Friday, March 24, 2017

Hospital internet movie test


If the subject of this post seems like just a random assortment of nouns, I will do my best to explain their interrelationship.

Last night I needed to do an internet stress test at a local children's hospital.

Why?

Well, I'll be conducting my online fantasy baseball draft there on Sunday, and I needed to make sure the signal was strong and that it didn't kick me out after a certain allotment of time per visit.

The hospital is a 10-minute walk from my house and it's what I relied on as my sole source of internet for something like a month after we moved in, when problems with the wiring in our house kept our internet from working.

That was back in 2013, and though there were no restrictions on usage at the time, a lot can change in 3.5 years.

The reason I'm drafting there on Sunday, rather than just using the internet at my house, is that a) it's more fun to draft somewhere out in the world, just for the novelty of it, and b) my family isn't able to clear out of the house this Sunday morning like they usually are. I need my concentration during the draft, you see, and the 90 minutes maximum it may last is not usually too difficult to carve out for myself. This year, though, they have conflicting plans that promise to leave my house as a maximum-distraction environment.

The hospital has a little food court where you can sit on your computer and be on the internet without bothering anybody, and though I do find it a bit strange and borderline inappropriate to utilize the hospital's resources in this way, it's really not hurting anyone. And no one should know the difference -- I might just be using my computer between visits to the bedroom of my sick child. (Ouch, it's not sounding any better.)

But if the hospital's free WiFi did kick me off in, say, an hour, I'd be screwed mid-draft without any way to get to a location I can get back online -- without sprinting home, anyway. So, careful as I am about any preparations related to my draft, I figured I needed to test it on Thursday night.

And what's the truest test of both the speed and endurance of an internet connection? Plus feeding naturally into my own interests?

A movie, of course.

Now, I have a number of movies out from the library right now that are trying to fight their way into my DVD player, and it would have been a great opportunity to watch one of those. But a movie on my computer's DVD player does not test what I'm trying to test. Netflix does.

So I was left with the fun task of finding something completely random to watch -- preferably something long enough that it'd provide the true test of just how long I can expect to have an internet connection.

I perused the baseball movie options, as I always like to watch a new-to-me baseball movie to celebrate the start of the season, though I ended up coming up empty. I landed upon an indeed completely random option: Garry Marshall's 1987 movie Overboard, the Kurt Russell-Goldie Hawn movie that I'd always heard was such fun. (Interestingly, the one baseball option I considered for a moment -- the documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball -- also features Russell.)

Oddly, it's almost exactly the one-year anniversary of when I watched another one of Hawn's screwball comedies (if you want to call them that) from this period, that being 1992's Bird on a Wire -- and Mel Gibson even had a similar period-appropriate mullet to the one Russell sports in this one five years earlier.

The big difference, though, was in how much I liked the films. I found Wire tedious and annoying. Overboard, however, was indeed the classic its fans have made it out to be.

I won't launch into a full lovefest for Overboard, since this post is more about watching a movie at a hospital than the actual quality of the movie (for whatever that's worth), but it's a really good combination of laughs and heart. It starts with a bit of tacky period costuming as Hawn plays a materialistic asshole whose wardrobes stretch the definition of ridiculous, and all my "this hasn't aged well" alarm bells were going off. But it morphs into a funny domestic comedy in which Russell is gaslighting an amnesiac Hawn for stiffing him on a carpentry job and then pushing him over the side of her yacht. Of course, in the course of getting some (very funny) revenge, he falls hard for as her buried inner nice person comes forward. It achieves its goals and then some, and the two of them are great together -- no surprise as they were also a real-life couple. Still are -- which surprises me to learn, as I thought they had broken up.

One thing worth specifically mentioning is another element that always seems dated in 80s movies -- the score. Overboard was no exception, but the main theme is interesting in a very peculiar way -- it sounds a bit like the perfect combination of hillbilly music and synthesizer music. I have no better way to describe it, but I can tell you that it works.

Oh, and one other thing: Hector Elizondo does, indeed, make a brief appearance, this being a Garry Marshall movie. I wasn't sure how long ago their partnership started, but it was at least three decades.

And did the hospital internet pass the test?

Indeed it did. The movie buffered nary a once, and it never cut me off or told me I had only x amount of time to surf. The one thing that did worry me was the warning that hackers might see my information if I joined this insecure network, but I tried to reassure myself that I was probably safe unless I was planning to do any banking. Or at least, maybe that hackers have enough of a conscience not to find victims at a children's hospital.

I only watched a little more than an hour of the movie, though. Although I was not kicked out by the security guard -- something that used to happen to me back in 2013 -- the place was virtually empty when I did leave. I figured, that was a long enough test, and I watched the rest at home.

So hopefully, my only obstacle to successfully completing my draft on Sunday will be my own dumb decisions on which players to draft, which I am sure to instantly regret.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

I may not love Guardians movies ...


... but DAMN do I love the posters.

And who knows, maybe I will actually love this one.

I probably owe the original a revisit, especially considering how most people worship it.

Maybe I'll try to fit that in before the new movie comes out.

Hey, it could happen.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Those not worthy of translation


They say film is the ultimate collaborative medium, but you wouldn't know it from the way the opening credits of Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring were translated -- or not translated, as the case may be.

Late Spring is my latest movie in my monthly Asian Audient series, and I'll discuss it at length in the coming days, but for now I must devote a separate post to getting a seemingly insignificant aspect of it off my chest. An aspect that's not so insignificant if you were one of the many people who toiled away on this movie -- anonymously, as it turns out, to English-speaking audiences.

As the screen grab above indicates, whole sections of the film's opening credits have gone untranslated. You are only left to assume which collaborators' contributions are getting the short shrift here, be it the costume designer, the boom operator or the casting director.

I should say that this is not something unique to Ozu or Late Spring. I believe the same was true of last month's entry in the series, High and Low, directed by Akira Kurosawa.

I didn't comment on it then. But I'm commenting on it now.

What gives? Why the dissing of all those "lower" on the list of contributors than the director, writer, cinematographer, producer and cast?

I suspect it has something to do with an excessive sense of politeness and modesty that would be very much in keeping with Japanese culture. "You don't need to know who all these people are; we know you just want to watch the film."

But then again, it seems at least somewhat unlikely that the original Japanese creators had anything to do with the subtitling. In fact, although Late Spring was of course screened in the U.S. and would have had subtitles, my guess is that the current subtitles were not those originally on screen at the time, but rather, a later insertion for some DVD release or other reappraisal of the film. So although Japanese people would have needed to be involved for the sake of, you know, actually determining what was being said, the choices on what to include or not include could have been in the hands of an American.

I guess I'd also understand excluding the translation of the names of many of the collaborators if their names were in danger of blocking any on-screen action. But as you can see, and as was the case in most cinema at the time, the credits had the screen all to themselves. And though there's certainly a basic stark beauty to seeing just the Japanese characters on their own, it's nothing that a few English subtitles would fatally disrupt.

Oh well. I can tell you I appreciated their contributions, even if I could not match their names to them.

But more on that in the coming days.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Get out, Get Out!


Every year around this time, Australia makes me wait an interminable amount of time for the release of a movie that's being buzzed about in the U.S.

I griped about it here three years ago, my first beginning-of-the-release-year in Australia, when The Lego Movie was held back until the first term school holidays, which did not start that year until the beginning of April. (It's Easter dependent). It had already been out for two months in the U.S. by that point.

It's a bit of deja vu in 2017, as there's a new Lego Movie with a similar early-year U.S. release date being delayed for similar reasons, though I'm not so worked up about that (despite hearing that it's really good). Rather, it's another movie, one that would have utterly no incentive for waiting for the kiddies to be out of school, that's bothering me in 2017.

Namely, the whole world has seen Jordan Peele's Get Out but me.

People are talking about it online. People are recommending it in Facebook groups in which I participate. People are sending me direct messages about it. People want to know if I've seen it and what I think.

And so when I tell Get Out to get out, I mean get released already, dammit.

You see that February release date taunting me in that poster above? Uh uh. The Australian release date was not in February. It's not in March. It won't be in April either.

May. May is when this movie is coming out where I live.

May 4th, to be exact.

May the fourth be with it.

Instead of already knowing what it's all about, as most of the world does, I had to cover my eyes and ears last night during the trailer before A Cure for Wellness. I don't want this movie's surprises ruined for me. I know the basic premise and can make likely extrapolations from there, but I feel like specifics will be encroaching soon if I don't carefully guard myself against them.

And Get Out is coming at me full force on the podcast front. I have three podcasts that regularly discuss modern movies -- Filmspotting, The Slate Gulture Gabfest and The Next Picture Show -- and each of them has discussed it recently. In one case I skipped through the discussion, and in the other two, I have yet to get to them.

Ho hum.

So all I can really do now is wait, and make this joke:

"Have you seen Jordan Peele's new movie yet? It's called Get Out: The Elaine Benes Story."


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Horse fear


I usually rewatch movies because I love them, or think I loved them and am trying to remember, or might have mistakenly loved them when they weren't really lovable, and desperately need to know whether to stop recommending them to people.

But sometimes I also rewatch movies because I thought they were awful, and I want to get in touch with what made them so bad.

The funny thing about rewatching The NeverEnding Story on Monday night -- yet another rewatch of an 80s fantasy classic, something I've been doing so much lately I might almost devote a series to it -- is that I thought it was worse than bad when I first saw it. When I first saw it, I thought it was lame.

After a second watch, I still think it's a bit lame, but I can't believe I also didn't remember how disturbing it was. How disturbing it still is.

This piece does a perfect job encapsulating what's so disturbing about it, but if you don't want to follow the link, I'll summarize it for you: The NeverEnding Story is about depression and the fear that death is eternal nothingness. How's that to lay on the head of the 12-year-old me that was probably watching it on cable in 1985 or 1986?

Except that's not what I remember about this movie. I don't remember it bothering me in the slightest. I don't remember it exposing me to ideas I was not mature enough to handle. I just remember it being boring and terminally square. "Lame," to use another word.

Maybe I only saw parts of it, though I imagine a general interest in this type of movie would have incentivized me to sit through the whole thing. However, I don't think I saw it in the theater, so cable certainly could have created the conditions where I saw only those aforementioned parts.

But I quite clearly remember feeling surprised and perturbed by the way the movie was not delivering on any of its promises nor achieving the type of narrative arc I expected it to achieve. I feel like I even remember turning to a similarly underwhelmed friend and exclaiming my outrage. It was one of my earliest experiences of seeing a movie that was clearly targeted to me, yet feeling no connection with it whatsoever.

But today I just want to talk about the horse.

This is the part that should have disturbed me. Instead, I didn't even remember it at all.

So near the beginning of the adventure undertaken by Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), the main character in the book stolen by bullied modern kid Bastian (Barret Oliver), Atreyu and his horse are setting off across a murky swamp. It's part of a quest to save a dying princess and the land that she presides over (Fantasia, apparently no relation to the Disney movie).

Suddenly, the horse sinks and dies.

There's no expectation that this will happen. In fact, as far as I'm aware, there was nothing in the dialogue to explain that part of this swamp works like quicksand, and that if you get stuck in it, not only will you sink, but you will lose the will to fight against the sinking.

That's the thing that's so disturbing about the death of Artax, the horse. He just sits there and sinks, like a horse in the headlights.

With this expression on his face:


In part because of filming logistics, and in part (I assume) because of cruelty to animals considerations, we don't actually see the horse sinking. But each time the camera returns to him, the poor bloody animal is a bit further down in the muck, an expression on his face very similar to that expression worn by the horse who gets accidentally shot in Animal House.

The suddenness is the first thing about this that's disquieting. Everything is really going along fine -- they're in a bit of a depressing landscape, sure, but they are alone, not being tracked by any baddies, and are in pursuit of a righteous mission. Then without any warning, the horse finds himself in a circumstance from which he cannot extricate himself. One minute he's prancing along, undaunted by the muck and the mud. The next, he's face to face with his own demise.

I suppose this is the movie's way of saying that tragedy is like that in real life. One minute you've got a horse doing your bidding and seeming pretty satisfied with its role in the world. The next minute, that horse's head has entirely sunk under the water in some random pond, never to be seen again.

The next thing that's disquieting is that horse's expression. That's some genuine horse fear. It's not acting. It's a horse saying "Holy fucking shit, what the hell is going on here?" Now obviously, that horse was not harmed in the making of this movie. But you have to wonder if some psychological harm wasn't inflicted on it, and whether that kind of thing shouldn't be made light of. That horse is probably not going to want to cross a pond anytime soon, that's for sure.

But the most disquieting thing is the idea that the horse is utterly resigned to his own fate. The fact that he does not struggle against impending doom could have just been a sign of a poorly trained animal or a poorly directed scene, but it's not. Atreyu tells the horse "You have to try, you have to care." This horse dies because the nothingness of oblivion was preferable to the world in which he found himself.

That's some heavy shit.

Go and read that piece I linked to above. There's some serious mind-fuck material in The NeverEnding Story.

Yet curiously, this does not make me feel much more strongly about the movie. It's still full of questionable decisions. It still has pacing issues. It's still far more episodic than it should be, a stillborn version of a hero's journey. Sure, the fact that Atreyu's adversary is like the personification of existential ennui, in a giant storm of nothingness, is a trippy idea. But it isn't really executed in a way that's very trippy.

But I'm wondering if I did always have this feeling about The NeverEnding Story, but I didn't know how to process what I was feeling. Because I didn't know what it was up to, or how it was up to it, I just thought it was "lame." Maybe it just fried my noodle a little bit, so my reaction was just to laugh at it and turn it off. It could have entered my nightmares and disturbed me, if I'd understood it a little better. Instead, I just tucked it away in a near-forgotten corner of my mind, so I had to watch it again in 2017 to try to remember why I even had a negative impression of it.

So I don't like this movie a whole lot, but I would recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen it, just for how weird it ultimately is. A lot of it is not "good weird" -- say, like Return to Oz -- but either "good weird" or "bad weird" is preferable to the total lack of weirdness we find in children's entertainment today.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Breaking: Distress no longer afflicts damsels














In honor of International Women's Day, someone posted this video about how exceptional Hiyao Miyazaki has been about giving his female characters agency. It certainly seems to be true, though if you follow my blog, you know I'm shamefully behind on Miyazaki's films and trying to make up for that this year through my bi-monthly series Audient Anime. My wife shared it with me on Facebook because she knows I just saw (and loved) My Neighbor Totoro.

The video also contrasts Miyazaki's approach with what it deems "conventional movies" (i.e. Hollywood movies), which view women largely as damsels in distress.

Yeah, maybe once upon a time they did.

Now?

If a female character does not save her own ass, and probably rescue at least one man as well, the movie doesn't even get made.

Don't for a minute think I'm opposed to it. I'm not. But this tendency has course corrected to such an overwhelming degree that you will never find a woman in peril in a movie anymore. Or if she is, she saves herself, or another woman saves her.

Simply put, men have forfeited that job.

To be sure, in a time when the American president is grabbing people's pussies, no amount of female empowerment is too much. There's always more needed to even the playing field when (something close to) a majority of voters deem a presidential candidate perfectly qualified for the office, despite a preponderance of evidence suggesting he's a sexual predator.

But I guess I do think it's sort of funny to hear women I know (among them my wife) talk about how they like a particular character because she "saves herself," as opposed to being saved by a man. The reason I think it's funny is that almost all female characters are written that way now, because screenwriters are scared to death to write them any other way.

I mean, it's a good thing. No doubt. I'm just starting to wonder if any damsels will ever be in distress again.

You see, I have a basic philosophy that you can make a movie about anything as long as you do it sensitively and in a way that doesn't offend people. (Or if it does offend them, it offends them in challenging ways.) We watch movies to witness the grand spectrum of human experience, not just a limited selection of that spectrum.

And yeah, there are experiences we've already had plenty and don't need to continue to have over and over again. One of those is the man saving the woman from certain death, as something about his masculine traits is particularly well suited to saving her. Left to her own devices, movies have historically told us, this woman would perish, in part because she's lost her head too much to try to figure out her own method of escape.

We don't need to see that movie anymore. But I think we're limiting ourselves if we only see movies in which women are perfectly self-sufficient. If a female character shows herself to be a capable, three-dimensional human being who solves complex mathematical problems, talks her way out of dangerous situations, keeps a cool head under pressure and always makes the decision that involves the most rational consideration of the relevant factors, so what if a man needs to swing in on a vine and keep her from descending into a pit of fire at the end? I mean, even just once?

I think the problem that has traditionally plagued Hollywood is not that a woman must sometimes be saved at the end of a movie, but that she has consistently demonstrated less ingenuity, less intelligence and less cleverness over the course of the rest of the movie, some of which may result in her ending up in a position where she needs to be saved. Her being saved at the end is the most symbolic moment that reinforces our patriarchal societal infrastructure, but it's the way her character has been written, or more likely underwritten, up to that point that's really the most problematic.

So we need better characters overall, not rules that ban specific plot points from ever happening.

I guess I resist anything that's quite so absolute as the mandate "a man must never save a woman." That mandate doesn't inspire screenwriters to be more creative -- it just prompts them to reverse the roles. For example, you know that old chestnut of two people falling off the side of a building (or bridge, or what have you) and one grabbing the arm of the other as the other dangles over oblivion? By rights they might have just retired that one. Instead, now it's the woman who's above, holding the man. I can think of two examples of that from the last year, and there are probably more (Zootopia and The Great Wall, though two films more otherwise unrelated or more distant from each other in quality I cannot think of). Maybe instead of flipping these tropes to show us how enlightened they are, they ought to just be putting them out to pasture.

You'd think that an individual movie could handle this kind of thing with a kind of aplomb that would allow a man to save a woman and still avoid public scorn. The problem is that no individual movie exists in a vacuum. It is a member of a community of movies, always emblematic of a larger trend. And we are all so aware of the desired trajectory of that larger trend that any individual movie can feel like a counterexample to that trajectory. Instead of a screenwriter having the freedom to write a complex movie in which characters have real depth and dimension, and their weaknesses are examples of our common human frailties and not an example of the frailty of a particular gender, that screenwriter must adhere to the safest possible forms of political correctness.

Whoa. I am coming dangerously close to coming out against political correctness. I try to be politically correct whenever possible, and do so freely and gladly. But there are times when it goes too far, and limits the range of potential outcomes of something as messy and as indefinable as art.

As my cursor hovers over the big orange PUBLISH button, I hesitate, fearing that some of you reading this will interpret me the wrong way. You will see me as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. That's not at all what I want to be.

But having written this, neither do I want it to reside permanently in my drafts folder, the same purgatory in which other ideas that weren't quite fully formed or didn't quite express myself the way I wanted to express myself have been consigned.

So publish it I will. You might misunderstand me even with my dozen protestations clarifying my position, and there's nothing I can do about that.

I guess the real problem is that we are not post-gender. As indicated earlier, the results of the presidential election are proof positive of that. I know that female characters could save themselves in every movie made for the next 20 years and we'd only be starting to do enough with subliminal gender representation to convince certain skeptics that men and women are really equal. We aren't post-gender the same way we aren't post racial and we aren't post-sexual preference.

So for now, we can't have movies where the black characters are reprehensible, the gay characters are serial killers or the Asian characters drive badly, and we certainly can't have a movie where a man must swing in on a vine to save a woman from descending into a pit of fire.

Someday, I hope, we'll get there.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Animated remakes of live-action remakes


As you probably know by now, Disney is in the live-action remake business the same way that Marvel is in the "forever expanding its universe" business and Star Wars is in the "movie per year cash cow" business. (Trick question -- all three are actually Disney.)

But what happens when Disney has already remade all its animated hits as live-action films? (I'm seeing the live-action Tangled arriving sometime in 2023).

I'm wondering if the way to go isn't to remake its animated movies as ... animated movies. And not later, but now.

Disney animated films have a whole new look now. Wouldn't you just love to see an old classic with new-school animation? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Pinocchio? Peter Pan? They might look reaaaaally nice made by a computer.

Of course I realize what I'm saying is sacrilege. But possibly not more sacrilegious than remaking them as live-action movies. Especially since Disney was founded as an animation studio and that remains its bread and butter.

This post is being inspired by Beauty and the Beast in more than one way. For one, the live-action Beauty and the Best comes out this month -- this week in the U.S., next week in Australia. But about a year ago I rewatched the original animated best picture nominee for the first time in something like 25 years, in order to discuss it on my podcast. My impression of it 25 years ago was not only that it was a great story, but that the cutting-edge animation heralded the arrival of a new era at Disney, one that really began two years earlier with The Little Mermaid, only I found that movie more memorable for its songs than its appearance.

But you know what? Twenty-five years is an eternity in the field of animation. What looked cutting edge in 1991 did not look cutting edge in 2016. And I didn't want to hold that against Beauty and the Beast, but the fact of the matter is, I did.

So instead of a live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, maybe we should be getting an animated one?

The idea of a studio remaking its own movie in a similar form is probably a bit anathema to Disney. I mean, it wouldn't be the first time a studio has done that -- since it often continues to own the rights to something, sometimes that studio is the only one who can remake it. But an animated remake of a classic, besides meeting controversy as a decision in and of itself, would also be very beholden to the decisions made the first time around. Which shots do you repeat? Which shots do you reenvision? And if you are reenvisioning it, are you only doing so because the baggage of the first film is so heavy? Are you making changes just to differentiate yourself, and if so, are those ill-advised changes?

So maybe these movies need that middle step of the live-action remake. It's kind of like a game of operator, where the movie gets changed just enough in translation to come out the other side as a new entity. (Although that generally only works in operator if people are willfully changing the word. It really isn't as hard to clearly make out whispers in your ear as the game supposes it to be. The game is really only any fun if you have a prankster somewhere in your midst.)

For a good analogy, look at the evolution of something like the movie Hairspray. It started as a John Waters movie, then became a hit Broadway musical, then came back to the silver screen in what I thought was a very good adaptation of the musical. (Actually, I have no idea if it was a good adaptation, never having seen the musical, but I enjoyed the film quite a bit.) You need that intermediary step when the property becomes quite clearly something else.

Could Beauty and the Beast do something like that? Maybe, but I think the problem is, the Beauty and the Beast we're going to be getting next week is not a reenvisiong of the 1991 movie. It aspires only to be a restaging, with a few little moments to differentiate it, but not nearly what you get when you write a bunch of songs to accompany a story that never had them, like Hairspray. It isn't going to change enough to warrant another adaptation. In fact, it might not change at all.

There is a good candidate for something like this within Disney's huge hits from that same period, and don't say Aladdin because that also is going forward in live-action form (with Guy Ritchie as the director!). No, I'm talking about the next film after Aladdin, The Lion King, one of Disney's many films that has only animal characters, making it a bit less likely for a live-action treatment (though that didn't stop them with The Jungle Book). The Lion King quite clearly was reenvisioned for its mega-hit incarnation on Broadway. If they made a new animated version whose art was inspired by Julie Taymor's visionary production design, that really would be that intermediary step. It would give us not only an update to that film's dated 1994 animation (which I haven't recently rewatched), but something that was genuinely new.

Unfortunately, "new" isn't exactly Disney's favorite thing right now. If it ever was.

When Disney started all this business a few years ago, "new" actually was a consideration. Disney's live-action remake of Sleeping Beauty was not actually called Sleeping Beauty, it was called Maleficent, and it told the story from the perspective of the villain. That's a pretty cool idea. But that movie was not as well received as the movie that came the following year, Cinderella, which hewed much more closely to the original. The newly proven formula was not to give audiences something new, but something that already felt very familiar to them.

Say hello to Hollywood in the second decade of the 21st century.

And checking IMDB just now, I see that the example I listed above as a potential savior -- The Lion King -- is also going forward in "live-action" (probably entirely CG) form, directed by Jon Favreau (who else). I can't imagine Julie Taymor's vision will make its way anywhere near that project.

Maybe Disney is just saving this idea for the 2030s, when they will have already remade live-action versions of Home on the Range and Treasure Planet and the well really will have run dry again.

Though who knows what animation will look like then. We'll probably be virtually walking around in the movie next to Belle and the Beast, and maybe that'll be exactly what we need at that moment.

And it certainly might well seem "new."

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Chazelle and Jenkins not so different


I saw Barry Jenkins' first film last night, and you know what it reminded me of?

Damien Chazelle's first film.

Ha.

It would seem that the two directors share something more in common than both thinking their movies had won best picture last week. (Jenkins got to hold on to that feeling; Chazelle, not so much, but having just won best director must have helped diminish his disappointment.)

During awards season, a narrative cropped up that the two best picture frontrunners, Moonlight and La La Land, had a meaningful diametric opposition to each other. In part because of unrelated factors that speak more to our society at large, one was seen as the black movie, the other blindingly white; one as the flight of fancy that leaves behind our current problems, the other as the one that delves into them chest deep.

But having just watched Medicine for Melancholy, I have to wonder if the "authors" of those two works are really more similar than they are different.


First, a one-sentence synopsis of each. Medicine for Melancholy is about a man named Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and a woman named Jo (Tracey Higgins) who sleep together at a party, separate awkwardly after breakfast, then spend the day together when he returns the purse she left behind in the cab they shared. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Chazelle's debut, charts through song the end of a three-month relationship -- or is it the end? -- between a jazz trumpeter (Jason Palmer) and a listless introvert looking for work (Desiree Garcia).

Jenkins' first film premiered at South by Southwest almost exactly nine years ago, but made its theatrical debut nearly a year later at the end of January 2009. Only three months later, Chazelle's debut bowed.

The films have a lot more in common than the timing of their respective releases.

Both are very clearly independent films, focusing primarily on a small-scale relationship between a man and a woman. It's not just that they obviously were made on a budget; it's that they wear their independent credentials on their sleeves, as both movies were also shot in black and white as a conscious artistic choice. Jenkins intersperses a bit of red, though I'm not entirely sure to what purpose.

Chazelle's movie is a musical and Jenkins' an atmospheric slice-of-life romance, but their forms are still very similar, both reserving a number of shots for the picturesque surroundings of the cities they're set in, Boston and San Francisco respectively. In fact, you could say the old chestnut about "the location being its own character" applies to both films.

Both movies also have a significant affection for music, Guy and Madeline very textually (Guy plays the trumpet) and Medicine subtextually (the leads discuss music on several occasions and dance to indie rock). Jenkins' use of the score in Moonlight certainly indicates that he has the same type of obvious affinity for music that Chazelle has.

And you know what? In Chazelle's movie, Guy is black and Madeline is white. That may be an unexpected result for people who were fed the very flawed line of reasoning that La La Land was somehow a racist or fascist movie. Yes, there are some problematic bits about the white guy saving jazz and the black guy selling it out, but I don't think those are quite as straightforward as they seem. From the evidence of Guy and Madeline, Chazelle appears to be very comfortable working across racial lines, and he probably would have been just as happy to cast interracial leads in La La Land if he thought he could still get the financial backing to make the project he wanted to make.

The interesting thing is that the interracial coupling between Guy and Madeline is a bone of contention for Jenkins that he addresses very pointedly in Medicine. Micah and Jo have very opposite perspectives on the role race plays in their lives, and the extent to which they must grapple with it. Micah is not what you would call militant, but he never hides his views about race and his own potential disenfranchisement -- when asked what single word describes him, he chooses "black" even more fundamentally than "man." Jo, on the other hand, considers her race incidental to her, and is even committing the cardinal sin of dating (and living with) a white man (upon whom she's cheating with Micah). Micah laments how blacks make up only 7% of the population of San Francisco, and that this leads to more interracial dating than he's comfortable with.

So I guess if Jenkins' perspective is to be taken literally, even the interracial dating in Guy and Madeline would not necessarily win Chazelle any points. Then again, that's only if Jenkins' perspective is to be considered the same as Micah's perspective. There are indications that Jenkins finds flaws in the way Micah sees the world, and some appealing aspects to the way Jo views it -- but of course he wouldn't write the characters' words in the first place if he didn't believe them on some level.

The most obvious thing the two have in common is that they very much seem to be cutting their teeth on these first movies, and it shows. Low-key almost to a fault, the movies win points for a certain verisimilitude (even though one is a musical!) but not necessarily for really sticking with you afterward. Both filmmakers have really blossomed since then, Chazelle in two near-masterpieces (Whiplash also) and Jenkins in one so far. Will be really interested to see what Jenkins offers us next. It will be complex to be sure.

To end on a difference between them, though -- there's a clear disparity in intention here. Jenkins remains interested in grappling with social ills, as demonstrated in the Medicine undercurrent about gentrification and affordable housing. Chazelle wants to entertain first and foremost, though he clearly has a lot of ideas about the struggles and sacrifices of the artist.

They aren't trying to do the same thing, but they're both really good filmmakers, and the differences between them aren't as simple as black and white.

Nor are they, in any fundamental way, even differences.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

X-Men: Apocalypse or Termutantator 2: Judgment Day or Children of Mutants


If Logan seems really good, it could be because it reminds us of some really good movies.

One of which is not last year's X-Men: Apocalypse. Which wasn't terrible, but which I watched on the plane only like three months ago and have already forgotten.

I think they might have used that title a year too early.

And before I go any further, let me issue a giant flaming SPOILER ALERT for anyone who thinks I'm not going to spoil every last second of Logan in the following post. (Also spoiling T2 and Children of Men, but it's a bit more likely you've seen those.)

Let's do this systematically.

X-Men: Apocalypse

If you're going to use a cataclysmic word like "apocalypse" in an X-Men movie title, don't waste it on the name of a character. A character who was the most forgettable part of a forgettable movie.

No, use it on a movie like this.

The world does not end in Logan, nor is it in danger of ending. But a cinematic world does seem to meet its maker, and what could be more apocalyptic than that?

Logan doubles down on the epic revelations of the way characters die that makes movies like Star Trek Generations and Star Wars: The Force Awakens feel apocalyptic in their own ways. It kills off not only one, but arguably both of the most famous X-Men there ever were.

And what could be more apocalyptic than that?

But the deaths of Charles Xavier and Wolverine -- in 2029, so they can still fiddle with the timeline to get them in plenty more movies -- are not just apocalyptic because of the fact of their occurrence. I mean, everyone dies, and in this movie we learn that Xavier is supposed to be in his 90s -- a good long life. I'd have to consult the comics to know for sure, but Wolverine a.k.a. Logan nee James Howlett could be three times older than that. They've lived good long lives.

Well, not good long lives. And that's the apocalyptic part. Because we somewhat rarely see our favorite recurring characters in the movies meet their ultimate demise, we always retain this distant hope -- nay, belief -- that there is a happily ever after waiting for them, somewhere, at the end of all these troubles. They may be going through the shit now -- for the seventh, eighth, ninth, or in the case of James Bond, twentysomethingth time -- but someday, somewhere, they will have a quiet retirement full of all the carefree joys that life has denied them so far.

Not so with Logan and Professor X.

Logan has become a heavily bearded alcoholic who drives a limousine, and is starting to get eaten from inside by his adamantium. More metaphorically, he is being eaten from within by the deaths of centuries' worth of people who loved him. Simply put, happiness was never going to be possible for him.

But there's a difference between knowing that this is true and actually seeing it play out. We see the last week of Logan's life, and it's not a pretty one. And yeah, he does die a hero. There's some satisfaction in that. But I wouldn't exactly call it retiring by a fireplace and sipping Earl Grey tea.

And Xavier? He's spent some number of years at the end of his life living in a large metal canister in the Mexican desert, losing his faculties and prone to violent seizures (with catastrophic external consequences for those around him), attended to by an albino who once helped track down his friends in order to exterminate them, and an alcoholic limousine driver who shoots adamantium claws from his knuckles. He also bore the responsibility for an event that gets no elaboration that saw seven other X-Men die. (Which ones? Some other movie will probably tell us, eventually.)

That's not exactly the fireplace with Earl Grey either, now is it.

Termutantator 2: Judgment Day

In structure and form, though, this is almost a complete rehash of Terminator 2. Which is one of my favorite movies of the 1990s, so if there's any movie to borrow from, it might as well be this one.

Shall we review?

- Both movies spend significant portions of the narrative in a Mexican desert setting

- Both movies are violent, R-rated action movies that were successfully sold to the masses despite their R rating

- Both movies feature a fight between two nearly indestructible creatures, the original model and the new and improved model -- here, let's call it Logan vs. the Logan-1000

- Both the T-1000 in T2 and either one of the Logans in Logan have the ability to reshape their hands, making use of a sharp appendage that either comes out of their hands or actually is their hands

- And speaking of hands, both movies feature a character who reveals that he has a robotic hand -- the T-800 revealing his cyborg endoskeleton in T2, and Boyd Holbrook's character showing off his "enhancement" in Logan

- Both movies feature a precocious child in tow, though the roles are reversed in terms of who teaches whom not to use lethal force on an innocent victim

- Both movies feature a mid-movie domestic interlude at the home of a nice black family, though that interlude works out a lot worse for the black family in Logan

- Both movies effectively feature the protector sacrificing himself at the end so the precocious child may live

That enough for you? Or should I go on?

(Trick question. I'd have included more if I could think of them.)

Children of Mutants

This movie's Children of Men similarities are not quite as unmistakable, but I started to think of them when Xavier talks about how there have been "no mutants born in 25 years." (Or someone else says that to him, I can't remember.)

So when we are first presented with Laura, it does seem as though she's kind of the "miracle mutant," the one who has broken the string of no mutant births, just as the baby in Kee's stomach in Children of Men heralds the end of 18 years of worldwide infertility. Of course, we later learn that Laura is not quite so unique and that there are at least a dozen others like her, with similar abilities. (And forgive me for being a bit cynical and thinking that someone is just trying to create the conditions for a whole new series of X-Men movies starring these kids, but grown up by a decade so they can be played by bankable actors.)

Logan is also a similar reluctant hero to Clive Owen's Theo in Children of Men, guiding his young female charge on a dangerous journey plagued by numerous threats to get her to a safe haven -- a Canadian location called Eden here, an altruistic team of scientists called The Tomorrow Project in Children. And of course, both have to die in the execution of their sacred task.

Both movies also feature an adult woman who was meant to be part of the journey but dies unexpectedly near the beginning.

And of course Children of Men is set in 2027, only two years before Logan.

I guess there are only supposed to be like six different stories that people tell over and over again, right?

                                       ********************

One final thought about the movie, which I did like very much despite pointing out these similarities and giving you the impression I view it skeptically. When Xavier asks Logan if Laura reminds him of anybody, I thought for sure they were not going with the obvious (uh, sure, she has adamantium claws, of course she reminds him of him) but the less obvious, a character who has been in the background of each of Wolverine's three spinoff films while almost never being referenced openly. It can't have been a coincidence that the terrific young actress playing Laura, Dafne Keen, could very credibly be cast as either a younger version of Famke Janssen, or her daughter. Famke Janssen having of course played Jean Grey, the love of Logan's life, who dies in X2. Yet the movie doesn't ever evoke her name, and the similarity of appearance must be only coincidental because Laura is the biological daughter of Logan and some Mexican teenager who was used as a surrogate to carry the baby to term. A bit of a missed opportunity, I'd say.

Maybe they just cast Keen as a bit of a visual link to Logan's past, a past he has finally now put to rest.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Hot off the festivals


Netflix is not only trying to change the paradigm for film distribution. It's trying to take the old paradigm for distribution and wipe it from our memories.

First it was news that the dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner at this year's Sundance, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, is not only coming straight to Netflix, it's already here. In fact, we watched it last night.

Then it's news that Netflix is paying nine figures -- you read that right -- to control distribution of the newest Martin Scorsese film, which reteams the director and three acting stars of Goodfellas. Reports are circulating that it cost Netflix $105 million to secure distribution rights.

It's truly bizarre to think that a new Martin Scorsese film might not even get theatrical distribution. I mean, it probably will because Netflix is surely interested in getting in on that same Oscar prestige enjoyed by Amazon when its film Manchester by the Sea was nominated for multiple Oscars. And Netflix also gave Beasts of No Nation a brief theatrical run, a move that paid off with a Golden Globe nomination, if not an Oscar nod. But still.

What's next? Will Christopher Nolan's next film after Dunkirk debut on your TV screen?

It's not outside the realm of possibility to think it might. I mean, I imagine Nolan himself would resist such a thing, since he's been one of the biggest holdouts on shootings his films digitally. It stands to reason that a "nostalgic fondness" for going to the movies in an actual theater would go hand in hand with that. But I might have thought the same of Scorsese. One can only hold out on the money -- especially if it gives you greater freedom to make the kind of film you want to make -- for so long. (I'm not entirely clear if any of the money Netflix is ponying up will assist with finishing the film -- I guess not?)

So it was indeed pretty weird to see one of the most buzzed about films at Sundance only a month after the end of Sundance. Only as recently as two years ago, one of the hot Sundance films (The Witch) took more than a year to be seen by American audiences outside of festivals. We're accustomed to Sundance hits entering into long gestation periods before we get to see them.

Not anymore. And while there are probably good things about that -- I was glad to add it to my fledgling 2017 rankings, which thus far only included Split and The Great Wall -- I'd be lying if I didn't acknowledge that some of the magic is lost.

I like that period when I am anticipating something that might blow my mind, that might rock my word. I like the gradual increase of excitement about a movie until it reaches a fever pitch. I like that period in which I imagine that any movie I haven't seen could be one of my new favorite movies of all time.

But I suppose it's a logical development in an instant gratification world. No one waits for anything anymore. Paradoxically, though, this is also an age where we get flooded with casting news for blockbusters that aren't even scheduled for release for three more years. That's followed by a steady diet of set photos, rumors, teaser trailers, and all sorts of other ephemera until we're sick of the damn thing.

I guess the internet can either give us short waits or create the conditions for an epic wait, depending on what the thing is.

I suppose capitalizing on the Sundance buzz might goose the viewership right out of the gate, though Netflix has always been coy about releasing statistics on views. There won't be an Oscar campaign for it without that theatrical release, but Netflix correctly concluded that this is not the type of film that earns Oscars.

But boy is it good.

As you might expect from director Macon Blair, a collaborator of Jeremy Saulnier who appears in both Blue Ruin and Green Room, it certainly recalls Saulnier's work. But Saulnier hasn't made a movie this good yet. And I like both of the above-mentioned films quite a bit.

It's another story of ordinary people getting in over their heads when they try to take matters into their own hands (Blue Ruin), although some amount of being in the wrong place at the wrong time is also there (Green Room). Only this time the lead is a woman, Melanie Lynskey, and Blair has a sense for black comedy that Saulnier hasn't figured out yet. This is a funny movie, though at times, also an intense one.

That's all I really want to say about it for now. I'll wait for a few more of you to see it before I got into more details.

Which should be soon, since it's featured right there in a prominent spot on your Netflix home page.

The times, they are a-changin.'

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Another world, another time ...


It seems I'm learning all the time lately that bits of my favorite songs originated in movies.

First it was the bit from THX 1138 in the opening moments of Nine Inch Nails' "Mr. Self Destruct," as discussed here, and now it's the opening lines of The Crystal Method's "Trip Like I Do," which it shares with the opening lines of The Dark Crystal.

I actually need to reverse the order there. I found out about the Dark Crystal "Trip Like I Do" connection a couple months back when I listened to a pair of episodes of The Next Picture Show podcast, which compared Crystal with last year's Kubo and the Two Strings. In the Crystal-centric of the two episodes they played that opening narration, a familiar passage from my numerous times listening to "Trip Like I Do" over the years. I'd still only seen The Dark Crystal once, back when it first came out -- or at the very least, I saw it twice then and not since. Let's just say I saw it only once. I might logically have concluded from the name of the band and the reference to crystals in that opening monologue that the two were connected, but I guess I just didn't think much about it.

Last night I finally sat down for my second viewing of The Dark Crystal, satisfying an appetite first whetted when I heard the podcast, and made possible by a library rental. (Took me a while to get around to it, though -- the movie is due back today, which is why I watched it last night.)

I expected The Dark Crystal to engage and kind of horrify me, but look very dated. The reverse was actually true. I thought the puppetry and general look of the film held up better than I expected, and I was a bit bored. At the very least, not as captivated by the story as I expected to be.

But let's touch back to that horrifying part. There are a couple of things in this film that are pretty disturbing, like the way the Skeksis (Skekses?) use the crystal to drain the life force out of the Podlings, making them stare at it Clockwork Orange-style. I guess it would be more disturbing if they then killed and discarded them, but like a number of oppressed creatures in this film, the entranced zombie Podlings do get their life forces back at the end. (And the dog Fizzgig survives getting kicked down one of those bottomless pits of fire, it was nice to see.)

When I was a kid I was always more disturbed by the Skekses (let's go with that as the plural), and I'd actually kind of forgotten the beetle-looking Garthim. I enjoyed their creature design but they didn't really scare me, possibly because I was comparing them to two similar monstrosities from the same time period -- those tall, robed skeletal things from Time Bandits and the Wheelers from Return to Oz.

That probably makes a good transition. This is an appropriate time to have watched The Dark Crystal because it comes on the heels of three related first-time viewings in 2016: Labyrinth, Return to Oz and Legend. Those movies came out in 1986 (the first) and 1985 (the second two), which made them a few years later than Crystal. But clearly mid-80s fantasy has been interesting me lately.

Yet more interesting is how I'm rating them. You'd figure that the one I saw at the time would hold a sentimental sway over me while the three newcomers would be the ones that couldn't make much an impression on me 30 years after their creation. The reverse seems to be true. If I had to rank those four I would rank Labyrinth first, Return to Oz and Legend second and third in whatever order (I'm having a hard time choosing as I sit here) and then The Dark Crystal last. So that means the two Jim Henson films bookend the others. It could be a straight-up matter of their narrative quality, or it could just be that the other three movies make for an interesting first-time discovery for a man in his 40s, a man inclined toward nostalgia, as I suppose we all are lately.

The last Dark Crystal-related thought to cram in here is that this story holds a unique position in my personal history in a way I will tell you about right now.

When I was a kid I owned the novelization of The Dark Crystal, and not long after seeing it I undertook the task of reading it. But I didn't get very far.

To this day I will always remember the opening lines of this novelization, which were:

"It was Jen. Jen alone."

For some reason, these five words represented such a peculiarly uninviting opening to a book that I just put it down right then and there and never resumed. So to this date, the novelization of The Dark Crystal remains the fewest amount of words I've read in a book that I abandoned. (Followed closely by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, about a minute of which I listened to on audio book before deciding that it wasn't for me.)

Okay, I'll see you "another time ..."

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

This one really hurts


Not quite lost among the Oscars hubbub this past weekend was the death of someone who was never nominated, and who passed too close to the air date to even make the In Memoriam section. (Though did, fortunately, get Jennifer Aniston choked up when she called his name separately).

That man was Bill Paxton, beloved actor from my youth, who was still really just a youth himself at 61.

In the string of prominent celebrity deaths that have hit us in the past year, this is one of the toughest for me to take, because Bill Paxton was the one I kind of felt like I knew.

The everyman quality he gave off was just one of the reasons why. Another was that I saw him in person, and boy was he the epitome of the charming, gracious, enthusiastic guy who is just happy to be there.

The occasion was Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival (commonly known as Ebertfest) in 2001. I was passing through Springfield, IL on my drive across country to start living in Los Angeles. Which is presumably where Paxton had just come from. I had thought he was there supporting Frailty, one of two feature films he directed, but that movie wasn't even released until the following year. I think he talked about it, but we obviously didn't see it. In consulting a friend I realized that Ebert had chosen one of Paxton's best, A Simple Plan, for that year's slate of overlooked films.

The impression he made on me was considerable. Here is a man who was successful by any measure, appearing in some of the biggest box office hits of all time (Titanic was only four years in his rearview mirror), who was genuinely tickled -- "chuffed," the Australians would say -- to be interviewed by Ebert and appreciated by an adoring crowd. He was ebullient and generous, producing some of the classic lines he's known for ("Game over, man!") without a hint of annoyance at being asked -- probably because he wasn't annoyed. He loved that people recognized him as a quotable part of their personal history. He did a quote from his Weird Science character, Chet -- I'm sure it wasn't this, but I like to remember it as "You're stewed, buttwad!"

And I remember what he said about his own talent, or lack thereof. He was extremely humble about his modest means. He has never been blessed with a natural surplus of talent, as it seems clear he's always done the most with what he had. There were Bill Paxton performances where he struggled with the material, and his range was not that of a thespian. But man did he work hard, putting in the time, putting in the effort, and clearly ingratiating himself to those around him. If people cast Bill Paxton, it wasn't necessarily because he was the best man for the job -- though sometimes he was. It was probably because they just liked the guy so damn much.

Weird Science was one of the movies I grew up with, a favorite especially in my teen years, so he will always be Chet to me, first and foremost. But let's just look at some of the other ways Paxton found his way into truly memorable films, in truly memorable roles, over the years:

The Terminator (1984) - I include this not because I really remember him so much from this (I've only seen the movie one time all the way through), but because I feel like a list like this would be incomplete without it.

Aliens (1986) - This is where he said his most famous line: "Game over, man!" But I love most his reaction to Bishop using his hand as the "target" for that light-speed version of that game where you poke the knife blade into the gap left between fingers.

One False Move (1992) - The movie that introduced us to screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton was something I only saw once, years ago, but I still rank it among the top quarter of movies I've seen and I long for a second viewing. Paxton starred.

Apollo 13 (1995) - A film I love and own, though I don't fully remember Paxton's contributions -- he just happily blended into the ensemble. Something Paxton was always happy to do. He was a supporting player frequently thrust into leading roles, but he was always most comfortable supporting, I think.

Titanic (1997) - Paxton's the star of the modern-day story that bookends the romance between Jack and Rose. This marked a shift for Paxton toward more paternalistic roles. He's remarkably calm and assured in a performance that really does support the narrative that most people went to that movie to see.

A Simple Plan (1998) - Probably my favorite lead performance by Paxton, paired again (this time in front of the camera) with Thornton. Sam Raimi gave us perhaps his most straightforward movie ever (this and For Love of the Game) and Paxton was there to make sure it all went down just fine. And it went down better than fine -- this was my #3 movie of that year.

Frailty (2001) - I'm not going to say Paxton's directorial debut was perfect, but boy did it show potential -- so much potential, in fact, that I was surprised to learn that he directed only one more feature, 2005's The Greatest Game Ever Played, which I did not see.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) - Paxton's talent for comedy was put to good use when he played the sergeant who keeps running Tom Cruise through the same day, unbeknownst to him.

Part of that 13-year gap in the above list of notable film performances was spent on Big Love, a show I only watched for a season or less. But one of the reasons I enjoyed it to the extent I did enjoy it was Bill Paxton. (And though his career was not replete with awards nominations, he did receive a couple Golden Globe nominations for his work on this show.)

Bill Paxton was a working guy who forged an unlikely career on a limited skill set. But he was always improving that skill set and the results showed. And his enthusiasm and love for what he did was never in question.

He may never have been nominated for an Oscar, and maybe the only way he'd ever get on the Oscars would be in next year's In Memoriam segment. But if they gave Oscar nominations for heart, Paxton would be rivaling Meryl Streep.

So perhaps it's no surprise that Paxton died of complications from heart surgery. When his heart gave out, so did the rest of him.

I'll miss him, and I will soon watch some of his movies to celebrate him.