Saturday, February 13, 2016

The folly of remaking something unique


I'm away for the weekend and supposed to be taking a small break from blogging, but the wifi is strong where I'm staying, and I've got a moment alone with my computer and my morning coffee on a balcony, so ... instinct took over.

Last night at this resort where we're staying near Phillip Island (about 120 k from Melbourne), I finally got started on some personal viewing at around 11 p.m., so I sought out the shortest thing I'd brought with me -- which happened to be the original 1973 version of The Wicker Man, borrowed from the library. It clocked in at a brisk 84 minutes, so it was easily the winner.

Having seen the Nicolas Cage/Neil Labute remake almost exactly eight years ago -- to honor the 366th day of 2008, February 29th, with something notably awful -- I'd always harbored a curiosity about the original, and whether the seeds for what went so wrong in the Cage/Labute version were visible there.

They were, but not in the ways I had expected.

It wasn't that the original was so deliciously campy and that Labute had either deliberately or accidentally brought the same tone to his remake. Rather, what was wrong was the decision to remake it in the first place.

I was riveted by this odd movie, directed by a guy I'd never heard of named Robin Hardy. I'd never heard of him because he didn't make another movie for 13 years after The Wicker Man, and then it was 25 more years before his next (and most recent) directorial effort ... though he's still going at age 86, and has a project on wikipedia whose release date is listed as TBA.

Well, if I'd been a film industry person who'd seen The Wicker Man in 1973 (which would have been tricky as I was being born that year), I would have given Hardy his next job right away. It's strange and mysterious and discomfiting, while also being kitschy in just the right ways -- and while also sort of being a musical.

A musical? Yes, there are about five different songs in this movie, sung by the actors. They're front-loaded, as that kind of thing drops away in the second half, but they are honest-to-goodness songs, some sung diagetically, some sung as apparent commentaries on the action. Some are gloriously cheeky early 70s flower children songs, and some are gloriously cheeky early 70s flower children songs with a sinister undertone. All work perfectly in terms of orienting us in the film's time period and all make the action a bit more chilling than it would be on its own.

The action? It's like the plot of Labute's remake in many ways, if I remember correctly, which is certainly to be expected. But so different from it in key ways.

One difference that I found unaccountable, and even more damning of Labute's project once I know about it, is that Labute chose to make the central pagan group (religious sect? cult?) into an entirely distaff affair. This key choice to have it an organization composed entirely of women is simply not present in Hardy's film. There are certainly powerful women who appear here, but no more centrally then some powerful men, notably Christopher Lee as the group's leader (called Lord Summerisle, named after the very beautiful Scottish isle on which this movie was shot). There's also one chilling scene where a female teacher is instructing a class of entirely girls on the phallic symbolism of the maypole, a scene that was recreated in the remake (as I was reminded by watching an awesome five-minute "best (worst?) moments of The Wicker Man" video on youtube). There's definitely something provocative about the fact that they are all female in that class. But Hardy's movie does not go on to suggest that the women have a dominant position in this society, and that makes Labute's choice to extrapolate that reading all the more problematic ... especially when their ungodly sacrificial tendencies are so feral, so unambiguously evil. This also majorly complicates the gender dynamics in any scene where Cage is forced to punch one of them out (this happens multiple times) and even, in one case, fell one with a karate kick. These scenes are simultaneously comical, which gets at exactly the moral complexity of what goes wrong in Labute's film, which certainly invites charges of misogyny when taken in comparison to the original.

The other thing that humorously weighs Labute down is his decision to fixate on bees. Some of the moments of greatest humor from that five-minute youtube video involve Cage's reaction to having a mesh chamber that resembles a fencing helmet placed over his head, and having bees poured into that helmet, which attack Cage's face and inspire some of his most outrageous acting. (Though I'll be damned if I remember that actually appearing in the film version -- I wonder if it was a deleted scene.) Labute incorporates bee imagery into some other allegedly disturbing images he includes in his film. That's not in the original either. Although this pagan group wants to make a sacrifice to return its harvest to its former glory, it's a harvest of produce, particularly apples. Maybe Labute just thought Hardy would have made his movie about bees if it were possible to create digital bees in 1973.

Another thing I found particularly striking about the original is that Edward Woodward's police detective is a man of strong Christian faith, which sets him up in opposition to the pagans (and makes him an ideal candidate for sacrifice in their view). That may have been present in Labute's film as well (eight years and more than two thousand films has a way of clouding the memory), but it didn't register much to me at the time, or if it did it was also in that realm of the unintentionally comical that suffuses the whole movie. Woodward seems like a true believer, which lends extra conviction to everything and makes the contrast all the more powerful.

In a way, it was a stroke of cinematic good taste for someone to have seen a film like Hardy's The Wicker Man and imagined that its eerie goodness should be brought to a modern audience. But especially with the film's indispensable flower child quality, it isn't really translatable to 2006 without losing a good portion of the mood that gives it its power. Also, it should have been perfectly evident to this person of good taste that this is a singular movie, one that maybe never should have existed in the first place, and certainly shouldn't exist twice. The same good taste that served them in recognizing the greatness of Hardy's movie abandoned them in informing their judgment about a possible remake.

As I am trying to be a bit more measured in my praise of films in terms of their star ratings, I gave The Wicker Man four stars on Letterboxd, though I toyed with that additional half star. It's a treat for anyone who likes those niche horrors that seemed to have jumped out of the 1970s and escaped our universe altogether. That sense of being untethered from what we know and have seen before is absolutely a good thing.

And absolutely something they never could have captured in a remake.

Though I probably shouldn't close this piece without acknowledging that Labute did give us something completely out there, in the sense that his Wicker Man has become something of a modern classic in terms of movies that are so bad they're good. I shouldn't close this piece without acknowledging that there's some value in having done that -- in fact, great value. I'm glad I live in a world where this awful version of The Wicker Man exists, a version we can all laugh about together.

And without that awful version, I might never have discovered the chilling original.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Everything is awesome/everything is boring


Wednesday was a day of two movie-watching extremes for me, even though the two movies had a deceptive amount in common.

And even though I only watched one of the movies.

I'll explain.

That afternoon my kids watched The Lego Movie when we got home from our day's activities early (because daddy left his wallet on the kitchen counter). I didn't watch it, but of course certain familiar parts seeped into my consciousness through osmosis as it was playing in the background. First and foremost the main song, which my older son was then singing for the rest of the night.

Then that night I went to see Anomalisa, which was just released here last Thursday.

Superficially, they couldn't be more dissimilar. One movie is a colorful celebration aimed at children. The other is a dour meditation with profanity and puppet sex. However, mechanically, they are very similar. Both use stop motion animation, even if for very different purposes.

Then there's the big contrast in their world views, which has a rather literal component to it.

The Oscar-nominated song from The Lego Movie was of course Tegan & Sara's "Everything is Awesome." The outlook on the world of Michael Stone, Anomalia's main character, is "everything is boring," as quoted in an exact line of dialogue. One movie bursts with color, one movie has almost literally had the color drained out of it. (As a prime example of that, please note how the poster above blends almost perfectly into the gray background of my blog.)

And yet there are other themes these two films share. The Lego Movie concerns itself with the idea of conformity, of becoming indistinguishable from your neighbor as you consume your way to a kind of anesthetized bliss. There is a literal element of conformity to Anomalisa, as Stone sees and hears (almost) all the other people in his world as only slight variations of each other. Their voices are exactly the same, and their faces have an eerie doppelganger quality even as they have surface differences, accounting for gender and hairstyle. (Actually, not even really accounting for gender.)

This would be the part of this post where I take my specific observations and provide you a more profound, generalized view of how these films relate to each other and what they're Saying with a capital S. However, in reality, this is the part of the post where I need to wrap things up to get ready to go out of town for the weekend. And yes, that means I'm leaving you without my assessment of the successes and failures of the latest from Charlie Kaufman, one of my favorite creative talents in the movies -- in part because I am still trying to figure out exactly what I do think of Anomalisa.

So, without any further ado ... wrapping up this post riiiiiight ... now.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Audient Auscars Extended: Gandhi


When I announced in December that I was extending my Audient Auscars series for three more months to get in the last three best picture winners I hadn't seen, I fully expected I would watch Gandhi in January.

And I did start to watch it. I watched 25 minutes of it, in fact.

The other 158 did not come until yesterday.

What can I say -- it was a busy month.

And though I'm usually pretty anal about sticking to the schedules I establish on my blog, we're a bit outside the box here, extending a series by just three months. So I let the other priorities of my life dictate when I could get back to watching this three-hour movie. (In fact, I probably would have put it off even longer if it weren't due back at the library today.) I often skip January in my movie series anyway, just because it's so busy with other viewing priorities (like wrapping up the previous viewing year) that I don't have the time. I suppose that was more true when my viewing series used to involve multiple movies a month.

Anyway.

The 1982 best picture winner was what I expected in a lot of ways. It was not what I expected in some other, smaller ways. Like, who would have thought John Ratzenberger -- Cliff from Cheers, and the guy who has loaned his voice to nearly every Pixar film -- would show up here? (And that he wouldn't use his own voice for some reason? Martin Sheen, who also appears in the movie, dubbed Ratzenberger's voice.)

What was legitimately unexpected was learning about the key events in Mohandas Gandhi's fight to kick the British out of India -- though I use the word "fight" very loosely. Gandhi was of course opposed to violence in any form (even philosophically debating whether violence would work against Hitler), and believed that civil resistance was most effective when it provoked using persistence and public displays, not guns and swords. One of my favorite moments in the movie comes near the beginning, when some South African troops charge a group of Gandhi's protesters on horseback. They're seeking not to be treated like third-class citizens, including needing to be fingerprinted and the like. Instead of standing their ground, where they'll be beaten and cut down, or scattering to the winds, where they'll also be beaten and cut down, the protesters simply lie down on the ground, at Gandhi's behest. It's a brilliant tactic, as the horses are unwilling to trample the supine protesters, even if their riders show no such reluctance. So the horses rear up and the troops are forced to retreat. What's most brilliant is that Gandhi seems to have gotten this idea in the moment -- a reflection of his nearly preternatural ability to imagine the most productive method of effecting change in any given scenario.

Productive? How about convincing his followers who had strayed from his principles to abandon violence by going on hunger strikes? Not once, but twice? The people came to love him so much that they would rather eschew their violent impulses -- in other words, to calm a nearly unquenchable rage -- in order not to see him die for their human frailties. As frail as he was in stature, in all other aspects Gandhi seems to have been one of the strongest men who walked the earth in the 20th century.

That was a big takeaway as I was watching this -- that we don't seem to get great human beings like Gandhi anymore. Or at least, great human beings don't capture the imagination of the whole world like Gandhi did. Paradoxically, in a world where worldwide communication has become all the easier through the internet, we are perhaps all the more pushed into our own little corners of that world, seeing only the things that most directly pertain to us. Maybe there's a Gandhi out there today -- maybe there are plenty of them. Surely there are. But we're not hearing about them to the same extent, and that's a shame.

Although the casting of a non-Indian actor to play the title role would have been too controversial today, it's hard to imagine anyone playing Gandhi other than Ben Kingsley. He's pretty phenomenal. It's not a showy performance, as you might imagine, as Gandhi was a fairly understated person. But its every detail feels true. I think especially of Kingsley's physicality as the Mahatma, particularly the positioning of his legs as he sits on the ground, sewing his own clothing (another thing I didn't know about Gandhi). Kingsley was not yet 40 when he played the role, yet his fragility as the older Gandhi is something that makes us easily forget that.

I also didn't know anything about the Amritsar massacre in Punjab, in which British soldiers opened fire on a massive gathering of peaceful demonstrators and kept firing until hundreds, possibly more than a thousand, Indians were killed. I was hoping to learn that the colonel who ordered the strike -- "They've already been warned," he told an underling -- was hanged for this callous display of might and disregard for life. But Reginald Dyer was only removed from duty, and in fact became a celebrated hero in certain sections of England. Any time you need a reminder of how awful men can be, this is a good example. At least Dyer only lived eight more years before a series of strokes felled him.

For a movie this long, Gandhi is actually fairly lean -- starvation pun intended. There weren't any sections that I thought begged to be removed, and Sir Richard Attenborough keeps the pace moving pretty quickly all told. In fact, Gandhi's first hunger strike -- being one of the events for which he is most famous -- seemed to be over in a flash. I guess this is just a sign of what a full life of consequence and wisdom he had, so much of which was worth telling us about.

Okay, only two left! I've got Platoon in March before finishing up with The Last Emperor in April.

Assuming I don't get too busy, of course.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Attention spans > seasonal appropriateness


A person in one of my film discussion groups on Facebook noted today that the February 23rd DVD release date for The Good Dinosaur seemed to serve as a particularly swift response to its underperformance at the box office. As you might imagine, the discussion that followed revealed that a three-month journey to video was pretty typical these days.

That led to the larger discussion of delays that violated that ever-shrinking three-month window, and I brought up Christmas movies. Last time I noted it, Christmas movies were still taking more like ten months to arrive on video, the thinking being that you want to have your big video unveiling at a time when people are actually thinking about watching Christmas movies.

That, too, seems to have changed.

I gave as my example the fact that I expected The Night Before not to release on DVD and BluRay until late October or early November. I had to provide an addendum to that comment when a quick internet search revealed March 1st as the date for its video/digital release.

It's a depressing concession to a reality we have willingly acknowledged elsewhere in our lives: Any particular phenomenon's window is extremely short-lived, and if you don't capitalize on that window, it will just disappear into the ephemera along with everything else we pause on for a moment before discarding.

Not that The Night Before is worthy of gaining a solid foothold in our cultural legacy. It was a disappointment. And even though some people in my audience were laughing, I don't see them collectively conferring the movie a new-classic status. Movies like Elf only come along infrequently. Elf was 13 years ago, and we're still waiting for something else like it to really captivate our hearts.

But I sort of liked the past scarcity of the Christmas movie. If you missed it one Christmas, you had to wait until the next one -- at least upon its initial release. It was like egg nog in that way.

Given what else I know about our society, I'm kind of surprised you can't actually get egg nog year round. Sure, it would make it less special, but what do its manufacturers care? If it meets a craving, people will buy it. And if that craving were being satisfied by something else, you'd think egg nog purveyors would take note and take corrective action.

I don't really have a point, I guess. If I sound disappointed by what I've learned today, it's probably a small case of devil's advocacy. More than anything it's just interesting to note that the thinking has changed on this topic. I don't usually follow these types of things, but I'll try to make a note of how The Night Before sells on video (physical and digital) when it releases on a date when most people symbolically start to think about spring -- which is actually the first day of autumn in Australia. (They change their seasons on the first of the month in the southern hemisphere -- Lord knows why.) More likely, I'll forget to do that.

More than anything, I just wanted to get a new post up so that Zac Efron and Robert DeNiro would not continue to greet the visitors to my blog.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The bad taste of Charlotte Rampling













Charlotte Rampling has been leaving a bad taste in my mouth for a lot longer than her major PR blunder a few weeks back, when she made light of the Oscars' failure to nominate any actors of color. Which was obviously a dumb thing to say no matter what the circumstances, but even dumber under her particular circumstances. She suggested that maybe the black actors did not "deserve" to make the shortlist -- while she herself did make this list for the movie 45 Years.

So that experience was kind of gratifying for me, as it allowed me to attach a legitimate reason to the nebulous dislike I have always felt for her.

Not liking her has always been problematic for me, because I have never been able to pinpoint why I didn't like her.

Secretly, I was worried it was because I wasn't attracted to her, which would be a shallow reason indeed. I've never doubted her abilities as an actress. She's always good. But I always don't really like her, and I wondered if it was something about not liking her appearance.

And I've concluded that it is, but not in the way you might think.

My wife and I often talk about how we don't like someone's face. That's not to say they're ugly, or that they have an objectively disagreeable face. Just that we don't like it.

Her go-to example is Australian actress Melissa George. There is almost no doubt that Melissa George is objectively attractive. But my wife doesn't like her face, and her intangible logic has swayed me. Now, I don't like Melissa George's face either.

My same-gender go-to example is probably Eddie Redmayne. Never liked his face. Probably never will.

But Charlotte Rampling is one of a dozen or so I regularly think of when considering this issue of nebulous distaste. Now I can attach something concrete to it, with these casually racist comments from which she has tried her best to back away.

Because it's a quintessentially subjective thing, I'll probably have a hard time describing what it is about Rampling's face I don't like. But since it's probably worth more than just me wimping out on that challenge, let me try.

She has a schlumpy face. She's got a very pronounced pout, and as she usually plays characters who are at least somewhat disagreeable, her face spends a lot of time schlumping and pouting. You'll get some idea of what I'm talking about from that bathtub scene above.

She also always seems irritable. Her eyes drooping at the sides, mirroring her droopy mouth and ready to show her irritation with anyone who crosses her path.

So now is it ageism I'm guilty of? Rampling is 69. When you are knocking on the door of 70, things droop.

But no. See her here. Even when she was "objectively beautiful," she still had a droopy tendency on the sides that contributed to something about her face I don't like.


The funny thing about Rampling is that she's in a lot of films I love, making her a bit like the Andie MacDowell of her age group. (Andie MacDowell being another example of a person whose face I don't like. Actually, Rampling is only 12 years older than MacDowell.)

I haven't seen a single film she appeared in before 1982. But that 1982 film, The Verdict, is a classic. Others since then I cherish are Lemming, Melancholia and Never Let Me Go, and I really like Angel Heart, Swimming Pool, The Mill and the Cross and Young & Beautiful.

Well whatever. I don't like that droopy face and I don't like those comments she made, and somehow, I feel vindicated by all this.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The type of reporter I could never be


There's a moment in Spotlight, which I saw last nightwhen Rachel McAdams' Sacha Pfeiffer knocks on the door of a retired Boston priest, and seems a bit surprised to see the man himself actually answer the door.

When she confirms his identity, for a second a look flashes across her faces that seems to say, "Okay, this is happening" before she launches into her question:

"We have information that you molested kids while serving as a priest. Did you molest kids?"

That's not an exact quote -- unlike a good reporter, I don't take notes when I watch movies -- but it's along those lines, and it's that direct.

In fact, this moment illustrates perfectly why I could never fully give myself over to journalism as a career.

Oh I was on that path. I worked as the reporter and interim editor of a newspaper in Rhode Island from 1996 to 1998, and in 1999 I attended Columbia Journalism School, where the brightest journalism prospects in the country -- dare I say, even the world -- go to take the next steps in their careers. (As well as the ones who can fool them into thinking we fit that description, like me.)

But even before starting at Columbia, I think I knew I didn't have that killer instinct, that courage, that unwavering belief in what is right that distinguishes the kind of journalists we see in Spotlight.

It's not so much that I feared the moment of awkwardness that results from asking an interview subject the question that cuts to the core of their own innocence or guilt. It's rather that I feared the moment of rage at the gall I was displaying at even asking. How dare you ask a question like that? How dare you intrude on the inner sanctum of my own protective shell as a human being who wants to be treated with decency?

Of course, I never dealt with anyone as guilty and as downright despicable as the Catholic priests of the Boston archdiocese, who turned out to be just the first publicly reported among hundreds and thousands of priests the world over who displayed those tendencies. The biggest fish I had to fry were local politicians dancing around some of their own double speak. When I had a story about a police chief who had an unregistered car on his property, it nearly gave me fits.

So just imagine the courage necessary to take on the Catholic church, an institution that counts half of your readership as loyal followers, and accuse it of hiding evidence that priests sexually molested young boys.

I appreciate that kind of courage even more because of my past as a reporter, and it makes seeing a movie like Spotlight all the more rewarding for me. What Spotlight doesn't do is make me wistful for a career path I could have had if I'd made a couple decisions differently. I never had what it takes to stick a microphone in someone's face, either literally or metaphorically, and it was useful to realize that before I threw myself into an arena where I was destined to fail. I suppose it's better to succeed at what I do now, to the extent that I do succeed at it, than to have failed as a reporter.

But that doesn't change one bit my conviction that someone needs to stick those microphones in those faces, and movies that celebrate these proud professionals make me proud to watch them.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Tom Brady before Tom Brady was Tom Brady


It's been a bit of a melancholy ten days or so, as my Patriots did not make the Super Bowl, ending what might be Tom Brady's last, best shot at another ring. We don't need to debate Brady's ethics and personality for the moment, nor do we need to recognize that he won a nearly unprecedented fourth ring just last year, further cementing an already fully cemented hall of fame resume. For the purposes of my own melancholy, the only relevant factor is that I'm a sports fan and I like to see my teams win whenever possible, especially when they are this close to getting to the championship game.

So the timing of watching John Stockwell's Blue Crush for the first time since 2002 last night was interesting indeed, as this movie contains a character who is basically Tom Brady.

When Blue Crush came out, Tom Brady was already Tom Brady, but only just barely. When it was released on August 16th of 2002, that was less than eight months after Brady won his first Super Bowl for the Patriots, ending a highly improbable season in which starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe suffered a season-ending injury during the game that dropped the team to 0-2. That elevated no-name Tom Brady to starting QB status, a title he has yet to relinquish more than 14 years later.

So the character in the movie that resembles Brady -- Matthew Davis' Matt Tollman -- could not really have been based on him. It would have been too soon.

But consider the resemblance. Here's Brady:


And here's Davis:


Which probably just suggests that Brady has that "prototypical quarterback look," and the same sensibilities were used in casting Davis in the role of an NFL quarterback visiting Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. That's a place Brady has been quite a bit, as he has been selected to participate 11 times. In fact, he might have actually been in Hawaii for this year's Pro Bowl when I watched the movie, but he declined to participate -- probably since it's hard to get up for that type of exhibition event when you're still sulking over not making it to the Super Bowl.

That's the other thing -- someone quotes a date early in the movie, and it's Wednesday, February 3rd. I watched the movie on Tuesday, February 2nd, meaning that not only was it almost the exact same day on the calendar, but the days of the week were even lined up correctly.

All of this wouldn't be such a coincidence if I'd watched the movie last Tuesday, Australia Day, as I was initially expecting to do. But we ended up somehow deciding we had the stamina to watch The Wolf of Wall Street, even though we'd been to the beach that day. In fact, going to the beach was what put me in mind of finally rewatching Blue Crush.

I say "finally" rewatching Blue Crush because I've actually owned this DVD for more than two years. I didn't buy it, but rather, took it from a curbside, where a homeowner had left a bunch of stuff that had gotten water damaged either because their home had been flooded or because it had been left out in the rain, which was now "free to a good home." Sure, the paper lining for Blue Crush was waterlogged -- sort of appropriate, given the movie's surfing milieu -- but that had no effect whatsoever on its ability to properly play in a DVD player.

Anyway.

I remember loving this movie when I first saw it. In fact, it came in at a lofty 17th out of the 80 movies I ranked in 2002. And though I still saw its charms and it was perfect for the mellow mood I was seeking last night, the only thing I still felt very strongly about on this viewing was its cinematography, especially the surfing stuff. The rest of it was fluffy and agreeable but generally forgettable.

If they film Tom Brady's life story now, Davis could still play him -- at retirement age. Davis is actually only nine months younger than Brady, born in May of 1978 while Brady was born in August of '77.

Which means hey, Brady still has one whole NFL season where he'll be "only" 39.

Maybe he still has a ring or two left in him.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

My nominations for the 2015 Flickchart Awards










As you already know, I'm an active member of the Flickchart user community, participating in the site's exclusive Facebook discussion group (exclusive in the sense that you have to be invited to join), and blogging for the site's blog as well (though pretty infrequently since I exhausted myself on a weekly series in 2013).

Part of this "scared responsibility" is to help choose the nominees for the annual Flickchart Awards, the site's version of the Oscars, with some of the same categories and some that are notably different. After we "chosen ones" determine the nominees, the whole Flickchart user community can vote on the winners, and typically come up with some interesting (though not entirely unpredictable) choices. (In other words, the quality genre picture or the one directed by Christopher Nolan usually seems to win best picture.)

I'm glad to be a part of this, though actually filling out my ballot is something I find very tedious -- something I put off until nearly the January 31st deadline every year. Twenty sixteen was no exception. The tedium comes not from choosing actual nominees, though this is something that gives me fits as well. It's actually that each category contains a point system. You can nominate five in each category, but you are also apportioning 50 points to those nominees in a way you see fit, with a maximum of 15 points going to any one nominee. So if you feel strongly about three nominees and not the other two, you can give those three 15 points apiece and divide the remaining five points between the last two.

If it were just the nominees, I'd still worry about whether I'd determined my exact perfect choices from the previous year's films -- all while not deviating from the Oscar nominations just for the sake of deviating, but trying not to hew too closely to them either. (Which usually works out fine because I haven't seen all the movies that received Oscar nominations anyway.) But then the math throws in one extra level of difficulty that just leads to procrastination.

I did finish my ballot this morning, though -- my January 31st, though still January 30th in the U.S. And I figured, if I went to the trouble and put the work in, might as well get a blog post out of it as well.

So forthwith, a piece of bonus 2015 year-end content, which contains the categories, my nominees, the points they received, and a brief comment that explains my thinking, not to mention possibly highlighting some 2015 film I didn't send enough love in my previous year-end wrap-up posts.

- Best Foreign Language Film: Goodnight Mommy (15), A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (14), The Look of Silence (12), Samba (5), The Assassin (4)

Comment: It was a poor year for foreign language films, as I've already discussed. Goodnight Mommy was the best qualifying film I saw, and I ranked it #32 for the year. (I ranked Wild Tales higher, but as that was nominated for an Oscar in 2014, I didn't feel like I could include it for the Flickchart Awards.) I just didn't really dig The Assassin, sorry. 

- Best Documentary: The Nightmare (15), Amy (15), Going Clear (12), The Look of Silence (7), The Wanted 18 (1)


Comment: My favorite documentary was also my favorite horror film. Go figure. I did rank the documentary The Armor of Light higher, but since I didn't figure anyone had seen it but me, it seemed like a wasted vote here. (But keep that title in your mind -- it's terrific.)

- Best Animated Film: Inside Out (15), Shawn the Sheep Movie (10), Hotel Transylvania 2 (5)


Comment: Because I refused to cast votes for Minions or The Good Dinosaur, I submitted only three nominees. That's fine, but then it's just a maximum of 30 points to spend on them, rather than 50. 

- Worst Film of 2015: The Human Centipede 3 (15), Pan (15), Irrational Man (15), Jupiter Ascending (3), Mockingjay Part 2 (2)


Comment: I tried to go with choices that were prominent enough to possibly get votes from other people, which means that only three of my bottom five are here. I listed Jupiter Ascending and Hunger Games rather than Accidental Love and Hits. Hunger Games might not deserve to be nominated in this category, but I just really didn't like it. 

- Most Anticipated Film of 2016: Star Wars Rogue One (15), Finding Dory (15), Hail Caesar (10), La La Land (5), Midnight Special (5)


Comment: I didn't want to delve too deeply into what's coming out in 2016 to answer this one, so I just chose some titles I was aware of.

- Best Underranked Film (best film that has been ranked less than 5,000 times) - Love & Mercy (15), The Last Five Years (15), The Duke of Burgundy (7), Tangerine (7), Queen of Earth (6)


Comment: This category was interesting in that it revealed to me that exactly half of the films in my top ten for 2015 qualify: my #4, #5, #7, #8 and #10. So those were the ones I included in this category. Which means my top ten had a good mix of mainstream films and more obscure choices. (The "mainstream" choices: Inside Out, Creed, Sicario, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant.)

- Most Underrated Film (film you thought didn't get the audience it deserved) - The Walk (15), Love & Mercy (15), Woman in Gold (10), The End of the Tour (5), Sicario (5)


Comment: I could have included films like Tangerine and The Duke of Burgundy here, but I don't think those movies were expected to have large audiences. So instead I went for under-performing films, which allows me to put a spotlight in particular on The Walk, a film I was trying to keep in my top ten all year but which eventually landed at #12. Some people will tell you that the actual walk is worth the price of admission. I'll tell you that the whole thing is worth the price of admission. 

- Most Overrated Film (film you though received more attention than it deserved) - Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (15), Trainwreck (15), Mistress America (10), Ant-Man (5), Carol (5)


Comment: I feel a little mean including Carol here, because it's a good film, I just wasn't blown away by it. The rest are films I genuinely don't like all that much. I kind of hate Mistress America, actually. 

- Most Disappointing Film (film that didn't live up to your expectations) - Terminator Genisys (15), The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (15), Mistress America (10), The Good Dinosaur (5), Carol (5) 


Comment: And here we get Mistress America again, because yeah, I did have expectations for it based on Noah Baumbach. It's valid to ask me whether another Terminator film actually should have had my expectations high, but let's just say I thought the trailers looked really good. I didn't really have expectations for Mockingjay, per se, but I was eager to see how things would conclude. Mostly I just wanted to take another dig at it. 

- Most Surprising Film (film that defied your expectations) - Creed (15), Queen of Earth (14), The Big Short (10), Spy (8), Blackhat (3)


Comment: Creed should just run away with this one, but this was also the occasion for me to recognize being happily surprised by a Melissa McCarthy movie (though I also saw and really liked The Heat after that) and to give a shout out to a film I watched just as a matter of course, Michael Mann's Blackhat, but really enjoyed. 

- Best Looking Film - Creed (12), Sicario (12), The Walk (12), The Revenant (12), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2) 


Comment: A chance to acknowledge the great DPs of Sicario and The Revenant (Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki), the unique and distinct visions of Creed and The Walk, and Star Wars

- Best Writing - Inside Out (15), Creed (14), Sicario (12), The Hateful Eight (8), Room (1)


Comment: This one I did a bit more by feel. I chose my top three films of the year, the film written by Quentin Tarantino, and then Room, just because I don't know. It was a film that was residing in my top ten, but then eventually I just decided I wasn't thinking about it as much as I should for a film ranked that high. It ended up at #15. 

- Best Directing - Ryan Coogler, Creed (15), Denis Villeneuve, Sicario (14), Bill Pohlad, Love & Mercy (12), Richard LaGravenese, The Last Five Years (5), Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl (4)


Comment: Pretty straightforward as this is four of my top five films, excluding my #1, even though I'm sure Pete Docter bears a large portion of the responsibility for the tone of Inside Out. Then I decided to throw a vote to the female director who most impressed me this year and was one of two big breakouts from Diary of a Teenage Girl, the other being star Bel Powley (as we will see later). 

- Biggest Breakthrough (actor, director, filmmaker, studio, etc. that you 1st noticed this year) - Tessa Thompson (15), Daisy Ridley (15), Bel Powley (15), Marielle Heller (3), Alex Garland (2)


Comment: And here's Powley now! Probably the year's most naturalistic performance by a newcomer, though Ridley was pretty awesome too. And here's Heller again. 

- Best Supporting Actress - Elizabeth Banks, Love & Mercy (15), Tessa Thompson, Creed (15), Tatiana Maslany, Woman in Gold (10), Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina (7), Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight (3)


Comment: "Banks or bust" should have been my slogan for all awards campaigning this year. I kept talking about how great she was in Love & Mercy and awarded her with maximum points. However, special nod to Maslany for being the emotional center of the incredibly moving Woman in Gold -- plus I think I just wanted to acknowledge her, since 2015 was the year I discovered Orphan Black and her absolutely otherworldly range as an actress. 

- Best Supporting Actor - Sylvester Stallone, Creed (15), Benicio del Toro, Sicario (10), Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight (10), Tom Hardy, The Revenant (8), Christian Bale, The Big Short (7)


Comment: Stallone Stallone Stallone. But this was also a chance to acknowledge two other Oscar snubs: Jackson and del Toro. Who are both minorities! Hey! Darn, I just realized I meant to nominate Room's Jacob Tremblay here but forget. He should really be a lead, though, which complicates choosing him. 

- Best Actress - Elisabeth Moss, Queen of Earth (15), Sidse Babett Knudsen, The Duke of Burgundy (14), Brie Larson, Room (10), Emily Blunt, Sicario (10), Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road (1)


Comment: This was the category with the most number of deserving contenders who weren't nominated for Oscars. I haven't heard enough discussion about the fact that Theron surprisingly wasn't nominated, since everyone thought she was a lock. But she gets my fewest points. Moss gave one of the most astonishing performances I've ever seen, and I was also campaigning for Blunt. However, it was watching The Duke of Burgundy again last night that gave me renewed appreciation for just how subtle the work of Knudsen is in that film. This is a jam-packed category. 

- Best Actor - Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant (15), Paul Dano, Love & Mercy (12), Jason Segel, The End of the Tour (12), Michael B. Jordan, Creed (10), John Cusack, Love & Mercy (1)


Comment: I'm fine with this award going to Leo since I think he deserves it. Best acting, most dangerous acting, most committed acting. All of it. However, I think Dano and Segel were robbed of nominations, and Jordan is a great option as a minority (#oscarssowhite). I had one more point so I gave it to a deserving Cusack.

- Best Overall Cast - Inside Out (15), Sicario (14), The Hateful Eight (10), The Revenant (6), Ex Machina (5)


Comment: Just looked at impressive ensembles where I thought there were no weak spots. Ex Machina stretched my definition of "ensemble" a bit but I thought it should get some love. Then again, Sicario has only three main performance as well -- as does The Revenant. So I guess my logic in this category was flawed at best. 

- 2015 Outstanding Achievement in Film (any person in film who had a stand out year) - Alicia Vikander (15), Oscar Isaac (15), Domhnall Gleeson (10), Samuel L. Jackson (5), Thomas Mann (5)


Comment: The work was done for me on this one as this is something I sort out for my year-end wrap-up post. I just went with the three I chose as "three who had a good year" and then two from my honorable mentions (Mann will seem like the real WTF choice to the guy tabulating the votes). Here I boosted Vikander to 15 points because even though I haven't seen The Danish Girl, she actually got nominated for an Oscar for it, so I thought it was fair to give her some additional credit beyond her two films I did see.

- Best Scene (your favorite scene from a 2015 film) - Single-take boxing match, Creed (15), Dance scene, Ex Machina (15), Juarez, Sicario (10), Bear attack, The Revenant (5), The walk, The Walk (5)


Comment: This was one category I didn't want to lose much sleep over, as any number of scenes would have been worth nominating, even from films that were otherwise not my favorites. So I tried to stick to the top of my list, with four of the scenes coming from my top 12 and then one other from my #25, just because it was the first answer that occurred to me when I considered this category. Yeah, that dance scene with Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina is terrific. 

- Best Picture - Inside Out (15), Creed (15), Sicario (10), Love & Mercy (5), The Hateful Eight (5)


Comment: Five of my top six films. I could have chosen some other criteria but ultimately I didn't. I left off The Last Five Years because I knew there was no chance anyone else would actually nominate it in this category. And though I'm willing to throw away votes in other categories, this doesn't seem like the one where I should be doing that.

Hey, if I write another corresponding blog post next year, maybe filling out my ballot won't seem so tedious in January of '17. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Perfect pauses: Tangerine


When I first wrote this post in late 2011, I think I expected to make it a semi-regular feature -- to identify instances when I randomly paused a movie at a near-perfect moment.

More than four years later, I have yet to revisit the topic. But it's never too late.

Tonight we were watching Tangerine, my #8 movie of 2015 -- my wife for the first time and me for the second. We had to pause it to go deal with some nonsensical attention-grabbing stunt by our older son (who should have been sleeping), and this is what we got:


I love how much this one image speaks to this movie -- even though it contains nary a shot of a transgender prostitute. (Actually, that's not true -- if you squint there is in fact a tiny transgender prostitute in the lower right-hand corner.)

It's not just the wonderfully run-down retro sign for Color TVs, which must have legitimately still been up somewhere in Los Angeles even when this was filmed in 2014.

It's not just the sky, which is the perfect pre-sunset shade of pinkish blue (though it doesn't come across so well in a photograph -- a screen grab might have worked slightly better).

It's not just the tiny transgender prostitute, just any other small person in a big world.

It's not even the wonderful lines of the building as they converge toward the horizon.

No, it's the fact that the on-screen text fits perfectly into the building's available blue space, as though it were purposefully captioned this way for a photo.

I was glad to discover the word "perfect" coming to mind so regularly for me on my second viewing. This truly is a tremendous accomplishment for all involved, and to watch it again was simply a joy.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What did Jen have to do?


This post also could have been entitled "I finally saw: Cake," not because going so long without seeing a movie that was released about a year ago was a big shock, but that for this particular movie it sort of was, since my wife was involved in the screening competition from which the writer of Cake emerged -- with Cake as the winning script in that competition and attracting the attention of Jennifer Aniston. (The director is also an alum, making it sort of a double win for that organization.)

Thinking of it sort of as her baby (my wife's baby, not Jennifer Aniston's), and it being available for viewing on Netflix months ago, it did seem like kind of a long delay for us to eventually sit down with it. But that we did on Monday night.

And after finishing it, I'm finding myself wondering why the Oscar nomination I prognosticated for Jen in this post never transpired. (I wasn't just nominating her in that post, which I thought was a foregone conclusion -- I was giving her the damn award, sight unseen.)

What did she have to do, anyway?

She did what you have to do -- she uglied herself up. But then she also gave a really assured, angry, touching performance. It may have been a calculated attempt at accolades, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't have worked.

Yet she had to be content with that Golden Globe nomination. Oscar didn't come knocking at her door.

I've always thought Aniston was a good actor who was just choosing beneath her. When you're that type of person, you get a lot of rom-coms thrown in your face, and those are the ones that tend to carry the big paychecks. As much as you're addicted to the idea of accolades, you're also addicted to the creature comforts provided by big paydays.

Aniston made her share of those movies. She did her time.

But she's also been showing us what she could do throughout. I think specifically of a film like The Break-Up, one of those typical rom-coms that the people involved transgressively turned on its head. (At least, I don't think the marketing department knew it wasn't really a romantic comedy.) Aniston pours her all into a story about a relationship with Vince Vaughn that doesn't work out. The stakes are a lot lower than they are in a movie like Cake, but Aniston doesn't care here. She respects the material and she shows you how the workaday inattentions and betrayals of the person you think you love can really cut you. That performance kind of destroyed me, actually.

Aniston doesn't do as much destruction in Cake, maybe -- but it seems like maybe a more challenging type of destruction. She plays a woman in a support group who is basically awful to everyone around her, not only the other group members, but her live-in maid and her estranged husband. She's got a good reason for it that Cake smartly reveals by degrees. But Aniston's got to make the character pretty unlikable before she can become likable, and that she does. I'm not going to do her the indignity of going and searching the web to figure out how much weight she put on for the role, but it was just enough that this is not the glamorous tabloid fixture we know and love. This is a scarred woman, both literally and figuratively. They aren't pretty scars, either -- either literally or figuratively.

So I wonder why the Oscars didn't find a spot for her in the nominations? I guess we have to look at the other 2014 nominees to try to find out:

- Julianne Moore, Still Alice - Eventual winner. No way she's giving up her spot among the five nominees.

- Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night - Powerhouse performance in the role of a woman struggling with some of the things Cake's Claire struggles with. She can stay.

- Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything - I still haven't seen this one, but my skepticism about the type of movie it is also makes me skeptical about how good Jones could possibly be in it. Nominating the actress opposite Eddie Redmayne in one of his nominated roles seems to be a thing, as Alicia Vikander was also nominated opposite Redmayne in The Danish Girl this year -- and I also suspect that to be a certain type of movie (though I also have not seen it).

- Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl - I stand by my assertion that Pike is not a good actress. But she does career-best work in a movie that had everyone's tongues wagging. She can stay too.

- Reese Witherspoon, Wild - Not having seen this either, I'm sure this was a fine performance. I'm not sure it was more than that.

So Aniston could have taken the spot of either Jones or Witherspoon, if only in the latter case because Witherspoon already has an Oscar (and I think it's fair when the wealth is spread on these awards). On that basis you could also exclude Cotillard, but I'm loath to do that simply because she was so damn good in Two Days, One Night.

And yeah, I'm kicking out the only two nominees whose work I haven't seen, which is always dangerous. But I still think Aniston deserved a slot.

Is Aniston not popular enough with her fellow members of the acting branch? I tend to think of Jennifer Aniston as a well-liked celebrity, but maybe not. Maybe Angelina Jolie put out a hit on Aniston's nomination chances, threatening anyone who voted for Aniston that they can never talk to Brad Pitt again.

Anyway, I do think it's a bit of a shame as these roles don't just come along every day. Aniston will be turning 47 in two weeks, and pretty soon she won't even have to ugly herself up anymore. (That's a claim based entirely on the linguistic serendipity of being able to call back to something I wrote earlier, not a reality based in fact.) Okay, so Aniston will still be gorgeous for a while yet, but will she be offered the right roles? Or have the shrewdness to find them herself? Then again, she does figure to be offered fewer and fewer rom-coms ... not only because of her age, but because those rom-coms don't really exist in the same way they did just a few years ago. When Aniston was still in her so-called prime.

Because not every role gets you something as meaty to sink your teeth into as Cake. Sarah Silverman just tried it this year with I Smile Back. And while her instincts on how to play that character were beyond reproach, nothing else about the story or the script could be described that same way.

It takes a lot to line up for you to ever even get a nomination, let alone win the damn thing. And Aniston would join a perfectly respectable -- nay, a downright exclusive -- club of people who never have. Nor would she even have the same convincing list of roles that should have won the elusive prize as many of the others in that club.

But I don't know, I think back to those tear-streaked, hopeless monologues of frustrated generosity of spirit from The Break-Up, and think that I'd like to see the efforts of one of my unabashed soft spots finally rewarded.

Jen should one day have her Cake and eat it too.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Useful in context, useless out of context


I've never been one to spend a lot of my free time listening to movie scores, and the Birdman score has just reminded me why.

Out of the context of the images, they can seem completely devoid of meaning. Completely devoid of, well, anything.

The Birdman score is probably a particularly extreme example of that, as the score consists only of percussion -- and fairly spare, indistinct percussion at that.

Don't get me wrong -- I thought Antonio Sanchez' music worked like gangbusters in the actual film. It was a perfect accompaniment to the project Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was trying to pull off, and not just because the drummer would sometimes actually appear on screen, as one of many semi-hallucinations of the main character (or is it just our hallucination as the viewer?).

Which is why, when I saw the Birdman score at the library, I figured "Hey, why not?" Since we now have a car, and since I now have a new computer that doesn't choke on discs from the library, I now have two ways to give it a listen, whereas just three months ago I would have had none.

But I was almost laughing as I listened to this score over the weekend. There's so little to it, I cannot imagine anyone -- even intense fans of jazz percussion, of which I am not one -- purchasing this and feeling like their $15 to $20 would have been well spent.

Nearly every track is under two minutes long, and they all seem to start up hesitantly before dissipating uncertainly. There's nothing distinctive about any of it as a standalone piece of music. Crucially, there are also no moments when you can say, "Oh yeah, this is that part when ..." Or none that I got to in about the first 14 tracks, anyway.

While I'm choosing to slam the Birdman score in particular, these are definitely more generalized feelings. And even my favorite musician of all time is not immune to them. When Trent Reznor delivered his brilliant score for The Social Network -- a score I've listened to at least ten times -- it was not a sign of things to come for him. I found nothing even remotely rewarding about slogging through all 37 tracks of the score to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl connected with me only slightly more, a benefit of at least having a couple "oh yeah, this is the part when ..." moments.

However, this does not mean that musical scores are always useless out of context. Just recently I've been thinking fondly of Michael Giacchino's music in Inside Out, and was thunderstruck by Ennio Morricone's epic score for The Hateful Eight. Not only do scores sometimes immeasurably enhance a film, they do frequently make a good independent listen.

Or parts of them, anyway. I think with most scores, there are a signature song or two that you remember, while the rest basically feels like filler. And truth be told, filler is probably what scores regularly should be. You don't want a score to dominate a film. Sometimes you just want it to be background.

So I think what would really work for me as a listener of scores would be to extract individual songs, individual significant moments from films and put them together in a complication. In order to keep it from being discordant, the task would then be to find movies with scores that strike a similar tone, so you aren't jumping from Giacchino to Morricone and back again.

However, from the Birdman score I would extract nothing. Nothing in those first 14 tracks, anyway. If I listened to the rest of it I might feel differently. In fact, I kind of remember that moment near the end when the superheroes are dancing around on stage and the jellyfish are flopping around on the beach, and that comet is falling from the sky, as possibly being distinctive. Maybe.

It's not a conclusion I reach with any relish. After all, Birdman was my #1 movie of 2014. Ever since it won best picture last year, though, I've been finding reasons to have buyer's remorse about my choice. As Birdman backlash has kicked in full time, I haven't been immune to it. And this is just one more example.

Regarding Birdman, ignorance -- in other words, the time when it was just a good movie and not an Academy standard bearer -- was indeed a virtue.