Saturday, December 16, 2017

The surprise accessibility of The Room

I'd heard that Tommy Wiseau kept The Room under lock and key, tightly controlling its distribution, forcing you to either purchase it from his website (only in physical, not digital, form) or go to a Saturday midnight screening. He did this either out of eccentricity or a shrewd plan for his own maximum profitability.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found the complete movie available on YouTube.

This may be a "known secret," but you can watch The Room in its entirety for free, as long as you are willing to put up with Spanish subtitles on the screen. And really, why wouldn't you be -- it's not like it would distract from the movie's copious amounts of artistry or anything. (In fact, I found it a useful way to brush up on my Spanish a bit.)

Since YouTube is regularly scrubbed by entities who have the copyright to various material, I thought it was strange that The Room slipped through, as Wiseau would seem to be just as keen to protect what's his as those studios. And it's not like I caught it during some limited window of its availability before it gets removed -- it's been viewed nearly 400,000 times. (And searching just now, I actually found another version, so Wiseau is really lying down on the job.)

I've already seen The Disaster Artist so I had not particularly planned to watch The Room again, at least not right now. But the same was not true of my wife. She was toying with the idea of seeing The Disaster Artist on Thursday, but had lamented only a few days earlier "I guess I'll never see The Room." Being unwilling as she was to go to a midnight screening, which is what I did when I first saw it back in 2013.

That comment prompted me to start looking into securing a copy of The Room as a surprise for her, which is when I discovered that digital isn't one of the purchase options on Wiseau's website. (To think that I might have paid $15 or whatever he saw it fit to charge for this movie, only was stopped by concerns of shipping logistics.) Then I thought to check on YouTube, and lo and behold.

I meant for it to be a surprise for our Friday night viewing, but this is when she mentioned the possible plan to see it on Thursday, so I had to show my cards. She went to see The Last Jedi instead. Funny that The Disaster Artist would have been her preference among those two. You can really tell the difference between a casual Star Wars fan and a serious one.

I enjoyed -- if that is the right word for it -- my second viewing of The Room more than my first, if only because I could actually hear all the awful dialogue rather than having an audience full of delirious fans laughing and chanting over it. Every moment with Wiseau on screen is sheer joy, though many of the other moments really drag. (Juliette Danielle as Lisa has some great random line deliveries as well.) There are some especially slow moments near the start and I was worried I might lose my wife, who was pretty tired after a holiday lunch earlier that day in which alcohol was consumed, and who has been known lately to give up on under-performing movies for lesser reasons. So I was glad when it picked up and she got in a bunch of good laughs.

Really glad I did not pay for it and now own it, though. It's bad, but it's a bad I would not subject myself to regularly. I probably will watch it a few more times in my life -- especially if it stays available on YouTube -- but actually owning it seems to over-represent my own level of affection for it.

And though I did quite like The Disaster Artist, I listened to a fairly convincing podcast takedown of it earlier that same day. When I watched The Room and found that what I had seen in The Disaster Artist did not significantly inform what I was watching now -- it did not deepen my appreciation, I mean -- that may have taken it down a notch as well. Still nestled safely within my top 20 of the year for now, though.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The enduring need for children's entertainment

When I was at Target on Tuesday for a little Christmas shopping, I happened to notice The Emoji Movie for sale on DVD. It came out here in September, so December is a logical time for the DVD release. No big whoop.

However, then I was at the Hoyts Highpoint on Wednesday for a little Daddy’s Home 2 and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and I also saw The Emoji Movie available there. It was still, somehow, clinging to a nominal theatrical release, playing exactly once per day in a pre-noon showing.

Which goes to show just how much Australian parents require a cinematic babysitter for their kids.

Now granted, that’s not a suggestion that Australians rely excessively on screens to entertain their children. If anything, I’d say Australian parents are probably a bit better about that than their American counterparts. It’s really more of a commentary on Australian theater chains and their mission to cater to all demographics at all times.

I’ll note that at the time I saw that “there are no more showings today for this feature – please contact staff to enquire about tomorrow’s showings,” the last showing of The Emoji Movie, period, had already played. This was Wednesday at midnight when Star Wars was about to premiere, and lo and behold, Ferdinand also opened on Thursday. As soon as The Emoji Movie was no longer needed, it dutifully shuffled off into oblivion.

What I find interesting about this is that it represents a wholly different mentality from the U.S. Theatrical windows in the U.S. seem to be based a lot more on cold, hard dollars and cents. If a movie is earning, it stays, and if there’s nothing but violent action movies playing at a particular theater, meaning there’s nothing for the kids to watch, well then that’s just too bad for them. All money is equal, and the U.S. theaters don’t care whether it’s the violent action movies or the family friendly movies that are doing the earning.

Not so, or not quite so, in Australia. I’d imagine that the holy dollar continues to be the largest motivating factor, but a something-for-everyone mentality also plays a role in what stays and what goes. It’s been a weird year for animation, with not a lot of really compelling features and some big gaps between their releases. It may not be that The Emoji Movie was particularly performing for Hoyts, it’s just there was nothing to take its place. In Australia, that matters. In the U.S., not so much.

It also seems a bit or a lot less likely for American theater chains to keep around a movie that will play in only one time slot each day. Perhaps the fees paid by cinemas for the right to show movies are structured differently here, but I get the feeling you can’t keep around a niche movie in the U.S. because the cost is prohibitively high. When you have the right to show a movie, that means you have the right to show it 20 times a day if you want. You'd pay the same price to show it only once. Not so in Australia, or at least potentially not so. (What do I know? I’m not looking this stuff up.)

Something about seeing The Emoji Movie still available warmed my heart; it felt like an endorsement of my own perspective on the movie. I saw it with my younger son at this same theater back before Halloween, in that same pre-noon screening slot, which even then was the only time it was screening (if I remember correctly). I think it was even before 11, actually. I think I liked it more than he did, but we both liked it, making us two of the only people in the world who can claim that. The fact that it played at this theater for like three months feels like a small bit of evidence that we’re not crazy.

Or, maybe just evidence that Australian theater owners are.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

This year's Star Wars appetizer

I’m groggy as hell today and probably shouldn’t be writing a blog post at all, but then again, that’s easier than working. I slept less than four hours, in case you’re wondering. I got home around 3:15 a.m. and then stayed up for another ten minutes beyond that, because whenever you get home, you can’t go to bed immediately -- even if it’s 3:15.

And though I won’t tell you about Star Wars: The Last Jedi – even whether I liked it – I did think I could spend a few minutes on what I watched as an appetizer.

Because I have to take advantage of any nights out of the house I get to watch movies, especially as my year-end list closes a little more than a month from now, I’ve seen it fit to catch a movie before my midnight Star Wars viewing each of the past two years, letting me out in plenty of time to queue up for the midnight screening. But because December is weirdly kind of a dead zone for new releases in Australia – many of the prestige awards movies don’t hit here until January or February, informally kicked off by Boxing Day – I am usually stuck with something a bit less than award-worthy. Making it a true cinematic appetizer, an amuse bouche maybe, rather than a film of equivalent stature to Star Wars.

As it happens, both of those films have been sequels to Christmas comedies.

I could have called this post “Daddy’s Home and daddy’s not home,” if I wanted to make a reference to absentee father Han Solo from The Force Awakens. But I’ve gone with what I’ve gone with, and that is that.

I did indeed see Daddy’s Home 2 – or Daddy’s Home Two, as it is written in the credits – in the slot in which I saw Bad Santa 2 last year. The similarities extend beyond their status as Christmas comedy sequels. Even as I viewed myself to be sort of “stuck” with these movies, when I would rather be ticking off awards contenders, I did like the first movie in both series, after a bit of an initial bad taste. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the original Bad Santa after my first viewing, but came to really like it after my second. That trajectory was significantly compacted for the first Daddy’s Home. That movie has a really bad, really broad first half, before bringing it home with a very satisfying second half.

This is where the similarities end.

I really disliked Bad Santa 2. I mean, intensely. Looking back on my star rating on Letterboxd, I gave it only a single star. It was difficult to find even any rancid delights in that movie. I’m not sure I smiled or chuckled even once.

Oddly, and somewhat shamefully, I am willing to go as high as 3.5 stars on Daddy’s Home 2/Two. That’s a half star higher than I gave the first (a bad first half and a good second half averages out to a three, in case you’re interested). What can I say, I really enjoyed it. Oddly, it does have a similar structure to the first movie in terms of having a second half that’s better than its first – odd because that’s a fairly rare thing to find in movies in general. But in this case the first half was not as bad as the first half of Daddy’s Home, so when it brought it home again, it brought it to that higher star-rating plane.

That puts me wildly at odds with its score of 30 on Metacritic, but what can I say – it’s something I’m getting accustomed to with 2017 films.

But did I like it better or worse than Star Wars: The Last Jedi?

That’s something I will reveal to you, once a few more days have passed and some of you have actually seen it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Another Star Wars opening, this time with mates

For the third straight year, I’m going to know what happens in the latest Star Wars movie as many as 48 hours earlier than you will.

This time, some mates are joining me.

The “crazy scheme” – well, crazy for a 44-year-old with kids – of going to the first midnight showings of Star Wars: The Last Jedi has been cosigned by two friends who used to work with me. Then again, one of them isn’t working at all right now, and the other isn’t starting work the next day until 1 p.m. So I still “out-crazy” them.

If it’s possible, I am even more ignorant about this movie than I was with either of the previous two since Disney bought Star Wars. In those instances, I never saw a full trailer, but I did see snippets of footage here and there, due to the difficulty of fully avoiding that type of thing. This year, I somehow never found myself in front of any footage, never needed to avert my eyes. Even though I’ve been going to the theater at least once per week, and certainly haven’t been consciously avoiding the types of movies that might expose me to these trailers, I have not had to cover my eyes or plug my ears even once.

I wonder if it’s been easier to avoid temptation because this is the first of the recent Star Wars movies not to contain anything “new.” The Force Awakens had new characters, plus the first glimpses of what the old characters looked like at this age, in their familiar duds. Rogue One had an (almost) entirely new cast of characters. The Last Jedi would figure to involve mostly characters we met last time, and even though we didn’t get to see Luke in action, we did see him, so he’s not a huge novelty either.

On the other hand, I can’t believe the temptation hasn’t won me over simply because of how good I expect this to be.

You got the sense that Disney was confident in J.J. Abrams, and rightly so – he delivered a very satisfying Star Wars movie, one that was probably safe in some respects but actually quite risky in others. However, at that time, Abrams was not tasked with directing any other movies in the series. (He has since replaced Colin Trevorrow on Episode IX.)

With Rian Johnson, we have the recent announcement that he is going to be directing three more Star Wars movies. No creative personality other than George Lucas has been given this much control over the vision and trajectory of Star Wars. In fact, if all goes as planned, by the late 2020s Johnson will have directed as many Star Wars movies as Lucas did.

I hardly think that kind of commitment would be warranted if this movie weren’t fucking awesome.

Unfortunately, it’s also fucking long, the longest in the series to date. When you factor in trailers and commercials, the 152 minutes of The Last Jedi will be dumping me out on the street, blurry but hopefully giddy, at 2:53 a.m. And I need to be at work at 8:30.

You know, maybe I’ll skip that midnight viewing of Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Either that or planned to be unemployed.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The wrong year for Woody

As Time magazine names the Me Too movement it's Person of the Year -- in what functions as a direct rebuke to the guy who says he was their first choice, Donald Trump -- it's certainly the wrong year to be supporting Woody Allen's latest project.

And yet I am going to see Wonder Wheel tonight ... just as I saw Cafe Society last year, Irrational Man the year before that, Magic in the Moonlight the year before that and Blue Jasmine the year before that. (At least I missed two of three movies before that.)

Then again, the only one of those movies I actually paid for was Blue Jasmine. Magic in the Moonlight was on a plane, Irrational Man was with my critics cards and Cafe Society was a press screening. Tonight I will again be using my critics card.

The thing is, I really liked two of those movies (Moonlight and Society), sort of liked one of them (Jasmine) and only hated one of them (Irrational). It's probably Woody's turn to make another movie I hate. We'll see.

What keeps me coming back is not merely, or at least mostly, the possibility of something good. It's that I find Allen's a career that's really easy to write about. This will be his third movie I am reviewing for ReelGood -- a benchmark that's been easy to obtain because he makes one movie per year, and no one else is that keen to review his movies. So I've got my talking points down (getting old, accused of sexual misdeeds, makes one movie per year) and I can just slot this particular movie into wherever he stands within his own personal trajectory.

I am conscious of the fact that I am continuing to give Allen my attention, if not my money. But then, I am always a guy who tries to separate the art from the artist. Or, if I'm punishing the artist's art because I don't like the artist, I'm more likely to punish the artist for tweeting too much about his movie (James Gunn in Guardians 2) than for sleeping with and marrying his stepdaughter.

That's pretty fucked up when you look at it like that.


I probably should have saved this post until after I'd seen the movie, but tomorrow will be time to post about Star Wars: The Last Jedi on this blog -- as I am seeing it tomorrow night at midnight!

Monday, December 11, 2017

My fourth Awakens

When Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out in December 2015, I prepared for it by watching all six previous Star Wars movies, chronologically in terms of the storyline, one every two months starting in February.

My preparations for Star Wars: The Last Jedi are a bit more modest. I'm just watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

And I likely would not have done even that except that they revisited their review of the movie on Filmspotting to whet our appetites for the new movie. And whet mine it did. In fact, I became so whetted that after listening to that on Friday, I determined that I was going to watch it on Saturday night -- and wasn't dissuaded from that position even once I found that the movie was no longer streaming on Netflix. Undeterred, I downloaded it from iTunes.

As this was my fourth viewing, it puts the movie in very rare company indeed: It's one of only a few films I can definitely say I have seen four times in the first two years of their existence. In fact, there's only one other one that I am 100% sure of, which is Pulp Fiction, still my personal record holder for the most number of theatrical viewings at four. That record will likely never be broken, nor will the record for the speed of reaching a fourth viewing after its release date. But The Force Awakens is now in rarefied company indeed, reaching its fourth viewing even faster than Spring Breakers, which took two years and four months to get there. (However, Breakers did that without the benefit of two theatrical viewings, which is a different kind of impressive.)

That tends to exaggerate how much I like The Force Awakens, actually. Obviously I like it quite a bit, but if I were making a list of my top 25 movies of the decade -- as I will be in about two years -- I don't even know that I would consider it a serious contender. An honorable mention at best.

One reason I've seen it so much, of course, is that it's Star Wars. My total number of viewings of even The Phantom Menace is four, possibly as many as five. (And will become a definite five and possible six whenever I end up watching it with my kids.) The Phantom Menace is not, of course, a great movie. But it is Star Wars, and that counts for a lot.

I don't know that my fourth viewing has given me many or even any new takeaways, but it did seem worth noting on my blog, if only for the play on words in the subject line and to do a little bit of pre-Last Jedi hype. (However, you should expect a hype post with an actual Last Jedi poster before the week is out.)

I did have one observation that could apply to almost any movie like this, and it has to do with the internal timeframe. How many days is this movie supposed to take? Once the action really gets going, one thing flows into the other and we don't see anybody sleep -- nor is it even implied that they do. This is just a screenwriting shortcut of course -- sleep is boring and you don't need to see it -- but the only nightfall we can even be sure happens is when Rey eats her dinner and saves BB8 from the fellow scavenger. Beyond that, you wouldn't be surprised to learn that the period of time between Rey engaging in her normal daily routine of scavenging parts from downed star destroyers to having a lightsaber duel with one of the most powerful Sith apprentices in existence is about 36 hours.

I also wanted to push back against a strain of Star Wars criticism that I find to be totally unfounded. There's an article going around the internet right now that speaks of Kylo Ren's popularity relative to that of the infamous Jar Jar Binks, the result of a recent survey. Apparently, Binks placed ahead of both Ren and Mace Windu.

I didn't dignify this by reading the details, so I have no idea why Windu is unpopular, but I've heard that Ren's lack of popularity is not only a function of his notorious act of patricide. Apparently, people really take issue with his "emo ways," drawing unfavorable comparisons between Adam Driver's portrayal of that role and Hayden Christensen's portrayal of Anakin Skywalker. I don't think Christensen fully deserves his own bad rap, but Driver definitely doesn't deserve it. Looking at the four major characters introduced in The Force Awakens -- I will include Poe Dameron in that group, and exclude Snoke and General Hux -- Kylo Ren is at an equal level of interest for me as Rey and Finn, and slighly ahead of Poe. And that has entirely to do with Driver's performance. In fact, I would say that I did not like Driver prior to this movie and was wary of his involvement. Now, I look forward to every next thing I see him in.

The next of which will be a little movie called Star Wars: The Last Jedi, opening here on Thursday.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Dave Bautista is a national treasure

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may take an unusual honor on my blog: most times tagged in one of my posts before actually being seen by me. Before Friday night's viewing, I had already talked about the movie five times, in subjects ranging from my anticipation for it, to my reluctance to see it, to my annoyance over its director's tweets, to its poster campaign.

And now that I have finally see it, I have a very similar takeaway to the first movie:

Dave Bautista is awesome.

Dave Bautista was the best part of the first movie, and indeed continues in that regard here. Not only is he the funniest character, but he also has the best character arc (of sorts), and the most touchingly genuine scenes. Drax the Destroyer is easily my favorite Guardian, but more than that, he may be one of my favorite Marvel characters, period.

And that's thanks to Bautista.

As you likely already know, Bautista is one of those who has followed in the footsteps of Dwayne Johnson and made the transition from professional wrestling to acting. He may be the best example of that successful transition other than Johnson himself, who is a true force of nature in the entertainment world, having recently become the highest paid actor in Hollywood. (And if the rumors are to be believed, even a possible candidate for president -- and I can see no reason why he would not win there as well.)

But while Johnson is undoubtedly a singular phenomenon of charisma and I always enjoy watching him, I cannot say he has always been good. Without even delving into his filmography, where I'm sure I could find other examples, I'll mention his weak performances in such films as Southland Tales and Central Intelligence. I wanted to like him in those films, but he was just bad.

Dave Bautista has yet to be bad. At least, not in any film I've seen.

In 2017 we've already gotten two examples of the ways he's improved the films he's in. It's not that difficult to be the best thing in a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, because I'd argue the material is a little overrated, but it's quite something else to be the best thing in a Blade Runner movie. Indeed, I've gone on record saying that Dave Bautista was my favorite part of Blade Runner 2049, and given that he's only in one ten-minute scene, that's really saying something.

What is it about Bautista? It's hard to put my finger on it. But he has something undefinable that all good actors share: a sense of intelligence he brings to the work, which shines through even when the character is not intended to be particularly smart. Given his hulking frame, Bautista has never been cast as a genius, though the spectacles he wears in Blade Runner 2049 do give him something of the aspect of an intellectual. But acting smarts are a powerful form of intelligence that make even a dumb character seem shrewdly played.

And that's what Bautista does. He seems keenly able to focus in on the core of a character and bring out its essence.

Not only that, he can play a range of emotions, from serious to comic. In Guardians of course his function is comic, but even in the two different movies he exemplifies a different kind of comedy. In the first, his lines are funny because he doesn't understand they're funny, and in fact is incapable of doing anything but speaking his mind. In the second, he's a bit more overtly funny, as his character has made a choice to get in touch with the funny things in the world and laughs regularly. When an actor is required to laugh heartily for a role, rarely does it seem as genuine as Bautista makes it here.

Of course, neither should Bautista be mistaken for just a comedic performer. In Blade Runner 2049, it's the world weariness he brings to that character that's so striking. He's been living humbly, quietly, as a rogue replicant just trying to play out the string in peace, despite a sadness that must make his days unendurable. Bautista communicates all of this with a few glances and lines of dialogue. He's switched on. You can see the light emanating from him.

It strikes me as funny that I am making these estimations about him based only on four films. In addition to the three I've already mentioned, I've also seen Bautista in Spectre, where he really is pretty much used just for his muscle and physique, as a henchman. And while I can't remember him making an impression on me one way or another in that film, when he came up recently in discussion, a friend made a pitch for how good he is in that movie too. If I didn't find the rest of that movie pretty boring, I might watch it again just to pay special attention to the intelligent touches he undoubtedly brings.

Bautista is 48, three years older than Johnson, so it's hard to tell if this is just the start of many other great things, or whether we've already seen the best Bautista has to offer. But age is certainly not a consideration for Johnson, as there's every reason to expect he will look just about as he does now for another ten years. The same could certainly be said for Bautista, and if other casting directors out there see what I see -- and how can they not -- we may get plenty of Bautista roles beyond his next appearance as Drax in Avengers: Infinity War.

So I'm going to go out on a limb here with a wild prediction: Dave Bautista is going to win an Oscar.

"Huh?" you say. "Yeah, he's good, but he will never even get cast in the type of role that wins Oscars, let alone be good enough to actually win the award."

Noted. But when actors are good, they find their way into the strangest of places. And just because you didn't start out as a professionally trained actor does not preclude you from winning an Oscar. Just ask Cher, Jennifer Hudson and Mo'Nique.

Even if all Dave Bautista does in the future is bring soul to Drax the Destroyer again, I'll be there to appreciate the hell out of it.

Oh, and I should not leave this post before actually telling you what I thought about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The five previous mentions, many of them wary, demand it.

Well, I liked it! "Liked" is as far as I will go, but I did like it just a bit more than the first one. Obviously this is a minority opinion, but the comparison I made to Blade Runner 2049 in my post earlier this week is especially instructive given that Bautista appears in both movies (something I didn't recognize at the time I made the comparison). In that post I said that people who didn't particularly love the first Blade Runner seem to enjoy 2049 better, and that's me for this series. If I had loved Guardians of the Galaxy, like 4.5 stars, and said that Vol. 2 was even better, that would be crazy talk. But since I think Guardians of the Galaxy is a three-star movie, I have no problem telling you that I gave Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 a half star more than that. Oh sure, I have issues with parts of it (particularly the climactic battle and overly sentimental ending), but other parts make up for that, such as the inspired opening sequence.

And Drax. Drax makes up for it. The recurring laughter bit is great, but what I really enjoyed was his relationship with Mantis, the empath and new addition to the cast. What I like about their relationship encapsulates what I like about Bautista's Drax, which is his genuineness. We can tell that they have a little chemistry between them, but it does not develop in the expected ways, primarily because Drax -- who basically cannot lie -- tells her how ugly he thinks she is. He says she is awful to look at and the idea of physical intimacy with her makes him physically sick.

Of course, Mantis is a fairly unique being so she is a bit taken aback by this, but not offended in the way that a more traditionally socialized creature would be. That's what makes her a good match for Drax. And what's nice is that Drax loves her for what's inside her. Even at the end, when we think the movie is going to soften his stance and that he is going to learn to be physically as well as emotionally attracted to her, it doesn't go that way. "You're beautiful too," he says. "On the inside."

If it's wrong to love Dave Bautista, I don't want to be right.

Friday, December 8, 2017

American accents we never hear

I just checked, and I have seen 21 Steve Coogan movies.

In the first 20, he used his normal speaking voice. But that streak has now come to an end with The Dinner.

It didn't occur to me how weird this was until I actually heard that unfamiliar noise coming out of his head.

His first words in the movie are actually voiceover, so that was a bit further disorienting ... but as he was the character on screen, I thought there was at least a decent chance that this was supposed to be his voice.

It's not only supposed to be. It is.

We don't hear it all that often, since Coogan seems to be defined by his own Britishness more than other British actors are -- if only because half the movies he's in he's either playing himself, or a thinly veiled version of himself. And in the Trip movies, he's usually impersonating other British celebrities, making his already very British humor even more British.

But yes, like his fellow countrymen, Coogan can in fact do an American accent.

At first I was very distracted by it. I thought it was a bad American accent, just because it felt so disconnected from him. The other British thespians we love, especially nowadays, have been forced to do American accents very early on in their careers, especially if they're successful. We may even associate an American speaking voice with them just as much as we associate a British speaking voice. (Or Australian, of course -- I privately think Australians do the best American accents.)

Coogan feels a bit different. It could be that he doesn't have typical movie star good looks, but he "looks British" more than, say, Michael Fassbender. (I guess this is where we should start making finer definitions of our terms -- while they are both "British" in a broader sense, Coogan is English while Fassbender is Irish, or German-Irish if you want to be even more precise.)

In the end I did come around on both his accent and his performance in this film, just as I came around on the film as a whole. That makes three straight movies I've seen this week that were real growers, starting out slowly with what appeared to be a surfeit of unnecessary character development, before really hitting their stride as the movie went along.

Will Guardians of the Galaxy 2 be the fourth tonight?

Somehow I doubt that.

As for Coogan, though ... I still think he shouldn't quit his day accent.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The value in the build-up

I’ve seen two movies this week that run in excess of 130 minutes, both of which expend the majority
of their running time on the lead-up to a major event in which people burned to death.

That sounds pretty grim for two movies that celebrate the human spirit, but there it is.

There are very different types of fires at the climaxes of Only the Brave and In This Corner of the World. In the former, it’s an Arizona wildfire that claims 19 brave firefighters; the latter, the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, which killed as many as 80,000 more than that.

Rightly or wrongly – and I’ve determined it’s rightly – neither event is the focus of the film in which it appears. That focus is squarely on the people, a decision which may at first seem frustrating, but gradually proves its worth as the movie goes on.
I probably need to explain that a bit. As I agree with Roger Ebert’s idea that film is the ultimate empathy machine, I certainly can’t quibble with any time a film spends on developing its characters. But both of the films in question meandered more than I expected on their way to a very powerful denouement. As the anime film, Corner both meandered more and contained the more powerful denouement. The Hollywood film did a little less of both, but enough of each for me to note the discrepancy.

Although I’m generally in favor of a tight script when all else is equal, a flabbier script with better character development is certainly a welcome, er, development. It may be the only way for film to take back some of the ground it’s lost to TV. When a character dies in a TV show, you may have been following that character for a couple seasons rather than a couple hours. A great film will accumulate two seasons’ worth of emotional impact in two hours, but in general you’d think that developing such an investment in the characters would be more a matter of time. It’s invariable, to some extent.

Both of these films gave that the time – at least within the limitations of their status as feature films. Enough time is spent living with these characters before the event that defines them befalls them. They are really flesh-and-blood souls when we lose them (or don’t lose them, as the case may be).

I don’t know that I’m saying anything particularly profound here, only that seeing two movies like that on consecutive nights really made me notice it. The anime movie might have always been made that way, but Only the Brave didn’t need to be, and probably wouldn’t have been just a few years ago. As I wrote in my review, the comparative quickness of the fire that did kill them gave the filmmakers no choice but to shift focus elsewhere. Still, they could have easily made a 110-minute film rather than a 134-minute one.

And though I stopped short of actual demonstrable emotion – no tears – I felt myself on the verge of being choked up by the ends of both movies. You might say that’s just good old-fashioned cinema. I say, I don’t mind pausing to celebrate it nonetheless. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The value of holding out

At this time of year, my film-watching selectivity kind of goes out the window. As you may recall from previous times I’ve discussed this, the movies I watch (and rank) in a given year are meant to comprise a representative sample of what was out in that year, meaning all genres, intended for all demographics. As the year-end crunch begins, what I watch becomes as much a function of opportunity as anything else. If something is easily accessible based on opportunity (i.e. low/no cost, only thing playing at a certain time, etc.) I will watch it. The only time I’m making qualitative choices is if all else is equal (two movies playing at the same time and I can only see one, two movies available from the kiosk and can only rent one). Or, of course, if it’s something I’m looking forward to.

But there’s a flip side to the whole “representative sample” argument. Not only do I want to see a little of everything, but I don’t want to see all of anything. A representative sample does not mean, for example, every comic book movie released in a certain year. If I can leave at least one off, I feel like I’m honoring my watching/ranking philosophy a bit better.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was to be that choice this year. There were a number of reasons for this.

      1)  I didn’t care for the first one all that much. It was okay.
      2)   I’m really, really, really sick of the social media presence of director James Gunn, and the way he luxuriates in the spotlight.
      3)  I heard this one wasn’t very good, anyway.

But then today this resolution came in direct conflict with my philosophies on accessibility and availability. As I was returning The Zookeeper’s Wife – a classic December accessibility option – to the library, I saw another “hot pick” on the “hot pick shelf” that couldn’t help catch my eye. That “hot pick” – meaning I can only rent it for one week and not renew it (as opposed to the three weeks you get for other movies) – was, as you’ve figured out, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

I had determined not to pay money for Guardians 2, as is usually my only recourse once I’ve missed seeing it in the theater with my critics card. But free? It was unexpected, and made me think twice about it.

I ultimately did walk away with it, though of course, having spent no money on it, I could always return it unwatched.

Whether I will is what I’m struggling with now, and even though this struggle is academic and of no interest to anyone but me, I will probably expend a few more paragraphs on it.

On the one hand, by watching Guardians 2 I feel like I would be rewarding James Gunn. Not financially, of course, as a free rental of the movie does not conceivably benefit Gunn in any way, or add swelling to his already large head. However, just knowing that I watched his movie after vowing to “punish him” by not watching it disturbs me on some level. It’s the principle of it. You know, kind of like how one vote in an election doesn’t matter unless you believe that it does.

But then I think, what if I like this movie precisely because I did not like the first one? One of the big pop culture talking points this fall seems to be that people who didn’t so much care for the original Blade Runner really like Blade Runner 2049, and vice versa. Maybe what fans of the original Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t like about the sequel was that it changed in some essential way from what they originally liked. And since I didn’t like that, maybe I would like this.

Then I learned that Cat Stevens’ classic song “Father and Son,” a personal favorite, figures into the climax of this film. While that doesn’t sound particularly promising in terms of the film’s erratic tone, which was one of my problems with the first one, it is one of my favorite songs, and I’m on a bit of a Cat Stevens high right now, having seen him in concert last week. (He played 32 songs, mostly classics!)

Then I think “I’m going to see Guardians of the Galaxy 2 eventually. Why postpone the inevitable?”

I guess it will depend on how my viewing week shakes out. I’ve got a couple nights already committed to other viewings, but I’ve also got some open nights, including my weekend nights, for which a Guardians viewing would be ideally suited.

In other words, I’m probably going to watch it.

Damn you James Gunn. 

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Behind the scenes with weird guys

You can't plan things like this.

The last two movies I saw -- because one was released on Thursday night, and because the other had been available for a few weeks on Netflix and was really starting to itch at my viewing desires -- were The Disaster Artist and Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond - Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton. (And that's the last time in this piece I will write out the full title, I promise you.)

Both films happen to be a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of a movie whose production was affected -- some might say poisoned -- by the antics of a highly eccentric personality. In one, the guy couldn't help doing it -- he was just playing himself, as he always had. In the other, one highly eccentric personality was channeling another highly eccentric personality, doing it purposefully in pursuit of what he perceived to be some very specific brand of the comedic sublime.

Both films are funny, instructive examinations of these particular minds, and I enjoyed both quite a bit, though stopped short of loving either.

I came closer to loving The Disaster Artist. Not only does James Franco nail Tommy Wiseau and explore in a more serious manner the things that have been the comedic objects of much of his work (latent homosexuality among them), but the film has a ton of heart. As much as it considers Wiseau an oddball and even leans into that, it also considers his optimism and can-do spirit the perfect antidote to Hollywood cynicism. The Room was a singularly disastrous film but it was also the result of a type of purity of impulse that we usually do not see in the movies.

Jim & Andy is a fascinating document, to be sure, but I'm not sure it gets much beyond that (pun not intended). It considers how far Jim Carrey went in trying to channel dada comic Andy Kaufman, not only staying in character as Kaufman even after Milos Forman called "cut!" on Man on the Moon, but also playing Kaufman's alter ego, Tony Clifton, such that the actual "Jim Carrey" was almost never present. A cameraman shot all this behind the scenes footage and it has been sitting in the vaults for 20 years. Carrey gives modern-day interviews recalling his thinking at the time, impressive beard and all.

Both films provide a very interesting examination of what happens when the cameras aren't rolling. To be sure, they are not the first films to do this -- there's a whole interesting subgenre of films which show us what actually happened on the sets of movies we love. Few of them are quite so focused on the way a single man can hijack the production, while also shaping it into the movie we love as a result.

For those who love The Room, they only love it because Wiseau was unfailingly who he was and would not listen to well-intentioned advice. In one great example, Franco's Wiseau either refuses to listen to the suggestions of the first AD (Seth Rogen), or simply has a disconnect between hearing the advice and acting on it, as he proves incapable of filming a take in which his character does not laugh as a reaction to a story about a woman being physically abused by her boyfriend. Exasperated, Rogen's character just gives up so they can move on to the next shot. It's moments of pure and unspoiled cluelessness like this that make The Room sing. Had Wiseau had an ounce more common sense, he would have made a bad movie that no one saw. Instead, he made a bad movie that everyone saw.

Less of what Carrey was doing behind the scenes on the set of Man on the Moon is directly visible on screen. As he terrorized fellow actors (most notably the wrestler Jerry Lawler, playing himself, with whom Kaufman had a real-life mostly fake rivalry), he drove many of them to the brink of quitting the project. You get little bits of the frustration of people like Judd Hirsch and Danny DeVito. You'd have no way of really knowing that by watching the movie, except that it does feel like an uncanny embodiment of Kaufman, and if Carrey had just been switching back and forth between "Jim Carrey" and "Andy Kaufman," who knows if such a transcendent performance would have emerged. There's a telling recollection by Carrey in one of the modern interviews about how Forman felt about it. According to Carrey, Forman called him one night, out of ideas about how to regain control of his actor and bring the production in line. When Carrey threw him a lifeline and volunteered to "fire" both Kaufman and Clifton and then to do impersonations of them, Forman seemed to recognize the value of Carrey's process and rejected the idea. "I don't want it to stop," Forman allegedly told Carrey. "I just wanted to speak to Jim."

In a strange way, director Chris Smith seems to be the link between these two films. Smith, the director of Jim & Andy, was also the director of a documentary classic called American Movie. Like The Disaster Artist, that was also a movie about a Wiseau-like dreamer -- who also happened to have a long mane of black hair -- using his own resources to try to make a film. Mark Borchardt had much more meager and much less mysteriously sourced finances than Wiseau -- he borrowed much of the money from a senile uncle -- but it also cost him a lot less to make his horror short Coven (which I still have not seen, unfortunately). But in his own way he was probably just as delusional as Wiseau ... with, in some respects, an equally happy outcome. The film has turned Borchardt into a cult figure in horror and independent film communities, while Wiseau has eventually turned a profit on the $6 million he spent on The Room, though no one apparently still knows where he got the money to finance the project originally.

I saw The Room four years ago just before leaving Los Angeles, but it's been nearly those 20 years since my viewing of Man on the Moon. I'm curious to watch both again to see if I can see what I now know about these films creeping in from the corners of the frame.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Movie walks

I’m trying to shave off a few lbs. Or as they call them in Australia, kilos. And since there are 2.2 lbs per kilo, shaving off a few kilos is really a big accomplishment.

One strategy is eating better. I’ve eaten quite well for almost a full month now. Some of that figures to go out the window in December for the holidays, but not all of it, hopefully.

Another strategy is walking.

And walking. And walking. And walking.

A feature on my phone tracks the number of steps I’ve taken each day. I didn’t even have to set it up – it just did it automatically. Gotta love smartphones.

I’m told you’re supposed to walk 10,000 steps per day, though of course, on most days that’s impossible. Most days you spend most of the day at work, and then most of the rest of the day ensnared in family obligations, many of which do not involve walking. If you want to walk, you have to walk at night, or maybe at lunchtime. On Monday and Tuesday of this week, I managed to walk in excess of 14,000 steps on both days. Though that took some unusual circumstances to accomplish.

One of those unusual circumstances may become more usual. And that is: the movie walk.

It’s a variation on something I did back in LA when my first child was a baby. In order to kill as many fricking birds with the same stone as possible, I had at least a couple occasions when I went out walking him in the stroller, while he was either sleeping or otherwise occupied by looking around him in bewildered awe, and I also had a device playing a movie propped within easy view on the top of the stroller. That’s three birds, if you’re keeping track: 1) taking care of the baby, 2) getting exercise and 3) watching a movie. (I even remember two of the movies I watched this way: Eight Below and The A-Team.)

I have no babies that require taking care of anymore – my younger son turns four in January. But once they no longer require my presence for the evening, sometime after 9 o’clock, I can still do the other two, just without the stroller this time.

So I’ve done this twice now. I’ve loaded a movie onto my iPod, set the timer on my phone to go off at exactly the halfway point of the movie, and just started walking. When the timer goes off, I turn around and come back.

Some amount of care is required in executing this. You need to make sure you don’t walk into anybody, or in front of any oncoming vehicles. You may have to turn away from the screen for seconds at a time when you’re at a busy intersection. But surprisingly, for the most part, you can just walk down the footpaths (sidewalks) and keep your eyes mostly trained on the screen. There aren’t nearly as many people to bump into after 9 o’clock at night.

My first such experience was Simon Aboud’s This Beautiful Fantastic, back on Monday the 13th. Two weeks later, it was Miguel Arteta’s latest, Beatriz at Dinner.

Both movies were chosen because I didn’t expect them to be movies I really loved, which required a completely uninterrupted viewing on a decent screen. Because the screen of my iPod is anything but decent. After more than six-and-a-half years on this planet, it now looks like this:

But still works, goddammit. It still works well. A real tribute to its sturdy Apple engineering.

Part of me bristles at the fact that I was basically predetermining a ceiling for how much I could love these movies by seeing them in this way. But let’s be honest. The busier we are, the more likely we are to have many of our viewings be distracted viewings. And you could argue that the distractions of this setting are actually fewer, in some senses, than watching at home. For one, I have no children needing something from me. Secondly, I don’t pause the movie once, unless something unusual happens. How often can you say you watch a movie at your house and don’t pause it a single time? This is more like the uninterrupted theatrical viewing in that sense. Finally, there’s zero chance I will fall asleep while watching. This movie will have my undivided attention, or at least as much of my undivided attention as is not being required to avoid getting run over by a bus.

And though This Beautiful Fantastic was not a movie I liked very much, I strongly suspected that my verdict would have been identical had I seen it in any other setting. And my second choice proved that a movie is a movie, no matter where you see it, and if it’s good you will still love it. I don’t know that I love Beatriz at Dinner, but I like it very very much, and feel that the things that were good about it came through plenty well in that setting. And in time, with more reflection, I think I could love it. 

There’s a funny unintentional consequence to this, too. When you set your timer to go off at the movie’s halfway point, and then turn around to walk home, you can tell how close you are to the end of the movie by how close you are to your house. This has its uses. Although clock-watching can be fatal to the drama of a film in some respects – if you know a movie is about to end, you know precisely how much more can still happen – it can also be very useful, especially if you are not enjoying the film. And Beatriz aside, I do imagine that many of the films I'll select to view this way will be films I don’t like very much.

The first time I went out, I walked enough to chafe my inner thighs and was a bit sore the next day. I must be getting better at it, as there were no physical side effects of the second walk, and I walked another 14,000 steps the next day.

Then again, Beatriz is also ten minutes shorter than Fantastic.

And like a hundred minutes better.

Can you measure the quantity of quality in minutes?

Here’s hoping I can continue measuring the quantity of my losses, in both lbs. and kilos.