Thursday, March 18, 2010

1: American Dreamz (2006) Director: Paul Weitz

Maltin notes that the box-office failure of this film potentially derives from the cold-blooded nature of some of the principle characters, namely Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) and Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant). These characters are cold, self-involved possibly sociopathic, and yet as Maltin suggests they retain our interest, should you be disposed in this way. I think the more sinister reading here is that another reason for the movie’s unpopularity is that the surface stereotyped middle eastern characters (Afghani and Iranian, but who cares, right?) are indeed portrayed as some of the more endearing, emotionally complex and ultimately more sympathetic characters than the white (very white) Anglo-Americans. The movie tracks three disparate but interconnected plotlines, which are ciphers for three different topical cultural phenomena. These three plotlines swirl around in a rather Hollywood way, around the most hyper Hollywood of shows “American Dreamz.” The first is the Dubya-clone, who is the recently re-elected president played by Dennis Quaid, and fresh off his re-election is facing a crisis of conscience (heh, we definitely know it is a movie!). He retreats to the presidential bedroom and delves into a three week long reading binge, he even reads the Canadian press (and as the Karl Rove-esque Chief of Staff played by Willem Defoe so brilliantly notes, “so what if they are our neighbors”). The second is a Broadway-show tunes loving bumbling Al-Qaeda operative, who is ostensibly sent off the ranch to live with his highly secularized and wealthy Iranian cousins in Orange County to rot. The third is the depiction of small-town America featuring the way-too-cute karaoke queen played by  Mandy Moore. At the center is the slickly produced super-popular American Idol parody of a show, hosted by the Simon Cowell-like, Brit-you-love-to-hate, Martin Tweed.

Tweed is an interesting character, as we are introduced to him he is currently looking over the numbers to his show, (anachronistically, or perhaps Tweedy is a natural luddite, he is reviewing said “numbers” which he receives in printed form…in a letter) and while spectacular, his girl of the moment is informing him that she is leaving him, to which he responds with little fanfare, in fact the news elicits barely even a reaction, except essentially to note that, “you make me want to be a better person, I don’t want to be a better person, I’m me.” This kind of willful arrogance gravitates towards the Mandy Moore character, who herself is an ice-princess-like figure who notes that she really isn’t attracted to other people. Nothing in this movie is thinly-veiled, which is not to say it isn’t subtle, but the comportment, presentation, and outright physiognomic similarities that these characters have to real-life people is oddly refreshing. The movie makes no attempt to be coy or shy about its message. It is highly critical of the celebreality that the public is obsessed with, an obsession made all the more galling by the portrayal of a “dummy'” president, who is little more than a puppet on a political stage.

This notion of staging is further pushed in an early scene, where an Al-Qaeda madrasa or training camp is being videotaped/directed for ostensible propaganda. There is a kind of meta-critique of the ephemeralizing of authenticity, which eventually leaks out into the dialogue during one exchange between Laura and George..ahem, I mean between First Lady and President Stanton, in which the first lady must explain the meaning of “placebo” to which the president has a moment of lucidity and quips that he sometimes feels like a placebo. The Iranian operative Omer Obeidi has his own crisis of authenticity and eventually he must decide between his own desires and his prescribed holy mission.  The interaction between Moore’s and Grant’s characters also attempts to wrestle with this notion of genuineness: both are cut from the same wool, they both in their own way reject the need for this vacuous concept and all of the normal accoutrements that accompanies it, instead opting for a disconnection from reality which Sally finds “really cool.” The end of the movie ends in an expected way mostly, all of the characters eventually resolve this crisis of authenticity, some in more radical ways than others. One character as a kind of marker hinting at the underlying issues the movie is tackling sings Sinatra’s “My Way”; of course, this is an anthem reaffirming authenticity if there ever was one. It is this theme which holds the rather contrived situation and plot together in a genuinely interesting and markedly novel way. 

Monday, March 1, 2010

0: Opening Credits


In this book, Leonard Maltin attempts to “re-discover” and package a list of movies that he audaciously claims, as  the title implies, we’ve never seen. Of course, this kind of list is certainly not new, and not even the first such attempt by the author himself. However, there are two interesting features about this list, features that have prompted me to begin this little online set of dispatches that are worth noting, besides of course the odd (and prime) number of films that constitute his list. Initially, a non-trivial number of these movies were produced by major studios and thus had major studio money behind them in their marketing campaign. Yet, these movies, for one reason or another (and those reasons will likely be a focus of this blog)  failed to reach in Maltin’s words, “a wide audience.” Secondly, Maltin’s compilation does not smack of a cineaste’s arrogance that might usually accompany the book’s titular claim, in fact, some of these films are as one friend described it, “defiantly middlebrow.” The majority of these movies were released in the past two or three decades with only an occasional nod to the earlier golden and silver eras of Hollywood (and even less occasionally, foreign centers of cinema). Maltin provides only brief synopses of the movies he has presented, and provides briefer though hopefully insightful details as to why they have made this list. In this space, after watching each movie in order, I hope to respond not only to the author’s comments, but also respond directly to the movie. In my comments, I will be sure to minimize any spoilers. My plan, despite my rather abecedarian credentials, will be to utilize some of the conventions of formal film criticism in my posts in addition to some conjecture as to the possible reasons for their status as “never seen,” provided that status is indeed legitimate. I am sure of three things: first, I will find some of his choices perspicacious and intelligent, I will also be baffled as to why some of these movies have earned such an estimation from Maltin, and finally, I will be wholly non-plussed  as to some of the movies to which I will be willingly subjected, like some kind of self-inflicted Ludovico technique. Perhaps you too will be encouraged to seek out some of these films yourself, and likewise make your own conclusions about the value of this list versus the literally hundreds of other lists you might peruse on a given day.  The first movie on Maltin’s list is 2006’s American Dreamz, a Paul Weitz directed picture starring Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid and…MANDY MOORE! Uh, oh we may be in trouble already.