Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Question your assumptions: Toy Story 2


So the first two times I've written posts under this banner, I've considered movies one might think of as sacred cows -- classics whose value is almost unquestioned. I revisited The Graduate and Rosemary's Baby the first two times I questioned my assumptions, four months apart from each other. Randomly, another four months later, I'm doing the series again.

This time, I'm doing things a bit differently by focusing on something much more recent, though still from last century. As with the other two, though, there are a set of clear assumptions I am grappling with, and it's still been long enough since I've seen it that I knew a new viewing would answer some of my questions.

I hadn't seen Toy Story 2 in something like 15 years. My #2 movie of 1999, it was one of those I saw in the theater and then saw on video almost as soon as it was available. I may have even seen it twice on video, possibly as recently as 2001 or 2002. Since then, though, nothing. On the contrary, I'm quite familiar with Toy Story, having received it on BluRay as a gift. That means its total viewings outnumber Toy Story 2 something like 8-2.

In those 13 to 15 years, I've gone from being uncertain if I could distinguish a meaningful difference in the quality of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, both five-star movies, to pretty clearly preferring Toy Story. The best example of that is my Flickchart rankings, which have Toy Story all the way up at #6 overall, and Toy Story 2 as "only" 118th. Further stimulating this consideration of Toy Story 2 was having caught part of Toy Story 3 last weekend when our family was away for the weekend with three other families. The kids were all watching Toy Story 3, and I got to sit in on the emotional ending. It was all I could do not to bust out crying, something that would have been hard to explain to a bunch of five- and ten-year-olds. I started to wonder if Toy Story 3 weren't better than I thought it was -- perhaps even challenging the quality of Toy Story 2.

(Favorite moment from the viewing, though: When the characters survive their close scrape with the incinerator at the end, my son looked up at me with a look of earnest glee and said "They made it!" The others sitting with him, all older, were nonplussed -- or at least were not similarly vocal. I will treasure the time that my son responds to happy endings totally without cynicism or skepticism.)

So when a BluRay of Toy Story 2 popped up at the library last week on a visit with my sons, I gobbled it up. I thought my older son would be especially ripe for a viewing, having just so enjoyed the next chapter in the saga. (And not really getting that he missed a part in the middle.)

I didn't know if I'd actually get to watch it with him, but the opportunity arose on Sunday morning, when he started the day by vomiting on the carpet. Now that he was officially sick, all kinds of previously inexcusable activities were now on the table -- like him getting to watch TV for most of the day, and me getting to plop down with him for the length of a whole movie. (The fact that he threw up twice more during the day removed any question of whether he was truly sick.)

Toy Story 2 is still a great movie, but there are in fact certain things that bothered me during this view, ranging from the minor to the major. I'll list them in no particular order:

1) The writing is not as casually sharp as it is in the first movie. One of the things that makes Toy Story such a pleasure is that its dialogue is almost exhaustingly clever. You don't truly become exhausted by it, of course, but it's densely packed with double entendres and other witty turns of phrase, without ever once feeling overwritten. Toy Story 2 does not feel overwritten either, but a lot of the incidental cleverness is lost, I noticed.

2) The villain -- Al of Al's Toy Barn, voiced by Wayne Knight -- would never fall asleep with an entirely full bowl of cheesy poofs on his chest. They make him out to be so repulsive and corpulent that he would have had to down at least half that thing, especially to get that quantity of artificial cheese topping on his fingers. It's a smart set piece that Woody needs to walk through the fallen snacks like a minefield in his attempt to keep Al from awakening, but I got stuck on the notion of just how many cheesy poofs escaped a fate in Al's stomach. (Remember, I didn't say all my complaints with Toy Story 2 were major ones.)

3) The exact rarity and value of Woody and his pals as toys seemed exaggerated. I'm no rare toy aficionado, but I have to assume that a museum in Japan would have other ways of acquiring a Woody's Roundup Gang without relying on an American toy store owner finally getting his hands on a Woody to complete the set. Also, was this deal perpetually in place, pending the finding of the Woody, so that Al only has to call up the Japanese once he's finally succeeded in his mission? Which happens without any premeditation, during a random Saturday morning yard sale? And even if this Japanese museum is as obsessed with this acquisition as they appear to be, how much could they possibly be paying Al? A couple grand at most? Surely not enough for Al to fly the toys to Japan himself, as if this cost would immediately become a drop in the bucket of the wealth that would soon be his. But perhaps the strangest moment in this transaction involves Al thinking he's gotten the upper hand and requesting that they "add a zero" to the end of what they plan to pay him. So suddenly he thinks the rare toys may be able to sell for ten times an amount he already thought was going to change his standard of living?

4) The toys are capable of too much in this movie. The adventure in Toy Story had the benefit of being life-sized, or perhaps I should say toy-sized -- going outside the house into the neighbor's yard and down to the local pizza restaurant was astounding enough. Needing to up the ante for the sequel, though, the writers had the toys not only get down to the local toy store (that's fine, I buy that an Etch-a-Sketch map copied from an ad on TV could help them accomplish this), but they also drive a car to the airport. Even allowing for the possibility that a team of intelligent toys could manipulate the controls of a car in the exact unison necessary to pilot the thing, how could they then steer it down busy streets and all the way to an airport, following another car quickly disappearing on the horizon? Even stranger may be the explanation about how they got back to Andy's house, which occurs entirely off-screen and is explained only be showing one of those luggage trains parked in the yard across the street. The return from the airport alone, after the primary conflict has been resolved, should have been a harrowing adventure that got all of them killed.

I'll stop at four complaints because look, this is still a Toy Story movie and it's still wonderful. I just might knock my five-star rating down to 4.75 stars ... and my #118 ranking on Flickchart down to 150-175.

How does it stack up with Toy Story 3? I guess I'll need a proper second viewing of that to say for sure.

Join me again next time -- maybe four months from now, maybe sooner -- for another exciting episode of Question Your Assumptions.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Birdman and Whiplash - the same movie?


Of course not.

But consider:

1) Both movies involve a protagonist who is obsessed with greatness. One is seeking a future greatness, one is looking back on a greatness he worries has vanished.

2) Both view their greatness through the prism of a bird. Andrew Neiman wants to become like Charlie Parker, a.k.a. Bird, and listens to Parker's CD Birdland repeatedly. Riggan Thompson became famous for playing a superhero with bird features, and worries that the world perceives him as nothing more than a man wearing a bird costume.

3) Both characters talk specifically about being remembered after they're dead. Riggan discusses his fears of dying in the same plane crash as George Clooney, and having people concentrate on Clooney's death rather than his. Andrew speaks about being willing to die young, drunk and full of heroin as long as it means he will be remembered.

4) Both protagonists undergo severe psychological torture while pursuing the performance they believe will define them, for better or worse.

5) Both protagonists bleed, literally, for their craft. In fact, they both receive serious head wounds for their craft.

6) Both are driven by a perfectionist who challenges them to succeed in unconventional ways. Andrew is tormented by his teacher, Terence Fletcher, who pushes his students past the brink of sanity and self-esteem in order to force them to try harder to attain greatness. Riggan is tested by two different characters, the actor Mike Shiner and the critic Tabitha Dickinson. Mike is always trying to push Riggan out of his comfort zone on stage to see how he will respond, while Tabitha lets him know that it will take nothing short of a miracle to get a good review from her. Both protagonists ultimately meet the high bar set for them by those who test them, but not without first engaging in a physical altercation. Those who test them also use acting as a devious method of manipulating them.

7) Both movies feature suicide attempts, either successful or unsuccessful, that result from the failure to live up to the exacting standards of the perfectionist.

8) Both movies feature the protagonist trapped outside a performance space due to unforeseen circumstances, desperate to make it on stage in time for his entrance.

9) Both movies prominently feature drums, either as a direct part of the plot or as the musical score.

10) Both movies follow characters from behind as they walk on stage, off stage, and through backstage corridors.

11) Both movies feature characters shot from behind looking out at the audience, with the footlights keeping us from seeing their audience.

12) Both movies speak of a miniature version of one of the characters. In Birdman, Riggan likens his show to a small version of himself, following him around and hitting him in the balls with a tiny hammer. In Whiplash, Fletcher dismissively refers to an assistant of his as "Mini Me."

13) Both movies make prominent use of understudies.

14) Both movies feature a romantic relationship that is ruined in part by the protagonist's quest for perfection.

15) Both movies take place in New York City.

16) Both movies end in ambiguous fashion, leaving the viewer to debate what actually happened, and what happens next.

Is 16 major similarities enough for you?

In my second viewing of Whiplash, my sixth favorite movie of 2014, on Sunday night, it was all made so clear to me.

Maybe my upcoming second viewing of Birdman, my favorite movie of 2014, will reveal even more.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Audient Auscars: Cimarron


This is the second in my 2015 series in which I'm crossing a bunch of best picture winners I haven't seen off my list, month by month.

When I posted in a Facebook film discussion group that I had started a 12-month journey to watch most of the best picture winners I hadn't seen, and mentioned that The Broadway Melody was not necessarily such an auspicious start, someone responded "Just wait until you get to Cimarron."

So there were no high hopes involved in sitting down Thursday night to watch the 2-hour and 4-minute movie on the last weeknight before the end of the month. I could have still watched it on a weekend night, but why ruin one of those with this kind of drudgery?

Well, characterize me as very pleasantly surprised by the 1931 best picture winner.

Yes, it was long, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't have to take a couple naps to finish it. That speaks more to the current mode of my existence than to any quality concerns with the movie. In truth, it was a very impressive technical achievement and sort of a moving love letter to the American pioneer spirit.

Cimarron tells the story of the 1889 founding of Oklahoma territory, specifically the Osage region (the same as in August, Osage County), from its literal beginnings. It's hard to imagine a more dramatic start than what happened here: Hundreds of carriages and single riders on horseback were unleashed at an exact moment on a specific day with a gunshot to commence the race, told that whatever piece of land they could claim would be theirs. (Ah, if acquiring property were so easy today.) It follows the fortunes of one Mr. Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) and his family (wife Irene Dunne and children) over the course of nearly half a century, in which Osage grows from a bunch of carriages and shanties to a bustling metropolis, and all manner of social and sociopolitical growing pains are addressed in between.

Cimarron is a bit like a biopic of a region, rather than a person -- and in so being, is also a bit of a biopic of America. Yes, Dix's Yancey Cravat is its central character, but as he is also a yearning wanderer, he disappears from the narrative for stretches of time as well. Cravat is the personification of many things Americans at the time (and still today) considered to be the founding values of this country: a sense of adventure, a desire to expand, a will to amass wealth and success through personal ingenuity, and a willingness to accept people of all types and backgrounds. There is a prominent Jewish character accepted into the fold, and a former slave boy who also plays a crucial role in the proceedings (even if his handling from a directing perspective is sometimes too broad to leave a person feeling comfortable -- a symptom of that era of Hollywood filmmaking, I'm afraid). The movie also shows a sort of delightful pre-Code refusal to judge people of ill repute, as Cravat (in one of his incarnations as an attorney) defends a renowned prostitute against charges against her. I suppose the bedrock American values are also meant to include forgiveness, as it was this same prostitute who snookered Cravat out of his claim to a particularly choice piece of land back when the first land rush was on.

This gets at just some of the complexity lying underneath the apparently simple surface of Cimarron. When Cravat agrees to defend the prostitute -- in fact, takes up her cause without even being asked to do so -- it's a bone of contention between his wife and him, and it's even hinted that he had an improper relationship with her specifically and perhaps other women generally. I suppose this is part of the restlessness that characterizes Cravat throughout. So while there are many things heroic about the film's portrayal of Cravat -- he also builds a newspaper from scratch, and more or less single-handedly rids the town of a pack of outlaws -- it never ceases to view him with a certain degree of skepticism. It's a complicated portrait that probably would not have been possible when the Hays Code was introduced a few years later and things got a lot more black-and-white at the movies.

One delight is also to see the power that Cimarron hands to Cravat's wife, Sabra, who is portrayed as her own woman and a shrewd capitalist in her own right. When Cravat disappears on whatever ill-advised journey has seduced him, it's Sabra who is at home, presiding over their newspaper and eventually becoming the primary face of its success. Near the end she is even elected into public office, which seems like a terrifically progressive thing for a 1931 movie to show us. As the movie approaches its climax and we have aged 40 years with Sabra and a collection of other familiar townspeople, it's actually a bit moving to recognize how effectively the movie has introduced us to them and given them all little character arcs for us to follow. Cimarron creeps up on you, something that's a bit of a surprise for such a sweeping epic.

I mentioned that Cimarron is also technically impressive. It has numerous scenes that are bursting with extras, and though that was not necessarily anything new (D.W. Griffiths films relied heavily on extras for years), it's certainly a welcome reminder of what we have lost with crowd scenes able to be generated by computer today. And though I understand that the opening land rush, Cimarron's most famous scene, is indebted to a similar scene in a silent movie called Tumbleweeds, that didn't make it any less astounding to me. As those horses and carriages race toward manifest destiny, it gives you a huge kinetic rush, even watching it more than 80 years later.

Here's hoping Cavalcade has as many unexpected treats in store in March.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Villainous scenery chewing by 2014 Oscar winners











When Jean Dujardin won best actor for his performance in 2011's The Artist, he made a really funny video about the opportunities that were being presented to him now that he had been so anointed. It was a compilation of his auditions for villainous roles in various upcoming Hollywood blockbusters, among them Mission Impossible 5, Bridesmaids 2, We Bought a Zoo Too, and Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer 2. (From Larry Crowne 2: "Larry Crowne? More like Larry Drown!" To get the rest you have to watch.)

Well, it appears that this year's acting winners have gotten a head start on things.

In one of those serendipitous turns, I went to the movies the night after I watched the Oscars, and who did I see? Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore, masticating the sets and props like it was the last role they ever planned to take.

Now, I am certain of the colossal failure of Redmayne's effort, having seen an entire movie of it (Jupiter Ascending). In this movie, Redmayne is the Billy Corgan of bad villainous actors. You know, like the Smashing Pumpkins frontman, he has a soft voice and a LOUD voice. He talks in the soft voice -- accurately described by Josh Larsen of Filmspotting as sounding like he swallowed a carton cigarettes -- for most of the movie. It's the big, screaming voice -- used sparingly, but pictured above -- that people will be imitating when this movie shows up on bad movie double features for decades to come. It's Redmayne's natural fey quality whipped up into an hysterical hissy fit.

Moore's work remains to be seen, at least here in Australia, where Seventh Son has yet to be unleashed on the world. But the trailer, which I saw before Jupiter Ascending, promises wonderful things. We don't get to see the exact nature of her overacting, and I seriously doubt it can be as committed as Redmayne's. But we do see her breaking chains, summoning winged demons, issuing ominous commands and purring seductions toward corruption. It's going to be hammy alright.

More than a reminder that there's a fine line between great and awful, these roles really remind us that actors work. The idea that that golden bald man on the pedestal significantly changes the equation for them is rooted in falsehood.

Sure, they took the roles before they knew they would win Oscars, but they might as well take them afterward as well. After all, if you're going to parody the hand that feeds you and be selective, you might just end up like Jean Dujardin. Since that Oscar win, the only Hollywood movies in which Dujardin has actually appeared are The Wolf of Wall Street and The Monuments Men. Having still not seen Marty Scorsese's three-hour epic, I don't know the size of his role, but I can tell you that he probably wishes he was in even less of The Monuments Men than he was. (Dujardin has been in French movies, but those don't "count," right?)

So scream your brains out, Eddie Redmayne. The next Stephen Hawking may be a long time coming.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Involuntary deluxe


Look, I knew Jupiter Ascending was supposed to be terrible.

But it had been more than a month since I'd seen my first movie of 2015, and that was the likely more terrible The Wedding Ringer, which I was reviewing. I wanted to get my 2015 rankings truly off and running, and you can't call them "rankings" until you have at least two movies. Besides, no matter how bad the Wachowskis' latest movie was, it was definitely the kind of movie whose best chance at enjoyment would come via a big screen viewing.

Unfortunately, I had to settle for a bigger screen than I actually wanted.

Having missed the chance to see it when my itch really started last "discount Tuesday" because of my wife's work conflict, I made sure to schedule my screening for this "discount Tuesday" at Hoyts. I noted earlier in the day it was playing on two different screenings at 9:30 at the local theater, acknowledging with a bit of a grumble that neither of them would be the base discount price of $13. One was 3D, and one was labeled "Lux." Not wanting to invest in 3D for this particular movie, I figured I'd live with the Lux option.

Of course, once I reached the theater, I realized that I had confused Lux with a third type of upsell at this theater, which is called Xtreme Screen. What's Xtreme Screen? Well, it's a bigger screen. You know, the size screen that back in the olden days, theaters thought it was their obligation to provide us without any adjustment to the ticket price.

What's Lux? Yeah, that's the one where they bring you food at your seat and you can make use of the "private lounge" before the movie starts. You also get popcorn and a drink complimentary with your ticket. Which costs $30, even on a Tuesday. It's around $10 more than that on other days. If you just want the seat and no popcorn, it's still $24.

So I grumbled again and shifted gears and decided I pretty much had to buy the 3D ticket. I'd be saving around $8.

Except no. The other Jupiter Ascending was not only 3D, it was also Xtreme Screen. So instead of $13 or even $16, it was $19.50.

$19.50 to see a shitty movie on "discount night."

I believe this multiplex has a fourth kind of upsell in the form of IMAX. At least I didn't have to get involved in that.

So when it came down to it, if I wanted to watch Jupiter Ascending at the Hoyts in Melbourne Central, I had no choice but to watch it on one of these jumbo formats.

It occurred to me that it's kind of the functional equivalent of tiered ticket pricing, which is a concept that has been discussed about how to get people to watch smaller movies in the theater. The theory is, you charge the big bucks for the tentpole movies, the ones people just can't wait for video to watch. Then you let them see the indie movies and the arthouse movies for the comparatively reasonable price of somewhere between $6 and $10.

Those indie movies are never going to play in 3D, on Xtreme Screen or on IMAX ... though I suppose they could play on Lux. I mean, I'd probably enjoy a craft beer with Birdman.

I guess our only choice, if we want to fight something like this, is to just let a movie like Jupiter Ascending descend even further on its path to flophood by waiting for video. At least by giving the movie my $19.50, I'm eroding some infinitesimal part of the studios' unwillingness to invest in future movies based on original concepts.

That's something, anyway.

Of course, Jupiter Ascending ended up being just as bad as everyone says. It overloads on exposition at times it needs to show rather than tell, then leaves whole plot points unexplained. It has no good acting performances, and one truly terrible one (Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne). It builds such a flimsy world that you never feel the weight, size or distance of it. And it is unintentionally hilarious at points.

But it's still my #1 movie of 2015.

I mean, it's still better than The Wedding Ringer.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Blackening a white Oscars













Hey, my movie won best picture!

But I've talked enough about that. So instead, let's spend my recap of the 87th Academy Awards talking about the elephant in the room.

Oscar heard the uproar about too many white nominees this year, and boy did it respond. But the strength of the response itself smacked of overcompensation, and that might even be worse.

Naturally, there would be a slew of African-American presenters in any given year at the Oscars, since the Oscars are always PC conscious, and because African Americans make up a sizable percentage both of the country and of Hollywood. But this year? It got ridiculous as the evening wore on. Which would not be a bad thing at all, except that it was so obviously a reaction to accusations of racism that it must have made the presenters themselves feel like they were involved in some kind of sordid campaign to convince the world the Oscars are colorblind.

It wasn't just black actors who are having a moment who were presenters. It was even some we hadn't heard from in a number of years.

With a little help from the interwebs, here are the black actors who presented, performed or were in some way prominently referenced last night:

Oprah Winfrey
Kevin Hart
Eddie Murphy
Octavia Spencer
David Oyelowo
Kerry Washington
Zoe Saldana
Jennifer Hudson
Viola Davis
Common
John Legend
Lupito N'yongo
Terrence Howard
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Idris Elba

And Dwayne Johnson also kind of counts.

That's a pretty significant effort to showcase black faces. Some of those folks are in their prime (Hart, Saldana, Washington, Ejiofor, Elba), but some are kind of on the back burner (Murphy, Howard, Davis). You can be sure that the show's producers turned to at least two or three of them merely because of the color of their skin -- and they had to know it. At least once they saw how the evening turned out.

But there was still something weird about how the show handled this apparent deference to its members of color. Take the moment with David Oyelowo. For starters, didn't Neil Patrick Harris actually refer to him as a nominee? That got things off to a bad enough start, since Oyelowo was famously snubbed for his portrayal of Martin Luther King in Selma. But then it turned out that he was also being used to deliver a joke about the poor quality of the remake of Annie, starring Quvenzhane Wallis and Jamie Foxx. When they could have chosen any of last year's poorly received films to be the punchline of this particular joke, they instead chose one with black actors in two of the central roles -- and then chose a black actor (a snubbed black actor at that) to deliver the punchline in order to take the sting out of it. Of course, he was supposedly chosen for being British -- not for being black.

Then what about the weird part where Harris told poor Octavia Spencer -- who had the sorry task of having to play along, all night long, with Harris' labored joke about predicting the winners -- that she couldn't leave her seat even for a snack? And lingered on that particular line for laughs? Like the husky Spencer doesn't have the ability to control her own eating habits? (Incidentally, it wasn't the only line directed at a husky black woman that appeared to be making fun of her weight -- though Harris did explain that his lame comparison of Oprah Winfrey to American Sniper's box office, which amounted to her being "half the room," had to do with her net worth, not her girth.)

The real sigh of relief must have come when Selma won one of the two Oscars for which it was nominated -- and Common and John Legend gave the best acceptance speech of the night. (Why they were accepting, when they didn't actually write the song, I have no idea.) Their performance of the song "Glory" brought the house down, and reduced the aforementioned Mr. Oyelowo among others to tears. With that kind of incendiary display just having occurred, it would have been a major disappointment to see the peppy "Everything is Awesome" take home the award, in the very next ten minutes of screen time no less. So it was certainly the most serendipitous turn of events that the Oscar voters actually had the good sense to award this song, one that has so much more weight to it than the Lego Movie song, which exists merely as satire. It almost makes you wonder if there wasn't someone backstage, engaging in a last-minute envelope switcheroo upon realizing just how necessary it was in that moment for "Glory" to win.

But I don't think anything like that happened, and you know why? At a core level, I don't think the Oscars are actually all that racist. There have actually been a veritable parade of black winners in recent years, from Jennifer Hudson to Mo'Nique to the aforementioned Ms. Spencer, not to mention the Oscars honoring 12 Years a Slave (and by extension, its black director, Steve McQueen) last year. That's been the weirdest thing about the uproar this year over the lack of black nominees, because it comes immediately following a year in which a righteous historical epic about racial inequality won the top award. Just because that type of movie is not going to be honored two years in a row does not make the Oscars racist.

Would it have been great to see Ava DuVernay be the first African-American woman nominated for best director for Selma? Sure it would have been. And if the nominations were chosen by a committee of old white men who got together to hash these things out -- and we sometimes discuss them as though they are -- then she surely would have been. Those dozen old white men would have been smart enough to know that it was a good opportunity to make such an historic nomination for DuVernay's achievement. (One I will finally be able to appreciate myself when I finally see Selma this weekend.)

But the Oscars are voted on by individuals, a whole lot of individuals, who come in all sizes, ages, packages, and yes, colors. They choose nominees from movies they've seen, by and large, and Selma didn't get its wide release until January in most parts of the U.S. They had their screeners, to be sure, but they also had to watch a bevy of other late releases.

The Oscars are at their most racist-seeming when they so obviously pander to their critics, as they did the other night. They are also pandering to those proud members of the Academy they believe they've offended ... and then making them help in the effort to save face.

The thing is, as the "Glory" victory proves, the Academy recognized it made some oversights this year, and compensated for them in the best way possible -- voting a great song to victory, and giving the first major motion picture about Martin Luther King at least one Oscar.

That's how you really show your character. Let's hope it was enough to make up for the first way they tried.

Monday, February 23, 2015

My highest Oscar stakes ... ever?


I haven't missed an Oscars since sometime in the late 1980s. But it's been a good ten years since I really felt the stakes of the contest.

Sure, every year I have my favorites, as well as those I really want to see shut out. But it's been since 1997 that my favorite film of the year actually had a legitimate chance of winning best picture. Titanic did that, but there also wasn't much drama to it. It was the foregonest of foregone conclusions.

In 2014, my favorite movie was Birdman (let's do away with the subtitle, even though it took more words to explain doing away with the subtitle than it would have to just type it). Birdman has an actual shot of winning best picture, and according to whom you ask, it may actually be the favorite. But it has no Titanic-sized lead, so it will be pretty exciting when some aging Hollywood luminary finally tears open that envelope.

A moment I'll be seeing probably about eight hours later than the rest of you will see it.

Yep, I'm in Australia, and yep, it's Monday, and yep, that means I go to work. The Oscars air both live here (at 12:30 p.m., the time I have to remind myself to get off Facebook) and then at some ungodly hour at night on replay (I think it's like 9:45, though only the broadcasters understand the thinking behind that time slot). Fortunately, I did remember to set up the recording last night (after a weekend away, when my brain was fried), so we should be able to settle in at a more reasonable 8 or 8:30, once our kids have finally given up for the night.

I said a few weeks ago that I may actually be rooting for Boyhood, Birdman's main competition, despite the fact Boyhood was only my #8 of the year, while Birdman was #1. I can't deny, though, that my tune has changed since then. I feel myself growing more excited the more I hear Birdman discussed as the potential winner, the more I see Birdman detractors starting to show sour grapes, which somehow seems like a confirmation of its impending victory. I mean, I won't be disappointed if Boyhood wins -- it's a great film whose win would say a lot for the Oscars' capacity to surprise us -- but I now know where my true rooting interests lie.

I don't know why I need the Academy or some other body to confirm my own tastes. Over the nearly 20 years I have been keeping track of my favorite movies of the year in list form, my #1 has only received a nomination for best picture five previous times: Titanic, Gosford Park, Lost in Translation, There Will Be Blood and 127 Hours. And that last probably only made it because of the expanded field of nominees. So I haven't had this type of alignment much, and I can honestly say I haven't needed it. If the Academy does not want to save a best picture slot for Ruby Sparks, that's their business. (Ha.)

But now when I'm faced with it, with the possibility of my own favorite film being feted as everyone's favorite film (so to speak), I am really relishing the possibility. Although critics should be confident in their pronouncements and must trust their own aesthetic sensibilities, we also want to be right. A conclusion we reached about a film before it was nominated for an Oscar is something we want to have validated, because it means, deep down, that we are actually good at our jobs. Or it might mean that, anyway.

So yeah, that's pretty high stakes indeed.

We will see in a couple hours whether I'm any good at mine.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

That smells stinkovich


Well it's official, I'm off on my 12-month journey to revisit the first six Star Wars movies. (I'd call them the only Star Wars movies, except that execrable piece of junk Star Wars: The Clone Wars actually got a theatrical release.)

Thanks to the Melbourne Public Library, which had a BluRay copy reserved for me last Wednesday when I showed up to pick it up, I watched Episode I - The Phantom Menace last Thursday night with more than two weeks to spare before my self-imposed end-of-February deadline.

The following disjointed collection of thoughts is how I feel about the movie now, nearly 16 years after I first saw it and probably 14 years since I last saw it. In upcoming installations of this series, I'll reflect on how the movies seem in comparison to each other while watching them during a relatively compacted time period ... though that obviously won't be possible after just the first one.

First, I must talk about Jar Jar Binks.

Over the years I have taken a contrarian's position on Mr. Binks. I have been so bored by the incredibly cliched perspective of hating George Lucas' most loathed creation, that I have become a Jar Jar Defender. That does not mean I like him, per se, but that I find him to be a piece of absurdist comedy rather than something actually obnoxious and loathsome. This perspective is divorced from the legitimate concerns about possible racial insensitivity in his depiction, which I think are not definitive enough to get stuck on. (Though I acknowledge their possible validity.)

One thing I'd forgotten about the movie is how many of Jar Jar's lines a friend of mine, who takes up a similar perspective on the character, and I used to quote. The fact that we could regularly crack each other up over idiotic lines of his brings a smile to my face. Anything that makes me feel that happy is something I view in a positive light, even if we're laughing at Jar Jar more than with him.

One of these is the line "That smells stinkovich," or probably "Dat smells stinkovich" if you want to cross that dangerous Ebonics line that Jar Jar is already flirting with. Of course, the word is not actually "stinkovich." If you look it up online, the imaginary word is apparently "stinkowiff," which makes more sense inasmuch as any of Jar Jar's jargon makes sense. I find it funnier, though, if the word has a random Russian suffix on it. So, "stinkovich" it is, and always shall be.

What else about this movie?

1) The Phantom Menace will always carry a certain cache as the only movie in which Darth Maul appears. It could be easily argued that Darth Maul is the most distinctive character of the prequel trilogy -- his main competition would be, I suppose, the aforementioned Mr. Binks. Qui-Gon Jinn (also only in this movie) might give him a run for this money if he didn't suffer from what one might call a "generic human Jedi" look. Anyway, he's definitely the coolest, and not just because he was the first one to bust out that two-sided lightsaber. (Interestingly, future Sith must have decided it was an inefficient weapon -- why else don't we see Darth Vader using one? Other than the fact that, you know, Lucas hadn't thought of it yet.) Oh Darth Maul, we hardly knew ye.

2) Jake Lloyd was not quite as bad as I remembered. There, I said it. He has been almost as much of a whipping boy as Jar Jar for, you know, general suckitude, so I thought it was worth saying that I found his performance non-terrible. Were you expecting a kid under the age of 10 to already project badassery? He's a little boy. Even evil masterminds were all once innocent little boys -- yes, probably even someone like Hitler. It's a point worth underscoring, especially in the context of the movies' six-episode arc, and Lloyd's performance effectively does that.

3) I was reminded of the moment I knew this didn't seem like one of our good old-fashioned Star Wars movies. It's when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are on Naboo, and they swim down to the Gungan city. I remember thinking "Water? There's no water in the Star Wars universe." Which of course there is, but having never seen anyone interact with water in these movies (other than the swamp on Dagobah), it stuck out like a sore thumb. The scene where they go through the planet core (also the source of some good Jar Jar quotes) just underscored the weirdness of water in the Star Wars universe. It made me wonder: Is a lightsaber waterproof?

4) Overall I guess I just kind of felt bored watching it. Maybe four times (twice previously in the theater, and once more on video) is just too many times to watch The Phantom Menace.

I'm sure I could write more, but a) do you really want it? and b) I started writing this nearly a week ago, and it's time to get the damn thing posted.

I'll be back here to discuss Episode II - Attack of the Clones sometime before the end of April.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Valentine's Days with Zoe Kazan


In the tradition of classic posts like "Father's Days with Richard Linklater," The Audient proudly presents "Valentine's Days with Zoe Kazan." We hope you enjoy it.

I don't know if it's her heart-shaped face or what, but we have spent each of our last two Valentine's Days with Zoe Kazan.

Last year I chose Valentine's Day as the time to expose my wife to my favorite movie of 2012, Ruby Sparks, which Kazan wrote and in which she stars. I might have been planning that particular viewing for a couple weeks, and made heart-shaped meatloaf to accompany it.

This year, Kazan's involvement in our Valentine's Day viewing was considerably more accidental. After I flamed out in an attempt to borrow romantic movies from the library -- I interpreted Anna Karenina as an appropriate choice, and am embarrassed I don't know more about the story -- I turned to good old iTunes as an option.

Actually, I'm lying a bit about the sequence of events. I didn't realize I'd flamed out on my choices (which also included Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and an inarguably romantic movie we'd both already seen, Moulin Rouge!) until after I'd already downloaded this week's 99 cent rental, which was on my list of movies to see in time for my 2014 rankings. And only after starting to download it did I recognize it as a good match for Valentine's Day (which is why Apple made it this week's 99 cent rental in the first place, I'm sure).

What If is one of about three different 2014 Zoe Kazan romantic comedies which, on their surface, might be easily confused for one another. In fact, if I'd seen any more than one of them I surely would have written a post about Kazan's ubiquitousness in 2014 indie romantic comedies. The others are The Pretty One (which I did see but did not like) and In Your Eyes (which is actually described as a "paranormal romance"). What If turns out to be the straight romantic comedy in the bunch. (One hopes it was the success of Ruby Sparks that got her these roles, in kind of the same way Matrix fans enjoy seeing Matrix knockoffs -- it confers a certain significance to the movie that I'm still hoping the larger world will retroactively assign to Ruby.)

There's nothing high concept in What If like there is in Ruby Sparks, but it also goes down more easily if your desire is not to be too challenged by your romantic movie. It's basically the story of a med school dropout (Daniel Radcliffe) who has been burned by love enough that he approaches every new potential romantic entanglement with wariness and cynicism. Until he meets the plucky Chantry (Kazan), whose only fault is that she already has a serious boyfriend (Rafe Spall) of five years. However, the two enjoy each other's company enough that they fall into the "friend zone," that relationship purgatory that they have varying degrees of interest in trying to escape. Advising them on their lives and decisions are a group of best friend types, who include Adam Driver and Megan Ward.

Pretty standard, right? But What If is elevated by intelligent dialogue and winning performances. The characters feel pretty fleshed out, and the scenarios they find themselves in give you good doses of both comedy and romance. One particularly nice moment on the latter front involves Kazan's character getting stuck while trying on a dress that's just barely too small for her. She's stuck at the point that the thing is mostly pulled off, but it's covering her eyes and she can't move in either direction at this point. She summons Radcliffe's character (Wallace) to the changing room to help with the emergency, but doesn't want him to see her bra and panties so requires him to close his eyes. It's a nice and tender scene. (I also like the fact that when she first calls out to him, he's checking his phone. I like movies that take the time to get the details right. If you're waiting for a female friend to try on a dress, you check your phone. It doesn't mean you're some kind of self-obsessed boob or that you can't devise more idealized ways of passing the time.)

So it was quite a lovely way to pass a Valentine's Day that also featured our favorite delivery pizza, beer, and ice cream treats on sticks to finish off the evening.

If it's still Valentine's Day where you are, enjoy this Valentine to you in the form of Zoe Kazan's heart-shaped face:

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Engineering the ultimate gender crossover


What one task is of utmost importance for studios who make movies for children?

If you answered "Create something that will appeal equally to boys and girls," give yourself a gold star.

We saw Disney openly struggle with this with Tangled, which they refused to name Rapunzel because they thought it was unlikely to woo little boys. (This being one of the only times a person can use the phrase "woo little boys" without feeling icky about it.)

The mentality continued, somewhat, by taking a movie about a punching bad guy brute from a video game (Wreck-It Ralph) and inserting the character into a game where all the colors are some shade of pink. Frozen slouched back toward what they were afraid of with Tangled, appealing more to girls than boys, but the results spoke for themselves. An unnecessary course correction came in last year's Big Hero 6, which wooed mostly only those little boys. (Don't you like how I talk about these movies as though they are conceived and delivered entirely since the most recent previous movie on Disney's release slate, rather than being massive ocean-liners whose course is almost impossible to correct.)

While doing boffo box office with their theatrical releases, though, Disney has also maintained a burgeoning straight-to-video business. And in early 2014 they released a movie that seemed designed to address any and all concerns about which gender would be more interested. Answer? Both.

It's The Pirate Fairy, as you likely surmised from the poster art above. The title contains one masculine word ("pirate"), one feminine word ("fairy") and one definite article ("the"). That's about as split down the middle as you can possibly get.

Too bad we couldn't have seen how it would have done theatrically.

Actually, The Pirate Fairy did have a theatrical release of sorts. It played in some theaters internationally, and played at the El Capitan Theater (but only that one theater) in Hollywood for three weeks in March. But despite boasting A-list vocal talent like Christina Hendricks, Tom Hiddleston, Mae Whitman and Lucy Liu, and looking like a shimmering example of state-of-the-art Disney animation, it was branded with the stigma of straight-to-video.

I know what little I know about The Pirate Fairy because my son borrowed it from the library last week, and watched it twice before he had to return it. Just stopping in the room in passing, I was so taken in by the quality of the images that I almost wanted to plop down on the couch and watch it with him. (My snooty disavowal of films released straight to video ultimately won out.)

My son is Exhibit A of the gender crossover working. I mean, I could take one look at this movie and say "This is a movie intended for girls." But all he saw were the pirates and pirate ships. (Plus, he doesn't yet consciously turn up his nose at things girls like.)

The funny thing is, despite how I've characterized this as some kind of cynical attempt on Disney's part to reach the most number of demographics possible, this movie has ancient origins. It's yet another product from Disney's expanded Peter Pan universe, which has also yielded the kids show Jake and the Never Land Pirates, one of my son's favorites. You could say Peter Pan was one of Disney's original gender crossovers, featuring both both flying sprites (Peter and Tinker Bell) and evil pirates (Captain Hook). In fact, The Pirate Fairy is the sixth in the straight-to-video Tinker Bell series of films, which in the past has included such girl-leaning titles as Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue and Secret of the Wings. Adding the word "pirate" to the title does grab the interest of boys like my son, but it actually adds nothing new to the Peter Pan universe.

Anyway.

One thing I thought was funny about it was that it put me in a position of having to try to explain the concept of a prequel to my son. The villain in The Pirate Fairy is Captain Hook, but it's when he's younger and still has both hands. I don't think my son got this when he was watching because, well, he doesn't look like Captain Hook.

But in a little interlude that gets dropped into the closing credits, you see Hook, vanquished, hanging on to a bobbing wooden barrel in the ocean. He's using a hook to help grapple with the spinning barrel (wink). He's saved when a ship pulls alongside, and over the side pops Smee, Hook's eventual sidekick, who hadn't previously appeared in the movie (according to my son).

Later, my son asked me, "Dad, what was Smee doing there in the ocean?" He clearly didn't get how this story was associated with the world of Peter Pan at all, it taking place some 10 or 20 years earlier.

I tried to explain it, but laughed at myself upon hearing myself say things like "The events of this story take place before the events of Peter Pan." Even if he understood the chronological sequencing I was trying to convey, which is doubtful, he probably wouldn't understand what I was talking about anyway because he has not actually seen Peter Pan. In fact, I'm not even sure if he knows who the character Peter Pan is. I should have told him that it takes place before Jake and the Never Land Pirates, but to be honest, I'm not even sure how that show fits into the larger narrative.

Maybe the thing to do is get our hands on a copy of Peter Pan, and try to start showing him how it all fits together.

That can be the test run that prepares us for the screwy chronology of the Star Wars movies, which we plan to show him next year or the year after.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Long-movie Tuesdays


Hey, did I tell you? I've got a new schedule.

It's not new new, but as of about a month ago, I've started working part time. I'm trading places with my wife, who was working part time for the first year after our second son was born (the last eight months, actually, as the first four were maternity leave). That year came to an end in January. But because we don't want him to go to daycare any more than his current three days, that necessitated a change in my schedule. And since I both make less money and have less of a career going than she does, it wasn't a difficult decision to knock my work week down to three days. (The difficult part will be next month, when I have to find a new part-time job because my current job could only employee me part-time until March.)

This means I watch the 13-month-old on Tuesdays and both him and the four-year-old on Wednesdays.

Since the 13-month-old still takes two naps a day and is essentially malleable to my whims, my Tuesdays are now my favorite day of the week.

Those two naps can occupy up to four hours of the day, leaving me plenty of time for various cleaning projects ... and of course, watching movies.

The cleaning projects have taken precedence on my first handful of Tuesdays under the new schedule, but I've just this week thought of a good way to fit in the movies.

Now, watching an entire movie on a Tuesday may sometimes be possible, though it feels a little indulgent. While his nap can run 2.5 hours on a rare occasion, the more likely duration is around 100 minutes, meaning I could only complete a movie if I started it the moment he falls asleep.

A better use of his naps on Tuesday -- his second naps, so I can be productive during the first and reward myself during the second -- will be to finally watch some of those movies on Netflix that have always seemed like too much of an undertaking to handle on any random weeknight. That's right, I'm talking about the behemoths, the movies that are over two-and-a-half hours long.

Sure, you can start a movie like this one night, take six mini naps on the couch and realize at 12:47 a.m. that you still have more than half of the movie to go. Sure, you can finish it on the next night.

But how much better to fit it all into the same day? Watch as much as you can in the afternoon, then finish up the remaining portion before bed?

I did the trial run of this yesterday, when I finally tackled Once Upon a Time in the West -- one of the finalists for the movie I was most embarrassed I had never seen in this post. In the past I had looked at its 165-minute running time and thought "Eh, not tonight." But when tonight becomes this afternoon, your whole perspective changes.

As it turns out, I saw an hour of it while my son was sleeping and then easily tackled the remaining 1:45 that night. And ended up loving it. That's a big deal for the western genre, which leaves me cold a lot more often than it hits for me.

Now, I don't want to commit to anything so regular as knocking off a behemoth every Tuesday, even as I feel bullish by the success of yesterday's experiment. But there's something exciting about the idea that these movies, which I've wanted to see for years, will no longer get passed over simply because of how many minutes of celluloid they contain. I'm starting to imagine the possibilities as I type this.

Goliaths? Your David has come to slay you.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Steps taken to avoid hagiography


"Hagiography" is a word that has not been in my vocabulary for all that long, maybe only the past couple years.

If it's not in your vocabulary, it refers to a biographical treatment of a person (or I suppose in some circumstances an entity, like a charitable organization or sports team) that tends to lionize that person as a saint, ignoring noteworthy faults that shouldn't be ignored if the intention is a complete and honest portrait. A hagiography is almost always bad, as it is thought of as manipulative ("whitewashing" is the decidedly more negative term you will often also hear used). But I suppose in certain contexts (like political propaganda) it might be praised if it is done shrewdly enough.

Of course, in any serious film about a historical figure, you'd want to shoot squarely for biography, and would roll up your sleeves and fight someone if they called your movie a hagiography.

The biography/hagiography divide struck me last night as I was watching John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln for the first time. Upon reaching the end, I specifically had the thought that it was more a biography than a hagiography, because I thought Henry Fonda really captured the ways Abraham Lincoln was human (in addition to getting down his look and posture to an alarmingly precise degree).

Of course, when I read an old colleague's review of Young Mr. Lincoln on my former site AllMovie.com, the first line was "More hagiography than biography, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) took such outrageous liberties with historical fact that its value as a portrait of the nation's sixteent president remains questionable."

Oh well. Back to the drawing board, Vance.

Of course, my colleague then goes on to characterize this as nonetheless one of the greatest works in the careers of either Ford or Fonda, its failure to follow historical fact and its (apparently minimal) whitewashing of Lincoln being secondary to its other successful elements. He's most interested in the fact that the court case that makes up the spine of the plot, as this movie focuses on the early legal career of the man on the $5 bill, was based on an actual trial covered by the screenwriter when he was a reporter, not something that occurred in the 1830s.

However, we rightly tend to measure movies by the overall thrust of their truth, rather than the accuracy of the details. And my colleague and I both agree that the overall thrust of this one is splendid.

Still, I was now possessed of a desire to examine why I had said this movie, which is obviously very generous toward Lincoln, falls short of hagiography. So if you don't want to know anything about Young Mr. Lincoln, a 76-year-old movie, you'd be advised to stop reading at this point.

I suppose it's the little places where it zigs when it could have zagged in portraying the man. Here are a couple of them.

1) When quelling the fire of an angry mob looking to lynch a couple brothers accused of murder, Lincoln shouts down the ringleaders as they are trying to break into a home with a large pole. He then tells any of them to fight him individually, "because I could lick anyone here." Whether true or not -- and I think true, since Lincoln was known for his wrestling skills -- the subject of a hagiography would not typically boast about his fighting prowess. That said, he's "boasting" merely in the context of a larger rhetorical argument in which he is trying to save two men who haven't had a fair trial from vigilante justice.

2) Several times throughout the movie, Lincoln is seen draping himself over various furniture with his legs kicked up in the air, either lost in thought or being deliberately provocative as part of a strategy for questioning a witness. The subject of a hagiography would not have such little respect for the laws of proper body decorum, would he?

3) Lincoln delivers several well-timed barbs designed to humiliate an opponent, particularly his opposing counsel. The whole room collapses in hysterics. The subject of a hagiography would never stoop to such levels of common insult, would he?

3) But here was the moment that got me really thinking about the hagiography/biography divide. As the family is pulling out of town on their coach at the end, their sons having been exonerated of the crime in question, the matriarch offers Lincoln a pittance for his legal services. "We ain't got much, but here's a little something for your troubles," she says, or something to that effect. Knowing how they are just scraping by and that the future won't be easy for them, a hagiographical Lincoln should have politely declined the offering, as it means much more to them than it does to him. But this Lincoln politely accepted it. Of course, dig a little deeper into this moment and you realize couple things: 1) He did work their case and he did exonerate the sons, so he is of course entitled to demand a fee, and 2) He probably considered it a point of pride for this woman to be able to pay for his services rendered, and to be viewed as a charity case would deflate that pride indeed.

Okay, so maybe Young Mr. Lincoln is a bit of a hagiography after all. But when you're talking about one of the greatest human beings America has ever produced, you might have a hard time deliver anything but.