Thursday, November 27, 2014

Fox caught


It's 11:30 on Thanksgiving Eve and it's been two weeks since I've updated the blog and I'm still up, so I thought I'd write you a quick one. You know, to tide you over until I get back to Australia next week.

I thought November would be a comparatively dry month for movies, what with me spending over half of it on vacation. Nothing could be further from the truth. I've seen seven movies over the course of three different plane trips (of the four I've taken), and four other movies, meaning 11 total since I left. More on the plane movies when I return, and complete my total with at least two and probably more on the return flight. Wish I Was Here, I've got my eye on you. You'd make a perfect plane movie.

But what I want to tell you about now is that I achieved my goal of movies to catch, so to speak, in the theater while I'm here in the U.S.

Birdman was optional. The movie opens on January 15th in Australia, which means I can watch it and then immediately add it to my list before the list needs to be finalized a few hours later. Did it last year with Inside Llewyn Davis and Her, and it worked out great. (Though given a few more days to think about it, I would have ranked Davis -- which ended up my #3 -- even higher, and probably dropped 21st ranked Her by as many as ten spots.) And I did see Birdman our second afternoon in Maine, when my dad watched our kids so both my wife and I could go.

But the real prize was Foxcatcher, which doesn't open in Australia until two weeks after my rankings close. Last year, the delayed release date of prestige pictures kept me from ranking 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club, among others. I already know I'm losing a big prize, Inherent Vice, this year. I don't think it opens until February.

Foxcatcher would have befallen the same fate, except it's already open in Los Angeles -- which means not only am I not seeing it two months later than you are, but I'm actually seeing it earlier than most of you.

This pleases me. This pleases me greatly.

And saw it I did on Tuesday morning, while my wife was on a play date with one of her friends. (Their respective children were there too.)

The fact that I'm seeing it before most of you is not what pleases me, though my phrasing might indicate otherwise. It's that I get to include it on the list. A year-end list of movies loses a touch or two of credibility when it doesn't contain, oh, half of the best picture nominees, as was the case in 2013. I don't know if Foxcatcher will receive a best picture nomination, but it definitely could, and Steve Carell is almost certain to receive a best actor nomination. (High creep factor. High.)

There may be others I will miss this year -- in fact, I'm sure there are. In fact, I can tell you some of the titles: Wild, The Theory of Everything and The Interview will all slip beyond my grasp. The Theory of Everything is actually also open here, so if I'd structured my visit a little differently, maybe I'd have seen that too.

But I'm happy enough to have caught the Fox.

As a movie completist, I now feel a little more complete.

When you do end up seeing Foxcatcher, I want you to tell me which is the most impressive artificial enhancement to an actor's appearance: Carell's prosthetic nose, Mark Ruffalo's receding hairline or Channing Tatum's cauliflower ears.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A hiatus of unknown duration


Don't be alarmed. That unknown duration will probably be about two weeks at the longest.

But yes indeed, it's beginning now and it could last a while. Or, it could be over in a day or two, and then me having even written this post will seem alarmist.

What the hell are you TALKING about, Derek?

I'm talking about a trip to 'Merica, to make benefit glorious nation of myself and my family. Beginning tomorrow morning, and then continuing on the same morning in Los Angeles some 14 hours later.

That's right, I am returning to my old stomping grounds for just over two weeks. I'll be hitting two coasts (east and west, in case you are counting at home) as well as one mile-high city in the mountains (Denver).

Will there be time to update my blog amidst hours of family, friends, weird sleep patterns and trips to Disneyland?

There could be -- but there probably shouldn't be. There are better things I should be spending my time on.

But on the off chance you don't hear from me again until the beginning of December, well, now you know why.

So enjoy your own much-deserved break from my blog (zing!) and I'll be back bursting with stories of which movies I managed to watch on the plane while my children were crying and not sleeping.

Until then!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Titles that measure periods of time


Titles can be tricky to come up with.

You don't want them to be too on the nose, but you also don't want them to be so abstract that they lose all meaning. Too generic, and no one will remember them.

So some people just give up and name the movie after a period of time.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's latest film -- called Two Days, One Night -- is one such example. It's a really good movie, perhaps even verging on great. But that title? It's like they just threw their hands up in the air.

The title measures the period of time the protagonist, played by Marion Cotillard, has to convince her co-workers to forgo their annual bonuses so that the company has enough money to keep paying her salary. It's an unenviable task, since her 16 co-workers already voted 14-2 to keep their 1,000 Euros instead of allowing her to keep her job. Did I mention she has been on sick leave because she's suffering from depression, and that her co-workers all know this? An unenviable task indeed.

The realization that she has only this short amount of time to change their minds, therefore, does have a certain titular relevance. With filmmakers other than the Dardenne brothers, we might even get regular inserts of ticking clocks to increase the sense of pressure on Cotillard's character (though I'm glad we didn't).

Still, will it be easy in a couple years for us to see this title and remember what the movie was about? Does it carry that much relevance for the story?

So I thought today I would briefly explore some other movie titles that are also time periods, to see if the periods of time are truly relevant to the story, or if it was more just a case of someone giving up on finding something better. In order to limit myself, I'm only considering movies I've seen, and only movies where the time period is the whole title. So, for example, the Sandra Bullock rehab drama 28 Days would qualify, but the Danny Boyle zombie movie 28 Days Later would not, because of that little word "Later" added on to the end.

Also, I thought it would be fun to order them from the shortest amount of time to the longest.

Without further you know what:

8 Seconds (1994, John G. Avildsen)
Meaning of title: It's the length of time a rider is required to stay on a bull in order for his ride to be scored.
Success or failure? As it represents this goal that the movie's characters are trying to attain, its use is justified.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Un-bull-ievable

15 Minutes (2001, John Herzfeld)
Meaning of title: Relates to the desire for 15 minutes of fame by a couple Eastern bloc baddies who videotape their crimes and are chased by two detectives (Robert DeNiro and Edward Burns).
Success or failure? Success, I guess, as it uses the exhibitionist's desire to become famous as the central motivation behind the crimes. However, it's unlikely to be remembered as a title itself.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Video Berserker 2001 Now!

88 Minutes (2008, Jon Avnet)
Meaning of title: Al Pacino's forensic psychiatrist (there is such a thing?) is taunted by one of his former patients on death row and attacked through a Jigaw-like series of clues, frame jobs and assassination attempts that takes 88 minutes to transpire.
Success or failure? Failure, as the clock doesn't begin ticking until about 20 minutes in with a couple minutes of wrap-up. The title is otherwise meaningless. And, the movie is really dumb.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Unreal Time

127 Hours (2010, Danny Boyle)
Meaning of title: The length of time Aaron Ralston is trapped in that canyon before he finally decides he needs to cut off his own hand.
Success or failure? It sure does give a good sense of how long that guy was alone with his thoughts and without almost any food or water. However, they probably could have come up with something better. Maybe the title of Ralston's memoirs, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, was too on the nose.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Evil Dead 3

Six Days, Seven Nights (1998, Ivan Reitman)
Meaning of title: The amount of time Harrison Ford and Anne Heche are trapped together on a deserted island after crash landing.
Success or failure? Mostly failure here. Is that a really long time to be stranded? It's supposed to be a play on the length of time advertised for vacation hotel stays, but it doesn't exactly work. It's also supposed to be an intolerable amount of time to be stuck with someone you loathe, but since this is a romantic comedy, the loathing is only foreplay to an inevitable romantic connection.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: An Old Guy and a Lesbian

Thirteen Days (2000, Roger Donaldson)
Meaning of title: The length of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Success or failure? Given those days' importance in narrowly avoiding World War III, I suppose they are important in and of themselves, so it works. Tellingly, though, when I tried to remember the title on my own I thought it was Three Days -- which in retrospect seems obviously wrong. The point being, though, that I couldn't remember the actual title -- even though I liked this film quite a bit.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: That Time Kennedy Almost Blew Up the World

28 Days (2000, Betty Thomas)
Meaning of title: The amount of time an alcoholic (Sandra Bullock) must spend in a rehab facility to avoid jail for a drunk driving accident.
Success or failure? I suppose it's a success of sorts in that I have come to think of this as some industry standard amount of time addicts must spend in rehab before they can have some hope of being cured. However, that could also be a failure because I don't actually think that is industry standard.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Stick to Driving Buses, Sandy

40 Days and 40 Nights (2002, Michael Lehmann)
Meaning of title: The length of time a dude (Josh Hartnett) must abstain from sex, which he gave up for Lent.
Success or failure? Big failure, and not just because I hate the movie. Sure, it gives some idea how difficult it must be for the guy to refrain from pleasuring himself, but the use of a Bible-inspired phrase as the title of a lame sex comedy is distasteful at best.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Douchebags on Parade

9 1/2 Weeks (1986, Adrian Lyne)
Meaning of title: The duration of a smoldering affair between Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, one intimately involving the contents of a refrigerator.
Success or failure? In the sense that the film became kind of iconic, with the time period coming to represent the exact amount of time animal magnetism can possess two people, I guess it's sort of a success.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Sizzle

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007, Cristian Mungiu)
Meaning of title: The exact age of a fetus at the time it is aborted by a woman in communist Romania.
Success or failure? Incredibly chilling success, one that manages to horrify without taking a side on the debate about when a human life begins.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: N/A

Nine Months (1995, Chris Columbus)
Meaning of title: Yes, the length of gestation of a fetus before it's born (and a pretty alarming juxtaposition with the previous film).
Success or failure? Look, there had to be some romantic comedy that bore this title. Why not this one?
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Hugh Grant Stammers His Way Through His Girlfriend's Pregnancy 

10 Years (2011, Jamie Linden)
Meaning of title: The amount of time that has elapsed since this movie's characters graduated high school.
Success or failure? I suppose it is a reasonable title for a reunion movie, since it gives an idea of how much may have changed in their lives since they were last together.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Reunion

What? I haven't seen any movies whose title is more than a decade? That's BS.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Australian Audient: Tracks


This is the penultimate post in Australian Audient, a series in which I watch movies made in Botswana and discuss them here

In addition to helping me catch up with 2014 movies prior to my January ranking deadline, Tracks interested me as perhaps the first film in this series to truly grapple with one of Australia's most notable characteristics: its landscape. Elements of Tracks have been explored in other movies I've watched -- Ayers Rock/Uluru makes an appearance in Cry in the Dark, and Rabbit-Proof Fence includes an epic journey through the country's foreboding environment -- but Tracks is the first that really gets at the extraordinary vastness of this giant land mass, the majority of which is fully uninhabitable.

The true story concerns an Australian woman named Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), who in 1975 decided she wanted to traverse the outback from Alice Springs (more or less in the middle of the country) to the Indian Ocean. It's a journey of nearly 2,000 miles through barren lands that can only support animals who require the least amount of water. Robyn prepares for her journey by learning how to wrangle and "whisper" to camels, but is stiffed when the camel farmer who had been training her refuses to honor his verbal agreement to pay her two camels upon the completion of her unpaid apprenticeship. Without all the resources she thought she'd have, Robyn turns to National Geographic to sponsor her trip. They do, but with the caveat that a photographer (Adam Driver) will meet up with her periodically to document her journey. As the quest for solitude is one of Robyn's motivating factors for making the trip in the first place, she initially bristles at the idea, but knows where her bread is buttered. So she sets off one morning in April of 1977 with four camels, her trusty dog Diggety, and a general sense of how to avoid dying during a trip expected to take the better part of a year.

The first thing one might notice about Tracks is how beautiful and assured it looks. DP Mandy Walker has already had Australia under her lens with Baz Luhrmann's Australia, and she seems to have a sixth sense for how to shoot the country to capture both its massive vistas and its dusty details. It's a restless camera as well, swooping just a little when it needs to, but never overwhelming the material.

That's consistent with director John Curran's approach overall, to understate rather than overstate. Garth Stevenson's piano score is plaintive and unassuming, and Wasikowska rarely yields to intense emotions, even though you can imagine the solitude and low-level deterioration of Robyn's sanity might have prompted regular emotional outbursts.

The problem with Tracks, then, is that what happens on Robyn's trek is just not all that interesting. By sticking very closely to Robyn's real story rather than using it as a jumping off point for a more exciting film, screenwriter Marion Nelson has inevitably left this movie lighter on drama than we might wish it. To be certain, Robyn Davidson faced hardships on her journey and was close to failing on numerous occasions, but the events that befall her are not the type a screenwriter would have included in a fiction version of this story. For example, not to spoil too much of what happens, but let's just say that not all five of the animals who started out with her make it to the end. Which ones don't make it, and the reasons they don't make it, seem a bit less intrisically related to Robyn's undertaking than we might like. That's what happened, but it's not very satisfying. "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story," a wise man once said.

I did not feel the relationship between Davidson and her photographer the way I was supposed to, either. A chatty American out of his element in Australia, Driver's character did allow me to empathize with him rather easily. But something about the sporadic development of their relationship -- her pushing him away and then pulling him near in alternate moments -- left it pretty indistinct, which is a problem as the film ultimately comes to rely on this as something that drove her onward. Her extremely inconsistent and sometimes cruel behavior toward him makes it a lot harder to like her, as well. Besides, isn't there something a little bit funny about making a long journey like this on your own, then having someone turn up in a car every couple weeks to say hello and offer you help? (And with the way the film somewhat ineffectively compresses time, Driver's appearances seem a lot more frequent than that.) The point is that there's supposed to be no safety net. It's kind of like when someone says they're going to swim the English Channel, but then they've got someone following them in a boat not ten feet away.

Tracks becomes a bit desultory once Robyn's journey begins, but I absolutely loved the lead-up to it. Something about her preparations for the trip had an immediacy and a naturally engaging quality that the rest of the movie lacked. I especially liked the portion dealing with camel wrangling. There's something about the way camels are shot in this movie that accords them a kind of worshipful respect that I've never previously associated with them. Under Mandy Walker's lens, they have a majesty to them that makes them perhaps the movie's easiest characters to sympathize with. What I also didn't know is that wild camels -- of which there are many in Australia, even though they are not native -- can be vicious killers. Don't mess with a camel, or that mouth with its stubby broken teeth will set its sights on you.

Okay! Last month of this series to wrap up the year. I am finishing with the war movie Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson, which tells the story of one of the most tragic military conflicts in the country's history. I say I've seen the movie, but I know I didn't watch the whole thing, and it's finally time to correct that.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Roger Ebert understood me


Of the many moments that obviously spoke to me in the first documentary I've ever seen about a film critic, one really stood out.

It wouldn't be a big moment for most viewers. In fact, it's almost the very definition of a throwaway moment.

Somewhere in the first third of Life Itself, the Steve James film adaptation of Roger Ebert's memoirs, Roger's wife Chaz is telling James what's going to happen later that afternoon for them, after they move from the hospital to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

"He's excited because he gets to see a movie he wants to see," says Chaz. "It should be coming over later today. So he's happy about that."

Roger brightens, and unable to affirm Chaz's words vocally, he applauds.

Yes.

What some people will never understand about us film buffs -- and you probably count yourself one of us -- is that merely the prospect of seeing a movie makes us happy. It doesn't even have to be a movie we "want to see," as Chaz included as a little clarification of the type of movie it was. I'm sure the sentence would have worked just fine as "He's excited because he gets to see a movie." The only problem is that then it makes Roger, and those of us who agree with him, seem simplistic, as though we'd be just as happy to see Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star as There Will be Blood.

Not just as happy, but yeah, it would still scratch that itch. It would still fulfill that need.

What I loved about Ebert was his genuine optimism about each and every movie he went to see -- or at least, the optimism he genuinely conveyed, even if he may not have felt it. Sure, he could be a cynical bastard when he wanted to be, and I'm sure he saw thousands of movies that he would diss to his colleagues before even seeing them. But I think he was also just as happy to be proven wrong, to find a diamond in that vast cinematic rough.

What we love about movies is their potential to be great, the possibility that they will offer us something profound and unexpected. It's what always keeps us coming back for more.

The film's other most meaningful sentiment, for me, came at the very beginning, in a quote from Ebert that should have been more well known than it was. Although I'd heard it before I saw this movie, I never heard it while the man was still alive.

"We are all are born with a certain package, we are who we are," says Roger. "Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck inside that person. And the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us."

Yes.

Next time someone asks you why you spend 12-14 hours of each week watching movies, and why you're choosing to pass a sunny afternoon watching a movie rather than doing something outside, and why you lose precious sleep finishing a movie that's due back the next day, and why you re-watch a movie you've already seen six times before ... well, there's your answer.

Life Itself was an empathy machine that helped me understand one of my own heroes a little bit better, and it's one of the best films of the year.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Time is/is not of the essence


Spoilers about Interstellar to follow, but not before I give you another warning, so you can read up to that point if you want. If you don't want, well ... why did you even browse over to my site today, anyway?

Last night was a real rarity and a real old-school moviegoing experience for me. Not only was it seeing a movie on a night other than Monday or Tuesday -- the discount nights at various theaters near me -- but it was also seeing a blockbuster on (or close to) opening night. The fact that it wasn't actually opening night was a technicality blamed on the fact that movies open here on Thursdays, not Fridays.

So I prepared for it like an old-school moviegoing experience ... or at least, new old-school. I bought the tickets online at work that morning, and arrived 15 minutes before the show to ensure there were no problems claiming my ticket (there were, as the machine would not read the bar code on my confirmation email and I had to type in a code instead) and that I didn't get stuck in the front row.

Well, no need for that.

I watched one of the year's most anticipated new releases with only about 25 other people, even at a 9 o'clock show on a Friday night at a reasonably popular theater. That's the point we have reached as consumers of cinematic entertainment, I suppose. Either that or the recent muting of the Interstellar buzz has had its ripple effect.

At least I had very good luck Christmas shopping, which was what brought me out to the Highpoint Shopping Centre on a Friday night in the first place. See, Friday is one of only two nights a week (with Thursday) where the shops are open until 9, meaning I can shop without it impacting my childcare responsibilities. Every other day it's 5:30 -- even Saturday. And I'm aiming to finish all the shopping for the American wing of my family by Thursday, so we can travel with the full complement of their Christmas presents rather than having to pay the ghastly price of shipping from Australia. With the good luck I had, I didn't even need to worry about cutting things 15 minutes short for my unnecessarily early arrival at Interstellar.

Time may not have been of the essence for me, but it definitely is for the characters in Interstellar, as I now get into SPOILER TERRITORY.

As you may have heard by now, Christopher Nolan's space opus is a combination of hits and misses -- some people think there are more hits, while others think there are more misses. As it turns out, I think there are more hits, but I just told someone that I would grade it a B+, so my enthusiasm for it is not overwhelming.

Still, there are parts of the movie I found incredibly effective, and particularly chilling.

Chief among those is the movie's use of time. We all know that astronauts age differently than we do when they're away from Earth, but historically, this effect has been minimized by not being very far away from Earth. When traveling through wormholes to other galaxies, it's a different story.

It was only slightly problematic -- and this is the kind of thing that mildly reduces my overall enthusiasm for the movie -- that one of the most chilling aspects of the story was also something I did not really understand. At a key point of the narrative, the crew searching for a new home planet for human beings makes the difficult decision to check in on a candidate planet that exists very close to the gravitational pull of a black hole. While that alone would rule it out for me -- I mean, what if that planet gets closer to that black hole, or the black hole moves? -- I'm not an astrophysicist, so I'm glad I'm not the one making those decisions.

The main problem with this planet being so close to the black hole is not that the planet will be sucked in, but that time is seriously warped on that planet. It has something to do with relativity, and it's a shame the movie did not explain this one better because it did a very good job simplifying the concept of the wormhole. In any case, the result is that for every hour the astronauts spend on that planet, they lose SEVEN YEARS of Earth time. I believed it even if I didn't understand it.

Unfortunately, due to the unforeseen arrival of the biggest tsunami (but is it really a tsunami if there's no land for it to crash on?) ever captured on film, the crew experiences tragedy and a technical setback that causes them to spend more than three hours on the planet's surface.

Oops.

So yeah, when they are finally able to return to the main craft orbiting the planet -- which is somehow not subject to the same time warping -- the crew member they left behind has been waiting for them for TWENTY-THREE YEARS. I'm getting chills even as I type this, though my bullshit detector is also going off a little bit. After 23 years by himself in a space station, only small portions of which are spent in deep sleep, not only is the remaining crew member still sane, but it's almost like he's not even all that surprised to see them show up. Because of that skewing of the time ratio, he has had no way to keep tabs on the crew, whether they were alive or dead, but his commitment to the possibility of them being alive has caused him to stay the course, staying afloat, I suppose, on the knowledge that merely being there for three hours in their timeline would result in this 23-year delay.

While that kind of thing is trippy enough (if a tad bogus on some level), what's worse is Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway returning to realize that the people they left behind on Earth are now 23 years older, and in some cases no longer alive. So much for trying to return to see their loved ones when they were still some recognizable facsimile of themselves. But they always knew it might never have been possible.

Even though these losses of time make the sacrifice of these people all the more interesting/powerful, I do find an essential problem with how the various risks involved in various courses of action are so unbalanced. The two other planets they ultimately visit, based on similarly vague communications from the people who were dispatched to explore them, seem to carry no such possibilities of the loss of, well, decades -- or centuries, if all goes even slightly less than well. One of the primary arguments made in favor of checking out this planet, rather than some of the ones that are farther away, is that it will take "months" to reach those farther planets. But what is "months" when you know that the least amount of time you are likely to spend on this waterworld is an hour, and that's seven whole Earth years?

Then again, I guess the counterargument is, what's seven Earth years if it earns you the future home of your species?

The weakness of Interstellar, in spite of its many strengths, is that it very inconsistently lays out these stakes in ways we can easily understand. I suppose that exploring space is inherently an activity that's replete with risks, but who goes down to the surface of a planet -- having basically no idea what you'll find there, except that a beacon is still transmitting communication signals so it has obviously not burned up or frozen -- with the expectation that they will definitely be able to return from it within an hour or two? Even the loss of a day on the surface of this planet would have doomed the human race. I mean, what if their landing craft blew a gasket?

Still, it does give perspective on the kind of predicament humans are in -- and a somewhat realistic idea of just how difficult it would be dig out of that predicament. Humans cannot so easily just jump on a giant space arc, leave their wasted planet behind, and hop over a couple galaxies in a matter of months. Such a migration would cost generations of human beings, and in fact, push the species to the outer limits of its ability to avoid extinction.

And the film's finale really hit for me, as McConaughey's astronaut returns (rather improbably, after a rather improbable third-act resolution) to find his 10-year-old daughter aged into a bedridden old woman in her nineties. Although some of Nolan's movie lacks the emotional punch it should have, this part really scores. See my post "The uncontrollable slippage of time" (here) for a fuller discussion of my love for movies where characters are powerless to slow down the clock, and their lives seem to pass them by.

And if I'm comparing Interstellar to classics like Click and Bicentennial Man, it has to be good, right? ;-)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Not a time for muted emotions


This poster may be the most emotionally strident thing about Andrea Arnold's 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

And that's a problem for a film version of perhaps the most romantic novel ever written.

My love affair with Emily Bronte's novel goes back years, though to this day I have only read it the one time. I first encountered it in an English class my freshman year of high school, but not as a text. A classmate had written about the book, or perhaps more accurately, about Kate Bush's song "Wuthering Heights," which was inspired by it. And since our teacher was having us present our papers to the class, she played the song to us. "Heathcliff ... it's me, Cathy, I've come home ... I'm so cold, let me into your window." I didn't know who Heathcliff and Cathy were at the time, but something about Bush's passion as she sang stuck with me.

Perhaps this helped ensnare me in the book's spell when I finally read Wuthering Heights my junior year in college. In a class devoted to the Victorian novel that also featured favorites like Middlemarch and New Grub Street, Wuthering Heights had a special kind of influence on me because it tugged at the romantic inside me like these other books may not have. I read it 20 years ago, but it has remained with me, made itself a part of my person.

And so I have sought out film versions of Wuthering Heights, first the classic 1939 version directed by William Wyler, then about seven years ago, Peter Kosminsky's 1992 version. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon were the star-crossed lovers in the former, Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche in the latter. Both delivered, in their own ways, on the promise of the novel's exquisite emotional angst.

Andrea Arnold's version, unfortunately, did not.

Arnold's version of the story, which relies heavily on handheld camera, is clearly intended to be a modern version, even though the time period of the original novel is preserved. It's also intended as a minimalist version of the story, as the dialogue is sparse, and many developments in the plot must be inferred based on limited information. If this is your first Wuthering Heights, you will be lost.

However, I can see how the choices Arnold made -- including using a cast of non-professional actors -- might seem to invigorate the material, though I'd dispute its need for invigoration. It does feel modern, in some of the right ways.

But by eschewing most of the exposition as well as most of the declarations of love between Catherine Earnshaw and her beloved Heathcliff, Arnold leaves us with something that feels emotionally minimal as well.

Strangely, though, this may actually be the most technically beautiful iteration of the story in existence. If Terrence Malick saw this movie, he probably left the theater jealous that he wasn't the one who made it. The book's infamous setting on the moors in the north of England has never looked so damp, so fecund, so positively twinkling with dew and beauty. Nearly every scene is established with glistening branches racking in or out of focus, grass blowing, leaves twisting, fog rolling. It's quite simply some of the most gorgeous camera work I've ever seen ... and sadly, it's in the service of something regrettably limp.

Who should we blame? Arnold clearly knows how to make a dramatically resonant movie. Just watch Fish Tank if you are unsure of that. And all those inserts of nature would have really popped if they'd been buttressed by a sense of epic doomed love.

So I suppose it's the actors who aren't quite up to the task. Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer play Heathcliff and Catherine as kids, then James Howson and Kaya Scodelario step into the roles later on. I suppose it's a good time, now that I am mentioning the cast, to mention that this version has chosen a black actor to play Heathcliff, while he is described in Bronte's book merely as a "dark-skinned gypsy in aspect." This is a really good decision, and contributes to the film's modernity. Unfortunately, neither Glave nor Howson can give Heathcliff that burning, feral quality that makes him one of literature's great antiheroes.

There are individual intimate moments between the characters that hint at something greater that's consuming them. But the movie has chosen to leave the richer moments off screen, alluded to but never actually dramatized. In her attempt not to contribute to the existing number of florid, emotionally purple versions of Wuthering Heights, Arnold has committed the opposite sin of failing to establish the stakes. We have to believe that these characters yearn for each other at an elemental level that's equivalent to the mud and grass of those gorgeous moors, as captured by Robbie Ryan's lens. But we never do, because some number of actual words are needed to communicate this to us.

I will admit it's possible my appreciation for this movie was negatively impacted by the fact that I watched it over the course of three evenings. I was taken down by sleep after 45 minutes the first night, and after only 30 more on the second night. I polished off the last 45 tonight. I am the first to admit this is no way to watch a movie.

Then again, if Arnold did a better job of sweeping me up, she would have had me in one go.

You know, like Kate Bush did in that high school classroom back in 1987, and Emily Bronte did in that college lecture hall in 1994.

My wife made a good point about why she wasn't that interested in watching this new one with me, which also explains why the other two film versions I've seen haven't gotten very close to my love of the book. "In the book it's this great love affair, but in the movies it's just people staring forlornly out at the moors, and that doesn't translate."

Yep, there are times when a love is so passionate, so grandiose, so tragic, that only our minds are sufficient venues in which to consider it. Commit it to film, render it specific in some unavoidable way, and it is doomed to come up short.

Just as doomed as Heathcliff and his beloved Catherine.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Something not Marvel-related for a change


There have been so many movie announcements and casting announcements from Marvel in the past couple months --

["How many have there been, Derek?"]

-- that basically nothing but these announcements has been filling up our movie-related news feeds.

So it's kind of a relief to see a movie called Nightcrawler hit theaters that has nothing to do with comic books.

One of the X-Men characters -- whose rights are split in some complicated way between Marvel and Fox -- is named Nightcrawler, and with the way these characters have been spun off into their own stand-alone movies or even franchises, it's remarkable that the rights owners would even allow a movie unrelated to this character to bear his name.

Yet Nightcrawler IS completely unrelated. It's a Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle about an ambitious journalist armed with a video camera, which is drawing more comparisons to Taxi Driver than to X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

And unfortunately, I'll have to wait a month more to see it, as it actually doesn't come out until November 27th in Australia. (Funny -- Halloween release date in the U.S., Thanksgiving release date in Australia.) So yes, what you are currently reading is that good old-fashioned American release date preview post, an endangered species on this blog since I've moved to Australia and never seem to know when anything is coming out anymore.

Actually, I could see it before then, as I'll actually be in the United States from November 13th to November 28th. So that's when you can prepare yourself for a little Audient sabbatical, or at least, only a few very brief updates.

But I'll have bigger movie fish to fry when I'm stateside. My biggest priority will be Foxcatcher, which I understand will open sometime while I'm there, but won't open here until after the cutoff for my 2014 rankings in mid-January. Then there's Birdman, which gets a release date on the final day of my 2014 list eligibility, just like Her and Inside Llewyn Davis did last year. I'll have to go see it on opening day if I want to include it.

So while I'm in the U.S., I'll be catching either a fox or a bird, or possibly both.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Question your assumptions: Rosemary's Baby


Back in June, I held The Graduate under a microscope to see if I really loved it as much as I thought I did, and consequently decided to start a recurring series called Question Your Assumptions. And as I do with many of my spontaneously created new series -- I Finally Saw, I Never Meant to See, etc. -- I then pretty much dropped it.

So when I went to watch something while carving our jack-o-lantern on Wednesday night, and chose Rosemary's Baby from a Halloween-themed batch I'd picked up at the library, I realized it made a logical next addition to the previously foundering series. (I had planned to watch the original version of Carrie, which I have never seen, but decided to save it for Halloween night in case my wife wants to watch it. She has told me she wants our Halloween viewing to be something she hasn't seen before, so I knew Rosemary's Baby was a safe choice for pumpkin-carving night.)

It makes an especially appropriate pairing with The Graduate, as both films are from 1968, and both films are currently ranked between #100 and #200 (out of more than 4,000) on my Flickchart (The Graduate is #116, Rosemary's Baby is #188).

But my real interest in writing about this is that I have always considered Rosemary's Baby to be in direct conflict with The Exorcist in terms of disturbing, confronting horror classics from the late 1960s/early 1970s. If, according to me, everyone is either a Rosemary's Baby person or an Exorcist person, I have always found myself in the latter camp -- as evidenced by The Exorcist's lofty Flickchart ranking of #58.

However, that stance has been challenged by a couple things I have been mulling over: 1) the fact that I've only seen Rosemary's Baby once, and it was back in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and 2) a critic or two I respect who have taken jabs at the quality of The Exorcist.

I suppose a third viewing of The Exorcist (which would also be my first in that same 15-year time period) would really be the best way to get at the topic, but since I've at least got the new Baby viewing, let's work with that.

The movie started in a particularly spooky way, with that iconic "la la la la la" lullaby over a completely black screen. It went on for so long that I thought Roman Polanski had decided to begin with an anachronistic overture, something that probably hadn't quite dropped from the cinematic landscape by 1968 (but would certainly only be consigned to costume epics at this point). When the dialogue started and there was still no picture, I realized there was something wrong with the screen. Clicking back to the start of the chapter sorted it out.

Still, the accidental beginning of my viewing experience has a real relationship to Polanski's approach to the material. I think one of the reasons I wasn't as wowed by Rosemary's, especially compared to The Exorcist, when I was younger and less discriminating was that I still measured the effectiveness of a horror movie by how grotesque it was. While The Exorcist is all about the viscera and horror that gets shown, Rosemary's Baby is all about what you can't actually see. While evil punches you directly in the face in The Exorcist, it seems to lurk just outside the frame in Polanski's film.

Of course, the best way to talk about the effectiveness of an approach is to talk about the times it is violated. After a sinister but rather banal opening 20 minutes ("banal" is a word I apply in the best way possible to certain passages of Rosemary's Baby), you are really jolted by the image of Rosemary's simpatico neighbor Terry splattered on the sidewalk. There's something so discomfiting about the gore of her smashed head. It exists to remind you that although you feel sort of safe in this movie, you most certainly are not.

And I am still probably most affected by the movie's other really graphic scene -- its Exorcist scene -- which is the dream rape of Rosemary by the devil. I should put "dream" in quotation marks, because Polanski constructs the scene as though it could only be a dream, with clearly fantastical elements intermingling with elements we only wish were fantastical. There's a moment of horror near the end when Rosemary recognizes definitively that it is not a dream -- and that her brainwashed husband actually lurks among the participants.

Let's talk about some performances, specifically, Ruth Gordon's. This wouldn't have been a reference available to audiences at the time, but from Harold & Maude I think of Gordon as this beloved old coot -- and not just playing the role of a beloved old coot, as she does here. There is almost nothing overtly disturbing about Minnie Castevet, but a second viewing of the movie -- after you already know what will happen -- really allows a viewer to appreciate this very mild sinister undercurrent to her performance. She urges one course of action a bit too enthusiastically, while disguising it behind a blase sheen, or she reacts a little too strongly to particular pieces of news. She is the very definition of the banality of evil.

Now, let's talk about what's not seen.

I love the choice not to reveal the face of Ralph Bellamy's malevolent Dr. Sapirstein during the one moment when anyone acknowledges they may actually have something to hide from Rosemary. It's after the one living person she thought she could turn to -- Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin!!) -- turns her in to Sapirstein. (Whether he was always part of a conspiracy, or scared into compelling with the witches, is not immediately clear, and I don't know if I want to know.) Sapirstein walks up to her as she's seated and threatens to institutionalize her if she continues this talk of witches. Horrifyingly, his face cannot be seen ... so we can imagine it to be anything we want it to be. His hulking figure standing over her is also a symbol of the world crushing her last hopes to evade an increasingly preordained outcome.

But the most chilling moment of not seeing what another movie might show us is the decision not to reveal what this spawn of Satan actually looks like. "What have you done to him? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HIS EYES?" (I'm getting chills now just typing it out.) We never know, because we are never shown. All we hear are the cries coming from that pitch-black bassinet, so much like a baby yet somehow ... not.

Although my high ranking of Rosemary's Baby was mostly reinforced by this viewing, the second viewing did serve to remind me that The Exorcist is still my choice in this duel. Although I'm sure that the "don't show-don't tell" approach of Polanski's film impresses me more than it once did -- as evidenced by my embrace of a recent minimalist horror film like Berberian Sound Studio -- there's something about the specific brand of visceral horror seen in a movie like The Exorcist (and in Poltergeist, my favorite horror movie) that affects me more deeply.

Hey, I'm just a sucker for levitating bodies, rotating heads, shocking vulgarity and green spewing vomit.

What's a man to do?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Australian Audient: Dead Calm


This is the latest in my year-long project to watch movies that were made in the only country that is also a continent, and write about them here. (No, Antarctica does not count.)

I know I promised you the 2014 Mia Wasikowska vehicle Tracks this month, but then I realized: You can't do a monthly film-watching series and not at least try to get a horror movie for October.

I sort of succeeded in Dead Calm, which is actually more of a thriller than a horror, but that may be splitting hairs.

Dead Calm also marks the second appearances by Nicole Kidman, Sam Neill and director Phillip Noyce in this series, who previously appeared, respectively, in BMX Bandits, A Cry in the Dark and Rabbit-Proof Fence. Interestingly, this is the first time any directors or major actors have had a repeat appearance.

Dead Calm is also the first movie in the series not really to be set in Australia, in the sense that nearly the whole movie takes place on the Pacific Ocean (near the Great Barrier Reef, according to the credits). There are a couple brief scenes on land, and Neill's character, a sailor returning from duty, has a patch that reads AUSTRALIA on his left shoulder, just in case you were unsure of the film's origins.

John and Rae Ingram (Neill and Kidman) are processing the emotional aftermath of the car accident that killed their son, who was not properly strapped in. To recover from the tragedy -- particularly Rae, who was the driver and blames herself -- the couple sets sail into the Pacific for a month of isolation. Their solitude is almost absolute, until a boat larger than theirs appears on the horizon, and seems to be in trouble. Hailing the distressed craft gets no response, but the Ingrams soon see a man (Billy Zane) frantically rowing toward them. The man, Hughie by name, boards their ship in a state of shock and panic, describing the recent deaths of his five crewmates from food poisoning. John is curious about what really happened aboard that boat, so he takes his dinghy over to snoop around while Hughie sleeps. What he finds makes him wish he had not left the erratic stranger alone with his wife.

Dead Calm is a rather odd sort of movie. It is essentially a home invasion thriller set on a boat, but it lacks a number of the traditional elements that distinguish the genre and that would (if present) give its characters a certain credibility. The film's biggest deficit is its characters' illogical behavior. Sam Neill's decision to leave his wife alone with what seems like a deranged lunatic is short-sighted at best. It would be the more traditional way to go with this movie to make Zane's character initially charming and disarming, which may be why Noyce didn't do that. The chilling portrayal Zane gives instead -- quite effective in the scenario that unfolds -- has the consequence of making Neill's character seem too trusting by half. Not only is he naive, but he has this odd little twinkle of mischief in his eye when he goes over to the other boat. It feels unusual indeed.

With Neill (at least temporarily) sidelined, a twisted dynamic develops between Hughie and Rae in which he becomes not only her potential captor, but her potential rapist as well. The film is not quite that gross, because Hughie is deluded enough to think there is a sexual reciprocity between them, and Rae plays along to try to take advantage of him letting down his guard. But it goes to squeamish places that are perhaps farther than it needed to go, and then maintains an oddly disconnected perspective on them. Essentially, this movie looks away from the debasement of Kidman's character as though it's something we shouldn't think too much about.

What's undeniable, despite the film's flaws, is that it maintains a basic tension, keeping the audience engrossed even within an extremely intimate dynamic that fluctuates between two and three people. Since there are not a bunch of other characters in the cast to bump up the body count, Noyce has to derive the tradition narrative beats of this type of movie out of a minimalist setup. He does so effectively, in part thanks to the three main performances. The film's score is also notable, as it marked Graeme Revell's entry into the world of cinematic scores, an arena that would prove to be extremely fertile for him. His sinister synthesizer is augmented by a bunch of native chants and guttural sounds, creating this moldering sense of dread.

Every time the movie convinces you that it's really doing something smart, however, it undercuts that by a ridiculous concession to genre conventions that is, on occasion, literally laughable. The end result is that Dead Calm lands on the right side of the thumbs up-thumbs down divide, but just barely.

Just two more months of Australian Audient. November's movie will indeed be Tracks, and I will keep my December choice a secret for now -- except to say that it's a movie I've given myself credit for having already seen, when in fact I think I only saw the last half-hour.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A microcosm of getting it wrong


If you think the title of this post indicates an imminent episode of ragging on the much-ragged-upon The Monuments Men, you're only half right -- and you aren't looking at both posters.

Actually, it's me that's been getting it wrong, perhaps even more so than George Clooney in his limp World War II variation on Ocean's Eleven.

As is my custom, I will lay the groundwork for my argument and then back up a scootch.

My wife has seriously curtailed her movie-watching tendencies lately. Once she was game for three or four a week, but a second baby and a job that involves reading sub-par scripts has left her topping out at about two. And usually that's only if I make sure to present it as an option. Left to her own devices, she could let two to three weeks pass without consuming a single movie.

Me, I'm still at five or even six a week.

It's incumbent on me, then -- especially when picking up something on a whim -- to find that perfect match between something she's said she wants to see, something I haven't already seen, and something we might both be in the mood for that particular evening.

Usually, I fumble this responsibility, but not without good intentions.

Because my wife is a lovely person, she will still watch whatever I've picked. She knows that I have it only one night, and if she doesn't watch it with me during primetime, then I'll have to stay up past midnight to watch it after primetime's over. Return it unwatched? Keep it a second night? Those are not options.

What makes this problem worse, though, is that after bringing home a dud for us to watch together, I will invariably then watch something incredible by myself -- something that would have more than satisfied her precious quotient of time allocated for movies. (Not using the loaded word "precious" sarcastically here, in case you were wondering.)

This past weekend was a perfect encapsulation of that phenomenon. I did, in fact, rent The Monuments Men on Saturday, knowing that our Saturdays are one of our rare surefire movie nights. She said, some months earlier, that she wanted to see it. At some subsequent time, she learned it wasn't supposed to be great -- as did I, but that's never stopped me. Anyway, I didn't know she had heard it was bad, so I rented it with a clear conscience.

True to form, she said she'd be happy to watch it despite her misgivings about its quality. What a sport. In the meantime, I checked it out on Metacritic just to positively spin a decision she'd already made, and discovered that it had a respectable score of 52. Okay, maybe not respectable, but "mixed or average reviews," in any case.

For about ten minutes, I had hopes for the movie. At about the 11-minute mark, the corny patriotic score (what were you thinking, Alexandre Desplat?) started to bother me. At about the 13-minute mark, I realized that the tone was off. About about the 30-minute mark, I wondered if these characters were going to anything other than stand around and talk. And guess what? They never did.

I could go off on a lengthy tirade about the numerous sins committed in The Monuments Men, but I want to save some of your attention for the flip side of the particular coin I'm discussing.

On Sunday I was allowed an afternoon of convalescence after getting a tooth pulled that morning. (Yes, I went to a dentist that has Sunday hours. I had never heard of such a thing either.) I put the two-hour Japanese film Like Father, Like Son on my agenda, knowing that it could suffer in my estimation from the throbbing of the vacant hole in my gums, but surmising that it might suffer more if consigned to that sleepy 9:45 ghetto in which I end up watching many other films. Subtitles and drooping eyelids are not good partners.

And even though I was in a strange combination of numbness and pain, and even though the internet was dropping out on me every ten minutes, and even though my kids were making loud noises in nearby rooms for much of the time, I soon realized that not only was this one of my favorite films of the year, but that it would have been perfect for my wife. Not only is it a beautiful film executed wonderfully, but it puts a terrible, Sophie's Choice-type parental dilemma front and center, meaning that it would specifically speak to us as parents of young children. This is where my wife should have spent her weekly movie budget.

But if you are trying to convince an exhausted mother of the potential worthiness of a movie neither of you has seen, you are a lot better off putting forward the option that includes a likable cast of recognizable stars, and is in English, than the one that will require that exhausted mother both to fully engage her brain, and to read.

Now that I've seen Like Father, Like Son, though, I can confidently recommend it for a second viewing. And that's a second viewing I'm definitely going to make at some point. That's how good this movie is. And since part of the purpose of my blog is to make actual recommendations, I think I should let you know a little more about it in order to entice you into a viewing you certainly won't regret.

Like Father, Like Son starts with a tabloid premise and takes it somewhere thought-provoking, moving, and thoroughly profound. Not long after their son's sixth birthday, an ambitious Japanese architect and his wife learn that the hospital where they gave birth needs to speak to them about an important matter. It turns out that a mistake was made shortly after their son's birth, and the son was confused for another infant. That means that their biological son has actually been raised these six years by the middle class owner of a hardware store and his wife, while they have been raising that couple's son as their own. While the ambitious man and his wife have been pushing their son to achieve, they now have an explanation as to why he's not the gifted musician they might have expected, and they start to contemplate the unthinkable -- whether to swap the children in order to correct the mistake that was made six years earlier. Meanwhile, their biological son has a brother and a sister in addition to parents that he has always thought were his own.

The movie tackles all sorts of issues related to nature vs. nurture, the parameters of unconditional love, the expectations parents have for their children, the expectations parents have for each other and themselves, and the deep patrilineal tradition in Japan that would cause the couples to even contemplate making this swap in the first place. The scenario is dramatized with an eye for every possible shade of gray, making it impossible to condemn any of the players and enabling a sense of sympathy for all of them -- even one who had a nearly unforgivable role in the mix-up.

Is next week too soon to correct my own mix-up, and show my wife something good for a change?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

iTunes' attempt to save me from myself


iTunes thinks I am my own worst enemy, because I tried to rent Enemy twice.

But let me back the story up a bit.

For about two months now I have been living and dying by the weekly 99-cent movie rental on iTunes. This was not something I used to regularly check, but once Joe and The Lunchbox -- both movies from this year that I really wanted to see -- came up in consecutive weeks, iTunes thrust itself forward as a reliable new source for cheap rentals of (relatively) new releases. Nowadays, I look forward to the beginning of each new week, simply to see the change in the offerings.

Unfortunately, it's been a bit of a string of disappointments since then. Not necessarily because the movies they offered weren't objectively interesting, but because I had either already seen them or because they didn't quite qualify for this year. (I'm in my stretch of packing in 2014 movies before my ranking deadline in January). Then last week was the worst, when the 99-cent rental was a movie from 2001 -- Amores Perros. That's a really good movie, and I imagine the timing had to do with the release of Inarritu's latest film, Birdman. But it did represent a clear step backward in the likelihood that Apple would continue providing me affordable options for 2014 movies I hadn't seen.

Well, this week didn't change that -- I have already seen Denis Villeneuve's Enemy as well. In fact, I've already rented it from iTunes, at full price back when it was first released.

But the price was so cheap, and I really want to see this movie again, that I clicked on the option to rent it again.

Only, iTunes tried to stop the purchase.

"You have already rented this item. Are you sure you want to rent it again?"

At first I thought this was the result of a double-click. Like, maybe I had already started downloading the movie and then accidentally clicked to rent it again. Ninety-nine cents is a really good price for one of my favorite movies of the year, but I don't need to have two copies of it on my hard drive.

Then I realized that iTunes was remembering my previous rental of the movie back in July. It wanted to make sure I remembered it before proceeding with the transaction.

Well, that's mighty sporting. Here you had a clear, guilt-free path to my 99 cents, and yet you forfeited it the name of good customer service. Have to say I am a bit tickled by that.

What's funny is that I actually did have a few flickering thoughts of buyer's remorse after I'd already started the download and walked away. I thought "Do I really need to be watching this again, when there are so many other movies from 2014 I need to see for the first time? I know I love the movie, so watching it again has nothing to do with confirming its spot in my rankings."

Then I came back to the computer and discovered that my download had not actually started, because of this warning message. I still had the chance to cancel.

And I still went forward with the purchase.

So if you have any doubts about whether you should seek out this movie, let my $4.98 in iTunes rentals, on separate occasions, try to reassure you otherwise.