Friday, March 28, 2014

Australian Audient: Strictly Ballroom

This is the third installment of Australian Audient, in which I watch one previously unseen film originating from my new country of residence per month in 2014, then write about the experience here.

I've heard a lot of people throwing around a new verb lately -- to "baz" something. I'll use it in a sentence:

"The best way to do an update of West Side Story would be to baz it."

That's Baz Luhrmann, the Australian auteur with his own distinct voice, a voice responsible for the likes of Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby. To "baz" something, then, is to envision it with an extra dose of that manic, pop music-infused razzle dazzle that Luhrmann has made his trademark lo these 22 years since he first came on the scene.

I'd seen all of Luhrmann's features except for that first one: 1992's Strictly Ballroom. I made certain assumptions about it, I guess, which explains why a Luhrmann fan like myself (I even liked Australia) had not seen it before now. I suppose I figured that as a first feature, it couldn't have the larger-than-life quality that I have come to associate with Luhrmann and consider an indispensable element in his films. Or maybe the idea of a movie about ballroom dancing just didn't thrill me.

But everything Luhrmann was, is, and will be was set up in Strictly Ballroom, and I thought it was a gas.

It's easy to see why Luhrmann would have been given Romeo + Juliet after making this movie, and why I referenced a version of Shakespeare's tragedy (West Side Story) as a hypothetical movie Luhrmann might make. The families of the young hero and heroine of Strictly Ballroom aren't at war with one another, but the lovebirds are in fact from two different worlds: Scott (Paul Mercurio), the aspiring professional dancer who's the son of a driven ballroom teacher, and Fran (Tara Morice), the poor daughter of the owners of a Spanish restaurant. They're kept apart because Fran can't possibly be a sufficient partner for Scott as he tries to win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dance Championship, the destiny he's been training for -- a destiny that's clouded when his previous partner (Gia Carides) ditches him because she doubts Scott's rogue dancing style. The deceptively frumpy Fran doesn't present very well, either, but she's just waiting to blossom into a swan -- and to introduce Scott to her unpolished if impressive authentic Spanish dance moves. With just a short time until the competition, will Scott follow the leanings of his heart, toward Fran, or the more established partners being presented for him, who may be part of a larger scheme to fix the competition?

Some successful directors start in one place and discover something quite different as they hone their skills. Others have a vision from an early age, and just keep on fine-tuning it. Luhrmann fits into the latter category. Even without having a lot of money for his first picture, Luhrmann knew how to make it grandiose. Strictly Ballroom feels painted on a big canvas, one so big and fantastical that its firmly established Australian setting feels almost besides the point. With the exception of Romeo + Juliet, all of Luhrmann's films have a very definite and important setting -- Paris with Moulin Rouge!, Australia with Australia and New York with The Great Gatsby. Yet they all take place inside his mind, a setting wonderfully all its own. Ballroom is no exception.

It's interesting to see how much of the Luhrmann flourishes already exist here. One is what we will call the "frenetic close-up," where Luhrmann swoops his camera in at the unnaturally frenzied face of a character, making them appear almost grotesque. Think Jim Broadbent dancing in Moulin Rouge! Another is his earnest repurposing of pop music, as (cover versions of) both "Love is in the Air" and Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" are used prominently and to emotionally cathartic effect.

But what really surprised me were some of the little details, moments that Luhrmann loves that he has revisited throughout his career. There's a lovely scene here where the camera pans up from the ground to a building rooftop, where Scott's pushover father (the delightful and ultimately triumphant Barry Otto) is indulging in a private moment of joyous dance. It's that upward movement of the camera that Luhrmann has continued to do with great style, notably as he explores the Parisian rooftops in Moulin Rouge!, and again in last year's Great Gatsby, where one particular urban bacchanal pulls upward to reveal, many floors above, men in hard hats soldering steel girders a hundred stories above a New York City they are building into what it is today.

Luhrmann can also give us a great hissable villain. He's got one in nearly every movie, and here that role is played by Bill Hunter as the conniving president of the Australian Dance Federation. Hunter may be the primary recipient of the "frenetic close-up" described earlier, and he gives a performance to match, without ever going over the top.

Ballroom is simply a joyous celebration, but perhaps my favorite element was its lead actress, Tara Morice. Morice is not a traditional beauty, something that made her very right for this role, but probably prevented her from having a particularly fruitful career (though she did appear in a half-dozen more movies). What she has beyond her non-traditional beauty, though, is a surplus of pluck and likability. A rush of sympathy courses through the viewer whenever she appears on screen. The extent to which you want her character to succeed is also what helps make this movie feel so romantic, even when her romantic on-screen partner is a novice actor who was selected for his renowned dance abilities more than his ability to read lines. Because Luhrmann has an innate talent for this kind of thing -- Moulin Rouge! may be one of the most romantic movies I've ever seen -- he gets everything he's looking for out of the pairing of Mercurio and Morice.

So when do we get Luhrmann's version of West Side Story, on the nose though it may be? Having really liked -- and possibly even loved -- Strictly Ballroom, I'm more ready for it than ever.

Okay, on to April. In April I'm going with a film by another Australian crossover director, Alex Proyas, who directed The Crow and Dark City. The movie I've chosen actually comes after he made those two Hollywood movies, 2002's Garage Days.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: Hard to Kill

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.

So how does a guy, in this day and age, end up seeing a Steven Seagal movie for the very first time, 24 years after its exceedingly short window of relevance has closed?

He forgets to change the channel after the baseball game ends, and just keeps watching.

Yes, I'm still in Australia. But if you follow sports news, you know that the Major League Baseball season got underway with two games in Sydney between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks this past weekend. At one point, I thought I would be at one or both of those games. It didn't turn out that way, but I still got to watch the last three innings of Saturday night's 3-1 Dodgers win on free-to-air TV.

After it ended, I saw that a movie was starting, and decided to play that game where I try to guess what it is before the title appears. The title Hard to Kill appeared pretty early on in this one, so I lost the game -- then compounded matters by deciding to sit there and watch the whole movie.

Seagal plays (great name alert) Detective Mason Storm, a cop who has just collected video evidence of a crooked scheme by mobsters and politicians at a pier. Spotted but able to escape, Storm finds out later that night that he hasn't gotten away without revealing his identity when several hit men break into his house and shoot him and his wife (Bonnie Burroughs). Storm is at death's door, but never goes through -- he instead ends up in a coma, but the police force lets the world believe he has been killed in order to remove him as the target of further reprisals. His wife does die, and his son's fate is uncertain. Storm remains in the coma for seven years, at which point he awakens with vengeance on his mind. He's also got to clear his name, as the corrupt cops who set him up also framed him for murdering his wife. Assisted by a nurse in the coma ward (Kelly LeBrock), Storm goes into hiding while trying to rebuild his strength and recover the evidence against the corrupt politician (William Sadler) at the heart of the mafia plot and the murder of his wife.

If you're seeking out poster boys for bad late 80s'-early '90s action stars with nary a credible film to their names, you could do a lot worse than Steven Seagal. Your other top choice would be Jean-Claude Van Damme, who actually may rank a rung below Seagal on the credibility scale simply because Seagal was in Under Siege, which was pretty good. Neither guy has much to be proud of, but at least there was something earnest about Van Damme. Seagal always struck me as a bit too much of a smirker.

So it may please you -- or disappoint you, depending on your preconceived notions toward the man -- to learn that I thought moments of Hard to Kill, Seagal's second star vehicle after 1988's Above the Law, really worked. You might even say it goes for realism from time to time. Knowing that these movies tend to be outrageous self-parodies, I was kind of surprised not to find Storm awaken from seven years of atrophied muscles and just pop out of bed, ready to kick someone's ass. It's not quite on the order of The Bride willing her toe to move in Kill Bill Volume 1, but Mason Storm does have to figure out how to use his body again, and has to escape from a hospital using his wits more than his muscles.

There's an almost enviable cleanness and simplicity to the movie's setup and narrative direction, as well. You'd be tempted to describe the script as lean, in fact -- and that's an adjective almost always employed in complimentary fashion.

Of course, Hard to Kill can't escape its ultimately simplistic ambitions and scale, as much of its execution can be characterized using that all-encompassing yet inexact term we always use for dated material: "cheesy." Yes, Hard to Kill is pretty cheesy, and it's not just the 1990 musical score that sounds a lot like you would expect it would. In some scenes it's just oozing that cheese.

That didn't surprise me, but what did surprise me was that it was ultimately a lot less of an action movie than I was expecting. Seagal movies and Van Damme movies are usually marked by at least one and possibly as many as six superfluous action scenes, which exist only to allow the hero to crack a few more heads. Hard to Kill has one very obvious example of this principle, a convenience store robbery that Storm comes across on his way home that has no relationship to the rest of the plot. (We have to see Storm righteously cracking some skulls before he goes to sleep for seven years, you see.) While in most movies a scene like this would be purely gratuitous, here it seems to be compensating for the relatively low body count that's to follow.

Hard to Kill also reminded me that Kelly LeBrock wasn't only in Weird Science. The Amazonian British model did quite good work in John Hughes' film, but here many of her line deliveries are outright absurd. It ends up being a little weird that she becomes Storm's love interest, as a quest to avenge your dead wife never loses its righteousness as much as when you are already shagging someone else.

Hard to Kill is also fun from time to time for spotting other familiar faces, such as Breaking Bad's Dean Norris and the aforementioned William Sadler. I was most disappointed to discover that the film does not feature the great stunt actor Al Leong, whose presence as a henchmen in action movies from this era was so ubiquitous that my friends and I actually learned the actor's name. Seeing his face would probably help:

There he is!

Yeah, he wasn't in this movie.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

That whimsical AIDS romp for your tablet

I haven't seen Dallas Buyers Club, but I do know that it's about a guy trying not to die of AIDS.

Which makes it the perfect fodder for an afternoon of casual tablet watching and in-movie fact-checking, right?

A Matthew McConaughey more or less at this stage of AIDS-related decimation is the star of a new ad I've been seeing on Hulu for Google Play, which focuses on a feature I think I should take credit for because I thought of it a good ten years ago: the ability to touch-pause a movie and read a fact sheet about the person you're seeing on screen. (My version didn't require pausing, and was more like a Pop-Up Video-style bubble, so I probably won't get around to actually suing.)

It's a cool feature, to be sure, but I can't get over how funny a choice Dallas Buyers Club is to advertise it.

I suppose it's a cheerier choice than, say, 12 Years a Slave, if you're looking to advertise recent award winners (as this ad chooses explicitly to do by mentioning that Dallas Buyers Club "and other award winners" are available on Google Play). But only compared to something so raw and intense could DBC be considered cheery, I imagine.

Maybe they first thought of Gravity as a better choice, then laughed at the absurdity of watching such an opus on a tablet or smartphone. Or maybe the star had to give permission to use his likeness, and McConaughey was the only one who would do it.

To give some perspective on why this choice surprises me, I immediately thought of how Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest was the movie Apple plastered all over its iPods at the time I got my first one back at Christmas of 2006. The fact that the device could play movies was a selling point they were pushing particularly hard, and what better way to encapsulate the innate fun and whimsy of an iPod than to show the mug of Captain Jack Sparrow himself on the box of every iPod you sold? Of course, that movie was a dud, but it was what the movie represented -- joy, mischief -- that mattered more than its quality.

Now, Google is definitely aware of this advertising attitude in its spots for Google Play featuring McConaughey and Buyers Club, as probably the movie's most light-hearted scene is showcased here. McConaughey and Jennifer Garner sit across a table from each other, joking and basking in at least the ironic charm being proffered by Ron Woodroof under the circumstances.

Those circumstances being, you know, his gaunt face and approaching death by way of Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Don't confuse my writing this post as a criticism of Google. This is a hip, progressive choice of a movie to advertise the functionality of your technology, one that represents a bold resistance to the notion of playing it safe. Google ought to be commended for associating itself with a movie that features not only AIDS, but also a trans woman.

I do, however, also think there might be something sort of insensitive about suggesting that viewers pause a dramatic heavyweight like Dallas Buyers Club in order to see what amounts to an on-screen IMDB entry for its star -- even during one of its lightest scenes.

I mean, isn't something frivolous like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest a lot more appropriate place to do something like that?

Of course, 2013 was blessedly without an entry into the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise -- no certainty, given that the two-year interval since On Stranger Tides would have been about the perfect time to bring along Pirates 5. In the absence of such a film, I would have expected Google to choose something like Thor: The Dark World to sell the product, given that they also needed something that had only just come to video.

Instead, it was Dallas Buyers Club -- a much darker world than Dark World.

However, that a corporate giant would choose Dallas Buyers Club as its envoy makes that darker world just a little bit lighter.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Double the Indemnity, double the fun

Sometimes, the second time's the charm.

I didn't much care for Double Indemnity, directed by the great Billy Wilder, when I first saw it about 15 years ago. No one else thinks that about Double Indemnity, so for years now I've been wondering what I didn't get about it.

Having recently resolved to re-watch more older films, especially classics that didn't totally do it for me, I picked Double Indemnity out at the library yesterday and was watching it just a short couple hours later.

And enjoying it quite a bit.

I think I figured out what my problem was 15 years ago: I didn't like how much this movie despaired about human nature.

Maybe I hadn't seen a lot of film noirs at the time, or maybe I hadn't seen enough movies that were as bleak as this. But I remember wishing that Fred MacMurray could have been a good guy, a righteous hero who makes the right decisions, rather than a cold-blooded murderer.

Today, apparently, I am okay with cold-blooded murderers.

It really is masterful, which shouldn't surprise me given Wilder's body of work. I'm seeing this after giving five-star reviews to Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole within the past two years, and perhaps really only realizing in those two years just how great Wilder is. Sure, I'd seen Some Like It Hot, The Apartment and others before, but I don't think it was until these past two that I really recognized Wilder's genius.

Double Indemnity is especially interesting in the wake of Sunset Boulevard, a film that came six years later but is probably more similar to Double Indemnity than any other film on the director's CV. Apparently, being narrated by a man who was dying wasn't enough for Wilder -- in Boulevard, he raised the stakes to a man who was already dead.

I'm also getting double the appreciation of Double Indemnity in the wake of seeing one of the most inert noirs I've ever seen, the critically lauded The Big Sleep from 1946. That was indeed a snoozefest, and when I saw it in December, I wondered if maybe I just don't like film noirs. After all, here was one of the supposed greats of all time, and I found it as dull as dishwater. Sure, Humphrey Bogart is not one of my favorite larger-than-life icons, but he alone can't explain why I couldn't stand Howard Hawks' film.

So I kind of viewed Double Indemnity as my film noir litmus test. If I hadn't liked that 15 years ago, and then didn't like The Big Sleep now, and maybe hadn't seen a lot of the cornerstones of the genre in between ... is it possible that I just didn't like one of the most beloved of film genres?

Well, I'm pleased to say that the noir is alive and viable inside me. I'm okay with the basic tropes of the genre, as long as you can give me a tight and fast-moving script, which Double Indemnity does, and The Big Sleep most certainly does not.

One other probable factor in my renewed appreciation of Double Indemnity is an increased familiarity with the works of Barbara Stanwyck. Since my first Indemnity viewing I've seen Stanwyck in ... well, in only two other movies, I guess, in The Purchase Price and The Lady Eve. Well, it made the difference.

So maybe I'll come back to The Big Sleep in 2029, and like it a lot more then.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: Non-Stop

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.

On my personal list of instinctive reactions, not seeing a new Liam Neeson thriller would fall somewhere between blessing someone after they sneeze and jerking my knee when the doctor hits it with that little rubber hammer. Yet I was desperate to pop my cherry on 2014 films, had a last free day before I was about to start my new job (a topic that deserves more than this throwaway mention), and found nothing new from 2014 having a greater sway on me than Non-Stop -- about which the only thing I knew was that Neeson fires a pistol while on a plane (because that's on the poster). If I'd actually seen a trailer, that probably would have been enough to make me think better of it.

So I'm kind of glad I didn't. As preposterous, turn-your-brain-off action movies go, Non-Stop is a pretty fun one.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, one of those characters whose name would be really on the nose if the movie had anything to do with marked bills. He's an alcoholic air marshal about to board a red-eye from New York to London. This day is no different than any other -- Bill has been downing some stomach-warming brown liquid in his car in the parking lot to steel himself for the trip, since he's also afraid of flying. He's sporting a couple days of stubble, taking seriously his mandate to look like just any other passenger.

Except today actually is different -- Bill is about to walk directly into a possible hijacking. When they've turned off all the lights in the main cabin and are somewhere over the Atlantic, Bill receives a message to his mobile device on a secure network, telling him that passengers will begin dying at 20-minute intervals if Bill can't get $150 million wired to a certain bank account number. Seeing suspicious characters both everywhere and nowhere, Bill must figure out if the threat is a hoax in time to prevent the first possible killing -- and if his alcohol-warped perception of the world is affecting his judgment. On his side, or possibly not, are the woman sitting next to him (Julianne Moore), two young flight attendants (Michelle Dockery and Lupita Nyong'o), an Arabic doctor (Omar Metwally), a mobile phone programmer (Nate Parker) and the second air marshal on board (Anson Mount).

Most movies working the real-time concept are pretty filmsy when it comes to realism, but this needn't be fatal to their effectiveness. In fact, one of my top 20 films of all time, Run Lola Run, plays fast and loose with the same 20-minute lengths of real time that Non-Stop uses. To buy into movies like these, you have to take them with a grain or a whole shaker of salt, instead of repeating the phrase "they could never do x in y number of minutes," undeniably true thought it may be.

In truth, Non-Stop is more absurd related to some of its other details than its use of the real-time concept. Since most of the action takes place aboard a plane, it is actually possible for the characters to accomplish most of the things they're accomplishing in those 20-minute segments of time. If you're going to get bogged down here, you're going to get bogged down on details like the fact that the possible hijacking reaches the levels of a full-blown news story, including interviews with expert talking heads, in the middle of the night in the U.S., while the flight is still going on. If they wanted to go that route, they might have been better off with a non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, when the plane is in the air for 14 hours instead of the seven it takes to get to London from New York.

I've now spent two paragraphs on possible stumbling blocks to one's appreciation of Non-Stop, which is pretty misleading, since I didn't stumble over any of them. The story (by John W. Richardson and Chris Roach) is a mystery at its core, and it's an effective one. The screenwriters (which include the above two and Ryan Engle) introduce us to enough side characters, one of whom is probably (but not necessarily) responsible for the threats, that it keeps us guessing, busying ourselves with red herrings. As the film makes it seem more and more impossible for one of the passengers to be continuing to message Bill while the whole plane is under surveillance, the script digs itself a hole, then does an admirable job not burying itself. A second viewing might reveal some cheating, but Non-Stop is the kind of ride you really only need to go on once, even as you catch yourself enjoying it far more than you expected.

For his part, Neeson has of course played this role before. We've seen him threatening to find and kill bad people. However, he does seem to dig deep for a little extra from time to time here. He's not quite in Nicolas Cage, phoning-it-in territory yet, and this could certainly qualify as one of his better recent efforts. That's especially the case with three credible actresses on hand to lend this thing some additional class, in Moore, Downton Abbey's Dockery and recent Oscar winner Nyong'o.

It's not possible to watch Non-Stop without feeling like there's something a little hackish about it. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who worked with Neeson on Unknown, tries way too hard at the beginning to produce something arty, as he blurs the focus among other techniques to make Neeson seem like he's coming off the world's worst case of jet lag. These gestures only reveal a poseur at work. Fortunately, he ditches this approach for a more straightforward style as the plane gets airborne, and it's to the film's considerable benefit. He then sustains tension in a way that's really gripping, carrying that through to a big and satisfying finale.

The only thing that may not be so satisfying is the ultimate revelation of who's to blame and why, which is probably misguided at best and borderline insulting at worst. However, if you are already viewing Non-Stop in a positive light, there's a way to spin that message toward something a bit more thought-provoking, a way of seeing the world with its imperfections and embracing it anyway. Non-Stop itself is imperfect, but kind of worth embracing.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Review: A.C.O.D.

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.

The phenomenon at the center of A.C.O.D. is so commonplace these days that it hardly seems like it requires its own acronym. So many of us are Adult Children Of Divorce that to name us as though we suffer from some unusual syndrome is to make our circumstances a lot more exotic than they really are. (I include myself in this category, even though I was more or less an adult -- a 23-year-old, anyway -- when my parents announced their separation.)

The film does have an interesting point, I suppose, in that the generation of children who grew up with divorced parents are now reaching their 40s -- an age when they are, beyond the shadow of a doubt, adults themselves. The A.C.O.D. in question here is Carter, played by Adam Scott. Carter's parents (Richard Jenkins and Catherine O'Hara) had an epic breakup caught on video at his ninth birthday party, and have since been unable to be in the same room together. Their incompatibility will be put to the test when Carter's younger brother Trey (Clark Duke) announces he's marrying his girlfriend of four months (Valerie Tian), in what amounts to a feckless failure to understand the lessons of his parents' doomed union. Quite the opposite, Carter has been unwilling to propose to his own girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) despite four years of dating bliss and her status as an ideal mate. As everyone prepares for the wedding, two things complicate Carter's otherwise salvaged adult life: 1) the possibility that his remarried parents may have gone from loathing each other to a torrid affair, and 2) the realization that he was the unwitting participant in a book about children of divorce, and the author (Jane Lynch) wants his witting participation in a follow-up.

Writer-director Stu Zicherman has smartly anchored his film with reliable comic veterans from several generations. Jenkins and O'Hara riotously represent the sixtysomethings, each coming up with a handful of line readings that remind you fondly of their best work. Scott, who did a zanier brand of comedy alongside Jenkins in Step Brothers, has settled into a groove as a terrific straight man, and he's got a good up-and-comer at his side in Zack Duke. Among the many veterans of NBC's Thursday night comedies, Amy Poehler is miscast as the bitchy trophy wife of Jenkins' character, but Ken Howard (Jack Donaghy's boss on the last few seasons of 30 Rock) picks her up as the other cuckolded new spouse. Winstead and a surprising Jessica Alba are also both good in non-comedic roles. Lynch finds herself in kind of a middle generation, doing her signature shtick about as effectively as ever.

More than just the sum of some funny performances, though, A.C.O.D. strikes a chord for taking an earnest stab at the complexity of the modern family. To get there, the movie must overcome the basic broadness of its setup, which finds the bickering exes coming back together in a way that's a lot less developed than in a similar consideration of this subject matter, like It's Complicated. However, it does get there, and "there" really manifests itself in little moments and details that underscore the many loose strands of family that are the legacy of divorce. Like the fact that there was a second wife between Carter's mother and his current stepmother -- named Inga, or something similarly Scandinavian -- who is name-checked a couple times (even though she never appears), and not always as a punchline. Like the fact that Trey's new in-laws are of Japanese heritage, and what special ingredient that will add to their dysfunctional clan. Like the fact that Trey and Carter have half-siblings under the age of 10, who are the almost-forgotten collateral damage of their own parents' prospective separation. Like the nice moment Carter has with his stepfather after he discovers his wife's infidelity, when Carter realizes this man who's not related to him may be the closest thing to a loving parent he really has.

A.C.O.D. effectively straddles the worlds of the more gag-oriented comedy it needs to be, and the more thoughtful character piece that it probably actually is. It's got enough shades of gray that we won't always like everything the good characters do, and we won't always hate the bad ones. However, the execution is sometimes a bit lacking. For example, Zicherman is smart to prevent Poehler's character from being merely the trophy wife caricature she spends 80 percent of her screen time being, but when he commits to her humanity from time to time, it's without quite enough heart. Some of this comes back to the inappropriate casting choice of Poehler, but it symbolizes the film's general problem of almost getting where it wants to be, more often than it actually gets there.

The true indication of what's on this film's mind is how it chooses to leave us in its closing credits, which I won't spoil here. It's an interesting choice that doesn't entirely work, but it does convince us that A.C.O.D. is going for something more than just a quick and cheap laugh.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Risen there, done that

Lord Vader isn't the only one who was supposed to "rise."

Among the many others also rising are: Cobra, the Silver Surfer, the Dark Knight, the Guardians, and the Planet of the Apes.

And if you go way back: the sun, also.

And: bread.

You'd think movies would be pretty tired of the verb "rise" by now, but you'd think wrong.

Next month, The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro beats the lazy title convention into the deadest of dead horses.

Which makes, like, reason #432 I don't want to see this movie.

(Reasons #1 through #431 include: Jamie Foxx looks ridiculous, I boycotted the first one, I'm over superhero movies.)

Seriously, do those who came up with this title not remember G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Rise of the Guardians, The Dark Knight Rises and Rise of the Planet of the Apes? And, who would have thought that of those titles, the Fantastic Four sequel would be the trendsetter?

I get what you are trying to accomplish with the word "rise." As it is used specifically in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, it discusses the advent, the onset, the arrival of a great foe that will be a perennial thorn in the side of our heroes. But I would have to believe that in both The Fantastic Four 2 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, that nemesis did/will both rise and fall within the same movie. It would be just the same to call the movie The Amazing Spider-Man 2: The One With Electro In It.

How much better would these movies have been with the word "rise" in their titles?

The Dark Knight: Rise of the Joker
The Avengers: Rise of Loki
The X-Men: Rise of Magneto
Star Trek: Rise of Khan
Superman: Rise of Zod
Austin Powers: Rise of Dr. Evil
The Smurfs: Rise of Gargamel
The Usual Suspects: Rise of Keyser Soze 
Ocean's Eleven: Rise of Terry Benedict
Zoolander: Rise of Jacobim Mugatu
The Happening: Rise of the Trees
Titanic: Rise of the Iceberg

You get the point.

What? The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro is only called The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro in weird countries like Australia, whereas everywhere else it's just The Amazing Spider-Man 2?

Okay, I'll shut up now. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: Monsters

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.

If we've learned anything from the movie Monsters vs. Aliens -- and I think we may have, since it's one of Dreamworks' better efforts -- it's that a clear dichotomy exists between these two groups in the taxonomy of scary creatures. Monsters and aliens may look similar, but it's their origin that distinguishes them. Even if they look otherworldly, monsters are decidedly of this earth. Aliens, on the other hand, are defined by their tendency to have grown up elsewhere.

That's the first problem with Gareth Edwards' Monsters. It is clearly about aliens, yet it refers to them by the more generic and terrestrial term monsters. Of course, if Edwards had called the film Aliens, his sociopolitical themes would have seemed even more on-the-nose than they already do.

In the world of Monsters, life has been discovered elsewhere in the universe, but we have failed to contain it. A shuttle bringing back evidence of alien life broke up over Mexico, raining various spores and other alien DNA on the landscape below. Six years later, new life forms have thrived in this now-quarantined zone, some of them as tall as buildings, and they frequently leave our populated areas in waste. The military has been waging an ongoing battle against the gargantuan monsters, managing to seal them off from the United States by a large wall along the Mexican border.

Caught behind this wall is the daughter of a media magnate, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), who has been injured in a monster-related attack. Also there, professionally, is a photojournalist named Andrew Kaulder (Scott McNairy), who is employed by the media magnate and tasked with the responsibility of returning Samantha safely to the United States. The two initially clash over the ethics of Andrew's profession, which necessitates that he try to get photographic evidence of the most heart-wrenching monster-related casualties (such as the death of a child). However, they must forge an uneasy bond as they try, by hook or by crook, to get out of the quarantined zone in the next 48 hours, before it is sealed off for the next six months. This will be especially hard when safe passage costs a small fortune, and even then it's "safe" in name only, as any nightfall potentially means an attack by these creatures.

Director Gareth Edwards was rewarded for his efforts by being handed the reins of the Godzilla reboot that's coming out this summer. It doesn't seem very likely that his writing, or his directing of actors, played much of a role in the studio's decision. His dialogue is clumsily expository, and his ability to get good performances from his cast -- particularly the stiff Able -- is limited. Having conjured some credible DIY monsters, which look a bit like those in Stephen King's The Mist, seems to be the primary achievement that won him the gig.

Monsters was indeed made on a shoestring, but that's only partly to blame for why it's so boring. It's Edwards' pacing, and not so much his inability to pay for a bunch of big scenes of destruction and chaos, that leave the film as such a chore. So much of the running time is consumed on sorting out the logistics of their travel back to the United States that it seems only probable that a fair amount of character development would have the space to occur. Not so. In part because of Able's limitations as an actress, we never get a sense for either of these characters, what draws them to each other, and even the stakes of their return trip to the states. So what if Samantha is caught in Mexico for six months? She speaks Spanish fluently. That's a start.

Some who have praised Monsters believe that it's doing something kind of brilliant, baiting and switching us for our own good. The title promises something more like Godzilla, when instead, Edwards may just want to hide a character study about ideas inside the skin of a monster movie. But I just don't buy it. It's a failure because it doesn't teach us anything about those characters, giving them predictable arcs and never really convincing us to like them.

Of course, one thing Edwards clearly has on his mind is to fulfill the great mission statement of science fiction as a genre: to use the familiar tropes of the genre as metaphor to comment on our society. I don't need to spell it out for you that the monsters, the aliens, in this movie are the Mexican immigrants trying to encroach into the United States. Even if Edwards hadn't constructed a big wall along the border to keep them out, that would still be painfully obvious. So Edwards has the big idea, but he doesn't know how to execute it. The actual Mexican characters who appear in this movie are little more than props, leaving next to no real-world corollary to his monster metaphor.

Upon finishing Monsters I read the Wikipedia plot summary of the movie, as I am sometimes wont to do -- even in situations like this, where nothing overtly confusing takes place. In this instance it was helpful in that the synopsis gave me a different read on what the final scene was supposed to mean. I had misinterpreted how it related to the movie's opening scene, and found the explanation of the relationship between those scenes a lot smarter than what I'd actually just watched. The fact that I didn't get it on my own means that again, there was something crucially lacking in Edwards' execution.

Monsters doesn't leave me particularly hopeful for Godzilla, but I wasn't particularly hopeful anyway, so I guess nothing has changed.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Amelie in increasingly shorter chunks

My online fantasy baseball draft was yesterday at 4 a.m.

Yesterday being a Monday.

Strange time for a fantasy baseball draft? Ah, but it was 1 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday in the U.S. And much as I may try, I'm not going to convince a U.S.-based fantasy baseball league to make its draft at a time more convenient for a guy living in Australia, even if the first two games of the season are being played by the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks just north of here in Sydney two weekends from now.

Actually, the timing was kind of perfectly convenient. In the middle of the night, there was no one whose needs I had to worry about, no favors I had to beg in order to draft in peace. My two-month-old could have woken up, of course -- probably would wake up, in fact -- but my wife agreed to do the diaper-changing in addition to the feeding that usually comes in the 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. range. As it happened, he slept through until 5 for the first time ever.

In the past, my draft time has been a major inconvenience. It has tended to be held on a Thursday night, and has taken up some prime afternoon/early evening hours when my being a husband and/or a dad was in high demand. Last year caused a particular hardship for my wife and son.

So middle of the night is pretty much perfect.

Except for the whole getting to sleep part.

I was planning to wake up at 2:45, as decisions would have to be finalized by 3 a.m. on which players I was going to keep from my previous year's team. They were already pretty much finalized, but breaking news during actual daytime hours in the U.S. could have theoretically changed my plans. An injury or something, for example. That meant first attempting to get down for the night at around 9:45.

I was close -- really close -- at times to falling asleep between 9:45 and 10:45. But the excitement always got the better of me. After all, draft day is my favorite day of the year.

The next hour contained a couple other fruitless attempts to make my environment more sleepy, including getting the fan from the garage and blowing it on me.

By midnight, though, I was watching Amelie.

Perhaps a strange choice to dissipate excitement over an imaginary sporting activity, but its proximity to the front of my Netflix queue reminded me how long I've been meaning to see this movie for a second time, and how direly I needed it.

You see, I was on a film podcast a couple years ago that was affiliated with Flickchart, and depended on a number of discussions of which film was better than which. The first random matchup we were given was Amelie vs. Finding Nemo. The host chose Amelie. I chose Finding Nemo.

At the time, I was only a little more than a year removed from my extraordinarily positive second viewing of Nemo, which saw me liking it perhaps even more than when I'd originally seen it. Meanwhile, my first and only viewing of Amelie was a full ten years earlier in 2001. I had loved it at the time, ranking it #3 for the year. But something unexpected happened in the ensuing decade, which is that Audrey Tatou continued to be cast in roles that were some variation on her iconic character from that film. Steadily burning out on the Tatou character, even while having stopped seeing the films in which the character appeared, also steadily eroded my feelings about Amelie, which I came to view retroactively as kind of twee.

The discussion we had on the podcast made me reconsider, and I ultimately decided to let the host's argument convince me, which allowed Amelie to earn the victory in the matchup. However, I was doing it sort of to ingratiate myself to him. I still didn't know how I truly feel about Amelie today, and it felt like an especially good time to reconsider it, seeing as how I just watched Finding Nemo about a month ago for the third time, and was a bit less charmed by it than I had been previously.

Was midnight on a Sunday night, when my being was entirely focused on the project of assembling an imaginary team of baseball players, the right time to see Amelie a second time? Probably not, but I did it anyway.  

Not without distraction, though. And here comes the "increasingly shorter chunks" of today's post title. I couldn't watch more than about five minutes of Amelie at a time without pausing and switching to another tab on my browser to check the baseball news. As the movie wore on, that became four-minute chunks, then three-minute chunks, then two-minute chunks. By the end, I was watching the movie only one word at a time.

Okay, that last bit was an exaggeration. But let's just say it took three hours to watch this two-hour movie. I suppose it was better to spend the time doing something, rather than just obsessively refreshing web pages.

In the first 20 minutes, I was awash again in the wonder and sheer joy of Amelie's Paris. The world of this movie is just so beautifully imagined, rendered and lived in. The film's point of view is also delightful, as well, with its quirky cutaways and photographs that come to life. I'm not only living in Amelie's Paris, I'm living in Amelie's brain. And it's a dynamically shot, meticulously composed wonderland.

In fact, I continue to love everything about this film with one big exception: her courtship with Mathieu Kassovitz' Nino.

It's just so convoluted. The more I watched it, the more I felt it resembling something like David Fincher's The Game, where all characters must behave in precisely a certain (unpredictable) way in order for it to come together as it does. The Game is a much bigger offender in that regard, and is also burdened by the fact that it's supposed to be "realistic." However, the end result was that I was starting to feel exhausted by the game these two were playing -- one more aggressively and one more passively, but playing nonetheless.

I guess I also have basic trouble with the notion that Nino keeps an album of ripped up photo booth portraits. Not because I don't believe that Nino would desire to make such an album, but that I don't believe it would be possible. It suggests that enough photo booth patrons would a) discard photos of themselves they had just paid for, b) discard them by ripping them into little shreds, and c) toss those ripped shreds in such a way that they would accumulate under the photo booth. Especially unconvincing is that he would have dozens of pictures of the photo booth technician. Although we see at the end that this technician does indeed rip his portraits into shreds, he throws them away in the trash can like a normal, law-abiding citizen.

Of course, once you are nit-picking details about Amelie you are really taking yourself out of its world, in which disbelief is one of the most fundamental suspensions.

So in the final analysis, Amelie is indeed an exquisite delight that probably labors on for about 20 minutes longer than it should, but is still pretty darn exquisite. And still maybe just a shade less exquisite than Finding Nemo.

And now I must go spend some more time basking in the glow of my newly assembled baseball team.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The lost All That Jazz review

Remember how I said I was going to review every movie I watched until the end of April?

Well, I was going along fine until I lost my draft of my review of Bob Fosse's All That Jazz.

Poof. It's simply gone.

I think I know what might have happened. When I was making my little post-posting tweaks on the Oscar recap piece I wrote yesterday, something weird happened where it was creating a new iteration of the draft every time I made a change. Eventually I had half a dozen drafts in there. I went back and erased them ... and today I see no evidence of the draft I had been working on before that.

So instead of starting over, I'm just going to say fuck it -- no All That Jazz review.

Which is a shame, because I thought I was saying some interesting things. I just don't want to recreate those interesting things from scratch. It's been nearly a week now since I've seen it, and time is money, people.

(Is time money on a blog? I don't know, it sounded like a good thing to say.)

It's also a shame because this is the best movie I've seen since I started writing these reviews back in January. (Slightly better than Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt.)

So you can consider this a firm endorsement of All That Jazz, if not an actual review. I couldn't believe what a vital, self-critical and honest piece of art it was, edited with conspicuous greatness and acted flawlessly by Roy Scheider. I might even use the M word ("masterpiece").

However, that's all you get. No plot synopsis. No further specifics of what I loved about it.

When you lose the paper you were working on in school, you don't have the luxury of just walking away. You have to start over again -- unless you just decide you want to flunk the course, which seems a rather rash response to this admitted tragedy.

On a blog, I can and will just say "fuck it."

So: Fuck it.

And: See All That Jazz, dammit.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Hilariously overdue post-Oscars piece

Hey there. Forgotten about the Oscars already?

Sorry about that. It's been a busy week, as I think I told you it would be.

However, just as it was not right to write nothing on my blog anticipating the Oscars, it's not write to do away with the post-mortem, either, just because it's being written at least 24 hours after everyone on the internet had already figured out how John Travolta would mangle their names.

Especially since year, something personally noteworthy happened that hasn't happened to me in 23 years:

The Academy crowned a best picture winner I had not yet seen.

That's right, that hasn't happened to me since Dances With Wolves won best picture in 1990.

I anticipated that this might happen, of course, and had scheduled a viewing of 12 Years a Slave for the Monday before the Oscars. However, the theater where I was going to see it -- Cinema Nova in Carlton -- doesn't post its Monday showtimes until Monday morning, which I think has something to do with the steep discount they offer on Mondays. In the past, the schedule is often the same as Sunday, so I was relying on that being the case this time. And though 12 Years a Slave was being shown only 35 minutes earlier than I was expecting -- 1:25 p.m. rather than 2 p.m. -- that was the crucial difference that made my intended viewing impractical. I ended up at a 3 p.m. showing of Nebraska instead.

As Will Smith was preparing to tell us what had won best picture, I found myself hoping he would say "Gravity," just so this indignity of not seeing the best picture winner could be avoided.

Ah well. That will make this a memorable year, even in addition to it being my first Oscars in Australia.

And how exactly did my geography manifest itself in terms of watching the Oscars? Well, instead of watching the show live, which we actually could have done, we were living through a regular Monday afternoon. Though it was actually quite irregular, as my father and his wife arrived in Australia just an hour before the show was to start, 24 hours late due to some weather and mechanical problems back in the U.S. As I was driving around town (borrowing my father-in-law's car) on this errand or that, I had to make sure not to accidentally hear Oscar results reported on the radio as they were happening, especially with Aussies particularly engaged in this year's ceremony as a result of Cate Blanchett's candidacy (and eventual win) for best actress. This is to say nothing of the two Oscars Baz Luhrmann's wife took home for The Great Gatsby (which, as a champion of that movie, I was pleased to see). I was actually lucky enough to hear one DJ on Triple J confirm that he was not going to be giving any Oscars spoilers, but that the DJ following him would be under no such restriction.

Having strictly avoided the internet all afternoon, we ended up firing up the Oscars on our DVR after 8 p.m. that night, when our jet-lagged travelers and sleep-avoiding children were all tucked away for the night. With fast-forwarding through the ads, my wife was able to stay up to watch all but the last few awards. We even filled out predictions, and I got more correct than I usually do, even just running through and selecting them in about three minutes.

Did I have some catty observations about things that occurred/were said? Sure.

But too much time has definitely passed for me to dredge those up now.

And now it's finally, officially, on to 2014. I'll resign myself to catching 12 Years a Slave on DVD, and may -- just may -- be finally looking to see my first 2014 film this Tuesday.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Review: L'Atalante

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.

One of the pleasures -- some might say frustrations -- of perusing Sight & Sound's list of the greatest movies of all time, replenished every ten years on the 2's, is finding highly ranked films you've never heard of. If you just want to discover great new movies, it's a pleasure. If you want to imagine yourself a well-watched cineaste, it can be a frustration.

Me, I tend a little bit toward the frustration end of the spectrum, in part because I have this suspicion that there are certain movies people have decided are great because they're suitably obscure and serve as an emblem of those people's refined tastes in cinema. Put another way, I like to think that the films that are this worth knowing about are films that I should already know about. Those who vote in the Sight & Sound poll may just want to show everyone how discriminating they are, how far from the mainstream they stray.

So this is how I came to Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, the highest-ranked title in the 2012 poll that I had never heard of before the poll. Vigo's 1934 film was a staggering #12 overall, continuing to rise (it was #17 in 2002), and destined for the top ten in 2022 if the current trend continues. My reasoning was, "If this movie is so great, why hasn't anyone ever pushed it in front of me as something for me to taste -- or even mentioned that it existed?"

I was determined to find out.

L'Atalante doesn't require a lengthy plot synopsis. The title is the name of the boat that two newlyweds ride up river as a kind of working honeymoon, headed for Paris immediately following their nuptials. The captain, Jean (Jean Daste), has just married Juliette (Dita Parlo) in her village, and they are joined on their voyage by two crewmen (Michel Simon and Louis Lefebevre). Their voyage is not marked so much by the beats of a traditional narrative story, but by a number of occurrences. For example, Jean grows jealous when he believes that the crewman Pere Jules (Simon) is flirting with his wife, and there are also lots of cats around. If this seems like something of an uncharitable accounting of the film's story, there's a purpose to it.

Upon arriving in Paris, Jean's jealousy issues compound when a street peddler tries to get Juliette to come away with him, and Juliette, seeking to explore a Paris Jean seems unable or unwilling to show her, secretly leaves the ship on her own. To explain too much more of what happens would start to reveal parts of the movie that traditionally do not come up in a review.

It didn't surprise me to learn that L'Atalante was poorly received at the time of its release. I often think there's something to be said for these initial reactions. If a movie fails to entertain or captivate, that should be immediately evident, and the passage of time should not do anything to change that computation. If a movie is dramatically inert, eventually reconsidering its context and historical importance should not significantly ameliorate that problem.

So you can see that I align myself with the critics who initially rejected L'Atalante, but I have until now only hinted at why.

For starters, L'Atalante could have been made five years earlier for how closely it resembles a silent film. This is not a slam on silent films, of course, only an indictment of this particular film's sophistication in a rapidly changing industry. The other two films I've seen from 1934 -- Hitchcock's original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and the best picture winner It Happened One Night -- are both significantly more polished than L'Atalante. In defense of Vigo's film, I am referring specifically to audio sophistication. Some of what Vigo is doing with the camera is far more advanced, but the near indifference to the audio presents itself as a distraction. (I suppose I must also admit that those two films benefited from Hollywood budgets, while this one certainly did not.)

I also felt that the story developed fitfully and unconvincingly. Particularly troubling is the arc of the relationship between the two newlyweds, who make almost an overnight change from fawning over each other to growing short-tempered and perhaps even considering a separation. It's not clear why two, or three, or however many days aboard this boat changes them so fundamentally.

Then there's the more intangible "Frenchness" of the film. I'm the first to admit that I am sometimes kept at arm's length by certain traits that many films of French cinema share in common, the kind that are often lampooned. As L'Atalante is praised specifically for its influence on the French New Wave, it's no surprise that some of those things might bother me here. One example is Pere Jules. He seems to serve the same role as one of Shakespeare's classic fool characters, which means his function should be primarily comic relief. Yet this bellowing, braying character has a more traditionally heroic function in the resolution of the film's core conflict than does the hero himself. I'm not saying I need my narratives so conventional as to be able to put the characters in neat little boxes, but in this case it was enough to throw me off.

The biggest problem with L'Atalante is beyond this film's own control, and relates more to its exalted #12 position in the poll. Simply put, there was too large of a gap between my expectations for what was considered in the top dozen best films of all time, and what I actually got. After viewing such a revered film, I should at least be able to perceive some specific thing about it that might make lots of other people really love it, even if I don't love it myself. But this is where I came up emptiest with L'Atalante. Even now, I can't tell you what makes it important or significant or even worth watching all the way to the ending -- something I won't be doing twice to give myself another chance to figure it out.

Or maybe I'll just never fully "get" French filmmakers. Sacre bleu.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oscars preview? What Oscars preview?

You may realize from the tenor of some of my posts that I feel a bit disconnected from the world down here in Australia.

It's not that I don't have access to the internet and all the modern conveniences that keep all of us in touch with each other. I do. I never like to create the impression that Australia is a place where high-speed internet is dependent on whether or not a kangaroo has tripped over the wire that day. (In fact, my internet is better and more reliable here than it was in Los Angeles.)

But it's true that I have felt, sort of, out of it down here. I didn't watch a minute of the Olympics, for example -- and that wasn't out of protest.

My interest in the Oscars, the show itself, has been diminishing a little bit in recent years anyway. Fast forward to 2014, when I've still only seen just over half of the best picture nominees (Nebraska earlier this week took me from just under to just over), and my once-intimate connection to the Oscars has been dealt another blow. At this point, I'm not even sure how we're going to watch it, whether we're going to live-stream it or wait four or five hours and watch it on TV. At least, I think it will be shown on TV here on Monday night. The fact that my dad and his wife will be in town, on the first full day of their visit, complicates our viewing plans even further.

So what am I doing on this blog -- a movie blog, I should remind myself -- to recognize the approach of this hallowed event?

You're looking at it.

A non-preview preview, written mostly to explain its own lameness, written because I don't want you to think this blog has become just a repository for my reviews of the two movies per week I'm watching.

However, it really sucks to read an entire post where all the content is non-content. So below, I will list five categories where I'm really hoping for a particular winner, and my reasons for it.

Best Original Score - Gravity

As much as Gravity is, in many ways, about what we're seeing, the actual phenomenon that I keep returning to the most is the dread-inducing orchestral strains that accompany every onset of that unrelenting debris field. It's chilling me right now as I think about it.

Best Production Design - The Great Gatsby

Yep, I'm shilling for Gatsby again. All the other nominees in this category are also best picture nominees, and it seems likely the Academy will recognize one of those here. But even if you didn't like Gatsby, you have to admit its production design was absolutely rapturous. Who would have imagined that such a sumptuous recreation of 1920s New York would have been possible?

Best Original Song - "Let It Go," Frozen

Here's a case of front-running if I've ever seen one. I wouldn't even mention it except it gives me an opportunity to take a subtle dig at the movie (having recently argued the merits of Tangled relative to it, and been told I was wrong). This song is easily the best part of the movie, and gave me a genuine rush of emotion -- even if I wasn't actually feeling the character's emotional release at the time it was playing, because the script isn't very good.

Best Adapted Screenplay - Before Midnight

Although I don't naturally think of this as an adapted screenplay, I join Nick Prigge of Cinema Romantico in saying that this would be a nice way to crown the trilogy, similar to what they did with The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. It'll never happen, but these aren't predictions, they are merely rooting interests.

Best Picture - Gravity

This was only my ninth favorite movie that I saw in 2013, but it was the highest of the four best picture nominees I'd seen at that point. I don't feel that strongly about this winning the award, in reality -- in fact, I'm kind of rooting for 12 Years a Slave, even though I haven't seen it. But you can't have an Oscars post without mentioning your preference for best picture, can you? It seems like a good mainstream winner that won't be scoffed at in future years -- or not that much, anyway -- and it definitely reflects what people were talking about in 2013. I'd love to see the career-long visionary genius of Alfonso Cuaron recognized in some way, in any case. Maybe I should have included Best Director as one of these categories ...

Enjoy the Oscars -- wherever or whenever you watch them.