Friday, September 27, 2013

Famous Flops: Bamboozled

This is the latest in my monthly series Famous Flops, where I watch one movie per month that was considered a financial or critical failure and see if it deserved to be so shunned.

When Spike Lee turns off viewers, it can be for one of two reasons: 1) The subject matter is too in-their-face, and they just don't want to pick up what Lee is putting down; 2) The movie is simply poorly made.

Lee does have a few in the second category (She Hate Me, Red Hook Summer), but the ones people remember are the ones that just pushed their buttons in the wrong way.

I knew Bamboozled would be an example of Lee alienating his potential audience through excessively strident commentary, but I wanted to see if it was also a hack job.

Before I tell you what I thought, though, I should let you know why Bamboozled stopped some people from even seeing it in the first place.

Lee's 2000 film is about an Ivy League-educated black television writer who inadvertently revives the minstrel show, a highly racist variety program in which black actors wore blackface and acted the fool for an hour while perpetuating the most pernicious racial stereotypes imaginable.

But see, he was trying to prove a point, and it just went too far.

Damon Wayans portrays Pierre Delacroix, who is tired of the latent racism he must deal with on a daily basis from execs at his network. When they demand that he create a network hit that will appeal to black audiences, he sets out to create the most offensive show he can imagine, envisioning that this gross error in judgment will lead to his immediate firing (and therefore allow him to work at another network without breaching his contract by quitting).

Of course, as must happen in any good satire, the show is unexpectedly greenlit and becomes a huge hit, even turning blackface into a nationwide fad.

And yes, Bamboozled IS a good satire. In fact, I ended up thinking it was sort of great until the last 15 minutes or so, when it downgraded itself to merely very good.

But you can see why the movie turned off critics and audiences alike. It's a fair question to ask whether putting so many of these offensive stereotypes on display, even to discredit them in no uncertain turns, does more damage and gives them more power than if they were permanently marooned in obscurity. I mean, the minstrel show takes place in a watermelon patch, for God's sake.

I come down on the same side it would appear Lee came down on: It's better to confront this ugly history head on, to educate as a way to never repeat, than to pretend none of this ever happened. If you watched Bamboozled and came down on a different side, I guess couldn't blame you.

The one thing I don't want you to do is write it off as a misfire that shouldn't be seen. In order to make this film, Lee had to struggle with many of these same questions himself. And you know it was a struggle. This is a man who stretches to find signs of racism even when most people would agree it's not there. To contribute to the introduction of images of racial hatred that a new generation can't unsee ... it must have damn near killed the man.

Good thing he has so much interesting to say, and handles it so deftly. You can see just how much the elements of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show horrify those involved, and the film is practically brimming with viewer surrogates. If you're not Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson, the prospective stars of the show, giving each other sideways glances during the pitch meeting, or if you're not Jada Pinkett-Smith, Delacroix's assistant, biting her tongue so as not to jump out of her seat, then you're certainly a room full of white television writers, exclaiming in disbelief when notified that the show will be set in a watermelon patch.

What's so deft about Lee's commentary -- before it goes a bit overboard -- is how it shows us how tricky satire can be, both in reference to the Mantan show and to the very film he's making right now. There's a fine line between criticizing something and celebrating it, just as there's a fine line between getting paid by the man, and getting played by him. Lee's movie clearly suggests that some Hollywood actors -- Will Smith actually gets named -- aren't much better than the jive-talking "porch monkeys" seen on the Mantan show, given that their primary value to a movie exec is to be sassy and bring in black audiences. (I would not use the term "porch monkey" myself, except that the Mantan show's outrageous name for its musical accompaniment is The Alabama Porch Monkeys.) Lee points the finger at certain black superstars for being complicit in their own dehumanization, even (and perhaps especially) if they're earning millions of dollars in the process.

So I can see why Bamboozled pisses of big-name black actors, and I can see why it pisses off anyone who is predisposed to hating Lee, but I can't see why it pisses off anyone who likes to struggle with issues of modern racial identity the way Lee struggles with them here. If you want a movie that'll make you think, Bamboozled will do just that.

Before I wrap up, I did want to address the issue of whether Bamboozled was poorly made, from a technical standpoint. At first I thought it might be, or at the very least, that I had to adjust my picture settings on my TV. See, the movie was shot mostly on Mini DV digital video to keep the production costs down. This gives it a grainy look, much rougher than what you'd expect from a seasoned filmmaker. And initially it was displeasing to me.

When I realized that the film's look was a function of the medium in which it was shot -- and that this medium was likely a necessity of having subject matter that couldn't get much financial backing -- I shrugged off the surface aesthetic unpleasantness of it. In fact, Lee makes some interesting stylistic choices with his film stock, using digital video for all the "real" scenes and film for the actual footage of Mantan's show. That choice worked for me.

The whole movie worked for me, really.

In October I'm going to go with a fairly obvious choice, if I can get my hands on it here in Australia: Cutthroat Island, the movie that single-handedly bankrupted Carolco Pictures and effectively ended the careers of Renny Harlin and Geena Davis (though both have continued to work in less prominent capacities).

If I can't get my hands on it, well, it'll be something else.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Spiraling downward, spiraling upward

There was going to be a theme to Monday's double feature one way or another.

If I'd piggybacked a free viewing of The East onto my paid viewing of Blue Jasmine, it would have been a double feature devoted to rich crooks getting what's coming to them.

Frances Ha started ten minutes later and was 30 minutes shorter, so it won out, making for a double feature that included one Woody Allen movie and one that pays homage to Allen (specifically the black and white cinematography of Allen's earlier works, notably Manhattan).

The real theme of the double feature, though, was probably this: women whose lives are coming unraveled, and what they do to try to halt the downward spiral.

If you don't want to know any more about Blue Jasmine and Frances Ha, stop reading now.

I'll say it upfront: Blue Jasmine is one of Woody Allen's darkest films. It concerns the widow of a Ponzi schemer who hanged himself in prison, played by Alec Baldwin, who is turned out into the world without any of the money she once relied on for daily creature comforts. This forces her to throw herself into the care of her sister, unrelated by blood because they were both adopted, who lives in San Francisco with a fiance who is anything but Jasmine Francis caliber. This despite the fact that Jasmine and her husband lost every penny that her sister Ginger and Ginger's ex-husband had invested with them. The structure of the story has been compared frequently and quite justifiably to A Streetcar Named Desire.

At first, Frances Ha runs the risk of seeming as frivolous as Blue Jasmine is heavy. It's a character study of a feckless 27-year-old Brooklyn hipster named Frances, who spends the first third of the movie bouncing from one quirky episode to another among fellow Brooklyn acquaintances. Just when you are starting to get annoyed by what seems like a steep decline in ambition on writer-director Noah Baumbach's part, you start to get a real idea about the consequences of Frances' flightiness, lack of drive and lack of accountability. She has a fight with her best friend, who functions really more as a love interest in what becomes a romantic comedy/drama between two heterosexual women. From here her living situations and work prospects become increasingly more dour as she stumbles onto a path toward actual ruin.

It wouldn't have surprised me if you told me that Baumbach's movie had the bleak ending, and Allen's found a light at the end of the tunnel. Baumbach's most recent film, Greenberg, is almost unremittingly acerbic (though I loved it), while Allen's most recent film that I've seen, Midnight in Paris, delivers a big ol' happy ending (though I didn't love it).

Well, the two have switched now.

It's with something close to sadism that Allen documents Jasmine's decline. For starters, Jasmine is almost impossible to like. Her few gestures toward emotional charity are almost immediately neutralized by some careless remark or action, and even the realization that she's being difficult or unkind doesn't change her approach to the next similar situation. We do sympathize with her from time to time, as when she is working dutifully to be the best dental receptionist she can be, but is sexually harassed and eventually assaulted by her boss. However, she's the epitome of a one step forward, two steps back type of person, as she eventually does meet someone who could deliver her back to the life of privilege she so desires, but she screws it up through a number of deceptions that are of debatable necessity. This leaves her, devastatingly, broken and alone on a park bench, talking to herself.

Meanwhile, Frances is pretty likable, though you do want to shake her sometimes because her social half measures seem in some ways more damaging than simple bad behavior. This too has consequences. It becomes clear pretty early that France is a hopeless case, and consequently, she has a number of trials to endure. There's the loss of her hipster best friend to a preppy square who intends to marry her and domesticate her. There's the loss of her paid apprenticeship in a dance company because, though the head of the dance company won't say it, she's just not good enough. There's the eventual loss of her ability to continue living in New York because she no longer has the money, which culminates in a humiliating job back on her college campus at Vassar, pouring wine at school galas. But the ending of the movie is there, just waiting to provide her salvation. As if by an unseen deus ex machina, she gets her shit together, forms her own (low-level) dance troupe that achieves the acclaim of her former boss, makes up with her best friend, and secures her own New York apartment -- albeit in the less glamorous neighborhood of Washington Heights.

The movies are each other's polar opposites, in a way. Blue Jasmine has realism on its side when it comes to the facts of the case, of what happens to these characters, while Frances Ha can claim no such realism. However, Frances Ha has more emotional realism, which is why I ultimately preferred it.

What Frances Ha does so well, without having to put too fine a point on it, is to illustrate the severe failings of a dream mentality we can all sometimes get swept up in. There's some part of the dream that's attainable, but not quite enough, resulting in painful near misses. Take the episode where Frances impulsively decides to correct the fact that she's never been to Paris, using access to a free place to stay while she's there to excuse putting an impossibly large sum of money on a credit card for her last-minute tickets. Because she has to be back by Monday morning, she goes for only two days, so spends the entire time awake at night and asleep during the day because she can't kick her jet lag. She also keeps trying to get in touch with a friend who is in Paris. We think the friend is blowing her off or isn't even there in the first place, but only when Frances is in a taxi back in New York does she get an excited return voicemail from her friend, who not only wanted to see her but to introduce her to an eligible friend. Meanwhile, while in Paris, Frances missed her estranged friend's going away party prior to leaving for Japan -- an olive branch extended at the last minute, when it was too late.

I related to Frances' situation because I've certainly had times where the best move would have been to just stay still. By trying too hard to fix something, I broke it further. The chapter that follows for Frances -- the humiliating return to her college campus to live in a dorm and work among people six to eight years younger than her -- felt like the true fallout period from an epic emotional mishap.

However, the difference between them that makes Frances worth rooting for and Jasmine worth condemning is that Frances, overall, wants to put good into the world. Jasmine wants to extract whatever she can from that same world, as long as it benefits her.

I guess it's my twin senses of humanism and optimism that make me question whether Jasmine's journey has the ring of emotional truth. It's Allen's intention that we should feel like the ending he's chosen is the right ending, the just ending, for Jasmine -- it seems on some level, then, that he just wants to make his own contribution to a recent genre of movies in which the villains of the financial crisis receive their just desserts. So he has to really prevent us from liking her, and the way he does that is to never allow us to fully endorse anything she does, even though she's our protagonist and we spend the most time with her. Eventually, it rings false.

Any person whose story is worth telling has to be likable enough that they fail because of an epic flaw, some deficit that dooms them to their fate but stands in contrast to many of the good parts about them. Jasmine doesn't have this single flaw that mars an otherwise good person; she's a patchwork of flaws, of angers, of jealousies, of pettinesses. Maybe my problem with Blue Jasmine -- which, I should say, I like only a little less than Frances Ha -- is that Allen shouldn't have structured a story around a person if she was going to be impossible to redeem.

I've intentionally failed to mention the actresses who play these two roles so far. As you know, they are Cate Blanchett and Greta Gerwig, and I'm pretty sure you know which is which. Both do such a superlative job delivering on their director's vision for those characters that I don't think you can give the performance edge to either. As Blanchett's character is more or less based on Blanche DuBois, and Gerwig's is inspired by a hipster mentality in which emotions are purposefully small-scale or ironic (see the entirety of the movie The Comedy), Blanchett clearly has the more Oscar bait moments. But Gerwig may have emotional truth on her side.

And yeah, that could be because she co-wrote her own character. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

My son's first movie

Not everyone can be lucky and have something like Star Wars be the first movie they see in theaters.

Some people, like my son, have to settle for Planes.

I was on the cusp of my fourth birthday when I went to see Star Wars in the summer of 1977. While I can't swear it was the first movie I ever saw in the cinema, I'm pretty sure that it was, and I don't care to ask my parents to have them correct that impression. In any case, neither of them were great cinephiles (though my mom has become something of one), so I doubt they would have pressed me into service any earlier than that.

Me, I'm a different story. I am a cinephile, and I've been waiting for this day to come ever since I took my son to see a Mommy and Me screening of Little Fockers (see here for the account of that) back in December of 2010.

In fact, a movie like Star Wars seems like a rather odd choice to introduce your child to the movies. It would be kind of like taking my son to see Star Trek Into Darkness as his first movie. A bit mature, if you ask me. I mean, stormtroopers are getting blasted left and right, spaceships are exploding (and no one's parachuting safely into space), and one of the most beloved characters disappears to his death after being hit in the side by a lightsaber.

Something like Planes is the more responsible choice, if inevitably less classic.

And so it was earlier this summer that I targeted Planes -- "from the world above Cars" -- as the first movie my son would see at the movies. He loves everything related to Cars, and has since added Cars 2 to his list of conquests. One factor was probably also that I'd willingly leave Planes in the middle if he just couldn't continue in that environment. Well, not willingly, but I'd do it.

The release date -- the U.S. release date, that is -- was also only a couple weeks before his third birthday. I decided that age 3 would be my own line of demarcation between "too young" and "mature enough to watch a movie in theaters."

Truth is, I was probably pushing it, but we'll get to that in a minute.

The Australian release date of Planes was this past Thursday, timed to take advantage of school holidays. In a sign of something you would never see in the U.S., Turbo -- another movie that owes a big debt to Cars -- was also released that day. I haven't found (or looked for) a source to check Australian box office figures, but I'd be surprised if those two movies didn't split their audience and make half the money they could have made if they'd had their own weekend free from competition. That's not to mention Smurfs 2, which opened only a week before, also to take advantage of the aforementioned holidays. My wife explains to me that they wouldn't want to open these films in winter (i.e. July and August) because the kids don't have a break from school providing them an opportunity to drag their parents to one of these movies -- it'd be a bit like opening Smurfs 2 in mid-January or mid-February in the states. I see the point, but I still think it's less than ideal.

Anyway, this did leave the theater less than half full during a prime Saturday afternoon slot at a beautiful art deco theater in nearby Yarraville -- a theater so beautiful that it deserves its own post on another occasion. It was initially going to be an excursion undertaken by just my son and me, giving my wife some time on her own. But she decided it was a milestone she didn't want to miss, so she accompanied us to The Sun in Yarraville for that 1:40 screening.

The strong start

The first chance for my son to react poorly to the situation was when we sat down to a very large image of a racing snail. The trailer for Turbo was on, and how he responded to the cinema-sized image would be key in determining whether he was really ready. His eyes were as wide as saucers, and my wife and I exchanged one of those looks of parental pride that make your children roll their eyes by the time they're 10 or 11.

The 20-minute itch

To my surprise, it was my wife who had to get up to leave the theater first. She did this after only 10 minutes. I figured she needed to use the bathroom -- she's pregnant, so this is a frequent need -- but in fact, she had to text her friend whom we would be visiting after the show for an early dinner. She returned with a bag of Jaffas, a terrific chocolate candy with a thin outer shell that she'd introduced to me back home, having returned with some bags from a solo trip Down Under. Jaffas are a traditional Australian theater snack, and I was overjoyed to be reminded of their existence.

My son was immediately all over the Jaffas, which was fine -- anything to distract him from his itch to get up and walk around the theater. That worked for about two or three minutes. Then my son was scrambling to the floor and trying to make it past one of the two of us -- which one didn't matter.

We each had a turn scooping him back up to his seat, but young children are tough -- they're both very determined and very wriggly. He was going to go wandering, or die trying.

I let him escape to the aisle, where he walked down to the front row and across. The whole front section was empty, so he wasn't bothering anybody, and if this had been one of those Mommy and Me sessions, I wouldn't have cared too much. But it wasn't. I thought maybe he just wanted to sit in a different seat, so I followed him down and plopped him in my lap in the front row. This is, of course, a terrible way to watch a movie, so I was somewhat relieved when that wasn't the cure-all to his fussiness. Soon he was on his feet again, and it was clear that scooping him up again and bringing him back to our seats again was going to be an exercise is Sysiphean futility. 

Only 20 minutes, I thought. We're going to have to leave after only 20 minutes.

There had been mention beforehand that if one of us had to leave with him, I'd be the one to do it, as a treat to her. This, however, was when we thought he might get too fidgety to continue with only 20 minutes or so left. Only 20 minutes in? Well, we had no plan for that.

She ended up taking the initiative to take him outside, and I started to panic a little bit. How long would they be gone? What was I supposed to do? I'll take any chance I can to watch a movie unimpeded, but if they were gone for more than five minutes I knew I'd have to follow them out.

Less than two minutes later, they filed back in, and it was clear my son had a renewed determination to sit still. I don't know what she said, but it worked like magic.

For a while.

The repeated empty threat

Little kids have very short memories, so his resolve to behave himself didn't last the whole movie. Far from it. In fact, it was probably less than ten minutes later that he started to renew his escape attempts.

However, we found we could placate him temporarily by hauling him onto our laps. I also bought him off for a few minutes with a bag of cookies in my pocket. But what really worked was something we both discovered independently of each other:

"Do you want to leave?"

I knew this was an empty threat, because we wouldn't have given up that easily. And he often sees right through our empty threats. But he was apparently enjoying Planes enough that he truly feared we might carry this one out. Each time he was asked this question, he shook his head.

"Okay, then you have to stay in your seat."

And miraculously, he would.

For a while.

Our darkest hour

Everyone knows that a protagonist's darkest hour comes right at the end of the second act, and this was the part of Planes when I faced my own greatest challenge to finishing the movie.

My son just could not be contained anymore, and I decided it was finally time to "parent up" and take a short excursion in the lobby with him. I steeled myself for the idea that it would be a permanent departure from the movie. It's clear he was in exploring mode, and when he scrambled up the stairs outside to some of the third-floor screening rooms, it seemed for certain he'd given up on the movie.

One delightful result of this excursion -- which I should be saving for that theoretical post devoted to The Sun -- is that this theater has a special Hogwarts dining hall room upstairs, which can be booked out for parties. It's maybe 1/20th the size of the "actual" Hogwarts dining hall, but it was all ready for today's party when we got there. Finger sandwiches and other goodies were laid and just waiting for the kids to get out of either Planes or Turbo. To my surprise, my son didn't actually go for any of the food.

When he was content to descend the stairs again, I tried one last attempt at reasoning. I explained that the movie was almost over, and pulled out our sadly overused bribe: I told him he could have a treat afterward if he was good for the rest of the movie.

It cost us an overpriced cupcake at a nearby coffee shop, but we did get to watch the end of the movie.

Thoughts on Planes

It looked gorgeous and had incredibly generic characters and story. That's about all you really need to say.


Although this screening was pretty much a success, my son had nothing to say about it afterward. We kind of expected him to be asking to get his own Dusty Crophopper toy, or talking about a career as a pilot. But all he cared about was the treat. In the end, yes, our son is a little too young to be going to the movies.

So we decided we'll wait another six months before we take him again.

That'll put him close to the age I was when Star Wars left me wanting to grow up to be Luke Skywalker.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A whole different classification

One of the topics I've been concentrating on in my early Australia days is the differences in phrasing.

For example, movies don't have ratings here. They have "classifications."

In fact, there's a little promo that plays before most movies that indicates the importance of making sure a particular film is suited to your children. The tagline is "Check the classification." There is a corresponding website run by the Australian government.

At first I thought it was just Australia trying to be different. I thought "What's wrong with the word 'rating'? Go jump in your lorry and piss off."

Then I got to thinking that "rating" is not a particularly accurate term in the first place. Forget for a second that you have grown up coming to think of film ratings as G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17. Doesn't the word "rating" seems like it should have a lot more to do with how good the movie is than the eyes for which it is intended? "How do you rate that film on a scale of 1 to 10?" That kind of thing.

Neither is "classification" perfect, though. It sounds more to do with genre than appropriateness. I'd say "classification" might be "horror" or "horror comedy" or "horror comedy musical documentary."

So what is the right term? I'll have to think on that.

For now, though, let me explain what the classifications are here in Australia. They're not so surprising, except for some seemingly meaningless distinctions that make them a bit eccentric. There are longer explanations of the classification, but I'll just give the briefer ones that appear when you hover the mouse over the classification on the website.

G - General - "Suitable for everyone."
My comment: No surprises there.

PG - Parental Guidance - "Not recommended for children under 15; may contain some material that children find confusing or upsetting."
My comment: This would be comparable to our PG, but it seems stricter. I don't think anyone would say that our PG movies would provide a challenge to children all the way up to 15. 

M - Mature - "Not recommended for children under 15; may include moderate levels of violence, language or themes."
My comment: Moderate levels of themes -- so, this one has a moderate dose of redemption, while this one has a smidge of overcoming obstacles? I understand the distinction they are trying to make between PG and M, but it would seem more useful if they would change the age cutoff. When both have the same age cutoff but each has a different description of why it's not recommended, it tends to muddy things. Also, "mature" seems too advanced a term for what they are really trying to indicate here. Our equivalent is probably PG-13.

MA15+ - Mature Audiences - "Restricted - unsuitable for persons under 15; may contain strong content."
My comment: Now things are getting a bit screwy. This would also be like our PG-13 except for the term "restricted," which doesn't come into play in our rating system until you get to R, whose cutoff is age 17. Plus, what's the meaningful distinction between the descriptors "mature" and "mature audiences"? Is the first group not a group of movie viewers, but maybe savings bonds? In the fuller description it also says that persons may be required to show proof of age in order to purchase a video game or attend a movie with this classification. So where does that leave us for ...

R18+ - Restricted - "Restricted to adults."
My comment: Okay, so this is our R, and it changes the age to clearly indicate 18. But because the term "restricted" is being used a little loosely -- coming into play as soon as age 15 with the MA:15+ classification -- it begs the question of what does it really mean to "restrict" a person. Especially when there is this classification ...

X18+ - Restricted - "Restricted to adults - contains sexually explicit material."
My comment: This would be our NC-17 ... except that it's actually our XXX. The website goes on to explain "This classification is a special and legally restricted category which contains only sexually explicit content. That is, material which shows actual sexual intercourse and other sexual activity between consenting adults. X18+ films are only available for sale or hire in the ACT and the NT." To translate that last part, only available in the Australian Capital Territory (which includes the country's capital, Canberra) and the Northern Territory (which includes such cities as Darwin and Alice Springs). This means that pornographic movies are part of the conventional classification system, which the NPAA in our country doesn't deign to do. But it's also not as straightforward as it appears to be; I live in Victoria, and I have noted pornographic movies for sale in a video store in downtown Melbourne. Though who knows; maybe the movies I assumed were showing "actual sexual intercourse" were not doing that after all. And where does this leave NC-17? There basically isn't an NC-17 in Australia, unless you consider it to be R18+, which I don't think you do because such films as Hostel and Evil Dead are R18+

Doing a little more searching, it appears that our R's in the U.S. split up between MA15+ and R18+. For example, Kick-Ass and Drive -- both definitely R's in our country -- are MA15+'s here. Each of those movies have at least one scene of such extreme violence that you can't imagine a country, in good conscience, allowing a 15-year-old to see them. Yet Australia does.

It's one of many conundrums about this country, apparent contradictions built into its fabric. In some ways, this is a very conservative country. There is a famously long list of films that were banned in Australia upon first release, including Pink Flamingos, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Salo. The uncut version of Human Centipede II: Full Sequence is still banned, as is A Serbian Film (though I'm pretty sure that's banned in the U.S. also). On the other hand, language standards are considerably more permissive than in the U.S. The local "alternative" music station (called Triple J) regularly plays songs containing profanity, and even DJ's themselves say the word "shit" on the air (just heard this yesterday). Regarding Kick-Ass in particular, the use of the C-word -- considered by some (including me) to be possibly the most universally offensive word in the English language -- permanently removed it from possibly being given a PG-13 in the U.S. Here, some Australians call each other this word in an "affectionate" way -- which may be how Kick-Ass was allowed to get "only" an MA15+.

I'll try to make note of more of these classifications as I see the movies.

As for my alternative term to "classification" and "rating," well, how about "flag"? How is the movie "flagged"?

Eh, I guess I'll leave this one up to the professionals.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Mums and bubs

Still getting used to some of the different terminology here in Australia, but this one wasn't too difficult for me to figure out: "Mums and Bubs."

I know quite well that "Mum" is short for "Mummy" which is a British/Australian translation of "Mommy," because we use it in our house. My wife is "Mummy," not "Mommy." I try very hard to always remember to pronounce the vowel as a U rather than an O, but I rarely change it when reading a storybook that says "Mommy."

"Bub" -- well, we don't use that one, but I've been here long enough (almost a month now) to know that a "bub" is a baby.

So as I was reading up on Hoyts, the predominant cinema chain in Australia, I learned that they have special Mums and Bubs screenings at participating Hoyts locations. They are twice monthly, and the ticket is only $9 for the caregiver (I am the "Mum" in this situation). The child is absolutely free, as long as he or she is under five.

Score, I thought.

I have my son two days a week, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Naturally, the Mums and Bubs sessions are on alternate Thursdays.


So, won't be doing that, at least for now. However, I did look to see which theaters were participating theaters, just to tease myself.

The one in Victoria Gardens, which I will be visiting again soon for more furniture needs from Ikea, is indeed a participating location. However, I had to laugh when I saw the movie they're showing this Thursday:

White House Down.

Now, I know that Mums don't only want to see harmless romantic comedies and movies that they would otherwise be compelled to see with their children anyway. But I had to laugh when I saw that they're encouraging you to bring your young children to see a movie in which terrorists take over the White House and kidnap the president.

The littlest ones will be okay. They'll cry, or be good, or sleep, probably independent of what's actually happening on screen. Though the explosions certainly won't be particularly soothing for a child who's just nodding off.

It's the older ones I wonder about. They say children under 5 get in free. My son just turned 3, and it's already been probably two years since I would have wanted to expose him, even indirectly, to a movie like White House Down. It's only PG-13, not R, but my son has ten more years before he's 13. That's ten years of understanding what's going on in a movie like that but not really being old enough to process it without giving him nightmares.

Though maybe it's just a function of the age we live in. When I was over at a friend's house on Saturday, his eight-year-old son was playing a game on the computer where tanks were blowing up other tanks. I don't mean to suggest I was some crotchety old moralist who was shocked by this commonplace reality of 21st century life ... just that maybe I'm being a crotchety old moralist now by feigning shock over the Mum and Bub screening of White House Down.

Maybe more than anything it seems like a disconnect. Are a bunch of mums with babies hanging off their teat (there's that local lingo again) really going to be that interested in a Roland Emmerich action movie?

Maybe not -- but maybe they would be interested in a Channing Tatum action movie.

And now we're getting somewhere in understanding this ...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What Vance Knew: Next to nothing

I saw the title of the movie What Maisie Knew a couple months ago when it was playing at the Landmark Theater on Pico back in LA. To the extent that I considered it at all, I considered it to be some kind of indie thriller in which a deaf-mute girl had witnessed a murder, and investigators would have to work overtime to figure out what she had seen. I guess a movie like that might be called What Maisie Saw, but I digress.

In other words, I had no idea it was a) based on a Henry James novel from 1897; b) about the effect on a six-year-old girl of a separation between a rock star (Julianne Moore) and an art dealer (Steve Coogan), her parents; c) about to become one of my favorite films of the year.

I've written before about how great it can be to go into a movie knowing nothing about it. What Maisie Knew may be the most pleasure I've gained from a movie I was most indifferent about seeing.

See, the local arthouse theater (30-minute walk) has discount prices on Mondays. That's $6 for movies before 4 p.m. on Monday, whereas the standard price for all other times is a whopping $19. "The cinema has gotten expensive," the ticket clerk admitted to me when I expressed shock that there was no matinee price, before forking over $19 for Beyond the Hills on a Tuesday afternoon at 12:20 a few weeks back. "But we do have special prices on Mondays."

Special indeed. I've never seen such a discrepancy between the regular price and the discount price at a movie theater. In the U.S., usually it's maybe $12.75 for the regular price and $9 for the matinee. At this theater, the regular asking price is one of the highest I've ever seen, and the discount price one of the lowest.

Then and there I decided to see a movie before 4 on Monday, every Monday. It's one of the three days my son is in preschool, so I can easily afford to do it. In fact, I almost can't afford not to do it. Given how expensive everything else is in Melbourne -- I haven't had sticker shock like this since I lived back in New York -- spending $6 to be at a movie for two hours is like saving me from spending twice that on something else. It's like the time I was stranded in Vegas an extra day (the fifth day I was there), and went to see Pay It Forward because I knew I could lose no more than $10 during those two hours.

Last week's Monday movie was easy. I'd been excited to see the new documentary about J.D. Salinger, and it had just opened the Thursday before. (Movies do that here, open on Thursdays.) So catching the first showing of Salinger was a no-brainer.

This past week, I had more of a challenge. I wanted to see something playing early, which limited me to three movies that I hadn't seen/had any inkling to see. The first was Blue Jasmine, but I just wasn't feeling it. The second was Mood Indigo, the new Michel Gondry movie, which apparently doesn't even have a U.S. release date lined up. That detail gave me pause. Besides, the What Maisie Knew start time lined up better, and I liked not knowing anything about it. That can sometimes steer me away from a movie, but it was a draw in this case.

Well, I loved it.

It was immediately clear that directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee had just the right touch in telling an adult story essentially from the perspective of a child. They knew how to make this affecting material touching without being cloying, mature rather than manipulative.


How about she?

What Maisie Knew is filled with very good to great performances, from the always reliable Moore to the increasingly sophisticated dramatist Coogan, from the up-and-comer who's been eluding me (Alexander Sarsgard) to the fresh young face who may just become an up-and-comer (Joanna Vanderham).

But neither Moore nor Vanderham is the "she" I'm talking about.

That she is a young actress named Onata Aprile, who gives quite simply the most naturalistic performance I've seen from a child actor. We're always inclined toward exaggeration when raving about something we love, and sure, Aprile may not be the best performance from a child actor that I've ever seen. But in the post-movie glow that's still clutching me a day later, she sure feels like it.

To know what I'm talking about you really have to see the movie, but it's downright preternatural. Almost all of Aprile's performance is a reaction; she never has to say more than about a sentence at a time. But this is what makes her performance all the more remarkable. The performance -- nay, the whole movie -- relies on the subtle changes in her facial expressions to gain whatever power it has. And since What Maisie Knew has a lot of power, it means Aprile absolutely mastered what was required of her. I doubt she will get an acting nomination at this year's Oscars, simply because What Maisie Knew has ended up being a pretty small movie despite its glowing reviews. She deserves it, though.

I won't go on at length about the languid cinematography, the wrenching plot details or the movie's many glorious tonal grace notes. Those should be for you to discover.

It's too late for you, because if you've read this, you already know a lot more than I did going in.

If that's what it takes for you to see this movie -- to know a little more about What Maisie Knew -- then I'm willing to make the sacrifice. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013


So one of the disadvantages of living in Australia is that you have to wait longer for certain movies to come out. I'm not sure when the following movies actually opened here, but they're still playing at the local arthouse theater: Mud, Before Midnight, Beyond the Hills, Upstream Colour (they add the U here) and The Great Gatsby. All of these came out in May or earlier in the U.S.

One of the advantages, however, is that other films come out earlier. Take the Four Weddings and a Funeral ripoff -- frankly, the ripoff of any number of romantic comedies -- called I Give it a Year. I notice it only had its limited theatrical release in the U.S. about a month ago.

Here? I was able to rent it a Greenbox kiosk earlier this week.

Of course, they don't call the Hoyts kiosks "Greenbox" -- not that I know of, anyway, though I haven't discussed it with any Aussies -- but in all other respects these kiosks seem to be following the Redbox model.

A few slight differences:

1) It costs $3.50 to rent a movie for one night, rather than the $1.20 (before taxes) it was costing at Redbox before I left. That price is consistent with the SAM (Standard Australian Markup).

2) You can buy previously viewed copies of movies. Don't think Redbox wastes any of its limited real estate per kiosk on that. Costs are prohibitively high, though, something like $12.99.

3) The extra real estate devoted to previously viewed copies for purchase means there are no random back titles. I don't know how often people rent the Redbox random back titles, but they must do decent business or else Redbox wouldn't bother stocking them.

Even with the increased cost per rental, it's still a savings of something like $1.50 from the standard rental price of a new release at a video store (such as Video Ezy in nearby Flemington, of which I have recently become a member). So I'd be all over these Hoyts kiosks, except ...

... there isn't really one near me. The one from which I rented I Give it a Year is a 35-minute walk, and I'm only making that walk because my son is still in his last days at his old preschool before he moves to the new one around the corner from us. My last day walking him there is Monday. Only last Monday night even made sense as a day to sample the Hoyts kiosk, because I knew I was going to be walking my son back to the area the next day. He's been going to that preschool on Mondays, Tuesdays or Fridays.

However, I wouldn't count me out of the Hoyts game. Was it Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park who said "Life finds a way"? You can paraphrase that quote and apply it to me:

"Movies find a way."

Monday, September 9, 2013

No Bourne in their identity

Hello everyone.

I am simply overflowing with new post ideas, since so much has changed between the way I watched movies in the U.S. and the way I watch them now.

However, computer issues have conspired against me. The biggest is that I have not had regular access to the internet ever since I arrived in Australia. I could get online at my father-in-law's house for my first eight days in town, except the wifi signal was bad in the wing of the house where I would have preferred to do my internetting. I ended up doing most of my internet activities during bouts of insomnia. Then for the past ten days I've been without internet at all at our new house. There was supposed to be a seven-day wait between when my wife ordered it and when it was ready to go. Truth was, only the router came in seven days -- the internet itself was not up for another two days. (You'd think it would be the other way around -- flip a switch and have the internet on almost immediately, then have to wait for the router. It was not the other way around.) Only problem with that was/is, we don't have any phone jacks in our new house, so we can't get DSL until that's resolved.

Then last night my computer wouldn't start. It's been having awkward shutdowns for a couple months now, and I think it finally gave up the motherboard last night. I'm hoping for the best but fearing for the worst.

Without internet on my phone -- which I just picked up on Friday -- I would probably be legitimately crazy, rather than just on the verge of insanity as I am now.

However, I don't want these issues to defeat me, so I am putting up a new post on The Audient today, dammit. It's Monday for me but Sunday for you, and this Monday/Sunday will have a new Audient update.

So let's start with that "welcome to Australia!"-type email I discussed in my last post.

How about we start by telling you how to pronounce the name of the city where I now live?

There are two wrong ways for Americans to pronounce the word "Melbourne," and one right way. Let's start with the wrong ways, one of which is brought to you by the Jason Bourne franchise.

If you pronounce the second syllable of "Melbourne" the way they do it in The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Legacy, you're doing it wrong.

However, if you go too far in the other direction and under-pronounce the last syllable, you are also doing it wrong. Adam Kempenaar of the Filmspotting podcast, bless his heart, has been trying to say it correctly for a couple years, and not succeeding. He pronounces it as "Melbin."

That would be right -- if he were Australian.

Australians say "Melbin" because their accent leaves them naturally inclined to under-pronounce the letter R. Take the example of one of my first dates with my wife. She was talking about the massive rock formation in the middle of the Australian desert known as Ayers Rock. Because I had never heard of this massive rock formation and because we were in a very loud bar, I thought she was saying "Ez Rock." I knew that sounded ridiculous, but I couldn't figure out what she was actually saying until she spelled it for me.

Adam K. should only be saying "Melbin" if he would also say "Ez Rock." He's essentially doing an impersonation of an Australian accent, which is frowned upon.

The correct way for an American to say "Melbourne" is "Melburn." That way, you still get to deemphasize the second syllable (and thereby avoid sounding like a dorky American), but no one can accuse you of doing your best Paul Hogan impression either.

Even though I know this, I still have my own mishaps. The other day I was talking about a street called Bourke Street, and I was pronouncing it Bork, like the failed candidate for a seat on the Supreme Court under the first President Bush. (Robert Bork, he was.) I should have known, following the same rule as for Melbourne, that it would be Burk, not Bork. Yet I made the mistake once more before committing it to memory.

Nobody's perfect.

So, you are allowed a couple mistakes, but you should practice so as to avoid them: "Melburn. Melburn."


Next time: Something that's actually about the movies.