Sunday, August 31, 2014

Australian Audient: Rabbit-Proof Fence

This is the latest in my monthly series looking at films made in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland, Western Australian, Northern Territory, Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania.

I have to admit, when I learned what Rabbit-Proof Fence was actually about, I was a little disappointed.

I figured -- or more likely, hoped -- it had something to do with the known bit of head-smacking Australian history in which a man named Thomas Austin released 24 wild rabbits on his property near Winchelsea, Victoria in October of 1859, for the purpose of hunting them, leading to a proliferation that may today still not be contained. See, rabbits are not native to Australia, but had been brought there in small, contained quantities for a variety of purposes prior to 1859. Austin, self-involved fathead that he was, wanted a Sunday morning activity prior to this tea, so he blithely set into a motion a sequence of events that would alter the ecosystem of a whole country -- actually, a whole continent. (And for the record, I thought the movie might be about this because the above poster was not the one with which I was acquainted.)

The titular fence in Phillip Noyce's movie was, indeed, one of several measures taken to address Austin's colossal blunder, some 50 years later when it was already well past controlling, but its function in this movie has nothing to do with the dividing of rabbits and crops. Its actually the path taken by three Aboriginal girls, separated from their parents as part of the government's attempt to civilize them, while trying to find their way back home.

And I tell you, this ended up being a much better subject for a movie.

The story concerns one of the most shameful practices in the history of Australia, the removal of mixed-race Aboriginal children from their families as an attempt to breed out the Aboriginal blood over subsequent generations of marriage to and procreation with white people. Bureaucrats like A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) actually believed they were doing right by these kids, indoctrinating them into a more civilized world where their lives would be better. But the upshot was that the government was legally entitled to strip these children from their parents and raise them in facilities like the one at Moore River (north of Perth in Western Australia), where they slept in gymnasiums full of cots and were raised to become laborers.

The three girls in Rabbit-Proof Fence are not having any of that. Molly (Everlyn Sampi), Gracie (Laura Monaghan) and Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) -- who range in age from about 7 to about 13 -- were all grabbed from a village in Jigalong, more than 1500 miles from the place they were eventually deposited. Rationally, they know that anyone who tries to escape Moore River is soon hunted down by an Aboriginal tracker (David Gulpilil) who works for the settlement, and then punished severely. But led by Molly's fierce will, they have to try. Otherwise uncertain how to get home, they soon realize they can follow that fence that runs from sea to sea -- since it also runs through Jigalong.

There's something incredibly emotional, at an elemental level, about these girls' journey. Part of that is the fact that I'm a parent, and the idea of having my children taken away from me just destroys me at a core level. But this journey in particular resonates because it reminds me of the desperate path to freedom taken by slaves in the American south. As those refugees escaped pursuing slaveowners via the Underground Railroad, a metaphorical transit line comprised of a network of friends and safehouses, Molly, Gracie and Daisy follow a more literal direct path toward their own freedom, while relying on the same friendly faces and being wary of the same threats. And just as blacks were often undone by turncoat members of their own race, known back then as Uncle Toms, so too is the girls' greatest adversary a fellow Aboriginal person, the nearly spiritually gifted tracker Moodoo.

What makes this movie so affecting, though, is its shades of gray. Let's start with Moodoo. While this man is a formidable foe with a penetrating stare, and there are times when he carries the same sense of impending doom as someone like Anton Chigurh, there's also a melancholy to the man, a sorrow overshadowing his nature. He is being repurposed by the white government in just the same way the girls are, but his undeniable strength and keen mastery over the landscape have not allowed him to do what the girls do: escape. His whole aspect is burdened by the solemnity of accepting his awful fate, or at least lacking the will to oppose it, and in a way he embodies the self-hatred that the government is teaching. Because it's the master David Gulpilil portraying this character, none of this needs to come out in the dialogue, and in fact, Moodoo speaks only once or twice in the whole film.

Branagh, too, is a character who might be a cartoonish villain in another movie. His perspective on breeding the black out of Aboriginal people is, of course, appalling on every level. But this doesn't mean he's twirling his mustache over all the ways he can subjugate these people. In fact, he has a deep spiritual belief in what he is doing, believing it to be humanism of the highest order. There's a line near the end where he says "If only these people could know what we are trying to do for them." The look in his eyes as he says this is not one of contempt or disdain. In fact, it is misty-eyed idealism. This man truly believes he is trying to save the world, and feels a genuine sorrow when he is opposed.

Anchoring the film, though, is the performances of the three child actresses, specifically Sampi as Molly. There are moments when these girls demonstrate the kind of blankness that you would consider typical of a non-professional actor -- better to do too little, in that case, than to do too much. Other moments, however, cast a different light on those blanker moments. You get the sense that Noyce has calibrated these performances in exactly the way he intends, and when the action calls for rare displays of emotion from them, it's all the more affecting.

Perhaps from what I am describing, you are getting a picture of a very realistic movie played in a very straightforward manner, but the final ingredient in the greatness of Noyce's storytelling is its dreamy atmosphere. As the movie is bookended by narration from a modern-day Molly Craig, it's clear the whole thing is her story -- and as such, displays some mystical techniques you might associate with Aboriginal storytelling tradition. Lenses and filters are used sparsely but effectively, and a particularly difficult path of the journey through the harshest parts of the outback is darn near expressionistic in its blending of the real and the majestic. I'm a sucker for the scores of Peter Gabriel (see: The Last Temptation of Christ), and didn't even know until the closing credits that he'd written this one. The music makes everything all the more ethereal.

Okay, only four more months in Australian Audient! I don't have a clear path to getting my hands on my next movie, but I know several movies I'm trying to find. Let's see how I do.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Wait, that's who?

You're Next is a film that contains a number of surprises, but for me, the biggest one -- or the biggest couple -- appeared in the closing credits.

Namely, the cast contains no fewer than three buzzed about independent filmmakers, none of whom I knew were in the movie.

Mumblecore king Joe Swanberg, horror wunderkind Ti West and Amy Seimetz (sorry Amy, no fancy description for you yet) are all cast members in the movie. (Seimetz may be better known to you as the lead in Upstream Color, but she also directed the indie film Sun Don't Shine.) I think they also appeared consecutively in the credits, each getting a picture of the character over the cast member's name, adding to the "Wait, what, wait, what, wait, WHAT?" factor.

I already knew what Seimetz looked like (but didn't recognize her), and had no real thoughts on what Ti West might or might not look like, but the appearance of Swanberg was what really threw me. I don't know what I was expecting from Swanberg, having only started to formulate an opinion about him recently in his career -- surprisingly recently, because I'm a guy who likes mumblecore quite a bit. Having only seen Drinking Buddies, I suppose I figured Swanberg looked sort of like Jake Johnson's character in that movie -- someone scruffy and cool, an auto mechanic who reads philosophy and enjoys good coffee.

Instead, this is Swanberg:

What? This looks like the kid who got beaten up in the schoolyard for his lunch money.

And Swanberg may have actually been that kid. And mumblecore is certainly not a genre that requires you to have been more than that. In fact, many successful filmmakers were outcasts in school. You never hear about the high school jock going on to have a successful directing career.

It's just that this doesn't confirm at all to what I was expecting Swanberg to look like, if I had been expecting anything at all. I suppose I imagined a starving artist, or at least someone with the kind of grizzly beard that doesn't look like it's been cared for in three months. Not this Swanberg, this closely cropped, preppy-looking dude.

It's very similar to another experience I had recently. My wife and I are very close to finishing The Wire, having started with season 1 possibly as long as five years ago. I don't recall exactly when we started, but we've taken down the final three seasons within the past year, and are only two episodes from the end as I type this.

When I noticed the name Tom McCarthy in the season 5 credits, I recalled that the director Thomas McCarthy -- The Station Agent, The Visitor, Win Win -- had also been an actor. I was fairly sure it was the same guy, and then concluded that the only character he could be was this guy:

It was the same feeling I had last night with Swanberg, that there was something too insubstantial about this guy to be a critically acclaimed director. Something too milquetoast.

I wasn't expecting McCarthy to be that grizzled mechanic with latte foam in his beard, but I did figure him to be somehow more ... imposing. Someone whose force of will seemed equal to the task of commandeering a team of cinematic collaborators.

I realized that like the villains in You're Next, directors are kind of "the men behind the masks." They have this mystique about them, something that makes them seem more than merely human. When you take off those masks, sometimes what you find is a bit disappointing. And the parallel with You're Next continues in that regard.

However, guys like Swanberg and McCarthy give hope to those of us who also do not confirm to that mythical notion of what makes a great director.

Me? I'm rocking that grizzled beard right now for the first time in over ten years, so what am I talking about?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The knockoff was a knockout

My son's fourth birthday was fast approaching, and you might say we were ill-prepared.

You'd say that not because our ducks were scattered, but literally, because we were ill. My wife caught the bug on the Tuesday before his Saturday party, and I followed suit by Friday morning. I knew it was going to be a doozy, as she had not yet recovered by the time I got sick. In fact, she kind of still hasn't, and neither have I. (Hence the lack of new movies seen/new blog posts.)

So when I went out on Friday after work to pick up some last-minute party essentials, already feeling an onset of chills, I wanted to kill multiple birds with one excused absence from parenting. That led me to Target, where I intended to purchase a lightsaber.

Star Wars, you see, is a new curiosity in our house in the younger generation. About a month ago, my nearly four-year-old caught sight of a trio of three Lego magnets that were purchased for daddy at a trip to Legoland just a few months before we moved: Chewbacca, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and most interestingly, Darth Vader. Daddy's explanation of Darth Vader soon led to the discovery of "Storm Trippers," who quickly took on the brunt of my son's obsession. Many youtube videos were soon watched.

The Vader and Kenobi Legos, though, each came equipped with a detachable lightsaber. (As did Chewbacca with his own weapon, but that was soon lost.) When I saw how fascinated he was with the lightsabers, an idea sprung that he should have one for his birthday.

But the officially sanctioned lightsaber available at Target -- cool though it most certainly was -- was a whopping $69. I mean, I assume that's whopping. I've never shopped for a lightsaber before, but I can't imagine a similar toy in the U.S. goes for any more than $35. At twice that price, I just didn't know if I could pull the trigger, especially considering the likelihood that he would break it within two weeks. Being in that mindset of just ticking things off our list, though, I almost caved to the pressure to buy it. 

In the end, though, I walked away.

And glad I did. My second stop was The Reject Shop, which is Australia's answer to The 99 Cent Store. This was where I was going to gather a bunch of party needs and little gifts for "pass the parcel" (an Aussie tradition that does not bear explaining right now). 

Not only did I find those, but I also found ... a lightsaber.

"Light up sword," to be exact. In fact, it's such a generic light up sword that a picture of it doesn't even come up in Google Images when I search by the manufacturer's name (Neo Glo). But a quick test of its power button proved that, indeed, the opaque white shaft did come shimmering to colorful life, just like a lightsaber should -- complete with the swishing sound of it igniting, followed by that moaning electrical hum of the weapon in its default state of readiness.


Six dollars.

And that's counting the three AAA batteries that come with it. 

Now, my son may be maturing at a sometimes alarming rate, but he's far from being able to tell or care the difference between a genuine lightsaber and a dimestore knockoff. But daddy -- daddy can tell. And the difference is sixty-three dollars.

The "light up sword" came home with me, needless to say.

Not only that, but it proved to be even more worth the six bucks than I could have originally imagined. I knew the sword lit up and I knew it made sounds, but what I didn't know until he opened it was what it did when the blade strikes another surface. Not only does it make that trademark "sabers clashing" sound, but the shaft actually changes color. Starting off at red, it cycles through at least blue and purple before returning to its original color. (I'd tell you more accurately if it weren't currently in the bedroom where he's asleep.)

The best surprise, though, was how much he loved it. Okay, not a total surprise, since I already knew he loved swords, and a sword that's also a laser is even better. But it's still a lovely surprise, so to speak, just to see that look of joy in your son's face when you really score with a present. It's so easy to strike out, and a number of the presents he'd received over the preceding days had done just that with him. Hitting the home run, then, can feel like a wonderful surprise indeed.

And I might have played with it myself once or twice since Monday. I might have. Hey, I never had a lightsaber when I was his age.

Now I'm even more looking forward to furthering his introduction to Star Wars, which figures to take a big step forward with a planned trip to Disneyland in November, possibly followed by some of the movies. After all, he's now older than I was when I first saw the original.

I'd be lying if I didn't tell you there's a small part of me wondering if he should watch all six films in time to see Episode VII in the theater next December.  

For now, though, we've got the light up sword that swishes and hums and changes color. That will be enough.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Movies where child actors shouldn't watch their own performances

"You said 'fuck.'"

Those words -- hilariously spoken by a five-year-old Jonathan Lipnicki, in hushed tones of shock over Jerry Maguire's potty mouth -- give a perfect encapsulation of how child actors must often grow up on screen before they would naturally grow up in real life. Of course it's funny to hear such a young child drop an F-bomb, just as it's funny to hear 12-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz say far worse than that in Kick-Ass. But one has to wonder if there is a toll to be taken on the actor him or herself.

Those roles are essentially lead roles, which means that the actors (or at least the actors' parents) have signed off on the potential premature warping of their minds (or their children's minds). But what about children who are essentially extras, who just want to see how they did that time those nice people showed up with those cameras?

I've seen two such movies in the past week, but I'll start with the one that serves as perhaps a more stark example of that idea.

Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color is a warm, humanistic and believable coming-of-age story that just so happens to run for three hours and feature some hardcore pornography. A typical movie it is not.

However, like many typical movies, it has some scenes featuring children. The main character, Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), is a school teacher, after all. They may not be necessary scenes, as they don't contribute to the plot -- an attribute they share in common with most of the film's scenes. It's an atmospheric film, a character study in the truest sense of that phrase.

It may just be that the French are less hung up on stuff like this than we are, but I have to wonder if the parents of those kids showed them this movie. There's a decent buffer between any scenes of kindergartners waltzing around and any scenes of graphic cunnilingus, but still. I suppose those parents could just focus on those individual scenes, being sure to know all the correct minute markers. And if the kids wanted to watch the rest? "It's a boring adult movie, honey," the parents might say. "Besides, it's three hours long."

And continuing the porn theme, the movie I saw last night, Nymphomaniac: Volume I, is different in the sense of having a lot fewer child actors -- really, it's only the main character Joe (seen above as embodied by Charlotte Gainbsourg) at a younger age, and one of her friends. Those girls might fall into the category of professional actors like Lipnicki and Moretz. But the images in this movie are a fair bit more psychologically scarring than those in Blue -- especially, I expect, as things move on to Volume II.

There may have been no tricks to keeping the content secret this time. As those girls are seen pleasuring themselves by sliding around on a wet bathroom floor, I guess they pretty much had to be told what the movie was about.

What, Vance? You saw one of the most controversial films of the year, and all we get is this short little post about whether the underage actors should be able to watch their own performances?

Yeah, maybe. I had a bad night's sleep and don't have the energy for a screed against Lars von Trier today (if you want some sense of my impressions of the movie).

I suppose it's better for kids to be exposed to sex than to be exposed to excessive decapitations and dismemberments. The kids in these movies might do better than the young girls who appeared in this past season of The Walking Dead, for example.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The sun rises on 4,000 movies

"Step right this way, ladies and gentlemen, for Vancetastic's 4,000th movie of all time! An extravaganza so big, it had to be stretched out over two nights!"

That's right, I fell asleep while watching my latest big milestone movie, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

It seems like only yesterday that I was watching the 3,000th movie I'd ever seen, but in fact, it was May 12, 2010. That was when I lined up the Bernie Mac baseball vehicle Mr. 3000 on a Wednesday night to mark the occasion. Even then it seemed like only yesterday that I'd just been planning #2,000, which was Casablanca on September 16th of 2005. And though I don't have an exact date for #1,000, I made note at the time that it was the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback, which I watched in time to rank with my 1999 year-end films, meaning the viewing on video was sometime in late 1999 or early 2000. Clearly, that was not one I scheduled intentionally.

So what to do for #4,000? There was no obvious blind spot (Casablanca) or thematically appropriate choice (Mr. 3000), and I didn't want to just leave it up to the whims of my schedule (Payback).

What actually happened was that I put this question to the members of the Flickcharter discussion group on Facebook, and after sifting through some funny joke responses ("You could watch The 400 Blows ten times!"), some titles that fell into the "list of shame" category emerged. A few days later, one of the members who lives in Australia was sending me the five Bergman films I am now making my way through -- and F.W. Murnau's Sunrise.

Sunrise -- or Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans -- struck me right away as the appropriate choice. It's something I have been meaning to see for some time, and in fact I included it in a September 2012 blog post intended to determine what was my new biggest blind spot after I had crossed Sunset Boulevard off my list. I had also included on that list Bergman's Persona, another of the movies I got from my Flickchart friend, but Sunrise jumped to the top for another reason: It was the first winner of the best picture Oscar.

Well, sort of. Those of you who have a casual familiarity with the history of best picture titles won't recognize Sunrise as one of them. You will correctly note that William Wellman's Wings won the first statue in 1927.

But at the time that first Oscar was given out, it was one of two awarded on the evening. Wings won the Oscar for Outstanding Picture, while Murnau's film was credited with the award for Unique and Artistic Production. That second category lasted only one year, and it was retroactively determined that Wings had indeed achieved the highest honor for a picture in 1927. So that's what the history books say.

Still, that makes it a pretty good, and "unique" (in more than once sense of that word), choice to mark a milestone like 4,000 movies. For good measure, it was also one of two movies in the most recent Sight & Sound poll top 10 that I had yet to see.

Since this post is more about the experience of reaching 4,000 movies than the movie itself, I'll contain my thoughts on the movie to just two paragraphs.

If Sunrise seems unusual to us today, I can only imagine how unusual it must have seemed at the time. The story essentially involves an unnamed man living in an island vacation spot with his wife and young child, who is having an affair with a "girl from the city." The city girl convinces him to try to remove his wife from the picture by taking a boat trip with her and pushing her overboard, then claiming it was an accidental drowning. The man is out at sea in the rowboat, determined to go through with it, to the point that he has actually started lumbering menacingly toward her and leaving no doubt about his intentions. When he sees the fear and revulsion on her face, he has a change of heart and rows them to shore, where she runs from him. He catches up and apologizes so profusely that it appears to rekindle some deeply buried sense of affection between them. So completely does he recommit himself to his wife that he not only earns her forgiveness, but actually launches into a day and night on the town that recalls the carefree romanticism of their old days together. As it is customary for me not to spoil the ending of a movie, even one that is 87 years old, I will leave off my plot synopsis at this point.

What I find so strange about the movie is its fantastical belief in the power of love and the idea of redemption -- oh, and the fact that there's a part in the middle where a pig gets drunk on a bottle of spilled wine. We're talking about a wife who learns that her husband actually intends to kill her, to drown her, and yet she believes so fully in his sincere repentance that they become like youthful lovebirds again in a matter of hours. Who does that? It almost seems like something I should be seeing in one of my Bergman movies, some kind of meditation on God's unconditional love and how an earnest confession of sins can earn a person absolution. Aside from these wilder moments of the narrative, though, Sunrise is pretty amazing with respect to how it was actually appreciated by the Academy at the time: its technical achievements. The film is notable for its use of superimposed images, as Murnau layers images of his lover's face over the man as he contemplates the potential murder, and images of the city over their foggy coastal setting as she tries to sell him on a different life. The film also has a very sophisticated scene involving the storm that overtakes them at sea, with storm effects that must have challenged every existing method for creating such a scene. And the filming of those foggy nighttime scenes in the opening 20 minutes is simply magical. Overall, it's an impressive accomplishment, if also a supremely odd one.

And yes, I did fall asleep while watching it. On Sunday night, I brazenly thought, "Sure, no problem, I'll take down this 90-minute silent movie starting at 9:30 after having two glasses of wine with dinner." When that was not entirely possible, and two naps did nothing but push things well past midnight, I gave up and finished the last half-hour on Monday night. Maybe not the best call on a milestone movie night, but it's fairly representative of how I have to watch movies these days, so in that sense it's fitting.

So back to reaching 4,000. As I am also 40 years old, this achievement seems to hold for me a certain symmetry, beyond its status as simply another milestone. It brings my lifetime average cleanly to around 100 movies a year. And given how few movies I was watching, relatively speaking, for the first half of my life to date, that tells you how busy I've been in the second half.

This is also my fastest thousand movies. It took me until I was 26 years old to hit 1,000, and then nearly another six years to hit 2,000. Since I have been a father for almost all of my last thousand movies, I would have suspected that I got from 2,000 to 3,000 more quickly than I got from 3,000 to 4,000. But that's not the case. My previous thousand films took me 4 years, 7 months and 26 days, while these last thousand took 4 years, 3 months and 6 days. I initially couldn't account for it, but then I remembered that I watched only a couple movies a month in the months leading up to my wedding back in 2008. That alone could account for the difference.

The question I think I should be asking myself is what I think of getting to this milestone. Milestones are wont to make us contemplate the bigger questions, like How We Are Spending Our Time, and What We Are Doing With Our Lives. What might I have accomplished by now if I had had a more modest movie intake, and was hitting 2,000 movies at age 40 rather than 4,000?

Instead of fretting too much about that, I think I'll continue onward and upward and just get out to see #4,001 -- Guardians of the Galaxy -- tonight.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Whole Lotta Bergman: Winter Light

The shorter Ingmar Bergman's movies become, the more they are starting to seem like plays or cinematic exercises than full-on movies. Winter Light, at a scant 81 minutes, is a perfect example of that trend.

The last movie I watched, Through a Glass Darkly, was very much like a play in the sense that it took place in an around a single house on an island -- a play-like setting if ever there was one. But at least in that film there were a number of exterior scenes. Winter Light, the second of three films that Bergman retroactively labeled an informal trilogy exploring faith, manages to compress things even further. It does have about one outdoor scene, but the rest are interiors -- perhaps a reflection of how the characters are looking inward as they struggle with their own core beliefs.

I knew Winter Light might seem long for an 81-minute movie when it spent its opening 13 minutes on just a church service. Yes, this service does introduce the main characters, but only by showing us their faces as they either perform or receive the service. A lot is intended to be inferred from the attendance of this service (sparse) and the expression of the officiant (strained, weary). But nothing more expository occurs during those 13 minutes than the last 13 minutes of a Christian service in a small church in some small Swedish town, in winter.

We come to learn that the pastor, Tomas, is not only worn down physically, as he has a cold, but also spiritually, as he lost his wife to disease and has since come to question his whole perspective on the very existence of God. As such, this is about the most overt case of a theme that exists covertly in most of Bergman's texts -- the individual's relationship with his God. Here we have a person who is supposed to have an actual relationship with God, in the traditional interpretation of the role of a religious figure, and if the crisis in his faith is such that he is questioning whether God even exists, what hope do the rest of us have?

In another trademark Bergman approach that we see later in Persona, the film moves to a segment in which the pastor's more recent lover (Ingrid Thulin), now an ex, reads a letter she wrote to him, for unbroken minutes of film on end. With only a single cutaway, we see her "perform" the letter -- though it's actually just a visualization of Eric reading it to himself. We learn a little bit about their relationship (she also attended the service and appears "for real" in other parts of the movie) and just what kind of emotional malaise they all find themselves in. Added to this is another parishioner, played by frequent Bergman collaborator Max von Sydow, who is so despondent over nuclear tests by the Chinese that he is contemplating suicide. This very material sort of depression is contrasted with the more existential depression of the pastor himself.

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here, but I must admit that it does feel more like bits of ideas than a complete narrative. This lack of cohesiveness was another contributing factor to the movie feeling longer than it should have felt. However, I'm starting to get the sense that this is more typically what is thought of when we talk about Bergman and his films. Those that qualify as epics in one way or another -- such as The Seventh Seal, or I would argue Wild Strawberries in a slightly different way -- are perhaps more the exceptions to his normal mode, and Winter Light may be more typical.

But the only way to know for sure is to keep on keeping on, and seeing what I get next in The Silence.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

MIFF: That's a wrap

The Melbourne International Film Festival doesn't actually end until this evening, but last night was officially Closing Night. That means that four screens at the Melbourne Central Hoyts were showing Felony, starring Joel Edgerton and Tom Wilkinson, and directed by my friend Matthew Saville, the husband of one of my wife's oldest friends. This was followed by a gala drinks at which, I understand, Matthew was grinning ear-to-ear. If you were the director of a film chosen to close one of the world's oldest film festivals, you'd grin too.

Being a bit of a mucky muck in the Melbourne film industry herself these days, my wife was sitting in one of those four audiences. The tickets were something ridiculous like $50, though she went for free as part of her job. I'll wait and see Felony in the theater in a couple weeks, when it will be "only" $19. (And yes, I'll try to go to a full-price screening, to do my own share to contribute to the film's box office.)

I did have the final movie on my own agenda across town at the Capitol Theatre, the same location as my previous two -- a 9 p.m. screening of Craig Johnson's The Skeleton Twins. I was close to not having it, as only on Friday did my wife realize that the Felony screening was Saturday rather than Sunday. Fortunately, her sister stepped in like a hero to babysit, so we could both take in our final movies of the festival.

And what a way to end things.

I've noticed something happening recently during movies I love, which has surely happened before, but I've only just put my finger on it in 2014. It's the chills. Or maybe it's goosebumps -- hard to tell in a darkened theater. But I first consciously recognized this involuntary physical reaction in Edge of Tomorrow, and then made note of it happening again in Snowpiercer. The Skeleton Twins made it 3-for-3 as I sat in a kind of fugue of cinematic rapture. When I wasn't laughing hysterically, that is.

The Skeleton Twins starts with one of those potentially worrisome setups for an independent movie, which immediately puts you on guard about content that may both be self-important and eccentric. A depressed gay man (Bill Hader), with a bottle in one hand and a picture of himself with an ex-boyfriend in the other, decides to do something about his distressed emotional state -- he gets into a warm bath and opens his wrists, but not before first jacking up his stereo to its highest volume. On the other side of the country, a woman (Kristen Wiig) has a palm full of pills in one hand and her cell phone in the other, when the cell phone rings to tell her that her brother has been admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt (his neighbors complained about the loud music and got the building manager). It turns out they are twins, and in one of those moments of parallel twindom, they were both about to end their miserable existences at the same moment -- despite not having spoken for ten years.

Leave your skepticism at the door, my friends, because this is one of the most moving portraits of siblings -- and really, just of people trying to make the best of disappointing lives -- that I've seen in a long time.

Milo (Hader) agrees to go move in with Maggie (Wiig) to try to get his life back on track -- not knowing that she herself was on the precipice. He had moved to Los Angeles to become an actor, but has predictably been waiting tables instead. Meanwhile, Maggie still lives in their home town of Nyack, New York, and has married an enthusiastic and earnest but comparatively simple guy named Lance (Luke Wilson), who calls people "bro" and "amigo" and is nothing like the acerbic and funny Milo -- who gradually brings the acerbic and funny version of Maggie back out as they become reacquainted. Being back home also brings Milo back in contact with a past love interest, Rich (Ty Burrell), about whom there was a scandal that contributed to the splintering of Milo and Maggie's relationship. As they are contending with the long shadow thrown by their father's suicide when they were teens, an absent mother, and possible complications in Maggie's marriage, these two broken siblings have a lot on their collective plate.

I suppose there's not a lot in terms of subject matter that differentiates The Skeleton Twins from any number of other independent dramas that also have a knack for the funny. The difference comes in the casting of almost entirely comedic actors, who show us -- in some cases for the first time -- how nimble they can be with drama. First and foremost on that list is Hader, whose run on Saturday Night Live coincided with Wiig's, which undeniably contributes to their priceless chemistry. We've seen Wiig pull off affecting moments of drama in small doses in movies like Bridesmaids, but Hader's dramatic chops are almost entirely unexpected, making them all the more disarming. Simply put, he is fantastic, and I just hope that this is the type of film that could actually earn him Oscar attention this year. Wiig is (nearly) his equal, and what both actors do so well in this film is communicate so much with just small adjustments of their expressions. They both get plenty of big moments, but it's what they do in the small ones that make these acting tour-de-forces.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that these are just dramatic performances, though. If that were the case, there probably wouldn't have been a compelling reason to choose these two particular actors. They share at least two big comedy set pieces -- one involving hijinx with nitrous at a dentist's office, another featuring an epic lip sync of a 1980s song -- that are some of the most gut-busting scenes I've experienced at the movies in a couple years. And perhaps that's an indication of just what director Craig Johnson is pulling off here. He's made both one of the funniest and one of the most moving films of 2014, and perhaps of the past couple years as well.

While I'm telling you how stunned I was by the acting, I shouldn't neglect a supporting turn from Modern Family's Ty Burrell, whose role is strictly dramatic and is quite impressive given what we've seen of him on screen as well.

The Skeleton Twins may have a couple convenient moments, but everything that happens feels life-sized and truthful. Some characters may be designed to serve a particular plot function only, but that doesn't mean they get the short shrift in terms of depth or nuance. This movie never "cheats." It delivers us unfiltered pain but also unmitigated joy, and I am sure it will end up being one of my very favorite films of 2014.

I suppose one of the reasons it struck me as much as it did is that it's one of the rare movies that speaks to my own particular brand of siblinghood. I feel like we see a lot of movies about the bonds between brothers and the bonds between sisters, but it's less frequent that we see a brother and a sister taking on the world through their own unique sibling bond. Sure, my sister is not a twin and we did not have anything to deal with so heavy as a father who killed himself, but that's the thing about great movies -- their specifics make us think of our own, even if they are unrelated. Great movies tap into things that are universal, and this one made me miss my sister indeed.

In the closing credits I was delighted, though not totally surprised, to see the names of Mark and Jay Duplass as producers. Mark was the star of the movie my wife saw on Friday night, Creep, which she also raved about. It is becoming clearer and clearer that everything the Duplass brothers touch turns to gold, and The Skeleton Twins is gold indeed. In fact, this movie cast me into such a lovely contemplative mood that I was fused to my seat until the end of the credits, and didn't even listen to my iPod on the tram ride home.

On that exceptional closing note, I really look forward to MIFF 2015.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Can we settle on the title of this movie already?

If Edge of Tomorrow were a mental patient, it would be suffering from a severe identity crisis right now.

First there was the fact that its name was kept as the name of the graphic novel, All You Need Is Kill, in Asian markets.

Then there was the erroneous rumor that it was being retitled Living on the Edge for the remainder of its theatrical run. Sure, that ended up not being correct, but every rumor has some kernel of truth to it, and this one probably did too.

Now, the cover art for its DVD/BluRay release has been revealed, and a new title of sorts is being emphasized: Live Die Repeat. As seen just north and to the right of these words.

The natural instinct upon seeing this cover might just be to say that the film's tagline is receiving an unprecedented amount of play. The title Edge of Tomorrow does appear at the bottom, jammed next to the last names of the stars and separated by forward slashes, almost like it was the tail end of a URL.

Well, consider this: On iTunes, the movie is actually being listed as Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow.

Don't believe me? Well, this article goes into it a bit more:

If you don't want to follow that link (and I can't blame you for not wanting to leave my blog for even a moment), the Indiewire story supposes that the name given on iTunes might just be an attempt to bring the movie up in searches by people who saw the phrase "Live Die Repeat" so much, they thought it might have been the actual name of the movie.

I only have to hope that all this to-ing and fro-ing on the name will bring more attention to what is still my favorite movie of the year. Although the movie did not end up with the anemic box office that was projected after its underwhelming first weekend, it still qualifies as a failure, and they are still trying to figure out how to recoup some of the production costs. I care about that not because I care in the abstract whether the studio gets its money, but because I want other studios to roll the dice on unknown commodities rather than established brands. Any movement of Edge of Tomorrow toward reclassification as a success would help with that.

If calling it You Really Should See This Movie will help, then I'm in favor of that as well.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

MIFF: MIFF makes a comeback

It's no secret I wasn't exactly thrilled with my first two movies at the Melbourne International Film Festival this year. I was marginally thrilled with White God, in parts, and with Black Coal, Thin Ice, in fewer parts. Leaving me marginally nonplussed overall.

But MIFF wasn't over for me yet -- not by a long shot.

This past Monday and Tuesday I took in two movies in less than 24 hours, and in the interest of time and other topical commitments on my blog, I'm going to combine them into one big MIFF comeback story.

Both screenings were also at the Capitol Theatre on Swanson street, one of those grand old movie palaces that has long since ceased functioning as it was originally designed, but still hosts movie screenings for the festival. Its walls and ceilings are composed of these jutting features that are somewhere between regal, art deco-inspired protrusions and concrete monstrosities. Overall it works.

Night Moves

Kelly Reichardt's fourth feature film was my first "cheat" of the festival. In this case, a "cheat" is defined as "a film I will easily be able to see just a few weeks from now, so I don't really need to attend a film festival to see it." In truth of fact, I ended up seeing it precisely a month before its Australian release date. Adding to the seeming absurdity of the viewing was that I was paying $19 for it on a Monday night, when Monday is the one night of the week I can pay $10 less than that at Cinema Nova and see the latest and greatest in independent cinema.

But I think it's fair to say I was good and ready for something I had actually been anticipating, after two straight stabs in the dark to start the festival -- two rolls of the dice that hadn't exactly won me the jackpot.

Fortunately, a cinematic jackpot was indeed waiting in Reichardt's film, a quiet and insidious little slow burn that doesn't necessarily go where you expect it to -- both in and of itself, and as a product of this particular filmmaker.

If you're not familiar with her work -- well, shame on you, but she directed Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff, which is her so-called "Oregon Trilogy." Of course now you can't call it that, as this movie also takes place in Oregon. The first two were purposefully small stories with two main characters each (even though one of those is a dog), but by Meek's she was starting to expand into a recognizable genre in the thrilling exploration of a band of settlers migrating across country under the questionable leadership of one man who supposedly knows the correct way to go. Night Moves is another move toward re-envisioning a genre, as it's a movie about a trio of environmental extremists planning to blow up a dam, which takes on some of tone and feel of one of Alan J. Pakula's paranoia films from the 1970s.

What really impressed me so much about Night Moves, beyond the performances of Jesse Eisenberg and Peter Sarsgaard (I'm distracted by the way Dakota Fanning seems like a child in a grown-up's body), is the formal maturity on display by Reichardt. Her shots here feel very tightly controlled and composed, with the express purpose of putting us in the shoes of the characters as their scheme escalates into something other than they intended. The film's growing sense of dread is ushered perfectly along by Jeff Grace's haunting and minimally used score, and Reichardt shows a mastery of close-ups and other stylistic choices that I haven't noticed in her work previously. Although this film certainly has the long takes of her other films, they are used  here in a more deliberate manner to accentuate her themes.

And a word or two about Eisenberg. He has excelled recently at playing callous pricks, perhaps ever since The Social Network, but what he's doing here seems fresh and different. He's not the sharp and spiteful wordsmith that Mark Zuckerberg was, but rather, something more internal, verging on sociopathic. If you didn't think you could be scared by Jesse Eisenberg, think again.

Why Don't You Play in Hell?

Tuesday night, at 6:30 this time rather than 9 p.m. (and thank you to my wife for letting me go straight from work and skip out on the kids' bedtime routine), I took in an unexpected viewing of Sion Sono's Why Don't You Play in Hell? Actually, my wife deserves more than a parenthetical thank you here, because it was her generosity of spirit that got me to the movie in the first place. Remember how I got into White God with a festival pass that was being used, but not effectively, by people at her work? She volunteered to try to get me a ticket to another movie using the same pass. I didn't ask for it or anything, she just volunteered.

I didn't know anything about this movie except that it had an unforgettable title, and that a friend of mine had heard something about it previously that made him super excited to see it. After watching it, I could see why.

Simply put, this movie is bananas. It's got the type of overstuffed plot that is almost too difficult to explain, but here's the basic upshot: The movie concerns a quartet of wannabe filmmakers who happen into an opportunity to film a real fight between two Yakuza gangs in order to make a movie out of it. Not only that, but they get the gangs to agree to allow them to set up the cameras and respond to the director's commands, even though the fight between these gangs will be "real." I put "real" in quotation marks because Why Don't You Play in Hell? exists in a universe side-stepped from our own. It's not blatantly ridiculous in the sense that pink elephants float through the sky or anything, but it's like a giddy and geeked-out version of our own reality, so silly that it feels weightless even during its scenes of (often quite ridiculous) violence.

Anyway, it has most in common with Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies, not only by involving an incredibly bloody sword battle (this one played for straight laughs), but as it also engages in Tarantino's repurposing of musical riffs from earlier decades and unlikely genres. I think there was even some of that Mexican dance music that Tarantino favors, in what almost spills over from the realm of homage into direct ripoff.

But how could anyone say anything so negative as that this movie rips off anything from any other movie? It's such an absurd delight with such an original spirit, filled with characters who make the audience laugh in equal measure to their delight. The movie is bursting with its own contagious love for cinema, and it is unafraid to show that love in every way imaginable. This is the type of movie that believes that going to the movies should first and foremost be raucous fun, and isn't afraid to compromise its own ambitions by turning the whole thing into a silly gas. (Rather than making the serious crime film most film lovers seem to want to make.) It's easily 20 minutes too long, but it's also so likeable that you can't fault it this either. Why Don't You Play in Hell? is enthusiasm incarnate.

Okay, this time I can be sure of it: just one film left on my 2014 MIFF schedule. I wrap things up this Saturday night with The Skeleton Twins, starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Did we kill Robin Williams?

I have not been a fan of Robin Williams for a long time.

That could have been part of the problem.

I know it's not only foolhardy, but highly presumptuous, to examine a suicide and see if there was something you could have done differently -- especially if you did not even know the person. But it's human nature to wonder. If it was a friend or family member, you wonder if you could have checked in with them more often, extended invitations to them, or seen if they just wanted to talk. If it was a celebrity, you wonder if you could have/should have liked them more.

Of course, it's also quite reductive to say that Williams committed suicide on Monday because he was not well enough liked by his public, even if the need to be liked is a prime motivating factor for many comedians -- especially a manic, life-of-the-party type like Williams. Even if that was one of the factors, it certainly couldn't be the only one or even one of the most important. If suicides were that easy to define on a causal level, then Mel Gibson would have killed himself years ago.

But I do think that a general mocking disinterest may have risen up around the man in the past ten or 15 years, and eventually overwhelmed him by creating toxic levels of self-loathing. In fact, it was just over 15 years ago that Williams made Patch Adams, a mainstream hit that nonetheless started his decline in the minds of discriminating films fans, so dependent was it on syrupy sentimentality. In retrospect, that feels like a real turning point for Williams, as he won an Oscar the previous year for Good Will Hunting, and then his career instantly started losing heat. He made some isolated interesting choices (Insomnia, One Hour Photo, World's Greatest Dad), but he was far more likely to churn out dreck (RV, License to Wed, Old Dogs) or fall back on his voice work (Robots, Happy Feet, Everyone's Hero). Even though he worked regularly and seemed to be trying as hard as ever, something about him started to stink up the place, until he became commonly considered a punchline. At least among those aforementioned discriminating film fans.

And on this front I can take some blame. As a member of the blogosphere, I contributed my share to a not-so-subtle undercurrent of Williams bashing, the kind that seems extra callous because it assumes that everyone agrees with it ... that no other option exists but to agree with it. That's right, my Williams bashing was fueled by the arrogant assumption that you all knew exactly what I was talking about.

Let's consider some of the ways I casually belittled Robin Williams over the years:

November 26, 2011: About the movie Bicentennial Man: "If you thought I was crazy when I just waxed poetic about an Adam Sandler vehicle, you might think me more so when discussing a Chris Columbus movie that was Robin Williams' follow-up to the much-reviled Patch Adams (and aims similarly at a viewer's soft and squishy parts)."

July 5, 2011: About the movie Man of the Year: "... but it's more like ill-considered Frank Capra stuff, and Robin Williams is just annoying as hell."

July 28, 2010: About the movie Fathers' Day: "I'm not a huge Williams fan, and Dale Putley is normally the kind of role in which I like him least."

February 27, 2010: About the movie Jack: "Coppola has actually admitted that he does stupid studio movies in order to help pay for his passion projects and keep him from going bankrupt, and Jack, in which Robin Williams plays a young boy on a growth spurt, seems about the stupidest."

November 11, 2009: About the movie Old Dogs: "Wild Hogs may have made me judge Travolta less harshly, but I remain as skeptical as ever of Robin Williams."

September 3, 2009: About the movie World's Greatest Dad: "I don't make much of an effort to see Robin Williams movies these days -- and really, who does -- but I am intrigued by Goldthwait ..."

Even though I went on to compliment Williams in at least two of those instances, I couldn't resist marginalizing him before I did so. That was six negative mentions in a two-year span. I'm not sure if I've ridden anyone else that hard on my blog, that consistently. The only comfort I can take from this? At least Williams bashing has fallen out of fashion on my blog in the past three years.

Now let's assume that everyone did feel the way I repeatedly expressed feeling about Williams. Namely, that he was once a captivating entertainer who had either become too comfortable with inferior paycheck roles or who had lost his ability to tell a good role from a bad one. The implied comment in our attitude was that he was no longer providing value to anybody, and now merely taking up some of the finite available space on this planet.

Well, if you thought that everyone felt that way about you, mightn't you consider ending it all?

Of course, Williams was only thought of this way on the snarkosphere. Your average person dug Patch Adams, and found Williams to be a beloved entertainer throughout his career. Even among those who didn't love Patch Adams and the types of movies Williams made after that turning point, a sizeable percentage still generously remember him for his excellent work in Good Morning, Vietnam, or Awakenings, or Aladdin, or Mrs. Doubtfire, or The Birdcage.

Or, of course, Mork from Ork. Good old Mork from Ork.

I wish I could eulogize Williams with fond thoughts on these iconic roles, but really, I don't think I've earned the right. I'll let those pieces be written by people who were kinder to him than I was.

The thing I regret today as I think back on Williams is that he never seemed like the kind of S.O.B. who deserved our snark. Sure, some of the choices he made were easy targets, and he happened to have some long losing streaks in the 21st century. But he always seemed like a nice guy, a guy who would put on a happy face even when he only had unhappy ones to choose from. And when he did really want us to like him, it didn't feel like a selfish demand for affirmation. It felt like a natural extension of a personality that had always tried to make people laugh.

But Williams was a sad clown, doomed by chemical imbalances in his brain to live a shorter life than we wanted him to live. Because really, nothing anyone said about Williams could have led to this. Depression is never so rational. Depression has a nasty habit of ignoring all the things in your life you have to be happy about, while focusing only on the negative. And depression doesn't have to go seeking out the negative in blog posts and tweets. It finds it wherever it looks.

And now that we have lost Williams to depression, I find myself fervently wishing that instead he could be on a set somewhere with John Travolta, about to shoot Old Dogs 2.

Make good movies, make bad movies, I don't care -- just stick around, Robin. The world is lesser without you. You deserved your share of the finite space more than a lot of us.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Credit where credit is due

I've been a little hard on Dreamworks over the years on this blog. You might say that I look for opportunities to get in little digs at the world's second most successful animation studio.

In fact, you might even say that I was mentally composing a blog post entitled "The Pepsi of animation" when I first arrived at Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibit in Melbourne's Federation Square this past Sunday with my wife and two kids in tow. You might say this was the result of quickly scanning the walls and realizing that you know what? I don't really love any of these characters. You might say that.

But you might also say that I give credit where credit is due.

Even if I don't love all the characters or even most of the movies they appear in, I do love the commitment Dreamworks brought to giving us a truly interactive experience that brings us inside the world of making their particular brand of movie magic.

For a reasonable price of $22.50 per adult -- a price that seemed even more reasonable because we had one free ticket -- you're exposed to a gallery of pictures, movie clips, sculptures, models, how-to videos, touchscreens, dioramas and everything else you can imagine that basically charts the history of Dreamworks Animation. (With a few exceptions that I'll get to later.) The gallery is designed in three conceptual areas -- Character, Story and World -- and laid out in such a way to take you kind of chronologically through the creation process.


- A wall devoted to demonstrating the storyboarding stage. The wall is filled with index-card sized images depicting the Gingerbread Man torture scene from Shrek, with the hundred or so in the middle blank. Then a projector projects the image of a Dreamworks creative mind stepping through additional index card-sized images projected on to the blanks on the wall, creating the illusion of a complete storyboarding wall -- the man does the character voices and steps through the scene with a pointer. Then near the end we see the actual scene play out in the movie.

- A brainstorming session, which shows a table covered with notepads, scripts, discarded food containers, a large paper scroll, cell phones, and any number of other pieces of creative detritus. A projector factors in here as well, but it's projecting down from the ceiling, allowing images to appear and race across the notebooks, character faces to be scribbled on otherwise blank sticky notes, pages flipping in a book, and even a yellow highlighter magically coloring lines of dialogue in the script. Exceedingly well done.

- A wall devoted to showing the modern adaptation of Mr. Peabody and Sherman next to the source material from the 1960s. The Leonardo Da Vinci sequence was actually based on a sequence form the show, and it was a real education on the evolution of animation to see the final product next to its inspiration.

- A "drawing room" where you can experiment with the desktop software technology Dreamworks animators use. As this was intended for ages 6 and up and there was a long line, I am kind of making the assumption it would have been a highlight if we could have seen it.

- And last but the opposite of least, a circular theater that shows a four-minute virtual journey on board the back of the dragon from How to Train Your Dragon (and its sequel), which swoops through the island of Berk as it is created before our eyes. Starting with just a charcoal drawing of the dragon, "you" (as in the camera's eye) get on his back as he becomes a full-fledged creature, flying through an island environment that builds itself from its digital endoskeleton into the fully realized world you see in the movie. Although this trip made my wife a little sick, it dropped my jaw in wonder. I watched the movie twice.

Then there are just a ton of animation stills and walls devoted to particular films, sometimes with video monitors and talking heads explaining some key element of the creative process.

Dreamworks' movies mostly received some form of representation, even obscurer choices like Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. It surprised me to be reminded that Antz was actually the studio's first film, which meant that it positioned itself as an alternative to Pixar before going back and doing some more traditional 2D animation (like The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado and the two titles mentioned above). There were a few notable exceptions, however -- last year's hit Turbo was almost nowhere to be seen, and one of my favorite Dreamworks movies, Monsters vs. Aliens, was also absent. A couple of the sequels also didn't appear. While this did strike me with an instinct to nitpick, I guess it's also representative of just how much Dreamworks has actually outputted in the past 16 years.

As with any exhibit we attend with children, we didn't get to do or take in as much as we would have wanted before we left. But I commented to my wife that the virtual dragon ride was worth the price of admission alone. Having been queasy during it, I don't suppose she exactly agreed.

My quibbles with Dreamworks have rarely been with the actual animation, but more with the writing. I have always said that they just don't get the same quality writers as Disney/Pixar. Although Dreamworks might take this as less of an affront than if I said the reverse, that the animation looked shoddy, I suppose it's also a point of pride for them to have created characters and stories that have become beloved. Making something look good is one thing, but making us care intensely about that nice-looking this is the arguably harder task.

Looking at the body of work together, though, I did allow myself to get momentarily swept up in what Dreamworks has accomplished, and it made me eager to go back and watch a few of the films I haven't seen. They did a really good job with this exhibit and I am convinced that their catalogue is something to be genuinely proud of.

Yeah, they may be the Pepsi of animation. But when you're in a Pepsi mood, Pepsi can hit the spot.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

MIFF: Sunshine jinx?

I headed out Friday night for the only one of my four Melbourne International Film Festival screenings taking place at a multiplex. Although I was looking forward to the Chinese detective thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice -- enough that I paired it with a themed dumpling dinner at a nearby restaurant serving Taiwanese street food -- I must admit that on some level it felt a little less special that I'd be rubbing elbows with the regular Friday night crowd out to see Guardians of the Galaxy and Hercules.

Upon arrival, my concerns were alleviated ... but then replaced by other concerns of a decidedly superstitious nature.

See, the Hoyts theater at Melbourne Central has what one might call a "prestige wing," containing just two very large screens, each with a very large seating capacity. In fact, as this theater was renovated within the last decade or so, it wouldn't surprise me if these screens were designed expressly to enable participation in MIFF (which has been around since 1952, making it one of the world's oldest festivals).

But as I approached my theater, I got a bit of a sense of deja vu about this prestige wing, and this theater in particular.

It turns out, this was the same screen for my fateful showing of Danny Boyle's Sunshine back in 2007, on my first trip to Australia.

Why fateful? Well, what started as an incredible opportunity to see Boyle's latest movie six months before it opened in the U.S., with the director himself and one of the stars (Rose Byrne) in attendance, quickly turned into a disaster when the reels were in the wrong order from about the fourth one on, and one of them even started playing backwards. Long story short, despite 45 minutes of trying to fix the problem, they never got it right and we had to abandon the film unfinished. Boyle still talked to the audience about it, but it must have put him in a difficult position, as we had not technically seen the film.

I'm of course exaggerating if I imply that my arrival at this theater resulted in flop sweats and a recurrence of PTSD, but I did find it funny enough that I texted my wife about it being the same theater. "Hope that's not a sign!" she texted back.

Well, it was and it wasn't. I mean, Black Coal, Thin Ice projected fine, as you might expect in an era of mostly digital projection. Unfortunately, the narrative sometimes played as though it were being shown out of order, and ended rather abruptly.

But first, one more quick observation about the scene. I noticed something this time I hadn't noticed the previous Saturday at White God: what a production the festival volunteers considered this to be. It wasn't necessarily that there were at least three volunteers allocated to this screening, it was that all they really seemed to be doing was showing people to their seats. These not being assigned seats, it was something the audience could have probably figured out how to do quite well themselves. Yet the task required constant convening between the three volunteers to discuss strategy and other logistics. One of them was even speaking through an ear bud to someone elsewhere, presumably in a control room of sorts (more likely, the projection booth), and often looking quite intense. While it did provide me some level of amusement -- enough to write about it here, anyway -- at least the phenomenon you sometimes see in this situation did not rear its head: the volunteers getting all power-hungry and suffering from an inflated sense of their own importance.

Finally: Despite a somewhat poor sleep the night before, I turned out not to be at much risk of falling asleep, but I did have a whole bag of Starbusts with me just in case.

Okay, on to the movie.

It's got a pretty promising setup: A small clump of human remains wrapped in a blanket is found among a mountain of coal being processed at a plant in a town in northern China, and word soon spreads that other parts of the body are appearing at other coal plants. While following a lead, the detective assigned to the case (Liao Fan) is caught in a sudden shootout and hospitalized, leading to a downward spiral in his personal life that finds him pulling security detail five years later, and spending most of his time drunk. His ability to solve the cast becomes wrapped up in his distant hopes of redemption, and also involves trying to save the widow of the coal plant victim (Gwei Lun-Mei), whose subsequent romantic partners keeping dying in a way that can't help but seem related.

Black Coal, Thin Ice is one of those movies that absolutely sings during some of its finer moments, replete with beautiful camerawork, unexpected turns of events and a grimly engrossing wintry mood. Unfortunately, the collection of those moments never adds up to anything close to a whole. Oh, there's a beginning, a middle and an end, which gives lie to my previous claim that it felt shown out of order. But key narrative revelations are not properly set up, causing them to arrive abruptly and preventing them from feeling the least bit satisfying. The movie constantly tantalizes and almost never delivers. This grows frustrating the closer you get to the end, and the more certain you are it's never going to pay off.

I might be okay with the so-called "narrative chicanery" described in the write-up for this movie on the MIFF website if the movie weren't also dwelling in an area I find distasteful, which is its sexual politics. Some of this may be cultural, but even then it seems a bit morally irresponsible. Namely, most of the men in this movie are lechers. That would be okay, I guess, if this movie were taking a hard feminist tack and trying to put its finger on the vile repugnance of men. That's not what it's doing, though. The men here are almost incidental gropers and other creeps, as the hero himself is seen mistreating no fewer than three different women, including his ex-wife at the very beginning of the movie -- immediately after sleeping with her. This, mind, you is before he has fallen from grace, and things only get arguably worse after that. This is to say nothing of how Gwei's character is the constant object of the lascivious male gaze, resulting in acts of both physical and emotional violence against her, as well as forcing her to pay apparently undeserved consequences for her resistance to that gaze. But less academically, after a while it all just felt too icky to keep countenancing.

I guess you could say I liked the Black Coal part but not so much the Thin Ice part. I'm meaning that metaphorically, of course, but there's a literal application as well. The movie gets all caught up in a thematic tangent involving ice skating, which is probably its least well-fitting of a lot of ill-fitting parts.

Monday brings my first American film of the festival, Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves. So stay tuned for my next MIFF update, coming soon.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Down the superhero rabbit hole

You could not make a more obvious comment about the state of movies today than that superheroes rule the roost.

If any more evidence was needed, just look at last weekend's U.S. box office. Even the off-brand superheroes featured in Guardians of the Galaxy rode enough smart advertising and word-of-mouth to $94 million in domestic ticket sales. That is, frankly, ridiculous.

But it's other examples of the dominance of superheroes -- or, more broadly, comic book characters -- that are sometimes more sobering. 

Yes, I say "sobering." Because I'm not entirely sure this decade-long trend is something to be overjoyed about. It's blurring the line between "movie fans" and "fans of comic book movies." Movie discussion groups, which may have once been more balanced between lovers of the form and genre lovers, now tend to be dominated by genre lovers. When you want to have a good talk about movies, which means all movies, it's harder to find that talk without getting sidetracked into the latest thing Marvel Studios is doing. 

Few examples are more sobering than the email I got this week from MovieWeb. Although I don't remember doing so, I must have signed up for their weekly newsletter at some point in the past, and I tend to glance through it whenever I get one.

Let me take you down through the email -- down the rabbit hole, so to speak -- and describe my thought process as we go:

Okay, fine. Nothing unsurprising here. The movie that joins history's two most iconic superheroes has been getting almost as much "first look" coverage as Star Wars Episode VII is sure to be getting soon. 

Speculation on the mashing up of more properties. Just as summer music festivals have replaced giant stadium tours by individual bands, it's seeming more and more like we want to get all the movie characters we like in the same place at the same time. There's something extra ridiculous about this (probably true) rumor, because The Avengers is ALREADY a gathering of characters who were previously separated into different movies. Adding Guardians to the mix just makes the gathering exponential. 

Huh? Isn't Darth Vader already dead? I don't even want to know what this speculation means, because it suggests all kinds of weird things about time travel and alternate timelines that I don't want to consider. Let's just hope that this doesn't mean that Star Wars is considering time travel. At least this story is not about a comic book movie.

Cool. This was not something I knew anything about and I find it genuinely interesting. Also, it's only vaguely fanboyish.

Okay, this is not about superheroes or comic books either, but bear with me, we're getting somewhere.

More Guardians stuff, not much of a surprise. But what I find noteworthy about this -- and it may be more an indication of the age we live in generally, than specifically about comic books -- is that there is essentially no actual news here. It's just the director engaging with his audience, as today's Twitter-loving celebrities are wont to do. I doubt MovieWeb would include a link where Martin Scorsese thanks his audience for going to see The Wolf of Wall Street, to take an example of a different kind of movie popular with this same demographic. Though Scorsese would probably never do that in the first place. 

This is where things start to get a bit more arcane and geeky. Sure, Spider-Man is a popular superhero -- he might be right behind Superman and Batman in terms of his iconic status -- but a spinoff in the Spider-Man universe featuring a female Spider-Man? A Spider-Woman? I'm sure there is a corollary in the comics, and it seems like a reasonably smart move with box offices becoming increasingly female-driven, but we're starting to see how much studios are willing to stretch and expand their superhero products to keep amassing our dollars. This feels like fringe information, but it's intended for a mainstream audience.

Another one that interrupts my flow, so let's just skip ahead. It is interesting to note, however, that this is the second story in this email that has a connection to Tim Burton (after the bit about the Alice in Wonderland sequel, which is not being directed by Burton). 

Okay, here's where we go off the rails into total fringe geekery: the "in what movie will such-and-such character from the comic book finally appear?" story. MovieWeb is here taking for granted that its readership not only cares when this character will appear (allegedly, in a sequel to a movie that has not even been released yet), but actually knows who this "Darkseid" is. I consider myself acquainted enough with comic books to be familiar with many of the names, but this is my first introduction to a name this piece considers an "iconic villain." 

And last but not least ...

More Spider-Man. What I consider strangest about this story is that the previous Spider-Man rumor, about that female spinoff, is also allegedly planned for 2017, though from a different studio. (Which studio owns the rights to which parts of which comics is a discussion for another time, one I would probably never undertake because that would require trying to understand it.) Second strangest: the fact that both studios don't consider the Spider-Man universe dead after the largely disliked Spider-Man reboot and its largely disliked sequel. Yet another indication of how the movie mainstream has been co-opted by the comic book fringe ... or what was once considered the fringe, anyway.

After I got to the end of this email, I felt exhausted and out of touch.

To be clear, I don't mind that there's a strain of popular movie fandom with which I don't feel comfortable aligning myself. I don't particularly want to be part of the movie mainstream. And I'm certainly enough aligned with them, as I have high levels of affection for the likes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier just this year alone. 

But there is a tendency amongst human beings to have an uneasy relationship with the popular, one paradoxically characterized both by a sense of liberating distance from the popular, as well as a struggle to understand the popular, which often takes the form of mocking and resentment. That's kind of where I find myself now. I feel like I don't fully understand people who can get all their cinematic nourishment from superheroes. In the 1990s people thought that superheroes were just stunted adults running around in tights. Has so much changed since then?

If MovieWeb had existed in the 1980s, would I have expected the stories to be about My Dinner With Andre? No, likely not. It would have still catered to the popular.

So I guess what disturbs me the most is that what's popular at the movies has become kind of homogeneous. In the 1980s and 1990s, weird phenomena were able to jump out and become popular. As just one example, a podcast I listen to was recently discussing how Crocodile Dundee could never become the second-most popular movie in a calendar year these days. Crocodile Dundee would be more likely to become a straight-to-video curiosity than it would be to beat 99% of the other releases that year. 

So as this blur of colorful superhero outfits is starting to blend into something muddled and gray, I'm seeing a world without distinguishing features, fueled only by the desire to fulfill a wish to become superhuman.

And I find that super boring. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Funny cannibalism, unfunny cannibalism, and somewhere in between

I didn't set out to see three movies about cannibalism within a space of ten days.

In fact, I didn't set out to see any movies about cannibalism in those ten days, but sometimes, life has a funny way of throwing cannibalism into your path.

I'll start with the two that are overtly about cannibalism, and include this big SPOILER WARNING before I discuss the third, even though that's the one I saw first. Unfortunately, telling you which movie is being spoiled, so you know whether you've seen it or not and should avoid reading about it, would be the spoiler itself in this case. However, it's not that big of a spoiler, so I'll just say ... if you aren't really caught up on the buzzworthy movies this summer, you may find out a little something you don't want to find out about one of those movies if you read this whole post. In any case, I'll include another spoiler warning before I actually start to discuss it, if you want to read to that point.

Funny cannibalism

No, I did not just watch Trey Parker's Cannibal! The Musical, though I have seen it, and the setting for it is actually pretty similar to what I did watch. Rather, Wednesday night on Netflix I watched what I would never have imagined could actually be any good: Antonia Bird's Ravenous. I remember that at the time this came out, I couldn't believe the way it was packaged, would have scoffed at the notion that it could provide anything to anybody other than guffaws.

I was right, but not in the way I thought.

It's clear from moment one of Ravenous that this movie is intended to be funny. It starts with two quotations on screen, the first a Nietzche quotation about fighting the beast without becoming the beast ... and the second the following: "Eat me." Attributed to Anonymous.

Yes, indeed.

The opening credits gave me two other causes for hope: The film is directed by Bird, an acclaimed director who helmed the movie Priest (the one starring Linus Roache, not the one starring Paul Bettany), and its score was the work of Blur's Damon Albarn and a composer named Michael Nyman. Reading up on the movie after the fact, I discover that Bird was actually the third director on the film after original director Milcho Manchevski was booted and the cast rejected replacement studio hack Raja Gosnell. So maybe her credit was something of a false friend, but it was a friend indeed during a moment of apprehension.

This may have been a troubled production, but it doesn't show in the final product. Oh no, this movie is not for everybody, but it is a surprisingly skillful and smartly executed movie that is exactly what it seems it means to be. It's a story of people who eat people to survive harsh wintry conditions in the American west ... initially out of desperation, but eventually out of the very specific type of hunger bequeathed upon them by their prior dietary transgressions.

Not only is the setting great -- the mid-19th century in an outpost where unwanted military types go to die -- but the movie's tone is great. It realizes there is something essentially outrageous about the idea of eating people, and relishes it. While many movies might play cannibalism as purely a case of human tragedy, Ravenous realizes that there's something unavoidably comical about it. Take the one scene where -- not to spoil anything -- two of our main characters are suddenly killed to feed the hunger of a particularly vampiric cannibal. Albarn's score -- truly one of the most memorable I have heard in years -- develops the jovial pace of bluegrass, when one might expect the moment to be mournful. It's not sad that these people have just died, in this particular movie -- it's funny. And really, it is. The key is that the movie is overtly taking itself seriously, unlike a parody like Cannibal! The Musical. That's what makes the humor work so well.

It may not be possible to describe the sublime humor of this movie beyond what I've already tried to do, so I will just leave you with the recommendation to give this movie a shot. It's fast-paced, it's sordid in all the right ways, and it's also just smart and structurally unusual. It's available for streaming on Netflix right now.

How I didn't intend to watch it: I pulled up to my computer on Wednesday with no idea what I was going to watch, and chose Ravenous randomly from my queue -- not because I'd seen a couple cannibal movies recently and wanted to compare it, but actually because I'd heard it mentioned recently on Filmspotting: SVU. The thematic connection to other recent viewings didn't occur to me until later.

Unfunny cannibalism

I can't give the same recommendation to Jonathan auf der Heide's Van Diemen's Land, a 2009 Australian film we watched last Friday night (which is not, however, my August entry for Australian Audient). This is a story that also takes place in a wilderness, but in an entirely different part of the world: the wilderness of 1822 uncharted Tasmania. It details the plight of eight Irish convicts who escape their shackles and flee into the Tasmanian unknown -- a place they soon realize is far less hospitable than life as prisoners.

In fact, as they tie up their guard to a tree, he incredulously asks them: "Where are you going to go? There's nothing out there."

Sure enough, Tasmania may be beautiful, but it's severely lacking in food sources. (Incidentally, where are the Tassie devils and the wallabys?) Cannibalism eventually ensues.

But it's not "fun cannibalism." It's "grim, murder-your-brother, watch-your-back, grimy, gristly cannibalism." Which is probably a lot more like what cannibalism is really like.

However, I didn't feel the human tragedy the film was intending me to feel, because it does such a poor job of establishing characters and differentiating them from one another. As all these guys are bearded fellows about the same age and build, they become indistinguishable, so each ensuing death has no narrative momentum or stakes. We don't hope one guy survives and another guy doesn't. Simply put, we don't care.

Van Diemen's Land, despite being a bore and a chore, is not a total failure because it actually models itself on the films of Terrence Malick. In other words, it's got lots of beautiful, lush shots of nature, and occasional poetic voiceover. Oddly and interestingly, even though the film's dialogue is mostly in English, the VO is in another language that I initially mistook for Dutch. And it may actually be Dutch because it sure doesn't sound like Gaelic, the only other foreign language I imagine Irish convicts might speak. (And the director's name sounds Dutch, right? And the former name of Tasmania, Van Diemen's Land, is Dutch, right?)

Even with a couple nice Malickian touches, though, the movie is exhausting to endure even at less than 90 minutes. The unfunny cannibalism doesn't help.

How I didn't intend to watch it: My wife came home with Van Diemen's Land as a (regrettably poor) substitute for I, Frankenstein. Her work has a library of movies they have worked on, from which employees can borrow. I, Frankenstein was not in, but this 2009 true story of convict Alexander Pearce was. Actually, since I haven't seen I, Frankenstein yet, I have no idea if it was a poor substitute or not.


Somewhere in between

One of my most bracing movie experiences of this year so far is Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho's (mostly) English-language debut, which had excited me so much that I covered my eyes and ears during two exposures to the trailer in the weeks leading up to seeing it. I'm glad to say that it lived up to the hype, and really deserves a longer discussion at another time. I was even mentally composing a piece about the brilliant Tilda Swinton when I got mentally sidetracked and never mentally returned to it. I guess I may still.

What's relevant to today's discussion is the big speech by Chris Evans near the end, when he reveals his involvement in shameful acts aboard the train that occurred long ago, but have left him scarred.

"I hate myself because I know what people taste like," says Evans' Curtis Everett, through tears. "I know that babies taste best."

Perhaps the biggest of the many surprises of Snowpiercer was what followed: laughter. A good dozen people in my audience laughed, some sardonically, at this line, a line that exposes the character as a desperate man who once snacked on infant children to survive.

I was a bit taken aback by the laughter in my screening, but I soon found out that it wasn't just that I was watching this with a particularly perverse subset of Melburnians. In fact, when I posted about having seen Snowpiercer on Facebook, a friend of mine commented "Babies taste best." I shared that I was surprised to hear laughter at that line, and he responded that there was howling in his theater following the line. He said it was such an over-the-top line that you had to laugh. I said that I didn't have to laugh, and a couple others backed me up in the comments section.

However, I do agree that laughter could have been Bong's intention, because absurd humor is prevalent in this movie. I guess that in this case, I didn't want to have a Ravenous moment where I just luxuriated in the Grand Guignol absurdity of it all. I wanted to experience it as a genuine confession of genuine grief, a climactic moment in this character's personal journey. To laugh would have been to undercut the work that Evans was doing, and to undercut the seriousness of a scene that I believed was meant to be serious.

How I didn't intend to watch it: I did actually -- I was looking forward to it for a couple months. I just didn't know there was a cannibalism element to it.

So what has my 10-day exposure to cannibalism at the movies taught me?

I suppose it's that the act of eating another person is so extreme that our only recourse can sometimes be to laugh, whether it's nervous laughter (as in Snowpiercer, I would argue) or hearty chuckling (as in Ravenous) or downright busting our gut (that would be Cannibal! The Musical, watched by me a decade ago).

Cannibalism that doesn't make us laugh?

Well, then you've got a snoozefest like Van Diemen's Land.