Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: Nebraska

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

For the past several weeks, I have been obsessively scanning the ground for money.

Not loose change, though I've actually found some of that. No, actual dollar bills. Or, I should say, $5 and up, because Australia no longer has any bills that are under $5.

I've had success finding money before -- for example, I've found two different $50 bills in my life. Never when I was actively looking for them, of course, but over the years, I have indeed found between $200 and $300 cash just lying on the ground. It's more than most people have found, I'd venture.

Looking for money started as kind of a joke, an ironic commentary on my inability to find work here in Australia. The only way I would be able to bring in money for my family, the joke went, was if I literally found it lying on the ground.

But then it became kind of an obsession, and now, everywhere I walk, I visually scour the underbrush for the right shades of pink, red, blue, yellow and green that would indicate Australian paper currency. I wouldn't be surprised if there was something of the crazy old man about me.

And so I felt a kinship toward the main character in Alexander Payne's Nebraska, a black-and-white-and-bleak look at disappointed rural Americans and their quest for the cure-all of an illusory fiscal treasure. I've got 30 years to go before I'm really in his shoes, but my current inability to find a job -- after only seven weeks of looking, I should point out -- has already gotten me melodramatically wondering about the ultimate financial output of my so-called "career."

So yeah, I guess you could say I was in the perfect state of mind to be meeting Woody Grant.

Grant (Bruce Dern) is a scraggly old SOB who lives in Billings, Montana with his irascible wife Kate (June Squibb) and within shouting distance of his two hangdog sons (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk). It's a much bigger distance than shouting he wants to cover when he sets off for Lincoln, Nebraska one morning -- on foot, since he's no longer allowed to drive, and doesn't have a functioning vehicle even if he could. A state trooper scoops him up in the breakdown lane on the interstate, at which point his son David (Forte) learns that Woody aims to claim a million dollar prize promised to him by a company trying to sell magazine subscriptions.

Despite everyone in Woody's immediate family trying to explain that the million dollars does not exist, Woody persists in the idea that this is his ticket to buying a few meager items he's currently lacking: a new pickup truck (which he wouldn't be eligible to drive anyway) and an air compressor to replace the one his friend Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) "borrowed" from him back in the early 1970s. When Woody makes several more attempts to limp his way to Nebraska, David decides that humoring him is the best way to put the subject to rest once and for all. What harm could be done by a couple days of an old codger's fantasy, followed by the definitive repudiation of that fantasy?

Here's the harm: By indulging his father, David inadvertently lends credence to the notion that his father may actually be a rich man -- and it isn't long before all manner of family members and other tenuous acquaintances want a piece of Woody's non-existent pie.

Payne has never been known for cooking up exercises in sentiment, and in fact, he's been accused of displaying a certain contempt for his characters over the years. Similar charges have dogged the Coen brothers, among others. But Payne gets the characterization of Woody just right. He's such a stubborn coot, with such little regard for the people he supposedly loves, that it's darn near impossible to feel any sympathy for him. Nor does Payne make him the fool. Sure, Woody is foolish, but he's also possibly struggling with the beginning stages of Alzheimer's. In any case, he's neither to be pitied nor to be indicted for his behavior. He's just an old man trying to find some solace in a life that he didn't really live to its fullest. It isn't necessary for him to have a moment of enlightenment or change ... which doesn't mean Payne may not have some version of that in store for him.

The sadder character may be Forte's David, whose life isn't going a lot better than his dad's despite being a demonstrably kinder, better person. When David tells his father he can't just up and drive him to Nebraska, Woody shoots back, tellingly, "Why? What you got going on?" The answer, they both realize, is not a lot.

Payne is as sharp as ever with his observations of human foibles and frailties, yet also finds easy laughs in among his low-key pain. It's this small percentage of showing us the other side of the story that makes Nebraska an exercise in humanism rather than misanthropy. Take the Oscar-nominated Squibb as Woody's wife. She's so cantankerous -- aggressively so, to Woody's passive embodiment of that trait -- that it really seems she exists solely as one-dimensional comic relief. Until she gets not one, but two scenes that demonstrate just how hard she fights for those who apparently exasperate her. You can't just write Kate off as a shrew. She's a shrew with a heart of gold.

Phedon Papamichael's black and white photography makes this plain story even plainer, to great effect. Even though it was shot on video in color, the chiaroscuro outcome is that of the old greats. No one will mistake this for a misplaced artistic pretension on Payne's part. The black and white merely heighten the timelessness of regret.

Nebraska does have a few faults. There are some moments of stiff acting and excess exposition near the start, and the concluding ten minutes contain some choices that don't necessarily seem like logical offshoots of the most recent action. Woody gets to have at least one moment that it doesn't seem like he really needs.

If that end choice sticks out, however, it's because it seems to be a concession to conventional storytelling that Payne never otherwise makes. And that's most certainly a compliment.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: The Inbetweeners Movie

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

When it's your wife's birthday, and she says she wants to watch a movie based on a British TV show that she's been watching but you haven't, you watch it, right?

I knew nothing more than that about either The Inbetweeners or The Inbetweeners Movie when we cued it up on Wednesday night. As it turns out, England churns out funny teenagers as well as funny adults -- not that any of the main foursome were under age 25 when this 2011 movie was made.

That main foursome is a group of recent high school grads in England, looking for a holiday on the island of Crete as a way of celebrating before going their separate ways in the world. (Okay, they're not just appreciating each others' company -- they're so fixated on one particular goal, that they've even gotten shirts made up describing themselves as the Pussay Patrol.) Will (Simon Bird) is the main character and narrator, a bespectacled intellectual who's clever with words, but often not in a socially productive way. Simon (Joe Thomas) has just been told by his girlfriend that she wants to be free to explore relationships at university, so has taken the trip to get his mind off her. Neil (Blake Harrison) is a lanky, happy-go-lucky goofball who has a loving girlfriend back home. And Jay (James Buckley) is the least mature, most purpose-driven of the partiers, and also the creator of the Pussay Patrol t-shirts, who wants only to get laid and to get drunk beyond recognition.

They've booked an awful hotel that looks like it belongs in some Eastern European war zone, but the good news is that the party still isn't too far from their doorstep, and it's all it was cracked up to be. Our four quickly connect up with another foursome of British girls (darn near everyone on the island seems to be British), though the relationship is at first as much oil to water as bee to honey. Closest to a real love connection may be Simon, who can't stop whining about his ex -- a problem made all the more complicated by the fact that she's vacationing in Crete as well. 

The movie was surely made for people who already knew/appreciated the show, so it opens with a bit of a short-handed approach to introducing the characters. As such, some of the early jokes really fall flat, dependent as they are on a prior knowledge of the characters and their proclivities.

Just when I started to wonder whether I'd spend the whole movie feeling like I'd wandered into the wrong classroom, though, I started to get a sense of these characters that was separate from what had been established about them on the TV show. It's probably no coincidence that this is about when the guys start finding the party in Crete. You might say that I started loosening up when they did. In fact, the moment that really won me over is when they attempt to follow one guy's advice that they shouldn't just go up to the group of girls to introduce themselves, but rather dance over and gesture for the girls to join them. As the joint is otherwise deserted -- they've been snookered into paying the cover charge by an attractive PR girl outside -- they cut across an empty dance floor, each doing their own bizarre jig that bears no relationship to what the others are doing. There's real deft physical comedy here, which shows both that these actors have worked together successfully before, and are having a lot of fun.

The Inbetweeners Movie never fully feels like something other than a long version of a TV show, even being shot on location in Crete. Decades ago, The Brady Bunch was able to go on vacation in Hawaii, so shooting on location in an exotic locale isn't something itself that exceeds the limitations of television. But where the movie shines is that it creates a comfort around the characters that you would get while living with them over the course of three seasons (British shows always have shorter runs). Someone who isn't familiar with the show, such as myself, is probably in a better position to judge that than the people for whom this movie was actually made.

What's more, you get the sense this could easily be something that will show what these actors were up to back at the beginning, once they've joined the ranks of British funnymen who have gone before them to successful movie careers. Let's just try to forget that in their late 20s now, they might already be more firmly on that path, and instead think of them as the high schoolers they play in The Inbetweeners, ready to take on the comedy world.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Review: Side by Side

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

As much as we embrace technology for all the ways it makes our lives easier, we bristle at it when it comes to sacred art forms like the cinema. Film as a medium has so much a sense of nostalgia that's part and parcel to it, that we darn near fetishize the older ways of making movies, which seem like the last bastion of purity in a world that's too quickly changing. In other words, we're nothing if not contradictory.

Given how we do romanticize things like celluloid, however, it comes as a big surprise that Keanu Reeves does not. With a tagline like "Can Film Survive Our Digital Future?", one might expect the narrator/producer (though not director) of Side by Side to take the position that there's something inherently wrong with cinema's irreversible digital revolution. While that might have been a naive and in fact disingenuous position, one kind of longs for the documentary to take some kind of stance on the subject, rather than presenting the dry technical history that it does.

This is a rather dull presentation of the material, but that's not for lack of star wattage. One quick glance at the names on the poster above will show you that Reeves (who likely has more pull than director Chris Kenneally) got cooperation from no one less than the titans of the industry in making this consideration of the ways digital is rendering traditional film too cumbersome and expensive to remain viable. Not listed are also such big names as Christopher Nolan, George Lucas and Joel Schumacher -- though those last two probably carry enough of their own baggage to get nowhere near the advertising campaign. Reeves also interviews any number of DPs, as well as a couple other industry talents (including actors John Malkovich and Greta Gerwig), in getting a truly comprehensive survey of the opinions of current working professionals on the difference between the two mediums, as well as the importance of that difference.

But guess what? It's kind of boring. Which is not to say you won't learn a lot. The approach to explaining the various types of camera, the effect they produce, their costs, and the actual scientific mechanisms that are occurring inside of them is actually quite interesting stuff. Interesting stuff presented in a kind of boring way.

Fortunately, the interview subjects do consistently liven things up. Nearly any type of film fan will find someone working in his or her favorite film idiom, which is again a testament to how much industry people seem to like Reeves. And to his own credit, Reeves is asking all the right questions. He may have asked for one too many reaction shots, instead of being content just to be the voice off camera, but those have a certain entertaining quality as well: These interviews apparently took place over such a long period of time, Reeves has an entirely different length hairdo and beard in every scene. It's fun to start guessing whether the next shot will find him comparatively clean-cut, or with a beard so scraggly that it appears to have lost patches as a result of radiation sickness.

In terms of actual content, though, Side by Side does present a convincing and thorough argument that we are on the cusp of really losing something that's been a defining aspect of our lives as cinephiles. It also, however, kind of tells us that it doesn't matter. Digital cameras are getting so good at replicating the look of film, that the only things we're really losing are the high costs, and the fuzz and static that gave film its grungy personality.

And, I suppose, a small piece of our souls.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: Bolt

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

Bolt doesn't exactly leap out of the Disney catalogue as a must-see or a classic in the making. If you look at the films that immediately preceded Disney's 49th animated feature, especially those since they abandoned hand-drawn animation with Home on the Range, they aren't all that encouraging: Chicken Little (which is actually underrated) and Meet the Robinsons (which is not). If you don't look at those films and consider it on its own, anticipation was still pretty muted, depending in part on how you felt about John Travolta and Miley Cyrus.

With the benefit of a few years' hindsight, the movie takes on a more favorable glow. Its co-director (Byron Howard) and head of story (Nathan Greno) were the co-directors on Disney's new classic, Tangled, which was released just two years later. Bolt isn't in Tangled's league ... but neither is it in Meet the Robinsons'. 

The story of Bolt, the character, is actually a bit like that of another deluded hero from the Disney canon, Buzz Lightyear. Like Buzz, Bolt thinks he's got powers and an importance in the grand scheme of things that he doesn't have. Bolt (Travolta) is a canine actor on a network TV show run by creative forces who are big believers in Stanislavski's method. In other words, they get such a believable performance out of the dog -- a character with enhanced special powers, who is always saving his owner Penny (Cyrus) from evil forces -- because the dog doesn't think he's acting. Anyone who drops a boom mike into the shot is summarily fired, because the dog might see the mike and figure out he's not a superhero.

Well, the dog doesn't ever figure it out, and on a misguided mission to save the real Penny, he ends up in a box shipped across country to New York. Let's assume the box had some breathing holes, because Bolt emerges on the other side of the country, thinking he's still trying to work out the evil plot that saw Penny captured on the show. A sly New York alley cat (voice of Susie Essman) doesn't buy Bolt's story for a minute, but they meet a much more devoted disciple of the superdog as they make their way back across country, in the person of a hamster trapped inside a spinning translucent ball (voice of Mark Walton). Whether Bolt gets back to Penny, or has his equivalent of Buzz Lightyear's "clearly I will go sailing no more" song, or both, is up to the movie to let us know.

Answer: it's both. Sure, it's not too difficult to telegraph the key plot developments. But that doesn't mean the details along the way aren't executed well. One such detail is Essman, Jeff Garlin's brassy wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Essman has just about staked a claim to iconic status as the bitchy New Yawker always complaining and gesticulating, and her persona fits surprisingly well inside the world-weary cat who reluctantly decides to help Bolt find his way home. She's the perfect dose of sarcastic realism to accompany Bolt's earnest idealism, and she steals every scene she's in. She's in most of the scenes, so she really steals the movie.

As far as Travolta goes, it's a surprisingly difficult performance to pick at. He hasn't been making many interesting career choices in about the last, oh, decade, but he gives a pretty darn soulful performance as the dog who thinks he has a "superbark" and can jump over tall buildings in a single bound. His inevitable realization that he had significant artificial help on these feats is executed touchingly.

Kudos also to Disney for casting one of its own story artists in the role of Rhino the hamster. It's something they've done before, where the voice someone internal performed, to assist in the early animation stages, worked out so well that they just went with it for the final product. You'll listen to Rhino and try to figure out which standup comedian it is, but you'll come up empty.

No one will watch Bolt expecting to be surprised by a lot that happens, and they won't be. But the movie does have a couple clever tricks, such as withholding the fact that it's all a TV show for the first four or five minutes, before slowly starting to reveal the telltale props and equipment. Even when it's not particularly clever, though, it's still plenty satisfying.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Review: Another Year

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

Basketcases are kind of director Mike Leigh's specialty. He's got one in just about every movie he's made, and even someone like Sally Hawkins' Poppy Cross from Happy-Go-Lucky is a high-functioning basketcase, whose telltale tics happen to be effervescent rather than mopey.

I'm not sure if any of his previous basketcases has made as much of an impression as Lesley Manville does in Another Year. Ostensibly not this film's main character, but the one that requires the heavy lifting in the acting department, Manville's Mary is an accident on the freeway you can't stop looking at: a four-car pileup of insecurities, rationalizations, stammerings and implosions.

The ostensible focus of the plot is actually Tom and Gerri Hepple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), a geologist and a therapist, who laughingly acknowledge their unfortunate kinship to the cartoon and cat and mouse. They live an even-keeled life together, in this case over the course of four seasons of the English calendar. The movie is structured as four chapters, one corresponding to each season, each using some kind of social gathering as the focal point of that season. Mary is essentially a side character -- an unwanted side character, at that, the kind of clueless whirlwind who always accepts casual invitations and then stays too long, usually drinking well past the point of indignity. She's Gerri's co-worker, but Gerri is too polite to spell out that she's no longer interested in being Mary's confidant.

Tom and Gerri have other acquaintances who come in and out of these episodes, such as their son (Oliver Maltman), Tom's brother (David Bradley), and an old friend of Tom's, who equals Mary in desperation and general disaster, named Ken (Peter Wright). Ken and Mary are probably perfect for each other, at least in terms of getting their just desserts, but Mary loathes Ken while preferring to focus her attentions on the Hepples' son, who's at least 20 years her junior. If you think Mary's going to recognize by the end that Ken is the key to her salvation, or at least a potentially stabilizing factor that could slow her descent towards oblivion, you haven't seen many a Leigh film.

Another Year proceeds at a low-key pace through, as it's in very little hurry to get anything accomplished in terms of plot. There are certainly meaningful developments over the course of these events, which are parceled out a bit like the titular events in Four Weddings and a Funeral (with a significantly different tone), but they may not be leading toward anything profound in terms of character arcs or breakthrough realizations. In fact, quite the opposite appears to be true. Anyone who finds that the movie lacks a certain momentum, then, would not be entirely unfounded in their complaint. One other problematic structural element is the introduction and then almost immediate disposal of a character played by Imelda Staunton, a woefully depressed patient of Gerri's, who gets two significant chunks of time on camera in the film's first ten minutes and then disappears entirely. What role she plays in what Leigh is trying to accomplish is unclear.

Then again, this is not a film to be measured by particular accomplishments. In fact, in true Leigh style, it is a portrait of sad characters, and characters who may be sadder than they actually realize.

And here is where which characters serve which functions becomes deceptively complex. Mary is the one who is truly prodded in the course of this narrative, the manic-depressive who is forever teetering on the verge of disaster, as hypnotically played by Manville. She even gets the film's final shot, which should not be revealed here.

However, she is not the one for whom this is just "another year." Surely, Mary has probably had years this tragic and this discombobulated in her past, and in fact, could not have gotten to this particular state of dysfunction without a number of such years. But the film's title is referring to something much more mundane. It's the Hepples who are experiencing a period of time that Leigh suggests is interchangeable for any other period of time in their apparently happy married lives. Even though they have their shit together, and appear to nourish each other and go to bed at night with smiles on their faces, perhaps it's they who are truly living an existence that is unexpectedly unfulfilling.

Or perhaps Leigh just thinks that life is painful for everyone, whether you're a notorious screw-up or an outwardly successful specimen of humanity.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Too much Sugar Rush

I finally got in my second viewing of Wreck-It Ralph this past weekend. Though I had been meaning to rewatch it since it first came out, it was actually my son who was responsible for putting it on the docket. W-I R was one of three movies he independently picked off the shelves and brought back to me at the library on Saturday.

My wife thought I'd picked it out -- knowing that she hadn't seen it -- but I had to give credit to him. That's me, pathologically rejecting credit when credit would be easy enough to accept without deceiving anyone. Besides, I'm trying to stick to a movie diet, and putting a new one on the schedule for a week that had already filled up would be breaking my own rules.

So she and I watched it on Saturday night, and I'm sorry to say, I reached a conclusion that some people had reached when they first saw it:

Too much Sugar Rush.

If you don't remember, or heaven forbid, haven't seen Wreck-It Ralph, Sugar Rush is the name of the video game where the characters spend the last two-thirds of the movie. It's a perfect riff on the modern Japanese sensibilities of video games, featuring a go-kart race between cars made of peppermint and cookies, watched by candy corns in the stands, racing past ponds of chocolate and hills of frosting. It's a big burst of color and a huge injection of pure imagination.

And, it gets old. Kind of like being trapped inside a kaleidoscope long past the point where you get a headache.

At least, that's what I've determined must be the reason I didn't like my #4 movie of 2012 nearly as much on second viewing.

When I first watched Wreck-It Ralph, the movie's delicious conceit and the ways they establish the larger world so enveloped me, Ralph probably could have been stuck in Pong for the last hour and I wouldn't have cared. That's how much I was in this movie's spell.

I heard a few people at the time say "I wish they'd gone to more games, but I still liked it." I generally dismissed those comments. Wreck-It Ralph was pretty much perfect, in my opinion.

This time, though, I felt that same wish. What would Ralph have done inside Galaga? Or Golden Tee? Or Dance Dance Revolution?

I realize that Wreck-It Ralph actually has a similar structure to Up, a movie whose problems presented themselves to me more immediately (though also one I have come to appreciate more on multiple viewings). As with Wreck-It Ralph, I loved the setup of Up -- I was completely under its spell. But Carl and Russell end up spending very little time actually flying in Carl's house. It was when I realized that the last hour-plus of Up was going to involve dragging Carl's house around on their backs while doing unrelated things with dogs and rare birds that I started to question whether they were making the best use of the concept.

Watching Wreck-It Ralph this time around, the time spent in Sugar Rush felt eternal. Look, the writing moves things along at a good pace and there's definitely enough for the characters to do, but I was dying for a change of scenery by the end. It was Carl flying his house like the world's largest kite all over again.

Well, if Up needed to come up a few pegs on my appreciation scale, I'm sure Wreck-It Ralph could afford to come down a few pegs. My #4 ranking now seems pretty high praise, especially when I saw nearly 120 movies by my deadline, and when few other critics even found a spot for it at the bottom of their top ten.

The thing I find troubling me most in this reassessment of the movie, however, is that it changes something essential in the way I have been viewing Disney's recent renaissance. I have been building a case for Disney's dominance based on the greatness of Tangled (a greatness that still holds up after four viewings) followed by the slightly lesser greatness of Wreck-It Ralph. Now those assumptions have been dealt two blows in a month's time. First, Frozen was only a 3.5-star movie (I'd given the previous two 4.5 stars, though Tangled actually deserves 5). Then, Wreck-It Ralph came back down to earth a bit on my second viewing.

I don't know that it matters that Tangled is now more of a standalone great. I mean, I have no special incentive to have Disney up on a pedestal. However, I'd definitely taken sides in the ongoing war between Disney and Dreamworks, and felt it was important to continue to acknowledge Disney as the superior combatant.

And I do still feel that way, especially having just seen and been charmed by Disney's animated feature immediately preceding Tangled: Bolt (review coming later this week). I just don't feel it quite as much.

I guess the real loss here is not Disney stepping off a pedestal, but Wreck-It Ralph doing so. I loved loving Wreck-It Ralph, and it sucks that I now only have to really like it. That's the danger of watching movies a second time.

At the same time, I would never counsel a viewer to stop at one viewing for fear of spoiling -- or wrecking -- something great. If it really is great, it'll stand up to multiple viewings, and you should gradually love it more with each one.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A week of judgment comes to a close

This past week I participated in a fun activity organized by Hannah Keefer on her blog Hannah and Her Movies. It was actually more organized on Facebook, with her blog playing a co-sponsorship role.

Hannah decided to do something really ambitious this year: She's watching one movie per day. That in itself is not the part that takes a lot of coordination. She's leaving 71% of the movies she watches (each of the weekday movies) up to her friends. Or in my case, acquaintances she met through the Flickchart discussion group. (You could call us friends, because we have quite a friendly interaction, but I have never met her in person.)

So she put the call out for interested parties to claim a week, and each person would then give her one title for each weeknight of that week. The initial response was overwhelming, so I didn't even have one of the 52 spots at first. However, someone dropped out, so this alternate became a full-fledged curator. I was assigned the week of February 10th to 14th, and had her a list of five within minutes.

(Do I sound like a guy who sits around, just waiting for the opportunity to recommend movies to people? Nah.)

Hannah's been calling this Hannah's Movie Challenge Adventure 2014, and she has a Facebook group set up to join together the people who are participating, and as kind of a home base for the project. That's where we have most of the discussion about the movies she's seeing, but she does also write about each on Hannah and Her Movies. And yes, I do consider it a shame that people seem to be more interested in having lively film discussions through Facebook groups than through the comments sections of blogs. :-)

Here are the movies I chose, and here were her responses to them:

Monday, February 10th: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006, Tom Tykwer)

See what I've written about this movie here.

What Hannah said on Facebook: "Well, dang. This was a good start to Vance's week. A crazy, almost fantasy-esque serial killer movie with an incredible soundtrack and a great story. I loved it, though I had to think about it for a little while after it ended to decide whether I did or not."

Star rating (out of 5) she gave on her blog: 4.5

My comment: I was riding high at this point. Perfume is one of my favorite movies to share with people. No one I've recommended it to hasn't liked it.

Tuesday, February 11th: Agora (2009, Alejandro Amenabar)

See what I've written about this movie here and here.

What Hannah said on Facebook: "Another movie I knew almost nothing about and ended up really enjoying. It had kind of unusual subject matter, like Perfume did yesterday -- I'm not sure I can think of another movie I've seen about a female philosopher. Nice pick."

Star rating (out of 5) she gave on her blog: 4

My comment: Pretty pleased with that, especially since Agora has not been a hit with everyone to whom I recommended it. It does feel a bit more like my movie than Perfume, since it's significantly more obscure. 

Wednesday, February 12th: What Maisie Knew (2013, Scott McGehee & David Siegel)

See what I've written about this movie here and here

What Hannah said on Facebook: "The movies this week appear to be losing a half a rating every day... From 4.5 to 4 to 3.5. Hmm. But I still liked this one. The interactions in the movie felt very real, even if it was sometimes difficult to watch because of that."

Star rating (out of 5) she gave on her blog: 3.5

My comment: It didn't occur to me that yeah, not everyone wants to watch warring exes yell at each other about what they want to do -- or not do -- with their daughter. Glad Hannah liked it enough to give it a half-star higher than merely thumbs up.

Thursday, February 13th: Bound (1996, Larry & Andy Wachowski)

See what I've written about this movie here.

What Hannah said on Facebook: "Unfortunately, this one broke Vance's streak of movies I really enjoyed. It's tough for me to really care about crime movies, though I did enjoy the characters and watching them interact."

Star rating (out of 5) she gave on her blog: 2

My comment: That's a shame. Bound is another personal favorite to recommend, and no one's ever turned their nose up at it to this extent. However, if she doesn't like the genre, she doesn't like the genre. Not a lot a person can do about that.

Friday, February 14th: Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, Nick Stoller)

See what I've written about this movie here and here.

What Hannah said on Facebook: "And my final movie of the week, which I found both funny and heartwarming. I'm glad Vance picked this one, as I'd been meaning to get around to it for a really long time. I had a bunch more written here, but then I realized it was pretty much just all the same thing I said in the review, so if you want to know more, you can read that."

Star rating (out of 5) she gave on her blog: 4

My comment: I figured this would end the week on a winning note. For the record, I didn't intentionally pick this for Hannah and her husband to watch on Valentine's Day, but I'm glad it worked out that way.


Note: You may notice that many of my picks are recent. In fact, four of the five came out in the last eight years. Well, Hannah is in her twenties, and I gambled on her liking new things better. That said, I also know she's a fan of musicals, and those had their heyday decades ago. 

It's funny that I ended up dwelling on her dislike of Bound, because really, four out of five is pretty darn good. The five movies had an average of 3.6 stars for her, which means I certainly didn't waste her time this week. And yet we tend to be so sure that the movies we love are great, that it can be an oddly personal kind of blow when someone doesn't like even one of them.

The competitor in me was a tad disappointed, too, since Hannah is keeping track of who has made the best picks for her by computing the average Flickchart position of the new movies she's ranked. One guy (another from the Flickchart Facebook discussion group) already has me beat with a slightly higher average, and it's only February. Oh well, I'll shoot for finishing in the top ten.

Overall, this was incredibly fun. I really looked forward to Hannah's daily posts (which would arrive in my inbox around 4:15 p.m. my time), with her latest assessment of a movie I'd suggested. I guess it felt kind of like when someone asks you to make them a mix. "What? You want me to show you what I think is awesome? Sure!"

And the truth is, Hannah thought most of the things I thought were awesome, were awesome, too.


Friday, February 14, 2014

A Ruby red Valentine's Day

I've been stalking Ruby Sparks for months now.

Walk into almost any business that sells videos, and I'd glance to see whether they were carrying it. If so, whether it was at a miraculously cheap price.

Though I didn't want my third viewing of my #1 movie of 2012 to be a rental, I did take note at nearby Video Ezy of when it might leave the new release shelves and become a weekly rental. That would mean a lowering of the price to $1.90 (it's otherwise around $5) and a whole week as opposed to only three nights (and only one night when it's brand new.)

And so it was that I was in Video Ezy this past Tuesday, and it was finally gone from the new release shelves. Two of the three copies could now be found in a spot reserved for new weekly rentals, the movie's last stop before its final destination in the comedy section. (At least, I assume the comedy section is where it will belong.)

The third copy? For sale as an ex-rental, for only $9.95.


I had it in my hands. I was really going to buy it.

But then I thought about how I still don't have a job, and how our reserve of cash is seriously dwindling. I figured I'd have a lot easier time selling my wife on her first viewing of the movie if it cost me just under $2 rather than just under $10. And I didn't want to give her any external cause for carrying a bias into her viewing.

So I did something I rarely do: I rented a movie I knew I was going to one day buy.

That's alright. If I'm moving back to the U.S. in two years, I'd rather have a copy that can play there anyway.

Now that I could get the movie for a whole week, that made it a perfect candidate for our Valentine's Day viewing three nights later. Ruby Sparks may not profile as your typical Valentine's Day movie, but that's kind of what made it the perfect choice -- in the neighborhood of what a typical couple might rent, but far more challenging and intellectually stimulating.

It was one of those weeks where it was just one thing after another, one small defeat following on the heels of the one before it, and by Friday night we both seriously wanted to open a bottle of wine. It was hard to tell whether it would resemble anything like your typical Valentine's Day, with my wife only six weeks removed from a Caesarian and neither of us thinking of any of the usual Valentine's Day activities.

Well, I started things off on the right note with this ...

... (that's heart-shaped meatloaf, in case you're wondering) ...

... and after an episode of Brooklyn Nine Nine (a fairly romantic episode at that), it was time for Ruby Sparks.

I must admit, I was nervous. Nervous like you get when you are finally putting your money where your mouth is. What if I showed this movie to my wife -- trying to avoid those surreptitious glances, constantly assessing her most minute reactions -- and she didn't like it? And had to strenuously find nice things to say to endorse my #1 ranking? Let's put it this way: I feared that high soprano lying voice. "YAA-uh. I LIIIked it."

Well, my reputation for recommending films is safe for one more day. "I really liked it" was her immediate reaction. It wasn't the "I loved it" I was hoping for, but you don't add the "really" if you don't mean it. Unless it's a soprano "really," but this wasn't.

Having talked about it for ten minutes afterward, she may have been tiptoeing toward "loved it" territory.

At the very least, it went nice with our wine.

Happy Valentine's Day to you and yours.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Australian Audient: BMX Bandits

This is the second in my series Australian Audient, in which I am watching one Australian-made film per month and then writing about it here.

Normally a bad 1980s Australian movie about kids on BMX bikes would have been quickly forgotten, even by Australians. But BMX Bandits has a special claim to enduring fame: It's the movie in which we first saw Nicole Kidman, then just 16 years old, on screen.

Here's my review:


About halfway through BMX Bandits, after I'd just observed that the bad guys would be a lot better off if they were just carrying guns, my wife turned to me and said "You do realize this is a kids movie, don't you?"

Ah, that makes sense.

Even when shifting one's critical faculties to acknowledge the intended audience for this movie, BMX Bandits is still pretty silly. It involves a trio of teenage bike riders in Sydney's Manley neighborhood who stumble across a criminal conspiracy -- but not before first stumbling over each other. P.J. (Angelo D'Angelo) and Goose (James Lugton) are riding their bikes through a supermarket parking lot when an employee, Judy (Nicole Kidman, in her first screen performance), pushes a line of shopping carts in their path, causing hundreds of dollars of damage to both bikes. For some reason this accident gets her fired, and the three team up to find the money to repair their bikes. (Coincidentally, Judy is also a BMX rider at their same skill level.)

While attempting to steal lobsters out of traps as a way to scare up some extra money, they come across a submerged box of special walkie-talkies, which have been stashed there by a local criminal element looking to pull off a major bank heist. These special devices -- straight from the U.S. of A., according to the crime boss played by Bryan Marshall -- will allow them to talk to each other and hear what the police are saying, without the police hearing them. This is the key element in pulling off the heist. The bikers, of course, know nothing about this, and grab the walkie-talkies in order to sell them.

You'd think these walkie-talkies would just be the way the kids get ensnared in this criminal plot, but the whole movie becomes about the criminals -- led by the hapless duo of Whitey (David Argue) and Moustache (John Ley) -- trying to get these walkie-talkies back from them.

It would seem that the movie should center on something more intrinsically valuable than walkie-talkies, but it's clear that BMX Bandits has a different idea of what's intrinsically valuable to its audience. The flimsy plot exists primarily as a showcase for stunts on BMX bikes, and that in itself is no crime, especially when the stunts are shot with as much panache as DP John Seale brings to the proceedings. Seale's a future four-time Oscar nominee who would win a statue for nothing less than The English Patient, so it's no surprise this is the best part of the film. Seale sets up his camera in all sorts of low angles attached to all kinds of moving vehicles (both bikes and cars), and he allows the BMX stunts to shine.

Stunts alone won't get you through this movie without checking your watch repeatedly. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith has no grasp on pacing, as a ridiculously drawn-out chase scene in the second act goes on for something like 20 minutes, including an absurd scene where the bikers take their bikes down a water slide. The fact that they aren't riding the bikes, but rather corralling them at their sides, makes the scene simultaneously both less and more absurd. The other ludicrous aspect of this chase is that the bikers easily maneuver their way through various obstacles, while the villains -- on foot, mind you -- hit each obstacle in goofy ways, yet still remain only a couple paces behind the escaping bikes.

The bumbling of the two primary villains is the dead giveaway that this is, of course, a movie intended for children. Some of the silliness must be forgiven on those grounds. Still, BMX Bandits is surprisingly slow for a 90-minute film full of bicycle stunts. It has its share of kitschy moments, but not nearly enough to take a place in the hallowed So Bad It's Good hall of fame.

Of course, what most people seeking out BMX Bandits will want to know is how Kidman fares. Sadly, the results here are also of relatively little interest. Neither is she bad, nor does she register as someone with the charisma to one day become a major movie star and Oscar winner. You're liable to chuckle when she comes on screen for the first time, just because these ruddy cheeks and this frizzy hair is not how you're accustomed to seeing the former Ms. Tom Cruise. There's something a little piggish, though not in a bad way, about her teenage appearance. Other than that, though, there's nothing remarkable about her performance.

Those watching this movie for a laugh should definitely stick it out to the finale, which involves no fewer than 4,000 Sydney teenagers on bikes, descending on the villains in a pack of such density that it's hard to imagine how they aren't all knocking each other over. Sorry, I should have said: Spoiler alert.


Nineteen eighty-three must have been a really good, or at least prolific, year in Australian cinema, as both of the movies I've watched so far in this series (the other being Phar Lap in January) came out that year. In March, we'll jump forward nine years to 1992, to see how Baz Luhrmann got his start with Strictly Ballroom

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Is this officially the same movie?

Which early 2014 Zac Efron movie are you more interested in seeing?

This one?

Or this one?

Trick question!

They're the same movie, just released in different countries.

Now, I've seen the same movie get advertised to two entirely different audiences plenty of times before. You know, during the football game, you'll see the version that emphasizes all its action scenes. Then later on, during The Bachelor, you'll see a different ad that plays up the love angle.

But rarely, if ever, have I seen a movie get an entirely different title, as well as different stars played up on the poster.

The explanation is that That Awkward Moment was making the rounds as a script called Are We Officially Dating? For some reason, Australia got to keep that title, while the movie was released in the U.S. as That Awkward Moment. And unlike other foreign re-namings, this one is only Australian, according to Wikipedia.

If I'm an Australian, I'm not sure how to read this. Do I get points for not wanting to buy into a raunchy comedy about three dudes trying to get laid? Or do I lose points for being considered the kind of sap who wants to see Efron and Imogen Poots strolling underneath luscious fall foliage?

Whatever title you give it and whatever way you advertise it, the movie seems to be a dud. It's managed only a 36 Metascore.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Something I've been slowly realizing -- or maybe I should say, suddenly realized, but much slower than most people -- is that trailers on youtube are advertised with the most sexually revealing thumbnail possible.

Call me idealistic, but I think the best thumbnail would be something that, you know, captures the essence of what the movie is actually about.

For example, I still haven't seen This is 40, but I kind of doubt that this would be considered a typical still from the movie:

Then next to it, it lists the stars of the movie as Paul Rudd and Megan Fox. Is Fox even a significant character in this movie? I'm sure if I were Leslie Mann, I'd be pissed.

I'd say it's shameful, but it's also, sadly, effective. I just watched the trailer for the Kathryn Hahn movie Afternoon Delight because of this thumbnail:

I didn't know that was Juno Temple until I actually watched the trailer. She's 24, but I still think of her as a very young person. At least this movie is about a stripper who becomes a nanny.

I'm a heterosexual man, so of course I'm susceptible to this kind of thing. However, I fight it at every step of the way. In a Facebook discussion group in which I participate, I have recently been giving one of the others a hard time for making the physical appearance of actresses too much a focus of his discussions. It's a group comprised of both men and women, so I resent him talking, even in relatively harmless terms, about certain actresses being "hot."

He claims he's just being honest about the reasons we, as human beings, choose to watch or not watch certain movies. I argue that we may have those reasons, but it's part of an unwritten social contract of politeness that we don't refer to the appearance of an actress unless there's a specific reason for it -- like, the character is a sex symbol in the context of the movie.

If these trailers on youtube are any indication, he's being the realist and I'm being the old fogey. Sex sells, and sex leads to more views, and more views leads to certain computations related to advertising and the like. Sex makes the economy go round, and whoever posts these trailers on their youtube channels is only recognizing that reality.

It's inescapable, isn't it? The movies are even being specifically constructed to allow sexually suggestive thumbnails on youtube. Suddenly I have the urge to see Star Trek Into Darkness again ...

Monday, February 10, 2014

Damn you, Lego Movie

But I should really say "Damn you, Australia."

Once February rolls around and I haven't seen anything from the new release year, I start really itching. Not just to see something, but to identify a film that's really worthwhile. A film that I'll want to see in the theater, not catch on video in May or June.

Given the way the buzz started to develop for The Lego Movie, and then the way everyone on Facebook suddenly seemed to have seen it (with even the rare negative review), I had found my movie.

But here's the problem: The Lego Movie doesn't open here until April 3rd.

And just when I finally thought I had figured out the logic behind Australian release dates.

What a cruel injustice! And I need movies now, when it's hottest, when we are otherwise trapped in our house, staring at the walls until the temperature drops. When we just need my son to pipe down for 90 minutes before he drives us all crazy. (I meant my older son, but my younger son is probably a lot louder. No helping that, but he does do us the courtesy of sleeping for large chunks of the day.)

I thought I had basically figured out that smaller movies are often delayed, but big movies come out around the same time as they do in the U.S., sometimes even a day earlier.

Ah, but a whole different set of rules applies to children's movies. Many of the big children's movies that came out in the U.S. summer months last year -- Turbo and Planes, for example -- didn't hit Australia until September. They figure they can't delay them forever, and September is closer to summer than June or July, when those movies had their U.S. debuts.

But The Lego Movie would come out in the heart of the Australian summer. What's wrong with that?

Well, there's a domino effect here. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, Frozen and Free Birds didn't come out until relatively recently, so the multiplexes have all the children's movies they need at the moment.

And though I don't have a calendar that would easily confirm this, I believe April is just in time for another school break. That's when Mr. Peabody and Sherman and Muppets Most Wanted also come out.

Damn you, Lego Movie. When you were just another bad kids movie, I didn't care. Now that you might be more, I want you now, not in two months.

Such is life.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Review: Imitation of Life

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

Douglas Sirk gets mentioned often enough that he seems more like a genre unto himself than just a director. In fact, not a single review of Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven failed to invoke Sirk, almost as though even critics who didn't know Sirk's work figured it was essential to compare Haynes' film to it, name-checking him without knowing why.

If I had reviewed Far From Heaven and invoked Sirk, I might have been one of those critics, as I had not seen a Sirk film until last night. Sirk's 1959 film Imitation of Life -- his last feature film before giving up his career and returning to Germany -- gives a pretty good encapsulation of the Sirk genre on the whole. From what I can tell, a Douglas Sirk movie is a raw, emotionally fierce piece of filmmaking disguised as colorful, domesticated fluff. It's an interesting combination, to say the least.

Imitation of Life concerns an out-of-work actress (Lana Turner) who meets an out-of-home domestic (Juanita Moore) when their children end up playing together at the beach. As gratitude for finding her daughter, whom she believed to be lost, the actress (Lora Meredith by name) offers the maid (Annie Johnson by name) a place to say for the night. Seeking to make the relationship long-term, Annie says she'll do Lora's housework and such for no pay just as long as she and her daughter have room and board. Lora agrees and the two mother-daughter pairs become four -- two white, two black.

Sounds like the setup for a wacky sitcom, right? Hardly. It quickly becomes clear that Annie's light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, loathes her ethnic heritage, wanting no one to know that she's black. As she grows older (and starts being played by Susan Kohner rather than Sarah Dicker), her racial identity begins causing her untold problems with various suitors and other acquaintances -- to the point that she disowns her kind-hearted, long-suffering mother and runs off without leaving a forwarding address.

Lora's storyline is a bit more conventional for a movie with the trappings of a fluffy melodrama, as she is basically trying to carve out her place in the world as a woman in her (eventually very successful) acting career. However, she's not free from the salacious, either, as her daughter Susie (played by Sandra Dee as a teenager) develops a serious infatuation with her own love interest, and accuses her of merely performing the role of a mother, rather than actually being one.

You can't watch Imitation of Life without recognizing the disconnect between its frothy aesthetic form and its wrenching subject matter. In fact, it's a feeling the viewer grapples with throughout, especially as Annie's and Sarah Jane's storyline gets closer and closer to inevitable tragedy. While this is all happening, however, you're conscious of watching something that looks a lot safer, something that looks like its conflicts should resolve within a half-hour of television, with all the characters smiling. In fact, this is a movie where people who don't deserve it suffer cruel and unusual punishment.

Consequently, it's a bit hard to know what to make of Imitation of Life. It certainly can't be written off, but it's also the kind of odd duck that doesn't seem like it's accomplishing exactly what it set out to accomplish. The most generous way to read what we're seeing here -- and the reading I'm going to select -- is that it's Sirk wrapping a pretty bow around something that's truly transgressive and thought provoking. Sirk appears to have fooled the very people designed to publicize his movie. The poster above seems to indicate that Lana Turner is the main character of this story and that her character's concerns are paramount, while relegating Moore and Kohner to the lower right-hand corner of the image.

No impression could seem less accurate after watching the movie. The way Sirk has shown a light on the immensely painful identity issues addressed by marginalized minorities, at the expense of the alleged A story starring the bankable movie star, proves him to be a shrewd manipulator of expectations, and a cunning artistic talent indeed.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Who are these people directing these movies?

Have you ever heard of a person named Alan Taylor?

Neither had I. Except I was noodling around on the interwebs and learned that this person is directing the Terminator reboot (or whatever it is).

Trying to figure out how they would just hand this movie to this guy I had never heard of, I discovered that Mr. Taylor also directed Thor: Dark World. (Shows you how much attention I paid to the sequel to one of my least favorite Marvel movies.)

Trying to figure out how they would just hand the sequel to one of my least favorite Marvel movies to a guy I had never heard of, I discovered that Mr. Taylor also directed movies called Palookaville, The Emperor's New Clothes and Kill the Poor, the most recent of which came out in ... 2003.


What crack is Marvel smoking these days?

If it were just this, that would be one thing. But do you know who's directing April's Captain America: The Winter Soldier?

Joe and Anthony Russo, known for their cinematic classics Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me and Dupree.


The answer, of course, lies in what these directors have been doing when they have not been directing features. And that means the answer lies in TV.

Taylor is a veteran of a half-dozen episodes of Game of Thrones, making him a pretty darn logical candidate to direct a Thor movie in that sense. And the Russo brothers directed some of those episodes of Community that featured paintball wars (there were at least two of them, and possibly as many as 17), which I guess makes them a slightly more logical choice to direct an action movie.

Then again, they still kind of don't make sense. Game of Thrones has surprisingly few scenes of actual fighting, and I don't know how slow-mo action-comedy sequences on Community qualify someone for big-budget, serious action.

What's clear is that Marvel has a downright kooky idea of who should direct its movies. After all, Jon Favreau had to seem like an unusual choice for the original Iron Man, having made only Made, Elf and Zathura. Now we think of him as a hot director of big-budget films, Cowboys & Aliens notwithstanding.

Ditto Kenneth Branagh for the original Thor (he's the "Shakespeare guy") and Joss Whedon for The Avengers (he's "the Buffy the Vampire Slayer" guy).

There's something delightfully risk embracing about their stance. (What's a good opposite of "risk averse," anyway? Risk comfortable? Risk welcoming?) Any of these decisions could easily blow up in their faces, but so far, none really have.

They appear to have made another smart unconventional choice with the director of next year's Ant-Man: Edgar Wright. Though this would be one of their least unconventional choices, given that each of Wright's movies has had a somewhat serious dose of action.

When they tap Woody Allen to direct Iron Man 4, that's when I will really start scratching my head. But it's much more likely that they will get someone like Ramin Bahrani, director of the indie darlings Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo. After making At Any Price, which featured Zac Efron as a race car driver, he's all set to helm a superhero movie, isn't he?

I'm pretty sure Marvel thinks so ... and heck, given their track record, I'm pretty sure they're right.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

On struggling with addiction

I couldn't figure out how best to memorialize Philip Seymour Hoffman on my blog. To be sure, I don't memorialize everyone who dies on this blog, just as I don't go out of my way to praise or savage every film I see that affects me either positively or negatively.

But I was hit pretty hard by the death of this great Character Actor, who elevated the job to capital letters. And I realized that it was the circumstances of his death that did the hard hitting.

Hoffman was always carrying a few extra pounds on him, so if he had gone the way of James Gandolfini last year, it might not have surprised anyone. We would have thought it a bit young -- Gandolfini had five years on Hoffman. But then again, John Candy died of a heart attack three years younger than Hoffman was when he died. We would have been devastated, but we wouldn't have been shocked.

It's shock I felt when I learned that Hoffman died a rock star's death, lying on his bathroom floor with a needle sticking out of his arm.

The shock not only came from the basic graphic aspect of his death scene, one that pops into your mind's eye and then doesn't dislodge itself, but from the fact that I didn't even know he was an addict. I don't always read up on the private lives of celebrities, and if I had, maybe I would have known about P.S. Hoffman's struggles with heroin. But I hadn't, so I didn't.

Then what struck me was that addiction has an awful power that is always freshly awful to contemplate. I've been contemplating it in my own life recently, and if you'll allow me to indulge in a little introspection and sort of making Hoffman's death about me, I hope you won't be sorry.

Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you I struggle with an addiction to drugs or alcohol or sex or something that genuinely has the power to kill me. In fact, I'm going to risk making light of Hoffman's death by telling you what I am addicted to:


But before you scoff and scream "How dare you?", let me tell you that I don't mean this the least bit whimsically -- even if the outcome of my addiction figures to be far less catastrophic.

If you recall -- and you should, because I keep mentioning it -- I went on a movie diet a little more than two weeks ago. This diet was designed to limit my intake of movies to two per week, in the interest of exploring other aspects of my life that I had been ignoring -- you know, little things like family, career, and a current understanding of the state of the world.

I figured that I was addicted to movies, even though I didn't come out and say it. Starting my movie diet was my way of checking myself into rehab. Something that, sadly, did not save Philip Seymour Hoffman when he tried it last year.

I have adhered to my diet so far. In the week just completed, I did watch three movies, but the third was legal under the guidelines of the diet. I said that I would exceed three for the week if my wife instigated the watching of any movies over my allotment of two. Sure enough, she came to me on Sunday afternoon, when my older son's aunt and grandmother had him out at the movies, and asked if now was a good time to watch This is Not a Film on Netflix. (Start discussing now whether this not-film even counts as a third film in the week.)

Actually, only one film last week was one I really wanted to watch for my own reasons. The second was Finding Nemo with my son on Saturday afternoon, so I was really taking one for the team there and counting it as my second viewing anyway.

So I'm doing well, right? I'm beating the addiction?

Not really. Truth is, in two weeks, I haven't done a lot of the things I said I was going to do in the time I haven't spent watching movies. And in fact, I've merely compensated for the loss in other movie-related ways.

For one, I've become a much more active participant in a movie discussion group on Facebook. Not only have I kept up with most of the threads, but I've been initiating more of my own than I usually do.

Then, I've picked up some old movie projects that I had abandoned. One is adding the rest of my movie list to Letterboxd. I've gotten up to the R's, whereas only a week or two ago I was in the K's. The other is catching up on Flickchart, where I'm adding a bunch of movies I've watched over the last two years that had never gotten added. I'm even subjecting my chart to a battery of focused dueling tests, as I blogged about here.

Additionally, I've added one new film-related podcast to my repertoire -- Slate's Culture Gabfest -- and of course, continued writing posts on this blog, at perhaps a heightened pace.

Why am I doing these things?

Well, because I'm an addict, of course.

Apples and oranges, right? Yeah, probably. I don't need to stop watching movies, I just need to manage them better so they don't dominate my life. And I can go on binges sometimes without harming myself or others.

But in other ways, no, not apples and oranges. Right now, movies are occupying a place on my spectrum of need that is not healthy. And I need to get them under control. 

So as Philip Seymour Hoffman succumbed to his demons of addiction, I couldn't help but think of my own. My demons won't kill me -- at least, I don't think they will -- but they could turn me into a depressive schlub, achieving only a fraction of what I one day hope to accomplish.

The kind of guy that the great Philip Seymour Hoffman might have played to perfection, in fact.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

This is not a film review.

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

But if Jafar Panahi's 2011 documentary that he smuggled out of Iran in a cake is not a film, then do I really have to review it?


Midway through the sort-of documentary, sort-of document This is Not a Film, house-arrested Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has a crisis about the impossibility of making a movie without actors, without sets, without costumes, without freedom. For some house-arrested filmmakers, this crisis may arisen earlier. For a determined S.O.B. like Panahi, however, it comes only after he's tried to stage the opening scene of his most recent script by marking out a teenage girl's bedroom in masking tape on his own living room floor.

After he has been describing what happens in this scene for about five minutes, he loses his train of thought, then just stops speaking altogether. He utters a few solemn words about the futility of his situation before walking out of the room.

This sequence -- more than any other in the "film," most of whose scenes involve Panahi kicking around his house and interacting with his iguana -- sets the rules for how we, as future viewers, should judge the experience we are witnessing. He has already told us that it is not a film, that it can't be a film, because film is a language of showing, not telling. (We must pause to acknowledge that the title is not merely literal, but also a cheeky preemptive strike against a government that has prevented him from making films.) Panahi starts by conceding that if he just reads his most recent script to us, we will be bored to tears, so he knows he has to do something more than that. Unfortunately, the language Panahi speaks has so been stripped of him, that we are bored to tears anyway, despite his heroic efforts to bring us a film that he has been banned from making for the next 20 years.

A critic reviewing Panahi's non-film is then tasked with having to judge it using criteria that were designed to judge actual films, at the same time acknowledging its function and its importance as a document of a creative talent screaming from behind the muffle of censorship. We are meant to feel Panahi's frustration over, and imprisonment within, his limitations, and asked to accept this as the entirety of our takeaway from the experience. Unfortunately, that ingrained critical checklist prevents some of us -- this critic included -- from finding Panahi's exercise in non-filmmaking truly sublime.

Although he's been reduced to telling rather than showing, to Panahi's credit, this does not mean he has entirely surrendered to awkward exposition. As a matter of fact, the way Panahi parcels out information about his situation -- through phone calls with attorneys and oblique references to the incident in which he was arrested -- gives a steadily clearer picture of why he's stuck in this house awaiting a prison sentence of possibly as long as six years, in addition to the punishments he's feeling more acutely: a 20-year ban on directing films, writing scripts and being interviewed. He's been muzzled by a government that approves the making of movies only under certain government-friendly circumstances. (I'll need to read up separately on how Asghar Farhadi received approval for A Separation.) Having been in these circumstances for several months, and looking into the abyss of total artistic inertia, Panahi decides to adhere to the letter of his ban rather than its spirit, and enlists the help of Iranian documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb to come over and help him shoot ... something.

I suppose I expected "something" to be a little more profound. In a Hollywood treatment of Panahi's story, the director would become MacGyver, building convincing sets out of toothpicks and actually turning his screenplay into something dramatically captivating. All the while he'd evade the prying eyes of government soldiers, forever on the verge of the discovery that would kill the project and send him to prison for the rest of his life.

But this isn't Hollywood, and surely, it never was. Reflecting even on films he was able to make, Panahi discusses how most of them had to take place outside, on the street, because that was the only kind the government would approve. Even when Panahi was allowed to work, he was having to smuggle any transgressive ideas past the censors, burying them so deeply in the subtext of his films that they may have ceased to be there at all.

Now, without even the limited means once allowed him by the government, Panahi truly doesn't have any tricks up his sleeve but to make a film that really is none at all. Having suffered through a nearly unendurable final scene in which Panahi interviews a fill-in janitor as he stops at each floor of Panahi's building to pick up trash, I now think this sequence may have been unbearable on purpose. With This is Not a Film, Panahi doesn't want to show us that he can beat censorship. He wants to show us that censorship can beat him.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

I'm not going to review Finding Nemo

I've been setting down all kinds of rules for my movie conduct in the first quarter of 2014, about how many movies I can watch per week (two, while I get some other life priorities into shape) and how many of those movies I'll be reviewing, in order to continue practicing my dormant craft (all of them).

Well, I want to make a little adjustment to that.

I've decided not to review any movies I rewatch.

Why does this announcement require its own separate post? It doesn't. Deal with it.

The reason I'm not reviewing movies I've rewatched is because I've decided it seems silly. The essential impetus behind writing a review is having just soaked something in for the first time, and having a fresh set of thoughts on the subject. You write the review -- assuming you aren't being compelled to for something like a job, that is -- because you are inspired to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard) about something you've just seen, either good or bad.

Reviewing something where your take is over a decade old, and you've seen it five or six times, well ... it just feels perfunctory. So I'm not going to do it. 

I faced this scenario for the first time today when I sat down to watch Finding Nemo with my son. This would be my third time watching it all the way through. We own the DVD, so I've seen other smaller chunks of it, but I wanted to watch it from start to finish so it "counted" as my official third viewing.

After I finished and sat down to write the review, I thought, "Why am I doing this?"

Sure, I could write plenty of probably eloquent words glorifying this wonderful film ... but does the world really need another take on Finding Nemo? Does it need my take?

Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't, but I've decided it's enough for me to review things I'm seeing for the first time. Sure, one of those could be a movie that has also been reviewed to death, something prominent that I'm just now catching up with. But at least it will be new to me.

If you want a more extreme example, let's take Star Wars. I don't own Star Wars and I doubt it's available for free streaming anywhere, so the chances of me watching it soon are not very good. But let's say I did sit down tomorrow to watch Star Wars. Am I really going to review Star Wars on my blog?

Eh, I think not.

The goal was to get me writing as many reviews as possible, to keep my tools sharp even if I should suddenly go on a binge of watching old favorites. But that's never been me as a viewer. I can't survive on old things for very long. I crave the new.

My first movie of next week will, no doubt, be just that.

While we're on the topic of Finding Nemo, I just happened to discover that its sequel, Finding Dory, is not coming out until 2016. For some reason I thought it was this summer.

So what is coming out this year from Pixar?

Nothing. There is no 2014 Pixar release. It's the first time since 2005, when there was a two-year gap between The Incredibles (2004) and Cars (2006).

And I thought 2013 had been a bad year for animation ...