Thursday, May 29, 2014

Byrne notice

Rose Byrne's star is on the rise in Hollywood, in part because of her willingness to appear in a lot of Judd Apatow-type comedies. I think of her as a pretty sophisticated woman, so I always thought doing the lesser iterations of these movies (such as last year's The Internship) was a bit beneath her. Still, there's no doubt the decision has given her steady work.

She's still far from being a household name in the U.S., but things are a bit different in her home country of Australia. 

In fact, Byrne is a focal point of the advertising for her new movie Neighbors, whose poster you see above.

Whose U.S. poster, I should say, you see above. 

The Australian poster is different in a couple key ways:

The movie is called Bad Neighbours here. That's both an additional word at the beginning of the title, and an additional letter in the existing word.

Also, Byrne is in the poster.

As seen here:

It's the first time since moving here that I've really been conscious of an attempt to push a local talent in a movie's advertising campaign. What I'm trying to figure out, though, is why.

Sure, Byrne is Australian, and sure, we live in Australia. But is it even her Australianness that's being sold here, or just Australia's ongoing and previously documented attempt to sell gross-out comedies to women? I don't know if Neighbors/Bad Neighbours is actually a gross-out comedy, but with Seth Rogen in the cast, I'm assuming there's at least an element of that present.

I first noticed this Australian initiative to appeal to women in another Zac Efron movie from 2014, which also had two titles: That Awkward Moment (in the U.S.) and Are We Officially Dating? (in Australia). If this sounds familiar, I wrote about it here.

So it mightn't matter that Byrne grew up in a suburb of Sydney. Her second X chromosome may be her more important characteristic in this case.

Oh, and why the movie's called Bad Neighbours here instead of just Neighbours? (We can't escape the presence of the additional U.) Because Neighbours by itself is the name of a long-running Australian soap opera, one that briefly employed the likes of Guy Pearce, Kylie Minogue, Natalie Imbruglia and Alan Dale.

I was hoping Byrne herself had cut her teeth on Neighbours, as that would bring my whole post full circle ... but synchronicity like that is only possible in the movies.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

My civic duty

So what was I doing at the Hoyts Highpoint cinema last night, with the well-received trio of Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Neighbors (here called Bad Neighbours) staring me in the face, and purchasing a ticket for a movie that had already been out for two months?

My civic duty, that's what.

Since I am an American expatriate living Australia -- you may have heard me mention this before -- I am always conscious of my own Americanness. I'm acutely aware that every time I open my mouth to a stranger, that person is going to be confronted by the momentary thought "Oh, I'm talking to an American," and whatever he or she associates with that will flicker through his/her mind. Sometimes this is a positive, as when I was at an Aussie rules football game on Sunday night and one of the vendors told me that she loved my accent and had visited Boston (I was wearing a Celtics jersey). When they don't say anything, though, I make the paranoid assumption that they are judging me.

Given this, you can understand why I am hesitant to wear a) my Obama t-shirt, and b) my Captain America t-shirt. The Obama shirt is no great shakes, style-wise, but I love the Cap shirt. I do wear it, but then I am even more conscious of how I am confronting strangers with my Americanness. "Not only is this guy American," they will think, "but he wears his Americanness literally on his sleeve."

I don't feel ashamed of being American -- far from it. But I do feel that my very lack of shame is what I might be judged for. A lack of shame is the most identifiably American trait we have, if you take us at our most stereotypical level. So I feel the need to apologize for whatever foreign policy decision or bit of cultural imperialism for which they may blame me. Hey, at least feeling guilty about it could earn me recognition as one of the "good Americans."

However, I do still feel a kinship to anything American, which includes most of the culture Australians consume. Movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier are those I want especially to give my blessing, and that translates to seeing them in the theater, even if they have been out here in Australian since April 3rd.

In fact, so much did I want to endorse this movie that I had intended to see it on the fifth day of its theatrical release, until I was forced into a last-minute change of plans in order to successfully execute a double feature (you can read about that here). Having heard so many good things about Captain America, and having really dug the first one, I didn't want the rash decision I had to make back when I caught Noah and The Lego Movie to consign The Winter Soldier to the small screen. I also knew that it might be gone from Highpoint as soon as this Thursday, so now was the time to act.

I ended up really liking the movie -- I would almost say I loved it -- but that's not what I want to spend the rest of this post telling you about. Rather, I want to tell you about something that happened to me at the end of the movie.

I'd reached the Highpoint Shopping Center via the 57 tram, using my wife's Myki card. These green cards, about the size of and twice the thickness of a credit card, are what you swipe when you board. I was using her card, rather than my own, because mine is carrying a balance that decreases whenever I use it, while hers has had unlimited use paid up front for a certain period of time. Whenever she's not using hers, it makes sense for me to use it, as I had also done earlier that day to get to and from work.

It was this card -- which was paid up through the morning of June 19th -- that I couldn't find at the end of the movie.

I slapped every pocket. I rummaged through every compartment of my backpack. I slapped every pocket again. And then I started to swear up a storm.

You see, a Myki card is a precious object. Even if it doesn't have any money on it, it costs six dollars to replace. When it does have money on it, it's basically just like cash. Anyone who's holding it can use it to ride several varieties of Melbourne transportation, from trams to buses to trains.

And riding these is not cheap. It's $3.58 per ride, so paying up for a whole week costs about $30.

The thing is, my wife hadn't paid up for just a week. That's what she had been doing, but this time, she had paid up for a whole month. And there were still more than three weeks until June 19th, the expiration date I'd been seeing flash on the card readers.

That means that my wife's Myki card -- now evidently, irretrievably lost -- was worth close to $100.


After I'd pushed back every seat in the two rows on either side of the one where I'd been sitting, I reluctantly decided that I had to declare the card gone. I grimly noted that my frantic search for the card at least allowed me to see both of the two bonus sequences inserted into, and then after, the movie's credits.

On my way out of the theater, I decided to throw a hail mary and ask the woman cleaning up behind the concessions counter if there was any chance that someone would turn in a lost Myki card. I wasn't even asking her if someone did turn it in -- I was asking her if she thought there was any chance they would. To her credit, she did not take the easy route of giving me the answer I laid out for her on a platter. She called up to her manager to see if someone had turned one in, and indeed, they had not.

I mean, who would? If you found a hundred dollars lying on the ground, would you try to figure out who had lost it? Finders keepers, losers weepers.

I thought what most likely happened was that it fell out of my jacket pocket in the ticket line. Having hoofed it over from the tram stop, I found myself quite toasty when I finally slowed down to queue up, so I shed both my jacket and the long-sleeve shirt underneath it. So as a last-ditch effort to avoid the chewing out I imagined my wife would give me, I made my way over to the velvet ropes and metal posts of the ticket line.

And: there it was.

I couldn't believe it. Resting on the circular metal base of one of the posts was my wife's Myki card. I so couldn't believe it that even though it was obviously the same card, I checked the reverse side for the letter C my wife had scrawled on it with a Sharpie. And there was that glorious letter C.

Grinning wildly, I brought the card back and showed the woman at the concession stand, who mirrored my wide grin.

Now, what may well have happened was that the card landed exactly where I found it. But that's not what I'm choosing to believe. Because it seems imminently more likely -- according to the physics of falling objects, if not the behavioral tendencies of human beings -- I have to believe that a good Samaritan saw my lost card on the ground and specifically placed it on the little incline of the metal post base.

And if I'm believing that, I'm also believing that they consciously chose that spot for the following reason: It was where someone who was looking for it would find it, as opposed to just leaving it on the carpet, where it would attract the attention of any passerby seeking to profit from it. This would also be preferable to turning it in to the lost and found, where it would also be subject to the morality of whoever next possessed it. The spot they chose was specifically designed so that the person who lost it, and no other, would be the most likely person to find it.

They couldn't have known how much money was on it, but doing the right thing cost them close to $100. Of course, to this wonderful person, doing the right thing may have been its own reward.

By the time I exited the mall complex and walked the 15 minutes to the tram stop, the last tram on my line had run for the night. Another tram that could take me part of the way came lurching by, so part of the way I rode. When it diverged from my route, I disembarked, and walked the remaining 50 minutes back to my house, arriving at just after 1 a.m. I was so keyed up that the walk flew by. I was so keyed up that I'm writing this post now, instead of in the morning, even though the clock has just now struck 2 a.m.

It would have been a heck of a sad walk home if I'd lost a hundred dollars. Instead, I bounced along, riding the kind of spring in your step that only comes from having your faith in humanity restored.

And on a night that was designed to appreciate Americans, I ended up appreciating the heck out of some nameless and faceless Australian.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

I still don't much care for The Big Lebowski ...

... as discussed here ...

... but I apparently really like Lebowski-themed t-shirts.

I regularly get emails from, and used to regularly buy t-shirts from,, a website where artists submit designs and fans vote on whether they should get made into t-shirts. If an individual design gets enough votes, it could be in your closet a couple weeks later.

Threadless recently held a contest to create the perfect t-shirt accompaniment to one of the most beloved cult movies out there, The Big Lebowski. It doesn't happen to be beloved by me, but I have kept the April 21st email flagged for follow-up in anticipation of writing this post to show you just how great the design finalists were. This shows me that I like the idea of The Big Lebowski, if not so much its reality.

Anyway, here are some of those shirts, just so you can see what I'm talking about.

If you're as ardent a Lebowski supporter as most people seem to be, you could tell me that I should use this recognition of a renewed affection as an excuse to go back and rediscover its charms. Thing is, the post I linked to in the first line was my attempt to develop stronger feelings for the movie, and it failed.

So, abstract appreciation it is.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Eight movies I'd watch on Netflix if my wife didn't find out

Netflix is a great resource for cinephiles. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.

It means you can sit down to watch nearly anything from nearly any genre at nearly any time, as long as you've paid your monthly dues and Netflix has it available for streaming.

Unless, of course, you share your Netflix queue with your spouse.

That limits the field somewhat.

I'm sure that this is only a neurotic like me talking, and that you are a lot more evolved than to get hung up on things like this, but every time I consider watching something on Netflix, I wonder what my wife will think of seeing it among our three most recently viewed titles. It's only the most recent three I have to worry about, since for some reason, our "See All Activity" link is broken. (It reads, simply, "You have not viewed any titles yet.")

Wonder what I'm talking about? Here are some examples:

1) Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, Abdellatif Kechiche) - "I hear this is filled with graphic lesbian sex. What was my husband up to when I was sleeping last night?"
Why this fear is irrational: It was an acclaimed arthouse film from 2013, so there's every reason a cinematic omnivore such as myself would want to watch it ... even if it did not contain graphic lesbian sex. Besides, its three-hour running time would prove my dedication.

2) Marriage Italian Style (1964, Vittorio de Sica) - "Why is my husband wondering how marriage is done differently with Italians? Is he not happy with our marriage? Does he want an Italian wife?"
Why this fear is irrational: De Sica is a brilliant director (see The Bicycle Thief), and consuming more foreign cinema is always one of my goals.

3) UnHung Hero (2013, Brian Spitz) - "Does my husband worry that he has a small penis?"
Why this fear is irrational: We love documentaries, and ones with a comedic bent and an original approach often jump to the top of our list. And besides ... um, I don't. I have a friend who has that problem.

4) My Week With Marilyn (2011, Simon Curtis) - "Does my husband have a crush on Michelle Williams?"
Why this fear is irrational: My wife doesn't know I have a crush on Michelle Williams.

5) Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead (2012, Noboru Iguchi) - "What kind of fetishist mood was my husband in last night that he was watching a movie involving zombies, shit and Japanese girls in skimpy school uniforms?"
Why this fear is irrational: It's just a zombie movie, albeit an oddball and probably terrible one.

6) Show Me Love (1998, Lukas Moodysson) - "Is this the lesbian movie my husband watched when he decided Blue is the Warmest Color was too long?"
Why this fear is irrational: She probably wouldn't have even heard of the movie or bothered to look up what it was about, and the title is pretty vague. Plus, we loved Moodysson's film Together.

7) Irreversible (2002, Gaspar Noe) - "Why did my husband want to watch a movie featuring a nine-minute rape scene a second time?"
Why this fear is irrational: Okay, it's not so irrational. (The movie is brilliant and haunting, though.)

8) The Piano Teacher (2001, Michael Haneke) - "Why did my husband want to watch this movie that I warned him was brutal?"
Why this fear is irrational: I don't even know what's brutal about it, though I believe it's something sexual. And besides, she's actually seen it.

So now that I've proved that all (okay, most) of these fears are irrational, I oughtta go get watching, right?

Not so fast. I mean, I'm still the same neurotic I was at the beginning of this post.

It's not so much the idea that I might ever want to watch these movies that bothers me ... it's giving my wife that moment where she says "Why did he choose to watch this movie last night?" In other words, what mood was he in that made him think this was the right movie to scratch that itch?

That thinking too is highly irrational ... in the sense that it can be applied to any time we watch a movie for any reason. Every viewing we've ever had, you might say, has been preceded by a particular mood that created the necessary conditions to kick off the viewing. If you're ever going to watch Irreversible, you have to at some point decide that tonight's the night.

But it isn't so surprising to me that I should want to keep some of these things hidden. Irreversible is, in many ways, a dark and twisted film, one that plumbs the very depths of darkness and brutality. It also contains some moments that are just plain beautiful. The overall cinematic experience is unforgettable, and something I seek to repeat. But I also don't want to be accountable for why I wanted to watch it again. I don't want anyone to think that I'm a disturbed individual who gets some sort of sick pleasure from watching Monica Bellucci get raped for nine minutes. Although that's the most famous thing about the movie, it's hardly the most interesting. I sort of want to watch this movie again just for that incredible final shot and the strobe light effect that closes the movie. Oh, and for that part where the guy's head gets smashed in with a fire extinguisher, which was simply horrifying.

So yeah, I won't be watching Irreversible again until the circumstances are just right ... when I can hide the evidence of having done so.

The others? Well, you could argue that simply adding them to our queue in the first place was the moment when my wife's eyebrows might have raised. You could argue that watching the title is just the logic eventual completion of a transaction that may have begun years ago.

The most irrational thing about this whole post? My wife isn't like that. She doesn't think things to death. She doesn't wonder about my secret motivations. She just isn't wired that way. If she saw that Irreversible was one of the three most recent views on our accout, her eyes and brain would make a momentary acknowledgement of the simple fact of it, without applying any additional analysis. Then she'd just move on.

In fact, you might say, the only reason she'd have occasion to think about any of this would be if she were to read this post.

Neurotics ... you just can't save us from ourselves.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Veronica Mars and 60 minutes of vigorous walking

It's that time of year again -- the time when movies from the current release year start being available on DVD.

Even here in Australia, as it turns out.

I noticed earlier in the week that the Kickstarter-funded Veronica Mars movie made a very rapid DVD debut down under, as the title popped up on an email of new releases at the Hoyts kiosks. And Tuesday made for a good night to watch it, as my wife has come down with the cold I had over the weekend and was sure to be turning in early.

What Tuesday really was, though, was a test of whether I can walk to the nearest Hoyts kiosk and back during the half-hour I get for lunch.

There are two kiosks about equidistant from my office, neither of which is really close enough to walk to. By that, I mean that normal people -- those who aren't trying to figure out how to watch as many movies as possible -- would never do it.

But I'm not normal, and I judged that it was probably on the outside edges of being possible, so I vowed to give it a try.

Determining that the walk to the IGA in East Melbourne was probably slightly more favorable than the walk to the Woolworth's in the Queen Victoria Centre, I set off as soon as I clocked out for lunch. And I was truly on the clock, as the seconds of your 30-minute lunch immediately begin ticking away as soon as you take yourself off the phones.

Even hoofing it at a decent clip, it took me until 12:44 to get there, at which point I had about three minutes worth of business to transact inside the IGA -- first getting the movie from the kiosk, then determining something I would actually eat for lunch.

That same decent clip back, and I was a minute thirty late for my return. The countdown of my lunch break had gone into the red by the time I got myself back on the phones.

Of course, the task was only half done. I also had to return it on Wednesday.

Not liking the ultimate difficulty in getting to the IGA, I this time opted for the QV Centre, since you can return a movie to any kiosk. I won't bore you with the details -- we can just skip ahead to me returning that same minute and 30 seconds late. And this was without doing anything but returning the movie.

So was Veronica Mars worth all this up-tempo ambling that left a burn in my legs by the time I got back?


This movie is probably fine for people who didn't watch the show, and "fine" would be a generous, but not inaccurate, description of how I felt about it at various points. But the goal in a movie based on a TV show is to expand it to those audiences who didn't watch the show, and on this score it didn't do enough -- either to entice me as a non-viewer, or to seem larger scale and more cinematic than what I imagine was a typical episode of the show. James Franco cameo notwithstanding.

Of course, that's what makes the Kickstarter era interesting: a product funded by fans sort of does actually have to answer them, and a friend tells me that this is the explanation for a couple narrative choices that I found, shall we say, curious. For example, one seemingly innocuous, even nice, boyfriend character was unceremoniously kicked to the curb in favor of another guy, who wouldn't win any points with the uninitiated viewer.

Another Kickstarter reality is that movies that studios refuse to fund can get made, but they can't necessarily get made very wellVeronica Mars also seems to be a good example of this. You can see its lower budget in the less-than-optimal lighting, and other production details. It just all looks very ... TV.

You know, a fine movie, but not one worth going to great lengths to acquire during lunch.

The good news is, most days I won't actually have to hoof it to these kiosks. Now that my bike is out of the shop, having gotten new brake pads, I can return to riding to work, and can take my bike out at lunch to obtain the next DVD that catches my fancy.

Because it's May, and now they'll be coming at regular intervals for the rest of the year.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Things I didn't know/forgot about Superman

My childhood was timed just perfectly so that it was the second movie of certain iconic series that really resonated with me. Yes, I have a much greater intimacy with the likes of Superman II, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, each of which I have seen approaching ten times, while Superman: The Movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Terminator have remained only one-time viewings. (The Terminator movies came out later, respectively, than those other movies, but were also significantly more violent, so I didn't encounter them until later on in my maturation.) I'd say the same thing for The Empire Strikes Back, but my preference of that over Star Wars is more in line with traditional thinking, and I never owned it on video, so didn't watch it significantly more than the original.

For years now I have been trying to schedule a second viewing of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but I just never seem to be able to get my hands on the thing. Remembering it to have disappointed me, you could also say I haven't exhausted the conventional means to acquire it.

Superman: The Movie, I realized, posed no such problem.

See, I got all four Superman movies as part of a DVD four-pack at a Christmas gift swap a couple years ago. That led to my first-ever viewing of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which I consider to be one of the worst movies I have ever seen. It was an easy decision to leave the disc that contained both that and Superman III behind in the states.

The Superman/Superman II disc came with us to Australia, and when I was sick on Sunday afternoon with a chunk of time home by myself, I decided to reacquaint myself with side 1 of that DVD.

Here's what I learned/remembered:

1) This was my third, not second, viewing of the movie. I can be pretty sure of that. Both viewings would have been more than 25 years ago, though, and probably closer to 30 years ago. Then again, there's also a high deja vu factor because some of the events in this movie are recapped at the beginning of Superman II. And some of them are just iconic enough to have seen them elsewhere, in clip packages at the Oscars and the like.

2) I can't believe that the two names that appear before the title are Marlon Brandon and Gene Hackman. Superman himself does not get a pre-title billing. Of course, no one had heard of Christopher Reeve at the time, so it makes sense by Hollywood standards if not by simple logic.

3) I thought I hadn't learned until one of the reboots that the S Superman wears on his chest was his family crest on Krypton. But there it is, right on Jor-El's chest.

4) When General Zod (Terence Stamp) got a mention on a recent episode of Filmspotting as one of the five best "things that came from outer space to destroy us," host Adam Kempenaar referenced his appearance and trial in the original Superman. Knowing that scene iconically from Superman II, I had thought he was mistaken -- and my desire to prove him wrong was one of the reasons I watched the movie again on Sunday. Turns out, he was right -- it's the opening scene of the movie. Which really begs the question: Why in the hell was Richard Donner allowed to include this scene of the three Krypton outlaws being tried, when their involvement in the rest of the movie is going to be absolutely zilch? I know that the first two Superman movies were envisioned as two parts of one whole, and it was probably safe to assume the first movie would be successful enough to greenlight a sequel. (Maybe they were even filmed at the same time -- I can't be bothered to go look it up.) Still, from a basic narrative standpoint that dictates that every part of a script must have a clear purpose for being included, the inclusion of these villains at this juncture makes no sense whatsoever.

5) I said the previous scene was the movie's first scene, but that's not actually true. There's a little prologue that involves us looking at the pages of Superman comic #1 from 1938. Totally forgot that.

6) How horrifying is that Krypton destruction scene? There are bodies hurtling down endless chasms left and right.

7) You would never get away with being able to show the little three-year-old dingle of a naked Superboy these days.

8) Lana Lang. When she made an appearance in Superman III, it angered me -- Lois Lane is Clark Kent's love interest. Not this impostor. Turns out, she has one minute of screen time in Superman: The Movie. Who knew? See #4 about including characters who are going to pay no dividends in this movie.

9) Is that Christopher Reeve dubbing the dialogue for the teenage version of the character? Another thing I can't be bothered to look up.

10) Man of Steel was torn a new one for containing so many product placements in its big fight scene in Smallville. Turns out, there's a dumbfoundingly prominent placement of a box of Cheerios right in the original Superman.

11) This could have occurred to me during one of my many viewings of Superman II, but how the hell did Lois Lane afford a penthouse apartment on a reporter's salary?

12) Metropolis is really and truly intended to be New York. That's something I forgot. Not only do they mention nearby New York cities (such as New Rochelle) in announcements at the train station under which Lex Luthor has his lair, but then of course Superman and Lois also fly by the Statue of Liberty later on.

13) I had forgotten how much of a comedic character Luthor already was in this first movie. I thought he was more of a murderous scumbag, which he is. What really surprised me, though, is that he would be so frustrated with Otis at one point that he would actually jump into the backseat of a car -- while driving -- just to throttle him. Thank goodness Miss Tessbacher is there to take the wheel.

14) And speaking of Miss Tessbacher ... it's so odd to me that the only reason the movie ends positively for anybody is because of this very side character. It's she who frees Superman from the Kryptonite necklace that sinks him to the bottom of Luthor's pool (and how clunky is that entire scene between Superman and the villains in Luthor's lair?), without which Lois Lane would have died and two nuclear missiles would have hit their targets. Not only that, but she also kisses Superman in a moment that the movie lingers on as though it were sort of romantic. I remembered none of this, and frankly consider it to be pretty problematic.

15) And speaking of Lois dying ... the fact that Superman can turn back time by flying at the speed of light in the opposite direction of the rotation of the Earth remains one of the most bogus ideas ever put forward in a Superman movie. It's simply cheating. One question: Did Supe know he would be able to do this when he set out, or was it just a happy byproduct of angrily flying really fast? And if he knew, wouldn't he be more practical about the whole thing, rather than flying through angry tears? And if he didn't know, wouldn't he be more surprised that it worked?

16) And what's up with this series' obsession with nuclear weapons? I know it's a byproduct of the Cold War and everything, but a nuclear weapon is the nemesis in this movie and at the beginning of Superman II (the bomb in the Eiffel Tower). Then there's a whole character devoted to nuclear power in the fourth movie, Nuclear Man, but the less said about that character/movie, the better.

I came away from this viewing with a full confirmation of my belief that Superman II is the superior film. For one, it's got a much more focused and self-contained plot, that builds and builds rather than just springing itself on us (we don't even learn the details of Luthor's plot until just before he executes it). Secondly, it's got far better villains. And thirdly, it's just more fun.

However, I have to realize and acknowledge that it would simply be impossible for me to feel as much love for the original Superman as Superman II, simply for how much I familiarized myself with the sequel and loved it through repeated exposure. It's what I did back in the 1980s that determined this once and for all, and it can't be undone/changed by anything I might do now.

Okay, next up: Finding Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Ice cream in faraway places

I haven't lived in Australia long enough to know all its tricks, but I figure I'd know by now if Australians had the unlikely ability to preserve ice cream in solid form through unusual circumstances.

Two movies I've seen in a month's time, which happened both to be set in Australia, feature characters who eat ice cream despite the fact that they are miles away from an ice cream vendor, or the nearest source of refrigeration.

First it was Mystery Road, my April entry in my Australian Audient series. In a moment near the beginning of the movie, two detectives are at a crime scene that's supposed to be miles from anywhere. A dead girl has been dumped in a drainage tunnel by the side of a forlorn desert road, and the cops are sitting in a sedan by the side of that road, swapping talk about the case. The younger one is our hero, and he's sincerely interested in doing justice by the girl. The older one is the one who has lost all his idealism, and actually issues vaguely threatening bits of wisdom about how the younger one should go about it if he doesn't want to ruffle the wrong feathers. As if to punctuate his venality, the older detective indulges in something like a Dove Bar -- you know, one of those ice cream treats that gets all the structural integrity it needs from its hard chocolate shell.

Only thing is, they are supposed to be at least a couple clicks from their station, and they're not supposed to have just gotten there, either. How, pray tell, did this older detective transport his chocolate ice cream treat that whole distance, in the hot sun of a New South Wales summer, without the thing turning into a puddle in his lap? Are we banking on him having a miniature freezer in the glove compartment of his beaten up old P.O.S.? Even assuming he could keep it cold, what would have possessed the man to consciously save the ice cream for a little treat while discussing a murder?

My thinking is just that the director thought it would look cool.

Then it was Saving Mr. Banks this past weekend. You may not know that Saving Mr. Banks takes place in Australia, but the film flashes back repeatedly -- excessively, one might argue -- to the childhood of P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, when she was a girl living in a remote little town on the end of the train line called Allora, Queensland. The many flashbacks deal with the girl's relationship to her father, Travers Goff, played by Colin Farrell.

In one episode, Travers Goff promised the girl he'd buy her some ice cream, on a day that was otherwise spent nearly losing his job at the bank because he came in drunk. Given a reprieve by his boss, who has a sympathetic reaction to the child, Travers buys her the ice cream, and they go and sit in a field to eat it. In another one of those moments that could only exist in the movies, they appear to be miles away from anywhere, and the little girl appears to be just taking her first lick of the ice cream. I might buy it if they made their way to this idyllic little field by the river and she were gnawing down the last inches of her sugar cone, but it's like she saved the damn thing to take her very first licks while they're already deep into the melancholic moment, despite this being another sunny and apparently quite hot (it's always hot in Queensland) Australia day. That entire cone would have run down her arm by then.

Yes, people, this is what I think about when I watch movies.

Sunday, May 18, 2014


I make it a habit of using post titles only once on The Audient. I've kept track of all my titles since I've started on a Microsoft Word document, and if I think I might be using the same one again, I check to be sure that I don't. I suppose this is so that when my work is being discussed by future generations long after I'm dead, they will be able to refer to my posts by title only without creating any ambiguity.

I tell you this because it means I am using my one and only "This." on this incredible new poster released for Guradians of the Galaxy:

Yep, I'm going large, just so you can take in every magnificent detail. However, it's probably still best to click on it and open it in a separate window.

Have you ever seen anything quite so gorgeous? If I were a Scottish guy and this poster picked me up in a truck, I'd say to it "Aye, you're gorgeous." (I still have not seen that film, but have heard the line several times now.)

When someone else posted it in a Facebook film group to which I belong, I commented that I couldn't stop looking at it. And I can't. It makes me want to see this movie -- of which I was once quite skeptical -- even more. The first (and only, so far) trailer I saw for it started me on the path to being excited about it, and this just ratchets things up one more level.

Anyway, now that I have it here on my blog, I can stare it as much as I want.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A blue Don't Look Now

When you are an American expatriate cinephile living in Australia, you long for the sense that you are actually seeing movies around the same time as, or even before, other people. Instances of that come to feel few and far between.

And so it was that I seized an opportunity to see something fairly fresh and new Wednesday night, when I determined that Blue Ruin -- a new Kickstarter-funded indie released in the U.S. in theaters and VOD on April 25th -- was available for rental on iTunes. (My email address is still associated with the American iTunes store, which is great for renting things on an American schedule -- not so great for using iTunes gift cards given to me as gifts in Australia.)

Having only a half-dozen other 2014 movies to my credit, I sprung for the $6.99 rental. It downloaded surprisingly quickly -- more quickly than these movies usually download on our iPad -- and after kicking off the download around 7:15, I was watching by 9.

I didn't know anything about Blue Ruin except for that nebulously malevolent title, and that it was funded by a Kickstarter campaign. I didn't know, for example, that it was a revenge story, and that Jan Brady appears near the end.

But I don't really want to talk about those aspects of Blue Ruin. What I do want to discuss are its similarities to a movie that came out four decades earlier.

I may have seen Nicolas Roeg's 1973 psychological horror Don't Look Now in film classes in both high school and college, though I can only be certain of college, because I remember doing an assignment on it. I think it was both, though. I know I've seen the movie at least twice, in any case.

And though I remember a lot about it, what I remember most was the fact that each shot in the film -- and I mean each and every shot -- contains at least a snippet of the color red. It's meant to be some comment on the omnipresence of evil or the devil, or just a byproduct of Donald Sutherland's henpecked mind, as his daughter was wearing a red coat when she died.

Well, Blue Ruin does for blue what Don't Look Now did for red.

I couldn't swear to "each and every shot," but Jeremy Saulnier has definitely worked overtime to incorporate the color blue into the vast majority of his mises en scene. (Is that the correct plural of "mise en scene"?) There are large, honking instances of the color blue, like the main character's car and the brilliant blue tarp that covers a different car, and then there are the more subtle appearances of the color, like the hue cast over the character's face as he watches TV. But one thing that's for certain is that blue haunts this movie the way red haunted Don't Look Now.

Only thing is, I'm not sure if it works, exactly.

I guess my feeling is that a stunt like this is audacious the first time someone decides to do it, then tired as soon as the next person does it. Granted, 40 years should far exceed the statute of limitations on a good cinematic stunt, and I'm sure Saulnier wasn't expecting a big chunk of his audience to recognize it as an homage to Roeg's movie (which I certainly think it is). You might take that one step further and say that this main character (let's name him: Dwight Evans, played by Macon Blair) even bears a bit of a resemblance to Sutherland. That's despite his two extreme appearances in the film -- the grizzled beardedness of a homeless person and the clean-shaven tabula rasa of not being recognized as that person -- falling on either side of the mustachioed Sutherland in Don't Look Now.

The reason I'm not sure it works is that I found myself looking for the blue in every shot, and not always concentrating on the rest of the beautifully realized camerawork. That might have happened also in Don't Look Now except that I wasn't looking for the red on the first viewing, because we didn't talk about the film analytically until after we'd watched. That let me concentrate on the movie's story, or more accurately, its mood. The second viewing was when I got a chance to count all the instances of red.

The thing is, since Don't Look Now already did that, now I'm much more likely to pick up on it if someone's doing it again. I've become a critical enough watcher of films (that may be an understatement) over the years to notice right away if someone is trying to "pull a Don't Look Now." I guess you might say I've been waiting to see someone do it again since then. So I was attuned to those blue color bursts from the get go, and eventually was straining to extract the blue from every composition. It became a distraction, and I also started to puzzle about what it was supposed to mean. If the red was blood or evil or the devil or that little girl's coat, what was the blue? Depression? Literally that the main character is "feeling blue"? I'm not sure.

I guess the whole movie left me with the feeling that it was about this percentage of a really successful idea. There's something definitely indelible and unforgettable about the movie, and indeed, it does feature Jan Brady. But I guess the extent to which I wanted it to be great was not quite in sync with how great it actually was. Or maybe I was just tired of handing out four-star reviews to 2014 movies, having honored each of the last four I've seen with that star rating.

So Blue Ruin is a 3.5-star movie with a chance to move up upon further reflection.

And, it's got a lot of blue in it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The three thirds of Your Sister's Sister

There are a ton of titles on my list of movies to rewatch, but Your Sister's Sister made it to the top Tuesday night because a) I'd found it in the library and been unable to resist picking it up, and b) after I closed off my 2012 rankings, I secretly doubted that I really liked Lynn Shelton's movie enough to rank it #2 for the year.

Part of that doubt crept in because I started to hear people say they didn't like where it goes in the final half-hour. That's when things become quite complicated and emotional, and it's apparently the point that the movie lost some of its previously contented audience.

First off, I'll end the suspense and say that I liked Your Sister's Sister pretty much the same amount the second time as I did the first. Good on me for seeing things straight the first time.

Secondly, I think I figured out an unconventional way to spin Your Sister's Sister, one that may help that problematic third portion sit better with people. So now it's time for my third SPOILER ALERT in as many posts.

Instead of balking at the tonal shift of the third act, people should realize that Your Sister's Sister is actually three movies in one, divided almost evenly in 30-minute chunks for a total running time of 90 minutes. Which is a pretty nimble bit of filmmaking for an intimate three-person character study.

The first 30 minutes are a conventional romantic comedy -- if you discount the first 10 minutes or so. Those first 10 minutes contain a ceremony to remember a character who died a year earlier, so that's not your typical lead-in for a romantic comedy. However, many romantic comedies do begin with a character who is challenged in life or love, which sets the stage for his/her romantic redemption. But forget those 10 minutes and concentrate on what comes next. There's a very conventional meet cute as Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) mistakes Jack (Mark Duplass) for a prowler outside her remote island cabin, nearly smashing him over the head with an oar. As is often the case with love interests in a romantic comedy, Jack and Hannah initially despise one another, recovering only slowly from the awkwardness of the oar incident and only reluctantly sharing each other's company. Once they start putting back shots of tequila, however, a mutual attraction -- both personal and physical -- sets in, even though Hannah is a lesbian and her sister is Jack's best friend. (I didn't say it was a conventional romance in every respect, just in its structure.)

At about exactly the 30-minute mark -- just after Jack and Hannah engage in an impulsive act of drunken intercourse -- the type of movie it is shifts again. Now it's a comedy of manners. As you probably know, comedies of manners often hinge on characters keeping secrets from one another, only just barely; on overt and covert meanings of conversations; and even on a little bit of physical comedy. All of these are present as Jack's best friend and Hannah's sister, Iris (Emily Blunt), makes a surprise visit to the cabin, where she is expecting Jack but not Hannah. Nearly caught in bed together, Jack and Hannah have no time to get a story straight about what happened between them the night before, and Jack is saddled with the extra burden of quickly conveying to Hannah that they must lie to Iris (because he's in love with her, though he doesn't admit it at this point). What follows is Jack trying to get Hannah alone before she blurts anything out, without revealing to Iris that this is what he's trying to do, and then both of them keeping it cool as the conversation naturally flirts with dangerous subject matter. There's even a scene where Jack and Iris are both secretly pantomiming to Hannah, at the same time, that they need to get her alone.

Wouldn't you know it? It's pretty much exactly at the 60-minute mark that the movie makes its fateful turn towards tragedy. Again this is not tragedy in the traditional sense of killing their own fathers and sleeping with their own mothers, though there is something vaguely Oedipal about the whole scenario, as Jack has slept with the sister of the woman he loves (and she used to sleep with his dead brother). Jack and Hannah even have an earlier discussion about how their relationship to each other through Iris makes them kind of like in-laws. Of course, it's not just Jack coming between Hannah and Iris or Hannah coming between Iris and Jack, but it's also revealed that Hannah has wanted to have a baby -- and Jack has discovered that she poked holes in the condom they used while having sex. So she may be pregnant with his child as well.

I suppose it was this radical shift into melodrama that threw some people, but I prefer to think of it as the reason the story was worth telling in the first place. There has to be a complicating event or three to stimulate the drama in this scenario, and I'm okay with it being of a vaguely soap opera-ish nature, because the actors pull it off with such enviable naturalism. This is kind of an acting master class, actually, and it's not just the two pros (Blunt and DeWitt). Duplass, whose acting was always assumed to be secondary to his writing and directing, shares an equal part of the heavy lifting in these scenes.

I'm not sure if my division of Your Sister's Sister into three parts is actually helpful for giving any doubters a new perspective on it. But it certainly provides a challenge for the actors, and it's their performances that make this movie the unqualified triumph that it is.

I must admit that the first time I saw it, I was most drawn to Blunt, perhaps because I have a soft spot for her as an actress. However, I want to close this piece by singling out DeWitt. Perhaps my favorite scene is one where Hannah and Iris are lying in Hannah's bed, which Iris has invaded because she can't sleep. At first Hannah is barely awake, just trying to dismiss her insomniac sister and get back to sleep herself. She answers in monosyllables and hopes the other will just go away. But as the stakes raise, and she realizes Iris is confessing that she loves the man Hannah slept with last night, Hannah becomes fully present in the conversation -- while still trying to convince Iris that she's deep in the throes of near sleep. As DeWitt lies facing away from Blunt, as to face her would give up the whole charade, you can see her eyes register the new information, heavy with the knowledge of the damage she's done, but only in a barely perceptible way. She stiffens just slightly, responding to Iris in carefully modulated language that doesn't reveal the increasing emotional weight of the situation, indulging in again barely perceptible dawning horror that she can only get away with because she is not facing her bedmate. Once she's decided she has fully composed herself, she does turn to meet her sister's gaze, and continues to keep the charade up until Iris finally dismisses herself and heads back toward her own bedroom. Only once she's sure Iris has gone does she cover her head with her bed sheet, exasperated by the depth of her own miscalculation and inadvertent betrayal.

Great scene, and great movie -- all three thirds of it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A (very) rough draft of Frances Ha

There are certain movies you'd swear are ripoffs of other movies if the chronology didn't make a liar out of you.

Take Lola Versus, for example. It's such a blatant Frances Ha ripoff that it's hard to believe it hit theaters 11 months before Noah Baumbach's film.

The primary connective tissue between the two films is of course that they star Greta Gerwig as a late twenties New Yorker caught in a state of existential and romantic confusion, whose name appears in the title. I'm certainly glad that the inferior Lola did not ruin Gerwig for this type of movie, else she might have turned down Baumbach's considerably more sublime approach to the material.

Still, I have to wonder if she was getting a sense of deja vu as she was making Frances.

If you don't wish to know intimate details of one or both of these movies, you may consider this your SPOILER ALERT.

Both movies start out with a long-term relationship being aborted. In Frances Ha, Frances balks at her boyfriend's attempt to increase the seriousness of their relationship by suggesting she move in -- which backfires and causes them to break up. In Lola Versus, Lola accepts the boyfriend's attempt at increasing seriousness via a marriage proposal, but then he gets cold feet and calls off the destination wedding after 40 guests have already bought their plane tickets. (Oops.)

Both movies then tackle the living arrangements dictated by the change in a person's relationship status. Frances must find a new apartment when she can no longer afford the rent of the place she shared with Sophie, her best friend, who decided to move in with her boyfriend. Lola has to revoke the sublet on her apartment after the broken engagement means she can no longer live with her ex-fiancee.

Both movies are actually sort of really about the relationship between Gerwig's character and her best friend. Frances Ha is overtly about that, as it functions as a romantic comedy between heterosexual female friends, going through all the vicissitudes of a traditional romantic relationship. Frances and Sophie fall out over a guy, only it's not a guy they both want -- it's Sophie's boyfriend, who Frances doesn't like in part because he's taking Sophie away from her. Lola Versus comes to be about a similar best friend relationship as Lola and her bestie (Alice) also have a falling out, only this is the more traditional kind, where both are interested in the same guy and date him at various junctures, the second of course seeming like a betrayal of the first.

Both movies end with Gerwig's character patching things up with the best friend, but not becoming romantically resolved. The message is clearly that Frances and Lola are taking the time to work on them, to mature, and not to be defined by their relationship to a man.

But before that, both movies contain sections where the characters spiral downward in very "late second act" ways. Frances ends up moving upstate to work at her alma mater as a server of wine at fancy parties, where she is mistaken for a current student, and Lola goes on a bender where she drinks beer from two 40s and gets thrown out of a strip club.

It can't just be the black-and-white that makes Frances Ha better, can it?

Of course not. The difference is really in terms of the subtlety of the approaches. Baumbach is a master of letting small details speak for larger trends, of illustrating ennui through fleeting moments. Co-writers Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, on the other hand, hit you over the head with typical character dysfunctions and obvious dialogue.

There's also a big discrepancy between what the movies do with side characters. The others who weave in and out of Frances' Brooklyn existence are true-to-life types whose self-involvement and narcissism come out in small doses that creep up on you. They are real less-is-more types. On the other hand, Lola's side characters are a "black guy who works with her" (a woefully underused Jay Pharaoh from Saturday Night Live) and Lola's "wacky parents" (played by Bill Pullman and Debra Winger, who still looks great I must say). Lola also has a "comically bad romantic suitor" in addition to the two others who vie for her romantic attentions (the fiancee, who is supposed to represent a bad love interest, and his best friend, who is supposed to represent a good one.)

I suppose it's unfair to hold a second-time director like Wein to the standards of an established master like Noah Baumbach ... but let's just say he should thank his lucky stars that he got his movie made first, or else Lola Versus would add being derivative of a recent hit to its long list of demerits.

Monday, May 12, 2014

That fraud William Shakespeare

One of the things I enjoyed most about Roland Emmerich's Anonymous, which was one of my top ten films of the year it came out, was how it made me really reconsider the authorship of Shakespeare's works. I had known there were theories that the Bard was not actually the Bard, but that some other figure living at the same time (obviously) was the one who actually put pen to paper and wrote Shakespeare's peerless body of work. Several candidates had always been considered, and Anonymous takes the position (spoiler alert!) that it was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who couldn't reveal his identity because playwriting was considered one of the basest activities a member of the aristocracy could ever pursue.

But what really sold me on the fact that someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's works was an interview I heard with Anonymous screenwriter John Orloff on the podcast The Q & A with Jeff Goldsmith. Orloff presented a truckload of evidence, both actual and circumstantial, about why it simply could not have been Shakespeare. Here's just one: Shakespeare never traveled outside England, yet a dozen of his plays describe Italy with a level of detail that indicates he had been there not once, but multiple times.

The conversation among academics about whether Shakespeare was a brilliant genius or a total impostor has always tended to fall on "brilliant genius" side of the scale. Academics, especially those who have devoted their careers to studying Shakespeare, have seemed unwilling to admit that they have been lionizing a reprobate, and have therefore cast the Shakespeare deniers as no better than whack jobs who might just as soon start telling you about UFOs.

I'm wondering if that conversation is starting to change, though.

In the space of a week's time on my viewing schedule, two new movies have renewed the charge -- albeit in a cheeky manner -- that Shakespeare was just an opportunist. I'm starting to wonder if that position is becoming steadily more mainstream.

First it was the movie I saw last Monday, Only Lovers Left Alive. "What is Shakespeare doing in a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie?" you might wonder, if you haven't seen it. Well, I'll tell you, but only after the requisite SPOILER ALERT to clear anyone out of the room who doesn't want to be here.

In addition to being hundreds (thousands? that's an altogether different discussion) of years old, the vampires in Jarmusch's film have also hobnobbed with some of history's most influential cultural contributors. In fact, the two main vampires (played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are still hobnobbing with one now: Kit Marlowe (John Hurt), one of the others who was suspected of having written Shakespeare's works. See, Marlowe never died back in the late 16th century. He faked his own death and went underground as a vampire who's still living to this day. (He never died in the traditional sense, anyway.)

The movie is not content merely to make the connection to Shakespeare. It's quite clear, from several references, that Marlowe definitely did write Shakespeare's works, at least in this movie's universe. At one point Hurt muses (paraphrasing here) "I wish I had met him [Hiddleston's character] before I wrote Hamlet ... he would have made the absolute perfect model for the character."

Quite by coincidence, I then saw Mr. Peabody & Sherman yesterday with my three-year-old, one of several gestures toward removing him from his mother's presence on Mother's Day. (My son displayed his best behavior yet in a film, and I quite enjoyed the movie.)

The Shakespearean reference here is just a throwaway, rather than a major character, but in one of the title characters' jaunts back through time, they are seen in a room, handing a manuscript to a man who can only be Shakespeare. Shakespeare then signs his name to it and cackles maliciously. So Mr. Peabody & Sherman doesn't follow any of the standard schools of thought about who might have written Shakespeare's words -- it ascribes the responsibility to a time-traveling dog and his adopted human son.

Of course, I do realize that it was just dumb luck that I saw both of these movies in one week -- especially since no two movies might attract more different audiences. I also realize that 98 out of 100 films that hit theaters make no reference to Shakespeare at all, and the two that do are unlikely to tackle the authorship of his works.

Still, I have to wonder -- are we all finally starting to agree that this Shakespeare guy might have been a total fraud?

I'd say the idea is gaining momentum, in any case, and these two movies make for especially interesting examples. One of them goes to the trouble of having a major character take on the role of the man who ghost-wrote Shakespeare. At one point he even struggles with the fact that he wasn't recognized for these efforts, and reserves a couple choice epithets for the man who actually got the credit. The other film contains just a throwaway two-second joke, but it also goes to more trouble than it need to, making the man cackle, as though his taking credit were an act of intentional mischief and bad faith, not just cowardice.

If there is anything so identifiable as a "trend," I'd like to hope Anonymous gets some of the credit. Like whoever that man (or woman???) was whose deeds have gone unrecognized, Anonymous itself did not receive its proper due when it was released. I hope both injustices are something that time, and a choice application of some basic logic, will correct.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The unintentional hand job

I really don't think they meant to do this:

It's a Bollywood movie I saw advertised on the Hoyts website, and boy, it sure does look like that woman's hand is in that man's pants.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Australian Audient: Breaker Morant

This is my most recent in my monthly series Australian Audient, in which I watch one film per month made in the land of koala bears and dingos, and write about it here. 

Poor Garage Days.

The Alex Proyas film, which was supposed to come up to the plate in April, has now been bumped to June at the earliest. It was again a victim of circumstance -- the circumstance of me finding a different movie at the library that pushed it down in the queue.

But Breaker Morant shouldn't be blamed, as it has a rightful claim to getting watched at my earliest opportunity. Bruce Beresford's 1980 film had been the one I intended to launch the series with back in January. When I couldn't find it at the video store, I opted for Phar Lap instead.

Now that the bookkeeping is out of the way, let's get on to Breaker Morant.


"Are we shooting people or what?"

That line of dialogue is spoken by Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) in David O. Russell's 1999 film Three Kings, an attempt at clarifying the ambiguous rules of engagement with Iraqi soldiers in the first Gulf War. They've spotted enemy combatants within rifle range, some of them appearing to wave the white flag, others just moving around in a listless, non-threatening way. The only question is, do we shoot them down, or ... something else?

Twenty years earlier, in a film about a war that took place nearly a century earlier, Bruce Beresford was also wrestling with this timeless issue -- one that, in this case, became a symbol of Australia's relationship to the mother country from which it claimed independence. It's no surprise Breaker Morant reminds a person of the more modern movie, and the ensuing war on terror, because great movies are great at speaking to something universal about the big topics, like war and human behavior.

Breaker Morant concerns itself with the court martial of three Australian soldiers fighting alongside Brits in the Second Boer War, a conflict fought against Dutch Boers in South Africa in 1901. The most senior of the three is Harry Morant (Edward Woodward), a lieutenant with the Bushveldt Carbineers, who has earned the nickname "The Breaker" for his skills whipping horses into shape. Morant, Peter Hancock (Bryan Brown) and George Witten (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) have been implicated in the execution of seven Boer prisoners and a German missionary who witnessed the killings. They are tried for murder despite ample evidence that there were orders from senior leadership to kill all prisoners, due to there being no means to detain and feed them. It becomes clear that an example is being made of the three soldiers as part of an attempt at a peace process, and because their actions were thought to have been taken in direct retaliation for the killing of their senior officer in a surprise attack by the Boers. The supposed scapegoating of the soldiers appears to be a British initiative with the cooperation of the Australian government. Defending them in the court martial is Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson), who has been given only a single day to prepare his defense. The consequences for his failure may be the ultimate consequences, as the court has the right to levy a death sentence against the soldiers.

There's mention throughout Breaker Morant of this war against the Boers -- Dutch farmers who later became known as Afrikaaners -- being a "different kind of war," where the enemy did not wear uniforms or use conventional attack strategies. That kind of language has, of course, become a regular part of the discourse on the war on terror. But it also has deeper historical roots. The Revolutionary War was fought by Minutemen hiding out in the woods and wearing clothing that blended in, against British soldiers who were defeated by their regimented troop formations and bright red uniforms. (There's even a part of Breaker Morant where a Boer is treated harshly for wearing the uniform of a dead British soldier -- another tactic that was "new"). If I were a better student of history, I'd probably name you some ancient conflict involving the Romans where the same essential dynamics were in play.

And in every conflict where the rules of fair fighting are called into question, battlefield ethics seem to get somebody in trouble. Whether it's waterboarding prisoners or shooting them outright, what constitutes just behavior is always up for debate. That's what makes the core conflict of Breaker Morant so interesting. Unlike in a normal murder trial, Harry Morant and his comrades don't deny killing the people they are accused of killing -- it's their burden to make the case why killing them was the appropriate response. This is especially difficult when, as part of a conspiracy, no senior authority will admit to issuing the order, and the officer in their own outfit who verbally communicated the order had been killed.

The film has all the suspenseful momentum shifts and human drama of a good courtroom thriller, while also tackling these moral dilemmas. Breaker Morant puts us, as viewers, in an interesting position. We know from the Geneva Convention that killing prisoners is not only wrong, it's abhorrent. Since we've been raised with those basic tenets of how to treat the enemy in place, we can't help but be shocked when those scruffy Boer farmers are lined up and shot. However, we also know that these were different times, and that they may have been "just following orders" (there's another phrase from places like Abu Ghraib).

What's more, Beresford and the actors do a terrific job getting us to really care about the three condemned soldiers. Edward Woodward is a figure of strong will and determination, but he's no brute who devalues human life -- he's actually a working poet who makes for quite the Renaissance figure. He'd have a hundred intellectual reasons not to kill a man, and the fact that he's accused of murder only makes his loyalty to his senior officer and to the orders he was given all the more touching. Bryan Brown is the more hot-headed, rascally type who you might see as the "typical" Australian, a guy who can't help making snide remarks about other witnesses during the trial because they are deceitful cowards, and he's the one living by a defensible code. An unrepentant ladies man, he's kind of a riot, actually. Then there's Lewis Fitz-Gerald as the scared one, who seems so gentle and morally pure that it's impossible to believe he would be capable of what he's accused.

The most memorable performance, however, might be Jack Thompson's, as Thompson plays the role that lawyers often play in movies like this -- he's the viewer's surrogate. As he's coming to the facts of the case as recently as we are, in a sense, he's gaining his perspective on the events as the trial runs, and conjuring smart defenses in a way that clever minds can. He's also the best voice for the outrage that we increasingly feel as the movie smartly shows us more and more of the circumstances surrounding the "crimes" of which the soldiers are accused. Structured as a series of flashbacks proceeding in chronological order interspersed with the trial proceeding forward, the movie gives us an increasingly complete picture of the events. Ultimately, it's easy to see how Morant and his men have come to be seen as folk heroes in Australia, and in several key scenes of emptying his mind to the court, Thompson speaks for all future Australians who feel vicariously wronged by "the system."

In short, Breaker Morant is a true masterpiece.

Okay, looking ahead to June and the beginning of the real winter months here in Australia ... I'd like to tell you for sure that Garage Days will finally have its day in the (fading) sun, but I guess we'll just have to see.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The search for the missing "the"

I watched Spike Lee's brilliant 25th Hour last night for the first time in what must have been a decade. I hadn't seen it since I started keeping track of my rewatches back in 2005, in any case. I was so pleased that it held up.

I was excited to take in the whole movie, of course, but there was a special tingling of excitement right at the start, in the first seven or eight minutes before the title appeared. I thought there was a better than average chance that I would see the word "The" affixed on to the front of the title, and was just waiting for the moment when I was proven right.


Lee's 25th Hour is not, in fact, The 25th Hour, though I thought of it as such as recently as two or three years ago.

It was then I started noticing that the omission of the definite article was not just an oversight.

So how did I get it in my head that the movie was called The 25th Hour?

My best guess is that some publication I read at the time of its release mistakenly listed it that way, and since I thought it sounded better than 25th Hour, I made it a permanent part of my brain.

But the poster above obviously disproves me, as does every reference I have noticed in the past couple years. What I think is even stranger, though, is that I didn't notice this sometime before, say, 2010. Which leads me to wonder if the "the" was still appearing in certain places until that point, or in the place I most commonly saw the title appear.

I checked the website I used to write for, where I actually reviewed the movie at the time of its release, and there was no "the" to be found.

What I think happened is that I just didn't see the title in print all that much. The big thing that changed was starting to use, which duels movies against each other in an endless series of duels. It was Flickchart that started regularly exposing me to the title again, whenever the movie would come up in a duel. And I started using Flickchart at the end of 2009.

Just to be sure, though, I thought I would do a thorough check of the available posters in Google images. The closest I got to being validated was this:

It bears the definite article en Espanol ... but that's probably because it would be grammatically incorrect not to.

Then I also found this:

But I don't really think this has anything to do with anything.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Return trip

To the extent that his eclectic career has given him any label at all, Michael Winterbottom is the guy who never repeats himself.

Until now, anyway.

The Trip to Italy, a sequel to 2011's Winterbottom-directed The Trip, seems like a particularly curious way for Winterbottom to finally bow to anything like conventional thinking.

The modest popularity of The Trip probably exceeded the even more modest popularity of most other films on Winterbottom's CV, but it also feels like one of Winterbottom's safer directing efforts. To be sure, it's no mere buddy comedy, as it delves into deeper issues of competitiveness, the male ego, aging, and fears of encroaching irrelevance. At heart, though, it's a comedy of mismatched buddies on a road trip.

I suppose The Trip is also one of the only movies Winterbottom has ever made that could even have a sequel, but I always figured that was kind of by design as well. Whether he's telling true-to-life war dramas (Welcome to Sarajevo, The Mighty Heart), science fiction romances (Code 46), historical epics (The Claim) or self-reflexive movies starring Steve Coogan (24-Hour Party People, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), Winterbottom has been steadfastly making movies that required no second chapter.

Again, until now.

But before I accuse this director of anything so hysterical as "selling out," I should note that Winterbottom likely has no control over how this film is being advertised. And The Trip to Italy's advertisements are probably the thing that concerns me most about the movie -- while also making me laugh, I shall admit. Then again, before getting involved in a sequel in the first place, one would have to know that it was going to be marketed in a certain way -- a way that runs contrary to Winterbottom eternally redefining himself.

Namely, the job of anyone selling a sequel is to remind audiences what they loved about the first movie. The trailers for The Trip to Italy follow that formula to a T.

Here are the things we see in this trailer, which I will reproduce from the memory of having seen it twice in the past month:

1) Rob Brydon doing an impersonation of, in this case, Al Pacino.

2) Steve Coogan belittling Brydon at every opportunity he gets.

3) Brydon doing his "small man trapped in a box" impersonation.

4) Coogan and Brydon sitting at various fancy-looking tables consuming yummy-looking food.

5) Coogan and Brydon riding around in a car.

And finally:

6) Coogan and Brydon dueling their Michael Caine impersonations.

Include the fact that the Pacino impersonation involves the self-aware mentioning of making a sequel, and you've even got a healthy dose of sequel irony in the trailer as well -- another common sequel trailer trick.

These moments are all callbacks to moments in the first movie that made us love that movie, for those of us who did love it. (I'd say I fall into the category of "liked it quite a bit.") They are even constructed in such a way that over the course of the trailer, they build toward what is arguably The Trip's most famous set piece, the dueling Caine impersonations.

Could this have been what Winterbottom had in mind when he decided to go back to the well, for the first time ever? Should it have been?

I think I may be making a bit of an empty argument here, because when you come right down to it, the trailer is effective, and I certainly plan on seeing the movie.

What I think I'm really grappling with is the idea of a respected creative talent letting me down on some level. I'm sure I've written plenty of pieces like this before, but the one that immediately pops to mind is my smackdown of Seth Gordon for moving into dumb comedies (Four Christmases, Horrible Bosses) after making one of my favorite documentaries of all time (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters). If you want to read that piece, you can find it here.

Back when I got regular comments (oh, remember those days!), three commenters basically told me I was wrong to give Gordon a hard time. (Do they still think that after Identity Thief, though?) And so I may be wrong to give Winterbottom a hard time, too.

However, Winterbottom recently got a boost of additional praise from someone I know that made me put him on a slightly higher pedestal than I had before. I've always respected Winterbottom's diverse career and his prodigious output, but I had that put in perspective by someone who knows a lot more about these things than I do. I recently asked a director friend of mine, who has become a bit disenchanted with the film industry and his prospects within it, whose career he would most like to have. He was interested by the question, and didn't have to think long about the answer. He gave Winterbottom's name.

For my disenchanted friend, then, I hold Winterbottom to a higher standard, the standard of not being seduced into repeating himself or pigeonholing himself. If you want to take it to extremes, you could say that making a sequel is a good way to raise a creative white flag. I imagine this instinct is one of the main reasons David Fincher doesn't want to honor his commitment to make the next two Dragon Tattoo movies.

I guess it remains to be seen if Winterbottom slides into a state of complacency and starts churning out Trip sequels every two years. It seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened.

And if so, well ... I do enjoy listening to those guys bust out their Michael Caine.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

12 Years a Pitt

Sometimes when you are searching for something, you find something else.

I was looking up a poster to use in a post I was about to write tonight, when I came across this ridiculous thing on Google images.

Now, to my great shame, I still have not seen 12 Years a Slave. But I know -- I know -- that Brad Pitt does not have a role even approaching the size that this Italian poster for the movie would indicate.

I also know that the movie would probably not exist without Pitt, as his crucial role in its making has more to do with serving as a producer. So I don't think that this is some incredibly misguided attempt by Pitt to glorify his own role in the film.

I do think it's a very sad indication that someone thought Italian audiences wouldn't go to this movie if it was just a movie about slavery. I'm hoping that same someone isn't accusing Italians of racism, but that someone might be doing that as well.

In any case, I suppose it's one of those situations where the ends may justify the means. If a giant picture of Brad Pitt that makes him look vaguely like a lion got several thousand more Italians to see what I understand is an excellent film, then I guess that's ultimately a good thing.


Do I sound unconvinced?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Real human trumps cartoon rabbit

Easter is still going on in our house. My older son still has a few chocolate eggs remaining, which are being doled out at intervals in accordance with his good behavior (which makes the intervals not all that frequent), and I myself ate half of a large white chocolate bunny last night while trying to stay awake during my viewing of High Art. (Didn't work; I had to fall asleep for two hours and finish after midnight.)

Earlier yesterday we continued Easter in a non-food-related manner by watching the movie Hop from 2011. I'd heard terrible things, but when I saw it at the library on Thursday, I knew it would be a good way to distract my son -- still Easter Bunny crazy -- with some morning viewing. I would watch it with him the first time (I had always expected to see it eventually), and then if it were a real hit, my wife could use it with him on either Tuesday or Wednesday morning when she's at home with him. We'd return it again on Thursday.

Surprisingly, I rather enjoyed the movie. Meanwhile, my son was bored.

See, the first moment of the movie that did not involve an animated rabbit provoked this response:

"Aw, this is a boring adult movie."

For the record, it was a scene in which human star James Marsden sits around a dining room table with John Heard, Elizabeth Perkins and Kaley Cuoco. It lasts all of about three minutes, but they're three crucial minutes in terms of getting in some rather efficient exposition that sets up the story's various conflicts. Then, back to animated rabbits.

To its credit, Hop goes very few stretches again in which the animated rabbit (called E.B., voice of Russell Brand) doesn't make an appearance. Unfortunately, the presence of live-action human beings seems to have permanently tainted it as a "boring adult movie" for my son, no matter how frequently the rabbit appears digitally inserted into the live-action environment. (The seamless insertion of, and interaction with, this rabbit was one of the things that impressed me about Hop.)

I tried to explain to my son that Hop was like Stuart Little, a movie he's seen a couple times, in that it has both real people and cartoon animals. He was hit with a lightning bolt of understanding that was accompanied by the word "Oh" changing octaves a couple times.

Which got him to pay attention for exactly 43 more seconds.

This would make a better post if I had had to finish the movie by myself later on, which happened recently with the likes of Epic, Monsters University and Turbo. As it turned out, after a ten-minute break around the 55-minute mark in which it seemed like I had lost him entirely, we did resume and finish the movie without incident. He actually paid attention rather closely. I have to say, though, I just think his morning burst of spastic behavior had burnt itself out.

What's interesting to me is how a movie can be so clearly aimed at him -- including the Easter Bunny, of all things -- and yet certain aspects of it can cause him to check out entirely. The makers of Hop were undoubtedly aware that this kind of thing can happen with children, which is why they limited the sections that featured only human beings.

Who would have thought, though, that Hop's biggest problem would be that it wasn't child-friendly enough?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Movie Diet: postmortem

I have now finished slightly more than three months on my Movie Diet.

Now, I can officially pig out again.

But first I thought I should look back on a) how I did, and b) whether it ultimately meant anything to be on a reduced movie intake for the past 97 days.

Let me remind you what it was I set out to do. Starting Monday, January 20th and ending Sunday, April 27th, I vowed to watch no more than two movies per week, with one exception: I could exceed two at my wife's insistence, if she wanted to watch a movie together and I had already watched my two for that week. I also vowed to review every movie I saw during that period, ultimately revising that to all movies I was watching for the first time (and ultimately cheating a little bit even on that).

First, let's look at how I did on sticking to two movies per week. Feel free to skip over this part if you just want to get to the meat of my analysis.

Week 1
January 20th to 26th
Watched: Phar Lap (1/26)
Cheated? No, and in fact I actually watched under my allotment.

Week 2
January 27th to February 2nd
Watched: The Hunt (1/29), Finding Nemo (rewatch) (2/1), This is Not a Film (2/2)
Cheated? No, because my wife initiated the Sunday afternoon viewing of This is Not a Film, which was interrupted and stretched to that evening.

Week 3
February 3rd to 9th
Watched: Imitation of Life (2/5), BMX Bandits (2/9)
Cheated? Nope.

Week 4
February 10th to 16th
Watched: Another Year (2/13), Bolt (2/14), Ruby Sparks (rewatch) (2/14), Wreck-It Ralph (rewatch) (2/15)
Cheated? Yep, I had a little binge there. But the only actual cheat was Bolt, because I already knew I had been planning to watch Ruby Sparks on Valentine's Day to show it to my wife for the first time. Since I was the driving force behind watching Sparks, there's no way I can chalk that up to her initiation. She did initiate the viewing of Wreck-It Ralph, which I'd actually borrowed from the library for my son to watch. That was the same story with Bolt, but since I hadn't seen Bolt before myself, I did sit down with him to watch it that morning, mindful of the fact that it would push me into the cheating zone.

Week 5
February 17th to 23rd
Watched: Side by Side (2/17), The Inbetweeners Movie (2/19)
Cheated? No ma'am.

Week 6
February 24th to March 2nd
Watched: Nebraska (2/24), L'Atalante (2/28), All That Jazz (3/1)
Cheated? Yes, my second cheat. But it was a crime of opportunity. My wife was sick that Saturday night and retired to the bedroom at barely past 8 p.m. I simply couldn't resist a wide-open evening to watch whatever I wanted, and I'm glad I didn't, because All That Jazz was just about the best movie I saw on the whole diet.

Week 7
March 3rd to 9th
Watched: Monsters (3/7)
Cheated? No, and you could say I made up for the previous week's cheat by watching only one. Of course, that allowed me to excuse a slight cheat in the following week ...

Week 8 
March 10th to 16th
Watched: Amelie (rewatch) (3/10), A.C.O.D. (3/10), Non-Stop (3/11)
Cheated? I don't consider this a technical cheat, because Amelie was watched to pass the time while I couldn't sleep in preparation for a fantasy baseball draft starting in the U.S. at a reasonable hour, but at 4 a.m. here in Australia. I thought of it sort of like a late Sunday night viewing from the previous week.

Week 9
March 17th to 23rd
Watched: Double Indemnity (rewatch) (3/18), Hard to Kill (3/23)
Cheated? No I did not.

Week 10
March 24th to 30th
Watched: Strictly Ballroom (3/25), Touchy Feely (3/30)
Cheated? Negative.

Week 11
March 31st to April 6th
Watched: Powder Blue (4/1)
Cheated? Another under-consumption, but ...

Week 12
April 7th to 13th
Watched: Turbo (4/7), Noah (4/8), The Lego Movie (4/8), Mystery Road (4/11)
Cheated? ... I started watching Turbo on that Sunday morning, but my son lost interest and I actually had to finish it on my third sitting on Monday night. So this doesn't count as a cheat for Week 12. The viewing of Mystery Road was entirely instigated by my wife.

Week 13
April 14th to 20th
Watched: Mr. Nobody (4/17), Vanilla Sky (rewatch) (4/19), Where the Wild Things Are (rewatch) (4/20)
Cheated? No sir ... well, not really. I put the idea of watching Where the Wild Things Are (for our third time) in my wife's head, in the abstract, and she ran with it on that particular night. Half-cheat.

Week 14
April 21st to 26th
Watched: The Grand Budapest Hotel (4/21), Deep Blue Sea (4/24), A Dangerous Method (4/27)
Cheated? Nope, because A Dangerous Method was entirely suggested by my wife (though I was the one who borrowed it from the library). I actually thought I'd wrapped this diet up, and had even started on writing this post, when she gave me one last movie to review with David Cronenberg's 2011 film on the diet's final night.

Fourteen weeks of controlled cinematic intake. I never thought I could have done it, and at the start, I was a little scared about the prospect. But it turned out fine, and I only had to legitimately cheat twice. The other two were gray areas. In fact, they were all sort of gray areas ... there wasn't one time when I had a cheat that I couldn't rationalize. (Of course, any diet worth its salt is completely undone by rationalizations.)

Now let's turn our attention for a moment to the films I reviewed.

Of the 27 new movies I've seen since January 20th, I reviewed 24 of them, either in straight reviews or as part of my Australian Audient series. I skipped All That Jazz because the draft I had been writing was lost, and I didn't have the oomph in me to start over. I skipped Powder Blue because I wanted to write something different that was inspired by the movie, and I didn't want to write about it twice. And I skipped The Grand Budapest Hotel because I had already heard multiple reviews of it on podcasts, and I wanted to use the occasion of seeing it to rank Wes Anderson's movies.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Now, the real question:

Was it worth doing?

I can't answer that with one simple answer, because there were two distinct parts to this Movie Diet. One part was following strict rules that governed how many movies I could see, and the other was reviewing all the movies I did see, to see how much love I still have for writing straight reviews. I'm going to answer the second part first.

At first I really enjoyed the challenge of forcing myself to craft reviews of about 1,000 words for each motion picture that was new to my eyeballs. During my decade plus writing for All Movie Guide, I regularly wrote 300-word capsule reviews, and grew to love that format so much that I didn't really want to write in any other. Knowing that this was a bit of a unique length that I wasn't going to find everywhere, I welcomed the opportunity to write 10 or 12 longer reviews in the final year or two of my time writing for the website. Some of those reviews are actually my favorite I've ever written, for three different publications over nearly 15 years.

So around the time of The Hunt and Another Year, I was really grooving on finding interesting entry points into the movies and composing something I felt really proud of. Eventually, though, my commitment to reviewing everything I saw -- even when it was drivel, or worse, boring drivel -- began to feel tedious, and I began to notice some of the things I don't like about the long-form review rearing their heads.

You see, the thing that was nice about those 300-word All Movie reviews is that they were only reviews -- they needed to include no plot synopsis, as a plot synopsis could be found on the tab right next door. Sandwiching in a plot synopsis has always felt inorganic at best. What usually happens, very predictably and very boringly, is that you start with a paragraph or two that gives an insight into your overall impression of the film, then follow that with one big chunky paragraph that gives the reader what they need to know about the plot. Then you finish with five or six paragraphs of praise or scorn.

The really good writers can weave the plot synopsis in more seamlessly, can intertwine analysis with exposition ... and that might be part of the problem. I'm starting to worry I'm not one of those who can really do that. And in the absence of being able to do that, am I really living up to my own critical standards?

I also started questioning all my own rules for style and tone. Do I try to keep myself out of the reviews, steadfastly refusing to use the word "I" or even the phrase "this reviewer"? Which is in keeping with my traditional ideas about how a person should review a movie? Or do I allow myself a more conversational style where I frequently do make it about myself, since that's the way criticism seems to be moving in the digital age?

Clearly I will continue to wrestle with all this stuff.

Overall, I'll say I'm glad I did it ... but I'm also glad that reviewing movies on this blog will become the exception, rather than the rule.

Now, as to what I got out of the experience of restricting myself.

Was there value to refusing to yield to my every impulse to watch movies? Sure there was.

Was it good to know that I can delay gratification and (mostly) stick to what I said I'd do? You betcha.

Did I use the time that I wasn't watching movies to better my life in some definable way, as I said I planned to do?

Absolutely not.

And granted, part of that was because I had set myself this task of reviewing all the movies. So instead of gaining some downtime from movies, all I really did was shift my movie-related interfacing from one type of screen to another. Instead of watching movies on a TV screen, I was writing about them on a computer screen.

However, part of my failure to write the next great American (or Australian) novel, or some kind of novel about an American living in Australia (yes, I was actually entertaining this), is mitigated by the fact that I did accomplish something during this Movie Diet: I got a job.

Since March 13th, I've been working on the service desk for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. (DEECD for short, though no one one says the second E because it's just too tricky -- try saying it quickly and you'll see it doesn't flow.) It's not exactly the job I pictured myself having here, and it doesn't pay as much as the job I had in the U.S. But in certain ways it's better. For one, I'm working, in a broad though very real sense, with the goal of educating children. That seems like a nicer calling than working for a steak restaurant chain (my first IT job) or a party rental company (my most recent). Then there's the fact that I never take work home with me, which is just what my family needs at a time when we have two young children (3 1/2 years and 4 months). We're in Australia in the first place so my wife can pursue her own career aspirations, and I am only too happy to support those.

I started my Movie Diet in part to push myself out of the funk that might have been developing over many months sitting at home, in a new country, not "doing anything," and certainly not feeling like a productive member of society. You'd be amazed at how just getting a job instantly gave me so much of that sense of purpose I had been seeking. To be sure, it doesn't get me to the top of Mount Career Satisfaction, and that's a journey I do want to continue at some point. But it also means I'm no longer -- let's say it, because it was probably true to some degree -- depressed. Now, movies don't feel like the crutch that's keeping me from moving forward -- they feel like the reward for a hard day's work.

And yes, I do still want to start noodling around with some long-form writing, or some new hobbies/artistic pursuits, or reading more, or a hundred other things I imagined I'd do when I was watching only two movies per week. But I no longer need to prove to myself that movies aren't preventing me from doing those things. When I get an idea of something to write about, I'll try to write it. After all, you can't jump into a long-form writing project if you simply don't have the ideas.

So I'm free to pig out now, and I'm already on pace to watch more than two movies in my first week off the diet. It's Thursday night and I've already got two under my belt for the week. In fact, by the time the weekend's done, I may feel the need to loosen that belt.

What I won't feel the need to do is set up any more arbitrary restrictions as a means of getting the best out of myself. My best self has a way of fighting its way to the surface, without all that.

After all, a diet can only be a short-term thing, anyway.

It's no way to live.