Thursday, September 12, 2019

Audient Audit: Manon of the Spring

This is the latest in my 2019 monthly series trying to figure out if I’m lying when I say I’ve seen certain films.

You may recall that in August I did a bonus installment of Audient Audit that was inspired by watching Jean de Florette in a different viewing challenge. Having been assigned that movie made me realize I might have a movie that needed to be audited in a different way, in that it didn’t appear on my lists but should have. That was ultimately my conclusion about Claude Berri’s 1986 film.

Berri had another 1986 film called Manon of the Spring, the sequel to Jean de Florette. It came conveniently included in the Florette DVD I borrowed from the library. And like Florette, Manon was also a movie I thought I might have watched in French class a year or two after it came out. In fact, I remember being able to translate the title into French: Manon du Source. Imagine my surprise when it is now translated as Manon des Sources, which refers to multiple springs, somewhat confusingly. Maybe it was always translated that way, but to me, it’s Bicycle Thieves all over again. (Of course, the whole thinking seems to be faulty here, as "source" takes a feminine article, "la," which means it would have been Manon de la Source. "Du" is used when it's a masculine article, as "de le" is not a valid construction in French.)

But I digress. Even though this is another installment, a regular installment, of a series devoted to legitimizing movies that were illegitimately on my various lists, I decided to watch Manon in September before it’s due back at the library, and just take care of this month’s entry in Audient Audit. So yeah, that may mean that one movie I had tapped for this series will remain in limbo about whether it belongs on my lists, but watching movies can be a “catch as catch can” proposition, especially when you are returning from a three-week vacation and still vaguely dealing with jet lag.

The reason Manon should definitely have already been on my list – especially when compared to movies like last month’s Breathless, which it was immediately clear I had seen almost none of – was that I remember, back in the late 1980s, finding Manon dull in comparison to Jean de Florette. This certainly seems like proof that I had seen both movies, once I recalled it.

However, having watched Berri’s sequel, I’m now thinking that it was indeed assigned in a French class to get the teacher through a couple afternoons when she had otherwise been too lazy to plan something, but that perhaps I found it so boring that I tuned out. I felt pretty sure that I had seen the first half of the movie, but it was disappointing me enough that maybe I started doodling in my notebook instead of watching. And if you aren’t watching, listening is not enough to say you’ve followed the movie. Sure, we were taking French, but to say that we actually understood a lot of it without subtitles would have been a stretch.

What had disappointed me about Manon of the Spring, assuming this memory I’ve concocted is actually legitimate, was how passive the title character seemed to me. At the end of Jean de Florette, she witnesses Urgolin (Daniel Auteuil) and Papet (Yves Montand) do a little jig as they restore the water source to the land her father once owned. The thing they accomplished fairly easily, as a result of withholding key information from him, was the thing that killed him, as he died while trying to use explosives to identify the water source. (Oops, sorry, spoilers for Jean de Florette.) That she wouldn’t have sworn lifelong vengeance and risen up to kill them made her seem, to me, weak or disinterested. (Or maybe I’m just thinking this now because I was fresh off viewing the Australian historical vengeance movie The Nightingale the night before watching Manon.)

But Manon did indeed have vengeance in mind, heeding the wisdom that it’s a dish best served cold. That I didn’t realize that at the time is further proof that either I did not watch the whole movie, or that I didn’t comprehend what I was watching, which maybe is the same thing.

Manon does find the mysterious source for the water that bubbles up on her father’s land when it’s not blocked. It happens when she chases a stray goat (she’s a goatherd) into a cave. When she find that water, she’s finally ready to give the town a little dose of its own medicine, blocking the source the way Urgolin and Papet once blocked it for her father.

The funny thing is that I didn’t totally realize this was what was happening on this viewing either. I saw her find the source, but we don’t actually see her blocking it. We only see the water dry up for Urgolin and others and them starting to panic. Only by reading the Wikipedia summary afterward did I realize this is what happened.

I’m not slow, but as I mentioned earlier, I am jet-lagged. This means the nearly two-hour movie was a struggle indeed to get through. I could have waited a few days more, but I’d already renewed this and other movies I brought on my trip once, and I was planning to return them all to the library Thursday after work. It was watching Manon of the Spring on Wednesday night, or not at all.

I was again bothered this time by the comparative passivity, the mute passivity, of Manon. I had a bit of trouble believing her character, due in part to the blank performance of Emmanuel Beart, but also to the decision to have her rarely speak, and to float and dance around like some kind of fairy. She just didn’t strike me as a real person, which made her (initial) failure to seek vengeance on those who wronged her father seem more like a character flaw than perhaps just an instance of waiting for the right moment, or maybe just not being a vindictive person in the first place.

While Florette and Manon are both fairly minimalist in terms of story, it bothered me in Manon where it did not in Florette. I felt like a huge amount of time was spent covering a fairly small amount of narrative, making it seem like points were belabored this time that were not belabored in the first film. I also found that Berri’s work with actors was less distinctive, and I don’t think we can only blame the absence of Gerard Depardieu. Auteuil, a very good actor, did not impress me this time out, possibly because he is given a truly predatory attitude toward Manon that kind of skeeved me out. (Who runs after a woman, increasing the magnitude of his proposals the faster she flees? He’s proposing desperate marriage as she disappears over the top of a hill, scared out of her wits.) Montand also interested me less this time around.

Manon of the Spring is still a good movie, It’s just at least a full star lower than its predecessor, and something I definitely won’t watch again now that I’ve officially seen it once.

Only three months left to watch the 15 (!) movies I’ve still got on my list of those I initially identified as candidates for this series. Then again, two-thirds of those are generally unavailable, so it’ll work out just about right.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

What every X-Men movie is about

One of the more shocking franchise developments of 2019 is how hard X-Men crashed and burned. The latest installment, Dark Phoenix, which I saw as my final movie on the flight home on Sunday, made a pitiful $65 million at the box office in the U.S., and barely a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide. That’s nothing these days. It makes it only the 28th biggest domestic money earner of 2019, but that alone probably does not provide useful perspective. More useful is that means it currently lands between Good Boys and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark in terms of earnings, though both of those are still in theaters and will likely surpass Dark Phoenix. (Good Boys, of course, already has.) By the end of the year it will be no higher than 50th, probably. 

It seems an unthinkable outcome for a series that stars A-listers Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy, and in this installment boasts A-lister Jessica Chastain, as well as major riser Sophie Turner of Game of Thrones fame. Of course, it’s not even the stars who are specifically supposed to sell a franchise like this, but the brand itself, which has produced nine previous movies – three in the first saga, three so far in this saga, and three Wolverine spinoffs. (Not all of these movies came under the same studio banner, but that hardly matters.)

While watching X-Men: Dark Phoenix, though, I realized why we’ve finally dropped the series: Each movie is about the exact same thing.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there’s been a single X-Men movie that didn’t involve the uneasy tension between mutants and the world governments that seek to contain them. In each movie, the potential value of a team of superheroes working for good is offset against the potential disaster of their collective destructive force. Each X-Men movie has involved someone proposing to or actually quarantining these X-Men for further research/imprisonment. Each X-Men movie has involved the good X-Men trying to convince the bad X-Men to fight for the greater good rather than their own self-interest and/or survival. And each X-Men movie has dealt with one particularly powerful mutant struggling to control that power while reconciling their anger with their better instincts.

And I think I’ve actually made it sound more interesting than it actually is. Lines of dialogue have become increasingly disposable or interchangeable the more of these movies there have been, as the core conflicts have gotten more and more boring. To give you an idea of the difference between the franchise era we live in now and the one we did 15 years ago, the first X-Men franchise had the good sense, as it were, to end after three movies with X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006, a movie most people did not like. Of course, that ending was humorously short-lived, as the series was rebooted only four years later with X-Men: First Class.

We have now blown past the disliked third movie in this incarnation of the series, 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, to deliver a fourth, even less-liked X-Men, Dark Phoenix. The difference is that nowadays you can’t quit when you start to get behind. Maybe they thought focusing on Jean Grey, who had not previously been a part of this saga, would give the series new life, especially as it helped with the modern mandate of replacing the traditionally male protagonists with a clear female protagonist. (Which is one of the reasons Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique has been so elevated in prominence even though she was a total side character in the original series.) But that thinking ended up being flawed, or at the very least, not enough.

What they should have realized was that if they were going to make a fourth X-Men movie in the current timeline, it had to actually be different in some way. Logan might have been a good example to them. That really deviated from what we knew previously of X-Men with its R rating and with its deaths of two major characters. Perhaps some of Logan did rub off, as Dark Phoenix kills off a major character, though I won’t say who. The fact that this development carries almost no impact shows just how far this series has fallen in the decade since it began with such promise.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix is not an awful movie, but its mediocrity, its reliance on such played out ideas and such familiar tropes, kind of makes it one. Then there are the problems with its execution, like its literal darkness – for some reason they decided to shoot almost all the major set pieces at night. Never a good idea.

I can see how they thought that Dark Phoenix was probably good enough, given its enviable cast and the fact that we’ve been receptive to these ideas in the past. But we will only receive for so long. And now the future for the X-Men franchise seems dark indeed.

Which I’m not mourning. I need a break from X-Men. But if they’d handled it a bit more deftly, maybe I wouldn’t. The best franchises are the ones that you eagerly greet with every new installment, because they are different enough from each other to warrant further exploration. But it feels like there’s really nothing left to explore here, and maybe there never will be.  

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in Hollywood

I actually had a real opportunity to see Quentin Tarantino's latest in Hollywood, in the heart of Hollywood Boulevard, at the world-famous Mann's Chinese Theater. We took our kids by there on Wednesday to see all the handprints and footprints, while picking out a surprising number of people they knew from the Hollywood Walk of Fame (including, unfortunately, Donald Trump). The movie was of course playing at the theater.

But the reality of travel is that it's not worth making the long trip into Hollywood from Marina del Rey (where we're staying) for a 2.5 hour movie when you have a dine-in movie theater just down the street from you. "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in Marina del Rey" does not have quite the same ring to it, so we'll go with this.

In the end, I wished I hadn't spend 2.5 hours of my vacation watching it at all.

Not a fan of Quentin Tarantino's latest. I suppose it demands a second viewing, but I don't know that it would change my perspective on it too much. I won't go point by point on what I didn't like, but maybe I'll share a take a friend of my wife gave when she met him for drinks on Tuesday night. He said he found the first two hours to be tedious (!) but they were redeemed by the way it all comes together in the final act. I agree with the first half of the statement but not the second.

However, maybe this demands a second viewing more than most. I was falling asleep during the movie, which started at the reasonable hour of 8:30 -- reasonable when you are in your normal routines, anyway. I most certainly am not right now, and exhaustion takes any foothold it can and turns that into sleep. For example, that afternoon I fell asleep during a 30-minute movie at the La Brea Tar Pits. Give sleep an inch, it takes a mile.

I did have the dine-in option to save me. I had already determined to order a little brownie ice cream sundae thing they make, which was really good, but which I had consumed before the movie was a third over. The Coke and a half-dozen Oreo cookies I'd smuggled in didn't last much longer. I did order another Coke later on, but by then I'd already fallen asleep for ten seconds at a time about ten times. I probably didn't miss much, but you can never really tell how long you've been asleep.

Ordinarily the segmented, set piece-heavy nature of a Tarantino movie would keep you glued and charged, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not that kind of movie. Some people seem to be fine with this, but I am not one of them. It may represent growth as a filmmaker that he doesn't lean into his typical Tarantino-isms, but if they're not there, they need to be replaced by something equally compelling. I didn't find much of the content of this movie compelling at all. And I didn't get any joy/laughs out of his return to his usual preoccupations in the third act. In fact, as I'm sure has been discussed extensively online, I found that portion to deepen some of his already documented problems with gender politics. But I'm sure that's a topic for an entire post.

In this post, I'll just say that I have now definitely scratched my "see a movie on vacation" itch as I took the kids to The Lion King the day before as well. Who would have thought that I might actually like the latest half-baked Disney reboot better than the latest film from Quentin Tarantino.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Challenging my rewatch rules

Different rules apply when you're on vacation. While I may watch fewer movies -- only one new-to-me viewing (The Lion King) since we landed 11 days ago -- my kids may watch more. As their parents sort out logistics related to seeing friends, eating at favorite restaurants and running errands, the kids may just have long, slow mornings in front of Netflix.

Such is how my younger son has now watched Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween -- a movie he had not seen before our first afternoon in the hotel -- about seven times all the way through.

I only watched it one of those times, paying almost complete attention so I could legitimately add it to my list of movies seen. I've got my standards.

But the standards are challenged when you have the movie on in the background enough to have seen all the parts again, for a total of probably two to three viewings, and you can recite certain lines before they're about to happen. According to my official records, I have seen this movie only once, but I could act out a dramatic recreation of most of it without additional viewings.

The problem arises from the fact that I started keeping track of repeat viewings, in a statistical sense, back in 2006. I define a repeat viewing as a situation where I specifically sat down to watch a movie a second (or third, etc.) time, not where someone else in my family was watching it in the background. If they did that at home, I'd probably leave the room, but when you're traveling, you often tend to be in the same room for one reason or another. (Like now, when I'm charging my computer.)

It wouldn't be a problem, probably, except that I've found it was useful to assign specific dates for the rewatches when I add them to my rewatch list. If I've seen Goosebumps 2 over four days, what day do I assign the viewing? Especially when I didn't see the parts in order?

To accommodate for this, I may just choose a date in this time range and list myself as having seen it again. It's definitely a movie I've seen more than once at this point. And I'd like my records to acknowledge that.

A second difficult situation arose this morning when my son asked me to watch Incredibles 2 with him. It's a film we've both already seen, but I had only officially seen it once. Even though I still had jobs to do, I decided to sit down with him and watch enough of it for it to count as an official second viewing. But then he asked if he could fast-forward past the boring parts, so I disengaged from the official second viewing.

As for Goosebumps 2 ... I'm surprised at how much I enjoy it. I thought it was straight-to-video, but in picking up the above poster I noticed that it appears to have actually had a theatrical release. (Jack Black's cameo did not tip me off, because he's been known to do things like record the entire TV series of Kung Fu Panda.) It's got an appealing cast and surprisingly great visual effects, although I should acknowledge I've been watching it on really good TVs.

Also, Slappy is becoming my favorite kid-appropriate movie villain. Here's Slappy:

Surprisingly, Slappy is voiced by Black in the original but not in the sequel. I say it's surprising because listening to him talk in the sequel is the thing that made me check to see if Black did the voice. He did in the original, but in the sequel, Mick Wingert offers a good enough Black impersonation for me to have made the connection. I suppose that's the difference between paying Black for one day of work or for the whole week.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

The day my kids sat still

The reason we're in the U.S. is to celebrate my dad's 80th birthday, which will not actually be until September 10th, but this was the best time for my sister to take off from work. She and my mom flew out to Fresno from Boston on Monday, and my dad and his wife flew out from Maine to LA mid-week last week. We got in on Saturday morning, saw them for a swim in our hotel pool on Sunday, and caravaned up here on Monday, where my sister and mom actually beat us here. "Here" is Yosemite National Park, or just outside of it anyway. (And yes, my family has gatherings such as this even though my dad and mom split up in 1997. They've had almost every Christmas together since then.)

Yesterday was the day we celebrated Dad's birthday with a french toast breakfast and presents. I had a surprise for a movie night that night: The Day the Earth Stood Still. Not the abominable Scott Derrickson-Keanu Reeves remake from a couple years ago, but Robert Wise's 1951 original, which was my dad's favorite movie when he was growing up (from age 12 onward, anyway. His favorite "adult movie" is The Seventh Seal).

Dad was indeed "chuffed" (to use the Australian term) at the idea, and told us the reason it had become his favorite, which I never knew previously. He had a friend who was in some way associated with the local movie house (he told us this story yesterday and I've already forgotten the nature of that association), and when The Day the Earth Stood Still left town, my dad came into possession of a number of the still images from the movie they had used to promote it, which he proceeded to festoon around his room.

The impetus for this viewing was not just to fete my dad on his "birthday," but to create a bonding experience with him and his grandkids. The other half of that bonding experience is meant to be a viewing of their favorite movie, or at least the older one's favorite movie -- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse -- which should occur at some point later in the weekend (we're here until Monday).

The bonding experience, though, was a fairly high-risk, high-reward proposal. It was both the reason for the Earth Stood Still viewing, as well as one of the greatest reasons not to view it.

See, The Day the Earth Stood Still is boring. Or so I thought when I watched it, which was likely in my late teens or early 20s.

It's a movie about aliens, alien spacecrafts and alien robots that doesn't have all that much of any of them. The main alien looks exactly human, and doesn't even do any non-human things other than speak an alien language (when he's not speaking English) and easily solve complicated mathematical proofs that even the best human minds of the day struggle with. The robot looks cool but is actually not in it all that much. Most of the movie involves the alien being on the run, disguised as a human as he looks after the son of another woman sharing his lodgings, and tries to find a brilliant professor.

So, boring.

My kids don't do well with boring. They have short attention spans, or can have them, anyway. This is the type of movie that might trigger those short attention spans.

As a reminder, they are 8 and 5, though the older one turns 9 this Sunday (and the viewing of Spider-Man may be on his birthday). That's at least ten to 15 years younger than I was when I saw it, and found it boring. And I'd venture that my attention span back then was far better than theirs would be now, obviously at the age I was, but especially at the age they are now. I just didn't have the distractions they have today.

Having them start watching The Day the Earth Stood Still, and quit watching it 15 or 20 minutes into the movie, could be a worse outcome than if I'd never borrowed it from the library and brought it along with us at all. It could have had the effect of curdling my dad's birthday celebration rather than leaving him chuffed.

But you know what? They were awesome.

The older one was, I believe, genuinely engaged the whole time. The younger one may have lost some of his attention at one point or another, but the only way he demonstrated that was to move from where he was sitting next to his grandmother, to sitting next to my wife. She explained some of the things that were happening quietly in his ear, which seemed to get him back on track.

The fact that the movie was only 92 minutes long undoubtedly helped get them through, but I never got the sense they were in any hurry for it to be over. Fortunately, the movie front-loads the thrills it does have. The spacecraft lands within the first ten minutes, and it's not long after that that the robot Gort is shooting the lasers out of his eyes that you see above. He only uses them to disintegrate weapons -- and two men later on, but we won't go into that -- so I knew the content of the movie would be suitable for them. But I never could have guessed how patiently they would sit through all the walking around Washington D.C. and the vague romantic intrigue between Michael Rennie's alien and Patricia Neal's mother of the young boy. I had a wince at the ready any time that stuff seemed to be going on too long, but none of it ever lost my boys.

The best part is that we watched it interactively, laughing at certain things that seemed outdated, but not in a derisive way, and giving all the right oos and ahhs every time the story took a turn. I worried that my dad would be offended by some of the extraneous commentary, but he actually participated himself willingly, as anything that was made as long ago as 1951 is going to seem slightly silly through a modern lens. His affection for the movie is nothing so solemn that it can't be punctured by a few well-timed, MST3K-style observations from an audience that was obviously enjoying ourselves.

And I was surprised at how much I enjoyed myself. I recognized it as a good movie when I first saw it, but I think I had to allow it a lot of latitude for its age and its comparatively slow pace. These things didn't bother me this time. I've had a lot of my own maturation since then.

Now the onus is on my dad for doing his part to appreciate Spider-Man, though the way he responded to the visual effects in Peter Rabbit last year (see here) suggests there's a good chance he'll just be genuinely blown away.

His grandkids have set a standard of appreciation it'll be difficult for him to match.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

MIFF leaves town, and so do I

As I type this, the last full day of MIFF is beginning, at least strictly speaking according to the clock, which has just passed midnight. There are some movies on Sunday, but things peter out by the mid-afternoon.

However, that won't involve me as I am getting on a plane to America in about eight hours.

Even though I still have about four other things to do on my checklist before going to bed, I thought I'd tie up the "loose end" of giving you one last MIFF post. I mean, I did see two movies on Thursday.

One of those was the French animated film I Lost My Body. The other was the American/British horror movie The Lodge.

One of them was good, and one of them not so good. In that order.

I Lost My Body is the real keeper here, possibly the second best of the 13 films I saw this festival. Each year I try to see one movie I deem as "outsider animation," and this year, this was the one. I was only a little disheartened to see it was presented by Netflix, the first such a film I've ever seen at MIFF. But then again, these days, who isn't?

It's the dual story of a severed hand crawling around Paris, crab-like, trying to find its owner, and the story of that owner. And although that may sound funny (and it is in spots), this is profound and melancholy like only the French can do it. Bravo Jeremy Clapin, director.

The Lodge was ... not so great.

One problem was that it started very late, 9:45, probably because of the private function downstairs at the Forum that kept my friend and me from eating our dinner there. Damn private functions. They seem to get me every time.

My friend and I had Indian instead, and two drinks, and I drank the Pepsi that was meant to keep me awake during The Lodge too quickly. It was a struggle.

This was made by the same people who made Goodnight Mommy, which I liked quite a bit, but it resembled a story Ari Aster left on the cutting room floor, and the presence of new favorite Riley Keough did not help it enough to make it really worth my time. Also, Jaeden Lieberher (Bill Denbrough from It) is in it, but now he goes by Jaeden Martell. I was confused.

I probably owe both of these movies more time, but I've got to get to those four other things and then get to sleep.

So yeah, I'm off to America for three weeks. It probably doesn't mean I'm taking a three-week break from the blog, because I'll probably have ample internet access and writing time. But if I decide to take a couple days or a week or even two weeks off, don't be surprised. I'll report in soon enough.

Until then ... farewell MIFF and so long to you all for a lot less time than that.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The masterpiece tease

Ari Aster is a tease.

In parts of Hereditary (which I’ve seen twice) and Midsommar (which I just saw for the first time on Wednesday), he announces himself as a new master of horror, a stylist capable of a true masterpiece.

But it’s all just a tease. In fact, Aster’s in danger of becoming a one trick pony, a horror Guy Ritchie, because his two films contain almost the exact same strengths and weaknesses, echoing each other in both plot and structure.

The strengths are magnificent. Like, truly jaw-dropping.

But the weaknesses …

First let me say that the first half of Midsommar is my favorite movie of the year. I won’t spoil anything substantive, even the thing that happens so early that most people are probably including it when they write plot synopses. (I’m not reviewing it so I don’t have to struggle with that particular dilemma.) The way that opening thing is handled is brilliant and haunting, and the movie’s greatness continues pretty much through to [that scene where those two people do that thing, you know what I’m talking about – the 72-year-olds]. The shot over the car that goes upside down is probably my favorite single cinematic moment so far this year.

But then …

Aster doesn’t know how to provide a satisfying ending to his movies, but it’s not because they are not endings. They don’t just stop in the middle of a scene, the kind of thing we saw in Martha Marcy May Marlene. They have a certain completeness to them, and yet they are not satisfying.

Part of the problem is that he goes on too long. Both of these movies are probably 20 minutes longer than they should be, than they need to be. And those 20 minutes are crucial in losing what has made the previous 90+ minutes so distinct and so disturbing, turning them instead into something unintentionally comic. And I do really believe it’s unintentional, though whether that’s better or worse I don’t know.

The thing Aster truly has mastery of is grief. In both films he captures the absolute soul-wrenching horror of trauma through the performances of his female leads, Toni Collette and Frances Pugh. (Pugh, by the way, is fast becoming one of my favorite actresses … she has a kind of empathy that’s disarming, and is appropriate for the themes of this film.) The traumas portrayed truly are awful, and the reactions to them are pitch perfect. Aster somehow makes you scared at the intensity of a person’s grief. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that in a movie before, and yet I’ve seen it in both of Aster’s movies.

He explores the byproducts of that grief expertly. The schisms in a family. The recriminations. The depression. The way guilt and depression actually make you apologetic to the people who should be apologizing to you. The fragility of not knowing what you might lose next, who might leave you next. It’s all in there and it’s all true.

Aster (correctly) realizes he needs to include actually genre horror elements in the films as well, blood and guts and jump scares (a few) and moments of slow dread. They are horror movies, after all. But he gets everything just right in those until he opens the bag of tricks too far and too many thing spill out. Most of those extra things spill out in the last 20 minutes of the film that should never have been.

When I reviewed Hereditary I concluded by saying “[Aster] should be delivering plenty of other films that stick in our consciousness as he blossoms and matures.” I guess one year is too soon to say he’s done that yet. But I kind of wish he could have made Midsommar when he’d already gotten there. So much of Midsommar speaks to a particular part of my cinephile lizard brain that it leaves me with an inevitable sense of what it could have truly been, and therefore, a sense of disappointment. A four-star disappointment, but a disappointment nonetheless.

Ari Aster will stop teasing us, one day, I think. I just hope he hasn’t used up all his best ideas before he gets there.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

I'd say Cinema Nova is excited for the new QT

This wall of posters at Cinema Nova, my local arthouse theater, usually advertises all of the movies coming out in the next couple months, ordered by their release date. It's a good way to get excited about what tempting cinematic treats you have to look forward to.

On Wednesday night, they only wanted me to look forward to one thing.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood actually opens today, but I don't know when I'm actually going to see it. Tonight I finish up MIFF, and I can't go tomorrow night because, well, I'll be packing. See, we're leaving for the U.S. on Saturday.

It'll of course be playing there, has been for several weeks. But time will again be the issue there, as there are people we need to see and things we need to do.

Of course, some of the people I need to see are Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCpario and Margot Robbie, so you better bet I'll make it happen, if at all possible, somehow.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Audient Audit Bonus: Jean de Florette

This is a bonus installment of my monthly series Audient Audit.

I certainly didn’t intend to write more than the 12 monthly installments I had planned for Audient Audit, but a circumstance came along that screamed out for a bonus. Unlike all the other movies in the series, it has to do with a movie I actually did see, though it wasn’t on any of my lists. And that’s a big deal, because realizing I’ve seen a movie that I didn’t have on my lists is something that only happens every couple years these days.

First I’ll tell you how it happened.

I’m in a movie group on Facebook called Flickchart Friends’ Favorites Fiesta, which is an offshoot of the discussion group related to the Flickchart website. I don’t actually participate all that much in the original discussion group these days – something having to do with no longer getting the proper notifications to see the new posts – but I’m a loyal participant in this second group. The premise in the group is that each month, you are randomly assigned the highest ranked movie you haven’t yet seen from somebody else’s chart. They get your highest ranked, or more likely, someone else does. (I’ve only been randomly matched up with the same person in the same month once.) You’d think it might be easier from a "drawing names from a hat" standpoint if they had people get each other, but I’m not the organizer.

Anyway, in August I got given Jean de Florette, which is the #1 movie on the chart of one of the other participants. As soon as I saw the title that had been assigned to me, I wondered why the hell this movie is not on my various lists.

As you know if you’ve been following this series, I tend to err on the side of adding a film rather than excluding it. If I have a vague memory of seeing certain random extractions from a film, I usually say I’ve seen it, though this series has proven that actually to be the case only one time out of eight total films. It’s not very common, obviously, for me to have seen most of or an entire film and decide that I probably didn’t see it.

Jean de Florette is a particularly strange case, because if you walked up to me and asked me if I’d seen it, I’d say “Of course.” In fact, I believe I watched it in French class when I was in high school. I may have also watched the sequel, Manon of the Spring, or Manon du Source, in the same setting. (I now see it listed as Manons des Sources, which sounds like some Bicycle Thieves shit if I’ve ever seen it.)

But neither Jean nor Manon is on any of my film lists, and I wonder if this points to a flaw in the original making of the list. My original film list was composed of films from a video rental catalogue around 1990, and only because that catalogue was so comprehensive did I consider it a good source (if you will) for a list that I’m still updating nearly 30 years later. I’ve of course filled in missing titles over the years, which is an inexact science. But rarely – as I said, only once every couple years – do I still think of titles that I’ve been missing. I guess it’s possible Jean de Florette did not appear in this original video catalogue, maybe because it wasn’t available for some reason, and that it simply never got corrected.

Anyway, it’s a pretty great film. Here’s what I wrote about it when I reported back on my viewing in the Flickchart group:

The story is surprisingly simple. It involves a tract of land near Provence, France, where grapes are cultivated for wine and other farming occurs. However, the area is tricky as the sources of water are few, meaning prospective growers rely on the rain to slake the thirst of their plants, and in the case of the title character, allow the plants to grow that will feed his rabbits. He’s inherited the land from his uncle, who died during a scuffle when his neighbors approached him to buy his land for their enterprise growing carnations. They wanted to buy the land because they know of a spring that can provide the water to make the land suitably verdant, but they’re not going to tell Jean, his wife and his young daughter about that. They want to see him fail spectacularly so they can buy the land for cheap.

I am sometimes amazed by how much fascinating content can spring, so to speak, from a story that is so straightforward and uncomplicated. Jean de Florette is just short of two hours long (and is in fact the first in a two-part series that ends with Manon of the Spring), but the performances and the small details in Jean’s struggle to breed his rabbits keep a viewer glued the whole time. Three French acting treasures shine in this film, from Gerard Depardieu as the title character to the mercenary neighbors, played by Daniel Autieul and the great Yves Montand. I enjoyed being in their company for two hours even as I balled my fists at the callousness of the last two. Depardieu’s dogged optimism helped balance that out. Jean is also a hunchback, which complicates the way the townspeople view him and support (or don’t support) his claim to the land.

There was a preamble and a little bit after that, but I’ve already included those thoughts elsewhere in this post.

The two-disk set I got from the library also includes Manon of the Spring, and even though I’m leaving on a three-week trip to America on Saturday, I may renew the rental and take it with me. In fact, it may work out that this is my regular monthly post for September, although I’ll have to see if I can justify it to myself. After all, the audits in this series are supposed to be movies I’m not sure if I’ve seen but are on my lists.

Maybe I’ll just watch it, you know, just to watch it.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Un-lee-shed: 4 Little Girls

This is the fourth in my 2019 bi-monthly series watching Spike Lee’s films that I haven’t yet seen.

4 Little Girls was one of the movies in this series I was looking forward to most, though I’m not sure you can make such a statement without providing an asterisk. You don’t look forward to spending any time with the type of tragedy documented in this movie. I do, however, look forward to watching examples of powerful, emotional filmmaking, and 4 Little Girls was certainly one such example.

It was on my radar at the time it was released in 1997, but I didn’t have the vacuum cleaner mentality I have today about sucking up all the cinematic content worth seeing in a given year. In fact, I might have dinged Spike Lee’s first documentary a little bit for not being a film that was released theatrically, as 4 Little Girls was produced by HBO. I might still arbitrarily ding it for that reason, except it’s not really true. The original plan was to debut it on HBO, but all involved realized it was important enough to get a theatrical run before its cable TV premiere. It ran in four theaters in the summer of 1997 and was eventually nominated for an Oscar for best documentary.

The film of course examines the loss of four young black girls in Birmingham, Alabama as a result of a September 1963 church bombing. Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair were those girls, and they were all in the 12 to 14 age range. It was an act of contemptible racism carried out by a true miscreant whose name I will not even mention here. I don’t think he knew the children were going to be killed in the bombing but that hardly changes anything. He reacted smugly and all the footage of him shows him with this big shit-eating grin.

The film goes into the details of the case as well as giving portraits of these four girls from their surviving relatives, who are still clearly shaken from their deaths even three-and-a-half decades later. It’s potent, moving stuff. It’s also shocking. One of the most controversial elements of the film – though I can’t tell if it actually created a controversy or just made it hard to watch – is that there are brief flashes of post-mortem photographs of the children. Lee didn’t want to give just a sentimental celebration of four young girls whose lives were cut tragically short. He wanted to confront us with the reality of what it looks like when victims are pulled out of the rubble of a bombing. You breathe a sigh of thanks that they are only brief flashes, because it means you can’t fully make out what parts of the body might be missing or altered. I didn’t go back to pause it to find out.

Of course, 4 Little Girls didn’t interest me only on the face value of its content. Especially in the context of this series, I wanted to see what aspects of it reminded me most of Spike Lee. There were principally three, though at least one of those three is only superficial.

The first and most obvious is the montage opening, which gives us a bunch of imagery related to the topic set to the song “Birmingham Sunday” sung by Joan Baez, whose lyrics relate directly to this bombing. Although the use of the song makes for a rather obvious creative decision, I was interested and a bit surprised to see that Lee would choose a white artist from a very white type of music (folk music) to introduce this film, though it works beautifully. Many other Lee films start out similarly.

A slightly more Lee use of music was the undercurrent of jazz that plays under a lot of the interview subjects. It’s something he shares in common, aesthetically, with Woody Allen. Maybe it’s a New York thing.

The really superficial Lee trademark was that he interviews frequent collaborator Ossie Davis. That’s not just a random selection based on their friendship, as Davis and wife Ruby Dee were big civil rights activists and participated in Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom a mere two weeks before the bombings. But if I were looking for the ways Lee put himself into the film, that felt like an obvious one.

But he didn’t do too much else in that regard, I suspect because it would have distracted from the very sober story he was telling. 4 Little Girls is not about Lee demonstrating his skills as a filmmaker. It’s about wrestling with a period of great racial discord in American history, from the perspective of a time that is only slightly less discordant. Bill Clinton was president when Lee made this film, and though he is often described (mostly by black people) as “America’s first black president” – or at least was before there was an actual black president – it’s clear that the improvement in American society from 1963 to 1997 was comparatively small. Sadly, it probably still is.

When I return to this series in October it will be with the only true flop I am watching, Miracle at St. Anna (2008), which I’m sure has some good parts despite its turkey reputation.

Monday, August 12, 2019

MIFF: Baby with my baby, and a free coconut popcorn

For starters, please let me say that I do not call, and have never called, my wife or any person with whom I have been romantically linked “my baby.” But for the purposes of this post, let’s pretend I do.

However, even allowing that concession, there was some uncertainty whether I’d call this post “Baby with my baby” or “Baby without my baby.”

You see, once my children were packed away to their aunt’s house for the second straight Saturday of MIFF – thanks for the consecutive sleepovers, AL! – my wife decided to come along with me to my 1:30 screening of the Chinese film Baby at Hoyts Melbourne Central. (And I’ll say that before I decided to call my last MIFF post “Mid-week at Hoyts,” I should have looked ahead to recognize that my two Saturday screenings were also here.) She’s still trying to burn through the extra tickets of the second minipass she was given.

The only thing is, the sleepover didn’t start quite as early as we’d hoped. My sister-in-law was a little later than she said she’d be in picking them up, a fact I mention only in the context of this story, and not to make her feel bad about it, even though she will likely never read this. Our gratitude knows no bounds. And because we were indeed getting a second straight Saturday night/Sunday morning to ourselves, it did not seem very sporting to hurry her along to pick up the kids.

So the time to leave for Baby came, and my sister-in-law was not yet there. I offered to stay back with my wife, but she insisted that we should not both miss the movie. As I had had this on my schedule from the start, and she was a late add, I guess she thought that was sufficiently convincing logic that I should go ahead while she stayed back.

There was still the chance she’d make it on time, but when I disembarked the tram in front of Melbourne Central, she reported via text that her sister had not yet arrived. I considered it a lost cause and made my way up to the movie, leaving no open seat for her next to me.

Imagine my surprise when I turned on my phone after the movie and there were texts from her saying “I’m almost there! Hopefully won’t miss too much” and “I’m here.” The funny thing is, I should have seen her walking in as she couldn’t have crossed my line of vision without me noticing her, but apparently she did. So while we both saw the movie, I didn’t actually see it “with” her, per se.

Unfortunately, when I saw these texts, I had been all ready to text her saying “Consider yourself lucky. That movie sucked.” Maybe the key to liking it was the difference between watching it from the start and arriving 15 minutes late, because she said she did like it. I got off on the wrong foot with it and never recovered.

The movie is about an 18-year-old orphan who has reached the age of maturity where she must move on from her foster parent. She had congenital defects that required multiple surgeries but has come out the other end mostly intact, though she can’t have her own children. She’s working at a hospital and she sees another baby with similar medical problems to hers, where the parents have decided not to give the child potentially life-saving surgery because her life will be so hard. This angers the main character and she plots to change their mind or kidnap the baby.

That plot summary makes the movie sound good, but I found it pretty amateurishly acted and made. The dialogue is extremely on the nose and the whole thing is procedure and exposition, with no subtle character moments or moments of grace. As I said previously, director Jie Liu et al bungled laying the groundwork, such that I had some basic assumptions about the setup that ended up being wrong. I didn’t buy a number of the things that happened, including the parents deciding to let their daughter die. It’s not that this might not be a true choice people in their position would make, but the film didn’t convince me of it, and struggled to convince me of a number of other things. It just didn’t work for me. In fact, I probably would have given it less than the two stars I ultimately awarded it, except that my wife’s moderate affection for it made me reconsider whether I was being too hard on it.

I went home for a nap – ah, the luxury of having the children out of the house! – and then the two of us both returned that night for a second movie, only this time not the same one. The thing is, I think my wife would have also accompanied me on this one if she’d properly realized what I was seeing. That second movie was an Irish paranormal film called Extra Ordinary, and it features American comic actor Will Forte, whom we both love. I think at the time I recommended it to her, she was too busy with other things and the recommendation went over her head. By the time the date actually rolled around, she had picked another movie, also at Hoyts starting at the same time, so we could arrive and leave together. (Before that we had drinks at a cool laneway bar and a chicken sandwich at a not-cool restaurant in the food court.)

According to my original schedule, Extra Ordinary was going to be my 2019 MIFF midnight movie. See, on Friday and Saturday nights, MIFF has a show that starts at 11:30, and I’ve gone to two of those in the past: Baskin in 2016 and The Night Eats the World last year. I had to exchange my ticket for last Friday’s 11:30 showing of Extra Ordinary when my wife had a conflict, but ended up seeing it this Saturday instead. (And that exchange warrants a word or two, as a MIFF customer service rep had to help put it through when the website thought my minipass was full. But she was a credit to MIFF as she got it processed for me straight away, no fuss no muss.)

Anyway, this was a fun and cute movie. It involves an Irish woman who is the daughter of a TV medium who can talk to ghosts, a talent he passed on to her. She doesn’t do that anymore, though, and makes her living at the moment as a driving instructor. Of course, she gets pulled back into the game when an American one-hit wonder (Forte) makes a deal with the devil to get his music career back on track, and that involves the sacrificing of a virgin, the daughter of a local townsperson who seeks out her services to help. I laughed a fair amount and the movie is pretty clever, but I’d be lying if I said that Forte’s brand of humor blended perfectly with the core Irish humor of the rest of the characters. It did also have Claudia O’Doherty, the Australian comedienne late of Netflix’s Love, so that was a bonus.

Oh! The popcorn.

My wife wanted to get a “choctop” – a prepackaged ice cream cone that has a hard chocolate shell holding the ice cream in – so I also decided to pick up a box of nacho flavored popcorn. The funny thing is, my popcorn came with a free popcorn. I guess the coconut flavor was not selling, so now they were just giving it away. I didn’t need two popcorns, but you can bet I ended up eating both of them. And I pity those who have turned their noses up at the coconut flavor. It’s only a hint of coconut, and really, the thing just tastes like kettle corn, which is a flavor I like quite a bit.

After a fairly intense first ten days of MIFF, I’ve now got a huge break. I don’t go back until Thursday, when I will see my final two movies of 2019. Assuming no cancellations (or additions), it’ll be a personal record 13 MIFF movies this year. Hallelujah.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Audient Audit: Breathless

This is the eighth in my 2019 series Audient Audit, in which I'm checking the accuracy of my own records on films I say I've seen.

The first clue that I had not, in fact, seen Jean-Luc Godard's classic film Breathless (1960) was that I had no idea it was a film noir. It may not be a conventional noir, but it fits loosely into that category. If you asked me to summarize Breathless, I probably wouldn't have been able to, but I would have considered it a lot closer to something like Jules and Jim than to, I don't know, The Big Sleep. So it didn't take long for me to determine that I had added this to my lists of films seen in error.

So why did I think I'd seen Breathless?

There's a good chance I saw at least one scene from it, once. I remember a tangible sense of frustration related to this movie, because at the time I saw whatever percentage I saw of it, I wouldn't have been able to appreciate what it was doing. In truth, I still don't appreciate Godard all that much, though I'll get to the exceptions to that in a minute. But I'm guessing that if I did see a scene in it, I saw the extended scene where the two leads are rolling around in bed and talking about life and love. I liked those scenes okay now, but at the time I would have once seen them, at least 20 and probably more like 25 years ago, I wouldn't have liked them at all.

The funny thing is that I have a very specific image of a scene I associate with Breathless, and it is simply not in the movie. I don't know, maybe it's in the Richard Gere remake, though I'm quite certain I haven't seen much or likely any of that. I have this image in my mind of Jean-Paul Belmondo's character seducing Jean Seberg's character while she's lying on a diving board next to a pool. Nope. Not in the movie.

The thing that's so surprising about this story being fairly plot heavy, relative to what I was expecting, is that its lack of plot would have been one of my chief complaints about it ... and therefore has been, all this time, an imaginary chief complaint. In fact, I had no idea that Belmondo's Michel is wanted for murder, a murder he actually committed by shooting a police officer. I "remembered" the cigarettes he smokes incessantly, an affectation that still kind of bothers me, not because I'm some prude, but just because I think it's a pretty artificial attempt at seeming "cool." I didn't remember that he's a wanted criminal, and that's because, well, I never actually saw the movie.

Michel models his own persona on that of Humphrey Bogart, so I'm wondering if what percentage of this movie I did see also contributes to why I don't like Bogart that much. Kind of working this out as I type this, but French opinions of what's cool and what isn't cool don't align that much with my own. They worship Bogart, and I don't care much for him. They think womanizing is fab, and that's just not my style. And maybe I think Godard embodies this just as much as Belmondo does.

That said, there were enough things that I liked about the film that I can mostly co-sign its reputation. One of those is Jean Seberg, a personality who is kind of unknown to me. Reading up on her, I can see that this film helped make her an icon, and perhaps contributed to her early demise (suicide) at age 40. Although I was a bit distracted by her American accent while speaking French -- I don't like the French, but I also don't like when people who aren't French attempt to be French? -- I do find that she has a star presence and an iconic look, one that reminded me a bit of Mia Farrow before Mia Farrow.

I also enjoy the ways Godard is playing with editing here, particularly in shots of Seberg riding in Belmondo's convertible. We get one line of dialogue being delivered in little bursts, and with each burst Seberg's background changes. It's a cool effect and was probably pretty groundbreaking at the time. As this is a far more linear film than some Godard would go on to make, I appreciate it for its comparative restraint. He was probably a better filmmaker (in my opinion) before he figured out quite all the tricks he could do. Then again, I have to say I have only seen a handful of his films. Until I've seen more, I should probably keep my opinions to myself.

I'm uncomfortable with what I said about not liking the French. It's not true. However, I do think there are elements of the French New Wave that have bothered me when they have made it into other films later on, maybe some of the earliest films of Jim Jarmusch. To put it kind of broadly, I don't love films where men sit around apartments in wife beaters smoking cigarettes and exorcising their love-hate relationships with women. I feel like Godard is kind of responsible for birthing this. So while I don't like some of what Godard wrought, I can appreciate this early example of it for what it is.

I bet I'd find the Gere remake really annoying though.

September brings another movie. "Really Vance? You don't say."