follows with these insights:

Lyons: Ok, enough with the plot break down, which thankfully becomes less and less complicated as the movie goes on. This is the fourth Terminator movie after all, so let's see some robots . . . [after the clip of the robots] The explosions and several key action sequences are cutting edge, and that's what you want from a Terminator movie . . . [Christian Bale] didn't really become John Connor in my eyes until the third act. By then I was already on board for a summer movie that delivers on promises of big action and some eye-opening special effects. "See it." I know what you're going to say Mank, not for you.

Mank goes on to attack the story's emphasis on people "running from machines," to which Lyons responds:

Lyons: But to the films credit it's these different types of machines that makes this Terminator film stand out from the previous three films. For fans of the genre, they're going to love seeing these spaceships and these new motorcycles and these snake-like things in the water.

Wait, is Terminator now a genre? Or are we talking about Sci-Fi? The former would be another dubious genre category, and fans of the latter are generally more interested in how characters and stories play out in a different world--consider the Star Trek and Star Wars series, for example--and not just explosions and cool machines.

Mank again attacks the story as "complicated, undeveloped, and silly," and Lyons responds:

Lyons: For me, it's a fun time at the movies. It's explosions, it's new robots, it's a Mad Max-style feel to it. And it's got great set pieces.

Not too surprising that Lyons is embarrassed by his recommendation, since he cannot really defend it.

But imagine my embarrassment--and surprise--when Mank gives a "Rent it" to The Girlfriend Experience:

Mank: As much as there is to admire about [Director Steven] Soderbergh, his indifference to time sequencing hurts the story here. Though it's very satisfying when a particular arc comes together, more often than not it's frustrating 'cause you don't know which scene or, more importantly, which character is more important than another. As experimental filmmkaing shot cheaply this is certainly a victory, but it doesn't belong at the top of the list of films you need to see.

On the contrary, this movie should be at the very top of your list of movies to see. My review will be up later this week, I'll just say for now that the "confusion" between the scenes and the discovery of who is a client and what they are a client for is one of the brilliant accomplishments of the film. This is no more confusing than entertaining films like Pulp Fiction or Memento--much less confusing than Memento--which also tell their story out of sequence. Mank doesn't seem to realize that Soderbergh's "indifference" is actually a method, and is the key to the film's success. And while there is plenty of "confusion," it really is not very confusing to follow and sort out.

Unfortunately, we are left with Lyons to tell us how good this robot-less movie is, and we get to hear him explain why Soderbergh now has the "right" to make different, independent films--although it is not clear why anybody has the "right" to make crappy, big budget movies. But otherwise, to my embarrassment, he seems to pull it off:

Lyons: Of all of the films [Soderbergh] has made like this, you can think of Full Frontal or Bubble, this is by far the most effective one. And you really do lose yourself in these characters, and yes it jumps around and the narrative can be a little difficult to follow, but when it does come together there is a sense of "Ah, this is interesting, I see why now how it connects" and I'm ready to move forward with the story.

Maybe not the most eloquent comment on an interesting film, but at least he understood it.

Well, don't ever say I'm not fair to Lyons. Although it is odd that this praise does not put the film onto his "3 to See" list at the end of the show.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Worse than Ben Lyons - The RNC

Keepin' it real. Real sexist.After John McCain announced that Sarah Palin would be his running mate in the presidential campaign, the Republican Party was shocked--shocked!--to discover that sexism still existed in the United States. Every criticism of her was turned into an attack on all women--although some of them were--and she was held up as a fighter against the "old boys club" of the Republican Party in Alaska. An odd compliment, coming from the old boys club in Washington, DC.

But now that the campaign is over, they can go back to their old ways. In spite of Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele's promise that their attacks on Obama and the Democrats would be "classy", there is no evidence that they will be.

Case in point: the RNC released a video this week attacking Nancy Pelosi's accusation that she was lied to by the CIA. Personally, I could believe both that the CIA lies (even to Congress) and that Pelosi and other Democrats don't want to admit that they actually knew that the Bush administration was torturing people.

But the RNC has descended into pure sexism in their attacks on Pelosi. They released this video which begins with the James Bond theme and Nancy Pelosi in the cross hairs, tending to her hair. The video ends with the image to the left, basically equating Pelosi with the Goldfinger character "Pussy Galore".

According to, this is only one of a series of sexist attacks on Pelosi:

Earlier this week, Pittsburgh radio host Jim Quinn referred to the speaker on his program as “this bitch”; last week, syndicated radio host Neal Boortz opined “how fun it is to watch that hag out there twisting in the wind.”

There has also been a steady stream of taunts about the speaker’s appearance, and whether it’s been surgically enhanced. On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Republican strategist Alex Castellanos said, “I think if Speaker Pelosi were still capable of human facial expression, we’d see she’d be embarrassed.”

This is exactly the sort of backroom frat-boy humor that occurs in any old boys club, where making crude comments about women and their bodies is considered just plain fun. Although unlike most old boys clubs, the RNC is incapable of telling the difference between their offensive backroom banter and what is acceptable as public discourse.

Stay classy, Michael Steele.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bitter fruits of the occupation

Lemon Tree
Eran Riklis
Starring Hiam Abbass
106 minutes

Review by Scott Johnson

In Lemon Tree, Hiam Abbass plays a character much like the one she played in last year's The Visitor--a middle-aged woman whose life is upended by the personal effects of global politics. She only appeared in the last half of the earlier film, but she is the lead character of Lemon Tree, displaying the same sort of quiet nobility in the face of an inhumane system.

Abbass plays Salma Zidane, a Palestinian woman living in the West Bank who makes her livelihood from a small orchard of lemon trees. She has inherited the orchard from her family who cared for it for 50 years until the (fictional) Israeli Defense Minister Israel Navon moves next door. Their homes are literally separated by a few yards and a barbed wired fence marking the Green Line--the border between the West Bank and Israel.

The minister's security team hastily erects a watchtower to look over Salma's land and then decides that the orchard is a security threat and the trees must be removed. This indignity forces Salma to sue the state of Israel and eventually take her case to the Israeli Supreme Court.

In the meantime, of course, she must deal with a security force that slowly encroaches on her land and deprives Salma of her livelihood and her dignity. Eventually, the orchard is fenced off pending review of the case, but while Salma cannot access the orchard, the security team has free reign. At one point, the soldiers even enter the orchard to retrieve lemons for Navon's pampered guests.

This leads to a very effective scene in which Salma reacts with justified outrage at this double standard while the guests look on. We can tell that the Israelis think they see a crazy Arab woman, but we have much more sympathy for Salma and cannot blame her for trying to protect her land.

Other indignities ensue as the legal process slowly unfolds and "the facts on the ground" are altered in the favor of the defense minister.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The human story here has much potential and some of it is realized, but there are also some missteps in the film. For example, while Salma slowly comes to have more confidence in herself, a near romance develops with a man in her life. But rather than developing her character, it simply feels forced and awkward, unlike the tenderness of the relationship Abbass' character finds in The Visitor.

Even more problematic--and more central to the story--is the character of Mira Navon, the defense minister's wife. Mira seems to represent the viewpoint of the liberal Zionist who both wants to defend her homeland and reach a peaceful agreement with the Palestinians. She would prefer to replace the barbed wire with white pickets. The untenability of this position is shown well with her vacillations between supporting her husband--and succumbing to his pressure--while desiring to reach out to Salma.

She quietly objects to her husband and wishes that she "could just be a better neighbor" to Salma, as she tells an American reporter when the international media picks up the story. But it seems inconceivable that Mira--clearly an educated woman who is married to a major Israeli politician--would be shocked by the act of cutting down a few trees. Certainly, she must be aware of the policies for which Navon and his government are responsible, but many of her actions are based on this presumed ignorance.

There is also a sense in which both women have a common bond in that they are rebelling against the men in their lives--Mira against her husband and Salma against the ineffectual and male-dominated Palestinian Authority, among others. This bond is somewhat tenuous, as we can see with Mira's failure to take decisive action and her ultimate freedom to extract herself from the situation.

But this leads to a jarring moment in which Mira laments how the lemon trees have upended her life. Certainly, she deserves more respect from her husband, but considering what Salma is confronting, the comment feels incredibly out of touch and insensitive. A moment that appears to be designed to build sympathy for the character only achieves the opposite.

This is not at all to say that Mira should be portrayed as simply a racist land thief--there are many ways that she could be confronted by the reality of her husband's policies that are both honest and convincing. This is clearly the intent behind Mira's character, but I don't think it entirely succeeds.

A better example of this is seen in a brief moment involving the young, M16-wielding Israeli soldier stationed in the watchtower overlooking the orchard. He is prepared to blow away terrorists on sight, but he has no idea what to do with this pesky Palestinian woman who insists on tending to her trees. His situation is both funny and revealing.

Salma's quiet resistance is the central and most affective part of the story. The roadblocks she encounters are cause for much pessimism--nobody believes that she will really achieve justice, probably the audience least of all.

However, the point of Lemon Tree is not to point the way forward but to expose the indignities of life under occupation. Aside from the atrocities and bloody massacres in Gaza, there are bitter conflicts that ordinary Palestinians face even during times of "peace." Portraying these everyday outrages is where this film is most effective.

This review originally appeared at

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Criticwatch - Well done, Ben Lyons

Erik Childress at Criticwatch has a definite advantage over me in discussing At the Movies, which is that he has actually seen all of the movies these guys are talking about while I am just playing catch-up. So when Ben Lyons throws out a quote like this about Rudo y Cursi, Erik is much better than I at realizing how wrong-headed it is:

Lyons: It’s a great little sports movie and what’s really cool about it is often times in sports films the actors can take you out of the moment because they aren’t accomplished athletes. Here they do a nice job of not even really showing the soccer. You don’t even really see it that much. But it’s, it’s really well done.

I heard Lyons say this and all I really got out of it was that the actors don't "take you out of the moment" with their crappy soccer playing. The "not even really showing the soccer" part just went over my head--obviously (I thought) he was saying the soccer they did show was "really well done." My biggest mistake, I suppose, was assuming that this was in fact a soccer movie, since that is what it looks like based on the trailers I have seen. But I guess I should have learned from Lyons' missteps to avoid making any assumptions about a movie based on the trailer, even seemingly benign ones.

Erik catches the real point, as he writes:

The sport in question is soccer and as you can see, according to Benny Boy, you don’t really need to show the sport in order to call it a sports movie. Did Will Ferrell’s lack of skills behind a race car deter in your viewing of Talladega Nights? How about Billy Blanks thumbing his nose at the rules of football by using a loaded pistol on the field of play in The Last Boy Scout? Or would you just simply not call them sports movies? My remembrance of the film, Rudo y Cursi, does include some vague references to the brothers playing soccer, but mostly that the storytelling was so poorly handled I didn’t know how to label it . . .

If Rudo y Cursi is a “great sports movie” then it better damn well either be about the sport in more than just a passing capacity or have some solid footage of the sport being played. Lyons is saying the film does a nice job of not showing the soccer. OK, so they’re covering up the fact that Bernal and Luna can’t play? Why is it “really cool” for a sports movie to not really show the actual sport that much?

There is more this week, including some exclusive info that Erik picked up outside of At the Movies. Click here to read the rest.

Monday, May 18, 2009

At the Movies: Making molehills out of mountains

As is sometimes the case, the worst thing to come out of Ben Lyons' mouth in the past week occurred not on his TV show At the Movies--which is filmed under the security of a friendly director and a large cutting room floor--but during an appearance on another show, where he backtracked on his early enthusiasm for G.I. Joe--based on the trailer--after reconsidering it, still based on the trailer.

But the biggest flub of the show was in his DVD Out Now recommendation for Valkyrie. He says that the movie was controversial because,
All the talk surrounding the film of course focused on the star power of Tom Cruise. Was he miscast as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the German commander who in WWII found himself at the center of a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler? And why was he speaking in English without a German accent?

Well, yes, casting Cruise was controversial but not for the Hollywood-y reasons that Lyons comes up with. The controversy was around casting the role of a German hero--as much as any Nazi could possibly be thought of as a hero--with a leading voice for Scientology, a religion/cult which is highly unpopular in that country because it is seen as a totalitarian sect. Germans, after all, know something about the results of crazy cultish sects.

For example, the son of von Stauffenberg said that Cruise's religion was "off-putting" and that he "should keep his hands off my father." German politicians threatened to disallow production and the German Protestant Church said that Cruise's casting would "have the same propaganda advantages for Scientology as the 1936 Olympics had for the Nazis".

Now, that is not the entire story. The German government eventually allowed filming to commence and many came to defend Cruise's right to portray the character. I don't mean to either condone Scientology or the effort to keep Cruise out of the film. Just to say that this is the nature of the controversy--not his "star power" or whether he was using an accent.

All other criticism preceding the film's release was simply magnified by the political issues involved.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Backtracking on GI Joe

UPDATE: I knew I saw this somewhere but I just finally remembered where. On Twitter, Ben Lyons wrote on May 3: "Just saw the new G.I. Joe trailer on ABC during the Mavs vs. Nuggets game...WOW! That ish looks crraaaaaaaaaazy...Go Joe! Look forward to it".

Do you think he saw a different trailer during the 11 days between writing the "Tweet" and filming the interview below? More likely, somebody on At the Movies read his Tweet and then smacked him upside the head for gushing over a G.I. Joe movie. I'm afraid G.I. Joe is the new Twilight.

A live action G.I. Joe movie is probably the stupidest idea to come out of Hollywood since somebody cast Shia LaBeouf was cast as a Brando-like motorcycle dude in Crystal Skull. That actually worked out OK--it was the rest of the movie that sucked.

Ben Lyons, however, cannot see past hype and the dollar signs and seems to have expressed some enthusiasm over the release of this movie, having said (quoted by Erik Childress on April 27) that "Channing Tatum does have a star quality to him. This isn't his best work by any means. He's gonna be a big star cause he's got G.I. Joe coming out in the summer."

After actually having seen the trailer--one of Lyons' favorite methods of film criticism--he now seems to be realizing that the movie might suck--see the clip above. Of course, his problem is not that the idea of making the movie is inherently stupid--especially at a time when the US is fighting two unpopular wars and debating whether torture is performed by the US and whether it is permissible. This is an especially questionable time for cartoonish war mongering. No, his problem is that it does not appear to have the "heart-and-soul of G.I. Joe".

The other critic in this clip, Devin Faraci of, has enough intelligence to question Ben's assertion that what is missing is the "heart-and-soul of G.I. Joe". The real problem is that IT IS A FUCKING MOVIE ABOUT G.I. JOE! It looks like a movie based on "plastic toys for 9 year olds"--that is the real problem.

Thanks, Faraci--unlike some people, at least you can call out stupidity when you see it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Worse than Ben Lyons - IMAX

Aziz Ansari from the show Parks and Recreation has posted a comment on his blog that has caused quite a stir regarding fake IMAX screenings. That is, screenings advertised as IMAX that are less than what we have come to know as the full IMAX experience, but charging the extra 5 bucks anyway. The IMAX CEO has even felt it necessary to respond to Ansari's blog, although fairly ineloquently.

You may remember a similar discussion on Ebert's blog a few months ago, starting with this letter, followed by this one and this one.You might also remember my rant against AMCHD--note that Ansari is also complaining about AMC, but attacks their theaters and not their cable TV channel.

Here is Ansari's blog posting:

REBLOG THE FUCK OUT OF THIS. WARNING: AMC theaters are running FAKE IMAX's and charging $5 extra for a slightly bigger screen. Boycott IMAX, AMC, and Regal. Don't let them fool you.

I went with a friend of mine to see Star Trek: The IMAX Experience at the AMC Theatre in Burbank today. I drove out of my way to see the film on the large IMAX screen and paid an extra $5 for the ticket, which felt worth it at the time.

HOWEVER, we get in the theatre and its just a slightly bigger than normal screen and NOT the usual standard huge 72 ft IMAX screen. I was very upset and apparently this problem is happening all over at Regal and AMC theatres. Here’s a graphic representation of what’s happening at these “FAKE IMAX” screens:

If you don’t want the whole long story, I did some research online and found this article that explains it. Basically IMAX is whoring out their brand name and trying to trick people. These new “IMAX” theatres are really just nice digital screens with good sound, but they ARE NOT IMAX, in that they don’t have the huge 72 ft gigantic screen which people would expect. However, they still charge $5 more for tickets as they would for the regular IMAX.


Read the rest of the post here

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Ben Lyons gives 30 "See Its"

Lyons: Dude, this is way better than watching Goodbye, Solo.There are two types of people in this world--those who think that Ben Lyons' skills as a critic are overused and those who think they are underused. There appears to be no middle ground. To the latter category, which already includes not only ABC/Disney but also the American Film Institute and Microsoft, you can now add the New York Jets.

Ben was invited by the New York Jets to judge the tryouts for their cheerleading squad--AKA The Flight Crew--and help select the 30 finalists, according to this report and this one.

This puts a bit of a different spin on Ben's recent criticism of the movie Every Little Step, in which he said, "Maybe it’s the fact that American Idol . . . we see people audition every night. The idea of auditioning is not really interesting in a documentary.” Of course, you can only vote in American Idol via text message, but his apparent preference for voting in person would be perhaps the only occasion where he prefers to NOT use his cell phone.

But if ogling women in relative privacy were not enough, E! has posted "exclusive" video of Ben gushing over "opposite marriage" supporter Carrie Prejean in her underwear during an appearance she made as a model on the network in 2008. I'll give you the link if you are terribly interested but maintain the dignity of this as the only blog in the blogosphere which has not published scantily clad pictures of her.

Stay classy, Ben Lyons.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Criticwatch - Obsessed with fake positive images

Erik Childress at Criticwatch gives us the Ben Lyons Quote of the Week:

Lyons: "Say what you want about the movies of Tyler Perry or even the recently released, Obsessed, but those films, for the most part, at least project positive images of intelligent, powerful and sophisticated minority characters.”

Ben Lyons’ entire review of Next Day Air this week was in the running for the Quote of the Week. Such a veritable cornucopia of “what-did-he-say?” moments that it would have been easy to print one long run-on sentence in quotations. I refrained since doctors recommend smacking yourself in the head over a period of time rather than one after another. At least that’s what mine told me after I checked myself into Alexian Brothers directly after this week’s show.

Lyons giving a half-hearted compliment to his DJ buddy and future household name (his words), Idris Elba, while panning the film wasn’t that big of a deal. Basically saying Elba can do much better really isn’t saying much, although that’s really only held true of his TV work on The Wire and The Office. When I saw Obsessed a couple weeks back with my colleague, Peter Sobczynski, we agreed that at least Tyler Perry’s films, as abhorrent as they are, at least had a streak of trying to create a positive message. He fails miserably each time out, but at least he tries. Obsessed, on the other hand, has no redeeming positive values. Sure, Idris Elba’s character doesn’t go full Michael Douglas and sleep with the crazy white chick but no one would accuse ANY of the characters in the film of being “intelligent.” Certainly it’s the white women of the film (Ali Larter’s temp, Scout Taylor-Compton’s babysitter and Christine Lahti’s detective) who lead the pack in batshit stupid but I doubt anyone is looking towards Beyonce’s character (Elba’s original secretary who later became his housewife) who goes all "oh no you didn't" on Larter as a positive image.

Read the entire review here

Monday, May 11, 2009

At the Movies: "Pop" goes the weasel

On this week's episode of At the Movies, Ben Lyons reviews (again) the new Star Trek movie thus:

Lyons: It's a pop culture movie. And it really crosses over and satisfies those hard core fans and appeals to a wider audience. Really easy to say to do but harder to execute and they were able to do it nicely.

So Star Trek has gone from being an "event movie" to being a "pop culture" movie that "crosses over". Putting aside that "pop culture movie" is an even more dubious genre category than "event movie" as I explained last week, the idea of the Star Trek franchise crossing over seems a bit unusual to me. Granted, there are hard core "trekkers" who speak Klingon and dress up as Spock:

But to talk about Star Trek "crossing over" forgets that it was a major television show in the 1960s and a long running film franchise in which this is the eleventh film of the series. A list of well-known "Trekkies/Trekkers"--including King Abdullah of Jordan, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Angelina Jolie, and Eddie Murphy--suggests that a fairly wide audience has enjoyed the series. It would almost be like talking about the James Bond series "crossing over" with Casino Royale. Or, in Ben's case, Goldeneye.

Of course, what all of those listed fans have in common is that they are over 30--and many over 40. Teenagers don't necessarily know anything about Star Trek, for no fault of their own. But to consider their ignorance as making it less than a "pop culture" phenomenon, and then attribute their acceptance of it over the weekend at the box office as "crossing over", is an unusual way of looking at things. Although not necessarily unusual inside of the Hollywood bubble that Ben Lyons so proudly inhabits.


Now take his comment slamming Next Day Air:

Lyons: Why this is being released in theaters and not on DVD I don't understand. From the actors on screen to the filmmakers behind the scenes, seems everyone is just trying to make a quick buck. Save your money and "Skip it".

I'll leave judgment aside, other than to ask: when exactly did Lyons get all up in arms about people doing something for a fast, cheap, and unworthy buck? I suspect Mos Def could teach him a thing or two about working in the entertainment and not just selling your soul outright.


Finally, a couple of odd "Rent it" moments happened this week. First in reviewing Little Ashes, Mank responds to Lyons' critique that the movie was too black and white and did not have enough ambiguity:

Mank: I hear your criticisms and I think some of them are valid. I thought there was enough ambiguity here and ultimately I'm going to go ahead and reflect that ambiguity and say "Rent it".

That's a bit of a refreshing comment considering how twisted Lyons in particular gets about saying how lame a movie is then recommending that we "Rent it". But then we get a double "Rent it" recommendation on Taken, which is just being released on DVD and is given time for a full review since they did not talk about it earlier in the year. But that means they do not find time to review any of The Lemon Tree, American Violet, Tulpan, or Adoration, which have all opened recently--among MANY other films--but get no mention.

Of course, some of those are foreign films, which seem to have an especially difficult time making the cut in their list of movies to review.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Worse than Ben Lyons - This trailer

This fake trailer may be worse than Ben Lyons insofar as it misrepresents The Shining, but the guy who made it is totally awesome:

I found this through an otherwise uninteresting article at Big Hollywood.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Criticwatch - This is blowing Ben's mind

Erik Childress gives us the Ben Lyons quote of the week, regarding the release of Benjamin Button on DVD which includes, Lord help us, an extra 3 hours of footage:

Lyons: The way in which they constructed Pitt’s facial expressions to match them to the bodies of smaller actors working with essentially giant blue socks on their heads worked seamlessly, brilliantly in fact and will be what the movie is most remembered for.

Erik then continues:

That wasn’t just in reference to Lyons’ DVD pick of the week, but also his choice for the best film of 2008 – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And, according to him, it will be remembered for the [little people] who wore giant blue socks on their heads. Not for being an epic romance or a meditation on life and death. No. For the short people behind the scenes who couldn’t become one of the Blue Man Group. There’s no denying that Lyons is referring to the special effects involved in the film; effects that are, no doubt, impressive. But I have always believed the movie to be a massive failure and could make the same statement to deride how the film will ultimately be remembered. I could also say its just a bloated copy of Forrest Gump minus the heart, humor, sentiment and, well, curiosity. How could someone who loves the film so much to announce its better than any other film they saw in a calendar year not think of anything better than to say its special effects will be the reason people come back to it time and time again? Should we now fully expect Lyons to name Transformers 2 as the best film of 2009?

Read the entire Criticwatch Ben Lyons Quote of the Week here

Monday, May 4, 2009

At the Movies: That new starship smell

Bones: Dammit, Ben, I'm a doctor, not a film critic.
Lyons: Neither am I, but I play one on TV!
Ben Lyons has been waiting for the new Star Trek movie for some time. Back in February on a live chat on the At the Movies Web site, both Bens were asked which movie they were both looking forward to this summer. Their answers were as follows:

Mank: I honestly try not to get too excited about anything because I dont want raised expectations to detrimentally affect my enjoyment of the film. Its not a cop out. Its true.

Having apparently completely missed this statement of honesty and integrity on the part of Mank, Lyons immediately gushed:

Lyons: I am so looking forward to star trek from director JJ Abrams. From the few scenes Ive looked at so far, Ive been really impressed. Im not a huge Star Trek fan by any means, and dont hold the franchise near and dear to my heart as many people out there do, but I love an incredible event movie, and I'm hoping this lives up to the hype...

Also, when asked in an interview around the same time "is there a specific genre that you prefer more so over another? What do you look for when watching a movie?" he answered:

BL: I love the "event" movie – that movie you buy tickets to weeks in advance and see opening weekend with all your friends...but I love all types of films, big and small.

Yes, he loves an event movie. That, in case you don't know, is probably the only "genre" of film which is defined less by the content of the movie (the time and place of the story or the nature of drama and/or comedy involved) than by how much hype is built into its publicity campaign. This is probably the only "genre" which is almost solely defined by how much money is spent on the making of the film. (In case you are wondering, I put the term "genre" in quotes here for much the same reason I often do so with the term "film critic" when referring to Ben Lyons)

A few weeks ago, I criticized Lyons for saying of Monsters vs. Aliens that it has that "blockbuster event movie feel," without saying much more about why it is a good movie. But on this week's At the Movies, though he says more about the new Star Trek movie, it still comes back to the same gush:

Lyons: With an accessible story line for movie fans not familiar with the world of the franchise, Abrams is able to capture the spirit of Star Trek. Add to the mix first rate special effects, and what's left is an event movie.

First off, I think what he wants to say is that "the result is an event movie." Secondly, and I don't think this is nit-picking, he says it in a way that assumes this is a good thing--it has that "event movie feel" like your new Honda has that "new car smell".

Don't get me wrong, I am looking forward to Star Trek just as much as the next guy. And I don't need Ben Lyons--or any film critic--to tell me that it is an event movie. Because I am not stupid, I figured that out without ever seeing the movie, which is partly why I--unlike Ben Lyons--refer to it as a "genre".

It is this sort of confusion--and forgetting that there is a difference between a good movie and an event movie--that gets Lyons in trouble and makes people think he is more of a bandwagon rider of Hollywood hype than a serious film critic.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Right on, Bea

I never watched the show Maude--it is a bit before my time--but I loved this article by my friend and sometimes editor Elizabeth Schulte about the late Bea Arthur.

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WHEN YOU hear five-foot-nine, 47-year-old woman with a deep, husky voice, one of the last things most people think of today is a prime-time television star. But go back to 1972, when the women's liberation movement was in full swing, and the choice was obvious.

The sitcom Maude, which ran from a 1972 to 1978, starred Beatrice Arthur as the liberal feminist head of her Westchester, N.Y., household. Bea Arthur died on April 25 at the age of 86 of lung cancer. Arthur's depiction of Maude--oftentimes abrasive, sometimes sensitive and always funny--made a mark forever on television comedy history.

Before television, Arthur had a long career on the stage in musical theater. In 1947, Arthur moved to New York City to study theater at New School for Social Research. Her classmates included Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau and Tony Curtis.

In 1954, she got a part in the off-Broadway premier of the English version of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Three Penny Opera, alongside Lotte Lenya. With her big voice and big stage presence, she dominated in later roles as Vera Charles in Mame and Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof.

She said in an interview several years ago that she always dreamed of playing the big female leads, of being the actress "wearing the white dress," but it never happened for her on the stage. Arthur said that something actress and movie magazine beauty Tallulah Bankhead said to her stuck with her: "It's all about bone structure."

Despite what Bankhead said, Arthur's imposing presence and bass-baritone voice didn't stop her from becoming an unforgettable comedic talent and stage presences. As late as 2002, she returned to Broadway to star in show that incorporated stories and songs about her life and career.

Arthur managed to span several decades of television era, from the George Gobel Show in the 1950s to The Golden Girls--the only sitcom where all the lead characters were all older women (and they all have sex lives) in the 1980s. In her later years, she made several cameos, including the voice of the "Femputer" that ruled the giant Amazonian women on an episode of the animated TV comedy Futurama.

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BUT MORE than anything else, Bea Arthur will be remembered for her role in Maude. In 1972, television writer Norman Lear called with an offer for Arthur to take on the part of Maude Findlay, the "women's libber" cousin of Edith Bunker on All in the Family. Liberal to a fault, Maude was supposed to be the antithesis of Edith's husband Archie.

Maude's theme song gives you the picture:

Lady Godiva was a freedom rider
She didn't care if the whole world looked.
Joan of Arc with the Lord to guide her
She was a sister who really cooked.
Isadora was the first bra burner
And you're glad she showed up. (Oh yeah)
And when the country was falling apart
Betsy Ross got it all sewed up.
And then there's Maude...
That old compromisin', enterprisin', anything but tranquilizing,
Right on Maude.

Like the characters on All in the Family, Maude was an exaggeration of the idea of the middle-class liberal. She was loud and opinionated, but at the same time, Maude wasn't always completely sure what doing the right thing meant.

Oftentimes, Lear was poking fun at this middle-class person with a conscience whose guilt sometimes got in the way of her common sense. For instance, in one episode, Maude insists on her new Black maid walking through the front door, because of the way it will look to the neighbors--even though the woman really wants to go through the back door, since it's easier for her to do her work.

Maude was like no other woman on television until that time--she was divorced (four times), she was outspoken, she was brash and she was pushing 50. And while her character may not have always been right, Maude grappled with themes and issues in ways that are unheard-of today.

Maude dealt with racism, sexual equality, divorce, menopause, mental illness, alcoholism--the list goes on. In one episode, Maude points out the hypocrisy of drug laws, where poor people get arrested for a tiny bit of marijuana while middle-class people pop handfuls of prescription drugs with their cocktails.

"We tackled everything except hemorrhoids," Bea Arthur said in a 2001 interview with the Archive of American Television. And while not everyone will agree with everything it said, the show embraced the debates and discussions of the time--managing to be irreverent, but also take things seriously. The war in Vietnam, the women's movement, the Black Power movement--they were all topics.

Reflecting the political climate of 1970s, Maude usually took the right side, and Maude usually won. Whether it was words of warning to her husband, Walter--"God will get you for that, Walter"--or a jab at her Republican neighbor's support for Richard Nixon, Maude usually won the fight.

The best controversial episodes, however, were those about Maude's unplanned pregnancy and decision to seek an abortion. Not only had no other TV show ever talked about abortion before, no show has talked about it in the same way since.

The two-part episode was broadcast in November 1972, just two months after abortion became legal in New York state. It was not until January 1973 that the Supreme Court made their ruling on Roe v. Wade, making women's right to abortion the law of the land.

Two CBS affiliates canceled the episodes, called "Maude's Dilemma," and 32 affiliates were pressured not to rerun the segments in the summer of 1973 by abortion opponents. But some 65 million people tuned into the second airing of the program.

The episodes are available online and well worth watching. It's immensely liberating to see people in a sitcom talk frankly about a woman's right to control her own body. And while there are also any number of vasectomy and morning sickness jokes to go around, these episodes are dead serious.

As Maude's grown daughter Carol (played by Adrienne Barbeau) assures her:

Mother, we are free, we finally have the right to decide what we can do with our own bodies...You're just scared, and it's as simple as going to the dentist...Listen to me, it's a simple operation now. But when you were growing up, it was illegal, and it was dangerous, and it was sinister, and you've never gotten over's not your fault, when you were young, abortion was a dirty word. It's not anymore. You think about that.

Maude responds by embracing her daughter.

The resolution Maude eventually reaches with her husband is just as satisfying. Over a game of gin in bed, Walter admits that he never wanted to have children and has always felt guilty about feeling that way (another conversation that never happens between a couple on TV.) When it's clear that Maude has decided on the abortion, Walter says:

For you, Maude, for me, in the privacy of our own lives, you are doing the right thing.

Here's to hoping a new generation of struggles will shake things up and bring us the kind of television that reflects actual people's concerns and hopes. That's reality TV that I can't wait for.

Originally published at