Friday, July 20, 2018

Documentaries return to the theater

I've written more times than I can count about the change in the documentary landscape. If you want to count, a good place to start would be with my number of posts tagged with the "documentaries" label, which is 18. Probably not all of those posts are about the waxing and waning -- mostly waning -- in the prominence of documentaries, and to a lesser extent, my interest in them. (I'll get into that latter in a moment.) But a good chunk have been.

Even so, it took something like Thursday night to put into perspective how much things have really changed.

When I went to see The Gospel According to Andre at Cinema Nova, it was the first documentary I'd seen in the theater in 27 months.

That's two years and three months, people. The date of that last viewing was April 4, 2016, and the movie was the Mt. Everest documentary Sherpa.

And though I didn't love that movie, it was not that movie that drove me away from seeing documentaries in the theater. In fact, it was documentaries on the whole, and how so few of them were feeling like essential viewings that penetrated the zeitgeist.

I'm not going to rehash all of my thoughts on this. I will say that a complicating factor was likely my participation in the selection of films for two straight years of the Human Rights & Arts Film Festival (HRAFF), which oversaturated my viewing schedule with documentaries for a period of about five months over two consecutive years. I vetted my last such film 18 months ago and in ways I'm still recovering.

But documentary oversaturation or not, I'm still the type of viewer, the type of critic, who likes to see the movies people are talking about in the theater. And there just aren't as many documentaries that people, or at least the cinephiles I listen to on podcasts, have been talking about the last few years.

I'm wondering if the market is now correcting itself, however. Andre is kicking off an informal flurry of biographical type documentaries that are opening at Cinema Nova in the next few weeks, starting with RGB a week from now, followed quickly thereafter by Whitney and McQueen. I suppose at some point they'll also release the most acclaimed documentary of the year to this point, Won't You Be My Neighbor? Though they'll have to spell it "Neighbour."

I certainly won't be catching all of those on the "big" screen -- "big" being a relative term when you consider the postage stamp on which they screened Andre -- but RGB is a certainty, meaning there's no chance of another 27-month layoff between big-screen documentaries.

Alas, The Gospel According to Andre may have proven why I don't prioritize documentaries on the big screen like I once did. I do still think their general absence from the zeitgeist, the Mr. Rogers movie notwithstanding, has had more to do with it. But the fact that so many documentaries follow such a familiar structure, showcasing an interesting but inessential person or pastime, is the really limiting factor in their appeal to me. Even the ones that do break through to the zeitgeist are usually hewing to these age-old styles and formats.

But as I've also spoken about before, almost every documentary someone has seen it fit to curate for you to see has real merit. The floor for their quality tends to be high. And Andre conforms to that pattern as well. It was definitely well worth my time ... especially compared to that underwhelming sherpa documentary, anyway.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The feathered dinosaur movement has a kids movie

I watched this awful movie with my kids on Monday night. It was a moment of growth for me.

Long story short: I tried to watch something legitimate, I really did. We didn't watch Paddington 2 because I thought my wife wanted to watch it with us, and she was in Sydney (turns out she didn't care), and we didn't watch Captain Underpants because it turned out Netflix had only an original TV series, not the movie from last year.

In scrolling through the other Netflix options, my younger son, who is in a bit of a dinosaur phase, saw a movie called Dinosaur Island that he wanted to watch. I surprised myself by agreeing to the choice.

Normally I'm a bit of a dictator in these scenarios. If I'm going to watch a movie with them before bed, I want it to be something I want to watch, figuring that they'd be forced to accept my choice if the alternative is to, you know, go to sleep. Now, I'm not talking about something age inappropriate or legitimately boring to them; I'm talking whatever theatrically released animated movie we can find that I happened not to have caught, or even one I did catch but am glad to revisit. Not some straight-to-video Pokemon movie or whatever other crap might catch their fancy.

On this particular night, I surprised myself by accepting whatever other crap.

And Dinosaur Island certainly was crap. I guess I don't see a lot of truly awful children's movies, but this was one. It was an easy choice to give it only a single star on Letterboxd. The production values were bad, the acting was bad, the story was bad. Just bad all around.

But there was one really interesting thing about it: The dinosaurs have feathers.

First, a little plot.

This kid from present day Australia (I had no idea the movie was set in Australia or made by Australians when my son chose it) is on a plane to America (reasons unimportant) when it gets caught in some kind of electrical storm and crash lands on an island. Thinking Lost? Yes, this movie is a lot like Lost, if Lost had a cast comprised only of two bland children, a bunch of poorly represented native people, and dinosaurs. The kid is, inexplicably, the only person from his plane who seems to be anywhere, and the actual plane is nowhere near where he wakes up on the beach. But there is another person there, a girl, who arrived under similar circumstances, only from the year 1955. It sounds cooler than it actually is.

Also on this island, there are dinosaurs. And they have feathers.

Now, the feathers alone are not crazy. In fact, as I learned for the first time only about three years ago, scientists now believe that most dinosaurs had feathers. Dinosaurs and birds have a lot in common, so why wouldn't dinosaurs have feathers? In fact, I think it's taken as kind of an undisputed fact nowadays.

A fact that Hollywood has been slow to adopt. So fixed is our idea of what a dinosaur is supposed to look like that nary a movie I have seen has incorporated feathers into its depiction of dinosaurs. In fact, this very summer we have had a massive dinosaur movie, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, where feathers remain conspicuously absent from the leathery hides of the dinosaurs on screen.

So the crazy thing is that this little throwaway kids movie, made for a buck fifty, about time travel, decided to get all realistic up in this bitch.

The name of the director, Matt Drummond, is all over the credits. It's definitely a Matt Drummond Joint. I guess it's hard not to have your name all over the credits when you not only wrote and directed the movie, but you also shot and edited it. He's also the VFX supervisor and, of course, the producer. It's definitely a Matt Drummond Joint.

So I can see Matt Drummond taking this movie ten times more seriously than anyone else involved in it, especially the financiers, who just want to make a quick buck on it and have done the cost-benefit analysis on the profit margin for a children's movie with a minuscule budget. And I can see Matt Drummond, with a worrisome and slightly insane smile in his eyes, making the aspect ratio of a camera with the thumb and forefinger of his hands, and then spreading his arms wide in a magician's "presto" gesture that is the international symbol for something visionary. And I can see Matt Drummond saying "Picture this ... the dinosaurs have feathers."

And then the financiers groaning.

If you are trying to make a quick buck on a children's movie with a minuscule budget, you don't want some guy who takes himself entirely too seriously getting the idea that the dinosaurs should be as realistic as possible. The dinosaurs do look okay, considering. But all the movie needed them to do was look like a credible facsimile of the dinosaurs we are accustomed to seeing not in Jurassic Park, but at least in its many knockoffs. It didn't need them to have feathers.

Yet feathers they have.

And I have to say, it really bothered me. Perhaps because the idea of dinosaurs with feathers bothers me. It's kind of like telling me Pluto isn't a planet anymore. "I've grown up with dinosaurs who have scaly, reptilian skin, and now you're telling me dinosaurs looked like drag queens at Mardi Gras wearing feather boas?"

I don't have anything against drag queens, mind you. I just don't want them sharing their feather boas with a T-Rex.

So this movie that was bad anyway became worse because of one man's silly and misplaced insistence in presenting "realistic" dinosaurs. And his reasons for doing it, or at least what I imagine them to be: that this is going to be the movie's calling card. That this is going to distinguish his dinosaur movie from all those other dinosaur movies.

Well, it does do that I guess.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Stanley Kubrick's first, best and last

I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for its 50th anniversary re-release last Wednesday night, and I’ve been dying to tell you about it. But I’ve held off until today for reasons I’ll explain presently.

See, I’ve ended up focusing on the films of another auteur in the month of July, in addition to Agnes Varda, who I wrote up here as part of my Audient Auteurs series. It was totally unplanned, but once it started to take on momentum I decided to make a thing of it.

That’s right, I’ve just watched my third Stanley Kubrick film of July, and as it happens, I’ve got differing levels of familiarity with all three. The first I had never seen. The second I had seen three times before. The third, once before.

I don’t think I’m going to try to tell you how they all relate to each other or to Kubrick’s career, but let’s see how we go. At the very least, they make a logical series to discuss, as they happened to have been his first film, his last film, and the one I now believe is his best.

I watched them chronologically, so let’s take them in that order here as well.

Fear and Desire (1953)

If I said I wouldn’t explore Kubrickian themes and how these movies relate to his body of work on the whole, well, I lied a little bit. It’s almost impossible not to see Fear and Desire as a rough draft for Paths of Glory (only four years later), and it wrestles with a subject that was still with him even 34 years later for Full Metal Jacket (1987). But I didn’t know that going in. I only knew the title, and was familiar with it only as one of the early works of Stanley Kubrick that I hadn’t seen (which also include The Killing and Killer’s Kiss, now his only remaining feature-length films I haven’t seen).

I say “feature length,” but in fact the running time was what made it stand out from literally about 30 movies I had out from the library. It’s only 62 minutes long, so short that it almost made me wonder whether I should disqualify it from the various lists I keep of feature films I’ve seen. Informally I think of a modern feature as running at least 70 minutes. I make exceptions for silent movie greats, some of which are only 45 minutes (such as Sherlock Jr.). But Kubrick’s feature debut was long into the sound era, so I did hem and haw about it a bit. Ultimately I allowed it, and besides, it let me watch a movie on a night when I was otherwise too tired.

I liked the movie fine, I guess, but I was glad enough to only be in its presence for 60 minutes. Its action is purposely symbolic, as a narrator at the beginning advises us:

"There is a war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, nor one that will be, but any war. And the enemies who struggle here do not exist unless we call them into being. This forest then, and all that happens now is outside history. Only the unchanging shapes of fear and doubt and death are from our world. These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind."

Linguistically elegant stuff, but it did put me on warning that it would seem more like an exercise in philosophy than a movie. That's kind of the case. The soldiers grapple with various ethical and logistical dilemmas related to being downed behind enemy lines, which include how and whether to attack the enemy (they do) and how to handle the civilians (not very well). Some of it is probably better than I give it credit for, but it's fairly raw, and I was distracted by the really noticeable ADR. I did find it interesting that the film features a very young Paul Mazursky, but he is the most bizarre character in that he kind of goes crazy (without any real antecedent to that insanity) and takes it out via perverse behavior directed toward a local girl they capture. 

I gave it three stars, but more on the strength of its historical significance as the place Kubrick got his start than any real affection I feel for the movie.

Affection was not a problem with my second movie though ...

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I've recounted previously my history with this movie, which dates back to when I was a young child and saw it in the theater on a re-release (and hated it). So I won't go into that here. I will say that while most people greeted this 50th anniversary re-release as an opportunity to "finally" see 2001 on a big screen, for me, it was my third such viewing.

But it was my first on the big screen since I started to love the movie. Ironically, my love for the movie started to click on my first small-screen viewing. My increasing maturity likely had a lot more to do with my feelings toward it than the size of the screen. In 2013, two days after my 40th birthday, I finally "got" 2001, and came around to the consensus that it's a masterpiece.

It took this viewing for me to decide it's one of my top 20 of all time.

My Flickchart rankings don't reflect that yet, so don't scan my top 20 to the right of this page. I'm not in the habit of re-ranking movies after my most recent viewing. (Recency bias and all that.) But when 2001 comes up naturally, it stands a very good chance of defeating movies that are very, very high on my chart.

What changed this time?

I don't necessarily think it was the "blacker blacks" of Christopher Nolan's restored 70 mm print, nor the great venue (the Sun in Yarraville), which included a welcome from the projectionist, and a pre-movie featurette on how the theater outfitted itself for 70 mm to play The Hateful Eight (a movie it still plays on the 8th of every month at 8 p.m.). Those things helped. But actually, my first impression of the restored print was that I didn't get what the fuss was about. I suppose I'd need a side-by-side comparison with my other viewings to really see the difference, which of course is impossible. But one of those was on a massive screen in Champaign, IL for the 2001 Ebertfest, so this might not even been my most glorious exposure to the film.

What I did get was, well, everything else. What amazed me was how much I'd forgotten about the film in only five years since I last saw it. I forgot, for example, that David Bowman makes a trip out in space to pick up the corpse of Frank Poole, in the ultimate sign of the irrational humanity that separates man from a machine like H.A.L., and that Bowman has to blow himself through the airlock to get back inside the ship. I figured blowing through airlocks was strictly the stuff of Alien movies.

But my really miraculous revelation on this viewing was how tight the movie is, in terms of its actual plotting. Sure, the film is sprinkled with five- to seven-minute essays on things like the spinning of spaceships, the ins and outs of eating and customer service in space, monkeys learning how to murder and men losing their minds while caught in colorful wormholes. But the actual story moves very fast when the screen time is actually devoted to plot. For example, you barely have time to get to know Frank, Dave and H.A.L. before their relationship reaches a crisis point, and it pretty much bowls forward at a breakneck pace from there.

And what I got big time in this viewing was how much this movie puts you in the shoes of its characters. It's not just Heywood Floyd as a rookie space traveler or Frank and Dave trapped by a psychopathic computer. One of the film's most visceral moments was the literally deafening shriek of the signal sent out from the monolith on the moon toward Jupiter that ends Floyd's sequence. It was physically uncomfortable to listen to it for those 15 or 20 seconds, which felt like an eternity. I can't imagine the sound didn't disturb patrons in adjoining theaters.

Anyway, I sat there, shivering with exaltation as I watched it. I have more to say, but I may be discussing this in a podcast next week and will leave it until then.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Kubrick didn't make it to 2001 himself -- he died in 1999, just after Eyes Wide Shut was completed. In fact, the final project he was working on -- A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, which I am also due to rewatch -- did make it to 2001, in the hands of Steven Spielberg. But Shut was Kubrick's last official gig as director, so it's kind of a shame it wasn't better.

That's what 1999 me thought, anyway. I remember seeing it at the theater that was a block from my apartment in New York, which is also where the film is set. And there was a lot of shrugging and "so what?"ing going on. It was supposed to be this scandalous movie about infidelity and bizarre sexual rituals enacted by rich men, but I found the sex kind of the opposite of titillating (which was probably Kubrick's point).

The movie I rented from the library this time, and watched Sunday night, seemed to have been without one of the things that left mouths flapping at the time the movie was released. In order to tone it down and get an R rating, additional cloaked figures were digitally inserted over the people as they were having sex, to prevent us from seeing quite so much thrusting and convulsing. It doesn't surprise me that a BluRay release would not have those, as no one cares about ratings anymore once a movie is on video. But instead of feeling like I got to look behind a curtain that had not previously been accessible to me, I kind of shrugged and ho-hummed again.

I was not distracted by another criticism I heard at the time that stuck with me, unaccountably, which was that you couldn't believe that these were real New York City streets because of how sparsely populated they were. In fact, I was struck by what a dumb observation that was by whichever critic groused about it. If this was a set, which I seem to remember it might have been, all the better. If Stanley Kubrick wants to stylize New York City for his own thematic reasons, that's well within his rights, and more power to him.

It's just that the thematic reasons didn't strike me as much. I didn't feel the paranoia you're supposed to feel in this movie, nor did I feel that Tom Cruise's character was guilty of some big betrayal of his wife that causes him to break down in tears at the end. When he goes to the Fidelio party, it's not to have sex with someone, as far as I can tell -- it's just perverse curiosity. And sure he also does have an unconsummated dalliance with a prostitute, but again, it's unconsummated. I almost feel like she's more guilty for practically fucking that guy on the dance floor (that scene was charged with erotic tension like no other scene in the film, and kind of reminded me of Naomi Watts' audition in Mulholland Drive, though that would not come for two more years). She admits thinking about having sex with that sailor as well. I don't want you to think I'm taking the man's side, but I just don't understand what all the fuss is about as neither of them is really guilty of anything.

Eyes Wide Shut shares an approximate running time and languid pacing with 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the similarities end there. While the latter has excellent justification for all its, shall we say, flights of fancy, Eyes Wide Shut is legitimately slow, and it expends whole chunks of its narrative on diversions that are useless. For example, the whole bit involving Bill Harford's rental of his costume from the costume shop could lift right out and nothing would be lost. There are two scenes, in fact, involving Rade Serbedzija and Leelee Sobieski, and I am at a loss to explain the value or significance of either of them. Slowing things down significantly is the weird speed of Nicole Kidman's line deliveries, which bothered me then and still does now.

I did notice, perhaps for the first time, an interesting detail about this period of Tom Cruise's career. In the space of two years he starred in both the movie Eyes Wide Shut, and a remake of the movie Abre Los Ojos, which translates to Open Your Eyes. That of course is Vanilla Sky, a personal favorite.

As I said before, I don't have an overarching theory about these movies or their relationships to Kubrick's career -- as far as I can tell, his interest in space and his interest in sexual perversion both do not have a corollary elsewhere in his career. And while I enjoyed two of these movies less than I was hoping to, well, 2001 has now eclipsed A Clockwork Orange as my favorite Kubrick film. I think when I rewatch Paths of Glory one of these days it may jump up there too.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Are the Duplass brothers the Wilson brothers?

Lynn Shelton is back.

That's not what this post is about, but I'm going to lead with it.

Shelton made two of my favorite independent (comedic?) dramas of the 21st century in Humpday and Your Sister's Sister, but then she followed those up with the disappointing duo of Touchy Feely and Laggies. I lost confidence in her, and even wrote about that in this post.

Her follow-up to Laggies, Outside In, went pretty much straight to Netflix, as far as I can tell. (IMDB touts a limited release back in March, but Netflix also calls this an original film, so I don't know). That's not the indictment of a film it may have been two years ago, more a reality of where small films by people like Lynn Shelton sit in today's cinematic landscape.

But boy am I glad it was made available for me to get so easily, because given her recent track record, I might not have taken pains to seek it out. And I loved it. It's immediately near the top of my rankings for this year, 40 movies in to my 2018 viewings.

I won't go on too long about Outside In in particular, since I told you I'm here for a different reason today. But I did want to say that Shelton has gotten back the touch that eluded her (ironically, in a movie called Touchy Feely) and then some, and that Edie Falco would be worthy of award consideration if this movie had any chance of breaking through to the general consciousness. She's incredible.

It's not Falco I want to talk about today, but her co-star. And then his brother.

I don't think of myself as liking Jay Duplass very much, in general but especially as an alternative to his brother Mark. Jay has been much more likely to appear on screen than Mark lately, though it used to be the reverse. I've thought of this as a change for the worse. Part of that has to do with the roles he's chosen; my introduction to him was, I believe, Transparent, where I didn't like any of the three children of Jeffrey Tambor's transgender parent. (Not knowing, at the time, that Tambor as a person was the one I should not like.) He's been mostly fine in the subsequent films I've seen him in, but he was never the best part of the movie, and I was alternately fond (Beatriz at Dinner) and not as fond (Manson Family Vacation) of those movies.

Outside In is the type of movie that can turn you around on an actor, and I believe it's actually turning me around on two of them: not only Duplass, but Kaitlyn Dever, whom I did not like in Short Term 12 and have never really come around on. (Falco, in case you're wondering, I always liked.) Duplass gives a very good performance in and of itself, but that isn't necessarily the reason I realized I should be inclined to like him. That reason is that he's got a bit of a Luke Wilson thing going on, and I really like Luke Wilson.

Can you see it? Here, why I don't I offer you some photographic evidence.


They're not twins, but I defy you to tell me you don't see the similarity. But it isn't a physical similarity that really made me decide they resembled one another. Duplass delivers a couple lines in this movie in a way that I can exactly see Wilson delivering them. It's also a bit of a Wilson role, as Wilson has tended to take more roles in independent films than his own more famous brother, who we'll get to in a minute. This is very much a Henry Pool is Here type role, if not in terms of the similarity of the actual characters (an ex-con who was falsely imprisoned re-integrating with society, vs. a man living out his remaining days before a terminal illness claims him) then in terms of the movies and their aims. Both involve a man who had written himself off trying to learn to live again.

They're also more contemporaries than you might think -- it just took Duplass longer to become famous. You'd think Duplass would be significantly younger than Wilson, but the age difference is only 18 months. In terms of their own dynamics with their brothers, they are both the more traditionally handsome of the pair, and both took longer to break out after their brothers were kind of instant successes. Though I was surprised to learn that Jay is actually the older Duplass, while knowing that Luke was the younger Wilson.

So let's get to those brothers, then. The similarity does not end with Jay and Luke.


Mark and Owen are both the more openly charismatic brother, who both have more distinctive noses, and who both were a more obvious immediate fit as movie stars, though that would probably be a term that would rankle Mark. They are also more likely than their brothers to have messy cowlicks and shaggy, shoulder length hair. They are less like twins than Jay and Luke, but they too have interesting physical similarities, making it more genuinely legitimate to compare the two sets of brothers than a huge stretch.

I'd say Mark and Owen's acting styles are less similar than those of Jay and Luke, as Owen is much more willing to go big and Mark tends to be a consummately realistic actor. (Though it should be noted he does play a serial killer in the Creep movies.) Still, both had their origins in smaller, more eccentric movies. Don't forget that the first time you saw Wilson -- or at least the first time I saw Wilson, though you might be more likely to forget that -- was in Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket. (Actually, that might have been my first time for both Wilsons.)

I suppose there might be a grand unifying theory of successful brothers somewhere in here. If you are brothers gaining fame concurrently, it likely helps to offer something distinctly different to one another. I could try to think of other examples of brothers who attempted to become famous, but were just too similar, and of course that's difficult to do since it's much harder to demonstrate something's absence than its presence. But just as an extreme example of that, how many identical twins are famous actors in Hollywood? Not many, possibly not any. They'd be more likely to work in niche situations where you needed characters who were identical twins than to break out as distinctive actors with their own careers. And you don't really need that anymore, either, when you can make digital twins out of anyone.

The next step would be to look at other sets of brothers and see if they also conform to the Duplass-Wilson model, but, not today.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Agnes Varda

This is the sixth in my 2018 monthly series concentrating on cinematic auteurs whose work I haven’t seen before. Two films per month.

Getting this in a bit early this month, just a bit more than ten days after the June Audient Auteurs, for two reasons: 1) It’s not fun to leave it until the last minute every month, inducing stress to meet a deadline that no one cares about but you; 2) Agnes Varda was once going to be my June subject, and her movie I rented from iTunes was expiring in the first half of the month. So, you Audient Auteurs junkies will get an early fix this month. (Note: There is no such thing as an "Audient Auteur junkie." I don’t believe I’ve gotten a comment on a single one of these.)

Varda has indeed been hovering around this project since its beginnings, when I considered seeing Faces Places in the theater in February and watching one of her other movies that same month, which was the first of the series. But the same roadblock I hit then has finally beaten me now. I felt beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted Cleo from 5 to 7 to be one of my two Varda films, but in six months of looking, I have just not found it available outside of piracy. I’ve only torrented one film one time in my entire film-watching history, and in that case it because I was scheduled to talk about it on a podcast, and not watching it simply wasn’t an option. My desire to fit Cleo into this project was not enough for it to become #2.

So I’ve reluctantly had to usher Varda into the series not only without Clea from 5 to 7, but without a fiction film at all. I unexpectedly ended up watching two Varda documentaries, which should not be all that surprising as she did seem to direct more documentaries than fiction films. I would have ideally had one of each, but in this day and age of difficulty sourcing movies, you take what you can get.

As with a number of those I’ve looked at in this series so far, Varda did a little bit of everything. Still does, I should say, as she has just turned 90 and in some respects is still going strong. (As a proof either that women live longer than men, or that women did not get the opportunities men got until recently, both of the women I’ve watched in this series are still alive, while all of the men have been dead.) She works in film, photography and art installations, and usually grapples with issues related to realism, feminist issues and social commentary in an experimental style, per Wikipedia. She was also married to French filmmaker Jacques Tati, and had a close friendship with Jean-Luc Godard, as we learn in Faces Places if we did not already know.

I just made the rather obvious statement that women have not historically gotten the same opportunities in film as men, and Varda would have been considered a trailblazer in overcoming that divide. She made a movie when she was only 25, nearly 65 years ago, with 1954’s Le Pointe Courte. Fiction films seemed to interest her in the beginning of her career (Cleo from 5 to 7 followed in 1961), but at some point she shifted over to documentaries and has more or less stayed there. In fact, for someone with such a long career, it seems strange that both of her films I watched would be in the 21st century. Varda was also considered a pioneer in the French New Wave, another claim to fame she shares with the also still-living Godard.

The Gleaners and I (2000)

The reason I got to do Varda at all was that this movie, which was also part of a recent Filmspotting marathon on Varda, was available through Kanopy. However, that also made it a bit of a challenge, as watching the movie reminded me of my only complaint with Kanopy so far. Namely, I’d tried to watch Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come a couple months ago, but I had to stop less than ten minutes in because the resolution was going in and out. If it were only the image affected, I wouldn’t have cared, but when the film is in a foreign language, you need to see those subtitles clearly to understand what’s going on. I couldn’t, so I had to stop. (Lovely people that they are, Kanopy refunded me my credit when I reported the issue to them. You don’t pay for the service, but you only get five viewing credits per month.)

The same issue was present, to a lesser extent, in The Gleaners and I. And like Things to Come, The Gleaners and I is in French. This time I could not adhere to a desire to stop the movie, though. After she’d been given the miss at least twice before, Varda was going to be my auteur for July, come hell or high water. Fortunately, French is the foreign language I speak best, and I can understand it a lot better than I can speak it. So I got the gist of it even when I could not read the subtitles as clearly as I would have liked.

Gleaners is just the type of documentary I love, because it reminded me kind of an academic paper. I’ll explain. My favorite papers that I wrote back in the day were the ones that sallied forth with a central theme, then found examples to support that theme, far-flung though they may be. Gleaners is like that. It involves Varda traveling around France and meeting all variety of “gleaners,” who are characterized as people who glean the value of things that other people don’t. Whether it’s reaping the parts of crops the other people don’t care about, or finding useful bits among refuse, or making art of recycled material, or even just capturing the material in people’s stories that might otherwise go unnoticed (Varda’s own personal form of gleaning), it’s a very useful central idea that’s easily graspable and allows Varda to document a lot of disparate people and circumstances.

As is common for Varda, she is a subject in the film herself. One of the film’s defining images (which actually appears later in Faces Places) is her driving on French highways and capturing the images of 18-wheel trucks that go by. The way she chooses to visualize this capturing is by curling her hand around the image of the moving vehicle, her fingers making a C that joins together into an O. Her hand, then, is in the foreground of the shot, with the truck “captured” behind it. It hearkens back to something she used to do as a kid, her formative gleaning period, and serves as a wonderful metaphor for the ways filmmakers capture the world around them. I also loved it because it was the moment I realized Varda does not take herself too seriously. She may have her origins in the occasionally humourless trappings of the French New Wave, but she’s a whimsical, sprightly type who can’t be pinned down.

The Gleaners and I reminded me of the type of film Werner Herzog might make, with its jumping off of a central theme to places you would not expect, as Varda also interviews a restaurant owner who was the descendent of gleaners, and even, unexpectedly, a psychoanalyst. The difference between Varda and Herzog was that there was never a moment in this when I doubted whether it all held together. I think specifically of Herzog’s Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, which spun apart as it tried to unite very disparate perspectives on the internet and modern means of connection. Varda may seem to meander from time to time, but she has an ineffable way of bringing things back to the central theme, an unidentifiable grace that delights you rather than frustrating you. I kind of adored the movie.

I think one of the reasons it resonated with me is that I consider myself kind of a gleaner. I am always finding useful things on the ground, be it money, someone else's lost valuable, or even just some widget that I can put to practical use. My wife has to stop me from poring over desks and chairs left by the side of the road. Maybe it's the hoarder in me, but I like to think it's something more valuable than that. Anyway, Varda and I are likeminded in this area I think. She may share some of my sentimentality as well.

Faces Places (2017)

Things only got better with Faces Places, on which she shares the directing credit with the artist JR, and which makes an excellent companion to The Gleaners and I. I selected them based on opportunity rather than thematic cohesion, and I never could have guessed how much they would complement one another – except of course that they are made by the same person, and the similarity is kind of what we would expect if we subscribe to the auteur theory.

Faces Places also entails a journey around France to capture, in a rather literal way, ordinary French people, the more ordinary the better. The means of capturing is not by gleaning this time, or by Varda encircling them with her hand. Rather, they drive around in a mobile photo booth that is JR’s calling card. See, JR is a photographer and muralist who specializes in oversized photos that he prints right out of the side of his truck, a bit like a Polaroid camera spitting out its finished product. He then pastes up these oversized images on walls. It may sound gimmicky but it’s profound.

So Varda and JR, recognizing a kinship in their approaches and being huge fans of each other’s work, team up to travel in this truck and to film people as they see supersized imagines of themselves pasted to walls in their towns. Before you go wondering how they got the permission to “deface” all these walls, it should be pointed out that JR’s art is ephemeral, as it washes away with the rain, or the wind, or whatever the first thing is to challenge its paste backing. One profound example of this comes when he pastes a photo on a rock in the ocean, and it’s already gone a short time later with the rising of the tide.

So many things about this movie are lovely that I don’t even know where to start. The relationship between the two directors is one. While some of their scenes feel a bit “written,” that’s okay, as Varda has never been the type of documentarian who thinks of herself as a fly on the wall, watching life go on unmolested. She inserts herself into her art and her art is specifically about the influence of the artist on the art and the crafting of the accompanying story. Besides, there’s a genuine affection between them that just cannot be faked. It’s wonderful to watch them drive around in this goofy truck designed to look like a camera. JR meets the traditional definition of cool, but Varda, no longer meeting that definition, is cool in her own distinct ways. She has of course a very credible history, but now she’s cool in the way of a late 80-something who is still connected and still has ideas how to make vital cinema, but is otherwise not precious about her own self-image. One testament to that is her oddly two-toned hair, which is probably the result of failing to color her hair recently, leaving the roots white and the rest red. She calls it an intentional choice, the result of her liking color, and it doesn’t seem to matter one whit to her that it makes her look kind of like a monk.

The film's other big delight is the subjects' moving responses to seeing themselves larger than life on the side of a building. Yeah, there's one woman with an umbrella who seems embarrassed and a little bit annoyed by all the attention, but she's the exception among a series of other reactions that also just cannot be faked. While these are ordinary citizens in most respects, some had extraordinary histories, involvements in important social and labor movements. In almost all cases they are people who have not been sufficiently appreciated for things they've done, or maybe they were years ago but now they are well on in years. You can see the emotions in their eyes as they are given a kind of grandiose stage, in part because it is not in their nature to seek out such a thing themselves -- which is not to say they don't want or need it.

Okay, August is wide open for the moment. I have leads on a couple people where I can source at least one movie. But as we are getting toward the back end of this series and I've picked a lot of the low-hanging fruit already, things figure to get tougher and tougher. Then again, there are a lot of filmmakers whose work I haven't seen -- as long as I am willing to bend my definition of "auteur" a little. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The delights of early digital

My older son and I are moving along in the Harry Potter series, both in terms of reading the books together and in terms of watching the corresponding movies. He got the fully illustrated, hardcover storybook of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for Christmas, but he had to take a break from it when he got a bit scared off by the disembodied voice telling Harry to "rip, tear, kill." That break lasted a good four months, but then we resumed and finished the book a few weeks ago. It wasn't long after that we picked up a used copy of the movie, and we watched it on Saturday.

The second Harry Potter was always a movie I didn't like very much. It didn't have the benefit of introducing us to this wizarding world on film, as the first one did, and so the lackluster contributions of Chris Columbus were more problematic this time out. Plus, the events of the story always struck me as kind of inessential.

Now that I've read the book, which I had not done previously, I have more fondness for the value of these particular plot points in the overall arc of Harry's story. This is, after all, the book that introduces us to Tom Riddle, something I think I'd forgotten about the movie. That shouldn't surprise me, given that it was more than 15 years ago that I saw it, and there had been six other movies since.

So I think I liked the movie better this time, both because I had the perspective of reading the book, and because I was seeing it through my son's eyes. It was also lovely that instead of cozying up with me on the couch, he was cozying up on a bean bag with his little brother, telling him not to worry during the scary parts. Awww.

One of the reasons I liked the movie more, though, was that it made me nostalgic for early digital.

Nowadays, we are so skeptical over the value of digital creations, any digital creations, that you'd think our recently adopted perspective would poison all previous instances of digital effects in film. But that's simply not the case. In fact, it seems that the more convincing digital effects have become, the less we like them. The older ones feel like they have a DIY quality that gives them a kinship with practical effects. Or maybe it's just nostalgia, I don't know.

But as I was watching Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for the second time, I was overcome with delight over what they were capable of doing at that time, and how those capabilities made me feel.

It would be tempting to say that the digital effects looked really bad, but they don't. While 2002 seems like a long time ago, we must remember that was the same year we were introduced to Gollum, a digital creation who still looks great even 16 years later. It was five years before that that we got the still-awesome-looking creatures in Starship Troopers, and six years before that that we got the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. When you consider that history, 2002 is actual a moment of comparative sophistication in the evolution of CG.

But you can still see the seams sometimes, and that's what I found I really enjoyed.

Our first real introduction to CG in the movie is Dobby, the house elf who makes mischief for Harry for reasons we don't fully understand until later in the movie. I guess I was a bit surprised by how good I thought he looked, convinced for a moment by my own ill-conceived narrative, which was that 2002 represented the dark ages for digital effects. Dobby moved and looked quite accomplished, I thought, but I also noticed a slight -- shimmer? -- around him that set him off from his background.

It was actually this that I enjoyed. People complain that digital effects prevent us from believing that a creation is sharing the same space as the actors around it, but they're usually talking about the nearly immaculate effects we have today. When there is an actual limitation in the technology that creates the disconnect, it triggers a certain fondness in the viewer, reminding us of a time when they were still trying to work out all the kinks. It's kind of like when you see things set against obvious blue screens 20 years before Chamber of Secrets. There's a part of you that's repelled by the obvious falsity of it, but there's another part that appreciates the role that film played in the pioneering of new type of optical illusion and visual magic.

I didn't notice that "shimmer" around the cornish pixies, who may have been the thing that really planted the seed for writing this piece. Those are the little blue flying creatures that look sort of like gremlins, and they struck me as quite convincing, especially in terms of interacting with their environment. When they have a tug-o-war over a painting or carry Neville Longbottom up to the ceiling, it all looks quite feasible. You aren't cursing the limited abilities of the animators. You're feeling the joy you remember feeling when you first saw this, when you didn't take for granted that computers could make anything imaginable happen in a movie.

I think that's the nostalgia I was really feeling. Not for a movie that was part of my childhood, as I was 29 when I saw Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Rather, nostalgia for a feeling of awe over seeing things I had previously thought impossible to depict.

This movie is by no means the shining example of that, of course. It's just the movie I happened to be watching when these thoughts occurred to me. But I suspect the point is kind of that any digital effects in 2002 had the power to wow us, because they were not then so ubiquitous that we had grown weary of them. It cost money and involved real talent to do these things back then. Not to say neither of those things is still true today, but the sheer quantity of projects that are able to include effects like these have numbed us to their fundamental specialness.

The last effect in the movie I wanted to mention was the basilisk, which slithers out of the pipes in the climax of the movie. Some of it I could tell was done practically, especially in scenes where it was up close next to Harry. But the longer shots where you see its full body are obviously digital, and they still look good. My wife hadn't been watching with us, but she stopped in during this scene and said she'd been thinking the same thing.

As it turns out, 2002 was not the dark ages of special effects. It was the golden age. It was the time when we could still be amazed at what they could do, and they did it well enough that it still looks pretty good today.

The technical gains we've made in the intervening years are really quite small, when you think about it, in terms of improving how convinced we are that a thing is real. And you could argue they have not been worth it, when we simply no longer feel amazed.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Enough The Room already

In checking the listings for new movies that came out yesterday at Cinema Nova, for a possible Sunday night viewing, I noticed that the new Tommy Wiseau-Greg Sestero movie is now out.

I could see that movie and review it. But I’m not gonna.

It’s a bridge too far on our whole recent love affair with The Room.

Thanks to The Disaster Artist, in the past year, Tommy Wiseau has become if not a household name, then at least a name known in a lot more households than he was a year before that. He’s milked every little bit he could out of that spotlight, and I’m generally happy for him to do that. He made a terrible movie that made him famous in cult circles, and James Franco made a good movie about the making of that terrible movie that has made him considerably more famous. Good for him.

Okay, now it’s time to ease off a bit.

In that year Wiseau has become an inescapable personality on Twitter and delighted in the limited run re-release of The Room, which allowed people who hadn’t seen it (and weren’t willing to stay up for the midnight screenings) to see it on the big screen. He has made a multitude of personal appearances in which he has done his best to peddle his distinct brand of weirdness, whether it’s legitimate at this point or just playing a role.

But it seemed like it should be 15 minutes of fame and that’s it. Time to go back into semi-obscurity, Tommy.

That’s why the release of Best F(r)iends annoys me. It assumes an appetite for a lot more Tommy Wiseau. An appetite, I would think, that’s just not there.

Cinema Nova is a theater that plays The Room once a month at midnight on a Friday or Saturday night, so it’s perhaps not surprising to see it open there. I’m noticing as I look it up in IMDB that Best F(r)iends has not, in fact, gotten this type of proper release in the U.S. So maybe that’s kind of the course correction I’m looking for here.

In fact, until I just looked it up now I thought this movie was a documentary about them, which would have made it a lot more self-serving. In actuality, it’s described as a black comedy. It was even separated into two volumes when given a limited showcase in a couple locations in the U.S., which would tend to worsen the issue of our overexposure to Wiseau by artificially distending the experience of watching the movie. At least they seem to have gathered them together into one for the Australian theatrical run.

I suppose another thing that annoys me about it is that the title is kind of stolen from the Werner Herzog documentary My Best Fiend, about his toxic relationship with Klaus Kinski. That’s also why I thought it was a documentary, positing the same type of tumultuous relationship Herzog and Kinski had for Wiseau and Sestero. Thereby likening those two to two genuine cinematic greats. And thereby annoying me more.

Learning now that it is a fiction film rather than a documentary, I am slightly more interested in seeing Best F(r)iends than I would have had I perceived it as a vainglorious attempt to celebrate their mediocre celebrity. But still, I don’t really want to contribute to Wiseau’s impression of the world as needing to be all Tommy, all the time.

I don’t wish him ill, but I don’t wish him to be ubiquitous either.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

So Very Unhappy

Back at the start of 2012, I didn't think I wanted a second film podcast in my podcast lineup -- actually, a second podcast, period. Especially if it was going to be hosted by those two who sometimes substituted for the regular hosts of my first and only podcast, Filmspotting, when they went on vacation. He reminded me of the squeaky voiced "That's against our policy" ticket-taking teen from The Simpsons; she just didn't sound ready for primetime. Together they sounded how I would sound if I made a podcast in my basement, or maybe not even that good.

That was six-and-a-half years ago. Today, I mourn the loss of what may legitimately be my favorite podcast. And I listen to a lot more than two podcasts nowadays.

On my ride to work on Wednesday morning -- yes, I listen to podcasts while I'm riding my bike -- I was hit by the following announcement: the next episode would be the last of Filmspotting: SVU. I remember quite clearly where I was when I heard the news. I was on Exhibition Street right around Lonsdale, just starting the incline up towards Bourke and Collins.

Matt Singer and Alison Wilmore made the announcement with little fanfare, in the spot of the show where they usually do a round-up of recent new releases, as their show's primary focus was movies and TV available from streaming platforms. See, that's what its clever title meant. Not Special Victims Unit, a la Law & Order, but Streaming Video Unit. I always appreciated that joke. I didn't always appreciate Matt and Alison and their senses of humor, not from the start anyway. But I always appreciated that joke.

Over time, I came to appreciate Matt and Alison immensely. The fact that they were kind of like me doing a podcast became endearing, and then it became ... real. I found that their opinions made a lot of sense, sometimes a lot more sense than the hosts of what they referred to as "the mothership," the regular Filmspotting podcast. Matt, who had initially been the one who really bothered me, came to feel like a kindred spirit. I love a person who commits to a joke, as it's something I pride myself on doing. Matt is that guy. He'll follow a joke to its logical conclusion and will fearlessly not stop until he gets there.

As just one example, when trying to come up with a title for the aforementioned new releases segment of their show, Matt either came up with himself, or took from a joking suggestion of a listener, the title "Singer & Wilmore's Completely Concise and Totally Succinct New Release Roundup." What would have, on most podcasts, been floated as a one-time joke of something they were going to use, Matt used for like a year, developing an entire running joke about saying it as quickly as he could, and the fact that Alison either pretended to not know what the segment was called, or was just unwilling to say the title. He was so committed that you got the sense Alison was truly annoyed by his insistence in flogging the joke -- though of course would have just nipped it in the bud entirely if she really didn't think it was working on some level. Or, whether it was actually working or not, she allowed it to continue because it was a pure expression both of who Matt is, and of his commitment to a bit, a commitment I appreciated immensely.

What did shine through was this camaraderie, born of years of podcasting together. Matt and Alison, who have both been critics in print and online media throughout, started together on a podcast for IFC probably more than a decade ago, though I never listened to that. They developed a give-and-take and personal style over the years, one that made them incredibly charming to listen to and gave even their shaggier attempts at humor immense amounts of likeability. They came across as perfect "work spouses," anticipating each other's tendencies and cracking each other up.

One of my favorite things about them, though, was their earnestness and lack of pretension. They could appreciate an arthouse favorite like the best critics, but they weren't afraid to champion low culture. Matt in particular loved Arnold Schwarzenegger (and did a great impression of him), and awful martial arts movies; Alison unabashedly supported horror. I don't listen to critics because I want them to wax rapturous about the undisputed greats of the medium. I like it sometimes when they're just willing to go on and on about Gymkata.

And I also enjoyed how they were unafraid to say that they didn't get the affection for a particular film, especially one where it seemed like the only acceptable public stance on it was to sing its praises. In fact, in their annual year-end show called "The SVUvies," they had segments called "We Didn't Get It," in which they talked about failing to appreciate a critical darling, and "They Didn't Get It," about films that they felt were misunderstood. Last year Matt chose Call Me By Your Name as his "We Didn't Get It" film because he just didn't think it was worthy of all the hype. I agreed, but could not figure out how to articulate that publicly without someone assuming the reaction came from a place of homophobia. Matt and Alison stuck by their guns, which I very much appreciated.

The point I noticed the podcast perhaps eclipsing its forbear, though, was the two podcasts' respective reactions to Star Trek. I can't remember the occasion where it came up on "the mothership," but Filmspotting host Josh Larsen was downright dismissive of all the original Star Trek movies starring William Shatner et al. Now, I don't want to deny Josh the right not to like Star Trek, but it was the terms in which he discussed it that frustrated me, almost as though he thought it was so silly he was just doing the verbal equivalent of brushing it aside. Around that same time, Matt and Alison had the occasion to revisit and discuss my favorite Star Trek film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. They delved in deep discussing the things that made it great, and the contrast with Josh's laughing dismissal of it was palpable.

I don't know if it would truly be fair to say that I liked SVU better than Filmspotting in the end, though the fact that it was even up for discussion shows just how much Matt and Alison grew on me in those six-and-a-half years, how much they became part of my weekly (actually biweekly) listening routine. And how much their absence from it will hurt.

They were just two film nerds like me who liked to crack each other up, while being true to their own tastes and their love of the medium. Sure, I'll be able to find their writing out there, if I look for it. They're both still working critics.

But their voices will be gone from my earbuds, and that's sad. It's like saying goodbye to two friends.

Happy trails, SVU.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Spun gold

I’m not going to tell you what I thought of Ant-Man and the Wasp – in fact, I think I’m not allowed to for another couple days – but I am going to tell you about the experience of seeing it.

That’s because even with as many movies as I see, and as many different viewing experiences as I seek out, this one was entirely new to me.

Monday’s advanced screening was one designed specifically for critics. I go to these somewhat regularly, at least a half-dozen a year. But never previously had I been to one held in the Gold Class auditoriums at Village Cinemas.

It’s called Lux at Hoyts, and Gold Class at Village, but it’s something you will immediately recognize from its own variation at whatever prestige location you see your movies. It’s the one where they charge you like $40 a ticket, where you sit in comfortable chairs that recline, and where they will bring food and drink to you during the movie if you just press a little button on your handrest.

And it’s an experience I have never had before.

The oversight is mostly a consequence of timing. These places existed, but had not really taken off yet when I left America. When we first got to Australia, I wasn’t working for seven months, so spending $40 on a movie ticket (when I was already gasping in shock at the nearly $20 for regular screenings) wasn’t in the cards. I then basically transitioned to getting movies for free through my critics card, though of course the high-end screenings are not part of that program.

So it took being sent to a critics screening in the Gold Class theater at Village Jam Factory to finally have this experience. (It’s called Jam Factory because it’s a shopping complex that is literally housed in an old jam factory.)

Excuse me if I spend the next couple paragraphs sounding like a rube from the country arriving in the big city for the first time.

First of all, the chairs. They are more like single-person sofas. I didn’t immediately notice you could put out the footrest, but of course you can – and you can mechanically adjust its angle of incline to almost any level that suits you. Comfortable as hell, of course.

Then the distance between the rows. I was actually in the front row so it didn’t matter (and the front row is a great seat in this sized theater), but obviously each row has enough room to fully extend the footrest. I didn’t notice whether the footrest could be fully extended and also allow enough room for someone to shimmy through, but presumably, there was indeed sufficient space for that type of thing.

The total number of seats seemed to be about 30. Intimate but with enough others to feel a sense of community. (Though I do understand why these screenings frequently sell out.)

Then the food ordering. I did have to seek out a menu as there was not one waiting for me at my seat. But the options were quite extensive, particularly among drinks but also among food, both sweet and savory. As this was a 6:30 screening I went with the savory. I could have skipped the food altogether as I’d have to pay for it separately, and they also provided a free popcorn and bottle of water at each seat. (And since no one ended up sitting next to me, I consumed my neighbor’s as well.) But I figured, if I haven’t had this experience before now, it doesn’t seem likely that I’m going to purposely seek it out again anytime soon. So might as well. I had planned to grab dinner anyway between this movie and the next I was planning to watch after it, Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Now I wouldn’t have to.

I pressed the button on my handrest and indeed, a few minutes later I was greeted by the server. I asked whether she liked the nachos or the bacon potato wedges better. She went with the latter. So did I.

My bacon potato wedges arrived about 15 minutes into the movie, which was perfect. They were, indeed, delicious. Their remnants were swept away from my seat with about that much time remaining.

One last thing I thought was nice to point out. You could open the handrest on the right to stow your menu, in case you wanted to make a second order during the movie. I was tempted but didn’t do it. The $21 for the bacon potato wedges was dear enough. I suppose I could have stowed other things in there, but didn’t.

Having done this once, I’m probably a bit more tempted to shell out the money to do it again on a special occasion. Definitely a nice option for a date night with the wife. She actually did it herself recently on Mother’s Day. I’ve got Australian Father’s Day coming up in two months.

As a bit of full disclosure, I did actually see a movie in America on my most recent trip where ordering food would have been possible. It was an unusually late showing of Hidden Figures on my last night in town, starting at 11 p.m. I’d actually planned to order something about halfway through, to keep me awake, but by the time I tried to place the order, they had already closed the kitchen for the night. So I don’t think it counts. Plus, I don’t remember the ticket being any more expensive and the theater was not particularly intimate, so it doubly doesn’t count.

So Ant-Man and the Wasp will go down as my first such experience, but certainly not my last.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Positively volcanic

I "finally" saw Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom on Friday night after farewell drinks with a couple coworkers whose last day was that day, it being the last day of the financial year, and their contracts not having been renewed. I say "finally" because usually I don't wait a full eight days to see new releases -- if I do, usually the next week's big new release takes precedence. I thought having a few beers might help, but it didn't really.

In fact, I planned to write nothing at all about the movie on my blog, and would have, had it not kicked off a weekend of seeing movies with erupting volcanoes in them.

You know me with the noticing of the patterns and the like.

If it had just been two movies, I might still have written nothing. But when a volcano erupted in the third consecutive movie I saw, well, I had to share it with you, dear readers. For your own good.

I hadn't watched any trailers for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, so I didn't actually know that volcanoes played any role in the movie. (Didn't see this poster either, apparently.) But yes indeed, Isla Nublar, the home of the theme park (both theme parks?) in these movies, is swallowed up by lava when a previously dormant volcano goes active. Now, maybe it's just me, but I hardly think you build an expensive dinosaur theme park on an island that has even the remotest possibility of volcanic activity. But maybe they never consulted any seismologist. Anyway, good thing Indominus Rex et al destroyed it three years earlier.

The second movie was the previously discussed Hotel Transylvania 3 on Saturday afternoon. Not previously discussed was the fact that the cruise Dracula et al have boarded starts in the Bermuda Triangle and then visits a number of ocean-related stops where monster activity would be implied and/or welcome. One of these is an erupting underwater volcano. I made a mental note and said "Huh," but as I said, I expected that would be all.

Until that night when I watched the previously discussed The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In the title character's search for the elusive Life magazine photographer who is the very definition of off the grid, because he needs to find the negative that is going to be used for the magazine's final issue, Walter ends up in Iceland right as a volcano is about to erupt. Which it does, leaving the Jeep he's escaping in covered in soot.

The streak did not continue when I watched Agnes Varda's The Gleaners & I on Sunday night.

Monday, July 2, 2018

The unlikeliest movie not to have seen

I'm not talking about the movie I'm most embarrassed not to have seen. I've had a clear answer for that over the years, but I don't really have one now. Informally, it might be the original King Kong, but there's likely something that deserves the honor more than that.

No, I'm talking about the movie it seemed most likely I would see in the theater, or at least very soon after that, but never did.

That's Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, as you can see from the poster.

It seems almost incomprehensible that it's taken me nearly five years since it was released in 2013 to see it. But them's the facts.

Why is it so unlikely I wouldn't have seen it before now?

1. I really like Ben Stiller as a director. The Cable Guy is among my favorite films all time, full stop, and I also really really like Reality Bites, Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. In fact, he has yet to direct a film that hasn't worked for me, as I was even pretty positive on Zoolander 2. (Though his directing page on IMDB really needs to be updated -- he's got a 2007 movie known only as Untitled Christine Taylor Project that I kinnnnda don't think is going to still come out.)

2. I really like any movie that appears to be "Kaufman-esque." The Secret Life of Walter Mitty really looks like something Charlie Kaufman could have written, and reminds me of other movies that are more directly indebted to Kaufman, like The Science of Sleep and Stranger Than Fiction. I have a boundless optimism about the quality of such movies and always prioritize seeing them in time to rank them in the year of their release. Present company excluded, I guess.

3. It was released in time for me to see it before my ranking deadline that year. That's not always a given in Australia with late-year releases that have awards ambitions, some of which don't come out until February, well after I've closed off my rankings around the 20th of January. But this one came out on Boxing Day in 2013, giving me nearly a month to grab it before that deadline.

4. I also heard it was good. Early buzz was that it wasn't, but then after it actually got released, I heard nothing but good things. So skipping it was not even a decision motivated by having better uses of my time.

So why did I skip it?

Well, I did have better uses of my time.

December 26, 2013 -- its release date -- was just under a week before my younger son was born on January 1st. I had bigger fish to fry. Well, smaller fish, I guess.

I did see one movie in the theater that week between Christmas and New Year's, but it was The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which actually is my least favorite of those six movies. So I would have been better served on Walter Mitty. Then on December 31st they wanted to induce my wife, and for a while we didn't know whether my son was going to be born in 2013 or 2014 (or even, at that time, that he was a son).

It's not like I didn't get out to the theater again after that, though I made only three more theatrical visits before my deadline, one of which (Frozen) had the benefit of being able to get the older son out of the house with me. It was actually only two visits, since my wife also consented to a double feature of two must-haves just before my ranking deadline: Inside Llewyn Davis and Her. Llewyn Davis actually ended up at #3 for the year, and would have been higher if I were doing those rankings today.

What can I say. When you've got a new baby in the house, there are sacrifices that must be made.

So, no room for Walter Mitty, even though it was directed by Ben Stiller, was Kaufmanesque, was released in time and was supposed to be good.

The reason I'm telling you all this is that I have finally corrected this oversight ... though it took some rather unusual circumstances to do it.

Ever since I skipped Walter Mitty that year, I've had my eye open for easy opportunities to see it. But in that whole time, I didn't once see it available on a streaming service or to borrow from the library. It's the kind of movie that would have made my hand leap forward with extra urgency to pull it off the shelf, but it never appeared on any shelf that I saw. Oh yeah, I could have rented it from iTunes, and our neighborhood video store was actually still open then. But after the time of its greatest relevance to me -- pre-ranking deadline -- had passed, I guess I just decided to watch it whenever my first free opportunity arose.

And that never did actually happen.

When I finally acquired The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it was as a purchase at a used video store. Which is particularly unusual because I almost never buy movies I haven't seen. In fact, I cannot immediately think of another instance of that happening.

You may remember the video store I discussed in this post, where the shelves are full of stacks of undifferentiated movies, and the store's owner had a look on his face like he was going to go out of business any day now. To contribute my small little share to preventing that from happening, I made a conscious decision last weekend to take my kids and buy a bunch of titles for both them and me. We spent $60 and came away with about two books (they also sell books and CDs) and about ten movies, one of which was Walter Mitty. It was never going to show up for free, it appeared.

The owner actually seemed profoundly grateful. I couldn't tell if he remembered me from the last time we came in and I briefly commiserated with him about his dwindling customer base, or if he was just grateful in isolation. But I hope the mere act of someone spending $60 in one fell swoop will convince him he still does have enough customers to stay open.

Anyway, that lined me up to finally, finally, FINALLY watch the movie Saturday night.

It did not disappoint. The Kaufman comparisons were correct, though I like it better than either of those movies mentioned above. It's no genuine Kaufman -- Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine and Synecdoche, NY are all better films -- but it's near the tops among "Kaufman imitators," if that doesn't sound like a backhanded compliment. I was toying with whether to give if four or 4.5 stars, and ultimately went with the latter.

I was also really impressed by the actual direction of the film. However well Stiller had done in the films he's directed previously, they are all comedies that feel scaled a bit smaller, which suggested a certain comfort zone. This one paints on a much bigger canvas, and paints exceedingly well, as it looks fantastic (thanks also to DP Stuart Dryburgh) and also has a lot of far-flung locations, including Greenland and Iceland. Much as I like him, I thought this would have been beyond Stiller. It totally isn't, and it makes me kind of sad that he had to follow this up with Zoolander 2 (even though I like that movie). I hope he gets a chance to do something on this scale again.

I also really liked how the film functions as a love letter to print journalism, of which I am refugee. The film is centered around the end of Life as a print magazine, something that actually occurred long before 2013, but which feels forever current in an age of ever-dwindling readership of, and publication of, print media. It lends an additional poignancy to the material that lingered with me, and does still.

So going from not having seen it to owning it is a positive development. I'll be eager to see it again.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Neither Halloween nor summer

I'm used to movies coming out at times of the year in Australia that are completely opposite to, and sometimes anathema to, the times of the year they come out in America. It's a natural consequence of the flipped seasons. While Americans see the latest Jurassic Park movie in shorts and a t-shirt, as happy to have the air conditioning as the dinosaurs, I'm bundled up in a winter jacket and scarf.

But it's pretty weird when a particular movie is twice-removed from its most logical context on the calendar.

The first two Hotel Transylvania movies were released in conjunction with Halloween in the U.S. That's a bit of a disconnect for Australians, but less so even in the time since I've been here. As recently as five years ago, those in our neighborhood didn't even know what they were supposed to do when a trick-or-treater came to their door; I can still remember the woman who nervously gave my son half a sleeve of cookies and then closed the door, saying "I don't have anything else!" Now, the people who hang an orange balloon outside their house, indicating that they are indeed participating in Halloween, have got it down pat and even sometimes wear costumes to the door.

For the third movie, which my family and I saw yesterday, it was released in June, not in early autumn. (Which would be early spring here.) That makes sense given the theme, which is that the monsters we know and love (yes, we love them) are taking their leave of Transylvania for a summer cruise. So, summer is the more logical time to release the movie. (Plus, kids are out of school in America, theoretically boosting the box office.)

They're out of school here too, as two weeks of school holidays have just begun. The thing is, it's not summer here. It's winter. Exactly a month in, in fact. (They start seasons on the first of the month down here in the southern hemisphere. Don't ask me why.)

So not only is this movie starring vampires and mummies not being released at Halloween, but this movie featuring people going on a cruise is not being released during the summer.

Which is why the American title of this movie -- Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation -- makes doubly little sense.

Doubly?

Well obviously summer is wrong, but Australians could figure that one out. But the word "vacation" is not used down here either. It's called "going on holiday" down here.

Hence: Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Holiday.

Ha, that would have been great. But I just looked and it's actually Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation.

Well, I'll leave the previous comment. I guess they thought Australians couldn't translate the season, but they could translate the word "vacation." After all, there was that Ed Helms remake of the Chevy Chase movie that came out a couple years ago. They didn't call that one "Holiday."

The movie? Diminishing returns as the series has rolled on, it would not surprise you to hear. I actually do really like the first two, but my star ratings have dropped from four to 3.5 to 2.5. I almost gave this one a 3, but it's just too scattershot, despite some nice moments. I laughed a number of times. I'll have a review up in a couple days if you want to check it out.

While I have you, I want to talk about something else: the eye hair of these characters.

We don't of course call it "eye hair." We have the word "lashes" for that purpose. But having noticed them in previous films, I again became fixated on the lashes, which seem to be a curious obsession of the animators in their question for realism. (Especially strange since realism is not otherwise what they are going for at all.) They weird me out enough that "eye hair" describes them more accurately than "lashes."

What am I talking about? Here:


I'm actually a fan of the expressionistic, elastic, Loony Tunes style animation of these movies, and I wouldn't quibble with most of the details. But the eyelashes ... I just get fixated on them and I can't stop noticing them. There's a reason most animation studios don't bother with eyelashes below the eyes ... they just look weird.

And it's not just the goth girl Mavis, where accentuated lashes are part of her look. It's also in her dad, Dracula:


And in her husband, Johnny:


So basically, all humans and vampires. The mummy, Frankenstein and the invisible man all avoid this particular design detail. I was especially surprised that you couldn't see the invisible man's lashes. That'd be great -- in addition to the eyeglasses, which are the only thing that helps us identify where he is, he could also have sets of upper and lower eyelashes, just hanging out there in space.

My wife, who was seeing her first Hotel Transylvania movie, confirmed that she had become distracted by the "eye hair" as well. She thinks the reason it's weird is that this is not the real shape of the human eye. So instead of having upper and lower lashes, as a real human does, these characters have like a lash perimeter that goes all the way around.

They'd have been better off just leaving off the lashes, or maybe only giving Mavis only upper lashes.

Here's how Pixar handles it, for example:


They recognize Riley's got to have something below her eyes, but it's more like a thin smudge suggesting the lower lashes.

Nothing that you could describe as "eye hair."