Thursday, August 17, 2017

MIFF: Golden slumbers fill my eyes

Every time the title of my seventh MIFF movie of 2017 came into my head, I couldn't help but start singing to myself the Beatles' "Golden Slumbers," one of the final songs on their classic album Abbey Road. Hence, you get this title for this post.

Last year, when I increased my MIFF viewings from a modest four in 2015 all the way up to 11, I started thinking that a good goal for an expanded schedule was to try to target the new films by filmmakers whose work I had loved in the past. I suppose that's an obvious goal for any festival, but I suppose I mean that articulated the goal to myself and specifically pursued it. I immediately got a great chance to test that approach to selecting films, as the 2016 slate happened to include new films from the guys who made my #1 film of 2011 (A Separation), my #1 film of 2013 (Beyond the Hills) and my #2 film of 2014 (Like Father, Like Son), all three of which had earned five stars from me on Letterboxd. Unfortunately, of Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman, Cristian Mungiu's Graduation and Hirokazu Koreeda's After the Storm, only the last film earned as many as four stars, while the other two dwelled in the lukewarm three range.

The closest I could get to that philosophy in 2017 was Alex Ross Perry's Golden Exits. Perry made my #10 film of 2015, Queen of Earth, a psychological horror starring Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, which left me well and truly throttled. I didn't expect that Golden Exits would delve into that territory, and indeed it did not. But I did like it a lot, as it's earned a four full starts and slotted in as my third favorite of the festival so far.

It was also my first chance to get to what I consider the crown jewel of the festival venues, the Forum on Flinders Street, which used to be a much larger performance space, but has had its upper balcony area walled off into a smaller (but still pretty big) screening space while the floor area now serves as a festival hub and bar. The place has the ornate stylings of old-world movie palaces, and I was almost worried I would miss out on it for 2017, until Golden Exits had a last-minute venue change from ACMI across the street to here. (I'm also getting there on Saturday afternoon, but that was a last-minute change as well as I had to scrap a later afternoon session that was scheduled at the Forum. More on that in the upcoming post about that viewing.)

Exits is a lot more like Perry's previous film, Listen Up Philip, than it is like Queen of Earth. And since I wasn't a huge fan of that film -- I was a fan, but not a huge fan -- I was concerned that Exits would indulge in the same kind of intellectual navel gazing that had put me off just a little bit in that film. That's certainly how this film starts out, as it again explores the relationship between the adult children of an important literary person and their deceased father. Actually, Queen of Earth also explores that, and maybe Listen Up Philip doesn't, but it explores similar territory. Let's just say Perry has his particular interests.

This was a film that really grew on me, though. The cast is lousy with talent, headlined by the likes of Jason Schwartzman, Chloe Sevigny and Mary-Louise Parker -- not to give short shrift to the talented younger actress, Emily Browning, and to Adam Horowitz, who has quiet the dramatic instincts for a Beastie Boy. Actually, this is my second Schwartzman film of the festival, after he starred -- his voice starred, anyway -- in the animated movie I saw last Thursday, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.

But the actress who really grew on me, much as the film did, was Lily Rabe, who has the kind of face that sort of alienates me. I can't really figure out a better way to describe it. But as I continued to watch her, I realized that Rabe is portraying so much pain in her performance -- not loudly, but firmly -- that it almost hurt to look at her. That was what I found alienating about her appearance, and I think that has to be a compliment.

It's essentially a "first world problems" type of film, where a bunch of generally privileged white people in New York ponder their unfulfilling lives and unquenchable desires. But as the movie went on, scored unobtrusively by a plaintive piano, I started finding profundity in their ruminations, ruminations that might have seemed self-indulgent in lesser hands. The familiar temptations toward betrayal and bad behavior are all there, but they do not culminate in familiar plot beats, and a number of these characters end up doing the right thing -- which does not leave them feeling any less hollow.

I'm out for consecutive nights for the first time during MIFF, as a bigger winner at this year's Cannes is up next for me on Thursday.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Audient Anime: Only Yesterday

This is the fourth in my bi-monthly 2017 series watching films from the world of anime.

As determined as I was to finally watch something that had not been directed by Hiyao Miyazaki in the fourth installment in this series, I nearly backtracked on that resolve once the August viewing rolled around. At the library, I happened across a copy of the film that had eluded me in June, Howl's Moving Castle, when I instead watched another Miyazaki castle movie (Castle in the Sky). A perfect opportunity to watch it arose when my soon-to-be seven-year-old was home sick last Tuesday, and I was tasked with staying home with him. All seemed to be working out.

Until I presented him the movie. "No," he said, definitively, in a tone I translated as "enough of your bullshit, Dad."

See, I'd strong-armed him into three previous viewings in this series, and though they all had positive outcomes, it was becoming clear that he was less and less amenable to my tactics. This month, he finally put his foot down.

So I went in another direction entirely.

Not only was the film I chose the first in this series not directed by Miyazaki, it was also:

1) The first I watched entirely in Japanese, as I had no child who had to understand the words because he couldn't keep up with the subtitles;

2) The first that didn't involve magic, sprites or other woodland creatures;

3) The first that possibly didn't even need to be animated.

That was the big adjustment in Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday, an animated film that is unlike any I have seen before, as everything that happens in it could be accomplished just as easily with actors and natural settings. As another indication of what type of film it is, the BluRay cover advertises that it contains "Adult Themes." When was the last time you saw that on the box of an animated movie other than something like Heavy Metal or South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut? This movie is not "adult" because it contains sex, violence or bad words; it's "adult" because it would be boring to kids.

And boy would it have been. I knew not even to try Only Yesterday on my son, as the cover promised something far less fantastical than the Studio Ghibli films that had already been a hit with him. This is Ghibli too, but it's Takahata's special brand of Ghibli, one we saw in the far more adult-themed Grave of the Fireflies, which had been my favorite anime film of all time until My Neighbor Totoro assumed that honor earlier this year.

If I had realized before watching that Takahata was responsible for Grave of the Fireflies, I would have a) understood better what to expect, and b) been a lot more excited for Only Yesterday, which I kind of stumbled across and ended up watching when a friend endorsed it as a possible option for this series. And so I did spend the first half of Only Yesterday only slightly less bored than my kids would have been. I kept waiting for the high concept hook to present itself, for a flurry of magic and color to break out on the screen. It never happened, and I actually abandoned the viewing after 40 minutes on the first night -- not because I intended not to finish it, but because I was just too tired.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending, as the second half enchanted me in a manner entirely different from, though similarly fulfilling to, its predecessors in this series.

It's probably time I tell you something about this movie.

It's almost disarmingly simple. The main character, Taeko, is a 27-year-old Tokyo woman who longs for a holiday in the country. She doesn't have any direct relatives she can visit, so she calls upon a somewhat strained connection, the brother of her brother-in-law, to take a week-plus in a remote farming country to help with the safflower harvest. On the train ride there, she reviews coming-of-age memories from her childhood. Once she gets there, she becomes entranced with the slower speed of life, devoting her full energies to the harvest and impressing the locals with her work ethic. She also catches the eye of a local young man, Toshio, while continuing to process memories from her youth and consider the future.

And this is really it. When I went to wikipedia to brush up on the plot after I finished, to see if I had missed anything from my sleepy first night viewing, I chuckled at how little detail it offered. The movie is small and quiet and contemplative, though of course it also includes the beautiful vistas of the Japanese countryside, and the equally beautiful vistas of the landscape of emotion and memory.

At first, as I said, I was thrown by this. It may have been the slight difficulty of watching the movie in Japanese -- I resisted the opportunity to hear Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel voice the leads in English -- but I was a bit unclear on the film's flashback structure at the start. A lot more time was spent with precocious ten-year-old Taeko at the start than her modern-day self, and I might not have always realized that they were the same character or that these were flashbacks to her life. It was also difficult for me to understand the relationship of the memories she was processing to the events she was currently facing, clouding my understanding all the more, and the film only uses a slightly muted color palette to offset the flashbacks, making it sometimes hard for me to pick out which occurred in which time period.

As it happened, my second night's viewing coincided with when she arrived in the country, at which point the film also struck a better balance between the present-day "plot" (such as it is) and the flashbacks. It was here when I, like the main character, fell in love with Japanese village life, and with the modest ambitions the film was trying to pursue.

By the end, a likely 3-star rating had risen all the way up to 4.5 stars, as the denouement -- which plays almost entirely over the closing credits -- was like the wondrous realization of all the emotional capital this film had slowly been building. Takahata also indulges here, for one of only a very few times, in the ways that animation as a medium can amplify his story.

In thinking about this film since I finished, I decided that Takahata is like the Yasujiro Ozu of anime. His apparently quiet methods are actually penetrating deeply into the human heart, and into the ways the small dynamics in our relationships with others, especially family, speak volumes. These fellow countrymen undoubtedly have an affinity for one another's world views.

All four of the animes I've watched so far have garnered at least four stars from me, with two of them hitting a full five. Will my luck continue in October? I'll do one other non-Miyazaki film in this series, and then one final Miyazaki, but which will be in October and which in December, I have not yet decided.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

MIFF: Shenanigans rewarded, and my second MIFF Lanthimos

On Saturday I caught what would be called a "day-night doubleheader" in baseball terms -- one MIFF movie in the afternoon, a break in between, and another MIFF movie at night. If the schedule holds, I'll be doing the same thing next Saturday to close out the festival.

"If the schedule holds" is an important phrase to include here, because my first film was an example of the schedule not holding -- twice.

The first was a 3:45 screening of Claire Denis' film Let the Sunshine In, whose French title literally translates as "Bright Sunshine In" (and is translated on screen as such). I guess a Hair reference seemed like a slightly better marketing hook for the film.

There were two different reasons I might not have seen Denis' film, whatever you want to call it. The first was that I had originally intended to use that time slot for the moving Van Gogh painting Loving Vincent, which just looks gorgeous. But as I twiddled my thumbs and failed to buy tickets in a timely fashion, it sold out, and I had a conflict for its second screening. I'll just have to catch that in the theater or on video later on.

Then the second shenanigan was when I bought tickets for Let the Sunshine In as a substitute, but bought them for the wrong session. Last Sunday my wife called out to me, freaking out as she received a reminder about my Monday screening of this movie. A screening which conflicted with an event she already had on for the evening. I'd inadvertently clicked on the wrong link, and as the account is under my wife's name and email address, she received the reminder.

Fortunately, MIFF is very forgiving about these things -- surprisingly so. For a fee of only $1, you can exchange a session you can't make for any other session for which there are available tickets. And though it did eventually sell out, the second Let the Sunshine In screening qualified. First time I've had to do an exchange in four years at MIFF, and it worked like gangbusters.

Well it was worth the effort. I really enjoyed this film which has (as you can see from the poster) Juliette Binoche at its center. After one previous Denis film under my belt, Bastards, I had the sense that she was a pretty dark and brooding filmmaker, but this one is pretty much as sunny as its title. That's not to say Binoche's character doesn't both encounter and inflict pain as she fumbles through the romantic life of a divorcee in modern-day Paris, but that most of it is leavened with humor, if not downright comedic in nature. Binoche herself is 53, though I don't know if the character she's playing is meant to be that old. But she's definitely meant to be someone at an age where she has more than enough options for suitors, but none she really wants, or the ones that she wants don't want her. I suppose that describes the romantic fumblings of anyone at any age, but this is a mature, wistful look at the dwindling optimism a woman who is increasingly less sure she will end up with a soulmate. That might sound banal, but this film isn't, in part because all of Binoche's many gifts -- for humor, for pain, to laugh as tears are streaming down her cheeks -- are on display here. She matches and unmatches with a half-dozen potential mates in this movie, almost disregarding logic and chronology, and each teaches her something she doesn't really want to know but is gradually growing to accept.

And though I don't usually like to spend much time on the appearances of actresses on this blog, as that's a bit shallow at best and sexist at worst, allow me a moment to do so in Binoche's case, in part because she is indeed on the wrong side of 50 and it's a bit less leering to do so. Although I've always recognized that Binoche is considered a beautiful woman, she hasn't really done it for me, especially not when she was a young woman (in films like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The English Patient). Now that she is 53, I have never found her more beautiful, and this film accentuates this wonderfully with a bunch of long takes and intimate close-ups of her face.

I returned at night -- again to the Comedy Theatre, for my fourth time in six MIFF screenings -- for my second Yorgos Lanthimos film at MIFF. Two years ago I saw The Lobster here, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer tied Lanthimos for the most films at MIFF I've seen from a particular director. (I saw Kelly Reichardt's Night Movies in 2014 and Certain Women in 2016.) But this one was not without its shenanigans as well.

Although I'd been caught in the rain riding my bike home from Sunshine -- a bit ironic I guess -- I'd planned on that as my mode of transport back into the city for the 9:30 show of Deer. And five minutes before leaving I reconfirmed that decision by opening our back door and detecting an absence of actively falling precipitation.

Unfortunately, the situation was not the same five minutes after that. A light rain that almost immediately became a pelty rain greeted me when I tried to leave, and I just couldn't use my bike for transportation. And you can't get to this theater quickly by tram, a reality I faced two years ago when I had to call an Uber to get to The End of the Tour before its start time. The difference between two years ago and now was that now we have a car, but that prospect didn't provide me much comfort on a Saturday night, when parking was likely to be scarce in the city.

Well, I did manage to "find a park," to use the local parlance, but there were a few hairy moments in the wet weather, and a few traffic lights that seemed to last an eternity. Actually, I didn't end up cutting it all that close because they didn't let us into the theater until at least five minutes after its start time, and the movie itself did not commence until nearly 9:45. But the final shenanigan was that I inadvertently stood in the MIFF members queue when I first got there, which already seemed long enough. When I was pointed toward the obviously much longer general admission queue, which was an additional three-minute walk from where I'd been, I was pretty sure I'd be the last one in line, guaranteeing me an awful seat. Maybe ten others gathered behind me before we were let in, finally getting shelter from the rain, but the seating still didn't seem promising.

As luck would have it, it turned out great. There was a single seat floating in a row by itself, in the front and off to the side. And though that sounds kind of bad when you just describe it that way, I've never been one who has balked too much at a close seat. I prefer being closer than farther away -- you know, the whole "frame filling your field of vision" thing -- and at least in this case I had no one on either side of me to contend with. Quite a help in a theater not known for its comfortable seating.

And now we finally get to Lanthimos' film, which is an immediate contender for his best, and one of the best of the year. Before The Killing of a Sacred Deer, that honor was reserved for Dogtooth by a long shot. As I continue to process this I will really have to reconsider that.

A big difference between this and The Lobster, both of which star Colin Farrell, was that I knew nothing about the story before coming in. The Lobster's bizarre story could not help but precede it, but as this one is slightly more conventional, it had not yet been revealed to me. That turned out to be a great way to see one of Lanthimos' films, and the first time I'd seen one that way since Dogtooth. Lanthimos is always walking a tightrope between the comedic and the tragic, and he does that even better here than in his other films. In fact, while I laughed quite hard a number of times in this film, its overall tone reminded me much more of something by Stanley Kubrick or Jonathan Glazer than the tone of The Lobster -- and that is most certainly a good thing. The performances are great too, most notably Nicole Kidman and a younger actor I hated when I saw him in Dunkirk, Barry Keoghan, who reminds me a bit of a young Joel Edgerton, and whose contributions to this film defy description.

And that's all I'm going to give you on The Killing of a Sacred Deer at the moment, because I'd like you to go in as blankly as I did -- and because I already promised a friend of mine I would divulge nothing further about it (though hopefully he saw I was going to talk about it and stopped reading this).

I'm taking a few days off from MIFF now, with my next screening scheduled for Wednesday night. Hopefully I'll blog about something not related to a film festival for the first time in like a month in the interim.

Friday, August 11, 2017

MIFF: Alternative animation double feature!

In an earlier post, I told you that at this year's MIFF, for the first time in my four-year history of the festival, I was going to be seeing a movie I'd seen before.

Three times before, in fact.

And the way it worked out, it allowed for a nice themed double feature, albeit separated by 90 minutes to allow me to get a dumpling dinner in between.

My fourth MIFF seemed like an appropriate time for my fourth viewing of Renee Leloux's trippy 1973 film Fantastic Planet, but just seeing it on the big screen for the first time would not have been excuse enough to expend one of my minipass tickets on it. No, this particular Fantastic Planet screening was special, involving live musical accompaniment.

It's part of the Hear My Eyes film series that a friend of mine is involved with. A couple times a year, his organization curates films whose visual style or other characteristics invite an in-house trio of musicians -- this roster may change, I'm not sure -- to compose and perform an accompanying score. As I know the guy who's involved with it -- he's a "friend" but really more of an acquaintance -- I'd been looking for an excuse to finally pull the trigger. And though the live musical accompaniment took this outside the realm of tickets eligible under my festival minipass, costing a separate $35, it was clear from the moment I heard it was scheduled that this was something I was doing.

And indeed I really dug it. Despite having seen the film three times before, my last viewing was in 2012, so I couldn't immediately call to mind the film's original score. Whatever it may have been, this was preferable. It was a hard-to-describe combination of synth and jazz, making regularly use of a saxophone but in only suitable ways. It didn't necessarily seem like an attempt to graft modern music on top of a period movie, like Giorgio Moroder's score to Metropolis. It was more like an amplified, intensified version of music that might have been available at the time, but with very modern sensibilities. It cast a spell and I was rapt.

The one thing that worried me was that the music was going to play over the whole movie, relegating the movie itself to a trippy backdrop. You know, like how you go to a party and someone has left Fantastic Planet playing on one of the TVs just because that's a cool thing to do. Which might have actually worked in this case because the movie is in French with English subtitles, so you don't strictly need to hear it. But no, this was intended as a proper screening of the film, as presumably most of the audience had never seen it, so the music only played over parts with no dialogue. More than losing the dialogue, I was worried we might lose some of this movie's fantastic sounds, like the inimitable shrieking noises of this guy:


But no, he was shrieking in full glory, and all the other wonderful, irreproducible sounds from the original film were left lovingly intact.

As I mentioned in my Ingrid Goes West post, the seats in the Comedy Theatre aren't all that comfortable, so I was glad for the film's brevity (just 72 minutes). Before I knew it I was off for dumplings.

The second film kept the alternative animation theme going. It was Dash Shaw's My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, playing at Cinema Kino, one of my regular viewing locations (where I just saw The Big Sick on Tuesday in fact). From the opening moments I knew I was under this film's spell as well, though it didn't rise to the level of greatness of Fantastic Planet -- and really, how could it.

Bolstered by the voice work of a number of familiar talents (Jason Schwartzmann, Maya Rudolph, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon), High School tells pretty much the story advertised in its title. A high school built at water's edge on a fault line, then left to deteriorate over the years as the principal forges reports from the building inspector to keep it from closing down, does indeed break off and begin sinking after an earthquake. As its levels steadily submerge and it starts to flip sideways (think Titanic), our three nerdy heroes, who write for the school paper, must navigate the the school's social hierarchies as well as the conditions of the disaster (not to mention sharks). They are assisted by a lunch lady built like a linebacker (Sarandon).

Since I'm not an expert on the techniques of animation, I can only describe what I believe to be the technique they used. It's an intentionally rudimentary technique in which far fewer then the number of cells needed for typical hand-drawn animation are required, and each cell is drawn a little bit differently than the one before, so there's a jumpy quality from frame to frame. Not distractingly jumpy, of course -- just meant to indicate that these are kind of like somebody's notebook doodles come to life. This should give you some idea what the characters look like:


Some idea? It's what they look like.

But the heavy black lines were drawn a millimeter to the left or to the right from one frame to the next, so they are constantly bouncing around, kind of giving the impression of old-fashioned stop motion animation -- but most assuredly in a good way. The painterly backgrounds are often changing colors as well, and at times I was reminded of a favorite film of mine, Richard Linklater's Waking Life, even though that film aims for a much greater sense of realism with the rotoscoping technique it uses.

The movie is pretty clever and funny as well -- perhaps just a little less clever and a little less funny than I wanted it to be. I also have to wonder how much my enjoyment of the movie was tempered by the guy sitting next to me. He was engaging in the type of bad audience behavior that is most difficult to fault -- he was laughing too hard. So in other words, he was not doing anything intentionally toxic, as I'm sure it was just his natural reaction to the movie and nothing purposefully disruptive. But there was a disconnect with my own enjoyment of the film, which was more mildly amused in nature, and driven further in that direction by his outsized reaction.

All in all, when you factor in the little errands I squeezed in and the foods I ate (I also had a mini chicken sandwich with cole slaw before the first movie and a chocolate milkshake just before the second), this made for a great MIFF evening on the town. It's the only double feature I have planned in which both films are festival films, and if it's the only one I end up getting, it sure was the right way to do it.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The little sick followed by The Big Sick

This is the spot that would ordinarily be reserved for telling you about my second trip to MIFF, but I didn't find it all that interesting so I'm going to send it to the bottom of the post and opt instead for the clever post title.

Just because I'm spending most of my available theatrical viewing time in August on the Melbourne International Film Festival doesn't mean I can fall behind on current releases, and in fact, there are about four things other than The Big Sick I want to see in the theater right now. But The Big Sick was the priority as one of the films I was most anticipating this year. And so when my 6:30 Tuesday night MIFF screening of The Ornithologist got out, I made it a double feature with Michael Showalter's new film.

But first, I had to deal with the little sick at home.

That being my soon-to-be seven-year-old, who is "little," but also only "a little sick." Yes, he threw up twice during the night, which would ordinarily be a bit alarming. Except that my other son and myself are also "a little sick," as only my wife -- whose immune system should be the most compromised from her recent international travels -- is fully healthy. Although my son was pretty much fine in the morning, it was an obvious choice to keep him home from school. And as my wife was busy with an all-day workshop, I was the obvious guy to stay home with him.

It was quite a nice day. With him being officially designated as sick, I didn't put any pressure on myself to get up to anything productive with him -- you know, going somewhere, doing something. Instead I let him watch TV and play video games. It's what sick people should get to do. (We did also play some games of Uno, relieving some of that guilt that was creeping in.) In the meantime, I was quite productive myself. I cleaned and organized my entire cubby area in our bedroom, which may not sound like a big task. Trust me, it was.

I just wish The Big Sick had been quite as satisfying. After Dunkirk, here is another 2017 film whose massive appeal mystifies me a bit. Sure, all the ingredients are there, and I do like this film enough to recommend it. I was just surprised at how little I laughed during it. Like, I did not laugh once. That's certainly not the only thing The Big Sick professes to have going for it, as I had heard that you don't know whether to laugh or cry. Well, I did neither. It was just a lot more limp than I thought it would be, with many scenes playing awkwardly or trying to end on a laugh that never came. Each performer brought certain strengths, but each also mixed in unanticipated weaknesses, with Ray Romano possibly being the only guy on screen who had only the former. I suppose the discrepancy between how much I liked it and how much I expected to like it probably can explain some of my unfavorable impression of it. With me having loved previous works by Showalter (The Baxter, Hello My Name is Doris), Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks among others) and Kumail Nanjiani (anything he's been in, ever), I really expected to love this one. This sounds awful to say, but I barely even liked it.

That still made it slightly better than The Ornithologist, a perfect "film festival film" if ever there was one. I hardly need to go on at length about it because you will never see it and probably never even hear about it, but it's about a Portuguese ornithologist who gets lost on a river and has a bunch of bizarre adventures that involve heavy Christian allegory, gay themes, and any number of supernatural occurrences. Toward what end, I couldn't tell you.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Setting forth on my fourth MIFF

Yes, that subject is meant to be a tongue twister.

In two weeks I will have been in Melbourne for four years. When I arrived in 2013, however, I had just missed that year's Melbourne International Film Festival. I haven't missed one since, and on Thursday night it kicked off for 2017.

However, Thursday night I was wrapping up a film festival of my own making, set in my living room, and it didn't seem right to start going to MIFF movies on either Friday or Saturday night with my wife deep in the fog of jet lag. So I made a later than usual debut this year, but it was worth the wait. More on that in a moment.

This year's MIFF is a bit different than last year's in that this year I'm paying for it. We failed to secure my press credentials before the deadline, meaning that instead of gallivanting my way to 11 free movies this year, I'm seeing "only" nine, and they are on my own dime. But after I got over the initial disappointment I sprung for that mini-pass. Because hey, it's MIFF.

And MIFF has meant quite a bit in terms of serving up some of my favorite movies of each year. Last year, it was responsible for allowing me to see my favorite film of 2016, Toni Erdmann, which would have eluded my year-end rankings by not releasing in Australia until February of this year. In 2014 I saw The Skeleton Twins, my #4 movie of the year, at this festival. Even in the "down year" of 2015, I still saw what ended up as my #16 movie of the year, The End of the Tour. So you can understand why I look forward to these 18 days with great anticipation.

No matter how the other eight films go after this -- seven new films, since I'm also seeing one old film for the first time this year -- I'm already pretty sure I've got a film that will beat #16.

Matt Spicer's Ingrid Goes West was not supposed to be on my schedule at all. The way I'd originally drawn it up, I was going to take in a double feature on Friday night: Alex Ross Perry's Golden Exits, which I will still be seeing a week from Wednesday, and Takashi Miike's Blade of the Immortal, which has fallen by the wayside. That was because I did not consciously realize that my wife was only returning home that morning from America, and that if I went to a double feature I would leave her alone with both kids on her first night back and not even see her until Saturday morning. Yeah, I'm a little thick sometimes.

But I had to get something in before the end of the first weekend, and I landed on Ingrid Goes West. Star Aubrey Plaza was not a selling point on this movie; in fact, if you've read any of my diatribes about her on this blog (specifically this one), you'll know it was just the opposite. But I do really like Elizabeth Olsen, and I thought the subject matter of a woman stalking another woman she's following on Instagram was ripe with potential. (In fact, Ingrid ended up bearing some similarities to one of my favorite films, The Cable Guy). So I shrugged and bought the ticket.

Well, let's just say I'm tagging Plaza with her own label on this post, with the hopes of balancing out the bad things I've said about her before.

Simply put, I loved this movie. Not only is it really funny, a thing you tend to notice all the more when you're joined by a full house who are also laughing (an increasing rarity these days), but it's got some profound truths about our social media-obsessed culture and its not-so-funny casualties. Ingrid Goes West is not full of surprises, per se, as there have been a number of movies that have grappled with the way that social media poisons the already fragile brain of a disturbed person. But I never knew where it was going to go, and that's something you don't get much from the movies these days either. In fact, so involved was I with the story that I found myself sitting forward in my seat as it progressed toward its conclusion -- and not only because the seats in Melbourne's Comedy Theatre are pretty uncomfortable.

Plaza is great in this -- not typical for her lately, unfortunately -- and Olsen is a bit more typically great in a role that could have been sort of thankless in lesser hands. But special kudos go to Ice Cube's son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., who is capable of a lot more than playing his dad in Straight Outta Compton. He's the heart, soul and funny bone of this movie, and I can't wait to see him appear in every movie in the next five years if he wants to. It's possible he's even more charming than his dad. And speaking of actors with famous dads, I'm really developing a fondness for Kurt Russell's son, Wyatt, who was great in Everybody Wants Some!! and brings more of the same here. I don't know who Billy Magnusson might be related to, but he steals his scenes as Olsen's douchy brother. It can be hard to make douchiness specific and memorable, but boy does Magnussen do it.

But I should probably give Plaza her own paragraph. I thought I had made up my mind that she was just someone I didn't like after she seemed content to slum it in movies like last year's Dirty Grandpa and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. But she's back in my good graces in a big way. This role is a departure for her as it does not involve her deadpan shtick and is free from holier than thou sarcasm. Plaza can act, and now I'm almost excited to see that period piece about the horny nuns. Almost.

Because I won't be reviewing most or possibly any of the films I see at MIFF -- which I did last year as a condition of getting my press credentials -- I don't know exactly how I will cover my 2017 MIFF experience on my blog. Last year I mostly did not review the movies in this space because I was already doing that for ReelGood, and tended to bore you with anecdotes related to the circumstances of the viewings themselves. I guess I'll just go with the flow and see what happens.

I'm just glad to have set forth on another cinematic adventure full of promising new releases, which has started as promisingly as any of them.

In fact, as I have actually been underwhelmed by my first film in each of the previous three years, this could be my best MIFF yet.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Cat's Away: Closing Night

This is the final night of the personal "film festival" I orchestrated while my wife was in America. And boy, are my eyes tired.

And here we are. Closing night.

Hallelujah.

I can't even begin to tell you how long overdue a viewing of Pulp Fiction has been. This is my fourth ranked movie of all time on Flickchart, and it's a film I saw four times in the theater -- a record that has yet to be broken. And yet it has been at least 15 years since I've seen it. (Delayed fatigue from all the theater viewings, perhaps?) I can only say for sure back to 2006, which is when I started keeping track of rewatches. But I don't recall a viewing since the turn of the century. In fact, I don't recall the context for my last viewing of Pulp Fiction at all.

To put that in a little bit of a context, I've seen every other film in my top ten since 2011, some of them more than once, with the exception of #10 Do the Right Thing, whose most recent viewing was even longer ago than Pulp Fiction. Which is why I also considered that 1989 Spike Lee film for the closing night of Cat's Away, ultimately rejecting it because I wanted something that was a little bit more fun.

It hasn't been for want of trying. As you may recall from this post -- though if you did recall it, I'd probably tell you to get a life -- I had Fiction lined up as a birthday rewatch three years ago. But the DVD we brought from the U.S. did not play in our region-free DVD player, one of only two we've tried that have not worked. I think I actually suggested it again for one of the two birthdays since then, by which point it had become available on one of our streaming services, but at that point it was rejected by my viewing companion as too long. And I can't fault her for not wanting to try to take down a 155-minute movie on what was probably a Thursday night or something.

But one of the defining goals of this festival was to take advantage of her being out of town to watch things she wasn't willing or able to watch, and I told myself that a viewing of Pulp Fiction with her -- despite a professed interest in such a viewing on her part -- was not likely to be forthcoming anytime soon.

So, with one last dramatic gasp, I undertook the longest film of the festival -- and also one of my favorite of all time.

It did not disappoint. There was likely a small part of me that wondered if I would now be "too mature" for Pulp Fiction, if the movie was something that spoke particularly to impressionable twentysomethings who had underdeveloped ideas of what's considered "cool" and nascent ambitions toward cinephilia. Is this a movie I only loved because I was a young male -- just 20 years old -- when I first saw it?

Nope. This is, as you surely know, a relentlessly entertaining reimagining of the possibilities of cinema, and it still feels fresh. Even with all the imitators. Even with all the ways the movies have changed in 23 years. It's still an effort head and shoulders above the others.

It occurs to me that it reminds me, in a strange way, of another groundbreaking piece of art from 1994. Namely, my favorite album of all time, Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral. Every time I listen to that album it feels newly fresh, and I often think to myself that it would still seem groundbreaking if Trent Reznor released it today.

Pulp Fiction is the same. And I noticed on this viewing just how not-cool this consummately cool movie sometimes is. For all that John Travolta's Vincent Vega has become an iconic cinematic figure, in some ways a new definition of cool that Quentin Tarantino introduced to us, he's also an incredible dweeb. Twice he is found to be obliviously sitting on the toilet when an incredibly important event involving guns is unfolding just yards away from him. And as much time as he spends in that black suit with that pencil thin black tie, he spends almost as much time wearing shorts and a tee-shirt that make him look like he's going to a volleyball game, as one character observes. As another character (Tarantino himself) observes, he and Jules look like "dorks." Tarantino was both establishing what it means to be cool and completely undercutting it, all in one character.

A few other stray observations:

1) I've talked in the past, in this post about Run Lola Run, about how a movie can be so good that you feel like you want to cry, even in moments that are not overtly emotional. The one time I did that in Pulp Fiction? "Any of you fucking pricks MOVE and I'll execute every last motherfucking one of you!" Yeah, maybe that's because I knew "Misirlou" was about to kick in. But more than anything, Amanda Plummer's batshit crazy change of character was that moment that announces the movie's greatness. A greatness it never dials back down for the rest of the running time.

2) Kathy Griffin is the bystander who tells Marcellus Wallace about the guy who hit him with his car. I can't believe Kathy Griffin gets to say she was in Pulp Fiction!

3) I love that The Wolf is at some kind of black tie house party at 8:30 in the morning. Just as Brett and friends are awake eating hamburgers at 8. What kind of lives do these people live?

4) Do you think Butch saves Marcellus from Zed, Maynard and the Gimp because he just can't stand to see a man treated that way, even his sworn enemy, or because he calculates that by saving Marcellus he can remove the price from his head? Or just that he now has a taste for killing and sees another low-risk opportunity to explore that? I always assumed it was either the first or the third, or both, but for the first time this viewing I wondered about the middle option. For the record, I think I reject that idea, but it did occur to me.

5) Tarantino orchestrates chaotic conversation scenes beautifully. I marveled over the conversation between Vincent and Lance as Lance is trying to find the little black medical book. The timing in that scene is great. So much fun.

6) I appreciated on this viewing how the movie explores unspoken intimacies between men and women, after first laying out the thesis directly in the dialogue. I'd always thought that conversation about the foot massage and Tony Rocky Horror was just an exercise in linguistic flourish by QT -- a very welcome one, make no mistake, but essentially frivolous and disconnected in nature. But this time I really noticed how the movie profoundly, soulfully, explores non-sexual intimacy between men and women, first with Mia and Vincent on their date (most notably when they dance, but even when they shake hands goodbye), and then with Butch and Esmeralda Villa Lobos, who share something ephemeral but incredibly deep during their taxi ride. I even liked the paternal intimacy, another form of non-sexual intimacy, between Harvey Keitel and Julia Sweeney in that brief scene at Monster Joe's. And then in the final scene, the film explores pure and unabashed love, both between Pumpkin and Honeybunny, and between Jules and his God. At its core, Pulp Fiction is romantic, explore all varieties of love and intimacy that almost never express themselves sexually. Even the one consensual sex act in the movie, between Butch and Fabienne, is sweetly tender.

I'm sure there's plenty more to say but that's probably a good place to stop.

With this post. With this festival.

But wait! I have to do this quickly. A complete recap of the films I watched, in order:

Contact
The Tribe
Train to Busan
Kong: Skull Island
Irreversible
Hall Pass
Megamind
Pan's Labyrinth
Showgirls
Citizen Kane
A Hologram for the King
Harry and the Hendersons
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Thief
The Shining 
Room 237
Fell
Pulp Fiction

That includes:

- Ten movies that were new to me
- Eight rewatches
- Fourteen movies in English
- One movie in Spanish
- One movie in French
- One movie in Korean
- One movie in Ukrainian sign language
- Eight movies from the 2010s
- Two movies from the 2000s
- Four movies from the 1990s
- Three movies from the 1980s
- One movie from the 1940s
- Nine library rentals
- Six movies from streaming
- Two movies from my own collection
- One iTunes rental
- And a variety of different genres and styles

BUT WAIT THERE'S MORE!

Can't get enough Cat's Away? Then you really have to get a life. But you're also in luck!

My wife goes away for about the same period of time in the middle of September. So watch this space for Cat's Away 2 ... coming next month. Where I figure out everything I did wrong in this one and get it right next time.

Now, I think I will take a break from this blog for the weekend.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Cat's Away: Australian entry

This is the penultimate evening of Cat's Away. You know what Cat's Away is by now.

If you're going to have a film festival set in Australia, might as well have at least one Australian film.

(But if it's just in my living room, is it really "set" anywhere other than that hermetically sealed space, which could be here, Timbuktu, or 200 other places? Discuss.)

I wouldn't have felt the need to program an Australian movie per se except I saw this at the library and had to grab it. The reason is that my esteemed colleague on the ReelGood website, John Roebuck, considered Fell his favorite film of 2014. I don't always agree with him (we disagreed wildly on Dunkirk) but I always value his perspective. If he loved it I knew it would be worth seeing.

And it was. But maybe not a whole lot more than that.

I shouldn't sell it short as it's a very well made film and it contains reasonably affecting contemplations on grief, parenthood and the quest for some kind of closure, whether it comes in the form of revenge or not. I'll keep it vague so as not to spoil for anyone who hasn't seen it. Which I imagine is almost everyone reading this.

The thing I probably liked about it best was its length. It clocked in at just under 90 minutes, this despite various sources erroneously reporting its length at 100 minutes. After more than four hours of movie watching the night before, I needed it.

There isn't a lot "discussion-worthy" about this viewing, in part because it helps me to discuss things with you if I think you might have seen the movie and might have your own perspective on it. In this case, I doubt that's true. Which is just as well, as I am just about discussioned out at this point.

Got to save it up for the grand finale tonight, about which I may have quite a bit to say.

That is, assuming I stick to my current choice. I'm wily like that.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Cat's Away: The order I decided on

This is the third-to-last night (I'm starting to count down rather than count up now -- a telling sign) of yada yada yada film festival.

I hadn't yet seen Room 237, which has existed for nearly five years now, because I had long been torn on when to watch it relative to a rewatch of The Shining, and which one I would watch first. The argument was almost academic a couple years ago, when I started to watch the copy of The Shining in our collection during a pre-Halloween horror fest. But I promptly stop watching it upon discovering that the copy my wife had acquired was not letterboxed. Simple, simple girl.

The idea of which movie to watch first, which would have been settled had I gone through with that viewing, reemerged when I got the idea to use the extra viewing hours accorded me during my wife's trip to do the two films as a double feature.
My initial instinct was to watch Room 237 first. If there were going to be some oddball theories presented in it, I wanted to have them fresh in my mind to see if they held water as I watched the movie. It was only logical.

What ultimately caused me to reverse myself was the desire to have a "pure" rewatch of The Shining, rather than possibly being sick of the movie after a documentary devoted to it and just deciding to forego the viewing altogether. Besides, I was sure Room 237 would do a good enough job contextualizing its crackpot theories that I wouldn't have to do my own work trying to locate them. I was sure the documentary would spend ample time providing every bit of possible context for me, no matter how strained.

That settled, the next task was to determine how much of my evening this double feature would consume. Which led to the following statement on my part:

"WHO THE HELL MADE THE SHINING TWO GODDAMN HOURS AND 26 GODDAMN MINUTES???"

The answer is, of course, Stanley Kubrick. And it shouldn't surprise me, as his movies tend to be long.

But with the movie taking up nearly 150 minutes, and with me already being exhausted from a series of nights of shitty sleep, it was the documentary itself -- the main excuse for the double feature in the first place -- that threatened to fall by the wayside. Despite clocking in at a much more reasonable 104 minutes.

Of course, I could have just postponed the whole thing, but I'd already had both of the movies out from the library for a couple weeks (I even renewed Room 237), so I kind of wanted to just get this taken care of.

So what ended up happening? Well, I'll tell you.

I fit them both in. I was up until 1 a.m. on a school night, but I fit them both in.

And I cherished every minute of The Shining, not wanting it to be even a minute shorter than its 146. I suppose I knew I would, but I hadn't seen the movie in maybe 15 years and I had forgotten quite how much it had gripped me. Plus, the BluRay -- on which the aspect ratio was certainly correct -- looked crisp and magnificent. Hallelujah.

One thing I was really taken with on this viewing was the score. I hadn't remembered that being such an indispensable component of the movie's many expert elements, but indeed it's ethereal and haunting and moldering and dread-inducing. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind should be applauded.

I don't have a lot of additional takeaways of note to mention here, but maybe that means it's a good time to shift to Room 237 -- a movie whose whole purpose for existing is to take away extra-textual meanings from The Shining.

And in short, I didn't find that a very useful purpose. Oh, it could have been -- I'm not opposed to the idea at all. But the fools who have been given a soap box in this movie present some of the flimsiest alternate readings of this movie I could imagine someone producing. Most of them hold about as much water as if you decided to sit down with any random movie and compile a stack of circumstantial evidence that would support some given reading. In short, I think you could do this for almost any movie, and in those other instances the evidence would be no more or less compelling than it is for The Shining. It's like in that movie The Number 23 -- that number is everywhere if the number 23 is all you are looking for, and are willing to squint and twist logic in order to see it.

It's a shame, as I am on record saying that Rodney Ascher's follow-up film, The Nightmare, is the scariest documentary I have ever seen, and among the scariest films I've seen, period, in the past ten years. And to be fair, some useful stuff does come out of Room 237. For example, I think it was this film that first introduced us to the idea that the Overlook Hotel has an impossible floor plan, which I find kind of interesting -- even if it's just as likely to be a continuity error as a conscious choice. For the purposes of argument I'm willing to believe it's part of Kubrick's master plan to give the space a dreamy, surreal quality. I did know about that before seeing this film, however, so it wasn't a discovery of last night's viewing.

The majority of things that I found interesting were not philosophies on the themes the movie was trying to explore, which I almost always found unconvincing -- sometimes extremely so. (The whole thing where that woman talks about seeing a minotaur in the poster of a skier -- WTF. And the bit about Kubrick's face appearing in the clouds? No, didn't see that.) Most of the bits I found worthwhile involved people just pointing out cool techniques that were being used, things that I may not have appreciated but which have only a single interpretation that everyone would observe just by doing a close reading of the film. Anything that deviated from that -- like, the stuff about Native Americans and Kubrick's involvement in faking the moon landing -- just seemed like clutching at straws. And the stuff I found worthwhile I could have gotten from any 12-minute video essay on YouTube.

I did also find the experience of watching them consecutively interesting. It was a bit like watching the movie, then watching its DVD extras.

And yes, my choice for the sequence of watching them also proved to be the way to go.

Now that this festival finally includes a documentary, I think I've ticked all the usual film festival boxes, and will promptly begin my stagger to the finish line. Two more nights to go. Come home, my dear wife!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Cat's Away: Brief Thief

Night # 7 of Cat's Away. I've been at this for a week!

On Monday night, I needed a night of rest and recuperation.

A 123-minute Michael Mann film was probably not the way to do that. Nonetheless, I watched Thief.

But because all this watching and all this writing has left me feeling like a candle burned at both ends, I will be brief on Thief.

My exposure to Thief was in the context of it being considered that hidden gem in Michael Mann's career, for those who were mostly familiar with things like Heat and The Insider. It was that gem for those who had dug back to his other older hidden gem, Manhunter, and felt they hadn't dug back far enough. And as I started watching, there was every reason to believe that hidden gem status would be fulfilled. Being greeted right away by a Tangerine Dream score was a good thing. A very good thing.

But the sum total of good things and very good things was not what I'd hoped for in Thief. It has that ambling, rambling, shambling quality of other 70s-era gritty crime dramas that have left me kind of unsatisfied, even if this is a full two years into the 1980s. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, for example, or another James Caan film I saw from that time, Hide in Plain Sight.

It was one of those films where I felt like I had spaced out for a key line of dialogue here and there. For example, in what I thought was possibly the scene where Caan's and Tuesday Weld's character first met, suddenly later in the scene he's talking about spending his life with her, and a few scenes later they are at an adoption agency trying to adopt a baby. It seemed incongruous enough that for a moment I wasn't sure if he was casing the adoption agency to try to rob it. The film was filled with those little missed connections in my brain that left me consulting the plot synopsis on Wikipedia afterward.

I'd say I appreciated Thief enough to give it a positive rating. It was interesting from a film education perspective to go back and see Mann's first feature, which established themes and considerations he would continue to explore throughout his work. But Mann is a filmmaker who has as many failures as successes to his name, at least for me, and this is probably a bit closer to the former than it is the latter.

I was interested to see that Willie Nelson is in this movie, and that even back in 1981 he was considered old, when he was only 48 (which is just five years older than I am now). There's a line of dialogue where someone says "Who's that old man?" It seems that what was once said of Wilford Brimley applies also to Nelson: Was he ever young?

Okay, back on the horse tomorrow with an expected double feature ... and hopefully a bit more stamina.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Cat's Away: Sunday blitzkrieg

This is the sixth post in Cat's Away, an informal film festival of one I'm putting on while my wife is away in America.

When I wrote yesterday's post and entitled it "Saturday blitzkrieg," I didn't really think there would be a Sunday edition. But then my sister-in-law surprised me by taking a vague "after lunch" timing for returning my kids from their sleepover, and shifting it back all the way to 5 p.m., allowing me to watch a lazy Sunday afternoon movie in addition to the one I'd had planned for that morning, and two more later on at night. And this was even after I cleaned the house in preparation for their return. So in the end it was another four-movie day, or even five, I suppose, since the majority of Showgirls was watched after midnight the night before. A "blitzkrieg" if ever there was one.

Citizen Kane

When I do these movie marathons at the hotel, I always save a beloved favorite for Sunday morning, something I know so well that I can also be packing up my hotel room while watching it if need be. And given that the same basic structure applied for this marathon, albeit at my house rather than a hotel, I decided to do the same here.

Because it's one of only four movies I'll be discussing here, I won't go on at length about my personal history with Citizen Kane in this post. You can read more about that here if you're interested. What I will say is that on this, either my fifth or sixth viewing of the film, I loved it more than I have ever loved it before. I'm still discovering things about The Greatest Film Ever Made (screw you, Vertigo) and my love for it is still deepening. In fact, so enamored was I with it on this viewing that it gave me chills multiple times. It had been nearly eight years since my last Kane viewing in 2009. I can guarantee you another eight won't pass before I see it again.

I can't believe how much Welles packs into two hours. If Kane were made today -- I imagine someone like Paul Thomas Anderson might make it -- it would struggle to come in under three. So Kane is a brilliant example of economical filmmaking, in addition to being a brilliant example of just about everything else.

I also considered while watching it that Kane gains something from a viewing during the Trump era. The similarities between Charles Foster Kane and Donald John Trump were not lost on me anyway, but they were made manifest in moments like Kane's campaign speech right before his scandal breaks, when he swears that he's going to put his opponent behind bars. The crowd doesn't start chanting "Lock him up!" but they might as well have. Kane is also described as "the most loved and most hated man of his time," or something to that effect, which also describes Trump, though we are quickly forgetting a time when we loved him. Trump won the election that Kane couldn't, but I think there's a very real chance he comes to an equally miserable end, in a prison of his own making. (And speaking of learning new things -- somehow on all my previous viewings of the film I had failed to glean that Xanadu is in Florida. Because it's based on the Hearst Castle, I guess I thought it was in California. But the location makes Susan's line asking what time it is here, and then what time it is in New York, all the funnier, since it's the same time zone. Not too sharp, was she.)

I really want to write more but I must move on.

A Hologram for the King

When it became clear that my sister-in-law was not coming back with the kids right away and the house was looking pretty clean, I made a much happier spur-of-the-moment decision than the one to watch Megamind the day before. A Hologram for the King might have been something I prioritized watching in time to rank with my 2016 movies, given my love for its writer-director, Tom Tykwer. Yet it eluded me until this past week, when I saw it at the library and brought it home with me.

There have been a lot of movies in the past five to ten years that have featured Americans as fish out of water in the Arab world, and there have been both successful and unsuccessful ones. (This one even has a fish joke in it -- "What do you call a fish without an eye (i)?" "Fsssh." Yeah, that one sounds better spoken than written out.) A Hologram for the King is one of the very best of these, in part because it doesn't go for any cheap jokes and in part because it is so humanistic. Not going for cheap jokes doesn't mean it doesn't go for jokes, though. I laughed out loud ten to 15 times in this movie, as Tom Hanks indulges his fondness for the comedic in a way we haven't seen quite as much in the last few years.

Speaking of comedic Hanks, I couldn't help find some funny similarities between this and another fish-out-of-water film he starred in, that one more of a straight comedy: Splash. It started out with just me noticing that his character has the same first name, Alan -- and a quick perusal of IMDB tells me this is the first time Hanks has played a character named Alan since Splash. (He's Alan here and Allen there -- to-may-to/to-mah-to). But then there's also a scene in Hologram where Hanks goes swimming underwater hand in hand with a beautiful woman -- it just happens to be an Arab doctor rather than a mermaid. To-may-to/to-mah-to.

Harry and the Hendersons

Started the weekend with a movie about an ovesized ape, finished the weekend -- well, almost finished it -- with a movie about an oversized ape. Harry and the Hendersons didn't charm me as much as Kong: Skull Island did, but I did find it quite charming, if too long by about 20 minutes. This may seem like an even more random choice than Megamind was yesterday, until I explain the reasoning behind it.

See, my older son has just recently become fascinated with Bigfoot. I suppose it was a natural outgrowth of his recent fascination with the Loch Ness Monster -- fascination/horror, as he sometimes still tells us he has nightmares about the mythical Scottish beast. Unable to leave well enough alone, I went and showed him the Patterson-Gimlin film of Sasquatch on the internet. Fortunately, no nightmares yet.

Harry and the Hendersons struck me as an opportunity to capitalize on this fascination while keeping the nightmares at bay. I wouldn't have sought it out, but when I saw it on the library shelves it was definitely coming home with us. And I figured the kids would be disappointed to return from the sleepover at their aunt's, so I decided to arrange a special "pajama movie" for Sunday night. The rules: They had to get into their pajamas, and they could stay up to watch the whole movie if they wanted. If they didn't want to, they could go to bed. But I made it clear there would be no negotiations about other possible titles if they weren't enjoying it -- and then made it clear that the noises the younger one was making driving toy cars across the couch would not be tolerated.

The movie being too long was definitely something I felt more when dealing with fidgety children, but I ultimately was able to keep them on task and they both professed to like it. It took me 30 years to see Harry and the Hendersons, and I might logically have never seen it after that kind of delay and with its minimal enduring significance as a family classic. But I'm glad I did see it ... and also glad that I was not awakened last night by a six-year-old with Sasquatch nightmares.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

My final film of the day made an unintentional Pacific Northwest double feature with Harry and the Hendersons. It also allowed me to finally complete David Lynch's feature filmography.

This one was a purpose-driven viewing. Sometime after my wife comes back -- possibly not until September or October -- we are finally planning to start the new Twin Peaks episodes. Part of the reason we weren't all over them the moment they were released was the perceived mental work we would need to do to watch this series. I figured, what better time to give me a little relief on that perceived mental work?

Of course, I'd heard that it probably doesn't matter what you know, what you've seen recently to jog your memory -- you still won't know what's going on. And after finally seeing Fire Walk With Me, I'm inclined to believe that nothing there will really help me all that much. I enjoyed the Lynchian moodiness, as I do in all of his films, but I didn't end up all that interested in the events leading up to the murder of Laura Palmer. It felt like 135 minutes of demystification. I remembered my viewing of the original series well enough to piece together connections to those events, and to recognize, for example, that Moira Kelly is now playing Lara Flynn Boyle's character. (Did Boyle perceive herself to be too big of a star at that point to make this movie? It scarcely seems possible, but maybe she did.) But I felt myself not really caring, even when I did make connections with the things I remembered.

It turns out that Laura Palmer is not really that interesting of a character to spend that much time with. She works a lot better as a "pretty dead girl" than a flesh-and-blood person having a really bad week. I think part of that is due to the weaknesses in Sheryl Lee as an actress. She's not terrible or anything, but she seemed to verge on hysterics quite regularly, and I found that a little of her goes a long way. Also, I'm reminded that the actor who plays Bob, Frank Silva, is just not that disturbing. Bob, too, is more interesting as a person, an entity, we know very little about.

I found myself a lot more interested in the prologue, if you want to call it that, which features Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland as FBI agents. But they were in it only for the first 30 minutes, and in true Lynchian style, were never heard from again.

Also, I noticed Heather Graham's name in the credits and then failed to identify her. Disappointing.

Okay, I am ready for a one-movie day on Monday.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Cat's Away: Saturday blitzkrieg

This is the fifth post recounting the movies I'm watching while my wife is overseas for ten days. 

Any time I have my Saturday all to myself to watch a marathon of movies, which happens approximately once a year and usually when I'm staying over at a hotel for the express purpose, I go through a predictable series of phases.

The first is overwhelming excitement and optimism, which lasts the entirety of my first movie. That's part of the reason I like to keep the first movie light. During this phase you imagine you might somehow squeeze in ten different movies that day. The sky's the limit. At the very least, five should be possible.

The second comes during the second movie, when you are taken hold by the sedentary nature of the experience and the realization you have the luxury to just close your eyes for a bit without any children needing anything from you. This is when a nap that's possibly as long as two hours transpires. Then, when you wake up with 30 minutes still to go in the movie and already encroaching on your evening viewing slots, a sort of panic sets in. You then realize that no more than four movies will be possible and you immediately regret the choice of movie you've just made. Do you even have to finish it?

The third movie comes during dinner and this is usually the prestige slot. Something really good you're revisiting, most likely. Something with a guarantee of satisfaction. You eat a good dinner (though are starting to feel a bit bloated from all the junk food you've already consumed) and restore a bit of the equanimity you lost during the nap and the realization that the total possibilities for the day are not, indeed, limitless.

The last movie is usually designed as a bit of a "midnight movie," and by this time you're struggling just to make it through. While you're probably enjoying it -- or not, since a midnight movie can go either way -- you are pretty ready when the time finally comes to close your eyes, probably sometime between one and two.

That was the shape my day did indeed take yesterday when my sister-in-law picked up my kids for an overnight at her house, leaving around 12:45, which would have given me even a bit longer than I usually have when I check in to a hotel. But I had two errands to run: to the library to return soon-to-be overdue books and movies (and to check out some more movies, one of which I actually ended up watching), and to the store to buy some junk food I didn't want to buy in the presence of my kids (else they'd ask why they couldn't have some). I got started at about 1:45, still on track to fit in five movies, even with 30-minute breaks between movies built in to do housework (and break up the routine).

But I ended up at only four, and that's because I had arrogantly believed my previous night's sleep would not come back to haunt me. I'll spare a few words here for that, to let you know why it was impossible it wouldn't. I got a late start to bed anyway, after 1 a.m., and shortly after that I was joined by my younger son -- this is a bad habit he's developed since my wife left. Sleeping with him is no picnic anyway -- he does this weird thing that I call "sleep running" -- but that sleep was shattered at 3 a.m. when the smoke detector started cheeping that its battery was dying. That took five minutes to deal with, involving a precarious stacking of chairs to get to our high hallway ceilings, and though it allowed me to deliver my son back to his bed, it did not allow me to return to sleep right away. I was awake another hour on my computer, and around 5:30 my younger one broke up my newly deep sleep by coming back to my bed, now ready to be awake for the day and imploring me to get up with him. He let me linger in the bed another 90 minutes, perhaps dozing off a bit himself during that time, but that period was also broken up by him asking me questions and being cute. We finally arose at 7.

So yeah, there was no way I wasn't going to take that two-hour nap.

Okay, should we finally talk movies? I'll go through them somewhat briefly in deference to the fact that a) I've already written a whole lot this morning on my procedure, which may be only of marginal interest to you and b) I need to get watching my Sunday morning movie before my kids return in a couple hours.

Hall Pass

If you remember from my post earlier in the week, Contact was the movie I originally had envisioned for this time slot. When I pushed that up to opening night, I replaced it with Hall Pass, the second-to-last movie I bought in this sale that I had yet to watch. (Hustle & Flow, I still have a future date with you). I chose it for a couple reasons. One was that the Saturday afternoon time slot is always good for a comedy -- something I'd temporarily forgotten when I targeted Contact -- but there are plenty of other comedies I could have chosen. I chose this one in part because I thought it was worth grappling again with how good the movie actually is. I like this movie more than anyone else I know, including my wife, who also does like it, but I think finds it fairly juvenile. Plus, the subject matter makes it one of those "Why are you watching this?" movies -- it's about a week off from marriage. Don't want my wife to think this topic interests me more than it actually does, which makes it a good movie to watch when she's not here. (When, in fact, I am sort of getting "a week off from marriage" with her out of town -- something I am not using to try to pick up chicks at Applebee's, I'll have you know.)

I nearly put this movie in my top ten of 2011, so observant did I find it and so capable of producing big laughs in various moments. A very necessary January 2012 rewatch before my list closed talked me down off that ledge, but I still ranked it #12 for the year. My first rewatch since then has further sobered me on the merits of this movie -- the Farrelly humor is indeed pretty juvenile -- but I still like it quite a bit. It was a good Saturday afternoon choice.

Megamind

This was a really random choice, something that was not in my considerations at all until I picked it up at the library earlier that day. (Though I daresay it's probably available on one of our streaming services as well.) It perfectly exemplifies the on-the-fly element I want Cat's Away to have, but it's my one possible regret from yesterday. The reasons I chose it were: 1) I'd always meant to see this -- "wanted" may be a bit too strong a word -- and I was enjoying keeping the "light" afternoon tone after Hall Pass; 2) It's short, and I was still trying to get in five movies at this point; 3) It was the only chance to have a "new to me" movie, and these Saturday marathons usually have at least one of those. When I realized it was too early to watch the movie I'd planned for the dinner slot, I decided something short would be perfect, which led to me discard other possible contenders City of God and Watchmen. Besides, neither of them would have kept the light tone.

Megamind was fine. I'd even say I liked it. In fact, when I was reminded that a comedic actor I love, Will Ferrell, does the voice of the title character, for a few moments it felt like an inspired, felicitous choice. But ultimately it hardly rose to the level of essential animation I have not seen, which I kind of knew was the case before I even started. It would have been totally fine if this were not the movie I interrupted with that two-hour nap I was powerless to stop. When I woke up at 7:45 with the aforementioned 30 minutes still remaining, which would push dinner to nearly 9 o'clock when you factor in the proscribed 30-minute break between movies, I wished I'd gone another direction. This choice ultimately doomed my original midnight movie choice, Spring Breakers, which will now have to wait for another occasion. Which is okay, since I have already seen Spring Breakers four times and it hasn't even existed for five years yet.

Pan's Labyrinth

And here was the prestige time slot movie that restored order. I targeted Guillermo del Toro's film because I'd loved it at the time (it was in my top ten of 2006) but still had seen it only that one time. I don't know what has held me back from a second viewing -- possibly the heavy subject matter, possibly just opportunity. In any case, I was overdue for a rewatch.

The film did not disappoint. The interesting thing I found as I was watching it was that I considered its fantastical elements, which are what have delivered the film to its classic status, kind of superfluous. I mean, it clearly would not be the same movie without the great creature effects we have come to associate with del Toro and his muse, Doug Jones (who is like the Andy Serkis of practical effects). And though I still found those effects wondrous, I find their narrative function somewhat dubious, and in fact am far more interested in the real-world elements of this film. Sergi Lopez' villain is one of the most hissable in modern cinema, and I felt freshly frustrated by an element of this film that bothers me (in a good way), wishing that Mercedes had just taken her advantage over him to kill him during that scene where she slices out the side of his mouth. I guess that still allows him to have his perfectly staged death scene later -- "No, he will not even know your name" -- but it also would have saved the life of the little girl.

One thing I noticed after the movie, when I was adding this to my list of rewatches on Letterboxd, was that I awarded this movie "only" four stars when I added it to Letterboxd. (Which would not have been at the time of its release, of course -- I think it would have been around early 2012.) In just five years I've kind of radically altered my conception of what constitutes a four-star movie. I probably would not give Pan's Labyrinth five stars, as it does not rise to the level of a personal favorite, but it surely would have been worth 4.5 today. Which I guess is only a half-star difference ... so that's not that bad I suppose.

Showgirls

And we finish with Showgirls.

This was also a film I've only seen once, but for different reasons. I'd been one of those ones who considered Showgirls an unmitigated disaster when I first saw it. But in the 22 years since its release there has been a small but determined segment of the movie-going populace who have reappraised this film as a work of comic and satirical genius. And so I decided I needed another viewing to watch it through that lens.

But I just didn't see it. I don't really think this movie's tongue is in its cheek, or if so, that aspect does not manifest itself in ways I found interesting. It really just seems tawdry for tawdry's sake, and has numerous moments where it doesn't get how silly something plays. That said, it's also not as bad as I remembered it. When I entered this film in Letterboxd, I gave it one star, probably just due to foggy memories of how awful it was, and to align my star rating with the general consensus of respected critics. But this movie might actually deserve 1.5 or even 2 stars. Its greatest sin is that it's pretty boring, even with a number of pretty steamy sex scenes (whether you are describing "sex" as actual intercourse, an intense lap dance or even just Elizabeth Berkley licking a stripper pole).

And let's talk about Berkley for a moment. Even though I think this movie has rightly thrust her into a kind of iconic status, leading to the idea that she's kind of "perfect" for the role, her performance in numerous spots leaves much to be desired. Whether this is a Paul Verhoeven issue or an Elizabeth Berkley issue is up for debate. I will say that there are a comical number of times when she seems to wildly overreact to something that's said to her, and I lost count of the number of times she stormed off from an interaction, her high heels clicking against asphalt.

Okay, you can go now.