Sunday, November 17, 2019

Where'd you go, Vance?

Two weeks could be the longest hiatus I've ever taken from this blog, though I'd have to go back and check on that. It's certainly the longest unexplained hiatus; I think there was a Christmas trip to the U.S. a couple years back that might have left you without a new post for longer than that, but at least I told you about it in advance. (I chuckle a little saying "left you without a post," as if I take any more than marginal measures to ensure my ramblings are for you, the reader, rather than just myself.)

I didn't die, you'll be glad to know.

I didn't go to Antarctica either, like the title character in the poster above (that's not a spoiler as they show it in the first few minutes of the movie, which was one of 15 I saw while I was gone, mostly on various flights). But as with that other long hiatus referenced above, I did go to the U.S., somewhat unexpectedly. I won't get into why. Just know that it was a family issue, but that everybody's okay. Something inevitable has arrived faster than we were expecting it to, but even within that context, everyone is okay, and better yet, happy.

I left the morning after my last post, which was exactly two weeks ago, and arrived back on Thursday, jet-lagged after three consecutive flights over a 24-hour period. I'm still fighting the jet lag, though last night's sleep was mostly a normal one.

I actually thought I might keep this blog updated while I was gone, as I began composing a post based on movies I watched on my first flight, in Microsoft Word on the plane since I had no internet access. If I'd finished that post, I suppose I would have posted it and possibly written others. But once I hit the ground, I had a lot to do, and typing up my free associations about movies did not seem like the most urgent use of my time. Plus, I didn't actually tell anyone on social media I was going on this trip, since it made sense to use all my available time for the purpose of my trip rather than seeing friends. Posting to my blog would have defeated that purpose, or at least given me excess guilt.

Instead of landing back here with a regular post, though, I figured I would give you a little grab bag of some of those thoughts I had while I was gone, in little chapter subheadings. I'll get back into the flow of regular writing over the coming week.

So without any further you know what ...

Having the time to take the time

On my August trip to Los Angeles, I saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, cramming it into a busy schedule and starting it too late at night to fully appreciate it. After that viewing I placed myself squarely in the "I do not like Tarantino's latest" camp, defending that stance with scattered thoughts about there being a lack of "Tarantino scenes" (clever set pieces with surprising payoffs) and about the film ending with an explosion of violence that could be interpreted as misogynistic.

But I suspected I hadn't really given the movie its best chance to succeed, and over time, these arguments lost some of their vigor. Seeing the movie among my first flight's options, I decided I'd spend the proper time with it this time. Not only did I like it much better, I understood the connections between certain scenes that had evaded me when I watched it too late that one night. Just as one example, the scene with Brad Pitt's character and Bruce Lee was an extended flashback, something I hadn't properly understood when I first saw it, which therefore threw off my understanding of the continuity of the scenes. As I said, I was too tired to watch this movie back in August.

I could probably go into detail, but as this post is a collection of multiple thoughts, I'll just report that I doubled my original two-star rating to four. And am looking forward to my eventual third viewing.

Los Angeles plays itself

I didn't actually start the flight with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but rather, an episode of the Bill Hader-led HBO show Barry, which is also set in, and establishes a satirical perspective toward, Los Angeles. But it wasn't until my second movie, Stuber, was also set in LA -- and also tried to poke fun at the city's most risible traits -- that I realized I had a theme going. (I say "tried" because Stuber was awful, hands down the worst of the 15 I saw while I was gone.)

So to keep it going, I continued buttressing my various viewings with episodes of Barry (which had been my plan anyway) and made a hopeful choice of a third film on the docket, Yesterday. That's Danny Boyle's latest about a young musician who awakens from a head trauma in a world without the Beatles, and becomes famous by "writing" their songs into existence. (I never expected to be watching this movie on the plane, by the way; I missed it in the theater due to a busy viewing schedule at that time, but also because I thought it would be a good candidate to watch on video with my wife. When she turned her nose up at the suggestion a couple weeks back, I knew I was in the clear to watch it on my own.)

Sure enough, the largely British-set film does contain scenes in Los Angeles, and what's more, includes quite the parody of a Los Angeles type, in this case a record label executive played by Kate McKinnon, who lives in a fantastic beach house.

As I specifically allowed this flight to breathe -- doing some reading and other activities as well -- I didn't cram in a fourth viewing, so the entire flight consisted of LA-themed viewings. Which I thought was fun, even though this was my first trip to the U.S. where I didn't so much as leave the airport in Los Angeles on my way to the east coast.

A good get, gotten easily

Even though this trip was all business, I have to admit I had an eye toward catching a movie that had already been released in the U.S. but wouldn't be so before the end of the year in Australia, meaning I'd miss it for my year-end list. Could this time have been spent seeing friends? Shut up.

At least I reduced my guilt by catching this movie on my first full day in Boston, when my sleep was all screwed up and I would not have been a presentable social animal. And at least it was available at the movie theater in Burlington, the town right next to the one where I was staying, at the multiplex. Meaning I didn't have to drive in to an arthouse theater in Boston, and therefore take up an unjustifiable amount of my precious time in town, to see it.

What The Lighthouse -- which still does not have a release date in Australia that I can see -- was doing at the multiplexes is beyond me. I suppose Robert Eggers' previous film, The Witch, was enough of a crossover hit to have earned buzz and convinced some distributors of the commercial viability of its follow-up. But even that was a movie where much of the dialogue was hard to understand (I used the subtitles on my second viewing), so a follow-up about two lighthouse keepers, in black and white, with dialogue that's only marginally more intelligible, didn't seem like an automatic win. Who knows, maybe they just saw that it starred the former Edward Cullen and just rolled the dice. There were a decent number of people in my Tuesday night screening, in any case.

The movie has similar strengths and weaknesses to The Witch, ending in a similarly unsatisfying place for me. But I'm really glad I did indeed get it in before the end of the year.

How to watch a 135-minute movie on a one-hour flight

One of my top contenders on the aforementioned year-end list is Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, and to shore up exactly how much I liked it, I thought a second viewing was in order before the end of the year. Only problem is, it may not get released to U.S. iTunes before then, so I didn't know the likeliest way for me to get my hands on it, even with an Australian release date back in June.

Qantas took care of that problem for me by having it among its list of movies. But in part because I was following that LA movie theme, I decided to hold my second Parasite viewing for my return trip.

Only problem? My return flight was only a Qantas code share, meaning I took the domestic cross country flight and subsequent LA to Sydney leg on American Airlines. Which had quite the good movie selection, just not Parasite.

I did have one more Qantas flight, though, which was the hour-long Sydney to Melbourne final leg of my trip. It seemed foolish to start this viewing, knowing there was almost zero chance I could finish it, but already on this return trip I had spent an unexpected hour on the ground before leaving Boston (which fortunately did not cause me to miss my transfer in LA). With a handful of well-placed little delays that are part and parcel to the airline industry, I might get in close to an entire viewing.

Which is exactly what happened. I started Parasite the moment I got to my seat, and since I was one of the first groups to board, this was nearly a half-hour before the flight actually took off. With another hour in the air and delays on the ground in Melbourne due to needing to be towed to align with the air bridge, plus with me seated near the back of the plane anyway, I saw the entirety of the film's climactic scene, leaving only the postscript portion of the film unwatched. It was enough to confirm that indeed, with two months to go before my ranking deadline, Parasite will factor in very seriously to the top of my year-end rankings.

                                                               * * * * * * * *

Okay, there's a couple thousand words for my "starving" blog audience (ha). Back this week with shorter and more regular posts.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Any colour you like

The subject of this post is, of course, the eighth track off of Pink Floyd's album Dark Side of the Moon, one of my favorite (or favourite) albums of all time. It's more like a transitional track than an easily extractable song -- in fact, I had to play it just to be sure I knew which one it was (and it's playing as I type these words).

That doesn't matter for the purposes of this discussion. The germane aspect of the song is that it was spelled with a "u" in the word "color," the way Brits and Australians spell it, because Pink Floyd are Brits.

Australians don't always spell it that way, apparently.

I've started to notice a real inconsistency as to whether words in titles are given their correct Australian spelling or not when released here.

I saw the latest example of this when going through an email from one of the local video dispensing kiosk companies offering a two-for-one sale this holiday weekend (it's "Cup Day" in Melbourne, a day off from work in honor, or honour, of a horse race). One of the films offered was Fast Color, spelled just like that. As you see in the screen shot above.

As a side note, this is movie I've been looking forward to for quite some time. In my Letterboxd watchlist, which I use to house current year releases I'm looking forward to seeing, it's the oldest title on there, as I first heard about it in 2018 and expected it to be a current year release then. I always like Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and I believe this movie finds her as some kind of indie movie superhero.

Usually -- or maybe, more often than not -- Australians would change the spelling from Color to Colour. A prime example would be the Hollywood movie Neighbors, which here is called Bad Neighbours. As discussed in this post, it acquired the "bad" at the front of the title to distinguish it from a popular local soap opera. And while they were in there anyway, they fixed up the pesky American spelling on the second word.

It's the "while they were in there" part that may actually speak to how this gets handled from a marketing perspective. Fast Color took a rather circuitous route to the cinemas after its festival debuts, taking more than a year to open after premiering at South by Southwest, and in fact did not get there at all in Australia. Because there was no poster to hang in Australian (or perhaps more to the point, British) cinemas, there was no reason to go beyond the existing promotional materials for the movie, I suspect.

That said, on IMDB, it shows Fast Colour as an a.k.a. for Fast Color in Australia, among other countries. Maybe that was just someone at IMDB with a knowledge of how these things work, going through and trying to be helpful.

But even if I have correctly surmised the reason no promotional materials exist with local spellings, it's not quite as clear cut as all that. We need to look no further than the movie I rewatched Friday night, Upstream Color, for an example of how the same exact word was handled differently seven years ago.

Below I have an Australian poster for Upstream Color. You can tell it's Australian because of the telltale blue ratings icon in the lower left hand corner, and also that it is claimed by local distributor Palace Films on the right:

It surely played in the theaters here, though that was just before I got here. The distributors still could have been trying to save money on the promotional materials and just gone with existing ones, except that existing materials do exist with the title as Upstream Colour:

So maybe there's evidence not just of being lazy or saving money, but of actively being okay with assimilating to American culture, in a way the British are largely still resisting. And maybe it goes back at least as far as 2013.

I jokingly like to credit my arrival in Australia with the local popularization of Halloween. When my wife was growing up, kids never trick-or-treated. My kids have gone every year they've been here, but even in those first few years, 2013 and 2014, our neighbors (or neighbours) had no idea how to handle trick-or-treaters. Even now you don't approach a house unless it has decorations of some sort outside, but back then, some were just dipping their toe in the water and would hang an orange balloon outside to indicate they were participating. My wife and I joke about the one house who had participated but then regretted it, and acted as though we were invading marauders, telling us that she had already haphazardly handed out sleeves of cookies and other random broadly defined treats and now had been picked clean. There was a panic in her eyes indicating she expected a real trick to befall her if we left unsated.

Since then, the popularity has exploded in our neighborhood (or neighbourhood), such that we probably saw 300 different trick-or-treaters in our six block radius alone. Some Australians still resent this move toward Americanization, though. My wife saw a father picking up his daughter at school that day and saying to her "We are not going trick-or-treating! That's American and we are not in America!" (The holiday actually has its origins in Scotland.)

Maybe Fast Color is another small example of that. The prevalence of Microsoft and its American-written error messages and menu items is already turning the local S's into Z's (or zeds) among the younger generation, and I'd think that maybe the (superfluous) U's are the next to go.

Hey, if we no longer have the monoculture of experiencing the same limited number of TV shows, movies and music, maybe at least we can all spell things the same way.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Filmmakers who have to wait

There's a price to be paid for making crazy, brilliant films and doing whatever you want in them.

Sometimes you have to wait for your next project.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

When I watched Upstream Color for the third time (but first in six years) on Friday night, I was inclined to wonder when we would be getting our next film from its director (and writer, and producer, and editor, and DP, and composer, and star), Shane Carruth.

But it's not going to be any time soon. See, Shane Carruth is a filmmaker who has to wait.

He had to wait nine years between his debut film, Primer, and Upstream, despite some high praise (though not by me) and a cult following for the former. It came out in 2004 and Upstream wasn't until 2013. It's not yet been another nine years, so maybe that's why his third feature has not yet been forthcoming.

It's easy to see why a studio or other investor would not take a risk on Carruth. His immense respect for his audience means that he doesn't spoon feed them anything, meaning they have to make what they will of opaque stories that are more like poetry than narrative filmmaking. And what gorgeous poetry, at least in the case of Upstream, which looks about as good as any film I've ever seen -- and a big step forward from his understandably grungy origins in Primer.

So I convinced myself that Carruth shot himself in the foot for future funding efforts when he made Upstream, but that should have only been the case if the reviews for the movie were tepid. A stroll through its Wikipedia page reminded me how rapturously the movie was received, how effusive (most) critics were in their praise. They may not have known what to make of it any better than most of us, but they knew it was something singularly enthralling. And how often can you say that about any movie?

Carruth has had other work since Upstream, but no features in which he sat in the director's chair -- only a single episode of a TV show I've never heard of called Breakthrough. This could be some kind of self-imposed hiatus, but I doubt it. I have to figure that a guy like Carruth, reaching an inarguable peak in his command of the language of cinema, would have had other inscrutable stories bursting forth from him. Heck, if you're Carruth, you don't even need a story. All you need are dreamy story fragments that you can sequence in such a way as to deliver us another singular experience.

It hasn't happened yet. And I see no future feature in pre-production on IMDB.

In doing a little deeper googling (er, in googling at all) I have discovered that he was preparing work on something called The Modern Ocean, which was to have had a star-studded cast, but that it was shelved. Maybe he shelved it, and maybe that was a good thing. I'm not sure "star-studded" is a good look for Carruth. He apparently was also working on something ages ago called A Topiary, but this was even before Upstream.

I'd like to think he's just following his own iconoclastic path, but I have to think that if someone gave him some money he'd make something quick smart. But even in the face of overwhelming critical acclaim, investors are gun shy if they know they just won't make any money on it.

I thought of another guy in a similar boat who also had a movie in 2013 ... and before that a movie in 2004.

Jonathan Glazer did not impress me with his debut film, much like Carruth in that sense. I couldn't understand the praise for 2000's Sexy Beast, which I found laughable in parts, and not the parts it (may have) wanted me to laugh at.

But after that, forget about it. I was mesmerized by 2004's Birth, which I saw twice, and even more so by 2013's Under the Skin, which I have now seen four times. That makes it one of the highest total number of viewings of any movie this decade. I only watched it a couple months ago most recently, and if someone wanted to put it on again tomorrow night, I'd be down for that.

But these are not financial winners. They leave regular moviegoers scratching their heads. Sure, the promise of nude scenes from Scarlett Johansson undoubtedly goosed the box office of the latter film, but it still made only $2.6 million in the U.S., and only twice that worldwide. That's nothing, especially since it cost $13 million to make.

But oh the reviews. They were breathless in some quarters, including this one.

Jonathan Glazer will not have to wait as long as Shane Carruth. Next year he's scheduled to release a film with a truly great title: Untitled Jonathan Glazer Project. That'll jump right off the marquees.

The Wikipedia page for the movie is only a placeholder, and the IMDB page has little more than that, nary even a star attached, and only "Plot unknown" to describe anything about the movie. It does tell us that Glazer is both writer and director.

"Plot unknown" could be the description of these directors' films even after they've been released, and that's why I love them. I don't love all abstract films that have lost their moorings from reality, but I love the films of Shane Carruth and Jonathan Glazer -- after they got their first misfire out of the way, anyway.

But to keep nourishing that love, it is I who will have to wait.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The disappointment of a good night's sleep

When selecting my cinematic accompaniment to carving my annual jack o’lantern, I’ve tried two different strategies in the past. One is to watch a horror movie I do not expect to be very good, so little will be lost by watching with the lights on and my attention distracted. Another is to watch something I’ve already seen, even if it’s scary, as the best scares are always going to come on the initial viewing, when you don’t know what’s coming.

Last night I went with the second choice, that being Rodney Ascher’s 2015 documentary The Nightmare, which I first watched almost exactly four years ago under similar circumstances. Well, they were similar in terms of being Halloween-themed viewing, though that time we watched it on Halloween night itself (which you can read about in this post). Four years on, it made for an acceptable pumpkin-carving activity, where I wouldn’t necessarily catch every single moment, and where the light would inevitably be on. (To make it a really scary Halloween, I suppose I could cut my hand open using a knife in the dark.)

Well, I was still scared with the lights on.

I won’t go into detail on Ascher’s movie – if you want that, follow the link to the previous post above. But I will tell you that it’s a documentary that concerns the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, a kind of lucid dreaming where the dreamer believes he or she is still awake, and there are evil presences moving around in their room, standing over them, sometimes climbing on top of them. Try as they might, they can’t speak or move. And this can go on regularly for weeks, months, years, a lifetime. If the dream were taking place on the top of a mountain or home plate at Wrigley Field, it might be easier to rationally understand as a dream. But because the dream picks up seamlessly from where waking left off, it feels far more real.

And yes, even though this is a documentary, it’s one of the 25 scariest films I’ve ever seen.

The thing about the phenomenon is that people seem to be able to talk one another into having it. A character interviewed in the movie talked about having it happen after his girlfriend first told him about it, then there was another who passed it on to his own girlfriend. Likewise, it seemed possible to see the movie and then start having it happen to you.

That didn’t happen in 2015, even though I sort of hoped it would, but I thought there was a chance it would happen last night.

See, a couple nights ago I awoke with this intense sensation that I was about to die. Or more accurately, that the universe was about to end. It wasn’t just some narrative dream about The Big Crunch, but rather a distinct sensation that the molecules in my body were about to collapse into themselves into some kind of singularity. It was accompanied by this cold rushing sensation, like the characters in the movie liken to a feeling of death approaching. The visual focus of this moment was a little box in the corner of my bedroom ceiling that has a light that alternates between green and red. I think it’s a carbon monoxide detector but I’m not sure.

Anyway, it was incredibly vivid. I’m pretty sure I went right back to sleep, but the moment was not forgotten.

So I did wonder if, perchance, that recent occurrence was going to meld somehow with my second viewing of The Nightmare, and create an intense, white-knuckle sleep last night.

Instead what happened was that I awoke with a start two minutes before my alarm went off, sure I had overslept, and not remembering a single thing I had dreamed about.

Getting a good night’s sleep should not be disappointing, especially since I have a few stressful things going on in my life that have prevented me from getting many lately. But there is a little something disappointing about having my best night’s sleep in two weeks right after I watched a movie that should have scared the wits out of me.

Maybe it was having the lights on.

Oh, and if you’d like to see my jack o’lantern, here it is, followed by what it’s supposed to be:

You know, from the Black Mirror episode, and elsewhere in our meme culture.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

It's not great either way but ...

... I have to think that the Australian title for this C-grade animated movie:

... is a lot more distinctive/interesting than the American title for this C-grade animated movie:

I mean, we already had this, don't forget:

And besides, in that poster I also spot a bear, a fox, a moose, a penguin, an eagle, and some kind of ferret thingy.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Terminator tries again ... again

The cinematic landscape is littered with failed Terminator reboots.

Okay, there are only two. But if Terminator: Dark Fate does not do well, three could constitute a proper littering.

I can’t think of another series that reboots itself so frequently, that needs to reboot itself so frequently as a result of repeated failures. Spider-Man is an obvious answer, but in each case of Spider-Man rebooting, at least the initial reboot was a success. No Spider-Man series to date has had fewer than two films, and you don’t make a second film using the same actors unless the first one is a success, by whatever standards you measure that success.

I’m sure that each time Terminator has rebooted, they expected to make anywhere from two to five more movies in that timeline, but never have they been able to make a single one more.

At least with Terminator: Salvation – which, for the record, is the worst Terminator movie we’ve gotten – they tried to jump ahead into the future, Star Wars style. It was a clear continuation of the story that had been hinted at in the first three Terminator movies. I kind of think that’s the way to go. But it didn’t work. Boy, did it not work. A friend of mine and I still joke about the clumsiness of the “What are you???” scene. I won’t get into it now.

Then when Terminator Genisys came along in 2015, it was billed as a “true sequel” to Terminator 2, forgetting the fact that Terminator 3 had occurred at all. Okay fine, but some of us thought Rise of the Machines was actually good. Not many of us thought Terminator Genisys was very good, even with the return of Arnie and the potentially promising series debut of Emilia Clarke.

Now, if I’m not mistaken, Terminator: Dark Fate is also being billed as a true sequel to T2, and as proof has both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton returning in front of the camera, and James Cameron behind it (as writer and producer, anyway). Even though any “true” sequel to T2 would know that Arnold Schwarzenegger was melted down and should not still be around, nor should he have whiskers on his face. (They’ll explain it in a satisfactory enough way I’m sure.)

As various Terminator re-interpreters blame the wrong victim, Terminator 3, we should probably also acknowledge that Terminator 3 itself was a reboot of sorts, as it came a full 12 years after the last movie and featured a different actor as John Connor. I’m sure Edward Furlong would have done it, but it wasn’t meant to take place 12 years after the last movie, so he would have been too old.  

Will this finally be the movie that gets it right? And if so, will it be just in time for the key performers to be way too old to keep making movies?

I’ve long since stopped trying to establish a reliable “use by” date for Schwarzenegger, and I kind of thought Hamilton’s had already passed, since I haven’t seen her in anything in ages. I guess I’ve just been looking in the wrong places, as she has approaching 20 credits in the past ten years. Point is, even at ages 63 and 72 they could probably be in three more Terminator movies each if that’s the way they want to go. And if not, they can try to make Mackenzie Davis the Rey of this series and launch off of her growing star power.

As cynical as I'm being about the history of these movies, though, I'm still as hopeful about the prospects for a new Terminator movie as I have ever been. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is still among my top 25 films of all time, and if a new movie can be even a third that good, it's worth showing up for. 

Monday, October 28, 2019

Which is Witch?

I’m usually pretty good at keeping different movie personalities straight, whether in front of the camera or behind.

But the confluence of three new(ish) young(ish) white men breaking through as horror directors in the past five years has thrown me for a loop a bit.

Those three men are Robert Eggers, Ari Aster and David Robert Mitchell, and the similarity may all be in my head. But bear with me.

The three came into our sphere of awareness in different years, but the fact that they’ve all had their follow-up to their breakout movie in the same year – this year – has kind of cemented their similarity in my head. Even though at least one of their follow-ups is not a horror movie. (Unsure about the third director’s follow-up as I haven’t seen it yet.)

Chronologically, the first to come on the scene was Mitchell, both in terms of his earlier films and also his breakout film. He’s also the oldest (45) and the one whose name I tend to forget because all three of his names are fairly indistinct in terms of the larger continuum of whitebread American names.

Mitchell grabbed our attention in 2014 with It Follows, which was the unlikely follow-up to a movie I still haven’t seen (but probably should), 2010’s The Myth of the American Sleepover. Suffice it to say that that one’s not a horror movie. Despite its flaws, It Follows really whetted our appetite for what Mitchell could do, and would do next.

Well, what he did next undoubtedly demonstrated a command of the language of cinema, but it was not a horror movie. Appropriately, it was also the first of the three follow-ups to come out this year, Under the Silver Lake. I admire that movie but boy is it tedious at times. I’m not sure how possible it is to like it, but it does present us a visual stylist at the top of his craft.

Next up was Eggers in 2015 with The Witch, or The VVitch, or however you want to write it. Although the subject matter is not at all similar to that of It Follows, I began to think of them in the same boat because they both represented new creative voices giving us something clearly outside of the standard way horror movies were being made by studios. And like It Follows, The Witch had significant flaws for a viewer to contend with, which similarly didn’t detract from the sense of being in the hands of a cinematic visionary. Eggers is also middle in age at 36, by the way.

Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch is the last of the three to be released, just this past week, which destroys a little of the nice chronological symmetry we had going. That’s The Lighthouse, the only one of the six films mentioned here that I have yet to see. Though I’m champing at the bit. It looks even weirder (in a good way, of course) than The Witch. I can’t find an Australian release date yet for that.

Then you have the prolific young prodigy, Ari Aster, who is only 33 and yet has now had buzzworthy horror opuses released in back to back years. Given the scope of the films he makes, it seems hard to believe that it was only last year that Hereditary came out. He followed it up this year with Midsommar, beating Eggers to the theater by a couple months. Both of Aster’s films can fairly be described as great, and both also have pronounced flaws. I see a pattern here.

I don’t actually have trouble remembering which guy directed which movie, though I do sometimes need to remind myself that it was Mitchell who started out with The Myth of the American Sleepover and not Eggers. If I’d seen that movie I’d probably recognize it as a lot more similar to the aesthetic of It Follows than The Witch, but I haven’t yet.

The point of this post is not really that I confuse them, but more, that we are living through an exciting period in which new horror names are regular presenting themselves as more than just any other studio hack. They’re coming with enough frequency that the possibility exists to confuse them. If we abandon my premise that I'm confusing them for one another, you could also mention Jennifer Kent, who has a similar career trajectory to date, having knocked our socks off in 2014 with The Babadook and then followed that up this year with The Nightingale – which could be characterized as a similar type of historical horror to the ones Eggers prefers. Then of course you’ve got Jordan Peele, who can’t be confused for the others in terms of his racial identity, but who has also had his sophomore horror film Us come out this year, following on the heels of 2017’s Get Out. He might be most similar in execution and aesthetic to Aster.

It is a rich time for horror indeed.

But it could be another white man who has me most excited, though we’ll have to wait until next year for his next. That’s Osgood Perkins, and a weekend rewatch of The Blackcoat’s Daughter – which has a release year of anywhere from 2015 to 2017 depending on festival/theatrical release – reminded me why I ranked it as my #3 movie of 2017. He’s also a bit different from the others as he had two movies come out practically on top of each other, the other being I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. That one kind of went in one ear and out the other for me, but considering that I saw it before Blackcoat mesmerized me, I should probably watch it again. Perkins has Gretel & Hansel coming out in 2020, and I’m really excited for it.

Who are your favorite horror visionaries to come on the scene in the past five years?

Saturday, October 26, 2019

A device viewing for a device type filmmaker

Most filmmakers will tell you that they would hate for you to watch their movie on a "device." You know, a phone, an iPad, a Kindle Fire, a Google Glass, what have you. Of course, a TV is also a "device" but I don't think they're getting that technical.

Steven Soderbergh is not most filmmakers.

Oh, he probably still subscribes to the general notion that the big screen is the best place to see the thoughtfully composed output of a talented director. But his creative choices have meant that he's virtually forfeited any sense of indignation if you were to choose to watch his movie on, I don't know, a postage stamp.

It was, then, very appropriate that I watched his new movie The Laundromat -- half of it, anyway -- on my phone while waiting at the doctor's.

"So what's the big deal, Vance? You watched a movie on a phone. I do that all the time."

It's a big deal because I don't. It's not because of the size; it's because of the data.

Back when my iPod still worked, I was happy to download a movie to it and watch it, though I would try not to watch anything I cared too much about, visually. Still, one of the last movies I watched before it died, Robert Zemeckis' Allied, would certainly be considered the aforementioned "thoughtfully composed output of a talented director."

My phone has been a replacement for my iPod in many respects; it's where I now listen to my podcasts, for example. But I haven't been loading movies on there, in part because I seem to always be on the verge of running out of space just from my photos and videos, but in part because I still primarily rent movies using iTunes, even though I don't now have an iPod. I don't think they would work on my android phone.

I have a Netflix app, but streaming (outside of a WiFi connection) was not much of an option because of the inordinate amount of data it seemed to consume.

Until recently, when I noticed, you know what? It really isn't consuming that much data.

Only a year ago I hesitated to watch even ten minutes of a baseball game on my phone because of how much data (like a gig) it seemed to consume. But it's not doing that anymore. (I'm not questioning it.) And I may be out of the country for part of my current data period, so on Friday, I decided to chance it.

The Laundromat, Soderbergh's new film, seems to have only just been dropped. Especially given my less-than-tepid feelings about his first 2019 film, High Flying Bird, I was more than willing to "ruin" the viewing by watching it on my phone. He "ruined" High Flying Bird by shooting it on a phone, or more accurately, by feeling so liberated by the ability to shoot on a phone that he set the camera up in a bunch of stupid spots that just called attention to themselves, and violated about every major rule of narrative filmmaking, just because he could. (But let's face it, the script wasn't there either.) (And let's not laugh too hard over the fact that the guy who announced his retirement like four years ago has made four more films, and now two in one year.)

I mightn't have even considered a movie while waiting for the doctor except you can wait for the doctor a really long time here. That comes with the territory when your health insurance is free. I think last time I waited nearly two hours. This 96-minute movie was a good candidate to cover most of that, and not break the data bank either.

Well, imagine my surprise when a) I got called in after 45 minutes, and b) I was disappointed by that fact, because I hated to abandon The Laundromat.

The first half of this movie was about my favorite movie of the year. It's Soderbergh trying to crack open the intricate web of financial chicanery that protects rich people from paying taxes by putting their money in shell companies that are housed on tropical islands. It's also Soderbergh demonstrating a more playful side than we've seen recently, as the film is basically narrated by two of these sharks, played by Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman (doing a German accent). They guide us through what it all means like Margot Robbie and others did in The Big Short, and they seem to be having a heckuva time.

However, the film also has one of Meryl Streep's best performances in the past five years, which for her is saying something. She plays a pre-senility grandmother who loses her husband when the tour boat they're on capsizes, and she gets caught in the aforementioned intricate web upon trying to collect on an insurance settlement. She finds that this company bought that company and that company invalidated the policy for this policyholder for that legal fine print reason. This first half is both comic and horrifying, and is scarily plausible.

The second half is not quite as good, so it's not my favorite movie of the year. But it finishes strong, and I may watch it again before the year is up.

Of course, since I only had a chance to watch half of it on my phone (eating up somewhere around .5 GB), it wasn't the full device viewing I promised in the subject of this post.

And since this movie wasn't shot on a phone, it looked like a normal movie. Which is to say, it may ironically may me think twice about watching Soderbergh's next movie this way.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Audient Audit: Heartbeeps

This is the tenth in my 2019 monthly series Audient Audit, in which I review my books to see if I've cooked them to include movies I haven’t seen.

When I’ve gone through my various movie lists and through Flickchart, there have been two movies I think of interchangeably, neither of which I’m sure I’ve seen. One has been Steve Barron’s Electric Dreams from 1984, and one has been Allan Arkush’s Heartbeeps from 1981. They do both feature artificial intelligence, but maybe the most salient common element was that I wasn’t sure either belonged on my lists.

Well, I should no longer confuse them, at least, and can now be certain I've seen at least one of them.

I was a bit bemused to find Heartbeeps available for easy download on iTunes. It seemed like the type of the movie that should have passed into general obscurity, no longer available for an audience that no longer cares about finding it. But there it was, along with a couple other randos from the same time period that I also considered for October, such as D.C. Cab and Unfaithfully Yours. I would have preferred Solarbabies, but that indeed has passed on to the Great Obscure. (And since I have plans for the last two months of this series, D.C. Cab and Unfaithfully Yours will have to wait indefinitely for their time of reckoning.)

Heartbeeps carried a fair bit of promise for something kind of outrageous and campy, plus it has a bit of genuine interest for comedy fans, as it stars Andy Kaufman. (And Bernadette Peters, a talented comic actress, but not someone whose presence alone would draw me to a movie.) I soon discovered it also features Randy Quaid and Dick Miller.

The story involves two malfunctioning service robots who fall in love on the shelves of the factor where they are waiting to be repaired. He’s Val Com 17485, a valet, and she’s Aqua Com 89045, who assists at poolside parties. They are naturally dutiful robots without a sense of rebellion, but they do effectively rebel by deciding to steal a company van to go investigate some trees they see off in the distance. They are accompanied by the robot version of Rodney Dangerfield, who smokes a cigar and adjusts his tie while telling bad Borscht Belt one-liners. On their way they make a small helper robot out of spare parts, who is effectively their child. They’re running from the hapless employees who let them escape on their watch and a proto Robocop who hasn’t figured out how to distinguish between criminals and parents pushing strollers. But their biggest antagonist may be the limited life of their batteries.

Heartbeeps is both better than I thought it would be and not as satisfying as I thought it would be. I had it in my head that it would be really weird, but it’s not that weird. Within its world it presents us a fairly straightforward road trip movie. Kaufman and Peters both commit to their roles and they have a really sweet chemistry.

My favorite part might have been the Rodney Dangerfield robot, though I should say he’s not voiced by Rodney Dangerfield. In fact, I told at least two of his one-liners to my kids, who appreciated them.

The thing that made me certain I had in fact seen it, though, was that I had a clear memory of two scenes, at opposite ends of the movie: the two main robots standing on the shelves and engaging in their innocent robotic banter, and the scene of them running out of batteries at the end (spoiler alert). Although the movie does not have particularly deep thoughts on its mind, there’s something kind of moving about its contemplations on mortality. These robots have become so advanced over the course of this film that it seems tragic to ponder their basic mechanical limitations, which undercut their evident humanity. Of course, that’s not the actual ending, which is far cheerier (spoiler alert).

I also enjoyed the confused police robot, which gets trapped in logical loops that it cannot reconcile and goes haywire. It might not be up to the Robocop level of satire, but there’s some funny stuff going on here with a dangerous robot who has the intellect of a child proud of the shiny silver badge he’s wearing.

It does seem like a bit of a strange role for Kaufman, though he may have taken it as a challenge. That consummate outside-the-box performer boxes himself in big time by acting within the confines of a pre-programmed machine, albeit one that is consistently breaking free of its own limitations. He gives an entertaining performance, but it’s probably not the one you would recommend to someone in search of “the real Andy Kaufman.”

Okay! Two more months to go before I put away my auditor’s pencil and transparent visor for good.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Coincidences/observations from a birthday weekend with Kristen Wiig

Kristen Wiig was in the first movie I watched for my birthday weekend away at the hotel.

She was also in the last.

Plus two in the middle.

This was, indeed, a coincidence, the first of many I will point out in a bullet point format in this post, because I don't have the energy for much more than that. I had more than 20 physical DVDs with me, as well as four movies rented on iTunes, and then, for good measure, I ended up watching two streaming as well. I watched 12 movies between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning, and because of technical difficulties that I will briefly touch on, there were maybe ten others that I tried to watch but couldn't.

I say all this to say that with an attempt to watch as many as 22 different movies, the fact that Wiig was in four of them is, indeed, a coincidence and not something premeditated. I don't think she was in any movies that I had but didn't watch, but I could be wrong about that.

Anyway, the first Wiig movie and first of the marathon was Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, in which she plays Dewey's first wife, whom he marries when she's 12. She's played by Wiig even when she's 12, which is hilarious.

Three movies later it was mother! Did you remember she's in mother!? She's a press agent turned guerrilla warrior. Her character in that film kind of typifies what I think is brilliant about it.

That took us through Friday night. My second movie Saturday morning was The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in which she plays Ben Stiller's love interest.

Then I wrapped the weekend with The Skeleton Twins on Sunday morning, in which she plays the unstable twin sister to Bill Hader's gay would-be actor.

Wiig makes a good opportunity to segue into my first coincidence/observation:

  • I watched two movies in which someone plays David Bowie's "Space Odyssey" on a guitar. The first was Wiig in Walter Mitty as seen in the poster above. The second was Seu Jorge in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which I only watched because my first attempt to watch a Wes Anderson movie, a long overdue re-reckoning with The Royal Tenenbaums, succumbed to technical difficulties.
Maybe before I continue my bullet points I should quickly explain those difficulties.

My projector worked fine. My DVD app on my computer did not.

I feel like laptops should come with built-in ways to play DVDs, but they don't seem to anymore. When I got this laptop in 2015 I had to install an app to play DVDs, and that app was Power Media Player, which has worked fine since. Now, not so much. I think they finally want me to pay for this product, or upgrade it, which requires a login of some kind. But I didn't want to mess around with that, so instead, I suffered a severely compromised version of the app all weekend. Would upgrading it or getting a new app have been easier? Sure. But instead I did the tedious thing I'm about to describe in the next paragraph.

So the app will no longer autoplay movies from the start. It gets stuck on the status "Detecting Disk" and never gets off it, even once it has obviously detected the disk. I say "obviously" because the name of the disk came up in the folder list on the left side of the screen, and when you opened it in the folder, you could get access to the raw video files themselves -- chunks of the movie broken up in segments running anywhere from 19 to 21 minutes. I could usually get these files to play in the correct sequence, though it took me until about the third movie I'd watched this way before I realized I needed to change a setting for them to play automatically without having to manually launch each new video file. However, in some cases, I just couldn't figure out how to open the right video file for the start of the movie. Royal Tenenbaums was one such example. I had to bail. 

Oh, and then there were another couple DVDs that were just too scratched or in other ways incorrectly encoded for the computer to even properly recognize them. Anyway, a number of prospective movies were lost either through incorrect sequencing or an inability to be recognized by my geriatric laptop DVD player. 

And that completes the summary of my technical difficulties. 

Where was I?
  • I saw two (consecutive) movies in which a washed up performer looks back on the mistakes he's made in his life, and also cannot smell. (Dewey Cox is stricken without the sense of smell after accidentally chopping his brother in half with a machete, and Riggan Thomson in Birdman can't smell the flowers at the end of the movie because he's blown his nose off in a botched suicide attempt.)
  • I saw two consecutive movies in which a character draws an unhappy face on a mirror with lipstick. Jena Malone does that in The Neon Demon (my last movie Saturday night) and Hader does it right before his suicide attempt at the start of Skeleton Twins
  • Speaking of which, it struck me as interesting that Hader stars in It Chapter Two -- spoilers for that about to come up, so watch out! In both Skeleton Twins and It he plays a character who's gay and who uses humor to deflect pain, and It 2 also begins with a suicide attempt in a bathtub -- though it's not successful in Skeleton Twins, and it's not Hader's character in It
  • I saw two consecutive movies in which characters are trying to use clues to find a person who doesn't necessarily want to be found, those being Margot in Paper Towns and the Life photographer Sean O'Connell in Walter Mitty
  • This could be the weirdest one: In both Birdman and Skeleton Twins, characters compare their own success or lack thereof to that of George Clooney. Riggan confesses his fear that Clooney would be the one on the front page of the newspaper if the plane they had both been flying in had crashed. Then there's the great exchange in Twins where Maggie says, in trying to comfort the unsuccessful Milo, "No one's a famous actor." Milo counters with the example of George Clooney, and Maggie says "Okay, I guess George Clooney is one exception."
  • There was a weird prediction of the future in Paper Towns. Justice Smith appears as one of two best friends of the main character played by Nat Wolff. There's a scene in this movie where the three of them sing the Pokemon theme song before going into a scary situation, believing it will make them less scared. Four years after this movie Smith would play the lead in Pokemon: Detective Pikachu.
  • It was funny to see a young John Amos and a pre-Jesus Christ Superstar Ted Neeley in Vanishing Point, Richard C. Safarian's 1971 car chase movie that supposedly inspired Quentin Tarantino in Death Proof. That they're in the movie is not funny so much as the fact that neither of them appears in the credits, which is especially strange in the case of Amos, as he appears in a half-dozen different scenes and even has a couple lines of dialogue.
  • On this, my third viewing of mother!, I saw the environmental metaphor more than the biblical metaphor. I love a movie that keeps shifting in meaning every time you watch it.
This has been a bit discombobulated but here's the whole lineup, in order:

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Wonder Woman
Paper Towns
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Vanishing Point
The Breadwinner
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
The Neon Demon
The Skeleton Twins

However, I would have watched these if I could get the DVDs to play or if they were still on the streaming services I swear I'd seen them on recently:

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Monty Python's The Meaning of Life
Paris, Texas
The Royal Tenenbaums
First Reformed
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
The Blackcoat's Daughter

Those of you who have not stopped reading already, you can do so now. 

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Slap me right in my face why don't you

It’s not every day that I am put in my place, but every once in a while it’s funny to have a thing like this happen:

In case you can't read what it says, I will retype it, to drive the stake further into my own heart:


Derek Armstrong's reviews do not count toward the Tomatometer. This is not a Tomatometer-approved critic, and this critic's reviews are not published on a Tomatometer-approved publication."

It was something I found when googling myself, and no, I don’t google myself very often. (When I do I get a lot of hits from a retired NHL player, and they can be annoyed to wade through.)

It relates to two reviews that got posted to Rotten Tomatoes (not by me) when I wrote for All Movie Guide between 2000 and 2011. Two random reviews, it would appear: Lymelife (2008) and The Living Wake (2010). 

The wording of it sounds almost like a warning, like “Don’t take any wooden nickels! Don’t take any opinions from a critic not recognized by the Tomatometer!”

I knew there was a reason I prefer Metacritic.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Abigail Breslin's long, slow road to Zombieland 2

It’s been a good decade for the stars of the original Zombieland, which came out ten years ago.

Jesse Eisenberg has appeared as Lex Luthor and Mark Zuckerberg, for which he received an Oscar nomination, and has starred in two film series (Rio and Now You See Me).

Emma Stone has appeared as Gwen Stacey and Billie Jean King, winning an Oscar for her role in La La Land.

Woody Harrelson has appeared in one Star Wars movie, one Planet of the Apes movie, one Venom movie, four Hunger Games movies and the acclaimed first season of True Detective, with an Oscar nomination for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Abigail Breslin has …

Well, three out of four ain’t bad.

Poor Abigail Breslin, caught in the post child actor purgatory that has at least not caused her to succumb to drug addiction or public brawling. Oh she’s been working during that time, and some of the films have been pretty prominent, such as Rango, August: Osage County and Ender’s Game. But next to the outsized accomplishments of her co-stars, she’s lived the last ten years in comparative anonymity.

It’s kind of like when there are four stars of a movie announced in the trailers, and it reels them off as follows: “Oscar winner Meryl Streep, Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Oscar winner Charlize Theron, and … Keanu Reeves.” (Don’t know what movie that would be, but I’d like to see it.)

Breslin, alas, is Keanu Reeves.

Bad example as Keanu Reeves is having a terrific career. Okay … “and … Kellen Lutz.”

Breslin, alas, is Kellen Lutz.

Ages 13 to 23, which is what Breslin has been this decade, can be tricky for any performer. Some performers – I hate this example, but let’s say Miley Cyrus – can sail right through that period. They keep getting work and they keep getting bigger.

But for many if not most child actors, you have to make a bit of a rough adjustment, and see how you come out the other side when you’re finally deemed to be an adult. The things that made you so castable as a child may desert you during those intervening years. Your cute baby fat may become less cute teenage fat. Your nose might start growing crooked. That adorable baby voice may turn into an awkward squawk like the “that’s not our policy” kid on The Simpsons.

The fact that Breslin has kept working during those years is a sign that she’s doing better than most. But unfortunately, we still think of her as “the little girl from Little Miss Sunshine,” not for any new performance she’s given since Zombieland.

Zombieland: Double Tap comes out this week, and marks her most high profile appearance since Zombieland. Hopefully this will kick off a more enriching next decade for this engaging performer.