Sunday, May 26, 2019

Watching without borrowing

I'm currently recovering from a dislocated shoulder that involved a small fracture.

It happened while I was playing baseball last Saturday. Yes, that's something I'm doing this year but haven't told you about. I'm playing third base for my team, and in an attempt to make a sparkling defensive play for the third consecutive inning (if I do say so myself), I dove for a ball that was hit to my left, between myself and the shortstop. I probably had no business making the dive, considering that I was unlikely to reach the ball in the first place, and then would have to get back on my feet and make a good throw to first to have any chance on the runner. But made the dive I did, and heard a snap or a crackle or a pop when my elbow hit the ground. I couldn't lift my glove arm and writhed in pain.

The shoulder popped back in at the hospital before the doctor had even seen me, and I kind of thought that was that. But it turns out dislocations are no laughing matter, and then it also turns out the bone fractured, which I hadn't thought was a possibility despite the snap-cracking sound. If an actual fracture had occurred, I expected more than the dull pain that I attributed just to the dislocation. Since I'd never previously broken a bone in my whole life, I had nothing to compare it to.

Long story short, I missed work all last week, had my arm in a sling that it will be in for another three weeks, and cannot drive for two more weeks beyond that.

Having set the context for you, I have a story that will probably end up a lot shorter than the setup.

I spent the first few days migrating between the couch and the bed, but a shoulder injury isn't the kind of thing that prevents you from going out, or even needing much additional sleep. So by Tuesday I was eager to get out indeed. After dropping the kids off at school, I took in a 10:20 a.m. screening of All is True, then repaired to the library for a couple hours after lunch.

Spending the afternoon reading would have been idyllic, but I'm really struggling with the book I'm becoming less certain I should be determined to finish, so that was no way to really relax. Besides, I had a funny idea of something to do that I hadn't done before: watch a library movie without actually borrowing it.

I was returning four movies and had considered bringing a fifth I hadn't watched, but could return after watching it that afternoon. I forgot to pack it in the end, but that was just as well, as I had more than a thousand other movies to choose from, and I'd never even need them to leave the building.

So I perused as far as P before choosing Philomena for its under 100-minute running time. It's also one of only three best picture nominees from the past decade I hadn't seen (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Theory of Everything). Plus it just seemed like the right movie for this context.

So I watched it. Then just filed it back in the P section of the shelf and went on my merry way. End of story.

I did quite enjoy Philomena, which has whiffs of what we used to call a "Lifetime movie," only it's done really well. Stephen Frears, Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are no slouches. (And it was a bit of a Dench double feature as she's also in All is True.)

I'd love a repeat of this type of thing this week, but it looks like I'm back to work on Monday. My acting boss actually sounds like she thinks I should take more time to recover, but there's only so much migrating between the couch and bed a man can do.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

I finally saw: Sophie's Choice

Is there a movie out there with more of a discrepancy between the number of people who know what it's about, and the number of people who have actually seen it, than Sophie's Choice?

I was one of those former until yesterday, when I finally watched a movie I had started nearly a decade ago and never finished because it was due back at the library or some such (as discussed here).

I suppose you could make the argument for something like The Human Centipede, but let's stick to movies you can talk about in polite company.

Everyone knows that Sophie's Choice, the Alan J. Pakula film adapted from the William Styron novel, is about a woman (Meryl Streep) who has to make a choice about which one of her children, a son and a daughter, will live, and which one will die. The phrase "Sophie's choice" comes up in all kinds of contexts in popular writing and entertainment, and I suspect very few people of a certain age have to ask what it means. The percentage drops on people who know the scenario in which the choice was made (the Holocaust) or which child she chooses (her son), but those details are fairly unimportant in terms of appreciating the horrible, impossible choice Sophie had to make, and the effect it would have had on her. (Interestingly, even though sending one of your own children to the gas chamber is no laughing matter, I hear the phrase referenced most often in a humorous context, as the person using it tends to be exaggerating the importance of a decision between two frivolous options.)

Given what I knew about Sophie's Choice -- which was everything except which child she chooses -- I was surprised to find that 80% of this movie is not a Holocaust drama, but a Tennessee Williams play.

I expected most of the on-screen action to be leading up to the choice, with the choice foreshadowed throughout. From my aborted viewing a decade ago, I knew that the movie started in America in quite a different setting than I had initially expected, but I didn't figure it would stay there long before transitioning into flashback.

In fact, you don't know until the 88-minute mark that Sophie even had children, and then not until the 137-minute mark that she had to make a choice between them. Leaving only 14 minutes of screen time for the choice to sink in with the viewer before the movie is over.

If Sophie's Choice had been made today, I'd venture the script would start on the scene of her being confronted with the choice, but not on her making it. Then we'd transition to post-war Brooklyn and her relationship with Nathan (Kevin Kline) and with her neighbor, the narrator and would-be novelist Stingo (Peter MacNicol). Then intersperse little flashes of Sophie fretting over her choice before finally revealing it at the end. That's not to say this would be better, but it would front load the conflict in a way that seems advantageous nowadays, as well as create emotional stakes by introducing us to the children earlier (rather than basically not at all).

Instead, most of Pakula's film of Styron's story reminded me of two other literary greats. One of those is the aforementioned Williams, whose fondness for southern hothouse environments is recreated here, even with the action taking place in Brooklyn. Stingo is a southerner and the relationship between Nathan and Stophie seems to be very Stanley Kowalski-Blanche DuBois. The third wheel here is not Stella but Stingo, and this is where the other literary reference comes in. As Stingo is an observer but not an essential participant in the relationship between Nathan and Sophie, he reminded me of another narrating observer of a New York couple, Nick Carraway watching Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

Stingo does become more involved as the story progresses, functioning at first as a harmless source of jealousy to the combustible Nathan, and then ultimately a legitimate rival. Given the attention to the present-day, New York portion of the story at the expense of the portion set in Auschwitz, you'd be justified in wondering if the "choice" referred to in the title was between Nathan and Stingo rather than her two children. And while I suppose that double meaning is there, surely that's not what Pakula or Styron intended.

Still, the placing of her fateful choice within the narrative leaves it almost as a footnote, which is odd indeed. The speed with which she has to make the choice -- she's given less than 30 seconds -- was also a surprise to me, as I figured she had time to make a list of pros and cons for each kid, that type of thing.

Clearly it contextualizes what we know about her, and that's something, but the film itself doesn't really pause to consider it, to the extent that Stingo is controlling the direction of the narrative by serving as its narrator (actual narration provided by Josef Summer). After Sophie has revealed her secret to Stingo, his only reaction is carnal, as he transitions a session of comforting her into sex. It's not only his actions but his words that we have as evidence of this, as he begins narrating about the power of his lust, without even mentioning what she's just told him. Maybe Stingo is, in fact, the shallow hack Nathan accuses him of being.

The performance that won Streep her second Oscar (and kicked off her 30-year Oscar drought) is astonishing, as she masters the Polish accent (one of my son's friends has a Polish mum so I've been hearing it a lot lately). But the bigger pure revelation for me is Kline, who's giving a version of the larger-than-life character I fell in love with in A Fish Called Wanda, but with a menace I'm not sure I've ever seen from him. I truly never knew what he was going to do next and felt he could explode into violence at every second. There's a life and a deadness in his eyes that have a timeshare over the control of his persona.

Overall I was a pretty big fan of the movie, but it wasn't the least bit constructed as I expected it to be. I guess that's a good thing, given that films tend to surprise us less and less these days.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Hot commodities gaping in control rooms

If you've seen one Godzilla movie, have you seen them all?

The trailers for the latest make it seem as though the answer to that question is definitively "Yes."

I've had occasion to become quite familiar with them, as about seven-second versions of the trailer for Godzilla: King of the Monsters play in clusters between innings on MLB.TV. Which is to say, they play about four times back-to-back, sometimes changing which seven-second ad plays, sometimes just slamming together the same one four times in a row.

And I've concluded that the essence of every Godzilla movie ever has been faithfully reproduced here. That essence is:

A collection of actors with a bit of heat in their careers, all staring out windows or at video screens, making awestruck comments about the gargantuan size and power of the fire-breathing monster.

Or put more succinctly: Hot commodities gaping in control rooms.

Let's look at the motley Irwin Allen-style cast they've assembled here, the actors sharing one thing in common: They are all "breaking out" in some way.

Okay, it doesn't entirely hold up -- I'm not sure what Ken Watanabe is "breaking out" of except possibly a retirement home. (That's cruel; he's only 59. How could Ken Watanabe be only 59?)

But in most cases, the actors they've cast could be the result of some casting director yelling at an underling "Get me the guy from [hit TV show or movie X]!"

For example:

Thomas Middleditch ("Get me that guy from Silicon Valley!")

Millie Bobby Brown ("Get me that girl from Stranger Things!")

Charles Dance ("Get me that old guy from Game of Thrones!")

O'Shea Jackson Jr. ("Get me that guy who played Ice Cube in that NWA movie! I think his name is Something Cube!")

Sally Hawkins ("Get me that deaf actress from The Shape of Water!")

Kyle Chandler ("Get me that football coach from Friday Night Lights! I know that show ended years ago but he's still hot!")

Bradley Whitford ("Get me that guy from, um ... West Wing! And ... Unicorn Store!)

Vera Farmiga ("Get me ... Vera Farmiga!")

It's not really possible to tell who plays what from these little clips, but it looks entirely possible that all of them are some kind of cryptozoological expert working for the military industrial complex, except possibly Jackson, because he's in military duds, and Brown, because she's, like, a kid.

So I won't even attempt to differentiate who says which of the following lines, all of which may have been in previous Godzilla movies.


"We opened Pandora's Box, and there's no closing it now."

"Long live the king."

"We unleashed the titans."

"Oh God ..."
" ... zilla."

"What's with the light show?"
"It's an intimidation display."
"Consider us very intimidated."

"I'm just glad he's on our side."

I really think I'm not going to see this movie.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Audient Audit: The Pink Panther

This is the fifth in my 2019 monthly series Audient Audit, where I go back and check whether I actually saw certain films that have made it on to my various lists.

"Dead ant. Dead ant. Dead ant dead ant dead ant dead ant dead annnnt."

That's the punchline to the joke "What did the Pink Panther say when he stepped on an ant?" and it's meant to be sung in the meter and tune of Henry Mancini's famous Pink Panther score. It was a very popular joke when I was in third grade.

And that, my friends, is likely why I have believed all these years that I saw Blake Edwards' 1963 film The Pink Panther.

Having watched the movie in 2019, it strikes me as a very strange property to have achieved the cultural prominence it did. The cultural prominence that allowed it to become a joke among eight-year-olds is why I assumed I'd seen the movie, but that prominence does not seem a very likely outcome for a movie that is more in the style of the May-December romantic comedies that were prevalent at the time than a franchise about an inept detective.

The May is Claudia Cardinale (then 25) and the December is David Niven (then 53), as he's a cat burglar trying to seduce her princess in order to relieve her of the world's largest diamond (which has a flaw that looks like a pink panther, hence the name for a decades-spanning franchise). It put me immediately in mind of Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief, where Cary Grant (then 51) is the cat burglar and Grace Kelly (then 26) is his love interest, though that came eight years earlier so I guess Panther is the pretender in this case.

Sure, there's some inept detective stuff, but the weird thing is that it does not involve very much actual detecting. As Inspector Clouseau, Peter Sellers dons his trademark trenchcoat a couple times, but we see him more often in his pajamas, as much of the comedy related to him seems to revolve around methods of getting his treacherous wife to go to sleep. He's also got an extended bit where his hand is stuck inside a vase. The things we associate most with Clouseau were from later movies, it appears. And it's probably one of those that I might have actually seen some of, though which one, it would be impossible to say. (There were eight films, some of which came after Sellers died, even before the two reboots with Steve Martin.)

It strikes me that there was something going on in the early 1960s where massive franchises were being launched from films that ended up feeling very different from the films that followed them. Just a year earlier saw the release of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, which is quite mild by the standards of the ensuing series, involving comparatively little action. Still, there had to be a germ in these movies that caused so much profitable offspring to blossom. They credit Jaws a dozen years later with the advent of the blockbuster, but things going on in the early 1960s seem to have been paving the way.

Of course, the real reason all of us third graders knew the Pink Panther theme was not this movie, but the fact that they made a Saturday morning cartoon out of the iconic character that appears in the opening credits of Edwards' movie. I'm wondering if this cartoon character itself had more to do with the series taking off even than Sellers.

As for the actual quality of the movie, I must admit I found myself somewhat disoriented within the story in the first 30 minutes, even to the extent that I checked Wikipedia to see if I'd missed something important. (I had.) It eventually rounded out into something for which I bore a small bit of affection, but not as much as I expected. I was kind of surprised at the characterization of Clouseau, who I thought would be a bumbler but maybe not a fool. I found it a bit unsavory that his wife of ten years is cuckolding him to multiple other men, and that the crimes of the cat burglar are ultimately pinned on him. (Oops, spoiler alert.)

June is the next month on the calendar.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Vampire Batman

Robert Pattinson had done such a good job convincing us that he had transitioned, now and forever, into an indie movie actor. In fact, his transition from Twilight heartthrob to seeker of challenging roles has been so extreme, the mere presence of Pattinson in a movie is the most likely indicator that it will not be traditionally accessible.

And now this.

"This" is that Variety reported this week that Pattinson is in talks -- like, serious enough talks that it's basically a done deal -- to be the next Batman. That's in Matt Reeves' The Batman, which is due out in 2021.

Really, Robert?

Hey, even actors have to eat -- a little bit, anyway -- and as he's been lowering his salaries to appear in increasingly off-the-grid movies, maybe the ability to keep his refrigerator stocked has become a genuine concern. If so, I don't fault him any more than I fault anyone else for taking the money now and again to make their lives a little easier.

But I have to imagine Pattinson put a way a ton of cash from appearing in four extremely popular vampire movies going on ten years ago. He might not have been thrifty with it, but there should be enough left to buy quinoa and vegetables, or whatever people who are conscious about their physique eat. (Believe me, I wouldn't know.)

It's possible that this is not selling out, but neither is it inherently laudable, as the role of Batman has taken something of a hit in recent years. I don't necessarily think it was Ben Affleck's fault, but let's just say he didn't do anybody any favors. Zack Snyder is likely more to blame for the dark and humorless tone of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and then Justice League, the latter of which actually tried to have a lighter tone due to the punch-up work of Joss Whedon, which also didn't work. Not only did Affleck want to get away from the role, but you got the impression being cast as the caped crusader might be considered a black mark on anybody's career.

And Pattinson has forged quite the career, it not as a matinee idol than as a critical darling, which is clearly more important to him. In recent years he has worked with the likes of David Cronenberg, James Gray and the Safdie brothers. Next month his collaboration with revered French director Claire Denis, High Life, will release here in Australia, and I understand it's pretty inaccessible.

However, there are other indications that Pattinson wants to have it both ways. He's scheduled to appear in Christopher Nolan's next movie, due out in 2020 and so far shrouded in secrecy (as far as I understand it; it's only called Untitled Christopher Nolan Project on IMDB, and it's coming out in only 14 months).

So maybe this gives us an indication of whose career he's trying to use as a template for his own. The most critically acclaimed Batman -- for the movies he was in, if not always for his own performance -- was Christian Bale, another English actor. Nolan directed those movies. Bale effectively bounces back and forth between tentpole fare and weirder indie movies, or at least performances you would not expect from him either because he doesn't look like the person in question or because he has to gain or lose a lot of weight to do the role. Something tells me that if Pattinson could have Bale's career, he would.

And besides, now that Zack Snyder won't (presumably) have anything to do with any future Batman movies, or DCEU movies in general (if there is to still be a DCEU), maybe the taint will fall away from the character. A step in the right direction is already coming this fall, when one of the best actors we have, Joaquin Phoenix, will play the Joker. I think that's a career Pattinson would take as well.

I guess this is a development we should root for rather than criticize. Marvel has been smart about its creative choices, plucking actors and directors who would seem to be above all this from the indie scene. DC is trending that way as well, and pretty soon, maybe Batman will again be a character most actors would love to have on their resume.

We should want one of the most beloved superheroes of all time to be beloved again.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The hot property

I put in a reservation for The Wizard of Oz from the library in time for us to watch it at Christmastime.

Three weeks ago, my reservation finally came in.

Three weeks later, I have to return it unwatched because there are two more pending reservations for it.

That’s a lot of interest in a movie that turns 80 years old this year.

I don’t know whether it’s because the library has too few copies of it, or because indeed people are seeing the 80th anniversary as an occasion to revisit the movie and show their kids, but this movie is just a damn hot property in the Melbourne Public Library system. We’re showing our kids, but the 80th has nothing to do with it, given that I first tried to reserve it last year. It’s a BluRay, but I figure that probably has little effect on its popularity.

Now, I strongly suspect my attempt to reserve it was not delayed because there were 20 people ahead of me on the reservation list – you can check that and I believe it was four or five at the most – but rather because somebody lost it behind their couch. I believe this copy, possibly the only copy, of The Wizard of Oz was caught in some kind of purgatory that went beyond the normal rental-renewal-reservation cycle. It had to be. And the person who lost it would have owed the library tens of dollars upon returning it, though among the other saintly things the Melbourne libraries do is randomly wave off fees now and again, especially if they become excessively large.

The movie is due on Friday, and that means I won’t have another Sunday night – the time we traditionally watch movies as a family – before it’s due. So, back to my spot in the queue, to starting that six-month cycle all over again.

And then I thought: Why not just return it late? They will probably wave off the fee anyway.

And if they don’t, well, 35 cents will have been a worthy cost to show my kids one of the all-time family classics.

Why it’s so popular – I mean, so much more popular than all the other popular cinematic classics – I may never know. You’d think it would be pretty available elsewhere. I only hope it’s as popular with my kids on Sunday as it seems to be with the citizens of Melbourne at large.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

O Captain, my Captain

Avengers: Endgame spoilers near the end of this post.

It's funny, though not surprising, how social media gets a whiff of your preferences and then doubles down on them. For example, I once looked at a picture of Cara Delevingne on Pinterest -- a site I signed up for just so I could look up a recipe -- and the site began inundating my email notifications with other pictures of the model-turned-actress. Since I'm getting all these pictures of an admittedly beautiful woman, sometimes I look at one or two more, and the intensity of Delevingne-related notifications just escalates again. It's a vicious cycle. (And given how many times she hits my inbox, you'd think I'd have memorized how to spell her last name, but no, I have to look it up every time.)

A similar thing has happened with Twitter and Chris Evans. I tried tweeting for about two months something like six or seven years ago, maybe longer, as an enhancement to this blog. I've since been dormant, but I do still receive email recaps from Twitter related to people they think I'd be interested in, based on the few people I follow and other tweets I've randomly looked at over the years. For a while they were giving me the tweets of everyone who ever appeared in a Star Trek franchise, though that has died off. Now Chris Evans leads my email notification every time -- though I have encouraged this more than I ever did with Delevingne.

In the nearly ten years since Evans debuted as Captain America, he has grown immeasurably in my estimation. At the start I think I thought of him as sort of a poor man's Ryan Reynolds, someone who was charming enough but had no real substance. He could display an acting chop now and again but he was mostly forgettable.

I was initially opposed to his casting, because I agreed with the logic that Marvel missed an opportunity to cast someone who more directly represented what we think of as America today, or at least in 2010: even more of a multi-ethnic melting pot than it ever was. A black or Latino Cap really seemed like the way to go, and Evans' unavoidable honky-ness felt particularly retrograde. But Marvel stuck true to the origins of the character and I went into the movie with great wariness.

But then Captain America: The First Avenger was my favorite Marvel movie to that point, and its two sequels only increased my affection for the franchise and its main character. Evans had done the role proud, though he admittedly may have benefited from the strong directing of first Joe Johnston and then the Russo brothers. How much of my love for the franchise was due to Evans, and how much to other factors, was difficult to discern.

Evans has since proven his worth in a way that is decidedly his own -- off-screen.

I don't remember why I first clicked on an Evans tweet, but I think it was because it was critical of Donald Trump. I have since realized that Evans is relentless with Trump, even having his own pet nickname for him: Biff. He addresses him directly as Biff in his tweets, and his tweets usually focus on the dumbest things Trump is guilty of, in a hilarious way. I can imagine Trump is out there squirming every time Evans hits send, or submit, or whatever you do to send out a tweet.

Lately, I've noticed Evans tweeting more set photos and videos from Avengers: Endgame, and he's been quite generous with that stuff. But this morning I saw he tweeted out a video in which the leader of a youth organization devoted to fiscal responsibility gave the OK sign to alt-right "white power" chants. "Garbage people in this thread," Evans tweeted.

What I love is that this man who is so clearly meant to be a symbol of America has made such a clear statement about what side of the political debate (the correct side) he is on. You could say it's the character who's a symbol, not the man. But if we're being honest, you don't cast somebody in a role without knowing that the actor him or herself is going to take on a similar iconic, symbolic status as the character. If Evans had been a different type of person, or if Marvel had been a different kind of company, he/they would have seen it as their responsibility to truly "represent America" -- to be cagey about political affiliations and give people on both sides of the aisle a hero to look up to that represents them in some way. Instead, Evans doesn't hesitate to imply that half of his potential constituency -- his viewing audience -- might be "garbage people." Either they're garbage people themselves, or they give safe harbor to garbage people, which amounts to the same thing.

Chris Evans has made Captain America into truly the type of ambassador we should want to give out to the world. He is, or was, a type who fights for justice for the downtrodden, and presents to the world a face of acceptance of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We have in our collection of kids books a Captain America storybook that spends a weirdly long amount of time on the origins of the U.S., specifically on its status as a home for immigrants who came through Ellis Island and became Americans. It's corny, but the way Evans has embodied those virtues fills a person with pride.

And Marvel has the best of both worlds as they now do get to give us a Captain America who actually embodies that multi-ethnic melting pot in his own ethnicity. As Evans has obviously retired from that role, he's now passing on the shield to Anthony Mackie, the black actor who has been playing Sam Wilson/Falcon since Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Mackie should do the shield, and America, proud. But Evans has made sure he's had big shoes to fill.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The spider who watched my movie with me

Last night there was a spider on my laptop screen as I was watching a movie.

What an Australian cliché.

It wasn’t a big one, and in fact, it wasn’t the first insect to be on my laptop during the movie. Near the start I had to shoo a cockroach off the upper corner of the screen casing. Not the really repugnant black kind, but a smaller, lighter brown one. You’d think I was sitting outside or something, but nope, I was in my bed. And it has nothing to do with the cleanliness, or lack thereof, of our house; that's just Australia for you.

(The movie was the hilariously titled The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, which I expected to be a zany Don Coscarelli-type experience, but was actually quite earnest.)

Perhaps because it wasn’t frighteningly big, I did not take any measures to remove it. It didn’t take up residence there until about the last 30 minutes of the movie, at which point I was just trying to keep my eyes open long enough to finish watching. Getting out of bed, taking the laptop outside and shaking it off was the last thing on my mind. As long as it didn’t make any sudden movements, we were cool. 

And it didn’t. What I found interesting was how long the spider stayed on the screen, in the same exact spot for the lion's share of that time. Maybe that spot was particularly warm.

It really was almost as though the spider was watching. I doubt the spider’s eyes were oriented at the screen, and even if so, you can’t make out anything on a screen that’s 200 times as big as you are when you are pressed up flat against it. But the spider was just happy chilling out. In fact, there were a number of times when it was positioned perfectly in a space between the characters, or contributed in some other funny way to the mis-en-scene.

A theme of the movie is non-violence, as the titular “man” regrets the taking of any life, even if it was Hitler or a megavirus-carrying yeti. (Yes, this is all presented in a surprisingly straight-faced fashion.) In keeping with that, I had no instinct to squash my little friend, although I rarely do that with spiders anyway. I make some effort to release them outdoors, squashing them only under the most dire of threats. And even though this is Australia, there was almost zero chance this particular arachnid was poisonous.

So we just sat there, chilled, and watched.

Unfortunately, our little interlude was interrupted before we could finish the movie. My wife came into the bedroom and was horrified to see that there was a spider on my laptop screen. She’s no spider scaredy cat – I mean, she was raised in Australia after all – but neither does she encourage a person’s proximity to a spider if it can be avoided. That’s probably another thing that goes with growing up in Australia.

So she insisted we deal with it, and regretfully, I acquiesced. She got a box and an envelope and shuffled my little friend with one into the other. He carried on his adventures outdoors. Or perhaps she.

And I watched the last ten minutes of the movie just a tad lonelier. 

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Quantifying Peter Mayhew

I think I've missed May the 4th in every time zone in the U.S., and it's already late in the day on May the 5th here in Australia. But this post has an unfortunate timeliness that has nothing to do with a Star Wars Celebration Day on the calendar.

As you probably know, Peter Mayhew died a couple days ago. And as you probably know, Peter Mayhew played Chewbacca in most of the Star Wars movies (in every Star Wars movie in which Chewbacca appeared up until The Force Awakens, which means he was replaced in The Last Jedi and Solo even before he died).

But this may be the only thing you know about Peter Mayhew, including what he looks like.

Because Peter Mayhew -- the memory of Peter Mayhew, anyway -- deserves for you to know what he looked like, here here is, or was:

There have been a lot of nice gestures toward the memory of Mayhew on social media, the nicest of which is the one I stole for the image above. (Though I do wonder why Obi-Wan doesn't get to stand with them also; did Alec Guinness die too long ago?) I myself have not been particularly sentimental about his passing, though, and I think it's because Mayhew is one of a number of Star Wars actors who had an unusual relationship with us.

As did many of my compatriots, I learned early on the names of all the Star Wars cast members. We didn't stop at Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. We went deep, learning with a fascination that exceeded the level of trivia the names Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, David Prowse, and yes, Peter Mayhew.

Even then, though, I kind of wondered what it meant that these actors played the characters they played.

Anthony Daniels -- C3PO, of course -- seemed to give the most recognizable "actor performance" of the four. Not only did he walk around inside the protocol droid's shiny metal costume, but he also provided Threepio's voice, which is at least 80% of the charm of that character.

But the others were a real gray area. On the other end of the spectrum from Daniels was Kenny Baker, who died in 2016. We all knew he played R2D2, but given that he did not make the noises R2D2 makes, and that no part of his physical appearance was visible or can be said to have manipulated the physiognomy of the robot, knowing that Baker was the guy sitting inside costume seemed, to me, abstract at best. And I hate to say that because I, too, view Baker as something of a beloved figure, just because.

Prowse, who is still alive, and Mayhew, who now is not, were the two in the middle. Clearly they brought something to their parts, as they walked around inside the costumes and contributed a physicality that was indeed important to both characters. But neither provided the voice for their characters. Prowse -- who played Darth Vader if you didn't know -- yielded much of what made the character iconic to James Earl Jones, while Chewbacca's inimitable wookiee noises were created by sound designer Ben Burtt.

I believe all those people on social media who were very sad that Peter Mayhew died, but I'm not sure even they understand what their relationship was to him. Although purists will likely shout me down on this, I'm not sure most people could tell the difference between Mayhew as Chewbacca in The Force Awakens or Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca in the last two films. And maybe that's only because Mayhew did such a good job giving birth to his essential Chewbacca-ness, allowing any old pretender to step into the role and for us to still love him. Chewbacca was pretty under-utlized in The Last Jedi, which I think is a failure of the script more than Suotamo's performance. I do think Suotamo is quite good in Solo, though.

In the end, it is impossible to know what another actor might have done with Chewbacca, because another actor did not play Chewbacca. Peter Mayhew did. And if any part of why we love him was the result of Mayhew's choices, then he deserves our love and our sorrow.

I don't think just anybody would lace his hands behind his head in a gesture of pride at Han Solo's line "Wookiees have been known to do that" in the original Star Wars. Mayhew gave a "walking carpet" personality. I don't think he was replaceable; I think if Joonas Suotamo successfully replaced him, it was because he studied Mayhew's creation with the same love and admiration we all felt.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

The finite lifespan of spoiler bans

No spoilers for Endgame in this post.

Joe and Anthony Russo have announced that the spoiler ban on Avengers: Endgame ends on Monday.

Um, what?

I still give spoiler alerts before I talk about the details of The Crying Game, to the extent that I ever do that. The point is, you should always avoid giving away spoilers to movies people haven't yet seen.

Their argument is that part of the reason to make a movie is to promote conversation, and apparently, they think that the extent people can discuss Avengers: Endgame has been inhibited by their own request not to spoil it.

But shouldn't a request not to spoil a movie be implicit? I understand why they felt they needed to plant that awareness in people's consciousness for this movie, and maybe, that gives them an implied responsibility to revoke that ban at a certain point.

But now that the Russos have given people "permission" to spoil what happens in this movie, it seems like people will double down on it and indulge their natural instinct to gossip. People love to be bearers of news -- good, bad, juicy, whatever. Now a bunch of idiots will surely go and spill all the beans on as many platforms as they are able.

Should you really have your enjoyment of Avengers: Endgame ruined by the fact that you haven't been able to see it in its first two weekends? What if you're off the grid for two weeks? What if you're recuperating at home from breaking both your legs and can't get out to the theater, leaving social media as one of your few comforts? A comfort that will be absolutely spoiled by Endgame talk come Monday?

The cynical view is that the Russos are trying to goose attendance in the second weekend so that Endgame is even more of a record-breaking juggernaut than it already is. But Endgame doesn't need that help.

I know plenty of people who like a good Marvel movie but hate crowds. It would be eminently reasonable for them to wait until the third weekend to see Endgame. Now they won't have the chance. And I think that's pretty tough.

I suppose the reverse argument is that there are, indeed, elements of certain movies that enter the zeitgeist, that become so widely known that you become disinclined to worry about spoiling them. For example, I no longer give spoiler warnings about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you don't know that [REDACTED] died in that movie, well, you aren't living in modern society.

But that was nearly four years ago, and this isn't even four weeks ago. Sure, pretty soon everyone will know that [SOMETHING SOMETHING SOMETHING], but I don't think Monday is a fair expectation for that to occur.

Human beings are dumb enough and inconsiderate enough to do plenty of spoiling without being specifically invited to do so. The Russos should have just let it occur naturally and kept their mouths shut.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Clint Eastwood's artlessness

I swear that when Clint Eastwood made Unforgiven, he had more ability than the brute efficiency with which he makes movies now.

The latest example of this I’ve been exposed to is American Sniper, the best picture nominee from 2014. It’s not a bad movie, but it rarely clears the artistic bar of presenting a sequence of scenes in a particular order. Which is basically what Clint Eastwood is nowadays.

I swear it didn’t used to be like this. However, the next time I watch Unforgiven, which is one of my top 20 films of all time, I will make a note of whether I was wrong, and that’s really all he had back then – just a better screenwriter, cinematographer and editor.

Eastwood has been working with not great versions of those things recently, though I won’t haul out their names to shame them, especially since I’d probably discover that some of them are actually quite accomplished. Even the accomplished ones, though, are probably limited by Eastwood’s famous “cut-print” approach to filmmaking. He doesn’t do second takes, which is a limitation that is seriously exposed with a movie like last year’s The 15:17 to Paris, which starred non-professional actors. Though to be honest, the performance of Jenna Fischer stood out as needing a second take more than those of the non-professionals.

American Sniper is not without interesting things going on from a filmmaking perspective. To simulate the way that Chris Kyle’s four tours of duty in the Middle East were interspersed with his home life, Eastwood will occasionally go directly from a battle scene to a scene of home life – not because Kyle is thinking about his home life during that battle scene, but because the narrative has chosen to jump forward to that next scene without the traditional markers of leaving a tour of duty, liking climbing on a large military transport with a duffel bag over his shoulder. I applaud that idea, but because it’s Eastwood and because he has lowered my expectations, the decision strikes one as an artless transition rather than an intentional artistic choice.

The abruptness of Eastwood’s endings is what I’m starting to notice is bothering me, combined with their tendency toward corny, unironic patriotism. Even a film I really like, like Sully, struck me as stumbling at its very ending, as the characters chuckle about something inconsequential and the credits just start rolling. If you saw Sully, you probably know what I’m talking about.

The 15:17 to Paris and American Sniper are both pretty terrible in that regard. I don’t recall the exact contours of the Paris ending, since I saw that some eight months ago, but Sniper’s ending is of course fresh in my memory. And I’ll give you a small spoiler alert in case you haven’t seen this movie or aren’t familiar with Kyle’s story.

The last action of the movie involves Kyle (Bradley Cooper) meeting another veteran outside his house, with his wife (an unrecognizeable Sienna Miller) closing the door slowly and ominously with a foreboding she could not possibly have, but which movie characters inevitably have to lend extra gravity to a moment that surely didn’t have any. There’s a fadeout (that’s another artless and very old school technique Eastwood likes) and then you see a funeral procession starting with the words on-screen: “Chris Kyle was killed that day by a veteran he was trying to help.” The very next words, barely three seconds later, are “Directed and produced by Clint Eastwood.” It lands with the same kind of thud as “Poochie died on the way to his home planet.” I had to read up on Wikipedia to find out what actually happened to Kyle, and though Eastwood surely didn’t want to give any spotlight to the actions of Kyle’s killer, there was clearly a better way to do it. I was wavering on three stars for American Sniper until this dud of an ending reminded me of Eastwood’s weaknesses and convinced me that 2.5 was the more appropriate rating.

And as it does in most of his movies, that forlorn score, often composed by Eastwood himself, kicks in, reminding us of the sacrifices of good Americans or some such.

There are a couple problems with the perspective I’m currently offering. One is that Eastwood is my political foe, a true believer in Republican politics and likely all the things it stands for, though I’d like to think his time in Hollywood has given him a bit more social liberalism than most of his political allies. Another is that Eastwood is old. I should not be expecting a now 88-year-old man to be quivering with creative vibrancy, even if he was only 83 when he made American Sniper. Maybe he does those takes so quickly because he’s worried he will die before he finishes the movie. Still, Ridley Scott is 81 and he can still make movies where an obvious attention has been paid to camera setups, editing, and other important aspects of filmmaking as an art.

And it’s not like this has always been Eastwood’s MO. Although I’m listing myself as unsure on Unforgiven, as it has been about five years since I’ve seen it, I feel a bit more confident in saying that films like Letters from Iwo Jima and Hereafter show a considerably greater aptitude for craft (even though it’s been longer than that since I’ve seen Iwo Jima, and even though Hereafter is an actually bad movie – though it has a fantastic opening sequence). Although I haven’t seen Jersey Boys, I figure that since it’s a musical, it’s probably got some panache as well.

I guess part of the reason this is worth commenting on and writing about at all is because I think of Eastwood as someone who does have these instincts toward Filmmaking with a capital F. It’s one of the reasons I raise my eyebrow a bit in interest every time I hear there’s a new Eastwood movie coming out. But it may all just be a mirage, and maybe I need to start going into Eastwood movies expecting less.

I may not get many more opportunities, at least among movies that have not yet been released. Eastwood is rumored to be making a movie called The Ballad of Richard Jewell, but given that it’s midway through 2019 and is still only a rumor, at the very least it will represent an unusually long layoff for the prolific director (who made two films in 2018). He’ll be lucky if he gets it out before his 90th birthday. Then again, if he decided to start making it tomorrow he could be done with it in three weeks.

There are plenty of Eastwood movies in the past I haven’t seen, and feel like I’m still interested in seeing. I still haven’t seen his most recent, The Mule, which is also supposed to be not great.  Then there’s Jersey Boys, and going back further, Flags of Our Fathers, Space Cowboys, True Crime, The Rookie, White Hunter Black Heart, Bird, Heartbreak Ridge, Pale Rider, Sudden Impact, Honkytonk Man, Firefox, Bronco Billy, The Gauntlet, The Eiger Sanction, Breezy and (breathe) Play Misty for Me. Whew. The guy has been making movies for a long time.

Hopefully some of those movies will showcase the art Eastwood has since lost.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Un-lee-shed: School Daze

This is the second in my 2019 series watching a Spike Lee movie I haven't seen every two months.

"Wake up!" the character played by Lauren Fishburne, then credited as Larry Fishburne, yells a number of times in a typically direct Spike Lee ending to School Daze. The message, I suppose, is that the students of historically black Mission College need to wake up to the ways they are selling out their own cultural history, turning a blind eye to important social movements, and generally treading water. Race is not explicitly referenced, though there is a definite fissure between black characters who have dark skin and those who have lighter skin, indicating that interracial relationships (wanted or otherwise) are indecently recent in the history of those family trees.

However, the kind of deflating aspect to what is obviously designed as a galvanizing moment is that it's not direct enough. Spike Lee tends to say things in a loud and unambiguous way, and usually it's not possible to mistake what he's saying. Here, though, it is. He's structured his narrative so that Fishburne can deliver a climactic two-word phrase that amounts to "check yourself before your wreck yourself," but the narrative leading up to that point has not clearly enough indicated what these characters need to check for.

The most dominant aspect of School Daze -- which I thought was set in a high school prior to watching it -- is its investigation of fraternities at Mission College, which also includes sororities, various hangers on, and those who set themselves up in opposition to the Greek system. It all comes back to the Greeks, though. So what you'd think Lee's message would be is that the conformity and blind obedience that goes along with the fraternity system is the thing Lee's shouting down, even if it's not the kind of Lee message we would ordinarily expect. Fraternities don't seem like they are, or have ever been, a hot-button issue for African Americans.

Except the sheer amount of time Lee spends with the Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity, led by the character played by Giancarlo Esposito among others, is a strange kind of endorsement of the various rites, rituals and humiliations associated with pledging a fraternity, which is happening for the entire running time of the movie. Lee himself even plays one of the "Gammites," as they are called -- the fraternity's pledges. He and Esposito are collaborators on the film's most shameful moment, when Esposito prostitutes out his own girlfriend (Tisha Campbell) so that Lee's character can lose his virginity on drop night. Clearly the movie does not support the actions of either of these guys, but it does not seem to frown on them as much as one would expect. It would be too simplistic to suggest that by playing one of these characters, Lee is suggesting it is something he as the director believes in, because I don't sense Lee needs to be the hero of his own films. But the whole thing is a bit problematic.

I've come in kind of sideways on School Daze, I suppose. I should tell you that it is not, primarily, a message movie, Fishburne's climactic theatrics notwithstanding. In fact, on the surface it reminded me a lot more of another movie with the word "Daze" in the title, though it would come after this: Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. School Daze is, at its core, a hangout movie, and in this respect it is quite fun.

In a form that was not present in his debut (She's Gotta Have It) but would come to be a defining characteristic of Lee's work, School Daze is an ensemble movie, one where you feel like you get to know a bit about a lot of different characters. It is also, for all intents and purposes, a musical, which I don't think Lee would return to until Chi-Raq (which I will also be seeing later in this series). Some of the numbers are typical musical numbers, where the characters break out of whatever everyday activity they were doing to sing and dance, and others are "diagetic musical numbers," in other words, performances that are experienced as performances by the characters. They are without exception fun and even sometimes poignant, and act as the lubricant between scenes of characters hanging out, sassing each other, and interfacing with those who oppose them.

There are a lot of familiar faces in this one, including three actors who would star in the TV show A Different World, most notably Jasmine Guy and Kadeem Hardison. Hardison is, inexplicably, one of the top-billed in the cast, though he hardly has any lines. You've also got future Lee regulars like Roger Gunvere Smith, Bill Nunn and Ossie Davis, as well as multiple Lee siblings. Samuel L. Jackson even makes an appearance. This cross-section of charismatic actors I either already knew then, or have since come to know and love, just contributes to the sense of hanging out with friends for two hours, walking in their steps as they go through life in an Atlanta college.

The only reason why this is not fully satisfying on its own is you feel like Lee is trying to say more. He has a whole song devoted to differences in hair between light-skinned and dark-skinned people, and Fishburne's big political initiative is to protest the school's investment in South Africa, from which they need to disengage in the era of Apartheid. But Lee has not yet found the ideal way to streamline this content into a coherent message, so for the most part it just feels sprinkled over the proceedings at random. Which is why the big "Wake up!" ending feels like a bit of an anticlimax.

Still, this is a clear artistic and creative step forward from She's Gotta Have It and seems to lay the groundwork for what he was able to accomplish the following year in his masterpiece, Do the Right Thing. That alone makes it worth seeing.

It was poignant to watch this on the same day that I learned of John Singleton's death, as I think of Lee and Singleton as joint pioneers in a period of vital black cinema that began with Lee and which Singleton pushed forward significantly through Boyz N the Hood. That was also the movie where I was introduced to "Larry" Fishburne, who stars here. Singleton was not able to remain vital in the ways Lee has, as he steadily transitioned into more of a genre filmmaker. But he deserves credit for his role in this important historical moment, and it felt nice to pay a sort of tribute to him by watching School Daze, however accidental the tribute was.

In June I will jump forward to 1996 with Get on the Bus, pending availability.