Saturday, August 1, 2015

MIFF: Beyond language, beyond origin


It's MIFF time again!

The Melbourne International Film Festival began on Thursday night, and I was at my first screening the very next night, ready to go. Which led to quite a bit of deja vu.

Like last year, I started at the Forum Theatre on Flinders Street, and like last year, I started with a movie about the unusual relationship between humans and animals. Last year, it was Hungary's White God, about an uprising of dogs against their human oppressors. This year, it was Yorgos Lanthimos' English language debut, The Lobster, about a society where coupling is legally mandated, and singles who can't meet their soulmate within 45 days of arriving at a singles resort are turned into an animal.

Yep, that's the director of Dogtooth and Alps for you.

Unfortunately, the deja vu extended to my tepid response to a film I was anticipating. Both White God and The Lobster ultimately received only three stars from me.

You wouldn't have known it from The Lobster's first 20 minutes or so, which I spent in a state primed -- primed -- for laughter. Every little absurd tic -- and this is a movie comprised of absurd tics -- produced a titter in me. In other words, I was putty in this movie's hands, and was already thinking about how close to the top of my year-to-date rankings it would end up.

Unfortunately, it ultimately settled in the lower half of the movies I've seen so far in 2015. I attribute this primarily to a change halfway through that alters the mood and direction of what I thought the movie was doing. I won't say anything more about it than that, for fear of spoiling a movie I know many of you are anticipating as much as I was.

I will say that the way this movie uses language is something fascinating, something I want to spend some more time talking about.

As I noted, this is Lanthimos' English-language debut. The Greek director made his first four films in the Greek language, unsurprisingly.

It is not, however, his "Hollywood debut." "English-language debut" and "Hollywood debut" are phrases that tend to get used interchangeably, mostly because people are speaking off-the-cuff and not properly considering what they're saying. This is not a Hollywood film -- none more than either of his other two films I've seen, even.

It does, however, show a sort of curious deference to American audiences, but in ways that may not be immediately obvious. They were probably more obvious to me because I've been living in the British Empire for two years now.

So Colin Farrell and Ben Whishaw are two of the bigger names in the cast, which also includes John C. Reilly, Rachel Weisz and Lea Seydoux. Farrell is of course from Ireland, and Whishaw is English. Both get to speak in their native accents -- something Farrell doesn't do all that often -- but the words they speak actually betray them. Early on, Farrell's David refers to a bisexual experience he had "back in college," when of course anyone with his brogue would say "back in university." And then Whishaw's "Limping Man" talks about being bad at math, when he would really say "bad at maths."

I guess it's all part of the sense that this strange land these characters inhabit -- which, it should be no surprise, is never identified (the film was shot in Ireland) -- is without a particular nationality. English is the spoken language, but not all the characters speak it very well, nor is it their native tongue. A maid who works in this resort (Ariane Labed) is one of two French actresses in the film, along with Blue is the Warmest Color's Lea Seydoux. In fact, at one point they have an entire conversation -- a conversation with some bearing on the plot, it would seem -- in French, without any subtitles. The conversation might last two minutes of screen time, which is an eternity when it comes along at the juncture of the plot that it comes, when the rules are changing and when something crucial is clearly being communicated.

In this way Lanthimos sort of seems to be putting his audience in the same position as one of his stars and key collaborators during his career -- a position of not really understanding what's going on. Angeliki Papoulia, who starred in both Dogtooth and Alps, appears here as well, not surprisingly. (I should mention that Labed is also a veteran of Alps -- although she was raised in France, she was born in Greece.) Papoulia doesn't speak any dialogue in her first four or five appearances in the film, so I thought Lanthimos might have been throwing some work her way without actually requiring her to learn English. (Or at least, learn how to parrot the words in English, even if she doesn't understand them.) But Papoulia does have a couple dozen lines of dialogue, which lends credence to the notion that pretty much any foreign actor of any prominence finds it in their interest to be able to work in English-language movies. Anyway, there's little doubt that even if she does have a preliminary grasp of English, she might not get everything that's going on -- even if the director speaks the same language she does and might be equally at sea in some respects.

So the whole movie kind of has this sense of displacement, of discomfort -- which certainly is to its benefit. Perhaps the guy who stands out the most is John C. Reilly, the only American present. And his language is affected by the decision to give his character a lisp, though I couldn't tell you entirely what that means beyond its contribution to the aforementioned theme of displacement.

The essential anarchy of Lanthimos' approach is good for this film -- until it stops being good. Until the absurdism starts to leave the realm of comedy and become something more recognizably Lanthimosian in terms of its sadism and need for shock value. However, that alone wouldn't have been a problem if I'd liked where Lanthimos had taken it, as I did in Dogtooth but as I did not in Alps.

So while I'm certainly glad Lanthimos' English-language debut is not more Hollywood, I will be hoping for something a bit more, shall we say, structurally satisfying on his next outing.

As for MIFF, I'll have a week between viewings now before I see the Romanian drama-thriller One Floor Below next Friday.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The unlikely creep


I get typecasting most of the time.

To use two completely random examples, Michael Ironside always plays a villain (Starship Troopers excepted) because he's got a world-class sneer, and Henry Fonda always played a nice guy (Once Upon a Time in the West excepted) because his baby blues contained within them an ocean of empathy. These guys were stuck on their career trajectories pretty much no matter what they did.

But sometimes, actors get typecast for reasons I totally cannot fathom.

Take Martin Donovan, one of the secondary antagonists in Ant-Man. Corey Stoll's over-the-top performance (speaking of sneering) takes top villain billing, but Donovan is there to lend his own custom brand of nefariousness to the proceedings.

I call it a "custom brand" because this is how Donovan has been cast for years now. And I just don't get it.

I've been "following" this actor -- which is to say I've known his name and taken note when he appears in movies and TV shows -- for about 15 years now, and I have always thought he was possessed of a rare paternal warmth. He seems capable of such gentleness and comfort that if he were my therapist, I might collapse in his arms crying within ten minutes on our first session.

This is the guy I'm talking about:


But I had to scroll through a lot of pictures before I found one I felt was worth using. Because this is not how Hollywood sees Martin Donovan. It sees him much more like this:


Or like this:


Or like this:


Someone shifty, someone in the shadows, someone far more likely to stab you in the back than hug away your problems.

Ant-Man is only the most recent example. You can go back through his filmography and check out the series of reprobates he has played.

In Nurse 3D he plays a psychiatrist and bad stepfather who cheats on his wife pathologically. In Sabotage he plays some kind of corrupt DEA agent. (Actually, I could not find evidence that this character was evil from the Wikipedia synopsis, but anecdotally, I remember this film as a contributor to my notion of how Donovan was being utilized in films.) In The Haunting in Connecticut he plays an alcoholic father.

Okay, as sometimes happens when I dream up an idea and start writing about it before I've done the actual research, I'm not overwhelmed by the examples I'm finding. I've also discovered that there's a lot of Donovan's work in the past ten years that I haven't seen. However, the sense I get of how he is perceived and used in Hollywood is still something I stand behind. People look for Martin Donovan when they want someone who may project a certain type of calm authority, but is actually sinister. In fact, just looking over some of the TV work he's done, and based on my knowledge of some of that source material, I see he played a decidedly malevolent character on The Dead Zone -- a power broker and member of the Illuminati who is trying to get an awful man elected president. He seems to have been someone shady in Weeds as well.

Whether or not I can provide you a preponderance of evidence for my claim is kind of immaterial. What I really want to know is: Are they right, or am I?

Do you find Martin Donovan essentially sympathetic, or essentially antagonistic? That's not a rhetorical question. I would love your thoughts in the comments, if you'd like to provide them.

What probably matters more to Martin Donovan than how Hollywood perceives him is that it perceives him at all. He's essentially a character actor, though he doesn't fit the traditional character actor mode. The point is, he's not a star, and the key to getting work is to represent a certain something to casting agents. If that thing is the fact that you are a shithead, then so be it.

But probably all it really is is that Martin Donovan is interested in playing complex characters, guys who are not either exclusively nice or exclusively mean. If he's trending toward exclusively mean, it could just be that the more complicated and interesting characters are the mean ones.

And if I just happen to find that his screen presence reminds me of a cup of cocoa, a pair of wool socks and a crackling fireplace, maybe that's a me thing.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

I prefer Ant-Man in his own universe


I was really digging Ant-Man. In fact, I was toying early on with giving it a four-star rating. As just one example, I loved that scene where Michael Pena recounts how he learned about the potentially unguarded safe, and all the characters in his story mouth the words of his story as he's saying them. That was probably Peyton Reed's best Edgar Wright impersonation of the film. Not because that's something Wright would actually do, but because it's in the spirit of something Wright would actually do.

But then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to come along and screw it all up.

"I think the first thing we should do is contact the Avengers," says Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), with a completely straight face, at what I would guess was the film's 40-minute mark.

The first thing I thought was, Wow, that line was delivered really awkwardly.

The second thing I thought was, Wait, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is not laughing.

The third thing I thought was, Wait, how does this civilian know about the Avengers?

The fourth thing I thought was, Oh yeah, because all the events of all the previous Marvel movies are things that actually happened in this world, and were covered by all the major media outlets. This guy knows about the Avengers because the Avengers are the most famous people in the world.

Yeah, that universe.

This was exactly the moment when Ant-Man lost a full star rating and never recovered it. A few moments later, Pym makes reference to something that happened at the end of the second Avengers movie, which I haven't seen but which I know about anyway. It's such a bad joke that you can almost hear the rim shot that accompanies it. He also makes mention of Tony Stark.

Here we go, I thought.

And here we went. A few scenes later, Lang is unwittingly trying to break into some kind of Avenger headquarters, and must face off against Falcon (Anthony Mackie). So too much attention is not drawn from our central figure, I guess, this is the only Avenger Lang actually meets, and he's one of the second-tier Avengers. (It's not the only Avenger who appears in the movie, however -- you are of course obliged to wait all the way until the end of the credits to see who else shows his face.)

I had been just fine with Ant-Man in his own cinematic universe and not a part of somebody else's. I didn't know until the closing credits (every last one of which I was compelled to sit through, even though I was in danger of missing the last tram home) that John Slattery was playing Howard Stark, Tony's father, in the opening scene. (If he played him in other movies, I either haven't seen those movies or have just plain forgotten.) But once we were reminded that Ant-Man is just a tiny cog in what is, by now, an impossibly unwieldy infrastructure of superheroes and supervillains, the movie lost its authority for me. Now everything that was going on would be subsumed into this larger narrative, a narrative so big that even its biggest players are inevitably now reduced to someone else's second fiddle.

This is why superhero movies worked for so long under this basic premise: the superhero in this movie is not only the only superhero in the world, he's also the first time the characters are even acquainted with the idea of a superhero. Most old-fashioned superhero movies -- and by "old-fashioned" I mean "more than ten years old" -- were not only origin stories for a particular superhero, but they were stories of the origin of the concept of the superhero. That's why the characters who witnessed this superhero at work were so amazed/astounded/ what have you.

But when a suit that can shrink a man to the size of an ant is only the 10th or 11th most impressive superhero trick out there, something is lost. This is a world where a man turns into a giant green monster when he gets angry. This is a world where a super-powered soldier from World War II was revived 70 years later. Shit, this is a world where an alien god can travel back and forth between Earth and his planet through some kind of interstellar bridge and has an all-powerful hammer. A man the size of a bug is small potatoes compared to all that, pun absolutely intended.

Can't I just be happy with a world where Ant-Man is the world's only superhero, and the things he does astonish us as though we'd never before seen something supernatural? Can't I live in a world where this power is not only described as the world's most powerful weapon, in order to hype up the stakes of this particular film, but actually is the most powerful weapon, because everything else that exists in this world exists within a framework of realism?

I can't, because that world is dead. I'm not sure if another superhero will ever step on to your IMAX screen without the baggage of all the other superheroes who may be slightly cooler than he (or she) is. D.C. will soon be part of Marvel's game -- already is, really, since both Suicide Squad and Superman vs. Batman feel as though they've already been released -- and anyone else who has any kind of superhero will never be able to compete with the two giants.

I for one would like to marvel -- pun again intended -- over the wonders of an unfamiliar superhero as though I'm just discovering what a superhero is myself. For about 40 minutes, I did just that.

But then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to come along and screw it all up.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Things should be better for Michelle Monaghan


I love Michelle Monaghan.

Let's just get that out of the way the start.

I've already devoted an entire post to my love for her, which can be found here. I think she is personality incarnate. She's bubbly and cute (physically but also in her mannerisms), but she can also bring it dramatically when need be (see the first season of True Detective). She should be a star.

However, True Detective is just about the only feather in her cap lately. The other places she's been turning up are just not becoming of a person of her talents.

I have two reasons for writing this post, but the first and most pressing seems to be this:


Now, I try not to damn a movie before I've seen it, especially when some movies that have received plenty of scorn -- most recently, The Giver, which I saw Sunday night -- have turned out to be big wins for me.

But the vitriol for Pixels has been at historic levels. Even by the pathetic standards of an Adam Sandler movie it is being shat upon. It's so generally acknowledged that this movie is or must be terrible that sites like Funny or Die have seen it fit to joke about the awareness we all share that it sucks. As seen here:


Oh, and then there's MovieBob's review that it so laden with colorful adjectives about the poor quality of this movie that I am either highly impressed by -- or take issue with -- the fact that he says he saw it just hours before the recording. As seen here:



So yeah, as you have determined by now, Michelle Monaghan is in Pixels. Maybe it was not a bad career choice on the face of it -- I mean, Sandler has flirted with respectability before, and continues to try to do so every third or fourth movie -- but the outcome was that she was front and center in what is being hailed as one of the biggest turds of 2015.

But what may be more disturbing is the fact that MovieBob does not see it fit to even mention her inclusion as being a travesty. He asks why Peter Dinklage or even Josh Gad would lower themselves to be in a movie made by such "shit-gargling fuckwits," but no mention is made of the lovely and charming Miss Monaghan. Either she did not register to him at all, or she did not register to him as someone who's great and deserving of better work.

So perhaps that brings me to my second point. The other place I've seen Monaghan's face most recently is on the cover of what we used to refer to as "straight to video" movies -- or movies that look like they should be that, in any case. Such as:


Or:


(Then again, these movies also feature Captain America and a recent best actor frontrunner, so maybe I should lay off.)

Or worse, a Nicholas Sparks adaptation:


Oh, she's working. There's no doubt about that. Hollywood recognizes her value on some level.

But I feel like Monaghan deserves the kind of career that another of my favorite actresses, Emily Blunt, is having. She should be not only in good big movies (Blunt was in Edge of Tomorrow), but also in good independent movies by hot directors (Blunt will be in Denis Villeneuve's Sicario later this year).

And Monaghan turns 40 next year, which is starting to be over the hill for a woman in Hollywood if you have not already firmly established yourself. I think of Monaghan as firmly established, but I guess your average person -- someone like MovieBob -- doesn't think of her that way. He thinks Josh Gad is more firmly established than she is.

Well, as usual with a piece like this, there is hope. Monaghan is currently filming the English language remake of the French thriller Sleepless Night, which I haven't seen, but which I have on good authority is terrific. Of course, American remakes of foreign films are certainly no guarantee to be good, but this one is being directed by Baran bo Odar, whose 2010 movie The Silence was really good. So it's not definite that it will be a good independent movie by a hot director, but it's in that realm, anyway.

Look, I just want the people I like to do good things. Is that so wrong?

And for Miss Monaghan's sake, I will eventually watch Pixels ... and hope to like it.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

TIL: Video stores destroyed their own inventory


You know how you used to go into Blockbuster Video -- and I must ask you now to think back to the halcyon days, when video stores used to exist -- and there would be a wall with 100 copies of Transformers, or Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, or whatever was the latest and greatest Hollywood new release that was expected to be watched by a bajillion eyeballs?

And then you'd go back to that same Blockbuster 30 days later, and those 100 copies had dwindled down to a modest 20 or so?

You didn't think those extra 80 copies had all just been quickly and efficiently sold off as previously viewed videos, did you?

Well, I kind of did -- to the extent that I thought about the issue at all. That is, at least until I watched this video. And if you don't want to go to watch the video itself, I'll summarize what it's about below.


The video is made by a former employee of Blockbuster, who released it allegedly to "expose" the now-defunct video rental giant for practices that I now know were not actually their fault.

But the black and white facts are rather starting, as seen above. Namely, Blockbuster employees were required to wipe their superfluous copies of movies so that they could never again be played, then basically just throw them away.

Huh?

Yeah, that's what I thought too. Watching them lobotomize a bunch of perfectly good movies so that they were no better than coasters for your drink was rather shocking. But then someone in the Facebook thread where I originally saw the video explained what was really going on here, and though I didn't like it any better, I definitely understood it.

See, it was a mandate by the studios. They'd sell Blockbuster (and other video stores, presumably) a ridiculous quantity of these movies to meet the high demand for them upon their initial release, and they'd sell them at a price that was advantageous for Blockbuster's profit margin. The catch was that once the rental of these movies dropped down below a certain threshold, the excess stock would be obliterated from the earth in order to make way for the next wave of new releases.

And while that seems like a pretty draconian approach to business, one that seems to illustrate the earth-hating, sneering short-sightedness of Big Business, it actually kind of makes sense. The more of these movies that were out there as inexpensive previously viewed movies, the fewer the studio would be able to sell as new copies at Best Buy or other retailers. The market for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest would by highly diluted if there were 80 copies available at every neighborhood Blockbuster -- or in every neighborhood landfill, if someone only threw them away and didn't actually destroy them.

I guess it's the same approach to how currency maintains its value. You can't print a bunch of new money every year without destroying a bunch of old money. If the old money stays around, then eventually all the money starts to be worth diddlysquat.

But it's still rather striking, just on the face of it -- especially if you're a movie fan. Perfectly good movies that could go to charities -- as the guy in the video points out -- or at worst just serve as a fringe benefit to working at a Blockbuster -- as the guy also point outs -- were instead just wiped. And it's not like a couple could even "go missing," just as all the money marked for incineration is closely guarded. The studios had serious safeguards in place to ensure that x percentage of the copies of these movies ceased to be part of the natural world. The former Blockbuster employee who commented in this thread told a different story to the guy in the video -- he said that they had to actually return all the destroyed copies to the studios to prove that every last one was accounted for.

So obviously, Blockbuster is (for once) not the place deserving of blame here. But I guess in a way, neither are the studios. They made those kazillion copies of Transformers available at their own pleasure, and destroyed them at their own pleasure as well.

Well, those days are gone, as now digital copies of movies make the physical reality of any given one a moot point. As with any change in this industry, we win something intangible as we lose something tangible.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

You're either with me or you're against me


I had a little misunderstanding with my wife Thursday night about her, well, hovering while I was trying to watch a movie.

Feelings were only bruised, not fully hurt, but I basically told her -- nicely -- to shove off.

See, it's distracting to be starting up a movie while another person -- a person not watching the movie with you -- is doing things in the area that seem like they could be done at other times.

I made it through about five minutes of Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt before I disconnected my computer from the TV and decided to do some internetting until she cleared out. I wasn't actually going to say anything about it, but of course she said, "I'm sorry, am I bothering you?" Not in a sarcastic way, but in a genuine, nice way.

"It's just distracting to try to watch a movie while things are going on in the area," I told her.

I could have left it there and it probably would have been fine, but then I added (with some minimal kind of prompting from her that I could have easily ignored) that she was "fussing about." That got more at what I really felt, but it was also more hurtful. Or, bruiseful I guess, since no feelings were actually hurt during the making of this discussion. Or so she insists.

See, it comes down to this: I'm more than happy for you to watch the movie with me. In fact, I would love it. But if you aren't going to watch it with me -- if you're going to watch only about a single movie with me per week on average -- then you have to make it easier for me to watch the other four or five per week I need to watch.

My wife and I have a tradition of watching one, maybe two shows together after dinner. Then she goes off to the bedroom to watch a TV show that I have no interest in, and I stay in the living room to watch a movie she has no interest in. She's more TV and I'm more movies, so this works out well.

The problem comes with the difference in length between those two entities. Her TV show is at most an hour, but probably really more like 42 to 50 minutes. My movie is usually twice that, even when I choose something short, like Twixt (88 minutes). Which was really the only option for me Thursday night, as I'd unwittingly stayed up until 2 the night before but just had to feed that beast.

So because her show is shorter than my movie, she doesn't need to rush to get started on it, and might justifiably like to engage in various pre-bedtime routines, like a little rinsing of dishes or a little picking up of random odds and ends. I get that.

But me? I need to get started right away or I will be asleep halfway through. Even if something is short, like Twixt, but especially if it is longer than that.

And yeah, you can start watching a movie while your wife is still pottering around -- that's a bit less weighted of a phrase than "fussing about" -- but it's hard on a number of levels. There isn't only the distraction of the various noises that the person might make and the various visual interferences they may be creating by moving around in your peripheral vision. There's also the perception of needing to justify what I'm watching, even if that perception is only in my own head. "Yes, I have chosen this very night, July 23rd, 2015, to watch the Francis Ford Coppola gothic indie horror Twixt. I have no motivating factor in watching it tonight other than that it was on our Netflix queue and it is only 88 minutes long. What of it?" Again, that's my perception, not reality.

But the point is that it's all a type of distraction. Once she's settled in the bedroom, I'm not fussing about or pottering around or doing anything else in the bedroom. Because the bedroom has fewer things that can be done in it, it does not require my presence. But the living room connects the bedroom wing of the house and the kitchen area, so naturally it must be traversed for almost any household chore. And my wife should be able to do these before she goes to bed, especially since she's one of those people who sleeps better when certain basic tidying has been accomplished. If I make her feel guilty about doing those things then it's probably far worse than any disruption she is causing me.

So what I guess I really need is a den. I need some location where I can steal off alone to start playing my movie, where I won't be inhibiting anyone else's activities and they won't be inhibiting mine. But I guess the abruptness of that tends to underscore the idea that I'm just counting down to the minutes to my moment when I'm finally "free" to go watch what I need to watch. It feels a bit antisocial.

Like anything, it's a work in progress I guess.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Sexy Bond in a dumb poster


While I can't deny that having the sexy Daniel Craig staring penetratingly out of this poster at me with those radiant blue eyes is fairly arresting, I don't really see the point of this poster.

It's a picture of James Bond against a plain background. In other words, it doesn't say a thing about the movie and why it might be worth seeing.

Unless you like Daniel Craig's pecs and that suggestive bulge in his pants, that is.

I've taken a look back to other recent Bond posters, especially the Craig Bond posters, and it's not like they're models of plot specificity. But most of them at least have Bond placed in some kind of setting. Here, it's just like, "Hey Daniel! Have a minute? Come stand against this gray wall and look sexy."

It's almost like he's pursing his lips out at us in that joking, I'm-blowing-you-a-kiss gesture. You know, kind of like a gay man does to a straight man when he's trying to make an ironic assault on his heterosexual assumptions about himself. Or like Mike Myers might do before pawing at the camera and saying "Do I make you horny, baby?"

I think I'm on to something there. Is this poster just, like, totally for the women? And the gay men, of course. The gun in his hand for the heterosexual men. The gun in his pants for the women and gay men.

Yep, that's a lot of demographics you're covering right there.

I suppose the sexualization of Bond has been in full swing throughout the entire Craig tenure. Whereas the sexiness was somewhat incidental to previous Bonds -- especially Roger Moore once he hit his sixties -- it was in full force from when we first saw him emerging from the ocean in those close-cropped swim trunks back in Casino Royale. If I had had been wearing a necktie when watching Casino Royale, I would have been adjusting it with the international gesture for "Is it getting hot in here?" during that scene.

Well, it's not the most pernicious form of advertising you'll see this month, or probably even this week. But it is one of the most blatant. This is basically barely above a cologne ad. Take away that gun and that shoulder strap and this could be Daniel Craig hawking Eternity for Men.

But will it be effective?

Oh, almost absolutely. Just wait until Spectre once again becomes the highest grossing Bond movie of all time. Probably both by dollars and by number of ticket sales.

"And I'm too sexy for this poster, too sexy for this poster, the way I'm disco dancing!"

Something like that.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Audient Auscars: Around the World in 80 Days


This is the seventh in my 2015 series Audient Auscars, in which I clean up my personal best picture list of shame, chronologically, over the course of the year.

Now this was a chore.

I've approached some of the films I've watched in this series with trepidation and skepticism, but none before now has punished me the way Around the World in 80 Days punished me. The 174-minute running time was pretty much a guarantee that I wouldn't make it through in one sitting, but it actually took me three. And each sitting was worse than the one before.

Among nearly all of the now more than 80 best picture winners I've seen, I have at least recognized the superiority of some aspect of it that made it worth so honoring. The 1956 best picture winner may be the first instance where I really don't get it. Oh, I get why people saw it -- in 1956, they had no better way to see the far-flung locales included here, all of which were shot on location. I suppose that is superficially impressive, though far less so today, when we take the ability to travel the world virtually for granted. And really, the only reason why the shoot was even able to go ahead was because producer Michael Todd did a bunch of the financing with his own money.

But what was so appalling about this movie is how little there is to it. I have seen more attention to character development in a porn movie. The two main characters -- uptight British rich person Phileas Fogg (David Niven) and his goofy manservant Passepartout (Cantiflas) -- remain utterly unchanged from the beginning to the end of the movie. Fogg has been challenged by the poncey, stuffy members of his London club that he can't make it around the world in 80 days. He then sets out to prove them wrong, with a large amount of money at stake on either side. And that's the only motivation this guy has. He has no other character traits that are going to be prodded and tested during the course of the narrative. Oh, things will happen to him, but he maintains a blase detachment from them that is utterly off-putting. His whole attitude to the experience is this appearance of needing to find a clean location where he can drink some tea and eat some crumpets. I think that's supposed to be funny, but the film has no idea how to play it for comedy. Therefore, Fogg just goes through the movie sitting prissily on various transports, nary a ruffle in any of his outfits. The only things we really know about him is that he is famous for being punctual and that he loves the card came whist. Beyond that, he's a total blank.

The guy who does get his outfits ruffled is Passepartout, played by the Mexican film star Passepartout. It's unclear what his heritage is supposed to be because his name is clearly French, yet he is always saying "Si senor" to Fogg and running all sorts of ridiculous errands on his behalf. Throughout this movie, Cantiflas is basically doing his best Charlie Chaplin impersonation, and the set pieces devised for him are at about that level. This is not to suggest that a good Chaplin set piece is not a wonderful thing, just that Cantiflas' inevitably lesser version of that, shoehorned in this epic travelogue, just seems out of place. At least Passepartout is a man of action and gets to do some heroic things, though the film also paints him as a bit of a fool who is always chasing a skirt or doing something that is otherwise illogical and detrimental to the efficiency of their travel schedule. That said, he's the only one who seems to interact with the local surroundings with any sense of wonder or joy. The most Fogg does is smile wanly at some native custom or other.

And let's get into that troubling aspect of the film. It's incredibly racist. Or if not overtly racist, then at least extraordinarily myopic in its presentation of other cultures. In nearly every location where they spend any time, Fogg observes some local custom from some real or metaphorical pedestal and gives it his condescending blessing by seeming to display a paternal sense of pride over its primitive cuteness. I'm sure the movie thought it was being incredibly inclusive and multi-cultural, but the locals are, almost without exception, just paraded out as a curiosity and not presented as real people. And then there are the moments that are just downright wrong. In India, they rescue a princess from being burned on a funeral pyre with her husband by savage locals. She then follows them on the rest of their journey. The movie is excessively cruel to both kinds of "Indians," as Native Americans are later showing attacking the train they're taking across the U.S. I can't think of a better way to underscore the alleged savagery of a people than to indicate that you cannot successfully cross a country as large as the United States by train without being attacked by them.

Giving the movie even more of the feeling of a stuffed shirt is that it is constantly blaring the pompous ode to British might, "Rule Britannia," which gives the whole thing a completely unwarranted sense of self-importance. It's as though only a person of such particularly British perspicacity could tackle such a heroic world conquering as Fogg is tackling. It's almost sickening.

This movie is just shoddy technically as well. The editing is just awful, as many scenes end on abrupt fades that always come a few beats earlier than they feel like they should come. And aside from a few gimmicky camera tricks -- like placing a camera just behind the old-timey bicycle Fogg is riding in London, so it follows him from behind -- it is utterly unremarkable in terms of new technical ground broken. The cinematography, I suppose, looks good, but it's in the service of something completely empty.

Let's discuss a few more aspects of this movie that are worth commenting on.

One kind of weird thing about it, which actually prepared me for something I thought I might like, is that it begins with a preamble by none other than Edward R. Murrow, who introduces the film to us. That's a very dated technique, but I thought it did give the idea that this might be something historically significant I was watching. The whole premise of this preamble is to discuss how Jules Verne imagined the future, but it spends much of its time, curiously, on showing us segments of George Melies' A Trip to the Moon. Like, minutes of footage from that film. Odd, to say the least.

Then there are the celebrity cameos. The movie is a veritable Where's Waldo? of the spot the celebrity game, and I must admit I probably didn't spot half of them, simply because I'm less familiar with who the celebrities were in 1956 than I would be now. But few of the cameos were particularly interesting. One of the most prominent cameos is Old Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, who is the piano player in the San Francisco bar/restaurant that I found to be one of the film's most annoying scenes -- Cantiflas and some guy spend most of the scene feeding each other from a buffet. You see the back of the piano player a couple times, but he is otherwise unimportant to the scene. Then at the very end, Sinatra turns around and looks at the camera, symbolically if not actually winking. Isn't the function of a celebrity cameo supposed to be that the celebrity is actually doing something of note? Just playing the piano -- an otherwise meaningless component of the scene -- is not enough for us to have the intended "Oh, wow, that's Frank Sinata!" (Though I was pleased that I was actually able to identify him, unlike many of the others.) It's all just incredibly self-congratulatory.

Oh, and speaking of celebrities -- Shirley MacLaine is in this movie. I saw it in the opening credits, then didn't think about it again until the closing credits when I saw her name again. And then I finally said, "Ohhh, she must have played the princess." That's right, she played the princess saved from the savages in India who meant to burn her on a funeral pyre. Her character is so underdeveloped and such an afterthought, despite having possibly the third most screen time of anyone in the movie, that I was not even able to identify it as MacLaine while I was watching. That's how inept this movie is.

I could never have imagined that I would say this, but the 2004 remake of Around the World in 80 Days, which I saw in order to review it some ten years ago, is actually better than the original. That one I give only 2.5 stars. This one I give a full star less than that.

Okay, let's wipe our palette clean for August. Oops, no wait. I've heard that 1958 winner Gigi is morally reprehensible. This too shall pass.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The genesis of a new film-watching economy


Or, The most I have ever felt like a film critic

Or, "Guess I'll wait for the theater on that one"

Wait wait wait, Vance. Don't you mean "Guess I'll wait for video on that one"?

Not anymore.

It is now cheaper for me to watch a movie in the theaters than on video. Hold on, I'll explain.

Rarely do we experience a real sea change in the basic fundamentals of our movie-watching lives. You pay x amount to watch a movie in the theater, or maybe x minus 40% on a discount day. Or, you wait until video, at which point you pay 10 to 20% of x, maybe less if you get a deal. This is pretty much how we all go through our lives, prioritizing theatrical viewings based on the likelihood of it being worth the extra money to see it in the theater.

Well, for me, that whole equation has just changed.

Yesterday in the mail I received my membership card to the Australian Film Critics Association (AFCA). This is an organization that makes it easier for critics to do their jobs -- especially now that those jobs pay significantly less than they used to, and sometimes they pay nothing. If you are getting paid nothing to do a job, you should not also have to pay for the movies you see.

And now, as of last night, I no longer do.

For the annual membership fee -- which is $75, but I paid only a prorated $30 because the membership must be renewed each year on the 31st of January -- you get to go see any movie you want, in Australian cinemas, for zero dollars and zero cents.

Oh, there are restrictions. For example, the biggest chain, Hoyts, only allows you to go before 5 p.m. on weekdays, or any time on Monday and Wednesday. Another chain is supposed to limit the movies you can see to those in the first two weeks of their release -- a reflection of the fact that this card really is designed to help you do the job of reviewing the movie, if you miss the critics screening. Almost none of them allow you to use it after 5 p.m. on a Saturday or any time on a public holiday.

But these are fairly easy restrictions to get around, as long as you apply a little planning to your schedule. In the past, I restricted myself to seeing movies on one of two discount days, which were Monday and Tuesday. And even then it was $9 on Mondays and $13 on Tuesdays. Now I can go almost any day of the week to almost any theater, for nothing.

Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-a. My oh my, what a wonderful day.

Naturally, I was eager to test this out immediately. When I learned about a week ago that my card would be arriving in about a week, I immediately ceased all theatergoing activities and planned to finally catch up with Terminator Genisys once it arrived. And last night, that's what I did.

Oh, I'd heard the new Terminator movie was bad. Its 38 Metascore was anything but promising. But you know what? Now, that's all the more reason to see it in the theater. If I wait for a rental, it could cost me up to $4. As opposed to, you know, nothing.

So I made my way down to Cinema Kino, a half arthouse, half blockbuster theater that's just a stone's throw from my work (and an even shorter stone's throw from my wife's work). Learning from the guy who turned me on to this card that the clerks often cannot make heads nor tails of it, I made sure to carry with me the piece of paper I'd received from AFCA that explains the conditions of its use, explicitly outlining the policy of each participating cinema group. I actually hoped not to need it, because I was already planning on violating one of those conditions. See, Palace Cinemas, which operates Kino, has fairly broad allowances for the usage of this card, except for the fact that it must be a movie in the first two weeks of its release. Terminator Genisys is coming up on three weeks, so a smart knowledge of those restrictions could prompt them to reject me on my very first attempt. (I had a backup plan of seeing Ant-Man if that happened.) But the other thing I learned about this card is that when the clerks can't make head nor tails of it, they usually just give you the ticket as the only reasonable response to their befuddlement.

And sure enough, that's what happened here. I flashed the guy my card, hoping that would be all that would be necessary to ring up my ticket. He did start to ring it up, but then he said, "Sixteen." Apparently he thought it was some other kind of discount card. When I explained that it was supposed to be free, he filled out some kind of media voucher and had me sign it. And then I was on my way.

And no, Terminator Genisys was not very good. And no, watching it on the "big screen" couldn't have helped much, as it was playing on one of the theater's smallest screens, which contained a mere 33 seats.

But I was just giddy anyway. I had just walked into a movie -- a regular movie, not a critics screening -- without paying a dime.

And this can now keeping happening for me in perpetuity.

One of the things that's most exciting about it to me was that they don't give this membership to just anybody. Oh yeah, the organization is a bit scruffy around the edges -- when the guy sent me the bank account to send my $30 payment, it turned out that that account was closed and he had to give me a different one. My colleague who turned me on to this told me that his own card had arrived with the guy's grocery list included in the envelope. But my card looks nice and shiny with a cool logo, and they did indeed approve me based on the fact that I am actually working as a critic -- though not for pay -- in Australia. I sent the a link to a couple of my recent reviews and to my staff profile on ReelGood, and that was it -- I had passed their test and was worthy of inclusion in their awesome, awesome club. Who knows if I could have passed a much lower threshold for membership, but I know that just being a film enthusiast with a desire for discount movie tickets wouldn't have been enough.

So yeah, it feels great to have that kind of external validation of the career path I've chosen, even if it has not chosen to pay me. This is, now, my payment. Now, all the money I'd spend on going to the theater can be spent on other things. If that's not payment, then it's pretty damn close to it.

So now the world is my oyster. I can see whatever I want, no matter how bad it will be, as long as I can spare my time. All it cost me last night was a round rip bike ride in the cold on a windy winter's night, because I didn't want to pay the $7+ round trip on the tram. If this night was going to be free, I wanted it to be totally free.

Terminator Genisys was likely something I was going to see in the theater, no matter how bad it ended up being, just based on my commitment to the franchise. But the next moment when I truly appreciate this card will be when I see something I otherwise wasn't planning to see -- something so outside my normal interests, or something so probably terrible, that the expenditure would never otherwise have been justified.

So now "waiting for video" will be if the movie looks good, or if I want to see it with my wife.

To quote some guy named Nux, "What a lovely day."

Monday, July 20, 2015

Justifiable immodesty


In researching a piece I'm writing for another blog, I learned just now that Daniel Day-Lewis is officially on an acting hiatus.

It's hard to know with someone like Day-Lewis, who might go five years between projects just because he's spending those five years trying to learn his next character. He cares about it that much and is that good at it. (If he's that good at it, he should be able to do it in three, har har.)

But wikipedia ensures me that this is a scheduled break. Not a permanent one, you'd hope -- but after winning three Oscars, what more does Day-Lewis have to prove?

Officially, nothing. And I say "officially" because he appears to have said so himself.

I was a bit alarmed to read that Day-Lewis -- who, despite his greatness, strikes me as a modest person -- gave the reason for his hiatus as the fact that it would be difficult to top his last performance as Abraham Lincoln.

Not only does that make it seem like he's in love with his own performance -- any truly humble actor should say something like "Aw shucks, was I really that good?" -- but also that the only reason to keep working is to improve on what you've done before.

Certainly, a failure to heed at least the logic of that second notion has led some great public personalities to continue doing what they do long past the point that it remained dignified. Your average professional athlete will typically need to be a shell of his former self for a good three to five seasons before the idea of hanging it up even occurs to him. And with actors, you have greats who become laughingstocks as they try to extend their careers into questionable roles after their 70th birthday. (I'm looking at you, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.)

But by going in the opposite direction -- by going into a short-term retirement of sorts at only age 56 (the age he was during the 2013 Oscars) -- Day-Lewis has seemed to commit an opposite sort of sin. It may be more dignified, but it's also less gracious. He may not be craving the spotlight, but it's almost as though the spotlight is beneath him. He's mastered acting.

Justified or not, I'd be lying if I said it didn't annoy me a little bit. It's not exactly biting the hand that feeds him, but it is saying that he doesn't care if the hand stops feeding him. Since his audience is kind of that hand, and since I'm a member of that audience, I kind of care that he doesn't care.

But maybe it's more that I just don't think the world should be deprived of someone of Day-Lewis' staggering talents for long periods of time. Who does he think he is to deny us?

Oh yeah -- he's the guy who understands the phrase "leave them wanting more." That phrase is completely foreign to most public figures.

And even if he isn't officially working right now, I'm half inclined to believe he's applying method acting to whatever it is he's doing, so he'll be in the best possible shape to play an acclaimed actor coming out of semi-retirement for his next role.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

5 people I wish weren't in a superhero movie


Is no one immune?

Has the superhero movie, as a cultural phenomenon, become so inescapable that every working actor either has been in, will be in, or is currently working on a superhero movie?

My latest bout of despair over the all-consuming suffocation known as the comic book movie has been brought on by learning that Oscar Isaac plays the villain in the next X-Men movie.

Oscar Isaac, my current cinematic darling if any single actor could fill that role.

I'll watch anything Oscar Isaac is in. Which means, I suppose, I will be watching X-Men: Apocalypse.

Alright, alright. I knew I'd be watching X-Men: Apocalypse anyway. Not only have I watched every main series X-Men movie, but I've watched each one in the theater, and The Wolverine as well. In fact, the only X-Men byproduct I have not seen in theaters was X-Men Origins: Wolverine -- and I kind of liked that movie anyway. So this argument is sort of a straw man.

But still, I kind of think Oscar Isaac is above it, and I wished he'd considered himself that as well. Just because someone offers you the money, it doesn't mean you have to take it.

To be experiencing this disappointment over Isaac's choice seems especially strange, given that one of the next movies we're going to see him in is Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He's already busted into the big time, and if that movie isn't based on a comic book (which of course it isn't), the distinction is probably splitting hairs. But that doesn't make my disappointment any less palpable.

So since Isaac is obviously my #1, without any further ado, let's get into the four others -- listed in no particular order -- I wish had not "sullied themselves" by bowing to the holy comic book movie dollar.

2. Benedict Cumberbatch 
Role: Doctor Strange in Doctor Strange (2016)
Why it disappoints me: I'm not in love with "The Batch" or anything -- in fact, I found his Oscar-nominated turn in The Imitation Game (along with the movie) a little overrated -- but I do consider this actor to have a natural dignity, a Shakespearean quality that should place him above this "low" comic fare. Especially since he's not playing a main, known quantity, but digging deep into the Marvel catalogue to play the title role in next year's Doctor Strange movie. That said, I do own some Daniel Danger artwork that was inspired by this comic, which was a cherished wedding present from a dear friend, so I'm sure I will be watching this movie with a bit of added curiosity.

3. Mark Ruffalo
Role: Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk in The Avengers (2012) and The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Why it disappoints me: What I love about Ruffalo is also what I love about Isaac -- his eternal, unimpeachable naturalism. I'm pretty sure that's what Joss Whedon, or whoever cast him as the Hulk, liked about him too. And it's not that he's bad in the role -- I could only judge that from one of the two movies, as I haven't seen the second one yet -- but that the movie doesn't deserve someone as real and believable as Ruffalo. He's not a star; he's like a character actor that you cast as your lead if you want your movie to burst with a certain indie vitality. He has straddled that line between commercial films and indie films, as most working actors must, but it feels like a compromise indeed for him to have stepped into the Hulk's ripped jean cutoffs. The fact that he needed the money enough to do it is the sad part -- or maybe I'm holding him on too high of a pedestal, and he just thought taking the role would be a hoot.

4. Kate Winslet
Role: Jeanine in Divergent (2014) and Insurgent (2015)
Why it disappoints me: Do these count as superhero movies? They are YA novels and the main character is superheroic, so ... sure, for our purposes let's count it. Because it was the same "What was she thinking?" factor at play when I saw the trailers for these and saw "Kate the Great" front and center as their villain. Now, I have not actually seen either of these movies, so she could actually be great in them for all I know. But I trust the general consensus that these are not good movies, and even if they were better than I have heard, it would still not be a particularly encouraging turn of events that she had signed on to do one of them in the first place. I suppose I should condition myself to expect a little less from a woman who also saw it fit to appear in the disastrous omnibus comedy Movie 43.

5. Michael Shannon
Role: General Zod in Man of Steel (2013)
Why it disappoints me: Sometimes a bit of casting can seem like a great idea, and still end up a big letdown. Take Shannon in the most recent reboot of the Superman story. I didn't love the idea of anyone stepping into Terence Stamp's shoes, as his Superman II villain is one of my favorites of all time, but if someone had to be the 21st century Zod, I thought Shannon was the man to do it. Well, it turned into perhaps the only performance of Shannon's that I've ever seen that I can call "bad." Zack Snyder's directing is surely in part to blame for hissy fit lines like "I will find him!", but I gotta call out Shannon as well. Stamp never needed to get in a tizzy about anything -- his supreme equanimity was key to the menace he brought to that role. Shannon, meanwhile, ought to stick to what he does best -- the types of indies he's made with Jeff Nichols.

Dishonorable mentions: Michael Fassbender as Magneto in X-Men: First Class (2011) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

What I wonder is if these people regret it, or if they think that playing an iconic superhero -- or even one that's not so iconic -- is like stepping up to the big leagues. If you've warn tights, you've arrived. Something like that?

Well, I still love them. And if they've been part of the group brainwash that has taken over our whole culture, how can I blame them?

Now excuse me so I can go figure out when it might be a good time to get Ant-Man on my viewing schedule ...

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Colorizing movie music


So what's the biggest obstacle to modern viewers loving the movies that those of us who were young in the '80s loved when we were growing up?

It's not the plots, which are obviously good, otherwise they wouldn't keep remaking these movies in the droves they've been remaking them. It's not the actors, many of whom are still cinematic treasures today. It's not even the bad fashion.

Nope. It's the music.

I watched Midnight Run for the first time on Monday night. I'd seen parts of Midnight Run before, but unlike some other movies I suspect I have only seen parts of, I had never previously credited myself with a full viewing of the movie. Given that it's a cultural touchstone for a lot of people in my generation, I figured it was time I finally corrected that.

Naturally, the first thing I noticed about it that made it feel dated was the score. Funnily enough, the score is by Danny Elfman, but it's not what we typically think of as an Elfman score. It doesn't have the ethereal singers and the storybook quality of his collaborations with Tim Burton -- which is not entirely surprising in a buddy road trip movie featuring a bounty hunter and a corrupt accountant. No, as in many other movies made around 1988, the score relies heavily on electric guitars, saxophones, other horns, and the kind of synthesizer that sounds almost as much like it grew out of percussion than that it grew out of a piano. It's a score any hack could have cooked up, but Elfman was the hack who cooked up this particular one.

And yeah, it's cheesy. Cheesy enough to undermine the quality of the movie? No, but I grew up in the 1980s and love a lot of movies with similar scores. In fact, when I recently rewatched A Fish Called Wanda -- which came out the same year -- I was almost driven to distraction by its similarly dated score. And Wanda is in my top ten movies of all time.

But what about people who didn't grow up in the 1980s, but may still be candidates to love these movies? How can we help them get past being put off by a hopelessly outdated score?

This is not a real suggestion, but it does make me wonder why no one has tried to do it before:

You simply update the score.

You obviously can't redress the actors in better clothes or give them modern hairstyles, but you can update the score -- can't you? I mean, it's just an audio track. Some complication might arise with dialogue that's concurrent with the score, but with today's sophisticated audio editing equipment, I can't imagine it would be too stressful to separate the dialogue from the music behind it.

It would be akin to colorizing black and white movies. That was done in an attempt to modernize them and make them more accessible to audiences trying to appreciate these movies a couple decades after their release. And, lo and behold, it's been a couple decades since the release of Midnight Run. Jesus, it's been nearly three decades now.

I guess a problem would arise with the fact that you would theoretically need to keep doing this, since tastes are fickle enough that a new score for Midnight Run recorded in 2000 would already be hopelessly out of date by 2015. But at least it would be less out of date than the 1988 one. And as long as it wasn't too expensive and there weren't too many rights involved, it is something they could keep doing over time.

Of course, updating a movie's score would not have a whiff of legitimacy as an artistic venture. Everyone thought Ted Turner was an idiot for trying to colorize black and white movies, and anyone with an ounce of cinematic self-respect would turn their nose up equally at modernizing the score. However, just because people with good taste oppose a certain thing has almost never stopped someone from doing it.

The problem you'd run into, I think, is that the score -- while announcing itself far less as a slice of '80s cheese, and therefore providing less of the distracting element that takes a viewer out of a movie -- would still seem off, because it would be out of sync with the movie around it. The other thing my wife and I noticed as we watched it is how many people smoked in this movie and how many times they said "fuck." Both of those things are almost gone from movies that are trying to appeal to as many different people as Midnight Run would have been trying to appeal to. A movie where everybody smokes and says "fuck" needs electric guitar, saxophone, and a bunch of synthesized beeps and boops to keep everything feeling normal.

The question you may have is: Did the dated score -- which is similar to other scores I've absorbed, but still new to me just as the movie is new to me -- keep me from loving it the way my friends growing up did?

It did not, as I gave Midnight Run four out of five stars even without relying on nostalgia to bias me. It's a movie whose funny performances and smart dialogue rise above the now-embarrassing trappings of the era in which it was made.

And if others can't realize that, well ... they just don't know a good movie when they see one. A good movie should be more seen than heard.