Tuesday, December 10, 2013
I have it on good authority that Short Term 12 is a very good film that I have a very good chance of liking.
However, if I see the trailer one more time, I may not go at all.
It's finally set to open in Australia on Boxing Day, which is probably the biggest release day on the Australian calendar (and actually happens to coincide this year with Australia's traditional release day of the week, which is Thursday). I say "finally" because, of course, its U.S. release was August 23rd. But I also say "finally" because the build-up for it has been almost intolerable.
Four straight weeks now I have seen a movie that showed the Short Term 12 trailer beforehand. Three Mondays ago I saw Ain't Them Bodies Saints, and it played before that. Two Mondays ago I saw Enough Said, and it played before that. Last Monday I saw How I Live Now, and it played before that. Then yesterday, I saw The Spectacular Now, and sure enough, Short Term 12 ushered me in.
Actually, I may have seen it first before The Butler four Mondays ago, and then not seen it during one of the intervening weeks. But it hardly matters.
It's been proof that even seeing trailers for movies made from certifiably good materials can slowly drive a person crazy, if they see them too often.
It's a shame, too, because this looks like the kind of movie behind which I want to throw the full weight of my support. Brie Larson is doing some of the best work these days of any actor in the 20-25 age bracket, male or female, and this looks like the kind of indie that's smart and earnest, but not sickeningly so.
However, I have indeed started to become a bit sickened by the Short Term 12 trailer -- in part because I think it gives a lot away, and I definitely can't forget what I've seen after four viewings, and in part because that indie earnestness does start to get a bit sickening and precious the more you see it. That song "Montana" by Youth Lagoon sounds a bit more twee every time it touches my ears. (And what's with indie movies that have either real or simulated whistling as part of the songs in their trailers? Drinking Buddies, also a late bloomer in Australia on Boxing Day, followed, and contained whistling as well.)
Instead of being positive, I start resenting when the guy jokes about it being his cupcake that got smashed in Larson's face. Instead of being charmed, I start rolling my eyes over the impromptu rap that busts those two for trying to date. Instead of being delighted, I start to heave when the guy tells Larson she's the "weirdest, most beautiful person I've ever met."
It occurs to me, over the course of this rant, that while no movies are probably well suited to repeat viewings of their trailers, indie films are particularly poorly served by the process. That's because such movies are frequently treading a fine line between clever and cute, between joyous and intolerable. What will charm you once will make you want to stick your head in the oven after the dozenth time.
So, if Short Term 12 is indeed a bit tainted for me, here's who I blame:
1) Cinema Nova, for not having enough trailers in their rotation to show advertisements for any of the dozens of other movies opening there within the next month;
2) Me, for going to see a movie at Cinema Nova every Monday.
When all is said and done, whether I see Short Term 12 in the theater (in time to rank it with my other 2013 films) has everything to do with whether my wife has given birth by then. In fact, any day now it could be my last $6 Monday movie for a while. She's not due until January 10th, but the baby came 11 days early last time, and it could come even earlier this time. If her age put it her at risk of complications last time, it does so even more this time, when she's three years older.
So in the end, my wife's third-term pregnancy may torpedo Short Term 12 even more than its trailer has been doing.
Monday, December 9, 2013
I put Computer Chess on my Netflix queue thinking it would be something original, but in the end, it was just another typical piece of Hollywood schlock.
I mean, I am just so damn tired of seeing black-and-white movies set in the late 1970s about computers designed to play chess that start becoming sentient.
Seriously. Do the studios really have so little respect for me and my hard-earned dollar? Do they think my disposable income is really so disposable? Do they really want to insult my intelligence so blatantly by feeding me such drivel?
Just a bunch of explosions, car chases, CGI and scantily clad women. Computer Chess showcases the worst in Hollywood today.
I mean, just look at the array of Hollywood pretty boys they got to star in this thing:
After awhile it's like "Can't you get anyone who looks like a real person?" Brad Pitt doesn't stop looking like Brad Pitt just because you put glasses on him.
But back to the topic of T & A. I mean, just check out the eye candy they've given us on the female side:
How many times have I said it? MEGAN FOX CAN'T ACT.
I mean, if Hollywood is just going to keep following the principles of WWMBD (What Would Michael Bay Do) each time it makes a new movie, I think we have no choice on what our response should be.
So, join me in boycotting Computer Chess and all films of its ilk.
You will sleep with a clearer conscience, I can tell you that.
Sunday, December 8, 2013
By about this point in the weekend I've usually mapped out which movie I'm going to see on discount Monday at Cinema Nova. Tomorrow, it'll be The Spectacular Now (possibly in a double feature with 20 Feet From Stardom, if I have time and the screening times match up).
Determining this made me realize that The Spectacular Now has a similar title to the movie I saw last Monday, How I Live Now.
If you don't think sharing the word "Now" is noteworthy enough to mention, consider that I've seen only five other films altogether that have the word "Now" in their title (Apocalypse Now, Don't Look Now, Go Now, Now You See Me and Paradise Now). That's out of 3,859 total films I've seen. One of those five -- Now You See Me -- also hails from the year 2013.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that 2013 has been a year that's seen many similar titles. Let's consider some others:
What in the world? In a World ..., The World's End, World War Z
The most dangerous game. Ender's Game, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
In the end. Ender's Game, John Dies at the End, This is the End, The World's End
Someone the so-and-so. Jack the Giant Slayer, Oz the Great and Powerful
Fortysomething. 42, Movie 43
Achieving greatness. The Great Gatsby, Oz the Great and Powerful
Gotta get away. Escape from Planet Earth, Escape from Tomorrow, Escape Plan
Sound advice. Berberian Sound Studio, Sound City
One year too late. Short Term 12, 12 Years a Slave
Getting dark in here. Dark Skies, A Dark Truth, Star Trek Into Darkness, Thor: The Dark World
Best men. Best Man Down, The Best Man Holiday
Down and out. Best Man Down, Dead Man Down, Officer Down, White House Down
I don't want to be naive and suggest that you couldn't sit down and do this in many years, and certainly, there are some common words that recur in movie titles regularly over time.
However, I did enjoy sitting down and looking at some of the similarities in this particular year. Let me know of any I may have missed.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
The original British version of The Office.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Two collaborations with Edgar Wright.
If I listed those accomplishments in the abstract, you'd say that whoever starred in them had to be a household name, right?
Not Martin Freeman. Somehow, the man still seems anonymous.
I say this not because I've had a bunch of conversations with people about Freeman and his under-the-radar profile, but just because it's a sense I get about this man. He was selected to play the lead in not one, but two cherished properties of British fantasy fiction (Hitchhiker's and The Hobbit), yet I suspect many if not most people don't know who Martin Freeman is.
It appears he's also been playing Dr. Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes, so there's one more feather in his cap.
Perhaps it's Freeman's unassuming quality -- which may just be his defining quality -- that keeps him from really breaking out into popular consciousness.
That very quality is what made him so easy to root for as Tim, the lovesick paper company salesman in the original Office. An affable prankster who could not resist pulling one over on his rival and desk neighbor Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), Tim was the very definition of an everyman, the kind of guy you pull for because everyone can see a little of themselves in him.
Unassuming everyman was the primary job qualification when Freeman was cast as Arthur Dent, accidental sole survivor of the destruction of planet Earth, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Granted, that movie was not enough of a success to encourage the expected sequels, which could have given Freeman the exposure he needed to truly become a star.
Not everyone forgot about him, of course, and he was given the most key role among newcomers to Peter Jackson's Middle Earth in the first of the new trilogy of Hobbit movies, which will continue this Christmas and next. There again, though, Bilbo Baggins is the ultimate everyhobbit, remarkable for his very lack of remarkable qualities, and the courage he summons despite possessing little more than that courage.
Freeman's involvement in Shawn of the Dead (very minor) and The World's End (more central) doesn't exactly fit the pattern, but we're still talking about two very well received movies, one of which has become a genuine cult classic, or possibly just a straight-up classic. (I didn't remember on my own that he was in Hot Fuzz, but that actually makes three Edgar Wright collaborations, doesn't it? In fact, he's the only actor other than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to appear in all three of the so-called Cornetto trilogy. Wait, that's another lie. Rafe Spall makes the briefest of appearances in all three as well.)
It was while watching the somewhat disappointing World's End last night that I started to wonder why Freeman hasn't really "hit it big."
Well, I'm sure Freeman will take his own version of success. And even if people don't learn his name, the future of movies is certain to be littered with the kind of everymen Freeman has made his specialty.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Thanks to How I Live Now, which I saw Monday, I am aware of a new subgenre of movies:
"England Under Duress" movies.
Movies set in a post-apocalyptic Britain have a certain feel to them, don't they? A certain look of popping grubbiness. Together they form a loose fraternity of thematic compatriots.
How I Live Now is just the most recent, though as soon as I became aware of this subgenre, two others immediately popped into my mind: Children of Men and 28 Days Later. Never Let Me Go is in similar territory, by being in a dystopian future set in the past.
I like EUD movies. I like them a lot. In fact, if the examples I've come up with mean anything, I am very favorably predisposed toward anything that even gives off a whiff of this kind of movie.
How I Live Now is the adaptation of a YA novel about an American girl (the brilliant British teenage actress Saoirse Ronan) who is shipped to England just in time to become embroiled in a 21st century World War III, although one that doesn't have quite the catastrophic toll we've come to expect from movies that dramatize World War III. The toll is pretty traumatizing for a teen readership, though, I must say. The movie "goes there" from time to time. It's unafraid to tear our hearts out on occasion.
And England sure does look good as a fallen society.
I suspect it is mostly in the cinematography, but there's also something about England itself that makes it a good setting for this type of movie -- other than just being home to one of the world's top film industries. I suspect the country has that permanently moist look of just having been rained upon, and rain is pretty much the predominant mode of post apocalypse. That said, I don't believe it rains once in How I Live Now, so it's not quite as simple as that, either.
I think I'm trying to fumble my way to a more significant point when there may not be one waiting for me, but I'll carry on for a few more paragraphs anyway. The roots of this may go back a couple decades at least, to movies like A Clockwork Orange and Sid and Nancy, which are obviously both informed by the punk rock movement. Neither of those films is explicitly post-apocalyptic, but there is an apocalyptic mentality at work in both -- a sense that the world even as it is constructed in our lives today is on the verge of apocalypse.
I think England also has the advantage of its grim determination in making the bleakness more, I don't know, quotidian. Children of Men specifically addresses the notion of England soldiering on while the rest of the world goes to pieces. So maybe England is where one can find a functional post-apocalyptic environment, like the one seen in Children. It's the everyday, lived-in quality of a society in ruins that distinguishes these England Under Duress movies.
I'm sure there are other examples of this phenomenon, but as it is almost midnight and I started writing this post yesterday morning, I think I will leave off for now.
Sunday, December 1, 2013
I wasn't intimately acquainted with Paul Walker's filmography. I've seen only two of the five Fast & Furious movies he's in, and a smattering of others, including Eight Below, Varsity Blues and Running Scared.
For some reason, though, I have continued to check back in all day on news related to his death -- in part because it was rumored to be a hoax. In fact, so common is the celebrity death hoax these days -- and so horribly coincidental is the way the star died, given his most famous role -- that Wikipedia didn't even have him as deceased for about an hour after I heard the news. It took them even longer to slap their standard "This article is about a person who has recently died" banner atop his page.
Aside from the indignity of having the first few hours of one's death shrouded in hoax rumors -- that's the era we live in, unfortunately -- what might be worse is that people couldn't resist going to the well about how ironic/funny/unlikely it was that he would die in a car crash. You couldn't escape it on Facebook.
These two words are supposed to excuse any apparent lapses in taste:
Believe me, I like a well-timed "too soon" joke as well as anyone. However, I really do think the first six hours after a person's death is too soon. It's much funnier to talk about an old tragedy or death -- say, the Hindenburg disaster -- and follow that up with "Too soon?" Those kind of jokes have some fun teasing our ideas of propriety and political correctness, our excess cautiousness about not offending someone by choosing to examine this death or tragedy from a humorous perspective. The Hindenburg crashed in 1937 -- oh, the humanity -- so pretending to still be worried about sensitivity issues is funny as hell.
But Paul Walker died like 12 hours ago. Let's give him some time before we say that "Paul didn't walk away from this one" or "he was going a little too fast and furious."
Because the other thing that has bothered me today was that it was too soon in another way -- too soon for Walker to die.
Celebrities of all ages die, of course -- plenty of them older than me, but some younger than me, too. Paul Walker was older than me -- though he was only 38 days older. For some reason, that makes his death hit closer to home for me.
Walker was as close as I am aware of to my celebrity "celestial twin" -- closest to me in age. There are surely others who are closer, but I haven't done the work to figure it out. Of course, I only became aware of his age at all when I saw it listed in the articles. I thought "Hey, I'm 40 too" and looked him up on Wikipedia. Yep, he was born on September 12, 1973, only 38 days before I was.
Clearly Walker's death had nothing to do with his age, but when someone so close to our own vital stats dies, it can't help but acquaint us a little better with our own mortality.
I'm ashamed to admit that my first thought of what to write on Facebook was a joke as well, about just that. I composed the following post in my head: "I'm only 38 days younger than Paul Walker was when he died today. If he could die in a car crash at age 40, it could happen to any of us."
Stupid age we live in with all its crassness and insensitivity.
I left that post unwritten, of course. Instead I wrote, despite the fact that I rarely like to write truly earnest status updates: "That's too bad about Paul Walker. He was only 38 days older than I am ... which for some reason hits home, even though his death had nothing to do with his age."
I now found myself thinking gruesome thoughts, like "Was he killed on impact? Did he get some part of the car impaled through his body? Or did he burn to death? Did his friend, the driver, have time to realize that he'd killed them both and made a helpless apology through his last gasps?"
Violent death, especially of a celebrity, has a way of making us dwell. For a long time after Phil Hartman died I was left thinking about his final moments, imagining him pleading with his wife just before she blew his head off.
Stupid minds with all their toxic powers of imagination.
Now I'm wondering how they'll handle his death in Fast 7, which was scheduled to come out next July and was apparently still filming. Will they do what News Radio did when Hartman died, and pay sorrowful tribute to him even though it goes against the show's purpose of making people laugh? How long will Fast 7 pause from explosions and high-speed car chases to honor the man who appeared in all but one of the previous films?
It's too soon to think about this, too. But it was also too soon to lose Paul Walker, a near celestial twin of mine, who I knew only in the sense that he experienced our world at the same age and pace as I did, on the other side of the continent. Sure, he was in a Pampers commercial while I was just in regular Pampers, and very little of our lives were the same after that. But Paul Walker and I turned 40 in the same year, 38 days apart, and that has to count for something.
Rest in peace.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
This is the latest in a series I usually call Famous Flops, which has gotten a little Thanksgiving tweak this month. In this series I watch one movie per month that I know to be a critical or commercial failure, then discuss in gory detail.
What better day than Thanksgiving to write about a movie that's supposedly the greatest insult to Native Americans since the Trail of Tears?
As it always is, the timing is a bit complicated, as it's not yet Thursday in the U.S. and it will never be Thanksgiving in Australia. (Though I am making turkey, mashed potatoes and green beans tonight for dinner -- shh, don't tell my wife, it's a surprise.) However, Thanksgiving is in the air, even if it's in the virtual air. Ah, if I were back in the U.S., I'd be plotting which movie to take in during my early release from work today. Maybe Oldboy.
But back to the issue at hand.
The Lone Ranger was of course the flop of 2013, and would seem like an even bigger catastrophe for Disney if John Carter hadn't flopped for them on a similar scale last year. (The cumulative disaster of the two is, of course, worse; it just means that The Lone Ranger isn't a singular phenomenon for them.) The difference is that I saw plenty of redeeming value in the fairly messy Carter. I had to dig much deeper to ferret out goodness in Ranger.
This is not to say, however, that the movie is terrible. More than anything I just founded it tedious and elongated and more violent than it had any right to be.
Let's start with that violence. It being Disney, there is of course almost a total absence of blood. That's not to say there isn't a ridiculously high body count, which you might expect in movie that chooses to depict ... an epic slaughter of indians. (Let's call them "indians," because this is one of the original contexts in which the phrase "cowboys and indians" was popularized. And since we're lower-casing "cowboys," let's do the same to "indians." Upper-case it and I think you are actually getting a tad more insensitive, like this is a title that legitimately belongs to Native Americans.)
The reason The Lone Ranger is kind of a disaster is that someone thought it was a good idea for this movie to include an epic slaughter of indians. I should clarify my terms a little here, I suppose. I'm not talking about a situation where a bunch of white men coldly kill a bunch of captive indians in the attempt to wipe them off the face of the earth. That would definitely be worse. But there is a skirmish between the cavalry and the indians that leaves many dead on both sides. What's worse than a bunch of dead bodies in an allegedly family-friendly movie is a bunch of dead bodies from a community of historically oppressed people. Not great.
There are lots of bodies falling here and there, as well as a lot of people you assume are dead based on falling off trains and the like, but the specific acts of violence are the ones that are more suspect. What about the scene where Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) cuts out a man's heart and eats it? Certainly, most of this is off-screen, but the fact that it exists at all is a serious lapse in judgment on someone's part.
Now let's get to the part that offended most people: Johnny Depp as Tonto.
I want to start out on something other than his actual portrayal, which of course involves a white man impersonating a Native American. The movie uses as its framing device -- a very questionable framing device at that -- a big fair in San Francisco in 1933, in which a young boy wearing a Lone Ranger mask is wandering through a series of dioramas with taxidermy animals in their natural habitat. He comes to one which shows us "the savage" in his natural habitat, and it's a very old indian that one would assume was a statue. Except it's not a statue -- it's Tonto, who I guess is supposed to be an early incarnation of one of those street performers who douses himself in silver paint and sits still for hours on end.
Let's ponder the problems with this for a moment:
1) Knowing that Tonto lived into his old age not only destroys any suspense about this movie, it destroys the suspense about any future Lone Ranger sequels they might make. Most of this movie plays like they're setting up for a sequel -- like, for example, the Lone Ranger only naming his horse Silver in the final scene -- but the framing device pushes things in the opposite direction. It's just another sign of poor decision-making, and I wonder if the framing device was added after the fact, when production delays and threats of potentially canceling the movie made them get realistic about its future as a franchise.
2) What the hell fair is employing Tonto as a man who sits still for 12 hours a day as a living relic of his culture? And if we like Tonto at all, which the movie clearly wants us to, aren't we a bit sad that this is what he's doing in his old age? And isn't this kind of the single most oppressive treatment of Native Americans in the entire film? Of "indians"?
I must admit, I was not hugely distracted by Depp's actual performance, even though it does involve dropping most inessential words in a sentence, as is the traditional portrayal of "indians" on screen. (I said I would use that word, and gave my reasons, yet am still finding it objectionable enough that I need to supply quotation marks when I write it.) It helps that Tonto is always the smartest person on screen, constantly involved in clever plans and acrobatic feats. His dynamic with Armie Hammer's The Lone Ranger is pretty much that of Penny and Inspector Gadget or Gromit and Wallace -- he's the second-in-command who's the real brains of the operation, shackled (sometimes literally) to a stuffed shirt who would probably quickly expire if left to his own devices.
So I won't really accuse Disney of grand insensitivity in casting Depp to play this role. It's certainly in the tradition of other Depp roles; he is, in fact, the most obvious choice among today's working movie stars. It would be great if there were a prominent Native American actor who had the star power to bring in the type of dollars this movie needed in order to be a success, but that's just not realistic. Once you decide to make a Lone Ranger movie and know that Tonto is one of the most important two characters, you've got to cast some white actor to play the role, and Depp is as good as any. Perhaps an ambiguously ethnic actor -- a Dwayne Johnson, though probably not him specifically -- would have attracted slightly less controversy. But I think it's kind of splitting hairs.
The question about The Lone Ranger really is: Is it good? Is it entertaining?
It's not good, but it is sporadically entertaining. Some of the set pieces really crackle. An otherwise illogical climactic scene involving trains on parallel tracks, which keep getting separated from each other until there are eight to ten individual train units, has some very fun choreography, with Tonto performing some of those acrobatic feats on a ladder extending between the trains. During these moments, The Lone Ranger finds the attitude that it should have for its entire running time: It's light and fluffy and, yes, fun.
It's just too bad someone thought that running time should be 149 minutes, and that 100 of those minutes should be weighed down by death, slaughter and other ponderous bummers.
Okay, up next: the last month of Famous Flops. In the end, I haven't found this series quite as fulfilling as I'd hoped, and moving to Australia (where I don't have Netflix disc-by-mail) has made getting my hands on flop candidates even more challenging that it was in the United States (where I couldn't even get the movie that I hoped to start the series back in February, Ishtar.) So perhaps the series was a little doomed from the start -- an outcome I may have invited by calling 2013 "an unlucky year for famous flops." Number 13, you've done it again.
I'll kill two birds with one stone and make my December movie one I was going to watch for my 2013 list anyway: the summer's second biggest disaster, M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth. Then we'll start 2014 with a new series I'll tell you about later on. It should be an interesting one.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
The most successful horror movie this year, and one of the most successful box office stories of the year, period, is James Wan's The Conjuring.
Which doesn't have an original bone in its body.
Which, as it turns out, is okay.
I saw The Conjuring last night, and had chills going down my spine for a good number of its 107 minutes. This despite the fact that there literally was not a single thing in the movie I hadn't already seen in another movie. Even star Patrick Wilson was in Wan's own Insidious -- another very enjoyable, very unoriginal horror movie, which in fact shares many thematic elements in common with The Conjuring.
It made me realize that horror is not a what genre, it's a how genre.
What happens in a horror movie is not nearly as important as how it happens. Why else could we sit through yet another movie where an evil spirit is haunting either a house or a person (the person angle answers the question "Why don't they just move?")? Yet another movie where you can see reflections of figures in mirrors who aren't really there? Yet another movie where an unseen force drags a character around a room?
I could name you ten films with these essential elements in them, and I wouldn't even have to go back three years. The entire Paranormal Activity series is basically this exact premise, served up somewhat fresh because it's done in the found footage genre.
See, found footage is a how, not a what.
However, a horror movie needn't even have a high concept how to set it apart. The Conjuring doesn't have a high concept how. If you were stretching, you'd say that it was based on a true story (the characters played by Wilson and Vera Farmiga were real people), or that it was set in the 1970s, which is a bit different. But it's really just the same stuff we're seeing in half the horror movies that get made these days.
So then why is The Conjuring, like, actually good?
Well, you can't deny the biological reality of your own goosebumps. And while watching The Conjuring, I had 'em. It's as simple as that. Something Wan and company were doing was just right to give me those goosebumps, and that meant I was scared.
There's some good camera work in The Conjuring, but beyond that, there aren't even really any new techniques on display here. It's just the right proportions of all the familiar horror tropes, used in the right combination with each other. A little creepy music here, a little quiet there. A drawn-out sense of anticipation of what's going to fill the screen here, a startle scare there. None of it -- and I mean none of it -- is new. But it still works.
The thing I think is funny is that it makes a person wonder why the studio would have even greenlit the movie in the first place. On the one hand, it's easy to understand why a risk-averse studio would give something the go-ahead if it resembles other films that have been hits for that studio or other studios before. But on the other, conventional wisdom is that an idea for a movie needs to have some hook, some bit of originality that makes the pitched executive sit up in his or her seat a little bit.
Can you just imagine Wan pitching the idea? "It's about this family who moves into this old house, and strange things start happening to them. At first they dismiss the events as acts of nature or tricks on their mind, but before long they can no longer ignore the truth of their senses. They bring in a team of paranormal investigators, and things just get crazier from there. Oh, and it turns out that someone once killed themselves in this house, and then all the subsequent owners have suffered tragedies of one kind or another."
That is about the least distinctive idea you have ever heard in the history of Hollywood, yet that's The Conjuring, and it was a huge hit.
I'd blame dumb American audiences (or dumb Australian audiences, or dumb French audiences, etc.), except that I watched the movie and I liked it too. Even though one of the things I specifically ask for from movies is to show me something I haven't seen before.
The Conjuring shows me things I've seen before, lots of times before, in almost this exact combination. Yet it still works.
This wouldn't fly in a comedy. When was the last time you laughed hard at the exact same joke you'd seen in a different movie? This wouldn't fly in an action movie. When was the last time you oohed and ahhed at a set piece ripped straight from an older action movie?
The difference, I suppose, is that horror movies are all about creating a mood. And that mood makes us feel a certain way -- it gives us goosebumps, for example. And you can't deny the biological reality of your own goosebumps.
Yet the ability to do this is so tricky that horror remains pretty much the least successful of any genre. Oh, I'm not talking about financial success, as most horror movies can achieve that without too much of a problem. I'm talking about really creating that mood, about really scaring its audience. I have so little faith in a horror movie's ability to do that, that I don't even watch many of them, even though being scared is one of the most exhilarating sensations I seek out from movies.
That how isn't there in the script. It's intangible. So maybe a studio just looks at someone like James Wan and says "You've done the how before. I've seen you do the how. So, I don't even care what your movie is about. Just get that how right and we'll be all set."
And in The Conjuring, by golly, Wan shows us how it's done.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
I haven't been worrying myself too much about Australia's new release latency. You know, that delay, sometimes lasting as long as three to five months, for some movies to open here. Until now, it hasn't had much practical impact on me, except forcing me to practice something I hate: being patient.
Until -- sob -- now.
Yesterday I discovered the third high-profile autumn release that I won't be seeing before my list closes on January 16th, with many, many more to come. If I'd been poking around more on the late-December release scheduled in the U.S., I'd probably already be aware of a number of other titles that will be denied me.
I was going to see Enough Said -- whose November 14th release date was delayed a modest two months from the U.S. -- when I saw an advertisement for Alexander Payne's new film Nebraska.
Then the release date:
February 20, 2014.
February 20th is more than a month after I close my rankings for 2013, which will be on January 16th this year. That's the morning the Oscar nominations are announced, which is my traditional deadline for finalizing the previous year's rankings.
Other victims of me being in Australia: 12 Years a Slave, which releases on something like January 30th, and Spike Jonze's new movie Her, which doesn't even get its U.S. wide release until mid-January. If I were in L.A., though, I would have been able to find Her open for a week for awards considerations, I'm sure of it.
This is significant, as Spike Jonze's most recent two films -- Where the Wild Things Are and Adaptation -- were my #2 of 2009 and my #1 of 2002. Let's just say I like the guy.
I knew there would be plenty of changes to accept by moving to Australia, many of which would relate to movies. But now that it's coming to brass tacks, I'm finding it very hard to accept that my 2013 film rankings won't be a thorough representation of the films released in the United States in 2013. And it won't get better in 2014, unless industry conditions suddenly take a major turn that causes the collapse of this three-month delay. Not anytime soon, I'm betting.
At least my whole holiday prestige picture season isn't going to be killed. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and August, Osage County are three counterexamples of films that will be released here within a week of their American release.
They'll be competing with Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies, which was released in the U.S. on August 23rd. Here? December 26th.
Australia ... it's a mixed bag. One I'm committed to at least until sometime in 2015.
The challenge, then, is just to not worry about it. If I want to change my list so that it incorporates films released where I am in 2014, I can rank Nebraska or 12 Years a Slave or Her next year. Can't I? Can't I?
I can. Do I want to? No. May I someday want to? Maybe.
I want to do apples to apples comparisons with other friends and critics ranking this same year, and I'm not likely to want to give that up very soon. Maybe if I read some Australian critics I'd feel differently, but so far, I don't.
I still remember, at the end of 1995, talking with a friend's girlfriend about her favorite films of the previous year. She listed Pulp Fiction as her favorite film of that year, because she'd seen it in 1995 after its October 1994 release. I vowed never to subject myself to such imprecise and arbitrary criteria for making year-end lists.
Even the Australians got Pulp Fiction by November 24th of '94. So I guess there's some hope looking forward that more of the movies I want to see will be The Secret Life of Walter Mitty than Nebraska.
For now, though, I mourn Nebraska and its brethren ... who will just increase in number the deeper we get into the end of this year.
Friday, November 22, 2013
I've seen two objectively subpar animated movies in the past ten days - Alpha and Omega and Escape from Planet Earth - and given them both three stars on Letterboxd.
My son saw the Netflix ad for a third objectively subpar animated movie - Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil - pop up after Planet Earth, so he's in there watching it now. I'm in here, typing this, to prevent myself from giving the supposedly terrible Hoodwinked sequel three stars as well.
Something seems clear: I have a harder time recognizing mediocrity in an animated movie than elsewhere.
It's three out of five, not three out of four, but the fact remains that I am giving a passing grade to movies that should probably flunk the test of being worth my time.
I'm entirely too comfortable with rewarding an animated movie for being a "good try." I know that Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks represent really daunting standards to live up to, both in quality of writing and quality of animation, so I'm acknowledging the handicaps that other movies start out with. But that doesn't mean that all other movies deserve the star rating that translates as a modest recommendation.
There are a handful of reasons I think I'm as easy as I am on these movies:
1) The animation, especially these days, is good enough to contain some "wow" moments. Plus, I know how hard they worked on every little detail. Most animated movies are a labor of somebody's love. It's much easier to mail in a live action film.
2) Animated movies tend to get top-flight vocal talent, mostly because it's an easy paycheck and does not carry any particular stigma. Studios will be glad to learn that their money is well spent, as I do tend to be impressed by the fact that William Shatner (who, let's be honest, will do anything these days) voices the villain in Planet Earth.
3) Animated movies are usually smart enough (i.e. safe enough) to stick to conventional plotting with familiar character types. With the amount of money invested in the polished final product, it does not pay to take risks on the story, nor is it possible to slide any remotely objectionable content through.
Vanilla, though, should not be worth three stars. It should max out at 2.5, even if it's pretty well-made vanilla.
However, as I've written before (though never specifically about animated films), I feel like giving something 2.5 or less means it's a thumbs down, an entirely too grumpy dismissal of a movie that's okay to pretty good.
In fact, the last animated movie I remember really slamming was one that did take an apparent risk with its plot -- an impulse I probably should have rewarded, except I thought it was just too wrong-headed of a narrative choice. That movie was Brave, which offered us some cockamamie plot about people turning into bears. I gave it 2.5 stars, but these days tend to think of it as a two-star movie.
So am I saying I like the generic underdog hero story and panoply of colorful sidekicks better in Alpha and Omega, Escape From Planet Earth and (let's throw in one more I saw earlier this year that fits the description) Planet 51? Are they better just because they don't make any egregious errors? Are they better just because the plot was deemed safe enough by every interested financial backer?
I'm a slow learner, apparently, because this is not the first time I've tried to get tougher with my star ratings. It's not even the first time this year. You may recall that back in April, I wrote this post after seeing Trance, frustrated by the instinct that made me want to award it three stars. And I still haven't figured out how to award lower when movies deserve it -- at least not consistently, and especially not with animation.
Maybe this time, I'll do as I write. "It didn't offend me" should no longer be the standard for what gets three stars.
The generosity ends ... now. Again.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
About Time has one of the more clever titles of the year, in terms of double meanings.
Not only are you getting a colloquial phrase, which is always useful when coming up with a title -- as in "It's about time you got here!" -- but it also works on a very literal level, in the sense that the movie is about the concept of time.
Having seen the movie, I also think the title is a sad sort of admission about the film's aimlessness. The fact that it's "about time" is about all it can be sure of. Writer-director Richard Curtis might have said "I'm going to make a movie that's about time," and then decided he was going to throw in every loose thread of an idea he could think of that was related to that topic. That's the way this movie plays, anyway: all over the place.
Which isn't to say it doesn't have some nice moments, one of which I want to tell you about here, before proceeding to some other thoughts on the film.
You know about the concept of a "meet cute," right? Of course you do -- you weren't born yesterday. But on the off chance that this is just your second day of life on this planet, a "meet cute" is the way a film's two romantic leads are first introduced to each other, executed with maximum possible cuteness so we are invested in them from the start. A meet cute usually involves a spilled drink or a dropped stack of papers or two people trying to squeeze through the same closing elevator doors at the same time.
In short, it's as tired as anything else you usually see in your typical romantic comedy.
Except not in About Time, which has its romantic leads meet in a scene of total darkness that runs for about three minutes.
What happens is that the male lead, whose story we are following and who is played by some chap named Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan's son), and his friend go to dinner in one of those restaurants where it's pitch black. You know, where a blind waiter leads you to your table (because why not, in a pitch-black restaurant) and you wear the clothes you are least worried about staining with errant food.
This is where he meets Rachel McAdams, who is then only known through her voice. He (Tim by name) and she (Mary by name) strike up a conversation because, well, who wouldn't want to overcompensate for being blind by talking giddily with your neighbor about the absurd circumstances you currently find yourself in?
They hit it off, of course -- I don't say "of course" out of exasperation, but only because if they didn't, there would be no movie.
What I really like about this scene is that a) Curtis sticks with it for an impressively long time, just total blackness with only a few little glints of light to give us the indication that glasses and silverware are moving around, and b) it allows the characters to get to know each others' personalities, without their faces causing an undue bias one way or another.
Few romantic comedies, then, can compellingly argue that the characters have truly made a soul connection, one that isn't informed by sexual attraction. It's a smart move, especially since Tim has spent the first 15 minutes of the movie obsessed with a blond beauty who may not have offered a lot more than her looks.
Also, I just know I'd want to pass a 90-minute dinner in total darkness with a fellow equally bemused traveler ... especially if her voice sounded cute.
From another time
... I couldn't help feeling that most of this movie was stuck in another time. One of the strangest examples was in this initial conversation in the dark, where Mary reveals that she is a huge fan of Kate Moss.
You're saying it to yourself right now, aren't you? "Kate Moss, the fashion model? The one at least partly responsible for the term 'heroin chic'?"
Yes, that one.
Another common crutch in romantic comedies is that one of the characters has a thing he or she is obsessed with that he or she keeps on talking about. For example, for some reason I can remember that John Cusack's character in the otherwise forgettable Must Love Dogs is always talking about Dr. Zhivago. That is about the oddest thing for even a steel-trap movie brain like mine to remember.
Well, the function of this obsession is both to give the character depth and soul, and to ground them in our real world.
And to love Kate Moss does either of these things how, exactly?
If the idea is that Mary loves fashion, which I'm not sure it is, then why not have her be obsessed with a designer, rather than a model? That would at least indicate that she admires an overtly creative person, rather than someone who poses in front of a camera. Sure, being a model is a kind of creativity ... just not the type of creativity a self-actualized character like Mary is supposed to value. I mean, we're not talking about an icon like Marilyn Monroe here ... we're talking about a woman who is the poster child for eating disorders.
Even more problematic than the type of person Mary admires is the era from which she comes. Kate Moss is nearly 40 today, and nobody is talking about her anymore. Sure, some number of years pass over the course of About Time, so it's reasonable to assume that the pitch-black dinner scene takes place at a time when Moss was slightly more relevant. Still, it seems more like the script was written at a time when Moss was more relevant, not that Curtis intentionally tried to find something that would have, I don't know, 2004 relevance. And if he were specifically doing that, why Moss?
I also thought it was strange that the movie features The Cure's "Friday I'm in Love" (1992), but soundtracks get a little more leeway.
The strangest sort of typecasting
About halfway through I realized that this makes the second movie in which Rachel McAdams has played the romantic interest of a man who secretly time travels within his own life.
The other is, of course, The Time Traveler's Wife, another sort-of failure of a movie that's starting to look a bit better the more I think about About Time.
The question, then, is did McAdams seek out more work as the befuddled partner of a man who has trouble explaining his whereabouts because she liked it so much, or did Curtis and his team seek out McAdams because of her work in TTTW?
Yeah, I don't know, but it's gotta be more than just a coincidence.
The type of expatriate American I want to be
As I was watching the film, which is set in England, I marveled at how little of a deal they made over the fact that McAdams is the only American in the movie. (Other than her parents, who make a single stiff appearance in an odd and pointless scene.)
In fact, the only mention of her nationality whatsoever is when said parents are about to make a surprise visit, and nervous Tim, who has just been told her parents don't know he exists, stammers, "Parents? American parents?"
Lord knows this movie is dealing with enough other issues that it needn't linger on why McAdams doesn't talk like everybody else. (The fact that they just as easily could have cast her role with a British actress lends more credence to the notion that McAdams is getting typecast.) Still, I thought it was strange that they just completely ignored what was almost an elephant in the room.
Strange, and wonderful.
See, now that I'm the different one living here in Australia, I'm looking for whatever ways I can to deemphasize how very American I must seem to the locals. I'm conscious of the fact that I can't fake an Australian accent, although one day I hope to be able to do so convincingly, just for general purposes. So I'm acutely aware that every time I open my mouth, the other person will take at least a moment to have the following truth pass through his/her frontal lobe: "The person I'm speaking to is American." And whatever associations they have with that truth will also take a moment to pass through.
I'm hoping that the longer I live here, the less I will care about my inescapable American origins, and that the longer America continues to progress down the correct path politically, the less it will matter that I'm American.
Those are both good things to root for.
The other elephant in this post ...
... is the fact that I've written an ungodly number of words on a romantic comedy that's too ambitious for its own good without even really mentioning the thing that sets it apart, genre-wise: the time travel.
The less said, the better.
The fact that there are conundrums is, of course, a given. The fact that some new rules are going to pop up along the way is a matter of course.
The fact that so little truly interesting happens with the time travel is what's problematic.
Curtis seems far more interested in dramatizing examples of his time travel gimmick -- utterly pointless examples on occasion -- than using them to serve the greater good of his dramatic conflict. That could be because there are a few scattered dramatic conflicts, but no main one that thrusts through the whole narrative. That's what gives the film its palpable sense of flying off in all directions at once.
Because he's wanking around with all these time travel tricks, it creates the film's biggest problem, which is that the romantic female lead, Mary, is inessential to the dramatic thrust of the movie. The third act crisis -- such as there is one -- does not involve her. In fact, after wrapping her up pretty early, the movie effectively sidelines her.
We were talking earlier about tired romantic comedy tropes, but they became tropes for a reason. For example, by the end of the second act, the duped romantic lead -- because most movie romances have been going along on some sort of false pretenses -- must discover the way in which he or she has been duped. Because the guy (or girl) doing the duping is a good person, he or she definitely made an attempt to come clean earlier, but was conveniently interrupted mid-confession and never got back to it. That one is an age-old trick as well. He/she doesn't get back to it in time, then must scramble to win back his/her love after his/her betrayal has been revealed in all its ugly glory.
Except not in About Time.
In fact, Mary never finds out that Tim is a time traveler. She never finds out that Tim seriously manipulated her, Groundhog Day-style, into loving him, using her controversial love of Kate Moss as an in to get to know her better. (See, he has to meet her again after inadvertently wiping out the pitch-black dinner through time meddling.) So he gets away with being kind of creepy, which is pretty darn unsatisfying for the viewer.
I gave About Time 3.5 stars yesterday on Letterboxd, but having written this post, I'm wondering if the whole movie isn't this unsatisfying.
Good thing I don't have to time travel to change my star rating.
Monday, November 18, 2013
A friend of mine who shall remain nameless (he'll probably call himself out in the comments section anyway) gave me a sort of challenge when he learned that I was finally going to see Ain't Them Bodies Saints, which he'd recommended to me several months ago.
(In my defense, the movie only came out in Australia this past Thursday.)
"So tomorrow we find out if it's lyrical filmmaking or Malick you object to," he wrote in an email to me.
He actually wrote "languid filmmaking" rather than "lyrical filmmaking," but I remembered it as "lyrical" in my head as I was watching the movie.
He's right to characterize my tastes that way, but I guess I took some umbrage at the fairly neutral and thoroughly accurate comment. I have objected to some of Terrence Malick's films, in some cases vociferously (The Thin Red Line) and in some cases bemusedly with moderate affection (The Tree of Life). I'm not a Malick champion, that's for sure.
Yet I do feel like it's not just a personal preference thing, like there's something lacking in me that makes me like Malickian movies less than most people -- most discerning people, who are the only ones I really care about when comparing my movie tastes to theirs. Why don't I like Malick's brand of visual poetry a little more than I do?
Ain't Them Bodies Saints was possibly going to provide some kind of answer to this, though I didn't even know that it warranted the comparison to Malick until my friend wrote the email in question.
Of course, I should have known. The title is like something William Faulkner might have come up with, establishing it pretty well as Southern Gothic. And most Southern Gothic is lyrical or languid or whatever term you might use.
Then there's the fact that Casey Affleck spends the trailer talking just above a whisper about his vows to find his love (Rooney Mara) again. It's actually his regular speaking voice, but the "just above a whisper" comment is meant to make the comparison to the work of Malick, whose everpresent voiceovers are marked by their whispery quality.
It's Affleck's work that made me realize what it is I don't really care for in movies like this:
Uneducated low-level criminals from the South who speak in a string of childlike platitudes about love and destiny, whose simplistic construction gives them a wisdom and authenticity that could never be managed by a skilled wordsmith.
Since you might guess from the previous sentence that I am, or consider myself to be, such a wordsmith, you might not be surprised that I find myself in opposition to such characters.
So it's not the lyrical, languid world of a Terrence Malick film that really bothers me. It's the characters who populate it.
Since some plot description of David Lowery's acclaimed new(ish) film is probably now warranted, I'll tell you that it's set a bit in the Bonnie & Clyde world of Malick's masterpiece Badlands. (See, I do think some Malick films are masterpieces.) Affleck and Mara are young lovers or spouses (it's not quite clear) who have just discovered they're expecting a child. They're trying to make a life for themselves and their child through armed robbery, but that career is cut abruptly short during a shootout with police where their accomplice is killed and an officer is wounded. Although Mara's Ruth took the shot that wounded the officer, Affleck's Bob claims responsibility and is sent away for a long prison sentence. It's at this point when he starts doing VO of the letters he writes to Ruth, promising such things as "Each day I will awaken thinking it's the day I will see you again, and one day that will be true."
Okay, it's a nice thought. I wish I'd come up with it. But the thing is, I can't come up with a thought like that because I'm an Ivy League graduate who would write it and re-write it until all its enviable sense of spontaneity was gone. I'd obsess over it until I killed it.
Not Bob Muldoon. Because Bob is an uneducated low-level criminal from the South (Texas in this case), his emotions are simple and pure and vivid. When adults try to draw children's drawings, they can't make it look right. But Bob's heart and his words of love for Ruth are a child's drawing that comes naturally to him, because he's at that state of emotional evolution.
I'm not picking on Ain't Them Bodies Saints in particular. I'm only picking on it because we've seen this so many times before. The first few times, it felt sort of fresh. This tragic fellow has a quick temper and he hurts people accidentally and he does the wrong things, but his quivering words of love are as pure as a baby's tears. He loves his girl and would do anything to be with her, and that's all there is to that. But by time number, I don't know, 47, I felt I'd seen this story before.
I could never be such a romantic hero in such a Faulknerian, Malickian story. As me, Vance, I'd be overthinking everything, so I'd never have the quick temper, nor hurt people accidentally, nor do the wrong things to begin with. (Oh, I'd do wrong things, but it'd be like plagiarizing a paper in school, not robbing a liquor store.) The romance of the situation is dependent on how little is calculated and calibrated about the thoughts and speech. Everything is "from the heart," not "from the brain."
It occurs to me that these sentiments are similar to some I expressed when I was struggling with why I didn't connect with Drive the way some people do/did. Here's a link to that piece if you want to read it. In that case it was more the strong silent type than the child-poet, but in both cases, it's characters who are essentially different than I am.
I wonder why we, as an audience, get so much more out of love stories between simple folk than love stories between university professors. At this point, we don't even get the opportunity to see love stories between university professors, so uninteresting is their love. Those eggheads aren't spontaneous or reckless or dangerous. Therefore, they're not romantic.
There must also be some kind of sense of superiority going on here. I think we need to look down on Bob and Ruth as children, of a sort -- our intellectual inferiors. We can examine their love as though it were the love of two lemurs in a zoo. There's something feral and elemental and basic about it. Advanced love is too hard for us to process in a pastime designed as escapism, since most likely we're dealing with some fucked up version of advanced love in our own lives, where people give each other the silent treatment for reasons they don't even remember, and no one gets involved in shootouts.
But back to this issue of the lyrical or languid style of filmmaking that Malick and David Lowery have in common. (You'd say Lowery is ripping Malick off, except that it's too well-made to really deliver that kind of indictment.) Another 2013 film disabused me of the notion that I couldn't wholeheartedly endorse the style of filmmaking Malick has made his calling card at least since The Thin Red Line. It has the photographic beauty of a Malick film, and if anything, it makes even less sense.
That film is Upstream Color, and I've already seen it twice.
I wasn't a fan of Shane Carruth's debut feature, Primer, but I ate up his sophomore film with a big spoon. Even though most of the time I had to rely on flimsy half theories of what was even going on.
Could it be a coincidence that these characters are modern, intellectual northerners?
I mean, we're not talking about brainiacs or anything, but Kris and Jeff are both denizens of a large, bustling city. No one talks about how close they are to seeing or touching each other. If they talk about anything at all, it's weird conspiracy theory shit that doesn't even make sense to them.
And I discovered while watching Upstream Color that I didn't need to know what was going on at all, as long as I felt like I dug how it was going on. In fact, I simply luxuriated in being immersed in an experience that was unlike any I had ever had.
Unlike in Ain't Them Bodies Saints, a tale as old as William Faulkner.
I can't leave this topic behind without acknowledging a certain hypocrisy in what I've just written. I say that these characters ring a little false to me, but the fact of the matter is, one of my very favorite movies of all time features a tragic relationship between two poetic simpletons. That movie is Raising Arizona, and Nicolas Cage's voiceover is just about the shining example of everything I'm railing against here.
But that just adds strength to my claim that it's all about the timing. That was 1987, when I hadn't already seen these characters so many times before. And, that was a comedy, in addition to the tragic romance. There was barely any languidness or lyricism to be seen.
So I can answer my friend as follows: It's not languid filmmaking, nor lyrical filmmaking, nor Terrence Malick I object to.
I object to these characters who can't find the words, who always find the perfect words.