Monday, December 30, 2013

Distant past, distant future

I just finished watching The Croods, the latest Dreamworks movie to not be as good as I think it should be, though still good enough to tug at my heartstrings a little bit.

I went to add another three-star entry for an animated movie in Letterboxd when I discovered that I could actually add either The Croods or The Croods 2.

As I have discussed before, Letterboxd is again catering its services to time travelers.

In my previous post on the subject, I talked about how the site's open-ended date field allows you to go back to -- well, to the era the Croods actually lived to say you watched The Croods. I gave up going backwards around 400 or 500 B.C., anyway.

Now, it's the site allowing me to say I've seen a movie that won't even be released for another six years.

That's right, The Croods 2 is listed on Letterboxd as a 2019 release. 

It's admirable, if you are a movie website, to get your database ready to go as early as possible, so you are right on top of things when a movie starts being shown in advanced screenings and film festivals and the like. Someone can legitimately say they've seen one of those movies a year or even two years before its general release.

The Croods 2? I'm sure they are only just starting to work on the script.

There are two things I find funny about it already being a database entry in Letterboxd. One is that they added it. The other is that Dreamworks has already both settled on, and publicized, a 2019 release date. I don't know of any other movie whose release date is projected so far in the future.

How hard can it really be to make a Croods sequel, that they'll let the iron get that cold before finishing the movie? I guess it's not that the movie would take that long to make, if that were the only thing they were working on. Rather, it's probably that the pipeline is so full of other middling Dreamworks crap that 2019 is the first vacant slot on the schedule.

From the perspective of Letterboxd, can't someone just set up a calendar reminder on their computer to add it to the database sometime in, I don't know, late 2017? Because now it's one of those things that just makes the site look silly. If I say that I've already watched The Croods 2, then it will appear to my Letterboxd friends as recent activity on my part. They'll wonder how I've already seen this movie that is probably only just being storyboarded, if that. Or more likely, they will just immediately know it's a mistake on the site, something that should have been locked down but wasn't.

Of course, my own Letterboxd diary is so sacrosanct that I can't actually punk them by saying I've watched The Croods 2. I've got my standards ... even if they don't.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Famous Flops: After Earth

This is the final installment of my 2013 series Famous Flops, in which I have been watching one known turkey per month and writing about it.

The trick when assessing the quality of an M. Night Shyamalan movie is not to hate on it just because it's M. Night Shyamalan. Unfortunately, the man has reached a point in his career where it's almost impossible to go into one of his movies with an open mind. You tend to jump on any little thing that strikes you as ridiculous, when you'd give the benefit of the doubt to many other films.

So I need to be honest and say that After Earth is a bit boring and bland, more than it is outright wrongheaded. In fact, Mr. Shyamalan can be said to be treading water, creatively, as far as I'm concerned. Despite some laugh-out-loud moments in its first half, I actually felt that the critically reviled The Last Airbender had some value in it. After Earth may have about the same amount of value. Which is to say, not a lot, but some.

Let's start by addressing the elephant in the room: Jaden Smith. (I don't know why he's the elephant in the room. Forget I said that.) He's not really a good actor. The temptation is to call him a chip off the old block, but he's really not. He's okay. I was most convinced by him in The Pursuit of Happyness, when he was just a little kid, then not at all in The Day the Earth Stood Still. I haven't seen The Karate Kid, or any other movies he's made. He doesn't bring it here. He tries, and it's a really sweet kind of trying, but he just doesn't bring it. And the movie relies on his acting chops quite a bit. 

You see, he's sent off to find a rescue beacon that's in the other half of the ship his father and he crashed in, some 100 kilometers off on a planet called Earth, where humans used to live. They've long since vacated, as the planet (beautiful looking though it still is) has become toxic to human life. In fact, Smith Jr. needs special breathing capsules to help him breathe, and there's a question whether he'll make it the full 100 kilometers on the few remaining breathing capsules he has, let alone get back to the other half of the ship's wreckage, where his father (Smith Sr.) is in really bad shape with two broken legs.

In every Shyamalan movie you're looking for the high concept hook that attracted him to the project, and here it's more of a backdrop: Humans aren't safe in the other places they live, either. There they are being picked off by ferocious aliens who can't see them, but can track where they are by smelling their fear. The only way to beat them is to cultivate an absolute mastery over your fear, which is what Smith Sr. has done -- at this point you can walk right up next to them and slit their throats. This makes Smith Sr. an expert in the act of what's called "ghosting," and his son a trainee.

I do like that concept, but it's really not used in an interesting enough way. In fact, much of the movie is spent on set pieces where Smith Jr. has to face a certain obstacle between himself and the rescue beacon on Earth -- few if any of which involve the whole "mastery of fear" theme. I couldn't help but think of Shyamalan's The Happening during some of these scenes, because that movie involved the deadly threat embodied in ... trees. The earth is fighting back in a similar way here, but at least most of the threats are a little less inert, and ridiculous, than they were in that film.

That's the problem with where we find Shyamalan in his career right now. He seems to have gotten over the speed bump of really ridiculous fare, which I would argue started with The Village and carried on through Lady in the Water and The Happening. The first half of The Last Airbender is pretty ridiculous, but then it gets a bit better, and I would argue that this is where we find him with After Earth: no longer ridiculous, just boring. Which might be worse.

One aspect of his craft that's definitely still suffering is his direction of actors, which could be part of the explanation for Jaden Smith's less-than-stellar performance. Shyamalan and Will Smith have made the curious decision to excise any of the cheekiness and jovial spirit of a typical Will Smith character, leaving him totally humorless and almost robotic. While I wouldn't necessarily want a reprise of Smith saying "Welcome to Earth" from Independence Day -- though it would be thematically appropriate in this film -- I do think that they have managed to eradicate one of the main reasons people want to see Will Smith in a movie. A sci fi summer release wants the movie star Will Smith, not the actor Will Smith.

The film looks decent and is made competently enough. It's just sluggish and unremarkable.

Which brings us to the rather unremarkable ending of a rather unremarkable series. That's okay. Maybe this series about flops was destined to be something of a flop itself.

Up next: Twenty fourteen will bring us a new series that's appropriate to where I now live. That's the only tease I'll give you for now, with more to follow in January.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Combo pack strikeout

My son has so many different ways he can get entertainment content delivered to him, I haven't been so worried lately about keeping our video library populated.

However, a three-disc combo pack of kids movies recently made me reconsider, and since I saw it during my Christmas shopping season, I gave it to him as a Christmas present.

The trick with these combo packs is to like all three of the movies. Since they are often thrown together somewhat randomly -- by studio, or by theme, but only generally -- it's no easy task. You might love two of them, but a rotten third spoils the whole basket.

So it was the unique combination of three worthy kids movies -- ones we didn't already own, at that -- that caused me to pull the trigger here.

As you have certainly divined from the art to this post, the three in this particular pack were Open Season, Surf's Up and Monster House. I like all three of these movies, and on a good day, I might almost say I love them.

Finding three movies you like is just the first part, though. The price also has to be right. At $13, the price was about as right as it gets in Australia.

Since my son watched the entirety of The Pirates! Band of Misfits on Christmas day, I was all the more heartened about a potential Boxing Day viewing of one of these other three. So when he tired of the normal Thursday morning repertoire on ABC 4 Kids, I was there at the ready.

My first mistake was letting him choose which one to watch.

At this point I should probably tell you that although I do like all three of these movies, that's quite a different thing from thinking they're all appropriate for a kid who just turned three years and four months on Christmas.

The one I had my doubts about was Monster House. It's animated alright, but it's pretty intense for kids. I remembered the titular house contorting itself into all kinds of menacing shapes, its front door a gaping maw ready to eat little children.

My son falls into the category of "little children."

Needless to say, that was the one he chose.

"This is a scary one," he said, before anything scary had even happened.

Uh oh.

"Should we watch something else?"


My son doesn't have an Australian accent yet, but he has started saying the word "no" as if it were a question. And though the tone may sound uncertain, the meaning is anything but. He liked the fact that it was a little bit scary.

Then, actual scary things started happening. I remembered the house, but I had forgotten that a creepy neighbor, voiced by Steve Buscemi, is also in this movie. And he's not a fake creepy neighbor, like the creepy neighbor with a heart of gold in Home Alone (which my wife and I watched on Christmas night, her for the first time). He's the real McCoy. In the first three minutes of the movie, he screams at a little girl and rips her tricycle in half with his bare hands. He's not fucking around.

Again I asked my son if he wanted to watch the one with the penguins instead. Again came the questioning statement "no."

The next time the neighbor shows up, he holds the lead character (a little boy) up in the air and shakes him, then dies of what would seem to be a heart attack. "This is getting worse every minute," I thought. I already envisioned where this movie would go once the house itself -- something inanimate, inhuman, and therefore much more frightening -- started acting up. I was just asking for three weeks worth of nightmares.

We were just tiptoeing up to the edge of that kind of stuff -- I believe it was the scene where the house's front lawn "consumes" an empty beer bottle -- when my son said "I think we need to watch the penguin one now."


So in went Surf's Up. In the clear, right?

No. See, surfing is scary ... didn't you know?

I don't know whether it was residual fear from Monster House, or whether my son was thrown by the faux documentary style of this movie, or because the movie's initial surfing takes place in the blue darkness of Antarctica, but Surf's Up was now pronounced to be scary as well.

"Okay, how about this one?" I indicated to the third picture on the package, which showed forest animals looking terrified -- but in a way I assumed would translate as funny to my son.

He nodded.

Of course, one of the first things that happens in Open Season is that a bear (voice of Martin Lawrence) tries (in vain) to scare a park ranger. Then my wife waking up distracted my son, and after an exchange with her, he told her that he didn't want to watch this scary movie.

Strike three.

It makes a certain sense. He knows that the movie that scared him is inside this case, the same case as the other two. He may not understand, therefore, that the one with the surfing penguins or the one with the flooming bear are actually different movies.

So in the end, it was not the perfect three-pack combo -- Monster House, the one that interested him the most, was also the rotten apple that spoiled the rest of the barrel.

Well, we'll always have The Pirates! Band of Misfits.


I was all set to leave things there, but I have to come clean and admit that it's now December 27th, and my son is watching Surf's Up in the other room. 

I've also figured out what two of the three movies have in common, in two different ways. Surf's Up and Open Season are both from Sony Pictures Animation, and Surf's Up and Monster House both feature animated characters voiced by Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder.

I don't know what Monster House and Open Season have in common.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

An absurd aversion to late fees

I never return a movie late. Never.

I'm sure it's happened before, but I do my utmost to make sure it doesn't happen. I'll reorganize plans for an entire day, just to make sure I get the movie I've borrowed from the library or video store back on time.

On Sunday, I almost returned Rango late to the library. I'd only rented it because my son seemed interested in it -- I like Rango, but I didn't feel a need to sit with him and watch it again. We were out all afternoon on Sunday, and it was due back at 5 or I'd owe them some money. I also had out the seventh season of Dexter on DVD, so the fine would have doubled.

Well, I got off the tram at about 4:57 and ran about six blocks to the library before it closed. In fact, they'd already shut the doors, and I was met at them by a library employee who told me "We're closed, mate." She tried to steer me to the after hours return box, which may have incurred those dreaded fees. Then she gave that look of reluctant relenting -- kind of like a rolling of the eyes, but not quite -- and took my two DVDs for a proper indoor return. 

Yesterday I was not that close to the deadline, but yesterday was perhaps more ridiculous -- because it was Christmas day.

We had spent the afternoon at my father-in-law's, for lunch and an exchange of gifts. A merry time was indeed had by all, in part because I partook of the wine I have been generally trying to avoid consuming while my wife has been pregnant. She seemed unlikely to deny me on Christmas, and in fact drank most of a beer herself. (Our baby's brain is now completed formed. Don't judge.)

So a glass of champagne, two glasses of white wine, one big glass of red, and a smaller glass of dessert wine later, we returned home, where I nearly wilted in the hot afternoon sun while trying to help my son drive his new fire engine he'd gotten for Christmas. It was with great relief to both myself and my sister-in-law when he wanted to go indoors to watch The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which he had also gotten among his presents that day.

I fell into delicious sleep for about 25 minutes on the couch as my son and my sister-in-law watched the movie. (I saw most of it, so it has appeared on my "rewatched" list to the right of the page.)

When the movie finished, she left, and I went to go ride my bike in the hot sun to return Oz the Great and Powerful.

We watched Oz on Christmas eve, as you know from my last post. What we weren't really expecting was that cheap $2 Tuesday for one-night new release rentals would actually require a next-day return. More things are closed in Australia on Christmas than would be some other places in the world, so it was strange that Video Ezy had full hours that day. I was, therefore, obliged to return the movie, lest I wanted to pay a $4.95 late fee. (You can get the initial rental night for cheap, but additional nights are at the regular new release rental rate.)

So one of the more absurd things I've done in recent memory is go ride my bike for a 25-minute round trip, on Christmas day, with a belly full of wine. Did it I did, though.

My sister-in-law has a car, of course, and we could have prevailed upon her to return the movie -- either on the way back from her father's, or after she left our house. But she had already been such a good Santa that day that I hardly felt it fair to infringe further on her good nature.

I wish the rest of this story were in some way interesting, like I'd gotten pulled over for Biking While Intoxicated (though I was really just sleepy at this point, some three hours after I'd consumed my last drink). Really, though, I considered the absurdity of a post-wine Christmas day bike ride to return a movie as reason enough to tell you this story.

You might say that my aversion to late fees is both great and powerful.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas with a wizard

Christmas has kind of felt like anything but this year.

My wife is just days away from giving birth. I haven't worked since July 31st. We're trying to save money so we're not even doing stockings this year. The sun set around 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

In short, it's not our normal Christmas.

So it was nice to do something Christmas-normal tonight, on Christmas Eve.

Every year we try to watch something "appropriately Christmasy" at Christmastime. For us, "appropriately Christmasy" means, approximately, "something epic in scale, possibly in the realm of fantasy, or at the very least having nice costumes, production design and visual effects."

Honorees for the hallowed Christmas Eve and Christmas night spots have included, in recent years, such films as Where the Wild Things Are, Anonymous, Tangled, The Empire Strikes Back, The Muppets and Disney's A Christmas Carol.

This year, Oz the Great and Powerful joined their number.

It was my second time, of course. My wife had yet to see it.

You may remember that I loved it when I first saw it, bucking the critical consensus by quite a bit. My second viewing cooled some of  my fervor, but I still think it's a really solid fantasy with a lot to say about the magic of movies.

What pleased me most is that my wife dragged herself out of a pregnancy-induced stupor approaching sleep to tell me that she, too, had liked it quite a bit.

Sure, I wanted her to endorse my own perspective on it, since it's a perspective that needs as much help as it can get. More than anything, though, I was glad that on Christmas Eve, she could dream herself away into a world where she's not in physical discomfort all day long, in hot weather that doesn't make that condition any easier.

Merry Christmas to you all, as well. May it be as normal a Christmas as you want it to be. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

"I reap the rewards of solitude," and other Prince Avalanche thoughts

I watched David Gordon Green's stunning return to form, Prince Avalanche, on the night of my last day without either my wife or my son at home with me.

I've had dozens of these days since coming to Australia -- just about four dozen, actually -- but Thursday was the last.

Thursday was my wife's final day at work before maternity leave. Now she'll be home every day until the end of April, and my son will be home every day between the 24th and the 15th of January. I suppose it's possible I could have more solo days if I somehow don't manage to get a job before the end of April, and my wife goes back to work before I do. However, that would kind of be the ruin of our family, so even someone who enjoys solitude as I do can't root for that. And even then, a member of our family who isn't even here yet would be home with me.

So this was really it.

It was an appropriate viewing, then, as it deals with two men in 1988 Texas, played by Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, who are alone in their own ways, even when they are together. Rudd's character, the one who claims "I reap the rewards of solitude," even has two days on his own in this film to kick around in the fire-scarred Texas landscape that he and his partner are helping rehabilitate. During those two days, he cooks a rabbit, takes some prescription pain medication, and lies in a hammock.

Sounds pretty good to me.

Of course, the movie is not so simple as to prescribe either solitude or connection to any one person -- it hovers somewhere between those states in the many fertile ideas it tackles. But it did get me thinking about how I envy people who have the time, the space, and the freedom from responsibilities to do the things they want to do, regardless of whether those things are productive or representative of any personal progress as human beings.

I had that until Thursday. Now it's gone.

Which made me lament a little bit how poorly I've used my time. I had about 48 days to do with as I pleased, but I feel like I frittered them away. Sure, not every day was totally mine. I had to do the shopping, I had to run the laundry, I had to watch the entirety of the Red Sox' championship run, I had to apply for Australian residency, I had to take care of loose ends back in the United States. And of course I had to watch a lot of movies, which I did -- though even there I feel like I should have been able to do more. For example, I only re-watched two films during those days I had to myself. This was supposed to be my time to reacquaint myself with some of my favorites, but I didn't.

The reasons I didn't fulfill the promise of those open days are many, and not all worth going into. But let's just say there was always a fair amount of guilt, guilt that weighed on me and kept me from really reaping solitude's rewards. Sure, I couldn't legally work until November 22nd anyway, but if it wasn't guilt over not working, it was guilt over the state in which I left my old house in Los Angeles (a friend had to finish up for a good six hours a couple days after I left). Or guilt over failing to decide the next step in my career. Or guilt over not reading a couple scripts a friend had asked me to read. Or guilt over the fact that I wasn't taking Melbourne in, in one of my few truly free times to do so.

It occurs to me that times like this, when we have our solitude and imagine all the ways we will use it, are never quite as satisfying as we think they'll be. Even on those occasions back in Los Angeles when I got extended periods to myself -- staying over by myself in a hotel, or cleaning out the house for three weeks before departing for Australia -- it was always impossible to reap the rewards of solitude as much as I liked. Instead of the six films I imagined I'd watch, I watched three. Instead of writing three blog posts, I'd write one. Instead of taking a nap in our hammock, I wouldn't at all.

Time flies away from us so quickly. So very, very quickly.

I'm not sure the ways Prince Avalanche directly addresses that reality, but there was something so sublime and melancholic about it that it definitely addressed it indirectly. I guess that's the case with any excellent film; it causes you to more deeply ponder whatever is most troubling you, most holding your mind captive.

Jobs I want to know about

If David Gordon Green had no other reason for writing Prince Avalanche, one that would be okay in my book would be to show us what's involved in road maintenance.

That's right, I like a movie that tells me about a job I know nothing about.

Like, for example, I'm sure you know that there are machines that paint yellow lines on roads at regular intervals, just the correct length before letting up and preparing for the next one. But did you know that those yellow raised bumps, the ones that notify you if you're drifting off and changing lanes, are affixed with some kind of cement-like putty?

I'm being a bit funny here, but it's true that I do enjoy a movie that elucidates a certain career field for me -- even if that career field involves as banal activities as painting lines on pavement.

Perhaps that's part of what drew me to one of my favorite movies of the last ten years, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. It's a movie that tackles so many interesting things, that it almost seems funny to concentrate on this one, but Perfume is the only movie I've ever seen that talks about the art of creating smells. That's something that fascinates me, and after Perfume, I feel like I know something about it.

The work of a road crew may not be as elegant or as sexy, but it's probably a bit more important.

Finally in sync with David Gordon Green

In the first sentence of this post I described Prince Avalanche as a "return to form" for its writer-director, David Gordon Green.

But to be truthful, none of Green's previous forms -- and there have been several -- have ever been a perfect fit for me.

Green started off life as a director of acclaimed indie films, which is how I was first introduced to him. But I didn't really like either All the Real Girls or Snow Angels. In fact, I kind of hated All the Real Girls. I haven't seen George Washington, which I understand finds him taking the form of Terrence Malick, or Undertow, which I know less about.

He then surprised people with a radical shift to the mainstream, directing a triumvirate of stoner comedies: Pineapple Express, Your Highness and The Sitter. Oddly enough, I feel more positively than most about the two of those movies people tend to hate: Your Highness and The Sitter. Pineapple Express is a better film, but the amount short it fell of my expectations gives me an impression of it that's, in certain ways, more negative than my impression of the two weaker films that followed it.

So after five feature films of Green's that I'd seen, I had yet to really click with him. That has finally changed with Prince Avalanche, I'm pleased to say.

We'll have to see where we go from here. His next film is Joe, a movie starring Nicolas Cage (the good Cage, I think), which has already played at festivals but has yet to get a theatrical release. The real test could be when Green takes another new form and directs a horror, the announced remake of one of my favorites of all time, Suspiria.

I can hardly imagine how that one will work out, but anyone who can assume as many forms as this guy will continue to interest me, even if we may not always be in sync.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Two Christmas movies there, none here

Being upside down on the seasons, I hadn't been as quick to notice that there were no Christmas movies coming out this year.

There's Disney's Frozen, which is opening on Boxing Day, but I don't believe it has any explicit connections to Christmas. It's a winter movie, not a Christmas movie -- coming out here five days into summer. Crazy world.

Oh but wait. As an email I just got from the Mission Tiki drive-in in Montclair has reminded me, there are Christmas movies this year -- two of them, in fact. They just aren't opening in Australia.

Ever heard of two little movies called The Best Man Holiday and A Madea Christmas? No one in Australia has.

Just as they never heard of Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor and Baggage Claim, two movies aimed at African-
American audiences that came out earlier in 2013.

I could have said "blacks," but there's a reason (other than political correctness) I chose the term "African-Americans." There is no equivalent phrase in Australia, so there's no solid business reason to release movies that allegedly only appeal to this demographic.

Lest you mistake these comments for an accusation of racism among Australians, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a country with a huge population of foreign-born residents. There are almost as many Asians in Melbourne as white people. There's also a huge population of Somali refugees in my neighborhood -- their children make up half of my son's schoolmates. This is a country where if you're a woman of devout Muslim faith, you can actually walk around with your face covered, and no one is calling homeland security. And of course, in much smaller numbers, there are Australia's indigenous people, the Aboriginal people.

There just aren't any African-Australians. There are plenty of Australians from Africa, but their arrival here is much too recent to have developed into a prominent demographic with its own share of the cultural market. And even if there were things being aimed at them, they would hardly be movies about American blacks, who are quite different from them in background and experience.

In one sense it seems odd that this small subsection of American mainstream films is being systematically shut out of Australia. In another, though, it's quite unsurprising. The movie business is not one where issues of political correctness factor in. There may be political correctness in the making of movies -- in fact, of course there is, which is why you get at least one token black character in almost every movie aimed at whites. Tokenism, of course, is merely a scheme for making more money, and only even seems like a win for political correctness if observed on the most superficial level.

In the distribution of movies, political correctness has no place whatsoever. A Madea Christmas and The Best Man Holiday would only open here if there was some sense that they could do business. And clearly there isn't.

I'm glad to say that the embargo does not include movies with primarily African-American subject matter. I did see The Butler here, and 12 Years a Slave is set to open on January 30th. But those movies also feature Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, James Marsden, John Cusack, Liev Schreiber, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Benedict Cumberbatch. They are more than token whites. (My inability to get my hands on a DVD copy of 42? I blamed it on Australians' aversion to baseball, not to movies about American blacks.)

Again, not racism, just reality.

This is not to say there isn't racism in Australia. There's a ton of it. The history of relations between whites and Aboriginal people is littered with ugly incidents, including the period of time when Aboriginal children were stolen from their families to live with whites, where they could become something other than "savages." This occurred regularly from the beginning of the 20th century all the way to the late sixties. Only five years ago did the government even officially apologize for it. There are backward parts of this country where the intolerant hicks would make Klansmen blush.

But the Australians never had African slaves, which means they never developed a thriving population of freed slaves who would become a major ethnic group and one day demand the Australian release of A Madea Christmas.

This holiday season, that's something to be thankful for, I guess.

Friday, December 20, 2013

An awards season movie, at last

One of the things I always loved in LA was seeing which movie was going to appear on the billboard closest to my house. I kind of loved the idea of a movie being sold specifically to me, to my neighborhood. The resulting sense of ownership actually made me more interested in seeing the film, in some cases.

Now that the Green party in Melbourne has finally turned over the advertising space that it was using for a full two months after the most recent election, I've got a movie billboard in my neighborhood here, too. Something about this one feels a bit more intimate, though. Sure, it's also off a main road, like the one in LA. But it's turned inward, toward the neighborhood, so that only those coming from within the neighborhood to the main road can really get a good look at it. As there are a lot fewer movie billboards in Australia in general, it feels all the more special.

Adding one degree of specialness: It signals that an end-of-year movie getting substantial awards buzz is finally being released in Australia.

Oh, we're getting your Hunger Gameses and your Anchormen and your Hobbits on time -- Hobbits two weeks late, but that's hardly worth quibbling over. It's the movies garnering all the Oscar talk that are really delayed, as I have written about a couple times before.

But not American Hustle. American Hustle is like Gravity in that it came out one day before its release in the U.S. Actually, it came out eight days before its wide release, which I believe is your tomorrow (though my today). Throw in the time change and those lead times stretch out to two and nine days, respectively.

Breathing a tremendous sigh of relief, I saw American Hustle this past Monday, and for only $6 at that.

Well, it won't be getting any year-end awards from me, though I appear to be the only one, assuming its 89 on Metacritic is more than just hot air.

I did like David O. Russell's latest, but it's dueling The Fighter for his second-worst film to date. The Fighter is another pretty good to very good movie, which tells you something about Russell's career. He's had only one turd, that being I Heart Huckabees. Everything else has been gold, up to and including last year's Silver Linings Playbook, which I rated as my third favorite movie of the year.

This one does a lot of things. Did you think I was going to say "does a lot of things right"? It does, but it's more accurate to just say that it does a lot of things. American Hustle is an overload of ideas, tones and quirky characters. I'd say that it has attention deficit disorder if it weren't such a cliched way to discuss the all-over-the-placeness of a movie.

The parts that are good are really good. The opening scene, in which we witness what goes into Christian Bale's elaborate combover, had me ready to immediately thrust the movie into contention as one of my favorites of the year. It does get some other big laughs, too.

But "sprawling" is too tame a word for this movie, and it can rarely find its center. I've read reviews in which it has been called a variety hour, and that's a good way of describing what you're getting here. Russell is certainly going for that, but he wants to have it both ways -- he wants the lighter moments of Goodfellas as well as some of its darker moments (though certainly not as dark). (If you're wondering about the Goodfellas comparisons, they're inescapable, most notably in the use of voiceover and the wall-to-wall contemporaneous pop music soundtrack.)

There's no doubt I was entertained by this movie, but I was also perplexed. It's the ultimate spaghetti-against-the-wall 70s movie romantic comedy heist movie drama. With bad hair.

However, just seeing this movie gave me a certain delight. For months now I have been feeling behind the U.S. in terms of new movies, and the feeling has only become more acute with the annual onslaught of holiday prestige pictures. At least here's one I wouldn't have to wait until February to see.

The movie I saw last Monday -- The Spectacular Now -- was released back in August in the U.S. But this week, it handed off the baton to something that hadn't even been released everywhere in the very country whose name appears in its title.

One step forward, two steps back ... and those two steps are Drinking Buddies and Short Term 12, next in my sights upon finally getting their release next week.

You can't have everything, I guess. Unless you're Russell in American Hustle, and then I guess you can.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Harrison Ford really likes being in movies these days

And I for one am grateful, because he's back to being good at it.

Having spent the first decade of the 21st century making less than one movie per year, Ford was for all intents and purposes retired. His appearance in a movie would prompt an involuntary raised eyebrow. You'd wonder what set of circumstances had caused him to dignify the set of Hollywood Homicide or Firewall with his presence.

Not that we should take digs at Ford for not choosing the career path of Nicolas Cage, but in truth, we do sort of resent actors who feel like they don't need to act anymore. You're supposed to keep making movies until we, the audience, are done with you, not until you have enough money to buy a small island. Anything less is a failure to appreciate the people who got you there, the fans.

Well, Ford is a fan-appreciating muthafucka these days.

Having just completed 42 -- which I finally gave up trying to get from the Hoyts Kiosk and the video store, and rented from iTunes instead -- I have now seen two of Ford's four 2013 releases, after catching up with Ender's Game last week. I may see Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues on Monday, though his work in that may be of the surprise cameo variety (and if so, I'm sorry about spoiling the surprise). Paranoia is the only film that remains likely to elude me, given that I heard it wasn't all that.

If he was good in Ender's Game, he was great in 42.

See, there's a difference between returning to acting and returning to acting effectively. If you're a star of Ford's caliber, you can start being in movies again whenever you want. It's being good in them that's the trick.

Having just completed 42, not only did I think Ford was good, but I'm rooting for him to get that Oscar nomination I've heard discussed as a possibility. I might even be rooting for him to win it. 

The current state of affairs seemed highly unlikely back when Cowboys & Aliens came out in 2011. Boy was that a stinker. Not only was it a stinker, but Ford was one of the main reasons it stunk. He mumbled his way through that movie and frankly seemed lost. Old Man Ford seemed to have taken over the once vital young symbol of masculine virility. He was a septuagenarian dressing up like a movie star. You could imagine someone off set yelling his lines to him, and him still repeating them back incorrectly.

Not anymore. Harrison Ford has poured his heart and soul into the role of Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodger owner who made the trailblazing decision to offer a contract to Major League Baseball's first black player, Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman).

It's not just that Rickey has the choicest lines of dialogue, putting into words the anger and frustration over society's reaction to Robinson. It's that Ford delivers them with a quivering fervor that makes you want to get up out of your seat and cheer. But it's not just a performance of raging righteous indignation. Ford also does really subtle work with just small changes of expression upon hearing an ugly N-word come out of someone's mouth. He's a man with an optimistic view of society, one that is dying by a thousand cuts.

What's more impressive is that it's one of the actor's few performances that cannot be described as Ford playing Ford. Ford has been called a good actor, but he's rarely been called a versatile one. Here, he's adopting a gruffer voice, he's picking up mannerisms that may not belong to him. And when he points -- as Ford is wont to do -- he's pointing downward, with the crooked, arthritic hands of a man past his prime.

Turning into an old man has made Ford a good actor again. He spent years looking like he was uncomfortable in his skin, but now he looks quite comfortable.

This is not to say that it's smooth sailing for Ford from here on out. He is in the next Expendables movie, and he is unlikely to know the best way to play Han Solo again.

So maybe now is the time for that Oscar. It's one thing to start acting again, but it's quite another to keep doing award-worthy work.

At least Ford has given himself good odds by becoming a Hollywood regular again. Five years ago, it's not something I knew I would want to happen quite this much.

Monday, December 16, 2013

A busy January 16th

Remember that post from three weeks ago when I bemoaned that I wouldn't get to see Her before my deadline for ranking 2013 movies? Which is the morning the Oscar nominations are announced on January 16th?

Fortunately, that's January 16th American time.

The Oscar nominations will actually be a little bit after midnight on January 17th, Australian time. Which is important, because that Thursday the 16th -- Wednesday in the U.S. -- brings another new release date in Australia. Movies come out on Thursdays here, and I don't know what's magical about that particular Thursday, but it will give me the chance to squeeze in two biggies right before the deadline.

That's right, thanks to being 19 hours ahead of Los Angeles, I'll be in position to take down not only Her, but also Inside Llewyn Davis, both of which open that day.

I've known about the Her opportunity for about a week, but only just learned about the chance to see the Coens' latest as well.

Nebraska, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street and some others will still have to wait, but at least these two heavyweights -- which could both be contenders for my favorite movie of the year, if the critical buzz is to be believed -- can indeed have a crack at my year-end list.

That is, assuming I can see even one movie, let alone two, on one of my new son or daughter's first handful of days on the planet.

Did I mention it might be a busy January 16th?

At this point it seems pretty clear that I won't be working, at least. Although I would have loved one of the jobs I've applied for to bear fruit by then, the closer we get to Christmas, the less likely that seems to happen. 

What's exceedingly unlikely, however, is that I won't have my second child by then. He or she has an official due date of January 10th, but it's most likely that my wife will be induced sometime between Christmas and New Year's. Sorry, little Vance or Vancette, your mother and I really should have skipped that particular fertility window so you birthday won't be forever overshadowed by the holidays. Our bad.

On the plus side, a December 27th or December 28th birthday means that we'll have over two weeks to prioritize our little one's every need before January 16th asks me to place my priorities elsewhere. The other bit of good news is that January 16th is my existing son's first day back at preschool, after the (gulp) three-week closure of the school starting on December 23rd. Glad I've left such movies as Epic, The Croods and Monsters University unwatched so far, because we'll be leaning heavily on those crutches by the end of those three weeks.

So assuming I can somehow squeeze in both movies on the 16th, even if it requires separate $19 admissions, then the issue becomes to digest them both in time for me to finalize my list by midnight that night. Every year, some poor sucker has to be the last movie I see before I close my list, but I purposefully try to make it something middling, something that doesn't have a real shot at my top 10. I won't have that luxury this year. With a special spotlight shown on these two films, I'll have to consider very quickly which of my other favorites of the year -- ones I've been savoring for many months in some cases -- they have any business ousting.

It's a good problem to have, at least. Fate has thrown me a bone on these two films, whose absence from my list would make it an even less credible version of the thing I try so hard each year to amass: a truly representative selection of the movies released in the year just finished. I may not have the latest film by Alexander Payne, the latest film by Steve McQueen or the latest film by Martin Scorsese, but at least Spike Jonze's latest and the Coen brothers' latest could be mine, if I play my cards right.

And if I don't play my cards right ... well, having a new son or daughter will be a nice consolation prize.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

If video stores go away permanently ...

... things like this will be the casualty:

Yes, that would be the cover for 50 First Dates, which I am regrettably watching for a series on another blog (I say "regrettably" with certainty because I am already halfway through), rented from nearby Video Ezy in Flemington.

I don't know the circumstances of them losing the original cover for 50 First Dates, but I find this an hilariously lazy way of making up for it. Would it have been so difficult to print out even a black and white image of the poster art from the web?

Yet in a way there's also something charming about it, something that reminds you that video stores are small communities run by real people, sharing products that degrade over time, and just trying to make the best out of the system.

If only 50 First Dates were so charming.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Alex Gibney spread thin

If you don't know the name Alex Gibney, chances are you aren't watching many documentaries.

Because he's had, like, 30 of them in the last ten years.

He set aside his 2013 for two of the bigger villains in public life these past few years, depending on your perspective of course. First it was We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, which focuses on the exploits of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and then it was The Armstrong Lie, which delves into Lance Armstrong's spectacular fall from grace. I just watched the first last night, and will do my best to track down the second, as I was one of the first to think there was something fishy about Lance Armstrong a full decade ago.

These and the other 28 documentaries Gibney has directed in the last decade are all quite good -- but I'm starting to wonder if quite good is really good enough.

Yes, I'm wondering if Alex Gibney is starting to spread himself a little thin.

It was about three years ago that I noticed Gibney's documentaries starting to get a little less interesting. He had roared on the scene with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), a one-two punch that alone gave him a seat at the table with the best documentarians working today. In fact, those two movies made me think that it was safe to assume that any subsequent Gibney documentaries would also be masterpieces.

Since 2010, however, he's started churning out at least two feature films per year -- again, all of them quite good I'm sure. Casino Jack and the United States of money was the first among these I saw. It was quite good, but in a non-specific sort of way. It was impeccably researched and crafted, and at the end I thought "So what?" In 2010 Gibney also directed a segment in the scattershot Freakonomics documentary, which was largely a failure (the package, not specifically Gibney's segment, but Gibney's segment didn't help), and the feature Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, which placed another villain in his crosshairs. I haven't seen that one despite it sitting in my Netflix queue since it came out.

Two thousand eleven was a bit of a different year for Gibney, as his documentary Magic Trip was about beat writers, and he surrounded that with two sports docs, Catching Hell (about baseball fan/villain Steve Bartman) and The Last Gladiators (about hockey enforcers). But 2012 brought him back to revealing society's seedy underbelly with Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (about Catholic priest pedophilia scandals) and Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream (self-explanatory).

All quite good, I'm sure.

And in fact, most unseen by me, so I should hardly be writing a post like this at all.

Except that I had that kind of feeling about We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, that it was highly competent but ultimately not quite as earth-shattering as I hoped it would be. I guess one guy can only shatter the earth so many times before you get bored of it.

In some ways, this is a self-fulfilling analysis. Finding myself somewhat less than totally impressed with a Gibney doco, I extrapolate that he has too much on his plate. Spend a year rather than three or four months on a single movie, I say, and let's see what you come up with then. And to be honest, I don't know what different I'd want from We Steal Secrets. It's all there. The work has all been done.

At this point it's probably appropriate to harken back to something I've written about before on this blog, a concept I like to call The Documentary Ceiling. The Documentary Ceiling recognizes the notion that while many if not most documentaries are "quite good," only a few of them are really exceptional, because there's a ceiling on the potential impact a documentary can have on me. Impeccably and tirelessly researched subject matter, with all the right people interviewed saying all kinds of elucidating things, can only do so much for me. I need either a specific narrative choice or a specifically eccentric or emotional topic to really drive a documentary through its own glass ceiling.

So really, Gibney could just be the poster child for The Documentary Ceiling, because his films are generally told in a straightforward style that relies very little on a specific technique or approach. Surely he's got a perspective, often times a liberal one, but otherwise, it's a very journalistic form of filmmaking.

But I do think it's fair to assume that someone's work suffers when he has been working himself to the bone. If you wonder why we are satisfied with one out of every three of Woody Allen's films being good, it's because he makes one every single year, and we have come to expect some of them to be duds. Whereas other directors will only make two films in six years, Allen will make six, so he's got room to misfire.

The thing is, Gibney is so good that none of his films -- at least the four or five (depending on how you classify Freakonomics) that I've seen -- are duds. They are all good. They just aren't all special.

Is it too much to ask Gibney's films to be special? He's so driven to expose corruption, to right wrongs, to hold people accountable in the cold light of day, that his films have developed a kind of comfortable sameness. You can't tell what Gibney gets really worked up over, because he gets worked up over everything, it would appear.

Maybe how he rakes Lance Armstrong over the coals will demonstrate the special passion I'm looking for.

I don't just want a do-gooder, which Gibney certainly is. I want a do-greater.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

I am the killer, and other Maniacal thoughts

The ultimate test of how much a movie disturbs you is whether you have nightmares about it.

It's not, however, the ultimate test of how good it is, as we shall see.

Maniac, a remake of a 1980 movie of the same name that I had never heard of, stars Elijah Wood as a man who restores mannequins for a living, and kills people as a hobby. Not just people, but women. Not just women, but women who remind him in some way of his slut of a mother, who came home with a different man and a different drug habit every night when he was a child. And not just kill them, but scalp them and leave their bleeding hair atop the heads of his mannequins, where it attracts more flies than he can ever shoo away with a can of aerosol spray.

Not just kill them, but kill them from the perspective of you, the viewer.

See, almost the whole movie is in POV. Director Franck Khalfoun does abandon the technique every once in awhile when necessary to give a clearer idea of something the character is doing, which wouldn't be obvious when looking through his own eyes, or (to be honest) so that Elijah Wood can make more appearances on screen than just his voice and his reflection in mirrors. But the extent to which Khalfoun et al stick to the gimmick is impressive, given how tricky it becomes at times.

What's more, the gimmick never takes on the worst connotations of that word, which is to become laughable. In fact, just the opposite. From the first disturbing kill -- filmed with his face just inches away from hers, a knife sunk into her head from the underside of the jaw upward, the light fading from her eyes as one of the eyes becomes bloodshot -- I felt like I was more in the world of a killer than I had ever felt before.

It was downright discomfiting, needless to say.

What struck me about the POV was not just the most obvious ways it put you in a killer's shoes, as in, seeing what it feels like to kill through his eyes. Some of the most effective uses of the POV made me understand lesser details of the life of a misfit, like the way people's expressions change when they realize you are someone creepy or otherwise distasteful. I've been lucky to live my life without many people looking at me in revulsion, so this perspective was interesting to have. I also felt I understood the failure of the moments when his facade slips away, effectively having the moment he had where a carefully constructed lie suddenly contradicts itself.

Yep, at times, I was the killer indeed.

And if I had any doubt, I needed only to retire for the night. I had a restless night's sleep, a fact my wife confirmed this morning when we awoke. I kept on believing I had brought something into the house that would harm my family if I turned my back (fell back to sleep) for too long.

In short, I was afraid of myself.

And I'm pretty sure Maniac is the first film that has ever caused that kind of reaction in me.

However, I'm not sure how that makes me feel.

You could argue that if a film sticks with you -- and Maniac may be clinging to me like gum on the bottom of my shoe for a good week now -- that alone is an objective argument for its quality. But the other thing in life that sticks with you is images you can't unsee, and many times wish you hadn't seen. Those can be argued as objectively bad.

So which is Maniac?

Until I've figured this out, I can't give Maniac a star rating on Letterboxd or rank it with my 2013 films. I know it's an exceedingly powerful use of the tools of cinema, but I don't know if it's a repugnant use of those tools that I should be shunning, or a value-neutral bit of invigorating brilliance.

To add a layer of complexity to this whole "you are the killer" aesthetic, a gruesome bit of coincidence can be found in the fact that the movie's awful protagonist and its director are both named Frank. Sure, they spell it differently -- the character is Frank Zito, the director is Franck Khalfoun -- but it's a bit chilling anyway. And it is only coincidence, since the character in the original 1980 film is also named Frank Zito. Unless you want to believe that Khalfoun was hired to do the job because of his first name, though I think you'd have to be crazier than Frank Zito to believe that.

Some other Maniac thoughts ...

The creepiest guy on the block

At first blush, Elijah Wood playing a serial killer seems a bit like stunt casting. "How could a guy who looks so innocent, who has such a baby face, be a cold-blooded murderer?"

Does Wood look so innocent, though?

It seems like casting directors have been seeing the inborn psycho in Elijah Wood for years now.

If you want examples, you can go all the way back to 2004 with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where Wood plays a technician in the business of wiping people's memories, who steals information that has been wiped from Kate Winslet's mind in order to seduce her. Pretty creepy.

The following year, Wood plays one of the most bizarre and unsettling characters in Sin City. I remembered him as some kind of rapist, but Wikipedia tells me the character is a murderer and a cannibal. (Maybe one of those two titles presupposes the other.) I just remember him being gross and off-putting.

For the past couple years, Wood has been starring in the TV show Wilfred, in which he plays a suicidal young lawyer who imagines he has a relationship with a talking dog. He's the show's protagonist and is often portrayed in a flattering light, but you never really forget that this guy is probably crazy, and may be a danger to himself and others.

Considering this, Maniac is not such a surprise, is it?

Sure, Wood has a baby face, but he also has those bug eyes that can be twisted for nasty use. You might even say that his most iconic role, Frodo Baggins, makes use of the crazy Wood. Several times, and in particular at the end of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, he is gripped by the all-consuming power of the ring, and those bug eyes light up with demented fury.

The next time I find myself walking toward Elijah Wood, I may just cross to the other side of the street.

Same song, same vibe, different movie

Early on in Maniac, Wood's Frank Zito is on a blind internet date with a cute alt chick, and back at her apartment she turns on the song "Goodbye Horses" by Psyche. You know this date isn't going to end well.

Don't recognize that song by name? How about by context? It's also playing in Silence of the Lambs when Buffalo Bill does his little dance in front of the mirror, hiding his manhood between his legs in order to appear to himself as a woman.

At first I thought it was a ripoff, an attempt to steal the power of a highly effective scene from a classic psycho killer movie, and use it to achieve the same sense of dread in this film. Eventually, though, I just decided it was a nice homage, and didn't worry about the apparent theft because it had an end positive result for this movie's mood. That song just gives off a sense of moral decay.

It got me thinking about some other songs that have been reused for similar purposes in multiple movies, and whether the second use works (feels like a homage) or doesn't work (feels like a theft). In this discussion I'll exclude some of the go-to drug songs ("Cocaine," "Sweet Jane"). They have been used so many times to illustrate drug use on screen, that to give that kind of lack of creativity any further ink is a disservice to all thinking filmmakers.

"Oh Yeah" - Yello. Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) and The Secret of My Success (1987)

You know -- "Bowmp bowmp, chick-a-chick-ahhh!" Both movies use it when someone is examining something gorgeous and impressive -- a Ferrari in Ferris Bueller's, a sexy rich woman in Success. It's certainly a theft by the lesser Success, but I didn't experience it that way when I first saw it, for the simple fact that I saw Secret of My Success before I saw Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Theme song. Badlands (1973) and True Romance (1993)

Sorry to not have the exact name of the song, because they are actually listed as different songs, but they are almost exactly the same and are clearly intended as an homage by Tony Scott/Quentin Tarantino to Terrence Malick. (Actually, I don't know whose homage it is -- it seems too cool for Scott to come up with, but why would the screenwriter be involved in the music?) Anyway, this theme played on some kind of wood xylophone (that's how it sounds, anyway) was one of the primary reasons I didn't come around on True Romance as quickly as others did, though I'm there now. Homage, I guess.

Well, that was kind of a non-starter. I imagined myself having a number of examples here, but ran out after two. Lame. Well, I started this over 12 hours ago, and now I just want to publish it.

Still haven't chosen that star rating yet, though.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Term limits

I have it on good authority that Short Term 12 is a very good film that I have a very good chance of liking.

However, if I see the trailer one more time, I may not go at all.

It's finally set to open in Australia on Boxing Day, which is probably the biggest release day on the Australian calendar (and actually happens to coincide this year with Australia's traditional release day of the week, which is Thursday). I say "finally" because, of course, its U.S. release was August 23rd. But I also say "finally" because the build-up for it has been almost intolerable.

Four straight weeks now I have seen a movie that showed the Short Term 12 trailer beforehand. Three Mondays ago I saw Ain't Them Bodies Saints, and it played before that. Two Mondays ago I saw Enough Said, and it played before that. Last Monday I saw How I Live Now, and it played before that. Then yesterday, I saw The Spectacular Now, and sure enough, Short Term 12 ushered me in.

Actually, I may have seen it first before The Butler four Mondays ago, and then not seen it during one of the intervening weeks. But it hardly matters. 

It's been proof that even seeing trailers for movies made from certifiably good materials can slowly drive a person crazy, if they see them too often.

It's a shame, too, because this looks like the kind of movie behind which I want to throw the full weight of my support. Brie Larson is doing some of the best work these days of any actor in the 20-25 age bracket, male or female, and this looks like the kind of indie that's smart and earnest, but not sickeningly so.

However, I have indeed started to become a bit sickened by the Short Term 12 trailer -- in part because I think it gives a lot away, and I definitely can't forget what I've seen after four viewings, and in part because that indie earnestness does start to get a bit sickening and precious the more you see it. That song "Montana" by Youth Lagoon sounds a bit more twee every time it touches my ears. (And what's with indie movies that have either real or simulated whistling as part of the songs in their trailers? Drinking Buddies, also a late bloomer in Australia on Boxing Day, followed, and contained whistling as well.)

Instead of being positive, I start resenting when the guy jokes about it being his cupcake that got smashed in Larson's face. Instead of being charmed, I start rolling my eyes over the impromptu rap that busts those two for trying to date. Instead of being delighted, I start to heave when the guy tells Larson she's the "weirdest, most beautiful person I've ever met."

It occurs to me, over the course of this rant, that while no movies are probably well suited to repeat viewings of their trailers, indie films are particularly poorly served by the process. That's because such movies are frequently treading a fine line between clever and cute, between joyous and intolerable. What will charm you once will make you want to stick your head in the oven after the dozenth time.

So, if Short Term 12 is indeed a bit tainted for me, here's who I blame:

1) Cinema Nova, for not having enough trailers in their rotation to show advertisements for any of the dozens of other movies opening there within the next month;

2) Me, for going to see a movie at Cinema Nova every Monday.

When all is said and done, whether I see Short Term 12 in the theater (in time to rank it with my other 2013 films) has everything to do with whether my wife has given birth by then. In fact, any day now it could be my last $6 Monday movie for a while. She's not due until January 10th, but the baby came 11 days early last time, and it could come even earlier this time. If her age put it her at risk of complications last time, it does so even more this time, when she's three years older.

So in the end, my wife's third-term pregnancy may torpedo Short Term 12 even more than its trailer has been doing.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Typical Hollywood garbage

I put Computer Chess on my Netflix queue thinking it would be something original, but in the end, it was just another typical piece of Hollywood schlock.

I mean, I am just so damn tired of seeing black-and-white movies set in the late 1970s about computers designed to play chess that start becoming sentient.

Seriously. Do the studios really have so little respect for me and my hard-earned dollar? Do they think my disposable income is really so disposable? Do they really want to insult my intelligence so blatantly by feeding me such drivel?

Just a bunch of explosions, car chases, CGI and scantily clad women. Computer Chess showcases the worst in Hollywood today.

I mean, just look at the array of Hollywood pretty boys they got to star in this thing:

After awhile it's like "Can't you get anyone who looks like a real person?" Brad Pitt doesn't stop looking like Brad Pitt just because you put glasses on him.

But back to the topic of T & A. I mean, just check out the eye candy they've given us on the female side:

How many times have I said it? MEGAN FOX CAN'T ACT.

I mean, if Hollywood is just going to keep following the principles of WWMBD (What Would Michael Bay Do) each time it makes a new movie, I think we have no choice on what our response should be.

So, join me in boycotting Computer Chess and all films of its ilk.

You will sleep with a clearer conscience, I can tell you that.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Simliar titles, 2013

By about this point in the weekend I've usually mapped out which movie I'm going to see on discount Monday at Cinema Nova. Tomorrow, it'll be The Spectacular Now (possibly in a double feature with 20 Feet From Stardom, if I have time and the screening times match up).

Determining this made me realize that The Spectacular Now has a similar title to the movie I saw last Monday, How I Live Now.

If you don't think sharing the word "Now" is noteworthy enough to mention, consider that I've seen only five other films altogether that have the word "Now" in their title (Apocalypse Now, Don't Look Now, Go Now, Now You See Me and Paradise Now). That's out of 3,859 total films I've seen. One of those five -- Now You See Me -- also hails from the year 2013.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that 2013 has been a year that's seen many similar titles. Let's consider some others:

What in the world? In a World ..., The World's End, World War Z

The most dangerous game. Ender's Game, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

In the end. Ender's Game, John Dies at the End, This is the End, The World's End

Someone the so-and-so. Jack the Giant Slayer, Oz the Great and Powerful

Fortysomething. 42, Movie 43

Achieving greatness. The Great Gatsby, Oz the Great and Powerful

Gotta get away. Escape from Planet Earth, Escape from Tomorrow, Escape Plan

Sound advice. Berberian Sound Studio, Sound City

One year too late. Short Term 12, 12 Years a Slave

Getting dark in here. Dark Skies, A Dark Truth, Star Trek Into Darkness, Thor: The Dark World

Best men. Best Man Down, The Best Man Holiday

Down and out. Best Man Down, Dead Man Down, Officer Down, White House Down

I don't want to be naive and suggest that you couldn't sit down and do this in many years, and certainly, there are some common words that recur in movie titles regularly over time.

However, I did enjoy sitting down and looking at some of the similarities in this particular year. Let me know of any I may have missed.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mr. Anonymous

The original British version of The Office.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Two collaborations with Edgar Wright.

The Hobbit.

If I listed those accomplishments in the abstract, you'd say that whoever starred in them had to be a household name, right?

Not Martin Freeman. Somehow, the man still seems anonymous.

I say this not because I've had a bunch of conversations with people about Freeman and his under-the-radar profile, but just because it's a sense I get about this man. He was selected to play the lead in not one, but two cherished properties of British fantasy fiction (Hitchhiker's and The Hobbit), yet I suspect many if not most people don't know who Martin Freeman is.

It appears he's also been playing Dr. Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes, so there's one more feather in his cap.

Perhaps it's Freeman's unassuming quality -- which may just be his defining quality -- that keeps him from really breaking out into popular consciousness.

That very quality is what made him so easy to root for as Tim, the lovesick paper company salesman in the original Office. An affable prankster who could not resist pulling one over on his rival and desk neighbor Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), Tim was the very definition of an everyman, the kind of guy you pull for because everyone can see a little of themselves in him.

Unassuming everyman was the primary job qualification when Freeman was cast as Arthur Dent, accidental sole survivor of the destruction of planet Earth, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Granted, that movie was not enough of a success to encourage the expected sequels, which could have given Freeman the exposure he needed to truly become a star.

Not everyone forgot about him, of course, and he was given the most key role among newcomers to Peter Jackson's Middle Earth in the first of the new trilogy of Hobbit movies, which will continue this Christmas and next. There again, though, Bilbo Baggins is the ultimate everyhobbit, remarkable for his very lack of remarkable qualities, and the courage he summons despite possessing little more than that courage.

Freeman's involvement in Shawn of the Dead (very minor) and The World's End (more central) doesn't exactly fit the pattern, but we're still talking about two very well received movies, one of which has become a genuine cult classic, or possibly just a straight-up classic. (I didn't remember on my own that he was in Hot Fuzz, but that actually makes three Edgar Wright collaborations, doesn't it? In fact, he's the only actor other than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to appear in all three of the so-called Cornetto trilogy. Wait, that's another lie. Rafe Spall makes the briefest of appearances in all three as well.)

It was while watching the somewhat disappointing World's End last night that I started to wonder why Freeman hasn't really "hit it big."

Well, I'm sure Freeman will take his own version of success. And even if people don't learn his name, the future of movies is certain to be littered with the kind of everymen Freeman has made his specialty.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

England under duress

Thanks to How I Live Now, which I saw Monday, I am aware of a new subgenre of movies:

"England Under Duress" movies.

Movies set in a post-apocalyptic Britain have a certain feel to them, don't they? A certain look of popping grubbiness. Together they form a loose fraternity of thematic compatriots.

How I Live Now is just the most recent, though as soon as I became aware of this subgenre, two others immediately popped into my mind: Children of Men and 28 Days Later. Never Let Me Go is in similar territory, by being in a dystopian future set in the past.

I like EUD movies. I like them a lot. In fact, if the examples I've come up with mean anything, I am very favorably predisposed toward anything that even gives off a whiff of this kind of movie.

How I Live Now is the adaptation of a YA novel about an American girl (the brilliant British teenage actress Saoirse Ronan) who is shipped to England just in time to become embroiled in a 21st century World War III, although one that doesn't have quite the catastrophic toll we've come to expect from movies that dramatize World War III. The toll is pretty traumatizing for a teen readership, though, I must say. The movie "goes there" from time to time. It's unafraid to tear our hearts out on occasion.

And England sure does look good as a fallen society.

I suspect it is mostly in the cinematography, but there's also something about England itself that makes it a good setting for this type of movie -- other than just being home to one of the world's top film industries. I suspect the country has that permanently moist look of just having been rained upon, and rain is pretty much the predominant mode of post apocalypse. That said, I don't believe it rains once in How I Live Now, so it's not quite as simple as that, either.

I think I'm trying to fumble my way to a more significant point when there may not be one waiting for me, but I'll carry on for a few more paragraphs anyway. The roots of this may go back a couple decades at least, to movies like A Clockwork Orange and Sid and Nancy, which are obviously both informed by the punk rock movement. Neither of those films is explicitly post-apocalyptic, but there is an apocalyptic mentality at work in both -- a sense that the world even as it is constructed in our lives today is on the verge of apocalypse.

I think England also has the advantage of its grim determination in making the bleakness more, I don't know, quotidian. Children of Men specifically addresses the notion of England soldiering on while the rest of the world goes to pieces. So maybe England is where one can find a functional post-apocalyptic environment, like the one seen in Children. It's the everyday, lived-in quality of a society in ruins that distinguishes these England Under Duress movies.

I'm sure there are other examples of this phenomenon, but as it is almost midnight and I started writing this post yesterday morning, I think I will leave off for now.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Too soon

I wasn't intimately acquainted with Paul Walker's filmography. I've seen only two of the five Fast & Furious movies he's in, and a smattering of others, including Eight Below, Varsity Blues and Running Scared.

For some reason, though, I have continued to check back in all day on news related to his death -- in part because it was rumored to be a hoax. In fact, so common is the celebrity death hoax these days -- and so horribly coincidental is the way the star died, given his most famous role -- that Wikipedia didn't even have him as deceased for about an hour after I heard the news. It took them even longer to slap their standard "This article is about a person who has recently died" banner atop his page.

Aside from the indignity of having the first few hours of one's death shrouded in hoax rumors -- that's the era we live in, unfortunately -- what might be worse is that people couldn't resist going to the well about how ironic/funny/unlikely it was that he would die in a car crash. You couldn't escape it on Facebook.

These two words are supposed to excuse any apparent lapses in taste:

"Too soon?"

Believe me, I like a well-timed "too soon" joke as well as anyone. However, I really do think the first six hours after a person's death is too soon. It's much funnier to talk about an old tragedy or death -- say, the Hindenburg disaster -- and follow that up with "Too soon?" Those kind of jokes have some fun teasing our ideas of propriety and political correctness, our excess cautiousness about not offending someone by choosing to examine this death or tragedy from a humorous perspective. The Hindenburg crashed in 1937 -- oh, the humanity -- so pretending to still be worried about sensitivity issues is funny as hell.

But Paul Walker died like 12 hours ago. Let's give him some time before we say that "Paul didn't walk away from this one" or "he was going a little too fast and furious."

Because the other thing that has bothered me today was that it was too soon in another way -- too soon for Walker to die.

Celebrities of all ages die, of course -- plenty of them older than me, but some younger than me, too. Paul Walker was older than me -- though he was only 38 days older. For some reason, that makes his death hit closer to home for me.

Walker was as close as I am aware of to my celebrity "celestial twin" -- closest to me in age. There are surely others who are closer, but I haven't done the work to figure it out. Of course, I only became aware of his age at all when I saw it listed in the articles. I thought "Hey, I'm 40 too" and looked him up on Wikipedia. Yep, he was born on September 12, 1973, only 38 days before I was.

Clearly Walker's death had nothing to do with his age, but when someone so close to our own vital stats dies, it can't help but acquaint us a little better with our own mortality.

I'm ashamed to admit that my first thought of what to write on Facebook was a joke as well, about just that. I composed the following post in my head: "I'm only 38 days younger than Paul Walker was when he died today. If he could die in a car crash at age 40, it could happen to any of us."

Stupid age we live in with all its crassness and insensitivity.

I left that post unwritten, of course. Instead I wrote, despite the fact that I rarely like to write truly earnest status updates: "That's too bad about Paul Walker. He was only 38 days older than I am ... which for some reason hits home, even though his death had nothing to do with his age."

I now found myself thinking gruesome thoughts, like "Was he killed on impact? Did he get some part of the car impaled through his body? Or did he burn to death? Did his friend, the driver, have time to realize that he'd killed them both and made a helpless apology through his last gasps?"

Violent death, especially of a celebrity, has a way of making us dwell. For a long time after Phil Hartman died I was left thinking about his final moments, imagining him pleading with his wife just before she blew his head off.

Stupid minds with all their toxic powers of imagination.

Now I'm wondering how they'll handle his death in Fast 7, which was scheduled to come out next July and was apparently still filming. Will they do what News Radio did when Hartman died, and pay sorrowful tribute to him even though it goes against the show's purpose of making people laugh? How long will Fast 7 pause from explosions and high-speed car chases to honor the man who appeared in all but one of the previous films?

It's too soon to think about this, too. But it was also too soon to lose Paul Walker, a near celestial twin of mine, who I knew only in the sense that he experienced our world at the same age and pace as I did, on the other side of the continent. Sure, he was in a Pampers commercial while I was just in regular Pampers, and very little of our lives were the same after that. But Paul Walker and I turned 40 in the same year, 38 days apart, and that has to count for something.

Rest in peace.