Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Famous Flops: Motherhood

Welcome to the latest in my Famous Flops series, in which I watch one film each month that was a financial loser, a critical loser, or just plain a loser, and then write about the experience.

Note: I know I promised Cutthroat Island this month, but I couldn't find it here in Oz. Oh well. Geena Davis and Renny Harlin are spared my wrath.

The term "flop" is first and foremost a financial term, but I have not really been using it as such in this series. In some cases the films really have tanked, financially, but in others -- such as The Room -- they are continuing to make money in theaters as we speak. Which can hardly make them a financial disappointment.

My October movie is one that's only famous -- to the extent that it actually is famous -- for how little money it made.

If you haven't heard of the Uma Thurman vehicle Motherhood, that's probably because you missed the little tidbit of news about what happened when it was released theatrically in England. In March of 2010, Motherhood was released in exactly one London theater, the Apollo Piccadilly Circus, where only a single nine-pound ticket was purchased for its opening night performance. Its gross for the weekend was only 88 pounds, the result of only 11 tickets purchased.

That, my friends, is a dud.

And an unprecedented catastrophe of poor marketing.

Well, Motherhood is bad. That's been no guarantee in this series, but it's true in this case.

It strikes you with its oddness from the start. Looking at the movie's poster, you know this is a comedy. But the movie starts with the camera panning over a dark room full of clutter with no sound on the soundtrack -- hardly the way you'd expected to be greeted into a silly romp. Eventually -- I mean after a full minute or two of this -- a song that's somewhere between cheesy and mournful kicks in, and Uma Thurman's hero mother starts to kick in her day before anyone in the house awakens. It's a bad choice.

What follows is sort of a character study, sort of a story about Thurman's character, her two kids, and her sort-of distant husband (Anthony Edwards). The only real plot that I'm aware of is that it's about to be her daughter's birthday, and she has to get together some stuff for the party. Oh, she's also got a pregnant friend (Minnie Driver) with whom she regularly checks in. The scant running time is devoted not so much to a plot, but to things that happen to Thurman over the course of a day or two (it may just be one day, I can't recall for sure). As a little bit of a spine, she's trying to write a piece on what motherhood means to her, to win some kind of contest. She's a mommy blogger, you see.

Let's stop right there. This was the second point where I could be sure, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Motherhood was shoddily made. The camera focuses in on the ad that notifies Thurman of the contest, and you can easily read the deadline: such and such a date, "12 PM Midnight!" Midnight is of course 12 AM, not 12 PM. Whatever dummy wrote this ad in the world of the movie might make a mistake like that, but the only reason the movie should make a mistake like that is if it makes a point out of the fact that the dummy who wrote the ad made a mistake. Without that, we are left to conclude that it was just an incompetent person in the movie's production office who wrote that poor ad copy.

After the poor opening, the movie just can't ever figure out the right tone. It wants to be light and funny sometimes, succeeding at the former but not the latter, but other times it wants to be raunchy and inappropriate. For example, in one particularly awful scene involving the oh-so-New York problem of not wanting to lose your parking space, Thurman lights up a cigarette in front of her young child, after failing to properly secure the child in the back seat of her car. You'd think a movie pitched to mothers, that wants us to like Thurman, wouldn't have her character commit either of these sins -- the latter one in particular is basically unconscionable. Later in that same scene, a driver she's gridlocking by adamantly blocking traffic in order to keep her parking spot calls her the C-word. Really? In this "light and fluffy" movie?

Then there are just the scenes that seem absurd. Like, the scene where an attractive young man helps her carry a ridiculous number of groceries and other parcels up to her apartment, and she offers him a drink as a sign of thanks. It's a temptation for her to cheat on her husband, and the two end up dancing to some music. In another accidental error like the AM/PM snafu, the person in charge of choreographing their dance moves totally drops the ball here. There's not meant to be anything funny about how they dance -- if so, the movie should have played it up more explicitly. Instead, they both convulse their bodies awkwardly in the same way, as though the choreographer said "This is how both men and women dance - follow me!" It's even funnier if you imagine that there's a third person off camera convulsing his or her body in the same way.

The director, Katherine Deickmann, made another movie that I thought was pretty odd called A Good Baby, which I saw and reviewed about ten years ago. But that baby was a lot better than this one.

Okay, that's enough about Motherhood. You aren't going to see it -- especially not now.

In November, I've got something I know I'll be able to find, because it came out only a couple months ago and has just made its video debut. And boy is The Lone Ranger a flop in every sense of the word. Let's see if I am offended by Johnny Depp's impression of a native American, or am in the small community of critics who find Gore Verbinski's film worthwhile.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A greater understanding of editing

A recent article I read on The Onion's AV Club (thanks Scott) underscored something that had occurred to me independently about a week before I read the article:

Editing is one of the key elements of filmmaking, and I don't really know how to tell good from bad.

Okay, I can tell bad when I see it. Everyone can. Bad editing can make a movie seem more shoddy than any other bad element of that movie, even the acting, if it is done poorly enough.

So the thing I really don't know how to tell is good from great. And that's what I'd like to improve.

Toward that end, I'm going to go back and watch a number of winners of the best editing Academy Award with a specific eye toward appreciating what makes their editing so great. I don't know how I'm going to write about this project on the blog, though I would like to check in periodically to discuss my findings. I don't think I can commit to anything so regular as a monthly series -- though it's certainly possible that I will watch more than one of these Oscar winners per month.

The interesting though perhaps unsurprising thing is, many of the winners of the best editing Oscar were also the best picture winners that year. Such as Argo, which is why I'm using it as the art for this post. This tells me that even the members of the Academy don't have a perfect grasp on what distinguishes a good editing job from a great one. Of course, the five nominees themselves are determined by other editors. But from there, one would guess that most Academy members throw their votes toward the movie they're voting for the most in other categories -- which in most cases is the movie that takes the top prize.

So I think it will be interesting to focus on movies that didn't win best picture, but did win the editing Oscar. That's a good way of limiting my choices. In fact, I noticed in perusing the winners that two straight David Fincher movies won best editing -- The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo -- without either winning best picture. It was the same editing team for both, as you might expect -- Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall. The fact that you've never heard of these guys tells you how little editing is appreciated outside of the small circles of people who really know about it.

Since The Social Network was the movie I thought of randomly when considering films with great editing, even without consciously remembering it had won the award, that means I do have some instinctive sense of what makes editing great. I'd like to polish that sense into something more confident, though.

I don't know which movie I'll watch first, as some of this relies on opportunity. However, I intend to get started soon.

Consider yourself notified. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Highly irregular

A friend and I came to the conclusion a couple years ago that although Airplane! is probably a better movie than Airplane II: The Sequel, we actually quote more jokes from Airplane II.

Maybe it's not such a surprise, then, that my most quoted line from 2001: A Space Odyssey is also from Airplane II.

One of the benefits of not yet being eligible for Australian employment is that when I make promises on this blog, I'm actually in the position to sort of keep them. Last week I told you that I was due for another viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The very next day I found a copy at the library, and yesterday, I watched that copy. I mightn't have done so if it had been a nice day, but it was cold and rainy. That seemed like perfect 2001 viewing weather.

I should get this right out of the way at the start: It blew me away. This was my third viewing of the movie, but apparently only at this age of my maturity have I been able to fully appreciate it. The deliberate pacing had finally become nothing but a joy to me, and all the pieces finally fit together. This was the first time I don't think that I secretly thought it was just a disconnected montage of pretentious images -- a brilliant disconnected montage of pretentious images, but a disconnected montage of pretentious images nonetheless.

The thing that surprised me the most, however, was that I realized that the line I most commonly use when doing my HAL 9000 impression was never actually spoken by HAL. It's the following:

"What are you doing, Dave? This is highly irregular."

To me, this was, is, and has always been HAL's quintessential line of dialogue. Except, he doesn't say it. The closest he comes is:

"Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?"

He never speaks about whether anything is regular, irregular or otherwise.

So who does talk about the relative regularity of Dave's actions?

Why it's ROK, the evil computer that takes over the shuttle in Airplane II, of course.

Here he is:

If I'd stopped to think about it, I might have realized the line of dialogue seemed so familiar not from the two times I had seen 2001, one of which was when I was only seven years old, but from the 12-14 times I saw Airplane II, which we owned on VHS when I was young because we'd copied it off The Movie Channel.

Even if I had realized that, though, I probably would still have thought that the phrasing "This is highly irregular" was lifted straight from 2001. It had come to seem like such an iconic part of HAL's mental and emotional breakdown that I would never have thought that its originators were the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams.

Yet that appears to be the case. I kept waiting and waiting for HAL to say it, but he never did. Okay, I didn't have to wait too long. HAL's pretty darn quick, and he knows almost immediately that a) Dave Bowman means to disconnect him, and b) the only way he can stop Dave is to persuade him he's feeling better, or simply to get Dave to take pity on him. HAL doesn't waste any time trying to accuse Dave of incorrectly following protocol. It'd probably be a bit hypocritical anyway.

It's kind of like that quote from Casablanca, "Play it again, Sam." You know, the quote that is never actually spoken in the film. It's kind of like that quote from On the Waterfront, where Marlon Brando complains that "I coulda been somebody." When in reality he actually complains that "I coulda been somebody."

You'll have to forgive me if I persist in my misquoting of HAL. I've just been doing it for too long.

You could say that at this point, it's part of my circuitry.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

You're hired! At a salary of $8/day.

We hired an intern this past Saturday night.

Actually, we hired an Internship. For "only" $8.

I'll explain.

You know how they use funny words for things in Australia? One of the funniest -- the one I can't keep from making a joke about every time I hear it -- is "hire."

There are a lot of people getting hired in Australia, because they didn't have as much of a recession as the rest of the world during the economic crisis (almost any at all, really). But there are also a lot of things getting hired in Australia, bringing the overall rate of hiring to double, treble, or dodecatuple that of other countries.

See, to "hire" something means to rent something. I first heard the term in reference to renting a car, back when I lived in my own country. My wife discussed "hiring" a car for a vacation, and I laughed. I imagine this car going in for an interview with us, and after asking it lots of questions and ticking lots of boxes ("Do you have power windows? Do you have rear-wheel suspension?"), we would decide if we wanted to hire it or not. "You're hired!" I would say in enthusiastic terms whenever the subject of hiring a car came up. I sensed my wife thought it was sort of funny, too, because she usually rolls her eyes when I repeat jokes ad nauseam. With this one, she'd laugh every time.

The funny thing is, not every way we use the word rent can be replaced with the Australian term "hire." For example, you don't "hire" an apartment. You "let" an apartment. You'll see signs in windows that say "To Let."

I would have guessed that you would at least "rent" a video here in Australia, or perhaps some other term (though probably not "let"). So you can imagine my surprise when we were staying overnight in Daylesford, about 90 miles from Melbourne, this past Saturday night for my 40th birthday, and were looking for a video store. The little guidebook at the place were staying told us where we could go if we want to "hire" a video.

(Yes, I just skated over turning 40. Maybe I'll have a real post about it at some point. Maybe I won't. Haven't decided yet.)

Of course this brought my whole routine up again. I imagined going to this video store, conducting an interview with a DVD that seemed promising ("Are you under two hours long? How many laughs do you have?") and then "hiring" the best candidate.

The strangest bit about the experience of "hiring" The Internship was not, however, the fact that we "hired" it. The strangest bit was the damn thing's salary demands.

Now, I know things are more expensive in Australia (oh how well I know it), and I know we were staying in a little tourist town. But perhaps my most acute sense of sticker shock was waiting for me when we walked into Family Videoland in Daylesford.

The videos on the new release wall were emblazoned with little orange stickers that read "$8 - Overnight."

Eight dollars? To rent a movie?

I had never seen the likes of it. In fact, I don't think I'd seen the $6 barrier breached by even the boldest of outlets that seek job placements for their videos.

The funniest thing was the way the place trumpeted this price, with these bold orange stickers, as though $8 was some terrific value for possessing a movie for 24 hours. Like it usually costs $10, but now it's only $8. Me, I'd think if you're going to hire out a movie to people for $8, the least you should do is feel shame about it. When I ask you what it costs, you should lower your eyes and mumble the number so I can barely hear it.

Of course, $8 is nothing compared to what it costs to watch a movie in a hotel room or something of the like. If it costs $14.99 to $16.99 to rent a movie in a U.S. hotel room, I can only imagine what they can get away with charging in an Aussie inn. (I have to be careful when I use the word "hotel" here, because a hotel can actually refer to a pub.)

But going to an actual video store is different. You have to get in your car to pick it up and to return it. Since there's no convenience involved, you hardly expect to pay a convenience fee.

Okay, I guess there was one little convenience, which is that we, as overnight guests and not locals, were permitted to rent from them without having to get a membership or having a local address. Still -- eight dollars?

"This better be some damn movie," I joked as we were leaving.

My wife laughed. We had just been to a spa afternoon and an expensive dinner, and were staying over in a nice hotel/inn/I'll call it what they called it: a villa. Eight dollars was not going to break us, at least not compared to the money that had already been splurged in honor of my landmark birthday.

And I must say that although The Internship didn't live up to being the most expensive rental from a video store I had ever participated in, it was probably an appropriate movie for a guy turning 40 and starting a job search in a new country -- in other words, starting over from scratch in some ways, like Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn when they get their Google internships.

Let's hope all this talk of "hiring" will be contagious when I start to go on my own interviews in about a month's time.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

"Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, are the monkeys real?"

I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theater as a child. It was a re-release, obviously -- turning 40 this weekend is hard enough. Don't put me at 50 just yet.

My parents were no doubt trying to capitalize on my love of Star Wars. They obviously hadn't seen it, and probably hadn't read anything about it, if they thought it would scratch that itch. Saying Star Wars and 2001 are like each other is kind of like saying that The Godfather and The Black Stallion are alike because they both feature horses.

Needless to say, I didn't get it. In fact, I was bored silly.

Only yesterday, when listening to the Filmspotting podcast featuring a "sacred cow" discussion of 2001, did I finally understand why:

I think I thought it was a documentary.

When I saw it for what must have been the 1980 re-release, I wouldn't have known what a documentary was. However, I would have had some idea about the kind of movie you see in science class, or during the educational portions of a show like The Electric Company. I probably thought 2001 was something like that. 

What's striking about this is two things:

1) A significant portion of this film features monkeys interacting with each other;

2) The rest of this film takes place in outer space.

See, I thought both things were real.

A lot more recently than you might think, actually.

When I last saw 2001, it was the year 2001. I was driving across the country to live in Los Angeles, and spending about five days in Champaign, IL, to visit my friend Don Handsome and attend Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival (since retitled, simply, "Ebertfest"). Ebert keenly recognized that 2001 would make a great opening night film, especially as this is a film that demands to be seen on a large screen. Plus it was a restoration of the 70 mm version, making the experience all the more impressive.

Even as a 27-year-old, I probably still didn't really get it, but at least I had a much greater appreciation for its place in film history and its objective greatness as a cinematic achievement.

As a special treat, the screening was followed by a satellite phone conversation with Sir Arthur C. Clarke, co-screenwriter (with Stanley Kubrick) and author of the concurrently written novel. I think Clarke was supposed to be there, but weather or some such inconvenience left him stranded in Sri Lanka, where he spent the later years of his life (ultimately dying there in 2008).

After asking the man a number of questions himself, Ebert opened it up so that members of the audience could directly address the science fiction legend. A young girl was one of those people. I don't remember what she actually asked, but I do remember how she addressed the man: She called him Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was a very funny mistake for a child her age to make, because she had to know who Arthur Conan Doyle was in order to make it in the first place.

As these things tend to go, in the re-telling of this experience, Don and I quote her as follows: "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were the monkeys real?" Except the bit about the monkeys was our question, not hers.

That's right, Don and I both admitted to each other that we weren't quite sure whether the monkeys in the famous opening of 2001 were real monkeys, or human beings dressed in monkey costumes.

This is, of course, absurd. Of course they were human beings in monkey costumes. Or really, to be more accurate, in early hominid costumes. The scene goes on for minutes and minutes and involves complex interactions between the creatures and each other, as well as between them and a monolith that appears in their environment, causing them to learn how to murder each other. (Over-simplification.) There's no way even the cleverest monkey trainer in the world could get them to do a quarter of that stuff.

Yet the verisimilitude was such that even at nearly 30 years old, we couldn't be sure sure. Not 100%. Even though we knew better.

We laughed and laughed at ourselves, but a profound indication of the power of this movie also washed over us.

The epiphany I had about 2001 this week was when, during this podcast, Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune talks about the awe of first seeing the zero gravity jogging scene on the space station.

It occurred to me yesterday that the reason I'd never specifically been interested in this scene was that I thought this, too, was real. Definitely as a child, but I hadn't shrugged off the impression enough by 2001 to specifically find it awe-inspiring when I watched it then -- or at least to realize that I once considered it to be real.

If you unpack that, that means I thought that Stanley Kubrick, his actors and his crew went to outer space to film their movie.

I know Kubrick was bad at sticking to his budget, but that's ridiculous.

So yeah, when I was six or seven years old, this kind of thing was boring to me. I guess I thought people made movies in outer space all the time. For all I knew, Star Wars was a "documentary" as well -- it just had the advantage of also having laser guns and light sabers.

All this tells me that it may be time for another screening of 2001. Now is probably the time to do it -- I've got whole days of the week home alone without much else to do except to try not to spend money. (I'm still about a month away from being eligible to work here, and in the meantime, am just trying not to increase my own financial burden on the world.) It would be especially useful, now that I've just seen Gravity, to marvel at the first movie that amazed its audiences -- those who weren't bored, that is -- by the possibilities of making space seem realistic on film. (Not to mention just seeing Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, which addresses the abstractions that Gravity doesn't address.)

Oh, and it also made huge strides forward in the field of monkey acting.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Subtract some of the ads

Hey, Australia: Ease up on the ads, will you?

I went to my first movie at the Hoyts theater chain since arriving in Australia on Tuesday, and here's what I saw: ads.

Oh, I think there was a movie tacked on to the ending. I can't remember. (Yes, the Naomi Watts-as-Princess Di movie, Diana, was pretty forgettable, but it was also pretty passable considering the early reviews.)

I was rushing to make a 1:10 showing at a theater that was nearly an hour's tram ride from my house. I wouldn't normally travel so far to see a movie, except that the theater was in the same mall as the Ikea, and we needed to pick up a bedside table that had been out of stock last time I checked. Seeing as how Tuesday is the day for "cheap" movies at Hoyts ("only" $12 a ticket), I figured this would be a great occasion to patronize Hoyts for the first time.

Well, I could have slowed my pace just a little bit.

I arrived at 1:12 ... and still had 20 more minutes of ads and trailers to sit through before the movie started. Really. Twenty minutes.

I guess I've been a bit spoiled by my regular Monday visits to Cinema Nova, where you get almost no ads before they launch into the trailers. And I don't mind a few, having certainly become accustomed to that in the U.S.

The reason the bevy of ads that preceded Diana really bothered me, though, is that they broke from a U.S. custom that I thought would be easy enough to follow internationally. Namely, the first movie trailer did not signify an end to the commercials. In fact, just the opposite.

Fairly soon after sitting down, I got a trailer for the inspirational dramedy One Chance, in which a tubby British boy becomes an unlikely opera sensation. (Don't know why it's so unlikely -- aren't most opera singers tubby?)

Following this was, I don't exaggerate, ten commercials. Ten.

At about 1:25 I figured that the movie was ready to start. I figured wrong. This kicked off another six movie trailers.

Only at long last did the further dimming of the house lights indicate that we were finally going to get a movie.

Maybe being inundated with ads is a Tuesday thing. "You don't have to pay $19 for the movie, but your penalty is 37 minutes worth of ads."

So back to Cinema Nova next Monday it is, then. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

A young Sid in the making?

We've been talking a lot in our house about how our three-year-old is a bit of a terror these days. He's just gotten into guns (since moving to Australia, oddly, where there is no gun problem), and everything he does is aggressive. Even his signs of affection often leave one of us saying "Ow ow ow get off get off!"

But I didn't worry about the scope of the problem until we watched Toy Story on Wednesday for the first time in a month.

We were watching along fine -- him mostly involved in it, me popping in and out and alternating with adult activities -- when it came to the part where Sid, the sadistic next door neighbor, has Buzz and Woody in his "lair," ready to "interrogate" Woody.

Suddenly, my son started speaking.

"Talk!" my son and Sid both said.

"We have ways of making you talk ..." my son and Sid both said.

Sid focuses the rays of the sun through a magnifying glass, beginning to bore a small hole in Woody's head.

"Where are your rebel friends now?" my son and Sid both said.

Uh oh.

If my son has indeed turned to the dark side -- and quoting no portion of Toy Story except Sid's lines would indicate that -- then perhaps I have no one to blame but myself. Like father, like son.

See, when I reached a certain age -- old enough no longer to play with Star Wars and G.I. Joe figures, but still too young to be using power tools -- I "tortured" some of my own toys in my dad's workshop. My dad, a very handy gentleman, had all sorts of lathes and power sanders and buzz saws, terrific ways of doing things to toys that should never be done. There was no lock on his shop -- in fact, there was nothing but a couple cabinets to provide a barrier between where he worked and where I watched TV. It was all too easy to get in there and play around with the tools when no one else was around. (Apparently, I was old enough to be left alone -- the sound of any of these tools would have sent adults running from even the furthest reaches of our house.)

I don't know how much of this torture I actually did, but I do have a distinct memory of using the power sander to sand Princess Leia's face off. This was not the traditional Leia, with the hair buns, but Leia in the outfit she wore on Bespin. I suppose by writing this I am willingly offering up the only piece of evidence anyone would need to nod their head solemnly if one day I am arrested for being a serial killer of women.

I do remember feeling some kind of remorse at having defaced -- literally -- some of my toys, which probably still had enough meaning to me that I valued them as parts of my collection. More than anything I think I just wanted to see how the power sander worked. (Note for those who know their way around a shop better than I do: The tool I used is not really called a "power sander," of course, but that's the only word I know to describe what this particular tool does. I suspect it was more often used to smooth the edges of metal than to sheer off the faces of action figures.)

So, maybe the apple doesn't fall far from the tree? I'll think twice before I set up a shop in our house.

When I shared this story with my wife -- the part that relates to Toy Story, not the part about Princess Leia -- she laughed it off, reassuring me that them being Sid's lines was only a coincidence. She said she thinks our son has reached a new phase in his memorization of his favorite entertainments. He's already shown this aptitude with storybooks, and now he's transferring it to movies and TV. As an example, she said she also heard him repeating back lines in an episode of the harmless kids show Postman Pat.

Well, I don't know. I've got my eye on him.

And I'm keeping all magnifying glasses well hidden.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


The middle stop on our honeymoon was a long weekend at an eco-resort in Belize. On one of the afternoons we did a horseback-riding trip, which was pretty miserable, because my wife (a somewhat experienced rider) got a horse well into its dotage, while I (a less experienced rider) got one that galloped at any opportunity that presented itself. (I could be heard yelling "Too fast too fast too fast!" to no one in particular.)

On our way back from a very edifying trip to see cave artifacts, the length of the day was really wearing on me. I knew we were taking a different (longer) route home, and I had just about reached the breaking point. When I couldn't stand it any more, after much internal deliberation, I finally asked the guide how much longer it would be until we got back to the resort.

I figured he would set me at ease by telling me it was just around the next bend.

Instead he said "About an hour."

This is how I felt Monday when I realized there was about an hour left in The Act of Killing.

Now, coming out of The Act of Killing is exactly the wrong time to use a word like "torture" to describe the experience of watching it, without feeling like an insensitive bastard who makes light of the actual torture he's been witnessing on screen. But I did emerge with the sense that I had been forced to endure something for a lot longer than I'd planned.

By now you have heard an NPR story or a review or someone talking about this movie -- for me it's been all three, I think. In fact, as the movie is only just now being released in Australia (it came out in July in the U.S.), I'm going through another round of same now. But if you haven't heard about The Act of Killing, I'll give you a short synopsis.

Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer went to Indonesia (he speaks the language) to create a film -- though the kind of film changes depending on whom he's talking to. To the government-sponsored gangsters who killed possibly as many as two million communists or suspected communists in 1965, he was making a kind of action/gangster fiction film tribute to their experiences, which would enhance their legacy as national heroes. To anyone not directly involved -- and perhaps some who were -- he was making an expose of the brutal murderers who have gone unpunished to this day. Not only did he get these gangsters, now in their 60s and 70s, to talk about and even simulate the ghastly crimes they committed "off camera" -- as in, in a traditional documentary-style interview format -- but he also filmed scenes from this theoretical fiction film, with them playing both the torturers/murderers and their victims. Then there's also a bunch of B-roll -- like a guy brushing his teeth so vigorously that he's getting a thick lather of toothpaste all over his chest -- that just goes into the category of "bizarre extra stuff."

It is without a doubt one of the singular experiences a person can have watching a documentary, and it is consistently disturbing, if not in actual graphic content (of which there is not a huge amount) then merely in spending time with murderers who gleefully discuss their exploits. After about two hours, I'd had enough of it. Which was okay, because that was when I was expecting the movie to end.


My screening of The Act of Killing started at 10:30 a.m., which means I was expecting it to get out at about 12:20. Somewhere I'd gotten it in my head that the movie was 115 minutes. But we hit 12:20 and then 12:30 and then something I'd seen on my ticket started to make sense.

See, one of the cool things they do at Cinema Nova in Carlton -- the place with the $6 tickets on Mondays -- is tell you the exact running time of the movie on the ticket. I was going to save this little tidbit for a post of its own, but really, it's probably not newsy enough to warrant an entire post, and I need it now anyway. The ticket lists the start time, and then the minute that the last credit disappears from the screen, with a dash separating them.

My ticket for The Act of Killing said 10:30 - 1:24. I had assumed it was a typo and they really meant 12:24. I mean, what documentary is nearly three hours long?

Answer: This one.

The Act of Killing ran past 12:30 and then 12:40 and then, by golly, then I was downright sure that I would be sitting here for another 45 minutes yet. Soaking in another 45 minutes of these despicable characters before, well, before some kind of ending that I hoped would at least partly redeem them. Not because they deserve redemption, but because a movie like this just has to end with some kind of comeuppance or definitive moment of soul-searching agony ... it just has to.

When the credits finally rolled, the first comment someone behind me blurted out was "Way too long." I hadn't been the only one enduring this torture.

I later on realized that I had seen the director's cut of The Act of Killing, which weighed in at a whopping 160 minutes. However, the version most people have seen and been praising is 122 minutes. I don't know where I got that 115-minute figure.

This gets at my problem with films that have multiple versions available. You'd think the essential core of a movie would be similar enough that you'd rate it about the same, no matter which version you saw, but that simply isn't the case. For me, two hours of The Act of Killing would have been plenty. Cutting out 38 minutes would have benefited the film terrifically, allowing Oppenheimer to examine the evil that men do, rather than wallowing in it for a sadistically long time. It makes a crucial difference between me calling The Act of Killing a very good film and a great one.

Usually, it's easier than this to tell when you're getting the "wrong" version. For example, when you walk into a theater, you should be fairly certain you're getting the "official" version of the film. On DVD, you need to look for words like "unrated" or "director's cut" or other giveaways that put you on notice. But there's a general assumption that subsequent versions are just that: subsequent. Home video allows you to give us new things we hadn't seen before, either things that wouldn't have made it through a ratings board, or things that incentivize us to buy a second or third or fourth copy of the movie. The cinematic release is your starting point, and it should be just one point.

It makes a substantive difference to how I might review the film as well. Take the scene I mentioned above where Anwar Congo's sidekick, Herman, is brushing his teeth in a haphazard way that gets toothpaste foam all down his chest. That could easily be part of those 38 minutes you aren't seeing in the U.S. If I mentioned that scene in a review intended to be consumed by Americans, they would wonder what the hell I was talking about.

Well, I saw the version of The Act of Killing that I saw. I can't change that. And I certainly don't plan to sit through another 122 minutes of this stuff to see what the differences are.

Torturous? Only for someone sitting in a comfortable seat in an arthouse theater in Melbourne. Not for a communist in 1965 Indonesia.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Netflix: Breaking the spell cast by good movies since 2013

I'm not sure exactly when Netflix started offering you something else to watch the second the credits of your current movie start rolling, but I started noticing it back in February or March.

Well, I've had about enough of it.

On Saturday night my wife and I watched the 2012 indie Starlet, which my pal and fellow film blogger Nick Prigge of Cinema Romantico ranked among the top ten films he saw last year. That endorsement alone lodged the title in my memory, even though it wasn't widely available last year, and Nick may have actually seen it at a film festival, if memory serves. (Actually, Wikipedia lists its release date as November 9, 2012, without any elaboration, so it must have just been a very limited release.)

Anyway, it became available for streaming on Netflix at some point in the last couple months, and I added it to our queue. My wife heard or read something about it this past week, so she suggested it as our Saturday night viewing. I wanted to see what this movie on which Mr. Prigge expended so much praise was all about.

Well, Nick was right. It was great, and it has one of those perfect endings that leaves you in a dreamy spell, lost in the final moments that have just transpired.

No sooner had I entered this dreamy spell than Netflix rudely threw Starlet up into the upper left hand corner, abruptly filling the rest of the screen with this crass image:

Instead of contemplating the poignant and transcendent final scene of this thoughtful movie, I was now confronted by some dumb, lame American Pie ripoff.

Oh, I know why Netflix presented me with My Awkward Sexual Adventure. Without spoiling Starlet, which deserves to have its narrative revelations presented exactly according to the chosen pacing of writer-director Sean Baker, and no sooner, I'll say that Starlet presumably shares sexual themes with this movie in which a man apparently fucks a cantaloupe. But I'll venture that's all they share.

Because Netflix is so eager to algorithm me to death, I had to jump up and click back on the screen to maximize Starlet, rather than just sitting there in the pleased stupor of a film accomplishing all its narrative goals, and leaving me grateful for having watched it.

After all, for all I knew, My Awkward Sexual Adventure might start playing even before Starlet could finish its credits.

This has been an awkward programming venture by Netflix, and it needs to stop.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The sunglasses on the cutting room floor

The movie Chopper, about the Australian celebrity criminal Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read, had developed a rather mythic reputation for violence in my head over the years.

Since I used to confuse it with Romper Stomper -- due to the similarity of their titles, their country of origin and their subject matter -- I imagined that it would contain the kind of gruesome brutality that would make a lesser man than me queasy. Romper Stomper, a movie about Australian skinheads, had some such violence.

I also figure that the sunglasses had something to do with it.

The thing that made the title character in Chopper seem all the more menacing was the fact that you couldn't see his eyes. Eyes are the window to the soul, and some really nasty eyes can indicate a really nasty character. However, a person can also have kind eyes and still be nasty. Eyes alone are no guarantee of what you're getting. Eyes can clean up well.

When you can't see the eyes at all, it severs the person's ties to humanity. They could be anything. Not knowing what they could be, what they're capable of, is perhaps even worse than the cold stare of a killer.

Chopper's sunglasses in the poster above shroud his eyes in just such a way. They're an indispensable part of what makes that image of him -- of Eric Bana playing him, I should say -- iconic. 

This is why it surprised me that when I finally saw Chopper on Friday night, those sunglasses were nowhere to be seen.

That's right -- nearly every scene involving Chopper takes place in a prison, indoors or at night. There's only one scene when he's outside during the daytime, when he's being interviewed by a TV journalist, and he wears no sunglasses. Producer's orders, I'm sure.

So even though I really dug Chopper, I would have dug it more had there been a scene that fulfilled the Robert DeNiro-in-Taxi Driver promise of Bana's cross-armed pose of defiance.

It makes me wonder how that became the defining image of the movie's campaign in the first place. Clearly, they had Bana in the sunglasses at some point in order to shoot the image for the poster. (Unless they Photoshopped the sunglasses in afterward, which seems unlikely, especially back in 2000.) Was there a scene in which he wore the glasses that was left on the cutting room floor? If so, why would they do that? If not, why wouldn't you get in a scene with the glasses, even if you had to force it?

The fact that it's based on a real person and needs to adhere to the real facts of his life doesn't excuse the decision, or non-decision, in this case. An on-screen graphic tells us right up front that this is a fictionalisation (using the Australian Z-less spelling of that word) of Read's life, not a biography. That gave director Andrew Dominik license to indulge in whatever artistic flourishes he wanted, including a scene where Chopper's sunglasses make him even more badass than he was in real life. (Or may have been -- there's some doubt as to the veracity of his claims in his autobiography.)

In a more general analysis of the movie and what it says about Australian culture ... it's funny how a nation that takes such pains to under-emphasize the fact that it was founded by criminals ends up lionizing so many of them. Ned Kelly, the famous police-killing bushranger who wore homemade armor to try to survive a firefight, is one such example. Chopper Read is another. He's still a bit of a celebrity here, though my wife tells me that he's now dying of liver cancer. (Given the life he lived and how many times there was a contract on his head, it's hard to believe he's lived to the ripe old age of 58 in the first place.)

Really, it's not so much that Australians love criminals, just that the criminals here tend to be so colorful ... so Australian. One great example when it comes to Read is that he never even exacted revenge on the guy who stabbed him about six times in prison, because it was one of his best mates. He compares it to having been stabbed by his mum. It's a perfect example of the logic-defying loyalty that characterizes Australian male friendships.

If someone stabbed me even once, he'd be off my Christmas card list for good.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Frittering away my advantage

Welcome to the day Gravity -- Alfonso Cuaron's first movie since his 2006 masterpiece Children of Men -- comes out where you are.

You, if you live in the United States, that is.

I live in Australia, so I got it a day earlier. Two days earlier, really, when you consider that movies come out on Thursdays here, and we've got a day on you to begin with.

This is not particularly usual, as movies often don't come out here until three weeks to a month after they come out in the U.S. Not with Gravity, though. We get Gravity first.

So have I seen Gravity yet?



It's looking like it'll be next Wednesday -- Tuesday where you are, you who live in the United States -- before I see it.


I had Australia Opening Day as a day free from childcare, when I could have strolled into any theater at any time of the day and laid my eyes on a movie I have been anticipating specifically for something like two years, and abstractly for the nearly seven it's been since I saw Children of Men.

But I had a full day already scheduled, including shopping before having a friend over for dinner, and completing some other time-sensitive odds and ends. I knew it wasn't going to happen.

However, the pull was strong. I really considered chucking those obligations and just going for it anyway.

Why I didn't:

1) My wife and I have discussed seeing it together. We have pretty easy access to babysitters these days with several family members living in the same city, and we've barely made use of them yet. We have a guilt-free babysitting session coming to us.

2) The IMAX theater at the Melbourne Museum is playing Gravity only from 4 p.m. onward. During the day, they have to show those shorter IMAX movies about aquatic creatures and the Serengeti, so they can get a few extra bucks from the people going to the museum. I couldn't see a 4 p.m. show because I had to pick my son up at preschool at 5:15. This is probably not the only place in Melbourne to see IMAX 3D, but it's definitely the closest, and it stands a great chance of being the best. Museums generally go above and beyond in presenting you the full IMAX experience.

And I understand 3D and IMAX are both musts for this movie. I don't know why they're a must, per se, because I've intentionally avoided learning anything more than the basics about Gravity. That means clamping my hands over my ears and closing my eyes no fewer than three different times the trailer came on at the theater.

I do know that there's supposed to be an "unbroken" take that lasts something like 18 minutes. That's the Alfonso Cuaron I know and love. I put "unbroken" in quotation marks because unlike during Children of Men, there may be digital trickery involved with this one. But Cuaron at least owns up to the trickery. In fact, I also heard something about him inventing a new camera or a new technique in order to do the shot. I can't be more specific, though, because like I said, I've been in zero information mode about Gravity, and will remain so until next Wednesday.

I do know that it has a 97 on Metracritic, the sum total of a whopping 42 positive reviews. That 97 also includes zero mixed reviews and of course zero negative reviews.

Wednesday. Wednesday. Wednesday. It can't get here soon enough.

Well, at least I can think of it this way: I only have to wait for it to be Tuesday in the states.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Jennifer Love Hewitt's incredibly expensive boobs

Before I get Jennifer Love Hewitt's attorneys on my case -- after all, I'm led to believe her spectacular knockers are real -- I should explain what I mean by the subject of this blog post.

For starters, though, a little preamble.

I haven't yet figured out the pricing logic behind most things in Australia. One grocery store sells a 3 liter bottle of 1% milk for $5.95. Another grocery store, of exactly the same prominence and cleanliness level, sells it for $3. I don't know why, but it's true.

Most things, of course, cost more than they do in the states, and that's certainly true of DVDs. It wouldn't be strange to find a new release DVD go for nearly $30, which is $5 to $10 more than even the BluRay would be in the U.S. Then again, there are also stores, like Target -- or like K-Mart, which out-Targets Target in a lot of ways -- that sell older DVDs for only $5, like you'll see in the U.S. It's just hard to know.

I'm not in the market to buy anything now, but I do have a habit of checking the prices of things on the shelves. I can't help it. It's pure instinct.

Today I saw something that even the illogical Australia pricing structure couldn't account for, so far out of the bounds of the ordinary was it.

It was a display rack in a Coles supermarket that had about five or six rows of three or four movies each. They should have been priced to sell, considering that they were displayed in such a way as to encourage an impulse purchase. At the very least you'd expect the prices of the DVDs to be more or less of a piece, seeing as how they were all being displayed together on this one rack. But no. Some movies were cheap, around $7, while others were a bit more expensive. The Little Mermaid was $28 for the DVD, which is definitely high, but high-quality children's entertainment tends to get priced higher, as I discussed here.

In fact, all the movies were more or less in an expected price range, based on age and perceived popularity, except one:

Heartbreakers, which was selling for $37.28.

This was not even the BluRay, mind you. It was the DVD.


Was the guy with the price gun drunk that day?

It boggled my mind. It wasn't just the excessively high price of a movie that's over a dozen years old, that wasn't much more than a modest hit when it came out. It was also the odd specificity of the price. One wonders why anything in Australia is priced on anything other than a multiple of five cents, since they no longer circulate one cent coins here, and just round up or down every purchase. Something that costs $37.28 actually costs $37.30 or $37.25 -- I can't remember if the rounding rule always benefits the buyer, or if the seller can squeeze an extra two cents out of you under the right circumstances. (I should say that the sales tax is already factored in here, which I must say that I like.)

$37.28? Really?

It's not even close to the next dollar up, a common tactic used by retailers to convince you the product in question costs less than it really does. So even $36.98 or $37.98 would make more sense than $37.28.

Instead of shaking my head in aghast disbelief, I should probably consider the likelihood that it really was a mistake of some sort, drunk price gunner or otherwise.

But it's a lot more fun to imagine that Heartbreakers' precise combination of elements resulted in some kind of pricing algorithm making the determination that its fair market value -- a value the consumer would be only too glad to pay -- would be $37.28. Like, maybe Sigourney Weaver + comedy + Jennifer Love Hewitt's boobs = $37.28.

To get some clarity on the topic, at the possible risk of ruining my own fun, I googled "Coles" and "Heartbreakers" and "$37.28" and came up with nothing.

Sometimes the best mysteries are those that are never solved.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

An uncomfortable look in the mirror

No, I don't look in the mirror and see a North Dakota rancher who looks like either Kris Kristofferson or Peter Fonda, if that's what you're wondering.

It just happens that Wooly Boys is the movie I was watching (for a project on another blog) when I realized:

I don't like looking at myself in the mirror when I watch movies.

You see, I only just got an iPad for the first time. And when you watch movies on iPads, you get a second image of your own ugly mug (to borrow a phrase used a couple times in Wooly Boys) looking back up at you.

We acquired this iPad about a month ago. It's far from the newest model, and in fact, we only got it at all because my mother-in-law had upgraded to the newer one and didn't need this anymore. But whatever it can't do that the new one can, it definitely can play movies rented from iTunes.

However, it took me until the beginning of this week to watch my first movie on it. I've had this romanticized notion that isn't such a surprise for a green iPad user like me, that I could download a movie and watch it in a park or a coffee shop or somewhere else out in the world. I can do that with a laptop, of course, but we all know that a laptop is clunkier and less portable -- not to mention a lot more valuable if something should happen to it. But the weather has been windy and rainy, and coffees are expensive here, just like everything else. Coming up against some deadlines for this other blog project, I needed to watch a couple movies on the iPad this week, even though I wasn't lying idyllically on the well-manicured lawn of one of Melbourne's beautiful open spaces.

Probably just as well, because the sunnier it is, the more you can see your ugly mug staring back at you.

Seriously, is there any way around this? I want to watch the movie, not myself watching the movie. And it's like seeing a flaw in a paint job or some other imperfection you hadn't previously noticed: Once you notice it, you can't stop noticing it.

I see my face in the actual mirror quite enough, thank you very much.

I suppose it's a function of the angle at which you're holding the iPad. But if you start to hold it at a more extreme angle, your view of the movie becomes considerably less ideal. That becomes the distraction, rather than whether you're having a good hair day or whether you really squint like that while viewing.

But what's really uncomfortable about it is less of a joke. When I see myself watching a movie, and became hyper aware of the fact that I'm watching a movie by seeing it, I wonder if there isn't something else I should be doing. I am unemployed for the foreseeable future, which is something I can't control until I have a visa that will allow me to work here. The timing on that is anything but certain. However, there are things I could be doing in preparation for working, or just things around the house that make the three days of each week I have to myself more profitable to me and my family.

Instead, I'm watching movies, and my iPad is all too eager to let me know it.