Thursday, June 30, 2016

A bad month for dinner parties

I've just watched the second of two movies this June in which people get invited to a dinner party that goes disastrously wrong.

It's not a particularly common theme for a movie, but it has cropped up twice in June.

The movie I just watched (Sunday being "just") is Karyn Kusama's The Invitation, which features a man invited to the home of his ex-wife and her new partner for a dinner party. He's bringing his new girlfriend, so the dynamics between exes are balanced, but there's a past trauma between them that promises to have something to do with why the dinner party is being held. Other mutual friends are there ... as well as two decidedly unusual strangers.

The Invitation is from 2016. The movie I watched back on June 7th is from 54 years before that. That's Luis Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, in which two dozen Mexican aristocrats attend a dinner party in an opulent mansion. The evening gets off to an unusual start when all the servants find themselves compelled to leave, upending decorum completely even though they can't explain why they're doing it. Then the guests find themselves unable to leave -- in fact, unable even to step outside the bounds of one particular part of the mansion. It isn't until the next day, after they have all inexplicably violated decorum by sleeping on the floor, that they start to really address what is happening to them.

That's all I'll tell you about either movie. Their joys are bound up in the discovery of what happens along the way.

But it did get me thinking that I find this dynamic particularly compelling for a movie -- people show up for a dinner party, and things they could never have imagined start happening. So I've decided to list five other movies I like with similar things going on.

1. It's a Disaster (2012, Todd Berger) - The end of the world strikes while some friends are throwing a dinner party. As they are so caught up in their own squabbles and interpersonal dynamics, they don't even notice it's happening or give much credence to the obvious warning signs. The movie goes off the rails a bit in the third act, but before then it's a great satire of modern, self-absorbed white people.

2. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, Luis Bunuel) - Bunuel did like his frustrated dinner parties and satires of the upper class, didn't he? In this one, which is less narratively straightforward than The Exterminating Angel and but more straightforward in the ways it's funny, the dinner party guests are repeatedly thwarted in their attempts to eat, across what seems to be several different dinner parties. Reality goes kind of in and out of focus in this one, so it's hard to say for sure.

3. Clue (1985, Jonathan Lynn) - You all know the board game, so you know that someone ends up dead. However, who it is depends on which ending you got. At the time it played theaters, different theaters actually got one of three different endings to the film -- which must have made it problematic for a critic to offer a definitive review. I watched this again a couple years ago, and it's a hoot. Great cast.

4. Rope (1946, Alfred Hitchcock) - I had forgotten until I did a little research that the anarchists at the center of this film, after killing someone just to see if they can, then hide his body in a trunk that is used as a buffet table for dinner party guests. I am definitely due for a rewatch of one of my top three Hitchock films, which I haven't seen in more than 20 years.

5. Gosford Park (2001, Robert Altman) - I didn't immediately think of this one as it's more of a whole weekend than a single dinner party, but it's similar to Clue in that a bunch of upper class folks come together in a big mansion and someone ends up dead. This was my favorite movie from 2001 and was essentially the template for Downton Abbey (Julian Fellowes was intimately involved in both), so if you haven't seen it you should.

That's all for now. Have to pick up a bottle of wine for this weird party I got invited to at the house of an ex-girlfriend ... I swear I heard she had gone crazy ...

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

(Oh, Batman and Superman are in this also)

The spin doctors are hard at work on Batman v. Superman.

The massive financial hit and critical punching bag has had to be reimagined for its BluRay release like no massive financial hit before it. They'll say it's just because she's the only one who doesn't have a direct adversary, making her positioning in the picture otherwise problematic, but Wonder Woman has been thrust to the front and center of this movie in a vain effort to save it.

The studio heard what we all said: "Wonder Woman was the best part of it." A damning indictment indeed of a film featuring the two most iconic superheroes of all time, especially since the "best part" had about 13 minutes of screen time.

So why not remind us of it when we're strolling the aisles at Walmart?

Of course, the skin helps. As empowering as people may successfully argue this portrayal of Wonder Woman is, there's no doubt she's also a sex object. That outfit barely covers her. And the actress portraying her, Gal Gadot, came from the world of modeling.

If you want to credit Warner Brothers with a more benevolent form of pragmatism, it could just be forward thinking. After all, Wonder Woman's standalone movie is the next up in the DC universe (after Suicide Squad of course, but we've already been saturated with imagery of that).

And I've gotta say it worked. When I came across this image in the iTunes movie section, I thought, "There were some good parts of that movie after all."

Or one, at least.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Cloaking our phones

I've been to a number of advanced screenings since I've been reviewing films in Melbourne, but never before Sunday had I had my phone "cloaked."

Nor was I even familiar with the term.

In fact, when I walked up to the table filled with mobile devices in bags, at first I thought it was just another table of freebies. After all, we'd just walked by a table filled with spinach muffins, then a table where your kid could scoop jelly beans into a bag. It was a showing of Steven Spielberg's The BFG, so the jelly beans kind of make sense, since they probably couldn't get snozzcumbers.

But no, they were taking phones, not giving them to us.

As the movie does not come out until Thursday, they don't want anyone videoing it before then, you see. Which I suppose is a realistic concern even though the screening was comprised almost entirely of families with their kids. We only had one of our kids with us, as we didn't deem the two-year-old ready for such an event. (Which didn't stop the people behind us, who had a baby less than half that age -- a baby that actually fell to the floor with a thud and some tears at one point during the screening.) But I suppose even if you have your family in tow, you could still be trying to turn a quick buck on pirating the movie.

"Yeah, we need to cloak your phone," the guy told me.

Which was a bit of a problem, as my sister-in-law was at home with the two-year-old and may have needed to text or call us for this reason or that. My wife solved the issue by ducking out twice during the movie to check that no news was good news.

"That's the first time I've seen this," I told the guy. "And I've attended a bunch of advanced screenings before." I wasn't at all miffed, though he clearly thought I was inviting a debate rather than making conversation.

"Here in Australia?" he asked. He'd heard my accent.

"Yeah, here at this theater," I said. Or something like that. I probably said "cinema" because that's what they say here.

"For a Disney movie? We always cloak them for Disney movies."

"I saw Inside Out here last year," I said.

"We cloaked the phones for Inside Out," he assured me.

"Well then, I guess I got mine in." It was too late to get me now; the statute of limitations had run out.

Anyway, we were given claim tags for our phones, and they were returned to us promptly afterward.

Fortunately, this ended up being the only thing I had to worry about. I came in with a couple potential worries. This would be my first attempt at taking my five-year-old to a live-action movie since we had to leave Pan last September, and this would also be his first attempt at 3D since then. My wife was prepared to leave with him if need be, but I'd feel a hell of a lot of guilt, so I carried the worry just as heavily as if I'd been the one bearing the responsibility for evacuating him. When The BFG started on a creepy British orphanage -- the exact same setting as the start of Pan -- I thought "Here we go again."

But my son showed only signs of restlessness, not fear, during the film's nearly two-hour running time. This despite the fact that there were ample things to scare him. There are kids getting snatched by giants, and not just the big, friendly variety of the title. Having it all in 3D would just make it more intense.

But the only times he really engaged me were when he asked what treats I'd brought (the jelly beans and complimentary popcorn were apparently not enough), and when he leaned into me because he was sleepy. He'd had a fever during the night, and though he'd had none in the morning, I shouldn't have been surprised to see some of the symptoms lingering. I noticed he wasn't actually wearing the 3D glasses, but this did not seem to unduly affect his enjoyment of the movie either. If he seemed lethargic afterwards when I asked him if he liked it, it was just the strains of being under the weather. He voluntarily supplied details of what he liked, and later in the afternoon was impersonating a giant around our house.

My own review? Well, it'll be forthcoming in a few days. You can check back for the link to the right.

With all this talk about cloaking, I think I ought to cloak my thoughts on the movie as well ... at least for a day or two.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

I finally saw: Return to Oz

I was too young to know the word "blasphemous" in 1985.

But if I'd known it, the 11-year-old me would have certainly produced it upon seeing the trailers for Return to Oz, from which I ran screaming -- metaphorically, at least.

I could think of no more definite way to curdle the joy of the classic 1939 film than this grim and despairing sequel, 46 years later, populated with weird and frightening characters.

It turns out, from finally watching it, that my initial impression of Return to Oz was 100% accurate. However, I'm now less certain that this is a bad thing.

After finally watching Return to Oz, I can say with 100% certainty that it was conceived as a horror movie. Whether this was the right thing to unleash upon us is a different question. But what I once viewed as a colossal failure of tone is now more appropriately seen as a nightmare aimed at children.

The reason I even decided to overcome my apprehensions and give it a chance was that I'd heard some podcasters recently talk about how secretly awesome it was. Could all that twisted material and bad hoodoo actually be great? And what were these "Wheelers" that they were praising in particular?

So when I saw it in the kids section at the library -- the kids section -- I decided to give it a whirl.

If you are like me and ran screaming from this movie, I can tell you that it picks up a couple months after Dorothy's initial return from Oz. Turns out Dorothy -- now inexplicably about eight years old and played by Fairuza Balk -- did not live happily ever after. In fact, instead of resuming her life as a normal and compliant Kansas farm girl, she just wants to tell everyone about this magical place she visited. These being sensible Kansans in the year 1899, they don't want to hear any guff about a magical land with ruby slippers and emerald cities. But instead of benevolently humoring her, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry decide to take her to a doctor in an eerie hospital -- someone who plans to submit her to what appears to be electroshock therapy.

Dorothy, I don't think we're in The Wizard of Oz anymore.

If you told me this were the same hospital they used in Jacob's Ladder, I would believe you. Fortunately, with the assistance of a (possibly imaginary) fellow patient, Dorothy escapes during a perfectly timed power outage that struck just as they were about to power on the equipment. The two girls rush down to a nearby river and plunge in, the sinister hospital administrator hot on their heels. Dorothy grabs on to a crib that washes along in the river and awakens in what she soon determines to be Oz. Oh, and instead of Toto -- who does make an appearance earlier on -- she's got a chicken from her farm with her. A chicken that now can talk.

But it's not the Oz she remembers -- the yellow brick road has been reduced to rubble, as has the Emerald City. Most of its buildings are still standing, but all of its citizens have been turned to stone. Except for the Scarecrow, who was left as king -- and who may be key to the salvation of the city, if he can be found. As Dorothy collects companions -- a mechanical man named Tik Tok, who looks like a bronze and rotund version of the Pringles guy; an early draft of the character that became Jack Skellington, called Jack Pumpkinhead; and the trophy head of a moose that had been killed on a hunting expedition, which flies around a demented version of Santa's sleigh comprised of a couch and some other odds and ends, and goes by the name "Gump" -- she starts to figure out what has happened to her beloved Oz.

Hint: It involves these guys.

If that's not horrifying enough, let's pull out so you can get a better view.

Yep. That's a deranged man wearing a mask helmet with wheels for hands and feet.

"Jesus Christ," I said aloud upon encountering my first Wheeler.

As if these monstrosities -- this film's version of flying monkeys -- were not bad enough, we're just getting started. Dorothy then encounters a wicked princess who keeps a hall of disembodied heads, which belonged to Emerald City citizens whose bodies still remain frozen in stone, and which she switches out with her own depending on her whims. Eventually, she also comes face to face with an evil creature made of rock called the Nome King. The Nome King has rock minions whose faces appear in whatever rocks are near Dorothy, and report back on her progress. He has magic powers and can turn people into "trinkets." *shiver*

For about the first 20 minutes of Return to Oz you're thinking -- if you're sensible -- "My goodness, this is just awful." It does indeed seem to be a catastrophic misunderstanding of what made The Wizard of Oz a classic. Even Auntie Em and Uncle Henry are unmoved by the prospect of submitting their niece to a regimen of suspicious medical experiments involving electricity. Then there are just the things that seem careless, like the fact that the cheery score is out of sync with a drab setting that owes more to the depictions of Victorian England on film than American frontier movies -- and not the cheery versions of Victorian England, but the realistic ones, like Roman Polanski's Tess.

But once she actually goes back to Oz you're thinking -- if you're sensible -- "This is no accident." It may have been an accident on the studio's part that the creators of this content got away with what they got away with, but those creators did not miscalculate. They made exactly the movie they intended to make. Taking their lead from the Grimm theory that fairytales are terrifying, they made a terrifying expedition into Oz, one that owes more to something like Alice in Wonderland (underscored by the aging down of Dorothy) than Victor Fleming's interpretation of L. Frank Baum's material.

Indeed, as much as we may credit (blame?) this film's screenwriters for their strange creations, most of them are taken from Baum's book Ozma of Oz. That's at least where Tik Tok, the Wheelers, the Nome King, the evil princess and the Deadly Desert come from (did I mention there's a desert which turns you into sand if you touch it? That happens to one poor Wheeler), though it would appear that Jack Pumpkinhead and Gump may be original creations. (Adding to the creepiness -- Pumpkinhead is a bit touched in the head. He's always worried about his head rotting, and he keeps asking Dorothy if she's his mother.) Wait, no -- they're from another of Baum's books, The Marvelous Land of Oz.

Most of what's creepiest about this movie works. Some of it doesn't. The quality of the visual effects/costumes/etc. varies at about the same extent. So while most lovers of rule-breaking cinema and anomalous oddities will be won over by Return to Oz, there are the parts of it that just seem sloppy and bad-weird as opposed to good-weird.

Still, I was ready to hate this and I so didn't. In fact, I'm looking forward to my next viewing.

A return to Return to Oz, as it were.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Too sleepy to figure out time travel

The creators of the movie Synchronicity clearly set out to make a layman's version of Shane Carruth's Primer -- one whose logic can actually be followed.

Whether they succeeded or not is unknown to me, since I was too sleepy when I watched it.

If you lose ten to 20 percent of most films by watching them too late at night, you probably lose 30 to 40 percent of films about time travel conundrums.

I started watching Jacob Gentry's film at about 10:30, and after I'd already watched the trippy Return to Oz -- which I will tell you about tomorrow. But I watched more than an hour before succumbing to sleep, though even then I paused it for one of my trademark "late-night naps," resuming at sometime around 12:30. I was a bit groggier after that, obviously, but I then watched it through to its conclusion without yielding to any more of sleep's seductions.

It wasn't the plot I had a difficult time following -- I know Gentry et al were more successful on that front than Carruth. It was determining whether the inner logic of multiple planes of existence and versions of reality held water. It was determining whether the movie has cleverly reached the point where two versions of one character have arrived in the same timeline and are therefore able to influence each other's "future" actions, or gotten there through gaps in the narrative.

In other words, I understood what was happening, but I didn't understand whether it was particularly cool or not.

It occurred to me that what you want out of a time travel movie is a Keanu Reeves "Whoa" moment. You want that moment when a shrewd imagining of the various causalities manifests itself in a moment of noodle-frying surprise. You want to get a chill at the realization that if X happens, then Y happens, and Y is something you hadn't quite considered as an outcome of X. But it makes perfect sense within the inner logic of the world.

I didn't quite get that with Synchronicity. And it does become complicated enough -- not unlike Primer -- that eventually I was required to take it for granted that the things would happen/are happening the way they say they would/are.

I did get chills during the climax, but not for the reasons I would have expected. It was because even if they hadn't gotten the time travel right -- something I'm still not sure about -- they got the emotion right. Those chills were due to an emotional denouement between two of the characters. And when I'm watching a movie, I always find it more important to get the emotion right than the science/philosophy.

And that's definitely an area where the film succeeds more than Primer.

(You can probably tell I'm not a huge fan of Primer, a movie I've ranted about before, but apparently never in any detail on this blog. I owe it a rewatch, especially in the wake of really digging Carruth's follow-up, Upstream Color.)

I probably won't go back to watch Synchronicity again, to give the science a second chance. Although the movie does a lot with its low budget, it's still the type of movie that needs to bring in someone like Michael Ironside for some perfunctory star wattage. But the probability of successful science combined with the certainty of successful emotion was enough for me to award it three stars -- and a recommendation to anyone reading this.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Edited for which content, exactly?

It was with a bit of dread that I saw this message upon finally poping in the copy of Wonder Boys I've owned for ten years:

"This film has been formatted from its original version. It has been edited for content."

Edited for content?

What the fuck?

"Formatted to fit this screen" would have been better. I mean, I hate pan-and-scan as much as the next guy, but at least that would have been better than, you know, censorship.

And how does a DVD made available for sale become "edited for content," anyway? It's not like this was the version they were playing on airlines sometime circa March of 2001.

I couldn't recall the circumstances of buying Wonder Boys, but I immediately cursed them as too lackadaisical. No, I hadn't made the mistake of buying a movie that wasn't in its proper aspect ratio, but I'd somehow missed the warning sticker that must have needed to appear on any version that wasn't the original.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I watched the movie and could detect nary a difference from the Wonder Boys I've seen about three times before.

And it wasn't just that the movie seem unsullied by the fascist hand of a censor. It actually was uncensored, as far as I could tell.

When trying to imagine what might be objectionable enough to cut from Wonder Boys, I focused on three things: 1) profanity, the most likely aspect to cause difficulty for whatever these prospective squeamish audiences might be; 2) drug use, as Michael Douglas' Grady Tripp regularly puffs on joints; 3) and possibly sexual content, as two of the characters (those played by Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jr.) are gay, and Downey's character even shows up with a transvestite on his arm.

Yet all of these things were intact. The characters drop the f-bomb at least ten times, including one as a recurring joke ("fit as a fucking fiddle"). Grady puffs on his full contingent of scraggly joints. And the movie is as gay as it ever was.

So what the hell? What was actually cut out of it?

The internet might be able to tell me, but I won't bother to find out. I'm just glad that the Wonder Boys I know and love was there for me to know and love once more.

And that I did. I was struck again by one of the things I love most about this movie, which is that it's so damn comfortable. It feels like pulling on an old sweater that's been perfectly worn in for all your curves and grooves. It feels lived in, and it has the sense of starting up in full swing in the lives of characters it seems like we've always known. This is how you do character development, prospective screenwriters. Steve Kloves could give a class on it.

I think what makes the narrative flow so nicely is that it's novelistic. Sure, it's adapted from a book, the one written by Michael Chabon (which I've read and which I don't like as much as this movie). But so are hundreds of other movies, not all of which retain their novelistic quality so nicely -- and in a way that's not actually detrimental to it being a good movie. On this viewing, I noticed for the first time a wink at this hoped-for ease of translation, as we overhear two characters at the chancellor's party talking about an unnamed film. "How did you feel about the adaptation?" one says to the other. "I thought it was more literary than cinematic," the other responds. Congratulations, Curtis Hanson -- you've managed to have it both ways.

An interesting thing about the timing of this rewatch was that the movie has two things in common with Hollywoodland, the movie I rewatched just the day before. One is profound while the other is more incidental.

1) Both films make mention of George Reeves. Hollywoodland is of course about Reeves, but he gets a quick mention in Wonder Boys too, when James (Maguire) is rattling off famous celebrity suicides in a savant-like manner. Naturally he lists Reeves, and curiously, chooses to make no mention of the fact that some people contest the finding that it was a suicide.

2) Both films feature a character unwittingly holding another character at gunpoint, only the first character doesn't realize the gun he or she is holding is loaded. That makes the situation all the more dangerous, because many people wouldn't hesitate to casually pull the trigger on an unloaded gun.

A couple other isolated thoughts:

1) Alan Tudyk is in this! He plays Traxler, the pothead janitor.

2) I love Vernon Hardapple, the character not actually named Vernon Hardapple, played by Richard Knox. "Vernon Hardapple" is the name Grady and his editor give the character, with his James Brown bouffant, while spotting him across the bar and spitballing a backstory for him. Little do they know that Vernon will actually turn up in their lives as they are leaving the bar, as he believes Grady is driving his stolen car and doesn't give up easy in the pursuit. Vernon finally seems to "win" by stopping the car dead in its tracks. In a moment that's delightfully absurd and ultimately never explained, he uses his upper hand by running up, jumping on the hood of the car, leaving an ass print in it, performing a whimsical bow, and then walking away. "What the hell was that?" Rip Torn's character, the aptly named Q, rightly asks.

3) I love this line of dialogue to describe the house Grady's wife grew up in: "It's the kind of house you like to wake up in on Christmas morning." Indeed.

After I'd written this draft but before I'd posted it, I learned what the edited content actually is. Putting the query out to my Flickcharters Facebook group (instead of googling it myself like I should have done), I discovered that the family of Alan Ladd had objected to him being listed by James among the people who committed suicide. Indeed, Ladd's death was ruled as an accidental drug overdose rather than a suicide. So Paramount agreed to scrap all reference to Ladd in all future incarnations of the film, on video and any potential future theatrical screenings.

What I don't understand is why they didn't just silently excise the reference to Ladd and be done with it. It seems to only draw attention to the issue, since people like me will google it (or, in my case, should have googled it) to find out what was edited out. You'd hardly think your duty to the original is such that you have to post a disclaimer like his out of a sense of full disclosure. I mean, did George Lucas warn us that the special edition of Star Wars had been "edited for content"?

But if it made the Ladds happy -- even 36 years after his death when the film came out -- then I guess that's a good thing.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Random rewatch: Hollywoodland

It took more than three-and-a-half years to complete the first movie in a periodic (very periodic) series I proposed back in 2011.

I'm doing a bit better now. The second movie took just over 15 months.

The series was/is called Random Rewatch, and my intention was to revisit movies I've seen by choosing them from my Flickchart using a random number generator. Really, I think I just wanted to play around with the random number generator.

Back on the 17th of March last year, I finally watched the first movie I drew back in 2011, which was Full Metal Jacket, then #672 on a chart of 3282. As my next choice I drew Hollywoodland, #2838/4098, not having any idea when the occasion to watch it might arise.

And it might not have for a while longer but for three factors conspiring to prioritize it on my schedule:

1) As I wrote about in this post, I've been listening to Karina Longworth's podcast You Must Remember This, which last year ran a series on MGM. One episode was devoted to MGM "fixer" Eddie Mannix and his possible involvement in the death of George Reeves, which was ruled a suicide. Reeves was having an affair with Mannix' wife -- one he knew about and supposedly condoned -- and as Mannix could get away with nearly anything, it was theorized that he had Reeves killed either because of jealousy or because Reeves became engaged to another woman and his wife was actually hurt by that. Either way, listening to that episode whet my appetite to revisit Hollywoodland, which is about this very scandal.

2) I've been doing a bit of RNG-determined random rewatching lately for other reasons. I am running a challenge among the members of my Flickcharters Facebook group in which they sign up for a week sometime in 2016 and watch a movie randomly selected from my chart. Why would they want to do this, you ask? Well, my original inspiration for the series was to take the piss out of the numerous viewing challenges proliferating in that group, in which the person running the challenge receives suggestions from other people. I didn't really want to do that kind of challenge, so I chose one that would be a lot less time-consuming because it would not actually involve me watching any movies. As I said, I did it as kind of a joke, but enough people signed up and were curious about it that it kind of took off. However, at this point in the year, the pool of guinea pigs is starting to dry up, so I decided to insert myself into the weekly schedule. I've already randomly rewatched Serpico, and I have a random rewatch of Wonder Boys coming up this week. (Both highly ranked movies for me, in my top 600.) It felt like I owed it to Hollywoodland to complete the rewatch that has actually been on the table for more than a year.

3) But perhaps the most important reason has to do with the archives of the Filmspotting podcast. I started listening to Filmspotting in 2011, meaning there were six years of podcasts I never caught. As I've been making my way slowly through the archives, I've taken down all of 2005 and gotten up to September of 2006. For a couple weeks now the next podcast has been the one in which they reviewed Hollywoodland, and I decided this was the sign I needed to finally watch it. It'd be a lot more satisfying to listen to that episode if I'd just recently completed my viewing.

Whew. On to the actual movie, shall we?

As that ranking would indicate -- only 31% on my chart at the time -- I didn't think much of Allen Coulter's film at the time I saw it. I seem to recall its chief virtue was being better than the similarly themed Brian De Palma film The Black Dahlia, which hit theaters just a week later and is awful. However, I also remember liking it more than I thought I was going to like it, so the comparatively low ranking seemed curious.

It seemed especially curious as I watched the movie this time around and enjoyed it quite a bit. Perhaps the recently elevated interest in MGM had something to do with it, but I found the mystery so much more captivating this time. In consulting the review I wrote for AllMovie, the word "boring" actually came up in reference to that mystery. Neither do I find the mystery boring now, nor do I find the way the movie addresses the mystery boring.

The movie is constructed as parallel narratives, one following Reeves (Ben Affleck) at various important junctures in the decade prior to his death, the other following a private investigator (Adrien Brody) who is being paid by Reeves' mother to determine if there was an explanation for his death other than suicide. When I first saw the movie, I enjoyed most of the Reeves stuff and very little of the Louis Simo (Brody) stuff. But this time I enjoyed the Simo stuff too, particularly appreciating both the look and the performance of Brody, an actor I find sort of hit-and-miss. I liked the noir trappings of his character and how this movie speaks to other, more successful L.A. noirs that came before it -- movies that are not as much more successful than Hollywoodland as I may have once thought.

It was an interesting time to watch Hollywoodland for another reason. I'd just watched the Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead on Monday, and one of my main problems with it was its quantity of fictitious material. Whole characters are created, as well as seriously ridiculous events involving Davis in shootouts and the like. I considered that not only a poor choice, but irresponsible in some way. Seeing Hollywoodland, in which Simo's character has been invented (something I didn't know when I reviewed it, to my chagrin), made me realize two things: 1) Inventing a character is not a cardinal sin, and can sometimes be a useful way to get at the verifiable, non-fiction elements of the story, but 2) The purpose of creating that character has to be clear, and it has to be used in a way that clearly enhances the story. The Simo character is good as a viewer surrogate, someone trying (and ultimately failing) to piece together a mystery that eludes us to this day, and leaves plenty of us plenty curious.

And there's no doubt that Reeves interested me more this time, indeed probably because I know more about MGM than I did then ... and find it a lot juicier. His is a tragic story of an actor whose career is essentially ruined by the role that defined him and made him famous, that of TV's Superman. Although the outcome is not usually so dramatic, this is a common narrative trajectory for actors who were made famous by a role and then shackled to that role for the rest of their careers. Reeves was both helped by and hurt by being in with the Mannixes -- gaining certain things he couldn't have gained otherwise, and having other doors closed to him to keep him in his place. A fascinating dynamic existed between them, especially if Mannix really did have him killed just for making his wife sad.

Something also occurred to me for the first time: This means Ben Affleck has played both Superman and Batman, possibly making him the only person ever to do that. Someone ought to make a video on Youtube in which Affleck's current incarnation of Batman fights his George Reeves from Hollywoodland. I'd watch it.

And what will I watch next?

Let's consult the RNG ...

It comes out as 2911/4298, only 73 spots off my last draw (out of exactly 200 more films I've added to Flickchart since then). That's Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch (2011), another film I was mixed on (to put it mildly) but might find interesting to revisit for various reasons. That's a funny coincidence, as Snyder was the one who directed Affleck in Batman v. Superman -- a fact I alluded to only moments before drawing my random number.

I'd like to say it might happen soon, but I've got other random rewatches as part of my current Facebook challenge, so maybe we'll be looking at sometime in early 2017.

Then again, you never can tell when opportunity or coincidence will change that priority.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

... and I call this man "Crazy Eyes"

It's been a long time since I've seen a good old-fashioned, out there, really ill-considered performance in a movie.

Warcraft broke that drought.

As I watched the lead human in the story sneer, leer, grin and glisten, I was trying for the life of me to figure out who the joke was on.

I was also trying for the life of me to figure out why Channing Tatum didn't learn his lesson from Jupiter Ascending and was trying to play another Character with a capital C.

Of course, the man pictured here -- let's call him Crazy Eyes -- is not actually Channing Tatum. But since I'd never heard of Travis Fimmel before (I haven't seen Vikings) and I figured that a potential blockbuster had to have a big star headlining the movie (Ben Foster doesn't count), I spent the whole movie thinking that it was Tatum just totally going for it. I mean, he didn't look 100% like Tatum, but I could easily imagine that it was Tatum going hairy and uglying himself up a bit (kind of like he did in The Hateful Eight). I mean, one would hardly call Fimmel, a model, ugly. But in this part, he's got stringy hair and red-rimmed eyes -- glowing, pulsing, demented eyes.

And I'm not the first person to have confused Fimmel and Tatum. Here, the internet is helping me out on this one:

Except, you know, Travis Fimmel's got crazy eyes.

But let's talk a little bit about that performance. He (or director Duncan Jones, I suppose) made the decision not to give us the usual stolid, determined hero who has a kind manner and can be jovial when he wants to be. We've seen that plenty of times. Instead, Fimmel plays the character Lothar (of the hill people?) as a kind of jester teetering on the verge of insanity. That mindset is not apparent in anything he does, as those things all still fall basically within the realm of traditional hero stuff. It's that unplaceable glimmer in his eyes, that hint of glee that creeps into even scenes where it does not seem appropriate, that distinguishes him.

But if it were just that, the performance wouldn't truly be bad. The way Fimmel responds in the emotional moments is even funnier. I won't tell you exactly what his character has to respond to because that would constitute spoiler territory, but there's this one moment where he's required to quiver with rage, and he just can't do it. His desperation leading up to that moment is similarly laughable.

So yeah, Warcraft is not great. You know this. But I thought a lot of the stuff related to the Orcs (do they have to pay a royalty to the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien?) was really good, especially visually, and especially the opening ten minutes before the title. So I guess it has something in common with one of this year's other big (critical if not commercial) flops, Batman v. Superman, which also had a great opening.

I read the plot description just now on Wikipedia and it's a bit less convoluted than I thought it was when I was watching it. So something clearly got lost in translation.

One actor I did correctly identify, despite the fangs protruding from her mouth, was Paula Patton as a half-human, half-orc character. The only reason I thought it wasn't Patton is because she looked dynamite and I was surprised that they would have cast a 40-year-old actress in this role. She was one of the movie's visuals I must say I quite enjoyed.

Monday, June 20, 2016

R.I.P. Anton Yelchin

I don't, or rather can't, stop to remember every cinematic figure we lose on my blog. But today I am compelled to give some attention to one of the most naturalistic young actors we had.

Not everyone I know was a fan of Anton Yelchin, but he grabbed me from the first time I remember seeing him. That was in Alpha Dog, Nick Cassavetes' 2006 dramatic interpretation of a real incident in which a teenage boy (Yelchin) was kidnapped and killed as part of a feud between twentysomething gangsters in California's high desert. Yelchin had been working enough already that I recognized him in an "Oh, that's that guy" kind of way, but I didn't really get a sense of what he could do until this performance.

And what he could do was give a preternaturally mature distillation of immaturity.

It's not that the character he played in the film was immature, but that he felt like exactly the age he was supposed to be -- not too young, not too old, filled with all the bluster and the joy and the fear of a 15-year-old, or whatever age he was supposed to be. Yelchin was only 17, so I don't want to make too much of him putting himself into a different mindset to play the role. Basically he just drew on his own real experiences, I would say, which is not always easy. He was just ... natural.

And his pleas with his captors, when it turns out they still plan to kill him even after basically partying with him for a couple days straight, are so painfully real and fully realized that I get chills even now just thinking of them. That would be true even if they were not now the pleas of someone who has actually died.

From then on I took an interest in Yelchin's career, considering his presence to be a feather in the cap of any movie. I had mixed feelings about Charlie Bartlett, but it wasn't Yelchin's fault. His 2009 films were a mixed bag, as he brought really winning charm to the role of Chekov in the first Star Trek reboot, but couldn't save Terminator Salvation. Actually, scanning through his filmography, the hits and misses continue to go like this, alternating with one another -- at least among the movies I've seen. For every Like Crazy, there's a Fright Night (both in 2011). For every Only Lovers Left Alive, there's an Odd Thomas (both in 2013). I really liked him in Green Room, but it's too early to tell which will be the alternating disappointment from 2016, as he has a couple films yet to be released. And actually, there's a lot more Yelchin movies I haven't seen than I have.

But no miss has ever taken the shine off of what I thought Yelchin could do. He was one of those guys who just instinctively understood the craft. He spoke in a kind of husky rasp that, when combined with the kind of post-pubescent cracking of his voice, just made him sound like a real person. I don't know if I'd say that each of his performances was realistic, because I'm sure there are times when he went for something intentionally stylized. But each performance was underpinned by an essential realism because of his natural manner, one that you're either born with or are not. And as Yelchin was doing this job since he was ten years old, it's fair to say he was born with it.

On Saturday night, some deadly mishap occurred where Yelchin's car rolled down his steep driveway and pinned him against a mailbox. I'm having trouble even imagining the logistics of it, and hope it was indeed an accident. It's far too sensational an ending for someone whose work was so grounded in truth.

I'm going to miss all the movies he would have made, even the ones that wouldn't have been so great.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Finding Doris

One of my favorite cinematic experiences, one that's increasingly rare, is just rolling up to a movie you know nothing about, purchasing a ticket, and discovering a gem.

Of course, nowadays, I'm not purchasing anything. My AFCA card gets me into movies for free, and in fact, part of the reason I chose Hello, My Name is Doris is because it was available to review on my site.

But if you're not spending money, you're spending time. The opening of Warcraft, Miles Ahead and the namesake for this post, Finding Dory, on Thursday only further complicated things, but even on Wednesday night, I already had a bunch of other movies I "should" have seen instead of Michael Showalter's latest. I only have a certain allotment of time each week to spend at the cinema, and still have to be somewhat careful where I spend it.

So it was especially delightful that this movie has quickly become one of my favorites I've seen this year.

It's the story of a mousy cat lady (if that's not a contradiction in metaphors) who has been living with her elderly mother on Staten Island, caring for her instead of having a life of her own. There's no evidence they actually have/had cats, but she has the outfits and the hoarding mentality of that kind of shut-in. She does venture in to Manhattan every day for work, but the ferry ride it takes to get there is like a metaphor for her psychological removal from the modern world. But her mother dies, and she begins getting pressure from her brother to clean up and ultimately sell the family home. It's around this time that she notices a new attractive co-worker and screws up her courage to try to pursue him -- which she accomplishes by stalking him on social media and crafting a persona that she thinks will appeal to him.

It sounds a bit like the makings for a standard romantic comedy except that the cat lady in this case is nearly 70 years old, and the guy she's pursuing is at least three decades and probably more like four younger than she is. The actual age difference between Sally Field and Max Greenfield is 33 years, but he seems to be playing someone more like in his late twenties, while she's around the age she actually is (a 56-year-old is at one point offered to her as a "younger man"). This essential change in dynamic gives the film something new and interesting, and Showalter writes their scenario and the narrative threads that branch off of it -- like Doris' immersion in the Brooklyn hipster scene -- with an eye both for comedy and for human sensitivity. The whole thing just feels unique within a general framework of the types of things we've seen before, and the performances are great.

The discovery that feels most similar to this, in terms of plunging myself directly into something I knew nothing about (I hadn't even heard of Doris until a few days before I'd seen it), was Miranda July's The Future back in 2011. I wrote about that discovery in this post. As with that movie, I did know the director and a couple stars from Hello, My Name is Doris, but had not seen a trailer, and could only really imagine what the movie might be about from the tagline "She's not ready to act her age." So then I just sat back and let it wash over me.

If you want more of my thoughts on this movie, a link should be up on the right within a day or so of you reading this, if it is not already. And if you've read to this point, you'll already have a lot more information about Doris than I had when I saw it.

But that's unavoidable. Most cinephiles consume enough information about upcoming releases that they aren't truly surprised by anything. And even if they are surprised, telling someone to "just go see it" is rarely a recommendation that can be heeded, without some other enticement as to why. So I didn't mind "spoiling" a little bit of Doris for you.

The point is, it isn't possible to create the same blind viewing experience for each person from the same movies. You just have to be open to such possibilities when they present themselves, and it's that open mindset that I'm actually endorsing today.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Good Nazis vs. bad Nazis

That's a joke. I mean, they were all bad, right?
Or were they?

Nazis were all people, and that's the only generalization you can make about them with any certainty.

That's the compelling underlying notion of Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel's relentlessly captivating 2004 film that I've bestowed five stars on Letterboxd. And yes, I do realize that two of the last six movies I've given five stars were about Adolf Hitler. (Inside Out, Creed, The Armor of Light and Sherlock Jr. were sandwiched in between this and The Great Dictator.)

I came for the Hitler screaming meme, but stayed for the human drama.

That's right, Downfall was probably most on my radar for the same reason it is on other people's -- the fact that the tantrums thrown by Bruno Ganz as Hitler developed a life of their own on the internet. In fact, there are enough times that a Hitler beset by physical palsies goes apoplectic about a particular report of discouraging information, or a particular perceived betrayal, that I wasn't even sure until I googled it which tantrum inspired the meme. Just now I determined it's the one where he accuses all the German soldiers and generals of being cowards and says that he has been deceived and betrayed from the start, finishing with the first mention of him preferring to blow his brains out than leave Berlin. Oh yeah, that one.

But the fact that Downfall has earned the lion's share of its fame from being made light of on the internet is unfortunate indeed. This is a grueling document of the final days of the Third Reich, containing enough storylines and interesting characters to populate a Robert Altman movie. If there is comedy in Ganz' rants, it is certainly unintentional. It's a portrait of a man at the end of his rope. One of the worst men who has ever existed, but a man nonetheless.

There are plenty of films in which combatants in wars suffer inglorious and undignified fates. But most of those are distinguished by trying to play on our sympathies for these people, innocent victims of aggression, or brave soldiers trying to fight tyranny. In Downfall, all the characters we meet are the tyranny. They are all either fervently devoted to or complicit in their cooperation with the Nazi party. Sure, we see some kids and some old people and some others who are not necessarily guilty of any moral shortcoming -- but we also see some who are. And pretty much everyone we get to know is someone serving in the highest ranks of the party, or provides direct support to those people (such as the secretaries who type Hitler's memos, one of whose stories provides narrative bookends to the film).

This is so much more interesting than another film's righteous attempt to infuriate us about what's happening to its characters. It's easy to sympathize with someone who is brave or innocent; much harder, yet more intellectually stimulating, is to apply your sympathies to a cross-section of people who are all morally compromised in one way or another. The long-standing excuse of those who participated idly in Nazism is that they were "just following orders," which of course we know is no valid excuse at all. But the fact remains that many of them certainly did not know the extent of the horror the Nazi party was involved in, and might have run screaming if they did. This does not make them innocent, it just makes them guilty of being humans, humans who bowed to the current and went along with things that they only vaguely understood might be evil.

Downfall of course has its share of truly reprehensible people. Perhaps even worse than Hitler -- could it be possible? -- was Joseph Goebbels, who was such a true believer that he and his wife Magda presided over the systematic poisoning of all six of their children, five beautiful girls and one beautiful boy, simply to save them from living in a world without national socialism. The scene in which they carry this out -- she does it, actually, in a monstrous betrayal of all the traditional precepts of motherhood -- is almost unendurable. The children are first made to drink some medicine that makes them drowsy, then are forced to bite cyanide capsules while sleeping. Magda Goebbels plows through her grim duty with the focus of a zealot, pausing between children only long enough to pull the blanket over their faces -- still looking as though they are merely sleeping. The gaunt Joseph Goebbels -- portrayed terrifyingly by Ulrich Matthes -- looks on from afar, a self-styled man of action proving himself a hypocrit in what would seem to be his most challenging hour.

But this world has its good people too. Take Ernst Gunther-Schenck (Christian Berkel), an SS doctor who is horrified by the way Hitler has ordered his soldiers to kill his own people and destroy his own buildings. He works tirelessly to save German civilians who have been hospitalized or are otherwise wounded, when the prevailing wisdom by Hitler and Goebbels is that they have chosen their own fate by giving the Nazi party a mandate. I suppose some of this may be glorified as part of Downfall was based on Gunther-Scheck's memoirs, but we spend a lot of time with him scurrying around and trying to save lives that have been deemed dispensable.

And then you've got those in the middle. There's Nazi architect Albert Speer (Heino Ferch), who would seem to be a true believer and who describes an unwavering personal loyalty to Hitler. He also arrives in Berlin simply to tell Hitler that he has been disobeying his orders for some time, and actually working at cross purposes to them. Whether this is some latent sense of moral rectitude or simply a disbelief in the strategic validity of Hitler's increasingly unhinged commands is uncertain. However, as I now know that Speer gained fame after the war as the Nazi who apologized at the Nuermberg Trials, I suspect he was having a change of heart about exactly what the hell they were doing.

And then you have our protagonist of sorts, Traudl Junge, the real version of whom appears at the beginning and end in an excerpt from a documentary in which she shares her shame over working for the Third Reich. The film's first non-documentary scene shows her (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) being selected from a pool of potential secretaries, out in a bunker somewhere in the middle of the night. She is starstruck in the presence of Hitler, and these feelings persist even 2 1/2 years later when the war is coming to an end. As good and pure as she seems on the surface, she's so committed to the man she admires that she even pledges to stay in Berlin and commit suicide with him. It's her eventual escape that we pray for most urgently, even as she hasn't been disabused of her wrong-headed loyalties at this late date of everything going to shit.

The neat trick this movie pulls off is that it prepares you for something, and then gives you something else. Most viewers will come in to Downfall thinking they'll be engaging in a prolonged episode of schadenfreude, to use an appropriately German term. They may think that watching the steady, violent dismantling of a political philosophy informed by hatred will be intensely satisfying, kind of the equivalent of watching the Nazis get theirs at the end of Inglourious Basterds. What this movie does instead is do such a fantastic job of character development that you see Nazis as actual humans, "sympathetic" in narrative terms even though their actions and beliefs are the very definition of unsympathetic.

Anyway, it was a pretty damn profound experience.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Sometimes I wonder who's listening

Or "reading," really. "Reading" would be more accurate. But listening indicates more of a sense of what I'm going for here ... a sense of secretly monitoring my site, and putting its ideas into practice.

Remember about six weeks ago when I wrote this post, which discussed the absurdity of the fact that my local Costco was still playing Smurfs 2 on all of its TVs?

Well I went there today -- actually yesterday and today, since I had to return something today that I bought yesterday -- and lo and behold, all traces of those little blue men (and one woman) have been wiped away.

In their place?

The Lego Movie -- one of three movies from that post that I recommended as replacements.

It's not inconceivable that someone from Costco could have actually read my post. It's happened before. There was that time I wrote a post about a superfluous button on the Redbox interface, and someone from Redbox actually left a comment on the post. He later updated me that they were working on a fix. Now granted, he only saw it because one of my readers drew their attention to it. But it was an actual interaction with a business using the medium of my blog.

Costco could have read my post, then rushed to remove The Smurfs 2 from the rotation. The post has 60 views, and one of them could have been a Costco employee.

More likely is that the staff just got tired of blue-tinted idiocy occupying a small percentage of their field of vision every time they came to work, and they chose a commonsense solution to replace it.

Still ... the timing was funny, at the very least.