Tuesday, January 23, 2018

And finishing -- almost -- with the foreign documentary

At the end of 2017 I bemoaned that the movie year had featured comparatively few documentaries or foreign films of note.

Fittingly, I (nearly) finished my viewing season with a foreign documentary.

I've actually got one final viewing on tap for later in the day in the theater, but my last home viewing was Kedi, the documentary about the loving interactions between Turks and a teeming population of street cats in Istanbul.

As an indication of how delirious and confused I am at this point, I found the movie perfectly pleasant, and awarded it a full four stars on Letterboxd. (It almost feels these days that a documentary has to have a major gaffe in it to get anything less than four stars from me.)

I won't say that my cram period was particularly successful in terms of foreign films, as this was the first I watched since that December 30th post. But I did hit the documentaries pretty hard, fitting in Dawson City: Frozen Time, Rat Film and Casting JonBenet in addition to Kedi. (Which may just mean there were enough documentaries this year, I just didn't get to them until late. Foreign films of note, and ones that are actually available to rent, are a different story.)

Interesting, it's the same note on which I started my viewing year. The first film I counted for 2017 when I watched it back on January 15th was a foreign language doco called Motherland, which looks at the crowded hospital conditions for expectant mothers in the Philippines. It played at Sundance and was presented for our consideration when I was still vetting films for the Human Rights & Arts Film Festival (HRAFF).

At the end of this long journey, I'm looking forward to seeing what the first of 2018 will be. I can say it probably won't be either a foreign film or a documentary ... but that I hope that the year gets more generous in those departments from there.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Listmakers of a feather

It’s a bit lonely having your year-end list shifted three weeks forward from everyone else’s. While others made their lists for the actual end of the year, I always give myself until the Oscar nominations are announced to clean up the stragglers among movies I haven’t seen. It’s a system that suits me, and most years I actually wish I had longer, given the movies that still haven’t opened here yet. (By the end, exhaustion takes care of that wish.) But it means by the time I get to publishing the results, others have already mentally moved on.

So I’ve felt a kind of kinship to see Australians – or at least, Australian DJs – geeking out over forming a different kind of top ten at the same time I’m forming mine. Obsessiveness loves company, amirite?

Today has been the deadline for the Hottest 100 for the Australian radio station called Triple J, which I guess is headquartered in Sydney but bills itself as a national radio station, as many of the stations do. It plays what I would have once called “alternative” music, but is now probably better described as “not pop” music, which covers a number of different subgenres that we may charitably characterize as mildly subversive.

And apparently, these guys are as psyched about music as I am about movies.

In time for Australian Day this weekend, they will count down the 100 best songs of 2017, according to the DJs themselves, the listeners, the prime minister and whatever kangaroos can be bothered submitting their picks. I'm only slightly exaggerating, as the DJs reported that 2.1 million votes had been cast -- not insignificant in a country of only 20 million people, many of whom presumably have no interesting in mildly subversive "not pop" music.

I scoffed at this a little bit at first, as one does when they think their own is the dominant pursuit. "What do individual songs possibly have on an entire movies?" I thought. I also caught myself wondering how release dates were determined, since some of these presumably would have come from albums that came out in 2016. Of course, I deal with a variation of that in terms of movie release dates, but because of my tunnel vision it still seemed scoff-worthy.

But then I realized: Obsessiveness is obsessiveness, and we see kindred spirits in one another.

So it was really fun listening to the DJs talk about agonizing over their top ten, or commiserating that they had to work on theirs, that it was a sacred duty made more difficult by the impossibility of choosing. They'd also play call-in messages from listeners, who described the exquisite pain of trying to cut one of their babies and bump it down into the 11th slot.

It's what I'm doing now, and the fact that it's songs instead of movies doesn't make it any less squirm-inducingly delightful.

The other thing I should mention is that this used to be me. When I was in my teenage years, I was super into Top 40 radio in the U.S. In fact, my list obsessiveness did not originate with movies, but rather, a monthly top 15 I used to record on a sketch pad where I otherwise did drawings. I had a very specific method for this. The #1 and #2 slot each month were reserved for my favorite two songs that had not yet charted. These were the cream of the crop of the new. Slots #3 and #4 were for the best two returning songs, and a great song could sometime entrench itself there for months. Slots #5 through whatever were for the best of the other new songs, and that whatever was left over through #15 were the returning songs that were losing steam. I did this for at least two or three years and I absolutely loved it. Hope those sketch pads are still out there somewhere, in fact.

So there may not be a ton of others still working on their movie lists -- though I know of at least one other -- but I've got kindred spirits crunching the numbers and sweating it out and giving each of the songs that comprised the soundtrack of their last year one last listen.

I know the feeling. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Finishing 2017 before reaching 5,000

One of the reasons I haven't been that worried about setting a personal ranking record this year is my own sanity. It's a badge of honor, of sorts, not to push yourself and sacrifice sleep for an arbitrary personal milestone that continuing to try to break is unsustainable.

Another reason is that I've got another personal milestone to worry about.

With four full days remaining before I post my rankings for 2017, I have reached a lifetime total of 4,992 movies watched. I could have pushed myself and tried to break my record of 151 movies ranked last year, and I had an outside chance of doing it. But that would have meant that some random flotsam and jetsam from 2017 would have been my 5,000th movie ever watched, and that just won't do.

As it is, I figure to end up at either 4,996 or at worst 4,997 after completing my 2017 viewing, which gives me just enough wiggle room to position my 5,000th movie ... and just enough time to try to find something suitable to fill that honor.

I think I might have an 11th hour idea for that ... but I'll keep it under lock and key for the time being. I'll just say that sourcing the movie won't be a problem because I already own it. Which may seem mysterious ... but if this is what I choose, I'll explain it in detail at that point.

In the meantime, assuming you have forgotten this post, I'm asking for your input to see if you can think up something better for me for 5,000. I know it's a bit abstract as you don't know what I've seen and what I haven't. But even if you can think of something that involves the theme of 5,000 -- 5,000 somethings doing something, that kind of thing -- then that would help me out.

Most likely I'll just go with the thing I'm thinking of, but it's a pretty big milestone so I'd like to consider all options.

If you look at the date of that post I've linked to above, it was September 23rd, so I've been thinking about if for four months and haven't come up with anything that seemed like the clear-cut winner. Sometimes, a milestone is just another movie watched. (I even considered that as a way to do 5,000, just watching whatever struck my fancy on that particular night. And though I suppose that's still a possibility, I'm thinking I'm rejecting that idea.)

The one problem with the movie I'm most seriously considering is that I can't watch it in a vacuum -- I may have to watch two other movies before I can watch it. Plus I've still got to watch two movies this month for my new monthly viewing series, Audient Auteurs.

I'll figure it out. Wish I had a little more wiggle room, but them's the breaks.

So after I finish watching my 2017 movies, and after I finish watching my Audient Auteurs movies, and after I finish watching #5,000, then I can finally breathe a sigh of relief and just watch whatever I feel like again.

Strict viewing priorities can be a bitch sometimes.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The inability to form your own take

Although I try to avoid discussions of films before I’ve had a chance to see them, it’s not always possible. Especially when it’s a film from which there is a lot expected, and it opens in the U.S. three months before it opens in Australia.

That happened in 2017 probably with a number of films, but I’m thinking of two in particular it was hard to avoid, both of which relate to race relations. (I’ll try not to speculate on why movies about race relations are delayed three months in Australia.)

The first was, of course, Get Out. By the time it finally released in May, I knew a lot about the movie, even though I’d avoided watching the trailer and even though I didn’t have a clue about what the movie is actually “about.” (Which, ironically, led in part to my initial disappointment with it – I was expecting something more realistic than what the movie ultimately had in store for me. The movie was elevated significantly for me on a second viewing.)

The second was Detroit, which finally made its way to Australian theaters in November, after an August release in the U.S. A lot more was expected of this movie than Get Out before it was released, as Get Out was largely unheralded, becoming an instant word-of-mouth hit. After The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, people were practically stalking Kathryn Bigelow’s next movie, having tabs on what was called “Untitled Detroit Project” for at least a year before its release.

By the time it did hit Australian theaters, I did not even prioritize seeing it in that format, given that I’d already heard it was a big disappointment to everybody. I also knew that with its August release date in the U.S., I’d be able to rent it from iTunes before my list closed.

Which is precisely what I did last night.

And you know what, I like this movie. I don’t love it, but I think it’s a good movie. I was gripped by the genuinely shocking material, and I felt like Bigelow gave it shades and nuances I would not necessarily have expected. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay it is that I started it after 9 p.m. and wasn’t really at any risk of falling asleep, despite its two hour and 20 minute run time. I was involved the whole way.

But I couldn’t help but wonder if my personal take on the movie was unduly hampered by knowing what the popular take on it was. Namely, that a) it documents a bunch of shocking/violent behavior without really drawing a message from it, and b) it’s a story that its director does not necessarily have the right to tell.

I may have reached these conclusions myself, but knowing that others had already reached them made it a lot more difficult to judge that in a vacuum. I came in knowing those things, so was looking for them every step of the way.

The issue of who has the right to tell a particular story is a thorny one. I’m against the notion that certain people simply cannot tell certain stories, because I think anything is possible if you approach it sensitively, having done your due diligence. That said, did you know that the person who was originally planning to make the biopic of Malclom X was Norman Jewison? That it ended up in Spike Lee’s hands – and that the resulting film was a masterpiece – was a relief for all involved, I imagine, including myself, to the extent that I’m “involved.” (Don’t worry, Mr. Jewison, you made one of my all-time favorites in Jesus Christ Superstar.)

Bigelow has established her bonafides by making films that ask difficult questions about our institutions, and she’s already credibly addressed the issue of racism in police departments in Strange Days. Of course, that was a small if important part of that film, which was essentially a genre movie. Detroit not only makes the movie all about that, but it purports to adopt the African American perspective, which is slightly more problematic.

Still, watching this film, I can’t identify a single moment that seems tone deaf in some way, or like the work of someone who is not black. I suppose that’s really what you want in a movie that tries to reckon with “The Black Experience,” that there’s no part of it that reads as clearly non-black. For some people, the fact that Bigelow is not black will be a stumbling block regardless of how deftly she does it.

I don’t want to get too sidetracked here, but any time someone makes a movie where a significant percentage of its characters are from another race, you try to identify how successfully they’ve adopted the perspective of that other race. Get Out might be an interesting example in the opposite direction, or so I thought after my first viewing. While there was no doubt that Jordan Peele had an innate understanding of the characters who had a race in common with him, I must admit I wasn’t sure about his realistic grasp on the white characters. The second time, of course, I got that it was not supposed to be realistic. Different movie when you watch it that way.

A really interesting example of that in 2017 is Mudbound, directed by a black woman, Dee Rees. The story is split almost equally between black and white characters – almost. Interestingly, the balance is shifted in favor of the white characters in this one. At the center of that movie are characters played by Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund, one black and one white, and they have families of about equivalent size as supporting characters. However, there seems to be a lot more in the way of subplots for the white family than the black, which also creates the impression that Rees is a bit more in touch with those characters than the black ones. I’m not sure what to say about that and I think now I really am getting sidetracked.

Anyway, the second question – or, I guess, the first question, in terms of how I presented them above -- is also a tricky one. What lesson should we, can we, take from a movie like Detroit? Is it enough just to show awful, reprehensible racism at work, without giving us a specific nugget of truth we’re supposed to glean from it? I suppose the movie is meant to show us how far we have not come since then, but it doesn’t make either explicit or implicit connections to today in the text of the film, leaving it as something of a head scratcher as what our takeaway is supposed to be. This happened in Detroit then; this happens in Ferguson now. Is that really all the movie is supposed to be saying? It doesn’t feel like enough.

And yet I don’t know if that would have been my conclusion had the discussions I’d consumed of this movie not planted that thought in my brain. I was unable to form my own take on this material because it was already formed for me. I could have avoided discussions of this film for some time, if I’d tried, but probably not the five months between when it hit theaters and when I finally saw it. And practically speaking, I couldn't really have because I'd be dying to know why people were not considering this an Oscar frontrunner.

But maybe without that take, I would have thought of this as a lacerating portrait of an America that has not changed as much as we’d like to believe it has. Kathryn Bigelow does not sensationalize these portraits she makes. She just presents them and lets the outrageous details speak for themselves.

And in a country trying to grapple with, and heal from, its own racism, maybe that kind of hopeless factuality, without a silver lining, is not enough.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The lost late show

When I was younger, the way I remember knowing that a movie was on the last legs of its theatrical run was that it was only playing once per day at 9:55 p.m.

Would that this were still the system.

I don’t know if cinema-going habits have changed or it’s just a matter of the different mindsets between different countries, but nowadays, the movie that’s only still playing once per day plays a lot closer to 9:55 a.m. than 9:55 p.m. The “about to go bye bye” time slot is the 11:20 a.m. time slot, its last gasp before landing on video.

The Greatest Showman is not there yet, but it’s heading there. And when I had to skip the Sunday at 6:55 p.m. showing because I had not yet finished cleaning the house to my satisfaction before my family returned home, I may have lost the movie entirely.

That 6:55 p.m. showing is now the last showing at a couple of the theaters I’m looking at. There is one remaining 9 p.m. time slot at one theater, but it’s a bit of a drive and would mean I’d still have to leave before my kids have finished terrorizing my wife for the night.

Oh, I could go to a 6:55 showing if my life depended on it. But when you’ve just had nearly five full days without children, the last thing you feel like doing is calling in any favors from your wife – who spent those five days with them – to see another movie. (I watched 12 while they were gone.)

The thing is, I was basically ready to give The Greatest Showman a miss … until a friend on Facebook posted this. For those not following the link, it’s a rehearsal for the song “From Now On” when they were trying to get the movie greenlit. Hugh Jackman had just had a benign tumor removed from his nose the day before, so he was on strict orders from his doctor not to do any singing. Bad timing indeed. He went to the staging and moved around while someone else sang, just to give the prospective financiers a bit of a visual of what they could expect from the completed movie. However, when it came time to do this song, he threw caution to the wind and began belting it out, transported by the grandiosity and emotion of the song.

The woman who posted it told me that if this didn’t move me, nothing would. And I’m glad to say we don’t have to test that theory, because it sure did.

With just a week left until I finalize my list, and with Darkest Hour still on my theatrical hit list and The Shape of Water releasing on Thursday, it remains to be seen whether I’ll find a way to carve out a Greatest Showman viewing from my limited remaining options.

“From now on” I guess I’ll remember to do that cleaning early. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Saving Hoyts Kiosk, four rentals at a time

They’re building a new Woolworth’s supermarket down the street from us, which my wife and I both consider a very exciting development. In fact, part of the reason we’re dragging our feet on moving, something we think it might be prudent for us to do, is because we don’t want to move out of our neighborhood before it gets its Woolies. It’s supposed to open in mid-2018, which is soon soon soon.

We’re both excited about the easy access to our preferred grocery store, but for a while I’ve been secretly excited about something else I thought might accompany this new store: a Hoyts kiosk.

You see, when I first came to Australia, most of the Hoyts kiosks resided in Woolworth’s. Back then, I could still get new release rentals from a couple video stores, but those video stores closed a good three years ago. Now, these telephone booth-sized repositories are about the only remaining way to rent physical media.

Soon, there will be none. Instead of hoping that my new Woolies might get a Hoyts kiosk, now I’m reconciling myself to the fact that there may not even be a Hoyts kiosk business model by mid-2018.

The signs of impending doom have been there for a while. First they closed the newest one they’d opened, at an IGA that was conveniently on my ride home from work, near my son’s school. Then they closed the one at the IGA that’s near my work, which I used to ride out to at lunch.

But the real harbinger of the apocalypse came when they closed all the kiosks in the central business district. I mean, all of them. I used to frequent ones at the Queen Victoria Center or the Melbourne Central Shopping Center, the latter of which actually had two in its heyday. But when I went a few weekends back to let the kids pick up a movie, as a way to get them to cooperate with the several errands we had to run (and so I could pick up something for myself without them hassling me), the one in the QV Center was gone. Poof. A few days later, I was at Melbourne Central and noted that one had vanished too. When I searched online for the closest to the postal code for my work, I found them only in suburbs whose names were only vaguely familiar to me. I mean, they were all within a reasonable distance, in terms of kilometers, but none of them represented realistic options for me.

Except one. There’s still one at the Woolworth’s in Moonee Ponds, which is a ten-minute drive from my house.

So that’s where I went on Saturday, renting a whopping four titles for the weekend viewing binge just completed: The Book of Henry, 47 Meters Down, The Beguiled and Wind River. I’d have rented more if there were more I’d wanted. (I opted to pass on Flatliners, though it does make a good if unfortunate thematic accompaniment to this post.)

Rent ‘em Saturday morning in time to get them back by Sunday night. Perfect.

Yeah, that was $16 worth of rentals, but on iTunes it would have cost me more than $20. A disturbing number of the movies I want to rent from iTunes are $4.99 and even $5.99, and though I’d have to rent some that way, I didn’t want it to be all.

My first instinct was to figure out if the most number of movies I’ve ever rented at one time from a kiosk would entitle me to some kind of bulk discount. It had been a long time since I’d gotten one of those emails from Hoyts, telling me I could rent one and get one free – or more likely, rent three and get the fourth free. Something that usually wouldn’t be practical for me, but would be in this case. I even went to the website to look for deals. The last one they offered was a three for $9 deal in September. I could practically see the tumbleweeds rolling through the promotions sections on the site.

Then of course it occurred to me that the point was not to see what I could get from Hoyts for the minimum financial output. The point was to try to keep Hoyts in business. So in the end, I gave them my $15.96 with a smile.

The smile faltered pretty quickly though. These kiosks are already a relic, and soon they’re going to vanish entirely. In terms of my sentimental love of the video store, they’re a poor facsimile to begin with, but even this poor facsimile soon will be gone. And my $15.96 is not going to postpone this inevitability by even a minute.

It heartened me some to see that when I first got there, there was a couple puzzling over what they were going to rent, then another woman coming up and rubbernecking to see when it would be her turn. This small traffic jam at the kiosk, which ordinarily would have annoyed me and instantly made me impatient, instead felt like a positive sign. I did about $30 worth of shopping and returned to find it open for me to use.

But I’m kidding myself. The Hoyts kiosk is in its death throes. Few people are willing to put up with going to great lengths to rent a movie one day and return it to a specific location – albeit one of any number of (increasingly fewer) specific locations – by 9 p.m. the next day. For not much more on iTunes, you get your movie instantly, and if you don’t start watching it that day, no big deal. You have 30 days to start watching it. And once you start watching it, you have 48 hours to finish. Even stretching it, the most hours you can get out of a Hoyts rental is about 36.

The upcoming loss is symbolic more than practical. Practically speaking, iTunes always wins, in everything except the money – and even then, you have to factor in the extra time and petrol (gas) it took me to make round trips to this Woolies on consecutive days. Since I keep relatively little free space on my hard drive, downloading rentals from iTunes has always had a cap on it in terms of my capacity, but recently even this is no longer a problem. I only recently started noticing, perhaps because it only recently became available, that you don’t actually have to download your rentals anymore unless it’s convenient for you to do so. You can just stream them. Which I did this weekend with The Trip to Spain and Columbus, easily and without any drama.

So Hoyts will lose, in the long run, but maybe it will go longer than I think. Maybe the reason Hoyts is no longer operating in areas of high transit, like those locations in our central business district, is because it isn’t really practical for people to get to those locations both to pick up and return movies. Though maybe it would be practical just to serve a small neighborhood, where people can rent and return by foot. It’s keeping the Moonee Ponds kiosk in business – for now. Could my neighborhood be that kind of neighborhood?

I said up at the top that I’m trying to save the Hoyts kiosk by giving them my money at this crucial juncture in their existence. But I’m fooling myself. I could only rent those four movies because my family was out of town and I was watching during the daytime. And once my 2017 list closes, in just eight days, I’ll go into a period of not caring much about new releases on video. In fact, I typically don’t start renting again from the Hoyts kiosk until the first 2018 movies start coming out on DVD, usually sometime in May.

If there is still a Hoyts kiosk to rent from in May. 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

All the money, but none for Michelle

I wasn't going to write a blog post today -- I'm home, involved in the cram session I told you about earlier in the week while my family is out of town. 

But a case of bad timing has left a post praising the reshoot process of All the Money in the World at the top of my blog, and I just cannot let that stand.

In researching that post, I did indeed learn that both Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg had been paid for doing reshoots -- and left it as simple as that, even though I had found out the difference in the amounts they were paid from Wikipedia.

I suppose I should have been shocked by it, but at the time I used it only as confirmation that they had indeed done reshoots, not that Christopher Plummer was just digitally inserted into existing scenes. I guess I thought that this was something they had agreed on, and if they're fine with it, then that's fine.

Now I learn that Wahlberg refused to do the reshoots unless he was paid handsomely -- $150,000 per day for the ten day shoot. 

And that the amount Wahlberg was being paid was not disclosed to Williams, who took a nominal -- like, incredibly nominal -- fee just to be a team player and get the work done.

So while Wahlberg collected $1.5 million for his ten days of work, Williams raked in ... $800.

Ouch.

I don't know what Wahlberg will do next, if anything, to make this right. But it certainly looks pretty damn awful in a year in which we are collectively struggling to make things right for women in Hollywood. 

One can only hope that the outrage that is now coming out about this will be fueled into Williams' Oscar campaign. I don't know if she'll get nominated, let alone win -- Frances McDormand will have something to say about that for sure. But Williams is a damn fine actress and she deserves an Oscar at some point. Why not now, when she demonstrated an act of remarkable selflessness for the greater good of getting her movie released? And still gave an excellent performance?

I guess you can't totally blame Wahlberg for looking out for #1. If he feels his time is worth x amount of money, he should fight to get that money.

But it still looks pretty damn bad that he didn't tell Williams she should do the same, and even, that he probably intentionally misled her on his own fee.

Developing story. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Movies as machines with replaceable parts

It’s very common to go back for reshoots on a movie, to fix up things that don’t work, or add things that are only needed as the result of some change in the thrust of the story or the tone.

What’s not as common – in fact, I don’t ever remember it happening – is what we’ve seen on Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World.

When Kevin Spacey became a pariah a couple months ago – a scant few months ago when you consider this movie and its looming release date – everyone did as much as they could to distance themselves from him. That included Netflix removing him from promotional materials for House of Cards – and the future of the show, which also was cast in doubt until they decided to go forward with Robin Wright as the primary focus. It also included deciding to reshoot the scenes in All the Money in the World in which Spacey appeared, using Christopher Plummer instead.

Which was, as it turned out, a lot of scenes.

When I first heard this news, I figured this was an ensemble movie in which Spacey played a comparatively small role. A person like Spacey can make an impression in a movie even with a small amount of screen time, or maybe a lot of screen time but in just a couple scenes. To reference another Spacey movie, you could have easily reshot the Alec Baldwin character in Glengarry Glen Ross. One of the most memorable characters and scenes in the movie, but you could easily do it again with another actor without major disruptions.

That’s not the kind of role Spacey had, and Plummer now has, in this movie.

I couldn’t tell you for sure how many scenes J. Paul Getty is in, but it’s upwards of 20. He’s probably in as many scenes as Mark Wahlberg and nearly as many as Michelle Williams, even. He’s no minor character. In fact, you could almost quibble with the fact that Plummer was nominated in the supporting category at the Golden Globes, though ultimately, that’s the right category for him.

Let’s consider that for a moment. Plummer was nominated for a role he had not even shot yet two months ago.

The reshoots – extensive reshoots – occurred from November 20th to 29th. The first time Plummer came on screen, I immediately looked for signs of him having been digitally inserted into existing footage. There were certain visual phenomena I thought I was seeing that I might be able to attribute to this. And though there may have been some, it was not all done this way, as I read now that both Wahlberg and Williams were involved in the reshoots. Maybe not all of them, but at least some of them.

And as the movie went on, I stopped looking for evidence of the way Plummer was integrated into this movie. I didn’t need it. He felt fully like he had always been there, like he was an organic part of this project from day one.

And that’s the miraculous part. Plummer is a very good actor, one of our current treasures among elder statesmen, but I can’t imagine it must have been easy to act in a movie that had already been completed, into which you were drafted at the 11th hour. Not only did he have to learn all his lines, but he had to feel the character, something that sometimes starts developing as early as the table read months before shooting even begins. It’s at such a table read that you also start forging a chemistry with your co-stars, the kind that makes the characters feel like they actually know each other, and brings out the best from everyone.

Plummer didn’t need any of that. He took what was kind of the equivalent of acting against a green screen and knocked it out of the park. Having seen the film, I can say that Golden Globe nomination was fully warranted, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Oscar nomination following in due course. If it did so, it would not just be a symbolic snubbing of Spacey and a celebration of Plummer’s heroics in replacing him. It would be a genuine reward for genuinely great work.

Even more impressive: Plummer is nearly 90 years old. He was 87 at the time of shooting but has turned 88 since. That’s a lot closer in age to what Getty was during the events of the film than Spacey is, which makes the original casting of Spacey all the stranger. (Scott now says it was because the studio wanted a "bigger name" than Plummer, who was his original choice – though I sometimes take what Scott says with a grain of salt. I also bristle at the notion that Plummer is not a big name, though it's probably true -- I mean, the guy was in The Sound of Music for crying out loud.) 

It’s funny that a direct replacement for Spacey would have been someone 30 years his senior, and I wonder if they actually aged Spacey up with makeup, considering that the 58-year-old is meant to have teenage grandchildren. Anyway, it’s a much better choice for the film and the fact that the actor was in his late 80s didn’t prevent him from giving the performance the film probably always deserved.

Holy shit, I just checked what Spacey was to have looked like in this film, and they did indeed age him. See below:


It appears that this would have been, could have been, a career-defining type of role for Spacey, something that might have earned him tons of praise, or at least some hosannas over his range. That he was denied this kind of makes it all the sweeter. 

I can’t even imagine Spacey in the role, even with the latex making him age appropriate. In one sense I can – J. Paul Getty had something monstrous about him that he undoubtedly shares in common with Spacey. I mean, this is a man who refused to pay the ransom for his grandson’s kidnapping, eventually leading the boy to have an ear cut off before Getty finally figured out a way to make the ransom payment tax deductible. (Sorry, I guess that’s a spoiler, but the film is based on a true story.) But the fact that there is something undeniably paternalistic about Plummer, something innately human that Spacey doesn’t have, makes his monstrous qualities all the more chilling. Here is a man who seems like he has huge amounts of empathy and the capacity for sentimentality, who still refuses to part with an inconsequential percentage of his fortune to save someone he admits to being quite fond of. I don’t know that I would have bought that from Spacey, who cannot express genuine human warmth even in the best of times.

More than anything, as teased in the title of this post, I find this an interesting commentary on what is possible with a film that’s on the verge of release. If a machine is broken, you don’t trash the machine – you just replace the broken part. However, you usually wouldn’t expect to get that machine on the schedule you originally planned to get it. There would be some kind of delay.

With All the Money in the World, they replaced the broken part … without any delay. And we’re not talking about a car with one of its hub caps missing. We’re talking about a car that needed an engine overhaul. I’m having trouble imagining a larger part of a movie that needed to be changed in order to salvage it. Considerably lesser changes might logically prompt a studio to delay the release by six months.  

I guess it’s just another of the undeniable miracles that is Ridley Scott, who I trashed on this blog just two days ago. At age 80, Scott is not only making films at a ridiculous pace – this is his second of 2017 after Alien: Covenant – but he’s making large scale movies, and then sometimes he’s having to reconfigure those movies just weeks before their release. In something like All the Money in the World, he also makes it look effortless.

I gave the film only 3.5 stars out of five, but I’m wondering if that four-star rating was more appropriate, even if only in recognition of what Scott and Plummer did. But it wouldn’t be just in recognition of them, as Michelle Williams is great in this movie, and Wahlberg is better than he usually is. It’s a really solid movie, and it’s also a triumph over psychopaths who seduce and rape underage boys. Win win. 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

When everyone's away, the mouse will cram

I’ve said in a couple posts that I expect to fall well short of my record total of movies ranked last year, when I watched 151 films in time to rank them by the morning the Oscar nominations are announced. With this year’s version of that day only 12 days away, I’m currently 26 behind that at 125.

However, thanks to my current circumstances, I do have a chance to make a run at it.

Not a realistic run, but I’ll get closer than I have any right to.

That’s because not only is the cat away this weekend, but so are the two kittens.

This is a cheeky reference to the two “film festivals” I curated for myself last July/August and September, when my wife was away on two trips to North America. I called those festivals “Cat’s Away” and made a running joke about how I (the mouse) would “play” while she was away. I mean, it wasn’t a joke as I did “play” – i.e., watched movies in almost all my spare time. But she doesn’t really prevent me from doing that on a regular basis, so the whole premise was a bit silly.

Anyway, this time around, she’s gone for five nights and she is taking both my children with her. They are visiting their grandmother in Tasmania.

So I will have literally no responsibilities when I’m not working. I mean, except for not burning down the house, I guess.

Last night was the first night, and I only watched one movie, All the Money in the World (post coming tomorrow), because I had other things I needed to do, like go shopping to buy all the gross food I don’t want my family to know I’m going to eat while they’re gone.

One big difference between this and the previous “Cat’s Away” scenarios – other than the biggest, that I’m not looking after my kids – is that I can see movies in the theater this time as well. Hence the All the Money in the World viewing last night. I should be able to make a very respectable stab at getting in most of the films that qualify as “Christmastime prestige releases that I might ordinarily not mind missing,” of which All the Money in the World is a prime example (though it didn’t release until January 4th here). I have a theatrical double feature planned for tonight, as well as possibly one more single screening on Sunday.

On Friday night, Saturday and Sunday during the day, it’ll be a marathon of collecting up a variety of titles from earlier in the year that are now available for rental. That’ll make up for the two international flights I took last year, which enabled me to add about eight more titles in a confined period of time. I’ll do a big sweep of all the dangling leftovers. Do leftovers dangle? In this case they do.

I will also hope to undertake at least one major cleaning project of some sort. I don’t want them coming home to a messy house. But more than that, I want them coming home to a house that is cleaner than they left it – profoundly cleaner, if possible. I’d also like to do some other project around the house, though I don’t know what that will be. I’ll make that assessment over the next few days.

For now it’s just really funny to be the only person in my house for a lengthy period of time. I’ve only ever had that before for maybe 24 hours, and I’ve never only had to deal with myself when waking up on a workday. I didn’t even know what to do with myself this morning.

My cramming will likely get me over 140 for the year – in fact, if it doesn’t I will have done something wrong. One fifty is out of reach, but that’s just as well. I certainly don’t have to prove anything to you. To myself, I need to prove that I don’t need to set a record, since trying to set a new record every year is unsustainable.  

I won’t update you on these viewings as I did during the other Cat’s Away series, in part because I’m not really calling this a Cat’s Away film festival. And in part because I’m about to reveal what I feel about all these films, in list form, and don’t want to ruin the surprise before then.

A part of me does wish that I could use this period of time for one of my more traditional viewing marathons, in which I pick movies based entirely on whim and what I think would be good to watch at the moment. But including Cat’s Away and my two nights at a hotel for my birthday, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to do that lately, and have made the most of them.

Now excuse me while I go make the most of this one. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Ridley Scott and his stupid big head

You know how Donald Trump says stupid things and thinks he's so great?

Ridley Scott is like that, too.

The difference, other than a couple years in age, is that Ridley Scott is actually great sometimes.

But boy does he make it hard for us to acknowledge that.

The inspiration for this post has nothing to do with Scott's new movie, All the Money in the World, which I expect to see on Thursday night. It has to do with a new interview he granted to the Toronto Sun in promoting that movie, in which he got sidetracked talking about his most famous franchise and said the following patently ridiculous thing:

"There's no reason why Alien should now not be on the same level for fans as Star Trek and Star Wars. So I think the next step as to where we go is, do we sustain the Alien (series) with the evolution of the beast, or do we reinvent something else? I think you need to have an evolution of this famous beast because he's the best monster ever, really."

These comments come on the heels of Fox saying it wouldn't go ahead with a sequel to Alien: Covenant after it was a dismal box office failure. Making them all the more idiotic.

So let's recap:

1) Ridley Scott thinks that his franchise is on a par with arguably the two most beloved intellectual properties that exist. (Arguably. Some of the superheros, and maybe Harry Potter, might edge out Star Trek.)

2) Ridley Scott thinks that the star of his series is the "best monster ever." That includes monsters like Frankenstein's monster, the wolfman, the Kraaken, etc. All monsters that have ever existed.

3) Ridley Scott makes these claims on the heels of fans implicitly rejecting the Alien franchise, really in terms of their reaction to both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant when you come right down to it.

4) Ridley Scott thinks that even if you move away from the "best monster ever" and "reinvent something else," there's something intrinsic to the Alien universe -- perhaps his beloved androids -- that still makes it great. That still makes it viable.

Oh Ridley.

I wouldn't be slapping my forehead so violently if it weren't for comments he made a couple years ago, when Scott was asked his favorite science fiction movies of all time and listed not one, but two of his own movies: Alien and Blade Runner. (At least he had the good sense to bump them down to the three and four slots behind Star Wars and 2001. Given these recent comments drenched in franchise envy, one wonders if he'd be so courteous to Star Wars now.)

The funny thing is, I don't totally disagree with what he's saying. He's definitely in the neighborhood of that greatness. In a piece I wrote for ReelGood earlier this year, which talked about 2017 containing movies that are both direct sequels in Scott's two signature franchises (Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049) and possible ripoffs of those franchises (Life and Ghost in the Shell), I said the following:

"In spite of being a total wanker about his own creative output, it could be argued that Scott has contributed as much to science fiction popular mythology as George Lucas or Gene Rodenberry, Ray Bradbury or Arthur C. Clarke."

It's one thing me saying it. It's another thing saying it yourself. Let others sing your praises, Ridley. And if that praise dries up, then go away humbly and quietly.

If we're draining the swamp of sexual miscreants who use their positions of power to abuse young women and men, can we also drain the swamp of boastful idiots who have no awareness of the tone of their own comments?

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Introducing: Re-coen-sidering

By some criteria, you might consider Joel and Ethan Coen my favorite directors of all time. After all, they have two films in my top ten on Flickchart: Fargo (#8), and the film holding the very peak position on that chart, Raising Arizona. Inside Llewyn Davis, which I have now seen three times in its four years of existence, is at #98 and steadily climbing.

However, the Coens have also made films I absolutely loathe. Well, maybe only one I absolutely loathe. But there are a few others I don’t like, or at least, not at the level that other people like them.

So for a bi-monthly series in 2018, I’ve decided to reconsider – to re-coen-sider – their films that trouble me the most, to see whether I’m the one who’s wrong about them, or other people are. And if I’m wrong, it could make it a lot clearer that these guys do, in fact, deserve that “favorite director” status.

There are easily six films that would qualify for this series, films I don’t like nearly as much as others seem to. The only trouble is, I’ve already re-coen-sidered two of them on my own time. The first and perhaps most shocking of those is The Big Lebowski, which I have always struggled to like more than I do, the most recent attempt at which I wrote about here. The other, shocking in a different way, is No Country for Old Men. I did like it a bit better on the second viewing, which I wrote about here, but I still don’t like it as much as I wish I did.

So that leaves me with only four films where my opinion is significantly disconnected from the popular perception of them. Only four films where I like it less than others, I should say. There’s one where I seem to like it more, and that’s Intolerable Cruelty, though I have also re-coen-sidered this one on my own time. It dropped in my estimation on second viewing, but not hugely.

For the fifth film, I will start the series on a positive note by re-coen-sidering a film I love but have only seen once: Miller’s Crossing. This is my fourth favorite Coen film, but I’ve never gotten in that second viewing to confirm. So I suppose, in trying to start on a positive note, I could be starting on a negative one if I ended up finding out I don’t like this movie as much as I think I do.

That’ll be how we get started in February. From there, I will proceed chronologically and disperse these titles at two-month intervals: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Ladykillers (2004), Burn After Reading (2008), True Grit (2010) and Hail, Caesar! (2016)

My math is not off. There are six films in this series, but one of the non-Miller five I listed above is a movie nobody likes. In watching The Ladykillers, I will not be trying to get what other Coen fans got out of this movie. Most Coen fans do not like this movie, and I’m no different. So it might just be submitting myself to the tedium of watching it a second time.

There are a couple Coen movies I've seen only once that I’d like to revisit just because I like them, particularly Blood Simple (1984) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). But they will have to wait until they find their way back on to my viewing schedule organically.

You can follow along if you like, but I don’t need to tell you that. You’re an adult. You can do whatever you want.

Monday, January 8, 2018

A trope I wish I could switch off

The thing I'm going to discuss today is something I've seen in a hundred, maybe a thousand, movies before.

Because I saw it twice in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri gets dinged for it.

It's that moment where a character sees a news broadcast about themselves or some topic in which they are intimately invested ... and stops watching it before the broadcast is over. They don't just walk away, they turn off the TV altogether. (Usually perfectly at the end of a sentence, of course.)

Now I don't want to say I'm like Donald Trump in any way except us both being male, white and American. But I am like him in the fact that if there were a news telecast about me -- any news telecast, saying anything -- I'd be obsessed by what it had to say. Never in a million years would I dream of turning it off. I might even wait through a few commercial breaks to see if they happened to return to the subject of me.

So it's obviously nothing but a screenwriting convenience that the characters in movies, who are presumably not that much less obsessive than Donald Trump is or than I am, would be actively averse to hearing the entirety of the news report about them.

Straining credibility even further is that the characters watching these news reports are often wanted by the police, or something similarly urgent that might necessitate an entire viewing of the piece in question. Are the police hot on your trail? Do they have any leads? Is the woman you killed still dead? You'd want to know these things. You wouldn't want to turn off the TV.

The stakes aren't quite as high for the characters in Three Billboards. The person the police are pursuing, or not pursuing, in this movie is not one of the characters. But three different characters do, at one point or another, watch a news report about themselves: Frances McDormand's Mildred Hayes, Woody Harrelson's Sheriff Bill Willoughby and Sam Rockwell's Officer Jason Dixon. Quaint, the idea that so many people still watch the local news.

Anyway, if memory serves, the only one of these three who does not turn the TV off is Dixon, the racist hick who lives with his mother and believes in intimidating suspects. The other two "more enlightened" characters (though each have their flaws) are content to silence the talking box and slip into ponderous thought.

Donald Trump and Jason Dixon. Great guys to have character traits in common with, Vance.