Friday, October 31, 2014

Something not Marvel-related for a change

There have been so many movie announcements and casting announcements from Marvel in the past couple months --

["How many have there been, Derek?"]

-- that basically nothing but these announcements has been filling up our movie-related news feeds.

So it's kind of a relief to see a movie called Nightcrawler hit theaters that has nothing to do with comic books.

One of the X-Men characters -- whose rights are split in some complicated way between Marvel and Fox -- is named Nightcrawler, and with the way these characters have been spun off into their own stand-alone movies or even franchises, it's remarkable that the rights owners would even allow a movie unrelated to this character to bear his name.

Yet Nightcrawler IS completely unrelated. It's a Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle about an ambitious journalist armed with a video camera, which is drawing more comparisons to Taxi Driver than to X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

And unfortunately, I'll have to wait a month more to see it, as it actually doesn't come out until November 27th in Australia. (Funny -- Halloween release date in the U.S., Thanksgiving release date in Australia.) So yes, what you are currently reading is that good old-fashioned American release date preview post, an endangered species on this blog since I've moved to Australia and never seem to know when anything is coming out anymore.

Actually, I could see it before then, as I'll actually be in the United States from November 13th to November 28th. So that's when you can prepare yourself for a little Audient sabbatical, or at least, only a few very brief updates.

But I'll have bigger movie fish to fry when I'm stateside. My biggest priority will be Foxcatcher, which I understand will open sometime while I'm there, but won't open here until after the cutoff for my 2014 rankings in mid-January. Then there's Birdman, which gets a release date on the final day of my 2014 list eligibility, just like Her and Inside Llewyn Davis did last year. I'll have to go see it on opening day if I want to include it.

So while I'm in the U.S., I'll be catching either a fox or a bird, or possibly both.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Question your assumptions: Rosemary's Baby

Back in June, I held The Graduate under a microscope to see if I really loved it as much as I thought I did, and consequently decided to start a recurring series called Question Your Assumptions. And as I do with many of my spontaneously created new series -- I Finally Saw, I Never Meant to See, etc. -- I then pretty much dropped it.

So when I went to watch something while carving our jack-o-lantern on Wednesday night, and chose Rosemary's Baby from a Halloween-themed batch I'd picked up at the library, I realized it made a logical next addition to the previously foundering series. (I had planned to watch the original version of Carrie, which I have never seen, but decided to save it for Halloween night in case my wife wants to watch it. She has told me she wants our Halloween viewing to be something she hasn't seen before, so I knew Rosemary's Baby was a safe choice for pumpkin-carving night.)

It makes an especially appropriate pairing with The Graduate, as both films are from 1968, and both films are currently ranked between #100 and #200 (out of more than 4,000) on my Flickchart (The Graduate is #116, Rosemary's Baby is #188).

But my real interest in writing about this is that I have always considered Rosemary's Baby to be in direct conflict with The Exorcist in terms of disturbing, confronting horror classics from the late 1960s/early 1970s. If, according to me, everyone is either a Rosemary's Baby person or an Exorcist person, I have always found myself in the latter camp -- as evidenced by The Exorcist's lofty Flickchart ranking of #58.

However, that stance has been challenged by a couple things I have been mulling over: 1) the fact that I've only seen Rosemary's Baby once, and it was back in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and 2) a critic or two I respect who have taken jabs at the quality of The Exorcist.

I suppose a third viewing of The Exorcist (which would also be my first in that same 15-year time period) would really be the best way to get at the topic, but since I've at least got the new Baby viewing, let's work with that.

The movie started in a particularly spooky way, with that iconic "la la la la la" lullaby over a completely black screen. It went on for so long that I thought Roman Polanski had decided to begin with an anachronistic overture, something that probably hadn't quite dropped from the cinematic landscape by 1968 (but would certainly only be consigned to costume epics at this point). When the dialogue started and there was still no picture, I realized there was something wrong with the screen. Clicking back to the start of the chapter sorted it out.

Still, the accidental beginning of my viewing experience has a real relationship to Polanski's approach to the material. I think one of the reasons I wasn't as wowed by Rosemary's, especially compared to The Exorcist, when I was younger and less discriminating was that I still measured the effectiveness of a horror movie by how grotesque it was. While The Exorcist is all about the viscera and horror that gets shown, Rosemary's Baby is all about what you can't actually see. While evil punches you directly in the face in The Exorcist, it seems to lurk just outside the frame in Polanski's film.

Of course, the best way to talk about the effectiveness of an approach is to talk about the times it is violated. After a sinister but rather banal opening 20 minutes ("banal" is a word I apply in the best way possible to certain passages of Rosemary's Baby), you are really jolted by the image of Rosemary's simpatico neighbor Terry splattered on the sidewalk. There's something so discomfiting about the gore of her smashed head. It exists to remind you that although you feel sort of safe in this movie, you most certainly are not.

And I am still probably most affected by the movie's other really graphic scene -- its Exorcist scene -- which is the dream rape of Rosemary by the devil. I should put "dream" in quotation marks, because Polanski constructs the scene as though it could only be a dream, with clearly fantastical elements intermingling with elements we only wish were fantastical. There's a moment of horror near the end when Rosemary recognizes definitively that it is not a dream -- and that her brainwashed husband actually lurks among the participants.

Let's talk about some performances, specifically, Ruth Gordon's. This wouldn't have been a reference available to audiences at the time, but from Harold & Maude I think of Gordon as this beloved old coot -- and not just playing the role of a beloved old coot, as she does here. There is almost nothing overtly disturbing about Minnie Castevet, but a second viewing of the movie -- after you already know what will happen -- really allows a viewer to appreciate this very mild sinister undercurrent to her performance. She urges one course of action a bit too enthusiastically, while disguising it behind a blase sheen, or she reacts a little too strongly to particular pieces of news. She is the very definition of the banality of evil.

Now, let's talk about what's not seen.

I love the choice not to reveal the face of Ralph Bellamy's malevolent Dr. Sapirstein during the one moment when anyone acknowledges they may actually have something to hide from Rosemary. It's after the one living person she thought she could turn to -- Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin!!) -- turns her in to Sapirstein. (Whether he was always part of a conspiracy, or scared into compelling with the witches, is not immediately clear, and I don't know if I want to know.) Sapirstein walks up to her as she's seated and threatens to institutionalize her if she continues this talk of witches. Horrifyingly, his face cannot be seen ... so we can imagine it to be anything we want it to be. His hulking figure standing over her is also a symbol of the world crushing her last hopes to evade an increasingly preordained outcome.

But the most chilling moment of not seeing what another movie might show us is the decision not to reveal what this spawn of Satan actually looks like. "What have you done to him? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HIS EYES?" (I'm getting chills now just typing it out.) We never know, because we are never shown. All we hear are the cries coming from that pitch-black bassinet, so much like a baby yet somehow ... not.

Although my high ranking of Rosemary's Baby was mostly reinforced by this viewing, the second viewing did serve to remind me that The Exorcist is still my choice in this duel. Although I'm sure that the "don't show-don't tell" approach of Polanski's film impresses me more than it once did -- as evidenced by my embrace of a recent minimalist horror film like Berberian Sound Studio -- there's something about the specific brand of visceral horror seen in a movie like The Exorcist (and in Poltergeist, my favorite horror movie) that affects me more deeply.

Hey, I'm just a sucker for levitating bodies, rotating heads, shocking vulgarity and green spewing vomit.

What's a man to do?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Australian Audient: Dead Calm

This is the latest in my year-long project to watch movies that were made in the only country that is also a continent, and write about them here. (No, Antarctica does not count.)

I know I promised you the 2014 Mia Wasikowska vehicle Tracks this month, but then I realized: You can't do a monthly film-watching series and not at least try to get a horror movie for October.

I sort of succeeded in Dead Calm, which is actually more of a thriller than a horror, but that may be splitting hairs.

Dead Calm also marks the second appearances by Nicole Kidman, Sam Neill and director Phillip Noyce in this series, who previously appeared, respectively, in BMX Bandits, A Cry in the Dark and Rabbit-Proof Fence. Interestingly, this is the first time any directors or major actors have had a repeat appearance.

Dead Calm is also the first movie in the series not really to be set in Australia, in the sense that nearly the whole movie takes place on the Pacific Ocean (near the Great Barrier Reef, according to the credits). There are a couple brief scenes on land, and Neill's character, a sailor returning from duty, has a patch that reads AUSTRALIA on his left shoulder, just in case you were unsure of the film's origins.

John and Rae Ingram (Neill and Kidman) are processing the emotional aftermath of the car accident that killed their son, who was not properly strapped in. To recover from the tragedy -- particularly Rae, who was the driver and blames herself -- the couple sets sail into the Pacific for a month of isolation. Their solitude is almost absolute, until a boat larger than theirs appears on the horizon, and seems to be in trouble. Hailing the distressed craft gets no response, but the Ingrams soon see a man (Billy Zane) frantically rowing toward them. The man, Hughie by name, boards their ship in a state of shock and panic, describing the recent deaths of his five crewmates from food poisoning. John is curious about what really happened aboard that boat, so he takes his dinghy over to snoop around while Hughie sleeps. What he finds makes him wish he had not left the erratic stranger alone with his wife.

Dead Calm is a rather odd sort of movie. It is essentially a home invasion thriller set on a boat, but it lacks a number of the traditional elements that distinguish the genre and that would (if present) give its characters a certain credibility. The film's biggest deficit is its characters' illogical behavior. Sam Neill's decision to leave his wife alone with what seems like a deranged lunatic is short-sighted at best. It would be the more traditional way to go with this movie to make Zane's character initially charming and disarming, which may be why Noyce didn't do that. The chilling portrayal Zane gives instead -- quite effective in the scenario that unfolds -- has the consequence of making Neill's character seem too trusting by half. Not only is he naive, but he has this odd little twinkle of mischief in his eye when he goes over to the other boat. It feels unusual indeed.

With Neill (at least temporarily) sidelined, a twisted dynamic develops between Hughie and Rae in which he becomes not only her potential captor, but her potential rapist as well. The film is not quite that gross, because Hughie is deluded enough to think there is a sexual reciprocity between them, and Rae plays along to try to take advantage of him letting down his guard. But it goes to squeamish places that are perhaps farther than it needed to go, and then maintains an oddly disconnected perspective on them. Essentially, this movie looks away from the debasement of Kidman's character as though it's something we shouldn't think too much about.

What's undeniable, despite the film's flaws, is that it maintains a basic tension, keeping the audience engrossed even within an extremely intimate dynamic that fluctuates between two and three people. Since there are not a bunch of other characters in the cast to bump up the body count, Noyce has to derive the tradition narrative beats of this type of movie out of a minimalist setup. He does so effectively, in part thanks to the three main performances. The film's score is also notable, as it marked Graeme Revell's entry into the world of cinematic scores, an arena that would prove to be extremely fertile for him. His sinister synthesizer is augmented by a bunch of native chants and guttural sounds, creating this moldering sense of dread.

Every time the movie convinces you that it's really doing something smart, however, it undercuts that by a ridiculous concession to genre conventions that is, on occasion, literally laughable. The end result is that Dead Calm lands on the right side of the thumbs up-thumbs down divide, but just barely.

Just two more months of Australian Audient. November's movie will indeed be Tracks, and I will keep my December choice a secret for now -- except to say that it's a movie I've given myself credit for having already seen, when in fact I think I only saw the last half-hour.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A microcosm of getting it wrong

If you think the title of this post indicates an imminent episode of ragging on the much-ragged-upon The Monuments Men, you're only half right -- and you aren't looking at both posters.

Actually, it's me that's been getting it wrong, perhaps even more so than George Clooney in his limp World War II variation on Ocean's Eleven.

As is my custom, I will lay the groundwork for my argument and then back up a scootch.

My wife has seriously curtailed her movie-watching tendencies lately. Once she was game for three or four a week, but a second baby and a job that involves reading sub-par scripts has left her topping out at about two. And usually that's only if I make sure to present it as an option. Left to her own devices, she could let two to three weeks pass without consuming a single movie.

Me, I'm still at five or even six a week.

It's incumbent on me, then -- especially when picking up something on a whim -- to find that perfect match between something she's said she wants to see, something I haven't already seen, and something we might both be in the mood for that particular evening.

Usually, I fumble this responsibility, but not without good intentions.

Because my wife is a lovely person, she will still watch whatever I've picked. She knows that I have it only one night, and if she doesn't watch it with me during primetime, then I'll have to stay up past midnight to watch it after primetime's over. Return it unwatched? Keep it a second night? Those are not options.

What makes this problem worse, though, is that after bringing home a dud for us to watch together, I will invariably then watch something incredible by myself -- something that would have more than satisfied her precious quotient of time allocated for movies. (Not using the loaded word "precious" sarcastically here, in case you were wondering.)

This past weekend was a perfect encapsulation of that phenomenon. I did, in fact, rent The Monuments Men on Saturday, knowing that our Saturdays are one of our rare surefire movie nights. She said, some months earlier, that she wanted to see it. At some subsequent time, she learned it wasn't supposed to be great -- as did I, but that's never stopped me. Anyway, I didn't know she had heard it was bad, so I rented it with a clear conscience.

True to form, she said she'd be happy to watch it despite her misgivings about its quality. What a sport. In the meantime, I checked it out on Metacritic just to positively spin a decision she'd already made, and discovered that it had a respectable score of 52. Okay, maybe not respectable, but "mixed or average reviews," in any case.

For about ten minutes, I had hopes for the movie. At about the 11-minute mark, the corny patriotic score (what were you thinking, Alexandre Desplat?) started to bother me. At about the 13-minute mark, I realized that the tone was off. About about the 30-minute mark, I wondered if these characters were going to anything other than stand around and talk. And guess what? They never did.

I could go off on a lengthy tirade about the numerous sins committed in The Monuments Men, but I want to save some of your attention for the flip side of the particular coin I'm discussing.

On Sunday I was allowed an afternoon of convalescence after getting a tooth pulled that morning. (Yes, I went to a dentist that has Sunday hours. I had never heard of such a thing either.) I put the two-hour Japanese film Like Father, Like Son on my agenda, knowing that it could suffer in my estimation from the throbbing of the vacant hole in my gums, but surmising that it might suffer more if consigned to that sleepy 9:45 ghetto in which I end up watching many other films. Subtitles and drooping eyelids are not good partners.

And even though I was in a strange combination of numbness and pain, and even though the internet was dropping out on me every ten minutes, and even though my kids were making loud noises in nearby rooms for much of the time, I soon realized that not only was this one of my favorite films of the year, but that it would have been perfect for my wife. Not only is it a beautiful film executed wonderfully, but it puts a terrible, Sophie's Choice-type parental dilemma front and center, meaning that it would specifically speak to us as parents of young children. This is where my wife should have spent her weekly movie budget.

But if you are trying to convince an exhausted mother of the potential worthiness of a movie neither of you has seen, you are a lot better off putting forward the option that includes a likable cast of recognizable stars, and is in English, than the one that will require that exhausted mother both to fully engage her brain, and to read.

Now that I've seen Like Father, Like Son, though, I can confidently recommend it for a second viewing. And that's a second viewing I'm definitely going to make at some point. That's how good this movie is. And since part of the purpose of my blog is to make actual recommendations, I think I should let you know a little more about it in order to entice you into a viewing you certainly won't regret.

Like Father, Like Son starts with a tabloid premise and takes it somewhere thought-provoking, moving, and thoroughly profound. Not long after their son's sixth birthday, an ambitious Japanese architect and his wife learn that the hospital where they gave birth needs to speak to them about an important matter. It turns out that a mistake was made shortly after their son's birth, and the son was confused for another infant. That means that their biological son has actually been raised these six years by the middle class owner of a hardware store and his wife, while they have been raising that couple's son as their own. While the ambitious man and his wife have been pushing their son to achieve, they now have an explanation as to why he's not the gifted musician they might have expected, and they start to contemplate the unthinkable -- whether to swap the children in order to correct the mistake that was made six years earlier. Meanwhile, their biological son has a brother and a sister in addition to parents that he has always thought were his own.

The movie tackles all sorts of issues related to nature vs. nurture, the parameters of unconditional love, the expectations parents have for their children, the expectations parents have for each other and themselves, and the deep patrilineal tradition in Japan that would cause the couples to even contemplate making this swap in the first place. The scenario is dramatized with an eye for every possible shade of gray, making it impossible to condemn any of the players and enabling a sense of sympathy for all of them -- even one who had a nearly unforgivable role in the mix-up.

Is next week too soon to correct my own mix-up, and show my wife something good for a change?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

iTunes' attempt to save me from myself

iTunes thinks I am my own worst enemy, because I tried to rent Enemy twice.

But let me back the story up a bit.

For about two months now I have been living and dying by the weekly 99-cent movie rental on iTunes. This was not something I used to regularly check, but once Joe and The Lunchbox -- both movies from this year that I really wanted to see -- came up in consecutive weeks, iTunes thrust itself forward as a reliable new source for cheap rentals of (relatively) new releases. Nowadays, I look forward to the beginning of each new week, simply to see the change in the offerings.

Unfortunately, it's been a bit of a string of disappointments since then. Not necessarily because the movies they offered weren't objectively interesting, but because I had either already seen them or because they didn't quite qualify for this year. (I'm in my stretch of packing in 2014 movies before my ranking deadline in January). Then last week was the worst, when the 99-cent rental was a movie from 2001 -- Amores Perros. That's a really good movie, and I imagine the timing had to do with the release of Inarritu's latest film, Birdman. But it did represent a clear step backward in the likelihood that Apple would continue providing me affordable options for 2014 movies I hadn't seen.

Well, this week didn't change that -- I have already seen Denis Villeneuve's Enemy as well. In fact, I've already rented it from iTunes, at full price back when it was first released.

But the price was so cheap, and I really want to see this movie again, that I clicked on the option to rent it again.

Only, iTunes tried to stop the purchase.

"You have already rented this item. Are you sure you want to rent it again?"

At first I thought this was the result of a double-click. Like, maybe I had already started downloading the movie and then accidentally clicked to rent it again. Ninety-nine cents is a really good price for one of my favorite movies of the year, but I don't need to have two copies of it on my hard drive.

Then I realized that iTunes was remembering my previous rental of the movie back in July. It wanted to make sure I remembered it before proceeding with the transaction.

Well, that's mighty sporting. Here you had a clear, guilt-free path to my 99 cents, and yet you forfeited it the name of good customer service. Have to say I am a bit tickled by that.

What's funny is that I actually did have a few flickering thoughts of buyer's remorse after I'd already started the download and walked away. I thought "Do I really need to be watching this again, when there are so many other movies from 2014 I need to see for the first time? I know I love the movie, so watching it again has nothing to do with confirming its spot in my rankings."

Then I came back to the computer and discovered that my download had not actually started, because of this warning message. I still had the chance to cancel.

And I still went forward with the purchase.

So if you have any doubts about whether you should seek out this movie, let my $4.98 in iTunes rentals, on separate occasions, try to reassure you otherwise.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Why so expensive, Tangled?

I was reading an article about the high cost of the new Hobbit trilogy -- around a $750 million for the three movies -- and encountered a shocking piece of data that's totally unrelated to that.

The article posited that if you divide the budget by three, you come up with a $248 million average per film, which still puts the budget of each film behind a handful of other movies. One of those movies was Tangled, which cost a whopping $260 million to make.

Um ... what?

Tangled is one of my favorite films of this decade (the decade having begun in 2010), so I'm pretty surprised I never knew anything about the jaw-dropping costs to make it.

I mean, the money is totally up there on the screen. The movie is absolutely gorgeous, its 3D really pops, its script is first-rate and it has terrific songs. I'm not surprised it was expensive -- for an animated movie.

But $260 million?

It's hard to understand where all that money went, except that I've subsequently recognized that major parts of the movie were scrapped and rewritten, meaning that a bunch of completed animation probably had to be tossed, its costs never to be recouped. Still, without actor salaries being a major portion of the budget -- I'm sure they didn't have to pay all that much to Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi -- it's a number that really jumps out at you.

But maybe I'm more surprised by just how effectively Disney controlled the marketing of the movie, so that you never knew what exactly was at stake for them.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, since Disney is a well-oiled machine, but Disney had egg on its face over John Carter and The Lone Ranger, both of which have been released since Tangled. Disney was not able to effectively manage the discussion about the budgets of those movies vs. their box office profits.

Since Tangled was a success, it never came up, but it seems like we should have heard stories leading up to Tangled with headlines like "Disney's $260 million gamble." And if Tangled had been viewed as a disaster in the making, it might really have become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with no one going because they heard about the film's troubled history.

This is one happy ending that certainly relieves me. As it made $591 million internationally, even people like me -- who follow this stuff reasonably closely -- didn't have to find out about the budget until four years later.

Unfortunately, Tangled continues to lose the battle for the hearts of audiences to its inferior successor, Frozen, which owes more to Tangled than anyone seems to care to admit. I sometimes wonder if that one song weren't in Frozen, whether people would love it as much as they do. In any case, Frozen's profitability also blows Tangled's out of the water, as the movie cost $110 million less to make and made, uh, $1.3 billion internationally.

Let it go, Derek. Just let it go.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Birthday rewatches

So birthday rewatches are officially a thing now.

It was my birthday on Monday, and I followed what I now recognize has become a new tradition: I re-watched a favorite movie.

Five of my past six birthdays have involved re-watching at least one movie I love -- I say "at least" because last year I re-watched a movie after midnight on the 19th, so it was really October 20th when I watched it, and then watched another during the regular evening viewing hours.

Probably the only reason I didn't watch a movie on October 20th of 2010 -- new or old -- was that my dad and his wife were in town to visit my then-newborn son, and we went over to a friend's house for dinner.

So I thought it was worth quickly recapping what I've chosen and why I thought my birthday was a good time to watch it.


Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuaron)

Why now? It was meant to be Pulp Fiction, actually. I had wanted to join everybody else in reflecting on 20 years since the movie was released ... and probably nearly 15 since I had last seen it. The long running time (168 minutes) was daunting for a Monday night, but we would have pressed forward if the BluRay had worked. But Pulp Fiction became the second movie I brought from the U.S. that has not been able to play on our region-free DVD player. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer was another option, but we opted for Children as the only movie under two hours. Which turned out to be key, because my wife had developed a sore throat, and was not expecting to last the length of even a 109-minute movie. That she did is a testament to just how good Children is.

Having seen Children of Men five times now, I consider it one of those movies where I start to get anxious if it's been too long since my last viewing. My previous viewing had been in early 2011, so it was definitely time.

Interestingly, this was the first time I actually watched my own DVD copy, which I have owned for at least six years now. My previous two viewings came at times when I already owned the DVD, but one was a random catch on cable where we started and couldn't stop watching, and the other was a friend's BluRay at his house on a big screen. So it was also the first time I sampled my DVD extras, specifically, the one that details what went into creating a digital baby that was so realistic-looking, I half-wondered if someone on set had actually birthed the child an hour before filming.


The Social Network (2010, David Fincher) and Timecrimes (2009, Nacho Vigalondo)

Why then? The Social Network was an impulsive after-midnight watch on my computer on a night we had gone away for the weekend to celebrate my 40th. I was already half in the bag when I started watching, taking full advantage of knowing no children (only one at the time) were going to wake me up in the morning. I can't remember why I selected this over the 100+ other options in my Case Logic folder, as it was already my third time watching in barely three years since the movie had been released. I was just jonesing I guess.

As for Timecrimes, this was what we watched later that night when I got home. We had been wowed by Nacho Vigalondo's twisty little bit of low-budget time travel brilliance when we first watched it within a year or so of its release, and I'd been looking for another opportunity to see it. It was streaming on Netflix and I chose my birthday as the time to advance it forward for a second viewing.


Beavis and Butt-head Do America (1996, Mike Judge)

Why then? A little different story on this one. Like Social Network, this was an after-midnight viewing on Friday night/Saturday morning, another in which my wife was obviously not involved. The viewing was less about it being my birthday than it being a Friday night and me still having some energy to summon from somewhere. But I've always thought this was an underappreciated gem, having watched it twice before the year 2000 but never since. It was also streaming on Netflix so I said "What the hey?" Perhaps unsurprisingly, I did not like it quite as much this time. Still good, though.

Note: For the evening of my actual birthday, we'd had a long day out in Ventura and my wife was happy for me to just take myself to a double feature. So I saw Argo and ... (ahem) Alex Cross.


Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood)

Why then? Unforgiven was one of a half-dozen BluRays my wife gave me the previous Christmas to celebrate having finally purchased a BluRay player a few months earlier. Most of them, however, were movies that were either long or heavy -- The Departed and The Proposition were two others -- meaning that they almost never seemed like movies you could casually slip in after a long day of dealing with a toddler. So I decided to specifically use my undisputed right to choose the movie on my birthday as a chance to get my first rewatch of my all-time favorite western (and one of my top 20 films on Flickhart) in at least 15 years. And yep, it was just as terrific as ever.


Bound (1996, Larry & Andy Wachowski)

Why then? My wife was actually out of town for a work conference for my birthday in 2009, meaning that I got to live like a bachelor for a couple days. That meant having total control of the TV and which movies got watched. I rewatched about four movies while she was gone, but specifically saved Bound -- which I had rented from my Blockbuster through-the-mail account (that really dates it) -- for my birthday because I had built up its awesomeness to nearly mythic proportions, and had gone way too long without seeing it. I've since purchased the movie (I love it so much that I went to the trouble of ordering it from Amazon, something I almost never do) and have rewatched it again. It's my #20 on Flickchart.

There now, aren't you edified?

Would still like to get in that long-overdue Pulp Fiction viewing. Speaking of where I rank things on Flickchart, Fiction's all the way up at #4, behind only Raising Arizona, Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's streaming on Netflix, so I will have my chance -- we just didn't want to have to watch something on the computer for my birthday viewing. (Our cable that connects my wife's Mac to our TV is still on the fritz.)

And how do I feel about being 41?

That one's a bit more tricky. Let me get back to you. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ranking David Fincher

On this blog, I tend to notice when a) I've seen all of a particular type of movie, like movies directed by a particular person, and b) that particular type of movie reaches a particular numerical milestone.

And then I rank.

Only a) is technically necessary to do the ranking, but in the case of Gone Girl, both a) and b) are satisfied.

Gone Girl is, lo and behold, David Fincher's tenth feature, and I've seen all of them. So, it's time to put this man's career under the microscope -- microscopic precision being something that Mr. Fincher himself would heartily endorse.

Without any further ado:

1) The Social Network (2010). I have known for two or three years now that I consider this to be Fincher's masterpiece, but have only shied away from embracing that stance because I thought it made me seem like too much of a new-school cinephile. There are three other titles that many people would be more quick to christen as Fincher's best. But Network is one of only two Fincher films I've seen more than once, and it's the only one I've seen three times. Given that it is also his third most recent, that says something about just how much I dig it. I know part of my love has to do with it being Fincher's first and still most memorable collaboration with my favorite musician, Trent Reznor. I still listen to the score at least a couple times a year. But it also has towering performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara, Aaron Sorkin dialogue that crackles like Sorkin dialogue has never crackled for me before, and a brilliant non-chronological narrative structure that works perfectly in concert with Fincher's trademark formal magnificence. If I had to boil down why I love The Social Network to just one thing, however, it would have to be similar to why I love Bennett Miller's Moneyball: Both films take subject matter that is inherently uncinematic and find the pulsing human drama that brings it to life. It's an against-all-odds success, so it also bucks the odds by being my #1.

2) Seven (1995). Seven is not the other Fincher film I've seen more than one time ... and the fact that I've seen it only once truly shocks me. This is, quite simply, one of the most indelible documents of human depravity ever committed to film, a sinister worm that gets inside your brain and sucks out any optimism you feel toward your fellow man. As Morgan Freeman's William Somerset states: "Ernest Hemingway once said 'The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part." This was also when Fincher announced to us just what he could do with a camera, with a frame, with a cast. Not only is every new thing glimpsed around every new corner freshly horrifying, but the movie builds toward a perfect climax involving one of the enduring classic spoiler twists of the 1990s. (Twist casting, anyway.) What's in this box? A crackerjack piece of filmmaking that has probably been the director's most influential work.

3) Fight Club (1999). Fight Club is an odd mixture of strengths and weaknesses, satisfying material and stuff that is just plain bogus. But what endures for me is the way this movie almost feels like the first movie told using the language of the internet. What I focus on when I think of Fight Club is not guys punching each other in a grimy basement (or even punching themselves), but the opening act and its hologram-like 3D aesthetic, its intermingling of support groups and exploding airplanes and the ability to walk into, and select, and move the shiny material objects in an Ikea catalogue. This is the other Fincher film I've seen twice, and it's the roaming quality of his camera -- traveling through ceilings and floors on a 360-degree rotation, moving to places only the mind's eye can go -- that made me come back for more. Fight Club's good parts are so good that you are easily distracted from the whole thing collapsing in on itself in numerous spots. It's only the lack of a convenient opportunity that has kept me from seeing this again -- it's been over a decade since my second viewing.

4) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). It's hard to say, with a straight face, that you really like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, since it has been so generally shit upon in the six years since its release. But I ranked it in my top ten the year it came out, and I wasn't crazy ... was I? Button represents a pretty significant drop-off from the top three, but it must have done a number of things right because I remember being entranced in its spell. The right kind of epic love story, which spans years and continents and lots of really nice art direction, can do that for me, and I suppose Button was unusual enough to find a sweet spot in my imagination. Having lived through a number of years of Button backlash, though, I now think that it's probably the least likely of Fincher's movies for me to revisit, because there's the least amount more I could discover from it. I'd revisit the great ones to soak in their greatness and the misfires to analyze why they missed, but Button will probably just sit in the middle, never to be explored again.

5) Zodiac (2007). Now is the time for you to haul out your apoplexy and give it full voice. On a podcast devoted to Gone Girl I listened to yesterday morning, the podcasters described Zodiac as the consensus choice for Fincher's masterpiece. Well, that consensus didn't poll me, I guess. I like this movie a lot and respect it even more, but it's a very hard movie to love. I find Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo's search for the Zodiac killer a wholly unsatisfying affair, and I don't really buy the argument that that's the point. I didn't expect for the movie to reveal who the killer was, as the case is still unsolved, but the movie asks you to be interested in police procedural behavior for its own sake. Through that it gets at an interesting glimpse into the obsessive mind, but I remember telling people that it felt like a really long episode of Law & Order. A really good episode, but one held back by the same limitations. Since time has placed this movie in an even more favorable light than it enjoyed from the critical establishment at the time, I definitely have to give this one a second chance.

6) Panic Room (2002). I didn't give Panic Room a fair shake at the time of its release, and it took me more than a year to finally see it. In fact, I derisively referred to it as "Green Room," so cynical was I about its sleek green-filtered appearance and apparent lack of substance. But Panic Room is actually a tight, taught little domestic invasion thriller, with uniformly good performances and real tension. What I really remember about this movie, however, is how it represents the most ostentatious demonstration of technique Fincher has ever committed to film. I referred to the wandering of Fincher's camera in his previous film, Fight Club, as a major plus in that film. Here, Fincher's camera travels on impossible tracks through the house and main set, a feat that is equal parts digital manipulation and cinematographic derring-do. I would watch this movie again just to sit agape at the audacity of that camera, its omniscience purposefully representing no one's perspective.

7) Gone Girl (2014). It's too soon since my first viewing of Gone Girl to know how it will really settle with me over time. But as I indicated in my previous post, it's the only Fincher movie I've seen where I questioned the potential irresponsibility of the ideas presented. I didn't use the M word -- misogyny -- in my previous discussion of Gone Girl, but it's been fighting its way to the surface the more I think about the film. However, if you entirely divorce (pun intended) the players from what they signify in terms of the battle of the sexes, and view them only as pawns in a Hitchcockian thriller, you can sit back and appreciate how Fincher may be today's most capable director in terms of assembling such an homage. I was thrilled by the film's look and execution, and didn't guess where it would go at any point. If I can just get past that little issue of the underexplained psychotic behavior of the lead female character, Gone Girl might jump a few spots on this list.

8) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011). It's when we get to #8 on this list that I truly appreciate just how good Fincher's filmography has been. In a lot of ways, this is the most technically accomplished film Fincher has ever made in terms of perfectly distilling the hard and icy world of its story. It's a near ideal match of director and subject matter. Ah, but it's the subject matter that holds me back here. I'd already seen the original version of the film, and already been generally dissatisfied by a story that I feel has been quite overrated by the public in general. Certainly, there are elements of this series of books that truly crackle, including the introduction of a truly memorable character (and Rooney Mara kills it as Lisbeth Salander), but overall I just don't think this narrative lives up to its apparent promise. And Fincher's version backloads the movie with a bunch of extraneous material that may be true to the book (I don't know, I haven't read it) but has the effect of weighing things down. There's a trailer's worth of super awesome in this movie and lots of very good sprinkled throughout, but you walk out of the theater feeling a bit disappointed. I know my disappointment is also tied to the long, bloated and indistinct score by my hero, Mr. Reznor -- in the height of self-indulgence, the movie's soundtrack was something like 39 tracks long. Maybe that Oscar for The Social Network went to his head.

9) The Game (1997). And here comes the big dropoff. Remember the bogus material that I said detracts from Fight Club? The Game is 87.3% bogus material. There's suspension of disbelief, and then there's what The Game asks you to do. Sure, this movie looks good, and sure, it can be thrilling in spots. But when you start to realize that the only way certain outcomes could be achieved, the only way the giant puzzle could keep going along the correct trajectory, is by every character making exactly the right decision at exactly the right moment, you start to feel like The Game thinks you're a fool. And I'm no fool.

10) Alien 3 (1992). I can't say for certain that the third Alien movie, and Fincher's first feature film, is really his worst. The Game might be worse, actually. But when you live in a climate of hatred for Alien 3, as we all do, some of it has to seep through your skin. I actually think this movie is pretty good for a completely stripped down version of an Alien movie, and not all that essentially wrongheaded for a series that kept reinventing itself with every new entry. But that cruel and unusual way it renders the events of Aliens meaningless -- that's all I'll say for those of you who still haven't seen these movies -- is a misstep from which the movie never recovers, even if it only comprises the very beginning of the movie. Since Fincher didn't write the movie, you can hardly blame him. Still, it's kind of funny to think about how we were introduced to this great new talent through a movie that was widely panned ... and yet he still got to make Seven and go on to become one of our great modern-day auteurs. Without Seven to prop up his first three movies, Fincher's early output doesn't look so good at all.

And that's probably just about enough David Fincher for today.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post, in which I wonder aloud "Where was Ben Affleck's junk in Gone Girl? I DIDN'T SEE IT."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Someone finally found the right role for Rosamund Pike


Rosamund Pike has dead eyes.

After searching for years for a reason why I disliked this actress so much, I finally came to a concrete realization in the opening minutes of Gone Girl:

Her eyes are dead.

This is a problem when you are trying to portray, you know, a human being.

Fortunately, in Gone Girl, Rosamund Pike doesn't have to.

For probably the first time in a career that has involved primarily straightforward casting, Rosamund Pike is playing a sociopath. It turns out that this is something this otherwise artificial actress can do very well.

Considering how little I like her as a performer, I have seen quite a lot of Rosamund Pike movies. From Die Another Day to Fracture to An Education to Surrogates to Jack Reacher to The World's End, Pike has always struck me as a pod person, an alien skirting around the edges of what it might be like to play a human being, but never really getting there. She not only strikes me as false, she downright discomfits me. There's something, you know, wrong with her.

In a role that requires those dead eyes to say something about the depths of sociopathic behavior of which she is capable, though, Pike nails it.

What dead eyes are you speaking of, you ask? How about these dead eyes:

Finally, I am discomfited by Rosamund Pike for the right reasons.

I wonder if David Fincher -- or his casting director, Laray Mayfield -- saw in Pike what I saw. Or rather, what I didn't see -- namely, a soul. I wonder if they said "We need someone truly soulless for this role. I know -- Rosamund Pike!"

In any case, she does nail it.

In the first half of the film, we are seduced into the tempting narrative that she's a basically good trust fund baby whose life has been run into the ground after her husband moved them to the middle of nowhere, began cheating on her, and started demonstrating violent tendencies. I was sort of bothered, then, that there was nothing behind her eyes, even at the start when she is supposed to feel an uncomplicated love toward Ben Affleck's character. This was when my "dead eyes" theory really took hold.

But at about the halfway point, the performance -- or I should say, Pike's most common performative mode -- is totally recontextualized. She was faking. She was putting on a show. We won't get in to the psychopathology that has brought her to this point -- which is a bit more complicated and problematic -- but by now, she does have a total disdain for certain if not most human beings, who may deserve only a percentage of that disdain.

And when she slits Neil Patrick Harris' throat with a boxcutter, then writhes around on top of his body as she bathes in his blood (and as Trent Reznor's generally muted score reaches its sinister crescendo), we truly realize we've been looking into an empty shell all along.

My problem with Gone Girl, then, is not Pike's performance -- which I now consider one of the film's foremost strengths. My problem is how the film gets her to this point. By the end, the most obvious interpretation of the he said-she wrote story is that most of what he said was true, and most of what she wrote was false. At one point tempted to side with a battered wife, we are now left with no option but to consider her a contemptible whack job whose hatred of men has driven her to try to ruin the lives of at least three of them -- seemingly just for her own sport.

The reason given? She couldn't live up to the high standard set by her parents, who wrote a popular series of children's books starring a much more successful version of her.

Her husband -- who could have been a truly awful character -- is more than anything guilty of philandering and perhaps inattention.

Not only does her psychopathology seem dispiritingly simple, but the reframing of the narrative has the effect of vindicating men -- not just one, but several -- who are accused of dastardly deeds against women. Not only does Amy Dunne try to frame her own husband for killing her -- a frame-job she may nor may not being trying to cement by ultimately killing herself -- but she once framed a man (Scoot McNairy) for raping her. Women lying about rape is an extremely problematic narrative purpose, even if the person who wrought the bestselling novel was a woman. In fact, Gillian Flynn adapted her own book into this screenplay.

It's not that there can't be a movie about a woman who fabricates accusations against men, just that she needs to be grounded in an emotional reality that makes sense. She can't just be a psycho.

So while David Fincher's undeniable craftsmanship again elevates this to something of a technical marvel, it's in service of a half-baked idea.

The one who did spend enough time in the oven is Rosamund Pike, and now I actually look forward to seeing what she'll do next.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hey! Go see this!

My friend Matthew Saville is a very successful director.

He's directed features, he's directed high-profile TV movies, and he's directed award-winning TV shows.

But something has eluded him thus far in his professional career:

A U.S. theatrical release date.

That all changes with tomorrow's release of Felony, his police drama that first played at last year's Toronto Film Festival. At that time, he was discouraged about its prospects of getting that coveted U.S. release date, widely recognized as a necessary imprimatur for a film to be taken seriously on the world stage. Even with a cast of known stars, like Joel Edgerton, Tom Wilkinson, Jai Courtney and Melissa George, the film could have still been destined only to "play for a fortnight" (a phrase he used that my wife and I have since privately teased him about) in Australian theaters, and then become a memory.

Well, it's still playing in Australian theaters on the day I write this, October 17th, having been released way back on August 28th. And yes indeed, it's opening in U.S. theaters tomorrow.

I may not like it as much as Noise -- his 2007 feature that got him a trip to Sundance, but never a U.S. release -- but it's in the ballpark. Matt knows what he's doing.

Plus, it's got the great Tom Wilkinson. Who, among his many other talents, can do a very credible Aussie accent.

Like Noise, it's a cop movie, but also like Noise, it's not a conventional cop movie. While that movie dealt with a detective whose pursuit of a murderer is being complicated by a maddening case of tinnitus, this one deals with the ethical quandary when cops try to cover up each others' involvement in a tragic accident. Both films are good food for thought (so seek out Noise if you've never seen it as well).

I saw Felony back on opening night, when I must admit I was one of only a dozen people in the theater. But numbers don't lie. The word of mouth has kept this one going, as Felony has now officially survived another Thursday new release day at Cinema Nova, meaning it's starting it's eighth full week in theaters. That's not a fortnight, Matt. That's four fortnights.

But it may not play for longer than a fortnight in the U.S., so seek it out. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The world's douchebaggiest ringtone

"Ah ah ah hooah hooah
Ah ah ah hooah hooah
Ah ah ah hooah hooah
Come on now, more margaritas!"

If you recently saw Tusk, you may have this little ditty stuck in your head, just as I do.

It's the ringtone belonging to the main character, Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), a douchebag podcaster who likes to laugh at famous freaks on the internet. And it's such a terrific character detail, such a terrific signifier of douchiness, that it's probably one of my favorite things about the movie -- a movie I liked quite a lot.

Of course, at the time I saw the movie I had no idea that it was a comedy bit recorded from one of Kevin Smith's podcasts, where radio personality Ralph Garman (who appears as an actor in both Tusk and Smith's last film, Red State) was doing an impersonation of Al Pacino. Apparently, in this particular bit, Pacino is a fan of tequila, triple sec, lime juice and salt.

To me, it just sounded like what a real dickhead would say to a group of girls, when he was hoping to roofie one of them and have his way with her. "Come on, drink up!" (Considering the events of Tusk, there's a bitter irony to the notion of unquestioningly drinking something that is thrust in front of you.)

It's not that I believed this character would do something like that, but that this character would not comprehend the underlying grossness of a jerk trying to get some girls drunk. Most douchebags would not actually commit date rape, but they would think the type of activities that lead to date rape are awesome. I wouldn't be surprised if Wallace Bryton were a devotee of Tucker Max, for example.

What I love is how many times Smith uses this ringtone in the movie. It's got to be in there at least a half-dozen times, and each time the movie pauses to let its absurdity play out for 5 to 10 seconds before the phone is answered. The ringtone comes at funny moments, to accentuate the comedy, and in scary moments, to puncture the tension. It is used masterfully to get a laugh each time.

Since just having me spell it out in words above is probably not enough to create the necessary mental image -- can you have an image of a sound? -- here is that ringtone, with accompanying graphics:

It's one of a number of masterful touches in Tusk -- intermingled with some touches that aren't so masterful, and some parts that simply seem like flab that could have been cut out. Still, Tusk is a win overall for Smith -- both very funny and very disturbing at different junctures, with some other random tones thrown in to jangle you further.

After Red State, that's what I love about the new Kevin Smith -- you really never know what you're going to get.

Now, to locate the nearest Mexican restaurant with a liquor license open at lunchtime ...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A very bad word indeed

On Saturday night we watched Jason Bateman's directorial debut, Bad Words, about a 40-year-old man who uses a loophole to enter a national spelling bee competition intended for eighth graders.

The title has multiple meanings, as it also refers to the fact that Bateman's Guy Trilby has no filter. He emits profanity with a gusto that is only heightened when he's speaking to a child.

Before the movie started, though, I was focused on a different bad word -- one that has bothered me time and again since I've moved to Australia. I thought it was finally time to write about it.

The word is "unmissable," and it has been a bad bad word indeed.

I know "unmissable" does qualify as a word, barely, but it's the way "unmissable" is used in popular advertising here that really gets my goat.

The word creates hype for a movie or TV show or concert performance by trying to encapsulate how unwise it would be for you, the prospective viewer, to miss it. In this case, the word was applied to one of the trailers before Bad Words. If you had to translate it into, say, six words, those six words would be "You don't want to miss this!"

Except there's a difference between telling someone they don't want to miss something, and saying that they literally cannot miss it. It's the latter that the word "unmissable" implies.

In fact, you would have to really struggle to find any appropriate usage of the word "unmissable." (And I could stop using the quotation marks, probably, except they provide the important secondary function of belittling the word's legitimacy.) If there is an asteroid heading toward Earth and there is a mathematical certainty that the two bodies will collide, Earth could be described as "unmissable" to that asteroid. And vice versa.

But telling someone they literally cannot miss a piece of popular entertainment is just ridiculous, unless Beyonce is going to set up her band and her backup singers in your bedroom and start performing while you're fast asleep. I suppose, once you woke up, she would be "unmissable" to you.

But a movie? A TV show? There are many more ways to miss it than to not miss it. In fact, with any given piece of popular entertainment, more than 95% of the world's population is likely never to see it.

I suppose in some ways it is silly to get stuck on the semantics of this word, since I obviously understand what they mean in context, the sense of urgency they are trying to convey. But it just strikes me as such a dumb way to convey it. And what then strikes me as all the more annoying is that it's spreading like a virus. There it is on the side of that bus. There it is now on that billboard. And there it is now on my TV.

What may be strangest, though, is that this seems to be a peculiarly Australian phenomenon. Perhaps they borrowed it from the U.K., since that's a pretty common practice here. But I definitely have not seen it in the U.S., which is strange, since a) a lot more advertising is created in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world, and b) Americans typically have a pretty healthy disdain for the proper and/or intended use of words.

Or maybe it's been around for a while and I've only just recently started noticing it.

Maybe I just missed the memo on "unmissable."

Monday, October 13, 2014

Boredom porn

You've heard the term torture porn for movies that fetishize torture, and disaster porn for movies that fetishize disaster.

How about "boredom porn" for movies that take boredom to extreme levels of perversity?

That's how I'm starting to mentally classify the films of Lucien Castaing-Taylor, and I haven't even seen the one that could best fit the description: 2012's Leviathan. (It's available for streaming on Netflix, but having already watched one Castaing-Taylor film this week, I need to give myself a bit of a break before I tackle another.)

Castaing-Taylor is an anthropologist, director of Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, and he is perhaps best known for the 2009 sheep documentary Sweetgrass, which he directed with Ilisa Barbash. Castaing-Taylor did not actually direct Manakamana, which I saw last night, but as a producer, his sensibilities are all over it.

What sensibilities are those, you might ask?

Well, before I tell you about the format of Manakamana, I'll get you in the right mindset by talking about Sweetgrass and what I know of Leviathan.

I first wrote about Sweetgrass here. It's a steadfastly slow-paced film, dealing with little more than the basic visual stimuli of watching sheep herded through Montana's Beartooth Mountains. The cinematography is lush and the dialogue is minimal. Really, you are just watching sheep for 101 minutes.

Leviathan is, as I understand it, basically the same thing, but applied to the commercial fishing industry. For detractors of this type of film, Leviathan has the decency to be only 87 minutes long (which does give me more incentive to prioritize a viewing in the near future). Here, Castaing-Taylor shared the directing credit with Verena Paravel.

Those aforementioned detractors will want to stay far away from Manakamana. Not only does it not have the decency to be comparatively short, clocking in just shy of two hours, but it is arguably about far less than either of those films, with far smaller variability in its imagery.

So it's finally time to tell you: Manakamana is about a cable car ride to the top of a Nepalese mountain where visitors worship at a temple that shares this film's name.

It's not about the temple, mind you. It's just about the ride to get there, and back.

Eleven such rides over 118 minutes, lasting around 10 minutes each.


The film starts with a man and a boy (the ones seen in the poster) emerging from the darkness of a cable car station at the base of the Nepalese mountain, seated in a car. A camera is set up directly across from them and observes them for their 10-minute ascent. The boy and the man, who presumably know each other, speak not a word to each other for the entire journey.

At the top, they return to a state of darkness to disembark. Creating an illusion of seamlessness, the camera then transitions to show us a different ascent up the mountain, this time with the camera placed on the opposite side of the car (to get a different background, I suppose) and with a solo woman making the ascent. As she is by herself, she says nothing either.

At this point I was wondering if there would ever be any dialogue in this movie at all.

And had left the second car ride running while I ran a did a couple quick household chores in the vicinity of my computer.

Initially angered that directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez would have the audacity to record such a thing and call it a movie, I started to get into Manakamana a bit more as it moved along. Yes, finally in the third car ride, the two riders do talk to each other. Not about anything really important, of course, but there was dialogue, and I clung to it like a life preserver. A couple later conversations had more substance, a couple others were notable for their lack of it (you think the people don't even know each other and then they finally say something very personal about halfway down), and there's at least one big surprise that made me laugh out loud. I won't spoil it, in case you do want to take this ride, so to speak, yourself. Another segment contains a really funny bit as well, that has to do with the apparent disconnect between our preconceived notions of the characters and the activity that consumes the length of their ride.

The format itself is unwavering, except in terms of which side of the car the camera is resting, and which direction the car is travelling. (The first six are trips up the mountain, the last five are trips down.)

I did eventually decide there was something profound about this. I genuinely looked forward to seeing who would emerge from the transitional darkness between vignettes, with whom I would be spending my next ten minutes. I also began to wonder about things like our tendency as human beings to fill the silence with meaningless chatter, or not, and what that says about how comfortable (or uncomfortable) we are with our loved ones, as well as with ourselves. I wondered if the spiritual experience they were heading toward, or had just completed, rendered them more thoughtful and less vocal than they might usually be. I also began to wonder if the camera was hidden, or in plain view, and whether that affected how the people behaved (although they certainly give no indication of noticing its presence). I wondered if the filmmakers had to run down these people afterwards to get their permission to participate, and whether that dictated which vignettes we saw and which we didn't.

And even though Manakamana became more than a marginally positive experience for me, I still call it boredom porn without any urge to retract the snarkiness of that designation.

Manakamana certainly challenges, and perhaps even snubs its nose at, the very notion of what constitutes conventional subject matter for a documentary. But it ended up being okay that it was so quiet and meditative and perhaps did not require my undivided attention, because I had intended to divide my attention between the movie and prepping dinner for the next night anyway. Manakamana actually got action-packed enough at times (in other words, filled with enough dialogue that I couldn't walk away) that I actually had to pause it a couple times to go fetch ingredients.

Perhaps inevitably, I did think about how this sort of makes for a good structure for a Hollywood movie. If that sounds crazy, let me explain. It could be an omnibus movie, where ten different directors direct different ten-minute shorts, all set on a ski lift. (Because I don't think the Hollywood version of this takes place in Nepal.) When each new segment begins, you'd have no idea which two familiar actors were going to emerge from the darkness (except the trailer would have ruined it, so you would actually know). You'd have no idea what the characters' relationship was in some cases, and in others it would be immediately clear. There'd be the story of the couple who breaks up over the course of the ride. There'd be the opposite story where the two strangers fall in love. There'd be the one where two apparent strangers slowly realize that the other person is the person they've been assigned to kill. There would be the avant garde one where the people only spoke to each other through inscrutable pieces of meaningless dialogue. And so on. And so forth.

Thanks, Lucien Castaing-Taylor. You've given me my million dollar idea.

Not so boring after all.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A history of violence

Nicolas Cage has pondered violence and its consequences in two films so far in 2014 -- and they are not actually as far apart in quality as you might think.

Okay, Joe is a lot better than Rage. But Rage is also a lot better, in its own weird way, than your typical Nicolas Cage paycheck movie.

Both movies have something to say about how you can't fully leave a violent past behind you. Really. Even Rage.

Having made my introduction and let you decide if you're intrigued enough to continue, I will now also tell you that I'm going to SPOIL both of these movies in order to make my points. You've been warned.

Joe, described as David Gordon Green's comeback from the purgatory of dumb Hollywood comedies (what, no one saw the terrific Prince Avalanche last year???), has also been described as a comeback for Cage. In truth, Cage makes a movie like this every three or four years, something that reminds us that filmmakers at their peak still want to collaborate with the man, and he them.

It's very much in the mold of a movie like Jeff Nichols' Mud, in which a loner is trying to outrun his violent past. The title character in Mud is actually on the run, but Cage's Joe is just at the level of not seeming able to keep himself out of trouble -- even when he's made very noticeable strides toward pure, respectable legitimacy as the head of a crew whose job is to poison trees so the lumber companies can clear them. He'll be actually on the run if he can't control that hot temper. When he sees a teenager (Tye Sheridan) in jeopardy, it's enough to mix with the already combustible elements of his personality to point toward something fatal, for somebody.

Rage, on the other hand, feels a lot more like Cage's other choices from the past ten years, where he agrees to star alongside a handful of other nominally recognizable actors for a salary that is well over half the film's budget. If he's made this movie once, he's made it a thousand times. The salary-to-budget ratio may be even more lopsided in this one, as such elements as the lighting and the editing come across as particularly shoddy. Even the credits, something that shouldn't cost much at all, are remarkably dull.

In Rage, Cage is a former hoodlum who has taken himself out of the game and become the head of a respectable construction empire. Even though he's been retired from crime for 15 years, the logical suspicion is that his teenage daughter's kidnapping can be tied to evening an old score. So he calls on the services of two old criminal associates to knock some heads with him, and turn the criminal underworld of Mobile, Alabama (I guess there is such a thing) upside down in trying to find her.

There, now the real spoilers to follow.

The interesting thing about Rage, which sets it apart from your typical Cage fare, is that he does not succeed. At about the movie's 30-minute mark, they find the daughter's body. I suppose something like that might have been assumed from the movie's title, but I did not assume it. In your typical Cage kidnapped daughter movie (say, Stolen), he recovers her in the final scene, while also sending the kidnappers to some kind of water grave (or maybe impaled on a fence post). Not here. She's dead.

Rage shifts to more typical territory after that, where Cage scorches the earth to stir up long-dormant animosities between crews as the body count rises and rises. When each of his friends succumbs, I got more a sense of this movie's freedom from the strictures of your typical escapist action movie. This is not heading anywhere triumphant.

Then it happens: We learn that the death of his daughter had nothing to do with the Russian mob, as had been suspected for most of the movie. Except in the following way: A Russian gun he stole from a mobster he killed years ago (a Tokarev, which provided the movie's original title) was used in the killing, And that's because he kept it in a box in his closet, where his daughter knew about it. When she showed it off to two male friends to impress them on a night of drinking, it went off. Terrified and consumed with guilt, the friends trashed the house to make it look like a kidnapping, and relocated the body so it would not be found right away.

After all, when you had a history like Cage had, you'd believe that kind of narrative, wouldn't you?

I was all prepared to dismiss Rage until this point, but the revelation about what really happened genuinely surprised me. Of course, the dangers of too-accessible guns is not an entirely original message for a movie, but I did not expect it to be the message of this movie. I expected Cage to kick righteous ass in the just pursuit of the genuinely malevolent people who kidnapped and killed his daughter. Instead, he should have just been pursuing himself. He thought he got away with that unauthorized mob hit all those years ago, but it actually came back to roost for both him and the two friends who helped him pull it off -- in a poetically just fashion he could never have imagined.

It's all too fitting, then, when the movie ends with the Russians finally taking their vengeance on him for this recent spate of unprovoked violence. He has a poignant final call with his wife, in which he contemplates how his life would have been different if someone hadn't put a knife in his hand just before he committed his first kill. Then they sneak into his house and end him.

Look, it doesn't make this a great movie, but it does make it one of the most poorly constructed movies, from a technical standpoint, I've ever sort of liked. (Did I mention the awful lighting and editing? Yikes.)

I do find myself wondering if this movie might have been taken a bit more seriously if it had kept that original title Tokarev. See this post for a fuller discussion of that idea.

Thought I'd forgotten about Joe? So did I there for a moment.

Joe seems to require a bit less ink from me as it's unnecessary to try to convince you to see it. (Heck of a job I did, convincing you to see Rage by spoiling the entire movie.) But it explores the same theme of violence never staying buried, with a similar outcome.

The title character of Joe is also now a legitimate businessman after spending a life in and out of bar fights and prison. However, he still holds various slights close to the surface, and therefore isn't able to stay out of scrapes, even in his relatively clean current existence. He's got an ongoing beef with a local scumbug (played by a dead ringer for Peter Sarsgard), and just can't refrain from smashing the guy's head into the bar whenever he sees him.

What really gets his goat is not that various small-time big shots are still provoking him -- that's to be expected to some degree -- but that the cops are continuing to profile him based on previous bad behavior. They are quick to think the worst of him, to confuse him for the former incarnation of himself, so he makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy by leading them on high-speed chases and cold-cocking the occasional sheriff's deputy who assumed the worst about him. Was that sheriff's deputy truly wrong, Joe?

Like Cage in Rage (I should have told you that character's name -- Paul Maguire), Cage in Joe keeps getting just enough rope from the cops to hang himself. It's as if these cops are allowing both characters to be delivered to some preordained fate by leaving them unjailed for offenses that should have been easy incarcerations. This is how Joe is free to attend the skirmish that will be his last, but will also kind of be his redemption. Hearing that the teenage boy he's taken under his wing, who has been getting regular beatings from his father (a dead ringer for Ed Harris), is now trying to save his sister from his father's attempts to prostitute her out to Joe's rival for some booze money, Joe insinuates himself into the situation instead. In fact, it's an act of mercy on Joe's part that seals his fate, as he releases a tangential player -- and gets shot in the gut once that tangential player gets his gun from his truck. In real movies like Joe, a gut shot actually kills.

It would be tempting to wrap up this piece with some kind of overarching statement about violence and the state of Cage's career, but instead I'll end on a joke:

"Will Nicolas Cage have a hard time leaving violence behind him in his next movie?"

"Nope, he'll just get Left Behind."

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hi, I'm Derek Armstrong

After five years, nine months and six days of writing this blog, I thought it was finally time to come out of the shadows and introduce myself.

Hi, I'm Derek Armstrong.

For years now you have known me as Vancetastic. The reasons to remain hidden behind that handle are no longer practical, if they ever were.

I originally gave myself the name merely as a means of more or less copying the naming convention used by my friend, Rob, who called himself Gimpadelic when he started his blog. It was reading his blog that made me think I could write a blog.

Gimpadelic was derived by taking his name and turning it into an adjective. So I did basically the same thing, except I used a nickname rather than my real name to distance myself from it. (Yep, Rob used to call me Vance. Still does sometimes, actually.)

Why did I want to distance myself from it?

I can't say for sure. I originally thought that bloggers were supposed to be anonymous or something. Maybe we were all unduly paranoid that something we wrote was going to be traced back to us and that we would be held responsible. That's a heck of a lot of importance to place on random observations about the world, cinematic or otherwise. Most bloggers aren't discussing government secrets, you know. (Though I guess some are discussing deeply personal issues.)

However, I quickly realized that there was a value to not having my name on this thing. After all, I sometimes updated posts at work, and if someone ever wanted to know why I was visiting this website so regularly, I wanted to have plausible deniability. I wanted it to seem like, maybe, I was merely a big fan of The Audient. "See, it doesn't even have my name on it! Vancetastic? That could never be me!"

Except it is me, and now, I actually do want people to know.

You see, I've decided I'm making a concerted effort to "get back out there." It's been nearly three years since I wrote my last paid review for All Movie Guide. I don't know if I'll ever get paid to write a movie review again, but I have to try, dammit. Even if I don't get paid, I have to try to write in a forum in which I am actually recognized as myself.

There may be some opportunities, so now is the time.

And if these opportunities arise, and if I need writing samples, I want to be able to point them to this site and say "See? That's my blog. You can see my name right there." Sure, they could try to tell me it's some other Derek Armstrong, but they'd have to be looking for a reason to disbelieve me, in which case I probably wouldn't be getting anywhere with them anyway.

Look, writing about movies isn't what it once was. Few people get paid for it, and those who do usually don't get paid much. They either have to have entire other jobs to fully support themselves, or have to do a bunch of other boring things as part of that job in order to collect their paycheck.

But if there's any distant glimmer of a possibility that I will one day be gainfully employed as a critic again, I can't be hiding in the shadows. I've got to put myself, my full self, out there. I've got to sign my name to what I contribute to our collective discussion of the glorious world of cinema.

Hi, I'm Derek Armstrong.

You'll be hearing more from me soon.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Without going into spoiler territory

It must be really difficult to talk about movies these days, especially since more plot information than ever tends to fall into "spoiler territory."

Unfortunately, what seems to happen is that the people charged with the sacred duty of protecting spoilers -- particularly podcasters, who converse off the cuff and don't generally edit out slips of the tongue -- simply give lip service to avoiding spoilers ... and then fail to avoid them. 

Which makes it even more difficult to listen to people talk about movies, if you haven't seen the movie. 

"Without going into spoiler territory," they'll say, "let's just say that a certain someone in The Crying Game doesn't have a certain type of genitalia that you would expect that certain someone to have."

Really? Did you just avoid that spoiler? I don't think you did. 

That's an exaggeration, of course -- the people on the podcasts I listen to have more smarts than that. The real problem is that any individual statement they make does not constitute a spoiler, but taken in combination, you get a pretty complete image of the thing you're trying not to find out about.

So now is the time that I will give my SPOILER ALERT about Tusk ... a movie I am in a position to be able to spoil, even though I have not actually seen it. (And therein lies the problem.) 

I was listening to the second-most-recent episode of Filmspotting on Saturday, having known it was about Kevin Smith's Tusk, and having dragged my feet on listening to it long enough to realize I was not going to be able to watch Tusk within a reasonable amount of time. (I believe it comes out here on October 16th.) 

I had heard the most general logline of the movie, which was "It's about a man who turns into a walrus." I might have not liked to know even that, but with a title like Tusk, I might have assumed it had something to do either with walruses or elephants. The 1979 Fleetwood Mac album was also a possible focus of the film. 

Now, when Filmspotting co-host Josh Larsen and guest host Michael Phillips launched into their review, it was clear from the start that they intended to avoid spoilers. But it was also clear that they wanted to have an in-depth discussion of the film, which required them to give us more context than a totally spoiler-free review would allow them to do.

So there came that phrase again -- "without going into spoiler territory" -- followed by three rather suggestive phrases sprinkled through the review: "unwanted surgery," "body horror" and "obsession with walruses."

Piece those together, and now I know that there is a crazy guy who surgically implants walrus anatomy into a human.

Of course, if there were any doubts about that conclusion, I need only listen to the parts they felt confident they could share -- which basically remove any of those doubts.

However, Josh and Michael were not content just to spoil the main parts of the story. They also spoiled what is supposed to be a surprise cameo by Johnny Depp. Not just that he's in the movie, but that he plays a Quebecois detective with a walrus mustache. It's like if someone told you that Tom Cruise was in Tropic Thunder before you saw it. (And who knows, maybe someone did.)

It's the second time in the space of a month I was worried about listening to Filmspotting because of potential spoilers. I was told I should know as little as possible about Charlie McDowell's The One I Love, so I delayed listening to that episode. I was actually at a near podcast standstill, in fact, as I was also avoiding the episode of the Slate Culture Gabfest in which The One I Love was on tap.  

Fortunately, in that case, The One I Love was already available for rental on iTunes, so I scooped it up for the princely sum of $6.99 and watched it on a Friday night with my wife. When I then turned to the podcasts, I found that Josh and regular co-host Adam Kempenaar had really talked around the spoilers in their review -- but that Culture Gabfest team blew them wide open. (At least they issued a spoiler warning before divulging.) 

I'm not really criticizing any particular podcasters or people here. What bothers me is the very nature of film-related discourse, and what bothers me most is that I don't know there is any way it can be avoided. I love listening to these podcasts from week to week, and I love them precisely because they are not satisfied with a cursory, surface-level review of a movie. Getting into the meat of the movie is what makes them great. I'm so into the podcasts, in fact, that I don't want to skip any or listen to them out of order, because there are certain other features on each episode that are enhanced by listening to the shows in the intended sequence.

But I'm never going to be able to keep up with their pace of watching new releases, especially when certain movies don't even come out in Australia until three months after they hit theaters in the U.S., and certain other movies may intrigue me but don't seem like an immediate priority.

So what do I do?

Listen with one ear closed, and beg those involved to exercise as much prudence as they can.

At least I figure to see Gone Girl before Filmspotting gets to it next Friday. The plan is to go tomorrow night. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Joel Edgerton plays dress-up

I've had reason to take an interest in the career of Joel Edgerton over the years.

I first came across him as the star of the film Kinky Boots, which was then the latest in a long line of movies -- spawned by the success of The Full Monty -- about British underdogs involved in unusual pursuits. I found him pretty milquetoast and ineffectual in the role -- "wet," as my wife would say.

So I was a little surprised when he reemerged a couple years later as someone more masculine and formidable, in movies like Animal Kingdom and Warrior. I liked this new incarnation of the man, and found myself becoming one of his fans. Meanwhile, he was catching the eye of Hollywood and starting to become a true leading man.

Then in the past few years I have known him as a collaborator of my friend Matthew Saville, who is married to one of my wife's oldest friends and who directed the feature Noise, which played at Sundance in 2007. A huge fan of Noise, Edgerton sought out Matt to direct his own script, which later got the title Felony and came to star Tom Wilkinson and Jai Courtney along with Edgerton. (I plan to pimp Felony a bit more when it gets its U.S. release a couple weeks from now.)

The latest iteration of Mr. Edgerton, however, goes back to having me a little puzzled again.

Just this week I watched the trailer for Exodus: Gods and Kings, at first thinking it was the new movie from Alex Proyas. That's actually Gods of Egypt and isn't due until 2016. However, the confusion isn't surprising as not only is the title similar, but Exodus also takes place in Egypt, dramatizing the famous Biblical story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. Although I was generally impressed by the trailer, realizing it was directed by Ridley Scott blunted some of my enthusiasm.

Further blunting it was seeing Joel Edgerton as the great Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II.

It was at that moment that I realized: While I like Joel Edgerton a lot, not for a minute do I think he has any range. And certainly not the kind necessary to credibly play a pharaoh.

Also, isn't he a bit ... I don't know ... white?

I guess your average Egyptian is not particularly dark-skinned. But Joel Edgerton might be, like, the whitest guy I've ever seen. I think that's what I was responding to when I shrank away from his performance in Kinky Boots and called it "milquetoast." That word is of course based on a fictional character named Caspar Milquetoast, who bore the characteristics of weakness, timidity and blandness. The creation of his name, however, has to do with the image of a piece of toast dipped in milk -- something not only white, but something that easily loses its substance through dissolution.

I should back up a step and remind you that I don't see Joel Edgerton like this anymore. In fact, he's rather virile, I think. But he's still essentially a white guy, not a guy I can easily imagine playing an Egyptian.

But it's not just his skin color or his perceived skin color that makes me doubt his fitness for this role. It's that Edgerton has consistently been cast in very realistic-type roles -- if not always modern, then at least very straight-laced. The only time he has even remotely strayed from the realm of realism is when he played a character in The Great Gatsby, but the only reason that's not quite as realistic is because the film's director (Baz Luhrmann) would almost never be thought of as confining himself to realism. Edgerton's performance within that fanciful film is pretty grounded, though.

Edgerton did provide the voice of the villain in Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, but I'm not counting that. Voice work is an entirely different animal.

So exactly how, one wonders, did he get cast in Scott's film, playing opposite a much more straightforward instance of casting in Christian Bale as Moses? It's hard to say for sure, but I'm guessing he had the right squinty eyes for the part. He does sort of look like how I imagine that pharaoh looked.

But can he pull off the role? Can he "go big"? Either as big as the film undoubtedly requires, or as big as Bale will undoubtedly go?

It's hard to say, but I will say this: Joel Edgerton has reinvented himself before. There's nothing to say that he can't do it again, and I think it's certainly fair to let him try.

Because one thing I've learned from talking to Matt about his experiences with Edgerton is that Edgerton is one of the hardest workers he's ever met. He's worked hard to have a busy career where he has been capable of changing people's minds about what he can do. And it's not just the acting we're talking about here -- the man has written several scripts as well. I can't imagine it will be long before he directs his own movie, rather than just leaving that to his brother Nash (another hyphenate, one of the oddest you are likely to find: director-stuntman).

As for Exodus itself, it figures to have state-of-the-art special effects, and since it's from Ridley Scott, it will likely be emotionally cold. I do know that it's excellent fodder for a big-budget Hollywood movie, and I really enjoyed the treatment of this subject matter in Dreamworks' film The Prince of Egypt.

So, we'll just have to see I guess. And we'll also have to see what incarnation Joel Edgerton has in store for us next.