Sunday, July 27, 2014

Too Tokarev to be true


When I saw the posters up around Melbourne for a new Nicolas Cage film called Tokarev, I was understandably encouraged that it was another step away from the career purgatory that has occupied him for much of the 2000s, but has lately been repudiated in the form of such films as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Kick-Ass and Joe. Sure, the poster made it pretty clear it was a genre film, but with a name like Tokarev, it had to be something interesting ... right?

Even seeing it pop up on our Fetch box -- in other words, our version of OnDemand -- on or around the date of its theatrical release, I was not discouraged. After all, that's becoming an increasingly common practice, and may just be an indication that a movie is sort of a tough sell. With a title like Tokarev, I imagine it would be.

So did the studios. In the world's most unsurprising discovery, which I made just a couple days ago, the film is not called Tokarev in the U.S. It's called Rage.

Yawn.

I have never actually seen a movie called Rage, but I've "seen" movies called Rage. They are never very interesting. They are never as interesting as movies called Tokarev.

But wait, Vance -- it's the same movie!

True. But the title actually does have an impact on our perception of a movie, doesn't it? Doesn't it?

Take the panic I felt a couple weeks ago when I learned (erroneously) that they were changing the title of my favorite movie of the year so far, Edge of Tomorrow. Set aside the fact that you can't change the title of a movie after it's already hit theaters -- there was credible evidence to suggest it might actually be happening. The new title would not, however, be All You Need Is Kill, the name of the original graphic novel, which is the actual title of the film in certain Asian markets (and which I actually don't like much as a title -- makes it sound like a cult movie). Instead, the new title would be Living on the Edge.

It would have been the same movie, sure. But I just couldn't get behind loving a movie called Living on the Edge. In fact, that title might have been enough to keep me from seeing the movie in the first place.

Thank goodness my information turned out to be wrong.

I find we can be very protective of what we think of as the "right" version of a film's title. A lot of the time this has to do with how we first came to know the movie. For example, there may be reasons why Leon is a better title for the Luc Besson movie than The Professional, but I came to know the movie as The Professional and therefore reject any attempt to retroactively refer to it as Leon. Of course, it wouldn't actually be retroactive, since the French title of the film is Leon. But I didn't know it was called Leon until I'd been aware of the movie for at least a couple years, at which point it was too late for my brain to make the adaptation.

I get similarly grouchy when people want to refer to Paul Thomas Anderson's first film as Sydney. It's Hard Eight. It's not Sydney, even if that was its original title.

In both of the above examples, I'm kind of taking the reverse position from the one I'm taking in the Tokarev/Rage debate. I'm arguing in favor of a more general title and against one that's more specific -- a name -- but says less about what the movie is about. Rage may describe what the movie is about more -- may, but probably doesn't -- but it lacks the attention-getting specificity of a title like Tokarev. Actually, Rage probably does a worse job describing the movie, since Tokarev is not the name of a person, but rather, a type of Russian gun that I understand figures prominently into the plot.

But am I being too idealistic here? Did I really think there was ever a chance that the name Tokarev could stand in the American market, and have any chance of delivering any money to the movie?

And maybe it was not wrong to change the name. I'm having trouble accessing any Australian box office figures for Tokarev, but they can't have been good. That could be one of the main reasons it appeared so early on Fetch, even though its Fetch release would likely have been strategized long before any hard dollar figures would have been available on the film's performance.

It's also possible that Australia and other countries were serving as a test market for how Tokarev would perform, and only after that was the name changed to Rage in the U.S. After all, the movie opened sometime back in April or May here, and only just got its U.S. release a couple weeks ago. Actually, I guess that's not the case because it opened online in the U.S. back in May. Online? I can't keep track of release strategies for movies anymore.

Anyway, the title change leaves me at a loss for how to perceive this movie. As Tokarev, I was almost certain to prioritize seeing it before the end of the year. Even if it was just your standard Nicolas Cage paycheck movie, the fact that it bore the title Tokarev -- that someone considered it eligible to carry such an uncommercial title -- gave it potential to be ... something else. Something more.

As Rage, though, it truly isn't worth my time.

As for any real prospect of Cage leaving movies like Rage behind him, and going for more movies like Tokarev, well ... he's got the Left Behind reboot coming out this fall, so you do the math.

Friday, July 25, 2014

2 x 0 interest = 0 interest


Without me caring or almost even noticing, there have been two major motion pictures about the Greek hero Hercules released this year -- one of them today. (Actually, yesterday in Australia, and tomorrow in the U.S.)

My suspicion that I cared very little about any new movies featuring Hercules was confirmed last night when I saw Dwayne Johnson promoting Hercules on Jimmy Fallon. (Strangely, a compacted half-hour version of Fallon's show plays on one of the stations here at 7:30 p.m.)

I like Johnson a lot, but the clip they chose to show reminded me just how little movies like this interest me these days.

And what do I mean by "movies like this"? Well, movies where a heroic figure rallies an army into battle with words about destiny and courage, and then two armies run at each other.

The fact that the clip ended with Hercules putting his shoulder underneath a horse, then shotputting it and its rider, only made me marginally more interested.

I'm not going to rant about the armies running at each other movies today, though -- I'm just going to use the release of Hercules (and The Legend of Hercules earlier this year) to recognize how isolated I feel from movie advertising here in Australia, and also how much the event movie itself has changed.

Let's take the first one first.

I feel like I should know a lot more about both of these movies, and in the past, I certainly would have. I'd have seen billboards and TV ads, and likely a trailer or two in the theater as well.

Here in Australia, though, billboards are considerably fewer overall (haven't seen a single one for Hercules), and TV advertising seems to be far less prominent -- though to be fair, most of the TV we watch here is through an on demand format known as Fetch. As for trailers ... well, maybe I just haven't seen the right movies to get these trailers. (I bet I would have seen a Hercules trailer if I had seen the likely similar 300: Rise of an Empire.)

What interests me, though, is how little you have to do in the U.S. to be aware of movies. The awareness just seeps through your skin, even if you aren't naturally attuned toward cinema.

It was my constant awareness of what was coming out next that made it easy for me to write a new release post every Friday in the U.S. Since coming to Australia? I've done maybe two of them. The fact that the days don't coincide very well has something to do with it. The fact that I'm writing for a largely American audience, and the release dates aren't usually the same between here and there, is a factor as well. But it's still rather astonishing how much I've lost the awareness of which movies are getting released, when, just by moving halfway across the world.

Then there is the second part of what I want to talk about today, the steady depreciation of movies like Hercules from seeming like must-see summer tentpoles to "I'll catch them on video, if then." Hercules is one of those characters we all know about, where if they haven't just made a movie about him, they should be soon. There was a time when such storied characters would always pique my interest. Now, I make almost no note about not only one, but two movies about them.

I suppose it's that Hercules isn't distinctive anymore. Whereas he may have once seemed like a unique character, whose feats of strength had to be seen to be believed, now every second movie hero is blessed with some otherworldly talent for moving mountains. What chance does Hercules have in an era when superhero movies are the most reliable bet at the box office? Hercules may have been "the original superhero," but now he predictably seems antiquated. Throwing over a horse, in this day and age, is a quaint showing of strength indeed.

And if Hercules weren't being marginalized by today's superheroes, he would also be getting rendered less distinct by the series of other sword and sandal heroes who have flooded our multiplexes today. Not only are there the 300 movies, but there's Immortals, the Clash of the Titans movies, Gladiator, Beowulf, Troy, Conan the Barbarian, Kingdom of Heaven, Braveheart, the Lord of the Rings movies and even Game of Thrones providing some kind of direct competition ... and often doing it better. Speaking of Beowulf, I'd almost prefer for Hercules to go that route, using motion capture to burst outside the limits of what we would expect to be able to see with human actors. That sea monster scene in Beowulf alone is probably ten times more interesting than anything we'll see here.

Interestingly, the onset of two more Hercules movies does make me more interested in revisiting Disney's Hercules, which I quite liked. Maybe that's where I'll go on this, and leave Dwayne Johnson and Kellan Lutz -- or their schlock directors, Renny Harlin and Brett Ratner -- to fight it out for the remaining shreds of our collective interest.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Iconic movies directed by nobodies


Not all great movies have great directors.

This may be sort of obvious, but that doesn't mean it's any less surprising when you note that a particular classic was directed by someone you've never heard of.

Of course, some of this can come from simple ignorance. For the longest time I thought "Casablanca is directed by Michael Curtiz? How random." It was only later that I learned that Curtiz had, in fact, directed 173 films over a nearly 50-year career, including well-known films like Angels With Dirty Faces and Yankee Doodle Dandy. I just hadn't heard of him yet when I found out he directed Casablanca.

Then sometimes the name just sounds funny. Like, it doesn't sound like the name of a director.

Then there are those where the person really is, basically, a nobody.

Interestingly, the inspiration for this post was not an iconic film. I was doing one of my endless categorization projects when I discovered that the movie Less Than Zero -- a noteworthy film from the 1980s, but nothing more -- was directed by someone named Marek Kanievska. I don't know who I expected to have directed Less Than Zero, but let's just say that Marek Kanievska wasn't it. Kanievska did also direct a Paul Newman movie -- 2000's Where the Money Is -- but his other three features are considerably lesser known.

So without further ado, a quick and dirty list of ten movies that are far more iconic than Less Than Zero, directed by people far who are far more of a zero than Marek Kanievska. And though I've organized it as a countdown from 10, the order is basically random.

10. Risky Business (1983, Paul Brickman) - So just who the hell is Paul Brickman? I'm not sure Mrs. Brickman, his mother, knows. Despite the popularity of Risky Business, Brickman directed only one more movie (Men Don't Leave), though he did also write the Clint Eastwood movie True Crime.

9. Return of the Jedi (1983, Richard Marquand) - Star Wars fans know who Marquand is because he, like, directed one of the original three movies. Other than that? He's an answer to a trivia question. He actually has 12 directing credits, including Eye of the Needle and Jagged Edge. But really, Richard Who?

8. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, Rupert Wyatt) - Who's that? I actually know because I saw his little-seen 2009 movie The Escapist, but Wyatt was not asked back for the sequel despite delivering bigtime on Rise. He does have a Mark Wahlberg movie coming out next year, though.

7. Chariots of Fire (1981, Hugh Hudson) - Hugh Who? Hudson also directed Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, but has otherwise been mostly absent from prominent feature filmmaking. This despite the fact that Chariots won best picture.

6. So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993, Thomas Schlamme) - Schlamme? Lame. A prolific TV director, Schlamme has only directed this one feature film. That's especially strange considering that a lot of people consider this to be a cult classic.

5. American History X (1998, Tony Kaye) - O-Kaye ... no idea who this guy is. Has never made another film that I've heard of.

4. Roger Dodger (2002, Dylan Kidd) - The movie that introduced Jesse Eisenberg and got raves for Campbell Scott didn't do much for Dylan Kidd. He has directed only one more feature (P.S. in 2004), but does have a movie coming out later this year.

3. Field of Dreams (1989, Phil Alden Robinson) - This one is a little bit of a cheat, because Robinson had a decent (if short) career that also included Sneakers and The Sum of All Fears. Dreams is so great, though, that it really seems like someone else should have been at the helm.

2. Mr. Mom (1983, Stan Dragoti) - Mr. Mom is no iconic film, but I'm including this one mostly for how little "Stan Dragoti" sounds like a real person, let alone the director of such films as The Man With One Red Shoe, Necessary Roughness and She's Out of Control. Fun fact, though: He was the first husband of Cheryl Tiegs.

1. Grease (1978, Randal Kleiser). Kleiser actually has 29 directing credits, including The Blue Lagoon, Big Top Pee-wee and Honey I Blew Up the Kid. But he sounds a lot more like a nerd with a pocket protector than the guy who shepherded an icon of cool, Danny Zuko, to the big screen.

Any funny examples to add?

I thought I'd include a few more honorable mentions of people who just don't sound like directors:

Andrew V. McLaglen (McLintock!)
Lou Adler (Up in Smoke)
Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3)
Jamie Uys (The Gods Must Be Crazy)
Louie Psihoyos (The Cove)
Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish)

And a trifecta of directors from Disney's heyday: Wolfgang Reitherman (Robin Hood), Hamilton Luske (Pinocchio) and Clyde Geronimi (Cinderella). I was once going to write a whole post about the funny names of Disney directors, but then never did.

Great ... now I've got that out of my system.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A whole lotta Bergman going on


Thanks to a new Australian pen pal, there's going to be a whole lot more Ingmar Bergman up in this beeyotch.

I'm being a bit intentionally whimsical with -- well, with pretty much my entire previous sentence, but specifically in terms of calling my friend a "pen pal." But the truth is, I've only met him online, so he's sort of the 21st century version of that.

And he did send me five Ingmar Bergman films to watch, the first of which I watched Wednesday night.

Let me give you some history.

I'm part of the Flickchart Facebook group, in which a whole bunch of us discuss various aspects of cinema that we think other people might want to discuss. (Or sometimes, things that no one would want to discuss, but that's another story.) I recently told the group that I'm looking for an appropriate movie to watch as my 4,000th movie, which is probably less than a month away now, as I currently stand at 3,982.

No one could suggest anything where the number 4,000 was in some way significant, and I won't tell you what I've actually chosen to mark the milestone. But one of the byproducts of this discussion was that a Flickcharter living in rural Queensland (but moving to New South Wales) sent me five Criterion discs, all directed by Bergman -- and a sixth disc that will be my 4,000th movie.

I love this.

See, I've decided that Bergman is one of my favorite directors -- this despite the fact that I've seen only four of his films (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring and Fanny and Alexander). When I chose Bergman as one of the first subjects in my Getting Acquainted series back in 2011, I had seen only The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries -- but watched Strawberries again during that series because I couldn't be sure I had actually seen it. Not only did I love Strawberries, but Virgin Spring was a big hit with me, and Fanny and Alexander turned into something really special despite its first hour seeming like an entirely different movie than the two that followed.

Strengthening my newfound love for Bergman was the fact that I watched Federico Fellini for the next entry in that series, and was not nearly so smitten with him. I then established an informal dialectic between Bergman and Fellini, deciding (without any supporting evidence whatsoever) that cinephiles would gravitate toward one of these greats or the other, but not both. I'm sure there are people who love Bergman and Fellini equally, but I decided that I was on the Bergman side of this arbitrary divide I had set up between these two great auteurs of world cinema.

But then in the three years since then -- not another Bergman film.

Time to rectify that -- in a major way.

I don't recall exactly how Bergman entered into the discussion on the day we talked about my upcoming 4,000th, but my "pen pal" made me an offer to send me Persona through the mail -- he being one of the only others in the group who lives in Australia. I let the offer grow stale for about a week, not wanting to cruelly accept a casual offer, but did ultimately accept it, and a few days later a package arrived in the mail. (I should say that this particular cinephile passed 4,000 some years ago. He's up over 8,000 -- and is ten years younger than I am. Now that's a life well spent.)

What I wasn't necessarily expecting, but what he alluded to in somewhat oblique terms, was that there would be four other Bergman films squirreled away into the Persona DVD case. They are:

Winter Light
Through a Glass Darkly
The Silence
Cries and Whispers

With my friend's help, I will have more than doubled my Bergman output by the time I'm done with this.

It will probably also be the highest concentration of films by one director I will have seen in such a short amount of time, as the Getting Acquainted series introduced me to no more than three films by any of the directors I studied (though I also studied actors, a producer, and a studio).

And it will be a pretty short amount of time, as I don't want to abuse this guy's good will by hanging on to his movies forever. I already feel guilty enough about him dropping seven bucks on shipping for a person he's never met in the flesh, and as some sort of compensation, have already told him I will send him a yet-to-be-determined cinematic artifact of some level of curiosity when I return the movies to him.

I do have a practical deadline of sorts as well. I mentioned earlier that he is moving to New South Wales. Well, this will only be for a six-month period, after which he, his wife and his newborn son are moving to ... South Korea for two years. I'm unclear on whether it was decided that I should return the movies to him before this, but I'm thinking yes. Besides, I have no idea how to mail something to South Korea.

So I think I will try to watch about one per week until they're done, which should allow me to get them back to him before the end of August. If I'm so moved, I might choose this space to share some of my thoughts.

Not this time, though -- and that may be because I'm still trying to work through exactly what I think of Persona. Parts of it are breathtakingly eerie, but parts of it verge on a parody of an art film, the kind Wayne and Garth were making when they filmed that bit with Madonna. You remember the early 1990s, don't you? The breathtakingly eerie parts win out, but perhaps not by the margin one would think. I don't know, I'm still deciding.

From here I might as well go chronologically, I guess, which would put Through a Glass Darkly up next.

And sometime before I'm finished, my movie clock will strike 4,000.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Faint praise


I can't believe I've had a movie blog for five-and-a-half years, and according to a search I just did, have yet to invoke the movie Money Train.

I never saw the Wesley Snipes-Woody Harrelson-Jennifer Lopez vehicle from 1995, but that doesn't prevent it from holding a place in movie lore amongst my friends. The reason a movie we didn't see has endured in our memories for 20 years is because of a hilarious quote from a critic, highlighted in one of the ads. This critic dubbed the movie "the funniest thrill ride of the holiday season." The reason that's funny, of course, is because it was probably the only thrill ride of that holiday season that was intended to be funny -- or possibly the only thrill ride, period.

I was reminded of Money Train at the video store on Tuesday night, when I saw a movie on the new release shelf called The Machine. Its cover piqued my interest.

Genuine interest was replaced by derisive guffawing when I saw the quote emblazoned across the top:

"One Of The Top 12 Must See Sci Fi Films Of 2014"

Let's set aside the fact that words like "the" and "of" should not be capitalized -- that's funny, but not funny enough to write a post about. It's the specificity of the praise that I find so humorous.

It's not quite as specific as the Money Train critigasm, since there will undoubtedly be more than 12 sci-fi films in 2014. But there won't be a lot more than 12. If you are one of the best 12 sci-fi films out of 14 total, that's not really saying much. (Sci-fi is a genre with fuzzy boundaries, so you can debate how many films are really sci-fi and how many are just classified as such.)

What clearly seems to be the case is that London Film Review listed this film as a sci-fi film to look out for in 2014, on some kind of special segment devoted to upcoming sci-fi films. In fact, it seems most likely that they listed exactly 12 films, and that The Machine was either #11 or #12. Otherwise, it would be one of the top 10, right?

Well, this doesn't have to be theoretical ... I do have something called the internet that can help me out on this.

Indeed, The Machine is #11 on this list, though to be fair, I can't tell if the movies are ranked in order. While Interstellar seems like a logical #1, it's harder to fathom Transcendence as #2. Except for the fact that it's easy to say a movie is bad after it has already opened, not nearly so easy before the reviews are out ... and that a British publication might award the #2 spot to countryman Christopher Nolan's regular DP Wally Pfister, making his directorial debut with Transcendence.

The Machine gets some points for being by far the most obscure title on the list ... but then loses some by virtue of the fact that it is, in fact, a British film, and therefore the beneficiary of more homerism by the Brits.

Consider the source, I guess.

Once I know more about what this piece is, though, it makes the choice to include it on the cover of the video all the more puzzling. The piece was published on January 3rd of this year, meaning that the film had not yet been released, and so all the author was really doing was guessing it might be good -- giving his readers something to keep on their radars. Sure, the movie won an award at a film festival in 2013 -- Raindance, which is obviously some play on Sundance, and is also a British institution -- but clearly the author himself had not seen the movie, so anything he offered in the way of publicity was pure speculation.

The funniest aspect of this, though, is that The Machine is 77% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, so there's actually legitimate video box praise out there to be had. Legitimate praise would seem to be a lot more useful than highlighting that some hack (hack being another word for "journalist," but its other meaning may also apply) had chosen to include this in a list of notable science fiction films for 2014.

If you glance a little further down, Fangoria did call it "Massively cool" ... so I guess there's that.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

And the grim march toward oblivion continues


However much you were enjoying yourself at any given point of the Star Wars prequels -- trying to say that with a straight face -- there was always that little part of your brain that said "Yeah, but at some point our hero is going to massacre all the living Jedi he can find, including children."

That's kind of how I feel about this Planet of the Apes series.

If these movies are planned as a trilogy -- and most successful series are, even if they ultimately bust out to a fourth or fifth movie -- then the next one is going to be pretty bleak indeed.

By both being prequel trilogies, Star Wars and Planet of the Apes have a bunch in common, but the biggest thing is: a known endpoint.

And just as we knew Annakin Skywalker would fall from grace and become the evil Darth Vader, we know that human beings will eventually go the way of the dodo on planet Earth -- first at the hands of a virus, and then at the hands of apes who learn how to use machine guns.

Cheery prospect, eh?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes showed how it all started, and now Dawn of the Planet of the Apes shows us where things are ten years later, when vegetation is bursting out of all the cracks of our formerly sound infrastructure, and humans are so scarce that a prosperous community of apes has not seen any of them in at least two winters' time.

Humans aren't dead -- yet. There's a community of at least several hundred of them in what remains of San Francisco, though they are so uncertain about the status of the rest of their species that they haven't even been able to make radio contact with other possible encampments. As far as they know, such encampments don't even exist.

Still, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not bleak -- not yet, anyway. No, they're saving that for War of the Planet of the Apes or Battle of the Planet of the Apes -- most likely Battle. Yes, I feel quite sure the third and possibly not final Apes movie will be called one of those two things, and it should lead to the extinguishing of any remaining humans. And where will be the hope in that?

Unless you think the apes are the protagonists of this series. As nobly as they may be portrayed, we just can't fully adopt their perspective. As viewers, we are too human.

At least Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith ended with that twinkle of hope on Tatooine, which is the baby Luke and Leia, the future saviors of all that is good and pure in that galaxy far, far away. What will be the Apes equivalent?

I suppose there might be an answer, but since I haven't seen Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) or Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) -- boy, they sure did churn out blockbusters quickly back in the day -- I can't really know what long-term hope humanity has in this alternate apes timeline. (Oops, guess they can't call the 2016 movie Battle of the Planet of the Apes, as that would be too close to the title of the series' fifth movie.)

Well, if it's the same creative team behind the next movie as behind this one, I have faith that they'll find that silver lining. I tell you, I didn't have a lot of hope for an interesting new Apes series after 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes left me cold -- when I wasn't laughing at its more ridiculous parts. But Dawn pulled a bit of a Two Towers on this series, getting me excited about its direction after I was nonplussed by the first movie. The difference here is that I'm not necessarily going to go back and re-watch Rise with a hope of changing my opinion on it, as I did for The Fellowship of the Ring. But yeah, I'm glad I prioritized seeing Dawn in the theater.

Without going into too much detail about what I liked about Dawn, I will stop to remark on the staggeringly talented Andy Serkis, who again "plays" Caesar. It will never be entirely possible form me to understand how much of what makes this character is Serkis' performance, and how much is the work of the CG artists, but let's just say that Caesar burns with a seriousness that could not be duplicated by just any person jumping around in a ping pong ball suit. This is, if anything, an even more remarkable performance than the one we saw in Rise, which was the only thing I really liked about that movie. This time, there's a lot more to like -- including human stuff that's not nearly so dumb. (Thank you, Jason Clarke, for giving a shit.)

If Matt Reeves can find some cause for optimism at the end of his next movie -- or even burrow down into the dark, daring, Nolan-y depths of the implied direction of this franchise -- I'll be first in line.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Too much good stuff, part 2


Earlier this week I posited that the reason I'm seeing so many good movies could just be that 2014 is a really good year for movies.

Going to Metacritic yesterday, I seemed to have gained a certain of proof of that theory.

Just check this out. You may wish to click separately on it to see it better:


Have you ever seen the landing page of Metacritic so loaded with universal acclaim?

As some kind of indication that even the year 2014 is trying to find new ways to document its own awesomeness, Richard Linklater's Boyhood has an utterly ridiculous 99 rating. That's not a 99 that comes from just seven or eight adoring critics. Nope, that is the result of TWENTY-NINE glowing reviews.

Universal acclaim indeed.

But it hasn't just been independent films drawing the praise. Just think about how much critics have generally loved this year's summer tentpole movies. Consider these Metacritic scores for some of the summer's big releases. (Stretching the definition of "summer" back to April in this case.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier - 70 (36 positive reviews, 7 mixed reviews, 1 negative review)
Godzilla - 62 (26 positive reviews, 21 mixed reviews, 1 negative review)
X-Men: Days of Future Past - 74 (37 positive reviews, 6 mixed reviews, 0 negative reviews)
Edge of Tomorrow - 71 (35 positive reviews, 8 mixed reviews, 0 negative reviews)
22 Jump Street - 71 (38 positive reviews, 8 mixed reviews, 0 negative reviews)

And then of course the just-opened Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which I will likely be seeing tomorrow (despite not loving the first one), whose 79 score you see above is composed of 41 positive reviews, 4 mixed reviews and another 0 negative reviews).

That's just two negative reviews total between SIX major summer blockbusters.

Of course there are always going to be a couple duds -- Transformers: Age of Extinction at 32 (3 positive reviews, 13 mixed reviews, 21 negative reviews) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 at 49 (1 positive reviews, 25 mixed reviews, 17 negative reviews). But in a typical summer, there are a lot more of these.

Given the overwhelming data -- which may only get stronger with late-summer releases like Guardians of the Galaxy and possibly Sin City: A Dame to Kill For -- I'm kind of surprised that I haven't heard a lot of chatter about how great this year is. Have you?

It's a heartening phenomenon, to be sure. I went into this summer thinking that there were only a couple movies I was optimistic about, but I've ended up wanting to make sure I saw most of the big releases in theaters, and genuinely regretting missing movies I thought I didn't care about, like Godzilla.

But part of me wonders if there's something artificial going on in the critical community. I'm not talking anything like payoffs from studios to say nice things. But I do wonder if critics find themselves adjusting their standards a little bit because they desire to have a positive perspective on these films they are forced to sit through. I don't have nearly enough evidence to posit this theory with any confidence, since I too have liked the movies listed above that I've seen. I just think it's logical at this point to try to figure out what's really going on, if it is indeed something other than just people learning how to make better movies.

And me, I expect my personal winning streak to continue when I get to see Snowpiercer later this month. As far as I can tell, though, Boyhood is still without an Australian release date (grumble grumble).

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Australian Audient: Garage Days


This is the latest in my 2014 series Australian Audient, in which I'm watching movies with a lot of kangaroos in them. 

Yep, you read that right.

I finally watched Alex Proyas' Garage Days, which had gotten bumped from April, then May, then June. July was its time to shine, and shine it did ... sort of. It shined a little.

Review forthwith.

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

My wife, who is now working in the Australian film industry, has given me reasons why not a lot of Australian films have been huge commercial successes. Her standard explanation is that many Australian films don't paint on big canvases, but rather, concern themselves with the plight of drug addicts living in slums, and the like. I haven't seen a lot of Australian movies that feature that exact subject matter, but it's easy to imagine what she's talking about, and why what she's talking about would not translate to financial success. People don't really want to flock to movies like that, especially at the prices Australian cinemas are charging these days.

For some reason, I imagined that Garage Days would be a prime example of my wife's phenomenon.

It wasn't a logical conclusion. The film's director is Alex Proyas, the Egyptian-born Australian filmmaker known to us for high-budget and high-concept Hollywood films like The Crow, Dark City, I Robot and Knowing. (I know there's a comma in the title I, Robot, but it threw off my list.) There's no reason to think he would completely abandoned his essential aesthetic just because he was returning to his home country to make a smaller budget film. (And it was only a temporary return, as the 2002 Garage Days falls exactly in the middle of the four titles above, chronologically speaking. It's still his middle film to date if you consider that he started in 1989 with an Australian film called Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds, and has a film called Gods of Egypt coming out in 2016.)

Still, I imagined this was Proyas' contribution to this alleged wave of unprofitable Australian independent films about marginalized characters, and the fact that it was about a band only further emboldened my idea that everyone would be strung out on smack.

Well, Garage Days isn't like that at all. In fact, in terms of style, it most closely resembles not Proyas' other films, but the films of his fellow countryman, Baz Luhrmann. As I was watching Garage Days, it felt more like the next film by the man who made Strictly Ballroom than the next film by the man who made The Crow.

The story focuses on a fledgling Sydney band trying to make it big, but having to overcome a soap opera's worth of internal strife among just the four of them. Freddy (Kick Gurry) is dating Tanya (Pia Miranda), but they've grown apart and feel they're really more like friends. That doesn't mean there's no controversy when Freddy shares an unexpected kiss with Kate (Maya Strange), the girlfriend of his bandmate Joe (Brett Stiller), who has been blowing Kate off and may be cheating on her. However, Kate may also be pregnant. They're all trying to get the attention of an agent, and a sleazy one comes into their path when Freddy spots Shad (Martin Csokas) cheating with the girlfriend of the lead singer of a high-profile band he represents. The band wants not only to get noticed, but win a spot in a big music festival -- but only if they can work out their own problems first.

Despite the bevy of potentially crushing personal betrayals between the characters in Garage Days, it's actually an incredibly light and bouncy movie -- which is what prompted my comparison to Strictly Ballroom (a film I also watched for this series, back in March). That's quite the surprise from Proyas, whose naturally moody tendencies explain his hiring on The Crow, and who was also personally distraught for a very long time after Brandon Lee was accidentally killed on set. Knowing what I know about Proyas, what's most joyous about this film is that it seems like a sort of catharsis for the director -- as if he has chosen to be happy and optimistic rather than continue to dwell on hurtful things. (Of course, his only ticket back to Hollywood was via dreariness in the form of I, Robot and Knowing.)

Garage Days is bursting with color and vibrant technique. As just one example, the film's characters are introduced through a technique I'm not quite sure I've seen before, where they freeze in the frame, and the camera "ebbs" in and out on them, changing up the angle on and proximity to the subject as their name and title flashes across the screen. I knew at that moment that this film was something alive and playful, not something moribund and depressive.

The problem with the movie, though, is that it doesn't amount to a whole lot. It's basically a series of comic episodes (the tone never strays toward dark) that relate to the story arcs of the characters and their ambitions within the band and in the world. It's got a ton of Aussie charm and it's cheeky as hell. Yet it's pretty insubstantial, ultimately. Certainly, it's not designed to be substantial, but it's insubstantial even beyond its fundamental insubstantiality.

However, it sure is likable enough, and that's what caused me to ultimately give it a marginal thumbs up rather than a marginal thumbs down. The most interesting throughline is the romance between the characters played by Gurry and Strange, who have excellent chemistry and get us to root for them effortlessly. This was probably the part that reminded me of Strictly Ballroom the most -- beyond the generally ecstatic production design and everpresent pop music score. (Half the budget must have been spent on getting the rights to familiar songs, which include selections from The Cure, The Violent Femmes, and Aussie rockers AC/DC.)

While no one performance is particularly polished, I did get a kick -- pun intended -- out of noting that Kick Gurry has gone on to bigger things in Hollywood, unlike most of the others (Csokas excepted). I was surprised to note that I saw Gurry as recently as a couple weeks ago, playing the Aussie among the group of soldiers featured in Edge of Tomorrow.

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

Okay, now that the Garage Days monkey is off my back, I feel like my whole world has opened up. But I'm not willing to commit to an August movie, because I've got a couple contenders, and I want to kind of let it occur organically. However, a couple choices I'm considering include Rolf de Heer's The Tracker, Philip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence, Noyce's Dead Calm and Fred Schepisi's A Cry in the Dark.

Just to be on the safe side, might as well watch all of them so you'll be ready to discuss.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Second skins


On Monday, I did what in baseball terms would be called a "day-night doubleheader." I did in fact play two games -- movies, in this case -- but they weren't consecutive, as in a traditional doubleheader. Rather, they were separate admissions in the same venue, one held in the afternoon, one in the evening. There were not, however, any peanuts or crackerjacks involved.

I finally, at long last, caught Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin at 3:10, as part of an afternoon off to renew my passport at the U.S. consulate. It was cheap $6 Mondays at Cinema Nova, but in practical terms it was the most expensive movie I've probably ever seen, because as a contractor, I don't get paid for the time I don't work. So that was two hours of lost wages -- but having taken (and needed) the first two hours after lunch to do the consulate visit, it didn't seem to make sense to return to work for just two more hours. Especially when I could sneak in a trip to the movies.

Then I returned to Cinema Nova at 9:40 for Lenny Abrahamson's Frank. (I had hoped to see John Michael McDonagh's Calvary, but I was more or less too late for its 9:20 showing.) Two trips to the theater in one day would ordinarily be quite indulgent, but this also was taking advantage of a rare opportunity: borrowing the car from my father-in-law. If we didn't use the car to do things like take trips to the movies, what was the point of even borrowing it?

It wasn't until I didn't make it in to Calvary that I realized the resulting day-night doubleheader would be thematically appropriate. Both movies feature characters wearing disguises -- second skins, as it were. But they wear them for very different reasons.

Scarlett Johansson's extra-terrestrial in Under the Skin wears her disguise -- the skin of a near-dead woman of ill repute -- as a means of remaining hidden. In order to observe humanity for, well, whatever reason (it's never explained), she must look like one of them. She must wear this disguise to hide what she really is.

The title character in Frank is up to something a bit different. Sure, a psychiatrist would say that the reason he never takes off his mask is that he's hiding something about him -- a very essential part of him -- from the world. But Frank doesn't wear his disguise to hide who he really is. He wears it to become who he really is.

In both cases, however, the destruction of this costume could mean the end of who they are.

I wish I had more profound words about my theme, but instead I'll just say a couple words about each movie.

Additional substance to my ScarJo crush

I'm a heterosexual man. This means I find Scarlett Johansson attractive.

And yes, the knowledge that she appeared naked in Under the Skin certainly contributed to my interest in seeing it. Contributed only, though -- I am a massive fan of Glazer's film Birth (though I hate Sexy Beast -- go figure).

My affection for Ms. Johansson is more than skin deep, though -- as it were.

In fact, after a podcast I listened to recently, I kind of wonder if we're soul mates.

That podcast is The Dinner Party Download, and it's co-hosted by a guy I know. It's also been getting increasingly higher-profile guests over the three or fours years it's been in existence, probably none bigger than one Scarlett Johansson back on April 19th.

As I was listening to her talk to the other co-host, the one I don't know, I was disarmed by how down-to-earth she sounded, especially for someone who walks around knowing that she is commonly considered to be one of the sexiest celebrities in the world. She could totally get away with copping an attitude. Yet she sounds like someone who is modest and grounded and goofy. She loves to make a joke and offer a flirt. She is, pretty much, the girl next door.

But what made me fall in love with her, kind of, was her answer to a question that she herself volunteered. One nice aspect of the podcast is that the hosts ask the guests to tell them something that no one knows about them, which gives the guest the leeway to offer something as significant or as insignificant as they want, and have it be entirely on their terms.

Johansson apparently isn't afraid to court talk of her own romantic interests, because she offered to tell podcasts listeners about her own celebrity crush. "It would probably be Trent Reznor," she said. "That would be my 'meet him and faint,' I think."

She elaborated, "There's something about the bleeding soul that comes through -- this reluctance to do it, and then you do because you have to, because it's what you're good at and what feels good, but maybe it hurts at the same time."

Having already been seduced by this persona she delivered on the podcast, I sat up straight in my chair when she invoked the name of my favorite musician of all time. Just randomly out of nowhere.

If I didn't already know it, I realized that this is a person of substance -- and her recent role choices have confirmed that. All you have to do is look back on her filmography from the last, my goodness, five years I would say to see an actress making smart choices rather than just financial ones. Sure, she's a big part of the Marvel universe, and the paycheck can't hurt on that -- but those movies have also actually been received very well. Specifically, the string of Her, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Under the Skin shows a woman very deft at straddling two worlds -- the multiplex and the arthouse.

And this chick has got balls. You might peg her as a person who would shrink away from nudity, but Skin proves that she's willing to do whatever she needs to for her art -- including star in an inscrutable science fiction film that could have just as easily bombed as blown critics away. The fact that it did the later shows just how shrewd she is.

Acting without one's face

The one thing Johansson hasn't done yet is what Michael Fassbender does in Frank -- he takes a role that does not make any use whatsoever of his beautiful face.

If we were talking about challenging oneself above, we can kick that discussion into high gear when discussing what Fassbender is doing in this film. He's not only proving that he relies on far more than his good looks to get cast in films, but he's actually proving that you can give a good performance even when no one can see your face -- and when you actually describe your own facial expressions as one of the movie's running gags.

As the eccentric frontman of the band Soronprfbs (don't worry, the actual band members don't know how to pronounce it either), Frank wears his mask -- it's really more of a full head -- all the time. Even while he sleeps. Even while he showers. He eats through a straw, just so he won't have to let anyone know what he looks like.

Yet I really believe that the hype about Fassbender's performance is justified. There is something great about this performance, even though it is primarily composed of line readings and body movements.

I don't know precisely what it is, but there's something about how Fassbender carries the head that makes it sort of brilliant. There are a few moments when the character stares at another character, or an audience of people, or something that is temporarily overwhelming his ability to speak. And even though all you see is that unchanging, blank expression of the Frank head in the poster above, there's soul to that stare. There's something Fassbender's doing that not just any guy wearing a fake head could do. He's not just David Prowse walking around in a Darth Vader suit. He's also James Earl Jones, all rolled into one person.

And yes, he's proving that he doesn't need to be so handsome that it makes heterosexual males feel awkward to connect with us as viewers. He can just be a body, a voice, and the unblinking stare of a mask.

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

Okay, I guess there was more thematic heft to my comparison of these two movies than I originally thought.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Too much good stuff


Or, "The Breakdown of my Personal Star Rating System."

If I look at my month of July so far on Letterboxd, it is nearly collapsing from the weight of all the stars.

I've seen seven movies in the young month, and only two of them have received a rating of lower than 4 stars (out of 5). In fact, the number that have received 4.5 stars, which was once reserved for movies that reached my personal cinematic stratosphere, exceeds the number that received 3 or 3.5 stars (three to two). And the one I gave 3.5 stars -- in other words, the second-worst of the month -- is one I'm still thinking about three days after I saw it.

This is good. It means I'm spending my time on good movies.

But this is also bad. It means I'm losing my grasp on which movies get which star ratings.

Take Mistaken for Strangers, a very good documentary that I saw last night. Is it a great documentary? It might be. But I'm not sure about that. I have to think about it a bit longer.

I gave it 4.5 stars, not necessarily as a sign of its absolute quality, but to differentiate it from the heap of movies I've been giving 4 stars.

And this is where my true crisis lies: the loss of my understanding of what makes a 4-star movie.

Let's go back a few months.

When I came out of Nebraska and gave it a 4-star rating on Letterboxd, a friend of mine wondered what my problem was with it. "Problem?" I thought. "I gave the movie 4 stars!"

The same has happened with a couple other movies, with the same friend (I'm not picking on him, it's just that I talk movies with him a lot), to the point that I started to think of 4 stars as some sort of "insult" to a great movie. The rating I used to give to a movie that did a lot right, but not everything, was 3.5 stars. Three-point-five indicated that I thought a movie did quite a good job, but it wasn't a personal favorite.

So -- are you sitting? -- when I finally saw 12 Years a Slave a few weeks ago, and was underwhelmed by it relative to what I was expecting, I felt the only "responsible" star rating to give it was 4 stars. Three-point-five would be like some sort of slap in its face. So even though my primary instinct after seeing 12 Years was to pick at the things I thought it could have done better, there I was giving it a ranking of 4 stars on Letterboxd.

And if I gave this movie that I found somewhat problematic 4 stars, then how could I give the same rating to Mistaken for Strangers, which I may have loved?

Four stars is a tricky rating. On its own it looks quite impressive, all those stars lining up together in support of a movie. But it's still two notches below the maximum. It still means there's something wrong with the movie, flaws you can clearly pick out -- or maybe just that it wasn't in your wheelhouse, so it had a maximum potential enjoyment factor just based on its subject matter.

I don't mind being the type of cinematic optimist that's implied by giving out so many high ratings. I mean, clearly I love movies, so I would rather enjoy watching them and shower them with praise than to spend all my time grumbling about how they could have been better. I'm comfortable with the fact that on Letterboxd, I've given 174 films the highest possible rating (5 stars) and only 20 the lowest possible (1/2 star).

But I don't want one of my most reliable ratings -- 3.5 stars -- to become too weak for me to employ it without worrying that it means I don't really care for the film. Four stars is really creeping up on 3.5, with 653 movies that now hold a 4-star rating on Letterboxd and only 804 ranked 3.5. You'd think that 3 stars should be the highest represented, because that's the midway point between the lowest and the highest rating. But it's only second at 730.

And if damage has been done to the 3.5-star rating, just think how much damage has been done to 3. Three stars means I barely liked it. Some people use 2.5 to indicate that, but I use 3. If I give that out less and less, then what kind of terrible sins does a movie have to commit in order to get 2.5 and lower? There are a whole five star ratings down there that need to get their share of the love.

I do have to consider the possibility that 2014 has just been a really good year for movies. I've seen 18 films this year, and only one of those have I disliked -- and even then only mildly (2.5 stars). Only seven of those 18 films (including the 2.5-star Veronica Mars) have been given a rating under 4 stars, in part because I used the above logic to inflate the 3.5-star Lego Movie to 4. To counterbalance that, though, I'm wondering if I might have given 4 stars to both Frank and Blue Ruin, if at the time I ranked them I didn't already feel I'd been giving out 4 stars too much.

See? I don't know what anything is anymore.

And at this point, I feel almost desperate to see something that is just unambiguously god-awful.

This whole discussion just lends further weight to my appreciation of the Flickchart model, which duels movies against each other to create a customized list of favorite to least favorite. The Flickchart guys have identified the weaknesses in star ratings, and their mission statement can be summarized in this slogan that appears atop the site: "If they're all 5-star movies, which is the best?"

If I keep going in the direction I've been going, pretty much all the movies I see will be 5-star movies.

A nice problem for a cinephile to have, I guess.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Things that are blatantly ridiculous


You may not be able to tell from this photo, but behind this utterly unambiguous handwritten sign is a darkened video store.

In fact, only because this sign declared its message so stridently, in a way so intended to countermand your first assumptions, did I even walk down the hallway toward what was obviously a closed business.

I figured, "Maybe Video Ezy had a power outage, and are so committed to providing the latest video entertainment to their customers that they are staying open through it."

But no, Video Ezy in Flemington was just closed.

This despite the interwebs telling me a half-hour earlier they were open until 10 p.m. on Tuesday night ($2 new release night) and despite a scrawled sign working overtime to reinforce those trading hours. But at 9:08 p.m. last night, eight minutes after their actual closing time, I was out of luck.

Why have a handwritten sign taped to your window that will invariably be incorrect half the time?

So yes, I am calling this sign blatantly ridiculous.

The only reason this really bums me out is that it makes two weeks in a row that I missed $2 new release night. Why is this different than the 15 or so previous $2 new release nights I also missed? Because for three consecutive Tuesdays (still have one left) we are borrowing the car from my father-in-law while he and his girlfriend are in Europe. Having the car makes it far easier, and actually logistically possible, to not only get to Video Ezy on a Tuesday, but also return the movie on a Wednesday. Without that car, I'm walking or riding my bike through the dark, cold and possibly wet, for 20 minutes on foot or 10 minutes by bike -- after my kids go to bed at 7:30, at which point I actually want to be eating dinner.

Keeping up with a strict movie-viewing schedule can be difficult sometimes.

Well, I'm determined to make it work next Tuesday -- and will be sure to get there at least eight minutes earlier this time.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Delayed, delayed, delayed reaction


I often crow about how movies come out far too late in Australia relative to their release U.S. dates. But then I also get my reminders of when the roles are reversed, as when I saw Michel Gondry's Mood Indigo on video months before it was even released theatrically in the U.S. Even last night at the theater, I was choosing between two movies (Frank and Calvary) that don't have their U.S. release dates until August. I went with Frank.

It was on that same trip last night, though, that I was reminded how humorous the delay can be.

Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster was on my list of 2013 movies to try to catch up with, if at all possible, before the end of my ranking year. When I saw neither hide nor hair of it in Australia, though, I didn't think much of it. I was looking forward to it, but not as much as others I didn't get to see until February or later.

Now I know why I didn't see hide nor hair of it: The Grandmaster is not being released here until SEPTEMBER 4TH.

As advertised in its coming soon poster at Cinema Nova.

To give you some perspective on that delay, the movie almost qualified as a 2012 film in China. It received its Chinese release on January 8, 2013. It came out in the U.S. on August 30, 2013. That's a year and five days before its Australian release.

In fact, the Australian release is so late that it doesn't even make it on to the list of release dates on IMDB. The IMDB list leaves off with the April 17, 2014 Brazilian release date.

That's right, we had to go nearly five months longer than cinema-crazy Brazil to see this movie.

It's been a slow realization that I'm never going to be able to recreate the viewing experience of a person living in the United States when I make my year-end lists. I have to be reminded of it over and over again, as though I'm in some kind of denial. Even when I consciously know it, I try to imagine that this year will be the year when all of the great holiday releases somehow have the same international distribution schedule as last year's American Hustle, which actually hit Australian theaters in December.

However, this year at least, I think I do have a plan. To get a couple more, anyway.

As of right now, we are scheduled to go to the U.S. in November. We plan to be there for Thanksgiving and back to Australia by the start of December. We don't have our tickets yet, but that's the plan.

If I'd been able to make such a trip last year, I could have gotten in both 12 Years a Slave and Nebraska -- neither of which played in Australia before January 30th, meaning I couldn't rank them. I don't know which movies I'll be able to grab this way this year ... but you better bet I'll do the research necessary to figure it out.

I need to be the grandmaster of my own movie-viewing fate.

And if that means watching one or more movies on a rare trip home, well, apparently I am willing to do that.