Sunday, June 29, 2014

A chance to catch up

For weeks now I've been feeling terribly behind on the theatrical new releases.

For a combination of reasons -- no car, second child, high ticket prices -- I've been getting to the theater a lot less in Australia than I did in the U.S. So in late May when I should have been seeing Godzilla -- a movie I will now need to wait to see on video -- I was catching up with Captain America: The Winter Soldier instead. The delays have snowballed, and each new worthy release keeps the cycle going. (On a side note: When did nearly every new movie that gets released start earning at least a 70 on Metacritic?)

Thank goodness for Transformers: Age of Extinction, then, which figures not only to give me the chance to catch up, but also to stop the pattern identified in the parenthesis above.

I think I've pretty much decided not to see this Transformers movie at all. Not in the theater (as I saw the first two), not on video (as I saw the third). Just not at all. Not even to help round out the bottom of my 2014 list, which as of right now contains exactly zero movies that I've given lower than 2.5 stars.

One reason is that I don't want to be one of the people in a review I read of Michael Bay's latest robot blockbuster abomination, which I thought of linking to, except that the sentiment is certainly not original to this writer (Bryan Bishop of "But as long as audiences continue to flock to movies like Transformers: Age of Extinction and forgive their shortcomings, that's what Hollywood will make. Not the movies we want, but the movies we deserve." This is of course the flip side of my recently made argument about why you should see Edge of Tomorrow. If you are going to see Edge of Tomorrow for the reasons I stated, you have to not see Transformers for the same reasons.

I already felt like this three years ago, when Transformers: Dark of the Moon came out. I had seen the first two in the theater because I actually liked the first one, which made me think I might buck the critical trend on the second one as well. I didn't like it, but I didn't hate it either. Then a certain number of opinions bubbled to the surface, as they always do, that Dark of the Moon was actually good, so I thought I'd give it a shot on video. At worst it would be one of the bottom-feeders on my year-end rankings (which is precisely what happened).

But with Age of Extinction, I'm not even going to do that -- and not just because 2 hours and 45 minutes are extremely hard to come by for a father of two. Really, it's because even my video viewing will be/might be tabulated by somebody, somewhere, as evidence that Transformers 5 is worth making. They will probably find that evidence without me chipping in any of my own, but the next president of the United States will also probably be elected even if I don't vote. You do it even though your voice is a drop in the bucket.

These are all pretty conventional arguments against the Transformers series, so let me return to what I was originally talking about: catching up. With no release that I care about coming out either this week or next -- the 4th of July falls on a Friday this year, making that a peculiar release date -- I can actually use my next theatrical trip to go to the arthouse, maybe either to finally see Under the Skin (having been thwarted by an equipment failure the last time I tried to see it) or to catch something like The Double before it leaves theaters.

Either would be the ultimate antidote to something like Transformers.

Meanwhile, if you want to celebrate the release of Transformers: Age of Extinction by taking the piss out of the series, check out below what Red Letter Media has done in watching the first three Transformers movies simultaneously. Good for a laugh -- and a reminder how depressingly uninspired the cookie cutter approach to making movies can be.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Past slips into the past

I had something like 25 days to watch Asghar Farhadi's The Past on Vudu, yet the deadline passed yesterday without me doing so.


Because Vudu has beaten Hola.

I haven't talked about it much, but Hola is like my magic key to appreciating all the joys of U.S.-based web entertainment, but without actually being in the U.S. Many websites, Netflix chief among them, try to block you if you attempt to access their services in territories where they do not operate -- Australia being one of them.

That's where Hola comes in.

It's an unblocker, which means that with this free little piece of software installed on your computer, a bunch of different websites -- including those for all the major U.S. television networks -- think that your computer is residing in the United States. Pretty handy. It's the only reason we've been able to keep our Netflix service after moving. (Netflix is due in Australia in the near future, but even then it will be a severely truncated version of the extensive catalogue of titles enjoyed in the U.S.)

However, Vudu is somehow Hola-resistant. Oh, it appears that it will work. When you enable Hola, the error message changes from Vudu not being available in this part of the world, to just not being able to connect to the server. But in neither case am I watching the next movie from the director of my favorite film of 2011, A Separation.

I wouldn't even have been in this situation except that Vudu was trying to get me to become a more active user, and offered me a $5 credit toward anything on the site. I successfully applied my credit to The Past. I did not, however, successfully watch it.

And why does this matter? It's just another movie of many that I haven't seen yet.

Well, they talked about The Past on a podcast I listen to, Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit, over a month ago. And though I don't usually go to these lengths, I've been saving that episode (and therefore, all subsequent episodes) to listen to until I've seen it. (I have to go in order on podcasts, you see.) Given that I had this Vudu credit, I thought this would be easy enough to do.

But no -- Vudu wants me to be a customer, but only on their terms.

I feel like it's an antiquated model in this day and age, when the customer is even more always right than he/she used to be always right. You can buy something from Bed Bath & Beyond, grind it to dust in your blender, and return it for a full refund. As long as the box weighs the same amount, they won't even look inside. They'll just fork over the money.

So why does Vudu care so much whether I'm spending money on their service in the U.S. or Australia?

There's probably a legitimate answer to this, but I don't know what it is.

I understand that you can actually watch Vudu abroad if you are willing to invest in a VPN. And you can do this for fairly cheaply. But any cost at all kind of defeats my Vudu credit, doesn't it? Especially since there's no regular need for me to watch anything on Vudu, so the cost of the VPN would go entirely to a limited number of Vudu viewings.

Now I know the reason the only time I've watched something on Vudu was that time I randomly bought Mississippi Burning in early 2013. I couldn't get it from Netflix, you see, and I had to watch it for a project I was working on.

So now it's not only The Past that's in the past, but my interest in being a customer of Vudu.

You win, Vudu.

If you want to call a business-negative outcome a win.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Some nice Star Wars poster art for your Friday/Thursday

I don't usually like to use this space just to show you things. I know the mantra of movies is "show don't tell," but I'm a writer, so I like to tell.

But in the tradition of this post -- and, I suppose, this post -- I thought I might just take this Friday (or Thursday if you are longitudinally challenged) to sit back and show you some lovely Star Wars fan-made posters. Besides, it's end of fiscal year, and I expect to get slammed at work. (But, there will also be free pizza.)

Here they are:

I suppose that linking to where I found them would be proper blogger etiquette, but I want the full glory of these posters to class up my site.

I will give the artist credit, though. It's a guy named Andy Fairhurst, and he's pretty amazing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Correcting mistakes

If I were William Cage (Tom Cruise), and possessed the power to reset days and make different decisions, I'd go back to Tuesday June 10th and walk into Edge of Tomorrow instead of X-Men: Days of Future Past.

I knew at the time I preferred to see Edge of Tomorrow, but X-Men had already been out for a couple weeks, and the real key was that it started 10 minutes earlier. When I got to the theater unexpectedly quickly at 8:15, it seemed less tedious to twiddle my thumbs until the start of X-Men at 8:30 than the start of Tomorrow at 8:40.

So merely to maintain my thumb muscles, I saw X-Men on a really big screen, and consigned Edge of Tomorrow to something barely larger than a really big headboard this past Monday night at Cinema Kino.

At least I gave the movie my money, which is what I really wanted to accomplish -- especially after seeing it.

My biggest regret in choosing X-Men over Tomorrow didn't have to do with which movie I enjoyed more, which ended up being Tomorrow in a landslide. It was about which movie I was supporting financially. You have to take that with a grain of salt, since Australian box office hasn't much of an impact in the perception of a movie as a hit or a bomb. Then again, a dollar is a dollar is a dollar, and studios are increasingly tailoring their movies to play overseas.

But it was Tomorrow's performance at the American box office that had everyone talking about Warner Brothers potentially having a bomb on their hands. The film famously (infamously?) opened third at the box office, behind one new movie (The Fault in Our Stars) and one in its second weekend (Maleficent). It fell shy of $30 million, which is pretty much a disaster for a movie budgeted at $175 million.

The thing is, I actually knew this when I made my choice at the Hoyts theater at Melbourne Central two weeks ago, since those results had already been in for two days. I knew that paying for X-Men was paying to support the status quo of sequels, prequels and reboots, and that shunning Tomorrow was shunning movies that take risks and aim for originality. (How strictly original Edge of Tomorrow may be is up for debate, as it borrows heavily from a couple other key movies -- but in a totally awesome way.)

When I walked out of X-Men, my middling response to the movie (I gave it a weak 3.5 stars) was made all the more so by my feelings of regret over being yet another person who didn't pay to see Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. No one should weep for Tom Cruise, of course, but I'll tell you -- he never phones it in. This guy is a damn good movie star, and he's still giving us his all well into his 50s. (Okay, one year into his 50s.) And Blunt? Well, I've talked enough about Emily Blunt on this blog for you to know that I'm kind of ga-ga for her. It was those doe eyes of Blunt's that I really didn't want to disappoint.

Okay, so now that I've corrected my mistake, I figured I should use my bully pulpit to get as many more of the rest of you as possible to go see this movie.

I almost called this post "Edge of Goddamnfrickingawesome," so high am I on it. I'm not going to give you a point-by-point explanation of why this movie is so goddamnfrickingawesome, but just the mere fact that I feel like saying that about a summer blockbuster, for the first time in ages, should tell you something. Here are a couple things to whet your appetite, though:

1) It has a clever and ambitious script that never ceases to delight.

2) It has some of the best sci-fi battle sequences I've ever seen.

3) It is, surprisingly, the funniest movie I have seen this year.

4) The stars are great in it, but also

5) Bill Paxton. He's almost worth the price of admission alone.

Fortunately, as is the case with really good movies, you're going to love Edge of Tomorrow even if you wait to see it on an even smaller screen than I saw it: your home TV. But don't deprive yourself until it's out on video in October. Go see it now. You'll also be playing your part in telling studio execs that you want them to continue taking risks with their content. You'll be rewarding the studio execs for giving you some credit.

Prove you deserve that credit by getting out there and speaking with your wallet. Because if this movie whimpers out of theaters as a certified bomb, we won't have a chance to go back and fix it.

And we'll all pay the price for years -- and sequels, and prequels, and reboots -- to come.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Disregarding alphabetization

I'm anal retentive to a fault.

I love lists, and I love alphabetizing those lists. And I've developed very clear ideas of how to alphabetize, when an instance of ambiguous alphabetization arises. Little is left to randomness and none to chance.

However, there's one thing that comes along to throw the whole thing off:

How two names sound when credited next to each other.

If am going to list two directors, the rule I follow is that the one whose name comes closest to the beginning of the alphabet -- last name if they have different ones, first name if they don't -- goes first.

Except, of course, when I don't follow it.

Take the most prominent example, and the one that gave me the idea for this post when I was making up another one of my big movie lists recently: the Coen brothers. The correct way to list their names should be as Ethan and Joel Coen. That's often how you see their names in print nowadays. But I can't do it. These guys are, and have always been, Joel and Ethan Coen.

The brothers Farrelly have the same problem. They have never been Bobby and Peter Farrelly. They are, and should be, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, for a simple reason that's impossible to support with any type of objective evidence: the names just sound better that way.

Could it ever be Caro et Jeunet? No. It could only be Jeunet et Caro.

I do find it problematic, though. It offends my sense of order on some level. Yet I can't go inviting chaos by referring to them as "Ethan and Joel Coen." That's not who they are. They are Joel and Ethan, and that's who they have always been.

Joel must have won a coin toss back in the day, which led them originally to spurn the alphabet and ask for their names to be credited in this precise order. The rest is history, and I'm not going to overturn that history just because I'm anal retentive.

It's interesting, however, how often alphabetical order has been disregarded by these teams of director partners. The Wachowskis are Larry (now Lana) and Andy. The Hughes are Allen and Albert. (Aren't they? I think they are.) Those who go in the correct order (Jay and Mark Duplass, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) seem comparatively fewer.

Then there are of course those where the comparative prominence of the directors dictates the order. Evan Goldberg is never going to jump ahead of Seth Rogen, even though both of Evan's names comes earlier in the alphabet than either of Seth's. And are you more likely to be interested to know that Nick Park directed Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, or Steve Box?

Was this something worth writing about? Who knows.

Monday, June 23, 2014

One masterpiece and two pieces of shit

It's an exaggeration to call American Splendor a masterpiece ... but not when compared to the two pieces of shit Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have made since then.

The most recent piece of shit being the Kristen Wiig vehicle Girl Most Likely, which I saw on Saturday night. 

The directing team may have made other pieces of shit since American Splendor came out in 2003, but I haven't seen their documentary Wanderlust, their feature The Extra Man or their HBO movie Cinema Verite. The middle of those three, at least, was reviewed unfavorably.

I can, however, vouch for the shittiness of both Girl Most Likely and their 2007 Scarlett Johansson vehicle The Nanny Diaries.

What I find profound about their filmography is not the disparity in quality between their best film and everything else, nor the quite obvious reality that people who are capable of making good films are also capable of making bad ones. It's the disparity in the ambitions of their movies that strikes me as particularly odd.

How different in purpose is a movie like American Splendor, a quirky indie dramedy that uses a great performance from Paul Giamatti to get inside the head of a unique American personality, and the tween-focused Nanny Diaries, in which a pre-selectivity Johansson awkwardly navigates icky sitcom-style scenarios related to her employment?

And then you've got Girl Most Likely, a dime-a-dozen indie comedy about the most common protagonist we seem to have at the movies these days: the late twentysomething woman who loses her job and her man in the opening ten minutes, causing her to spiral downward in comically dysfunctional ways. Even with the best efforts of Wiig, this is a particularly egregious entry in that genre.

Of course, to blame Berman and Pulcini for the direction of their careers entirely misses the point. One assumes they wanted to make other movies in the vein of American Splendor, but were limited to a smaller selection of movies studios actually deemed them suitable to make. Perhaps The Nanny Diaries and Girl Most Likely were the best of what was left over when other directors with more heat were all squared away on projects.

In considering the larger "one masterpiece and two pieces of shit" model, it's much more useful to blame a guy like Richard Kelly, who has been given free rein on a number of projects with similar ambitions to his original masterpiece, Donnie Darko. It's just that he's majorly screwed up those opportunities. Southland Tales and The Box were incredible misfires that were entirely of Kelly's own doing, though Southland Tales is just odd enough to be worth watching. 

Maybe the real ticket for Berman and Pulcini is to return to the world of documentaries from whence they came. I don't know what it is about documentaries, but they are almost never pieces of shit.

I'll tell you one reason I was glad to see Girl Most Likely, though: It had been since January 12th (Black Rock) that I'd given a movie I'd seen under 2 stars on Letterboxd, and since way back on November 22nd (Only God Forgives) that I'd handed out only a single star. I may prefer masterpieces, but I like my ratio of masterpieces to shit to be a little less lopsided.

This piece of shit was overdue. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Ain't nuthin' but a G rating

Warning: The following post contains spoilers about the movie Silent Running. 

Nuclear explosions. Murder. Suicide. The end of all plant life on Earth.

Just what your average six-year-old seeks out when they go to the movies.

The last thing I noticed as Silent Running finished playing on my Netflix last night was that screen they used to devote to displaying the film's rating, back in the old days. And I was surprised -- nay, shocked -- to note that the film had been rated G.

Not G for Grown-Up or G for Geriatric. G for General Audiences. You know, the rating that almost doesn't even exist anymore because it's so lame. The rating that has been almost entirely supplanted by PG, even in the case of animated movies.

In 1972, apparently, things were different. In 1972, General Audiences could go see a movie set in a dystopian future, in which our planet has been totally deforested, and the only remaining plants exist inside geodesic domes affixed to large space vessels. General Audiences could go see a movie where an order comes down from high command to launch these domes a safe distance from the space vessels, and then detonate them via nuclear blast, so the vessels could return to commercial use. General Audiences could go see a movie where a devoted botanist who's been caring for these plants kills the other three crew members on his ship, one by crushing his windpipe with a shovel, the other two by trapping them inside one of the other domes before it detonates. General Audiences could go see a movie where this devoted botanist eventually takes his own life by destroying the space vessel, before first launching the one remaining dome into space where it will be tended for the rest of eternity by a little worker robot named Dewey.

In other words, a really good movie with an astonishing performance by Bruce Dern, but a movie that is nonetheless not appropriate for a six-year-old.

Just to be clear, the MPAA's official explanation for the G rating is: "Nothing that would offend parents for viewing by children." Um, as a parent, I'll have to get back to you on Silent Running.

Those were simpler times, of course, and to be fair, nothing in Silent Running is truly graphic. The shovel strangulation scene, for example, is staged so awkwardly -- though I can't tell if it's poor technique or a specific attempt to avoid the appearance of graphic violence -- that it appears to be missing frames. The most graphic thing in the movie, in fact, is a nasty knee injury the devoted botanist gets, which bleeds all over the place. The blood is such a fake bright red, though, that it too is a few degrees removed from realism.

Still, I can hardly imagine the current MPAA board sitting there and deciding that no ratings restrictions whatsoever should be placed on this movie. The simple phrase "adult content" would be enough for this movie to get a PG, and likely a PG-13, in this day and age.

The fact that this movie is the inspiration for a mocking post should not be misconstrued. After it started slowly with an undeniable dose of dated cheese (the Joan Baez songs probably did that all by themselves), the movie became one of the more interesting science fiction films I've seen in a while, delivering excellently on sci-fi's first promise to use otherworldly elements to comment on very real problems in our present world. The nascent environmental movement certainly had a friend in Silent Running, I can tell you that.

I was also interested to see how many newer movies owe a debt to this movie, everything from A.I.: Artificial Intelligence to The Fountain to Sunshine to Moon. With 2001: A Space Odyssey effects guru Douglas Trumbull at the helm, the film also looks damn good for something made in the early 1970s.

I suppose if I had been a six-year-old in 1972, I would have wanted to see it -- though I should probably immediately revoke that contention and acknowledge that the same six-year-old who was bored by 2001 and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, as has recently been discussed, probably would have been bored by this as well.

And that gets at the other function, hinted at above, of a rating: It's not only protecting children from things they shouldn't see, it's advising parents of what they'll actually want to see.

Then again, it's called the movie "business" for a reason. If you can squeeze a few extra bucks out of parents for a movie that will bore their children, and their children aren't disturbed by scenes of implied windpipe-crushing, then go for it.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Australian Audient: The Rover

This is the latest in my 2014 monthly series Australian Audient, in which I watch one film each month made in Australia, by Australians, about Australians, then write about it here.

David Michod's 2010 film Animal Kingdom was among my favorite movies of that year, rounding out the bottom of my top 10. I've since wondered if I over-praised it because it was one of the final films I watched before closing off my list, but I'm pretty sure it was genuinely worthy. A gripping crime drama that never felt the need to soften its bleak view of humanity.

Michod's follow-up, The Rover, has that same bleak view of humanity, but with less of a sense of purpose. Which is half by design -- but also half as effective.

It's the apocalypse, and Eric (Guy Pearce) really wants his car back. Eric's a loner having a drink in a South Australia outback bar when a car goes careening out of control past the window. As this kind of thing is par for the course ten years after the collapse of civilization, Eric thinks nothing of it and goes back to his drink. He becomes involved, however, when three criminals (Scoot McNairy, David Field and Tawanda Manyimo) ditch the car they've just crashed in favor of Eric's. Realizing what has happened only with his car disappearing over the horizon, Eric jumps into the junked car they abandoned, which still has enough juice to be road-worthy ... and to follow in the direction they went. Without dropping a word about who he is or why he's so bent on getting the car back, Eric begins a single-minded pursuit that quickly comes to involve Reynolds (Robert Pattinson), the injured and simple-minded brother of one of the criminals. With Reynolds as his hostage, Eric is going to get that car back, come hell or high water.

When characters doggedly pursue the reacquisition of seemingly meaningless material items, it can be fodder for good comedy. See something like The Big Lebowski, where The Dude just wants his rug back. So it's inescapable that this potential absurdity hangs over the first section of The Rover, when it seems possible that the movie will still have a sense of humor, and that Eric may want his car back for no other reason than that it's his car, dammit, and no one takes his property from him. When Eric suddenly shoots an apparently semi-innocent bystander, however, it quickly becomes clear that this is not just a mission of pride. There's something in that car that is enough to kill for.

The intrigue about what it is, however, has neither an ability to sustain long-term viewer interest, nor a very satisfying payoff -- even if it's not clear that the payoff is supposed to be satisfying in a traditional sense. The movie moves from a space of clever minimalism, in which Eric shows a resourcefulness in pursuing his goal that is almost played for laughs, to something a lot more ponderous and pessimistic. As the movie starts to resemble more of a tragedy that despairs about the degeneracy of human beings in modern times, and feels more like a traditional crime movie-cum-western, it also loses the distinctiveness of those opening scenes. Eventually it takes on the tone of grimness for grimness' sake.

One of the reasons it feels less distinctive than, say, Animal Kingdom is that post-apocalypse is not an especially fresh setting for a movie, either in cinema at large or in Australian filmmaking. Mad Max and its sequels gave worldwide audiences a vision of Australia as a barren wasteland of junk and deranged lunatics, and a number of films over the years have come along to bolster that vision. It's an idiom that Aussie director John Hillcoat has been working in lately, with The Proposition being an Australian-set version of that (albeit taking place in the past rather than the future), and The Road being a version of that set in -- well, wherever. The fact that Michod is moving into Hillcoat's territory makes the film seem yet a little less original. Even though it's still a very spare film with nothing like your typical idea of Hollywood flourish, The Rover is a bit lesser for being as high concept as it is, for its yearning to be part of a genre that's currently overpopulated.

Surprisingly, it's an American -- or, a Brit playing an American -- who makes the biggest impact here. Although Pearce is doing quality work and has some very strong moments, it's Robert Pattinson's Reynolds who really steals the show -- and eventually accounts for the last bits of the film's sense of humor. Ever interested in putting more and more distance between himself and Edward Cullen, Pattinson not only essays a Southern accent, but also the mannerisms of a man child so dimwitted that he's only a few degrees north of mental retardation. This kind of Acting with a capital A can sometimes reek of effort, but Pattinson gives it a good name, and submits the film's most effective performance. The actual American present here, McNairy as his brother, also creates an impression in a more limited role.

The Rover is not what you would call a disappointment, exactly, as it does have moments of profundity and an eerie kind of beauty. It's just burdened by the expectations that come with a movie like Animal Kingdom, and the farther it strays from what that movie does right, the less it seems like a step in the right direction for its promising director.


July? I think it will be Alex Proyas' Garage Days. Really this time!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The longest interval

If you'd asked me last week what was my oldest movie that I'd seen only once, I would have had an easy answer for you.

Now, I'd have to stop and think about it.

You'll note I said "my oldest" rather than "the oldest" in order to steer you clear of movies like The Great Train Robbery, which I have indeed seen only once. And instead steer you toward the movie I saw longest ago, only that one time -- which wouldn't have been quite so easy to phrase as an elegant question.

That movie had been Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which I saw in the theater in 1979 and only just revisited this past Sunday night. I wish it had been a summer tentpole, rather than a holiday release, because then it could have been a true 35 years since I'd seen it. Instead, it's just 34 and 1/2.

But yes, that pretty definitely constitutes the longest interval between viewings of the same movie in my lifetime.

There are only three or four movies I can really be sure I saw in the 1970s at all. Actually, only two for 100% certain. I was born in October of 1973, and the first movie I saw in the theater -- or at least, that's what I've been telling myself all these years -- was Star Wars in 1977. The Rescuers came out a month after that, and I know I saw that in the theater, but I also believe I've seen it again since then -- and I may very well have seen it on a re-release. The Black Hole came out at the very end of 1979, two weeks after Star Trek, but I know I've seen that again because it was a movie my friend owned on Betamax, impressing us all greatly. And then there were any number of older Disney movies I may have seen in the 70s, which would have all been on re-releases.

I know I haven't seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture a second time, because I could barely stand to watch it the first time.

I went in expecting something like Star Wars, and I'm sure that's why my parents took me to it. Instead, it made up half of a 1-2 punch of sci-fi boredom with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which my parents also rolled the dice on sometime around then.

I now love 2001. Star Trek? Not so much.

It remains a miracle that this series ended up continuing -- and in fact, is still going today. Credit is due entirely to the superlative Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which I have now confirmed can be considered the most influential sequel in the history of the movies. What other sequel took an otherwise moribund franchise and more or less directly spurred into existence ten additional movies?

As with my recent discussion of finally re-watching Superman for the first time in decades, in which I promised to catch up with Star Trek next, there were a lot of things I forgot about the first Star Trek movie. One of them was not how boring it was. If I told you that this was the most boring movie ever made, it would only be a slight exaggeration.

How boring? How about the fact that there isn't a single phaser in this movie, set for stun or otherwise? How about the fact that not a single person throws a single punch or kick? How about the fact that dozens of minutes are spent on just flying the Enterprise toward a giant electrical phenomenon in space?

It's clear that how to pace a modern science fiction movie eluded director Robert Wise and his crew, but that might not be such a surprise, even with Star Wars there to provide a perfect template. After all, this is the same Robert Wise who directed my dad's favorite movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 28 years earlier in 1951. He wasn't exactly some young turk trying to prove himself, though I should also say he wasn't over the hill either -- he was only 64. But he may not have been exactly the right guy for the job, considering that this movie isn't even half as exciting as The Day the Earth Stood Still -- a movie that actually celebrates inertia in its very title.

In fact, the movie is so boring that it was an exceptionally poor decision of mine to try to tackle it after 9 p.m. on a Sunday night, when I'd imbibed three to four glasses of alcohol over a leisurely Sunday lunch. I recovered from that in order to do all my bedtime duties and even cook dinner, but I couldn't recover from that and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I could think of plenty of other ways to tell you how boring it is, but I'd only be repeating myself.

However, I do want to tell you some other things that I learned/remembered about the movie:

1) How much more than three years before Star Trek II does this movie seem? The actors look like they are ten years younger than in Star Trek II. Nichelle Nichols, for one, seems like a leftover from the late 1960s with her dated hairdo. Only three years later she has already become somewhat grandmotherly. The uniforms are entirely different than the red uniforms that I've gotten accustomed to from my ten or so viewings of Wrath of Khan. It goes to show you how much they tried to change for the second movie -- while, curiously, still keeping things fairly modest in terms of traditional action.

2) The dad from 7th Heaven is in this movie. That's right, Stephen Collins is Decker, the erstwhile captain of the Enterprise whose authority Admiral Kirk casually usurps. It's interesting how little is made of this blatantly political and frankly somewhat cowardly move by Kirk in order to regain control of a starship.

3) This movie has an exceptionally odd scene of the Enterprise teleporter technology failing. Ever wonder what happens when Scotty doesn't beam someone up correctly? I had entirely forgotten that this film offers an answer. Because the Enterprise is pressed into service to go confront the alien energy cloud before it is finished being refurbished, some systems don't work properly. Much to the chagrin of the short-lived science officer and one of his comrades, the teleporter is one of them. In what, as I said, is a very odd moment, you see a blurry image of the two figures half beaming in, and hear their screams. They then return to their point of origin, where someone grimly reports to Kirk, "What arrived didn't live very long." Bleak. Made me instantly think of that scene in Galaxy Quest where the alien warthog gets beamed up inside out, though that scene was of course played for laughs.

4) Almost none of the characters have anything to do in this movie, let alone have character arcs. Sulu's only purpose seems to be to ominously read out the increasing warp speeds. Uhura occasionally reports on something. Spock returns from a self-imposed return to Vulcan, but without much explanation for his change of heart, and seeming to be a bit miffed at the crew -- for reasons that may have been explained in the last episode of the TV show, but certainly aren't explained here. Bones wisecracks. Scotty offers some nice Scottish blarney. (Do Scots have blarney?) Chekhov ... was in this movie I think. Even Kirk doesn't do anything, not even answering for his naked ambition about getting control of a starship again. That's one big thing they correct in the sequel, giving Kirk an arc. His anxiety about getting older is front and center in that movie.

5) What this energy field actually turns out to be is sort of interesting, but it takes an hour and 45 minutes of treading water, of nobody shooting anyone with phasers, of nobody successfully beaming anywhere, and of only about ten seconds of Klingons at the beginning to get us there.

Like I said, the sheer existence of any other Star Trek movies is nothing short of miraculous.

Friday, June 13, 2014

One Leviathan two Leviathan three Leviathan

There are certain movie titles you expect to see over, and over, and over again.

In fact, a while ago I was even prepping a post where I'd compare those movies I'd seen with the same name, but different subject matter. I got as far as coming up with a list of titles, which included some pretty generic ones, such as Last Night and Mother. Titles that have a certain universality that make them logical candidates to be reused. One such title is being reused in a movie coming out later this year, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's The Interview. I saw a 1998 film called The Interview and did not see a 2007 film called just Interview.

Anyway, Leviathan would not seem to be one of those generic titles. Yet it reared its head, so to speak, for at least the third time at this year's Cannes film festival.

When I heard Filmspotting co-host Josh Larsen champion a 2012 documentary (with a 2013 theatrical release date) called Leviathan last year, the first thing I thought was "Wait, isn't that that Greg Evigan movie from 1989?" Greg Evigan being one of the two dads in My Two Dads. And Greg Evigan not actually being in the 1989 film Leviathan, but rather the similarly underwater-themed 1989 film DeepStar Six. But I digress.

Now the title Leviathan is coming up again on Filmspotting as a recommendation by guest host (and Chicago Tribune critic) Michael Phillips, who saw the film at Cannes, where the 2014 Russian film won an award for its screenplay.

The first one is about a deep sea creature, and therefore closest in spirit to the popularized usage of the term in the Old Testament and Moby Dick (which I read last year). The next is a doco about the fishing industry, done in the trademark style of director Lucien Castaing-Taylor (who also directed the similarly abstract film Sweetgrass). And the newest is a Russian sociopolitical drama about a man who struggles against the corrupt mayor who wants a piece of his land.

You can even throw in an obscure sci-fi French film named Leviathan, also from 2012, whose poster I came across while researching the topic.

Three Leviathans? Four Leviathans?

What interests me most about this is the thought process that goes into coming up with a title for a movie. I'd say you're ahead of the game if your title can do the following three things: 1) be memorable, 2) speak to whatever the movie is actually about, and 3) make viewers think of this movie and this movie only.

Leviathan is certainly a memorable title, and if the poster above is to be believed, it has something to do with the movie. What it doesn't do is belong exclusively to this film. With another Leviathan just having come out a year or two before, you are introducing the possibility of ambiguity every time you mention it. And that is a possibly unimportant, but nonetheless mildly negative reality.

I'm sure Greg Evigan would have handled things differently.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Mood Indigo is a bad movie to watch while eating tacos

We take our dinner in front of the television in my house.

We make no excuses. We make no apologies. It's just what we do.

We do have a practical rule, however, that confines us to English-language programming during dinner. When you're looking down at your plate to scoop up new bites of food, you're missing whatever's appearing on the screen for those two or three seconds. If you miss a little visual information, that tends to be okay -- or so we've determined. But if you miss reading the subtitles? You could be lost by the third bite.

That rule meets its toughest test when the viewing on tap for the evening is a foreign language film. We're both so tired these days, what with two kids under age four (who have both been sick for more than a week), that we just can't afford to spend dinnertime watching an entire half-hour comedy as an appetizer for the foreign film. If we don't start that movie close to 7:30 sharp, we ain't gonna finish it.

And so it was that we stretched our rule last night for Michel Gondry's Mood Indigo, which was due back at the library today. I'm most worried about my wife in situations like this, since she tends to more fastidiously assemble the bites on her fork, while I will just shove the food in the general direction of my face, as long as my eyes can stay fixed on the screen. But my wife is nearly fluent in the film's language, French, so I had only myself to worry about, and deemed I was up for the task. As long as most of the food made it in my cake hole, I'd be okay.

But I kind of forgot it was taco night. Or rather, it only came to be taco night about an hour before the movie, when my older son and I went down to the shops to fetch some beef mince.

Tacos require more assembly than most dishes a person could have for dinner, so the "shoving blindly toward the opening" approach wasn't going to work for me. Then complicate things by the fact that not only is it French, but the white subtitles often disappeared into the background, lacking the helpful little black borders around the letters that distinguish a good subtitling job. Then add the fact that this film's opening credits in particular are alive with activity, both visual information and rapid-fire French language dialogue, and you've got a ten-minute period that's even busier than the busiest sections of Amelie.

It's a miracle we made it through.

Glad we did, though, because those first ten minutes feature rows of typists typing on typewriters that pass by on conveyor belts, an eel sticking its head cheekily out a number of sink faucets in trying to escape the chef intent on cooking him, and a piano that makes cocktails, the type of which depends on the tune played.

This was a movie worth seeing every little bit of, and for the most part, we did.

And here are some other things I have to say about it ...

My rare head start

Haven't heard of Mood Indigo? Well, that doesn't surprise me. It hasn't even been released theatrically in the U.S. yet. That won't happen until July 18th.

So how am I seeing it here, on video -- and on video from the library?

Well, Mood Indigo was playing in cinemas here last October. I would have seen it, in fact, except for the fact that I was heavily focused on compiling my 2013 rankings, and I wanted to concentrate on movies people back in the U.S. were buzzing about. No one had even heard of Mood Indigo, so I worried that it had somehow just slipped through the cracks without even getting a U.S. release. A surprising fate for the director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to be sure, but nothing that would qualify as unprecedented.

Then I realized -- we're getting Mood Indigo before everyone else. Nearly a year before, in fact.

It's not common, but this is the known flip side of the discrepancy between U.S. and foreign release dates, which I usually think favors the U.S. Some films -- mainstream films -- get released in places like England and Australia first. Especially if, you know, they were made in England or Australia. Or in this case, France.

Two other films that came out last year in Oz but not until this year in the U.S. are British imports Filth (starring James McAvoy and based on a book by Irvine Welsh) and the Steve Coogan vehicle Alan Partridge (known here as Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa).

What do I love about all three of these films? They make easy adds to my 2014 list, since I still do design this list according to U.S. release dates.

I'm glad I waited on Mood Indigo, the only one of these three I felt a strong urge to see in the theater, because if I had seen Indigo last year, I would have felt compelled to count it in my 2013 list. Now that I've waited, I can rank it the same year as other American critics who see it for the first time this year.

And I also get to see it more than a month before most of the people reading this ... which is a rare feeling indeed, when half of last year's best picture nominees didn't even get released here until February.

Michel Gondry is back

Where had you gone, Michel Gondry?

The director of Eternal Sunshine seemed to be very much on track to continue dazzling indie audiences for the rest of his professional career, following up that 2004 hit with the only barely lesser film The Science of Sleep (2006). But when his next two films with Hollywood actors were the disappointing duo of Be Kind Rewind (2008) and The Green Hornet (2011), he seemed to have really lost his way.

But what concerned me most was when Gondry started making films I had to work to even hear about. The Green Hornet was only three years ago now, but those three years have featured a near return to obscurity for the Frenchman. It seemed that every time I turned around, I was hearing about a Gondry film that I should have been hearing more about. In 2012 he made some feature I had never heard of called The We and the I, and then in 2013 he followed it up with some documentary I had never heard of called Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? Their titles alone suggested to me that this represented a willful return to eccentric inaccessibility for a directed who felt burned by Hollywood. Since I don't even know what those movies are about, I'm going only on impressions here.

Well, I'm not going to tell you that Mood Indigo is some Hollywood popcorn film, but it does feel as though Gondry is getting back to what he was doing in Sunshine and Sleep. And that is most certainly a good thing.

Gondry's DIY, crafts-informed approach to visuals makes a major return here. If so-called "practical effects" are what we long to return to in our monster movies, you could say that Gondry's sets, props and artistic flourishes represent a kind of "practical artwork" that feels tactile and charming.

But what's truly memorable about Mood Indigo is the way Gondry almost entirely disregards the physics of this film's physical universe. Early on, characters master a dance craze that involve their legs curving and arcing like pieces of taut wire. An ice-skating scene features a character whose torso inexplicably elongates an additional 40 feet. Characters frequently lose track of gravity and go flying off either skyward or forward. This is to say nothing of the various inanimate objects that come to life, and animals that suddenly appear in speaking roles designed for humans.

Simply put, Gondry has rediscovered the joys of the impossible that disappeared from his post-Sleep Hollywood work. The result is an effort that does not live up to the impossibly high standards of Sunshine, and may not even be as good as Sleep, but is at least in the same conversation as both of them. It's whimsical with a capital W, but never crosses that fine line that might make it precious.

Nor is this to say that the movie is going where you think it will go, or that its tone will stay this upbeat. That's all I'll say.

The strange death of Boris Vian

Having thought she knew nothing about this movie going in, my wife quickly realized that it was based on a novel by French novelist Boris Vian. Not only had she read Vian, but she had actually read this particular novel, which was entitled L'Ecume des Jours (as is the movie in French -- literally, The Scum of the Days). The English title was Froth on the Daydream ... which I guess did not make a very good title for a movie. (But would make an excellent pairing with the title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

I soon found myself discovering more about, and becoming steadily more fascinated by, this man, Boris Vian.

It turns out that Boris Vian, who died in 1959, had had just one other of his works turned into a movie. My wife told me that it was I Spit On Your Grave, the brutal 1978 exploitation film in which a woman goes on a killing spree avenging her own gang rape.

Not really what I expected from a guy whose other book was being turned into something that seemed like a cross between Jean Jeunet, Terry Gilliam and David Cronenberg.

It turns out my wife was half right. I Spit On Your Graves was indeed the title of the novel, but it was made into a 1959 film with the title I Spit On Your Grave by Michel Gast, not the 1978 Meir Zarchi film. It would seem that the two films are related, but the plot synopsis for the 1959 film on IMDB dispels that notion: "Joe Grant, a light-skinned African-American, heads to a small Southern town to investigate the lynching death of his brother. He draws the attention of a gorgeous heiress whom he learns may have been involved in the killing."

Well, it could have been the famously reviled 1978 version for how little Vian thought of it. Having already fought with the producers about their interpretation of his work and asking to have his name removed, he could stand it no longer during a French screening of the completed film. A few minutes in he allegedly blurted out "These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!" He then collapsed from a massive coronary and died on the way to the hospital.

If that's not putting yourself into your art, I don't know what is.

Something tells me Vian would have looked more favorably on Mood Indigo ... though he probably wouldn't have lived to see it anyway, as he'd be 94.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Game of Thrones gets cinematic

We're finally caught up on Game of Thrones.

(No significant spoilers to follow.)

We've navigated the seas of not being able to find a working pirated copy, as well as internet service that was causing constant buffering, and chewed threw about four episodes in two nights, catching us up to the present date. And yes indeed, this season has finally "gotten good."

Not only that, but it's put it all out there in terms of budget.

One thing you can't help but notice if you are a Thrones fan is that it only pretends to be cinematic quality entertainment. I don't mean this as a slight against the show; I merely mean to put my finger on a certainty reality. Namely, if you are producing 10 full hours of programming per season, you simply can't spend as much money as you would on a two-hour movie of the same subject matter. Or, you can, but it has to be stretched out over those 10 hours.

This is why Thrones has always skimped on showing us the battles. I tended to especially notice in the first few seasons, that we would come in right after a battle had ended. Although some might consider battle sequences as an indispensable aspect of a fantasy TV show, the more perceptive of us -- as well as those actually in charge of making the show -- know that battle scenes can be a dime a dozen. We've all seen two armies run at each other and engage in a large skirmish composed entirely of close-combat fighting with swords and axes. It's a bit of a yawn at this point, frankly. Game of Thrones smartly figured out that the character development was what would keep us coming back to this show.

Which makes the occasional battle scene the show does give us all the more enthralling.

At the start of Sunday's episode, "The Watchers on the Wall," I finally noticed the name of a director I was familiar with: Neil Marshall. And even though I didn't like this movie, I immediately recognized Marshall as the director of the 2010 film Centurion, a Michael Fassbender vehicle involving, well, lots of Game of Thrones-type fantasy sword fighting. Except, with the actual sword fighting included.

I knew at that point that we were in for a treat.

Okay, any mild spoilers there may be are in the next paragraph, but I assure you, they are not really all that spoilery.

The battle between the wildlings and the knight's watch at Castle Black was a simply enthralling spectacle. At times I even got a bit of a Helm's Deep vibe from the thing, which is high praise, considering that the Helm's Deep sequence in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is a big part of what makes that my favorite Jackson Tolkien movie. That sense of trying to stave off an impossible onslaught from an undefeatable army gave the scene massive stakes, especially when the wildlings are actually inside the castle (how could this happen??), engaging in that aforementioned close combat. How could it have come to this?

And here we see one of the clear advantages of television over the movies. If we had been watching one two-hour movie called Game of Thrones, we wouldn't have a sense of how catastrophic it is that Castle Black has actually been penetrated and is at the risk of falling. But having seen men walking through its seemingly impregnable halls for close to four seasons now, we do indeed think of it as a fortress that's above the fray. In Sunday's episode, "the fray" made its presence felt on Castle Black.

It wasn't just the typical "this guy fights that guy until one of them falls" stuff that made Sunday's episode both so impressive, and such a departure from the usual Thrones template. What really drove the episode home for me was this one audacious shot by Marshall that takes us through the whole battle. It was not without digital aids, of course, but this one shot sweeps through nearly 360 degrees of the battle inside that courtyard, upstairs and downstairs and capturing all the little nooks and crannies where men are clashing. A chill went down my spine as I thought:

"Finally, Game of Thrones really feels like ... a movie."

Interestingly, the other Thrones episode this one reminded me of was "Blackwater" from season 2, the other time I could remember the show pulling out the stops and actually giving us a battle. That episode happens to have been directed by ... Neil Marshall.

Game of Thrones already gives me what television does best, which is to build up our investment in characters over a number of seasons, so their fates feel all the more personal to us. The season finale this Sunday, in fact, figures to place one beloved character's fate in the kind of peril it may require a deus ex machina to get out of. And this is a show that fundamentally despises the deus ex machina ... so I'm a bit on the edge of my seat here.

When it can also feel like a movie ... well, then it's nearly impossible to beat.

Monday, June 9, 2014

What you can fellate and what you can't fellate

I watched Spring Breakers for the third time last night.

Informally, I believe this is the soonest after its release date I've seen a movie three times since I saw Pulp Fiction four times in the theater. That would be -- gasp -- 20 years ago now.

It's not the soonest I've seen a movie for the third time after the first time I saw it -- that would be Ruby Sparks, which I saw for the third time in just under 14 months back in February. My Spring Breakers viewing last night would make the third time in just over 14 months, dating back to its theatrical run. However, Ruby Sparks actually came out about five months before I saw it, so there's a slight (through probably meaningless) distinction there.

Either way, it confirms something I already knew -- I really like this movie.

And whenever you rewatch movies you really like, you are bound to come at them from slightly new angles, and to think about slightly new things.

There will be some spoilers from here on out -- not only about Spring Breakers, but also about Killer Joe -- so beware.

If you understood the previous spoiler alert -- and the title of this post -- you know where I'm going with this. Yes, I focused on the scene where Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson force-feed James Franco the barrels of two guns.

At first it seems as though Franco is an unwitting victim to this incident of sexualized humiliation, and I feel pretty sure that Vanessa and Ashley were kind of playing it by ear on their actual intentions with him -- after all, there's a room full of money and guns at their finger tips, and we've already seen what they're willing to do for money. But then Franco kind of empowers himself in the scenario by actively beginning to fellate one of the barrels -- wrapping his lips around it and sucking it dry, as it were. Then the girls crack a smile and the tension is defused. Moments later, Alien tells the girls (I had to look up their actual character names, which are Candy and Brit) that they are his soul mates.

The movie got an R rating, despite this rather graphic scene.

Not all movies that feature a scene of enforced simulated fellatio are quite so lucky. Take William Friedkin's Killer Joe. Another scuzzy modern classic featuring white trash "gangster life," so to speak, Killer Joe has a lot to recommend it -- a captivating lead performance by Matthew McConaughey, terrific supporting performances and a hilarious sense of black humor. It also has a gonzo final scene, which includes -- famously -- a scene where McConaughey forces Gina Gershon to give a blow job to a chicken drumstick.

NC-17 on that one. The appeal of the rating was rejected, so instead of getting rid of the scene that everyone would be talking about, they just released it that way.

The initial instinct would be to make some comment about how the MPAA always cares more about sex than violence when issuing ratings, which was a main contention of Kirby Dick's film This Film Is Not Yet Rated. It's no surprise, this perspective would argue, that the scene with the gun caused them less objection. Then you might surmise that the chicken leg is somehow more off-putting, as it is made of organic material while the gun is just metal.

Of course, these surface-level readings would both be quite incorrect. Both are violent scenes, actually, but only Killer Joe features the scene where a) it is quite clearly not consensual, and b) it's a man committing an act of violence against a woman. That's the trump card ... as well it should be.

In doing a little research for this post I discovered that Samantha (Kim Cattrall) fellates a hookah pipe in Sex and the City 2, but that obviously makes it in as an R because a) it's fully voluntary, and b) Samantha is about the most ribald character ever committed to the big or small screen.

The one certified, definite no-no among fellatible objects: the penis. You can't have a discussion like this without referencing The Brown Bunny, Vincent Gallo's scandalous film in which Chloe Sevigny actually sucks his penis on camera. No fakery, no implied mouth-to-penis action -- an actual blow job. That one never had a chance at an R.

There must be some prominent examples I'm missing ... let me know about them in the comments.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Time travel conundrums for kids

As in any type of movie, certain themes in children's movies seem to show up regularly around the same time.

First it was movies where teams of zoo animals band together to go on great adventures (The Wild, Madagascar). Then it was movies about penguins (Happy Feet, Surf's Up). Then it was movies about competitive racing (Cars, Cars 2, Turbo). And I'm sure a dozen others thrown in there as well.

Now we seem to be living through an era where animated characters travel through time.

I watched Free Birds yesterday afternoon on Netflix while both my sons were sick, marking the second time in a month I've seen a movie about time travel aimed at children. The first was Mr. Peabody and Sherman back on Mother's Day. 

My younger son is only five months old, and was not even really watching the movie (though he was fussing so much that I admit to hoping all the pretty colors would hold his attention). Quite obviously, I don't expect him to understand what's going on in a movie like Free Birds. However, my older son will be four in August. I'd think he should be able to grapple with the basic concepts these movies present.

Time travel is not such an easy concept to understand -- and the conundrums that result from time travel even less so.

First I should probably answer the question I hear many of you out there asking right now, even if only silently in your heads: Free Birds is about time travel? That was something I didn't know either. But yes, it deals with a pair of turkeys who board a government-built time machine with the express intention of preventing turkey from being on the original Thanksgiving menu. And yes, the movie itself is a bit of a turkey. Sorry Free Birds, you just made that one too easy.

It was clear to me that my son had no idea what those turkeys were actually doing, just as he had no idea what the dog and his boy were doing in the far more competent Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

Both movies kind of make it seem like the characters travel through outer space to another place on Earth. Because there's no way that my nearly four-year-old looks at Ancient Egypt or the Italy of Leonardo da Vinci or a pilgrim settlement in 1621 Massachusetts and thinks of it as "the past."

It got me wondering when children even start to understand the concept of "the past," when they understand that there were people here hundreds and thousands of years before they were born. If even the concept of a year is a bit tricky, the concept of hundreds of years is far more so. Then try to explain that there's a machine you can use to travel back to times that have already happened ... well, noodle fried, I would say. Or, more likely, noodle simply disengaged. They just wouldn't get it.

Now throw in, as both movies do, two of the central tropes of time travel movies: 1) multiple incarnations of the same character appearing in the same place, and 2) a character effecting a change in the timeline by causing a chain of events for which he shouldn't have been present. If you can explain that to a four-year-old, you win a medal. Heck, if you can explain that to an eight-year-old, you win a medal.

I think the difficulty in determining how old a person has to be to grasp this stuff arises from the lack of a good corollary in my own childhood. They just didn't play around with time travel all that much when people my generation were young. Few movies at all dealt with the subject, and even fewer of those (probably none) were movies aimed at kids. Back to the Future was certainly the first time I was confronted with the conundrums of time travel, and I was 11 when I saw it. I didn't have any trouble understanding it at the time, and in fact, it blew my mind. My Keanu Reeves "Whoa" reaction is probably one of the reasons it still rests near the top of my all-time rankings (#2). 

Today, though, you could argue that popular entertainment is super-saturated with time travel. There might be as many as half a dozen movies a year in which characters travel through time. I'm wondering if the mere presence of this in the zeitgeist allows children to grasp it much sooner than they would have when I was young. You know, kind of like how children are born these days understanding how to use a smart phone.

What I can tell you for sure, though, is that my nearly four-year-old doesn't get it. He didn't ask me why there were two Mr. Peabodys and two Shermans on screen when were watching Mr. Peabody and Sherman, in part because he actually has a pretty good idea about theater etiquette for a kid his age. When four versions of the main turkey, Reggie, showed up in Free Birds, he just kind of looked at me and laughed. If I had been able to translate that laugh into words, those words would have been "That's silly." As in, "They're just breaking the rules and I have no idea why."

Of course, I can't make an argument about why movies aimed at my son should do a better job of presenting things he can understand without getting a bit introspective. The real crime here may be that we parents are trying to find cinematic babysitters for our children at younger and younger ages, and that these movies really aren't meant to be comprehended by a child who isn't even four. When I was my son's age, I had probably only just seen Star Wars, which was the first movie I ever saw. There simply wasn't a way for me to see every Pixar movie, ever Pixar knockoff and every knockoff of every Pixar knockoff at home on my very own TV.

Still ... time-traveling turkeys? Rips in the space-time continuum? Talking dogs running around Ancient Egypt?

Forgive me if I find myself longing for a princess, an evil queen and a bunch of singing dwarfs. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Whose Fault?

I was thrice subjected to the trailer for The Fault in Our Stars while watching Hell's Kitchen on Hulu the other night. I say "subjected" because to be honest, it seems a bit cloying to me. I guess that's inevitable in a movie about a teenage girl who has a terminal illness. (At least, I assume it's terminal, probably cancer.)

What I can't figure out is whose Fault it is.

Is this a Nicholas Sparks-type movie about young love that is almost always set against the backdrop of somebody dying, or in danger of dying? I'm thinking something like A Walk to Remember.

Or is it a more indie-focused approach to the topic of a young person stricken before his/her time? Something like 50/50?

Regardless of which type movie it is, I'm not likely to be very receptive to it, since I found both A Walk to Remember and 50/50 to be major disappointments.

I suppose it looks advertised a bit more like a Sparks movie, but the title is what gives me pause -- it's a bit hifalutin for a teenybopper movie. I suppose I also think of Shailene Woodley as someone with higher standards than Nicholas Sparks-type movies, though she was just in a very teen-oriented movie this year (Divergent).

And then because of Woodley's presence I am also thinking of The Spectacular Now ... which I also found disappointing. Did I mention I also don't really like The Descendants? Maybe Woodley just doesn't really work for me, even though I consider her an objectively talented actress. (Of course, if I consider her a good actress, that's a subjective position, not an objective one ... though I suppose what I really mean is that I feel like her talent is not debatable, making it objective.)

Jesus, where was I?

So yeah, I'm not going to be rushing out on this one. That's just as well considering the list of other movies I have to catch up with as a result of using my last theater trip on a movie (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) that had already been out for two months. Shall we?

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Edge of Tomorrow
Under the Skin
The Double

Yeah, my head is starting to ache.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Question your assumptions: The Graduate

It has occurred to me recently that there may classic movies I am "giving a pass."

In other words, I saw them once, a long time ago, and have since been according them a respect in my personal film rankings that is more akin to their general sense of widespread acclaim, than the specific love I may feel for them myself.

Evidence of this abounds, and it can be found at work in my Flickchart rankings. I have used the movie-dueling site to work toward a definitive ranking of all the movies I've ever seen, from first to worst. And while I know an exact ranking of these titles is an impossible task, in no small part because my feelings toward most movies are in a permanent state of flux, I do strive to make the rankings as precise as I can with the means at my disposal. In other words, I try to make them "feel right."

Inherent in the task of ranking movies you haven't seen in a while is that you have to assign them a certain value relative to the titles about which you can speak more authoritatively, either because you've seen them more often or because you've seen them more recently. In these valuations, some movies inevitably sink lower than they should; others artificially rise.

More often than not, the ones that artificially rise the most are the ones about which I felt positively, but about which I know others went gaga. These are usually what are considered the classics -- classics I might have liked a lot or even loved, but have seen only that single time, many years ago. I am likely to elevate these classics to where they're doing battle with some of my tested all-time favorites, the ones I've seen a half-dozen or more times. I think, "I know these movies are great, so I have arbitrarily decided to assign x amount of greatness to them."

So I think it's valuable, from time to time, to go through and revisit these movies to get a better sense for what you're really dealing with. And so it is that I bring you a new periodic series called Question Your Assumptions, where I take whatever opportunities I have to re-watch highly regarded movies that I may be artificially inflating to greater heights than they really deserve. I mean, I know I liked these movies quite a bit -- but should I really be ranking them among my favorites?

I may only be formally introducing this series with a banner now, but rewatching these movies is something I've been informally doing for a couple years now. Just off the top of my head, I think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Annie Hall and Chinatown as movies I have subjected to this questioning of assumptions, all within the past three or four years. In the case of Butch Cassidy, my affection was greater than I remembered. Chinatown, less. And Annie Hall about the same. In any case, it's worth knowing. And it's worth pointing out that these movies are all within my top 150 on Flickchart, so we're really talking gradations of greatness here.

And so it was that on Wednesday night, when my wife was out at a meeting and I had no idea what to watch, I reminded myself that Mike Nichols' The Graduate was streaming on Netflix, and had been for some time. The Graduate was a perfect candidate for this nascent series -- it's currently sitting at #111 on my Flickchart, and I've only seen it the one time, probably sometime in the mid-1990s.

Well, I must say, this is much more an odd duck of a movie than I'd remembered.

I'm not going to do anything like a thorough analysis of the film -- that's too high of a standard for me to live up to in the limited time I'm allotting myself to write these posts. More than anything, what I'll probably accomplish is to mention some things that struck me on a second viewing, particularly the things that ultimately impacted whether I'm ranking these movies too high, or in some cases, not high enough.

Why is The Graduate so odd? Well, I suppose you'd be surprised if I didn't tell you.

I had forgotten that Benjamin Braddock's love interest, Elaine Robinson, does not even come into the movie until it is more than half over. According to the traditional structure of any kind of romance, either comedy or drama, you would meet the protagonist's primary love interest early on in the movie. Whether or not it was revealed that this character was his (or her) love interest at the time is not important, because all you're trying to do is start building audience sympathy for this person. We need to be rooting for them early, even if we're not consciously aware of it.

What Nichols and Dustin Hoffman -- and, it should be said, Katherine Ross -- do so effectively here is to get us to love Elaine Robinson in just one scene. And it was a scene I had forgotten entirely. Eager to fulfill only the most minimal requirements of his date with Elaine, a date he was coerced into and one that flew in the face of his lover's explicitly stated desires, Benjamin takes Elaine to a strip club. He's sure that by behaving curtly toward her and humiliating her with his choice of venue, he will queer any feelings Elaine might have toward him and nip in the bud any possible discussion of a second date.

What Benjamin doesn't realize is how he will react to the human toll of this humiliation. As a go-go dancer with tassles on her nipples lowers these extensions closer and closer to Elaine's head, and Elaine looks at him with a sense of deep sorrow and shame over the way he's chosen to insult her, Benjamin loses all his former resolve. He meant to crush Elaine, in a way, but he didn't anticipate what it would feel like. "Do you dislike me for some reason Benjamin?" The question is so sad and plaintive that when Elaine flees the seedy joint, crying, he can think of no better way to prove that he's not that guy than to engage her in a deep and loving kiss. It's as though he's recognized all the out-sized cruelty of Elaine's mother in that one moment of humiliation to which he's an unwitting party. Impulsively, recklessly, he casts aside Mrs. Robinson's foreboding words and gives himself into the passion of the moment. From that time onward, we want these two to be together. (Incidentally, I couldn't help but think of Taxi Driver -- still just a twinkle in Martin Scorsese's eye at this time -- and Travis Bickle's oblivious attempt to take Cybill Shepherd on a date to a porn theater.)

The script of The Graduate is so economical in these scenes of establishing the budding romance between Benjamin and Elaine that it's the very next day that Mrs. Robinson forces Benjamin into admitting to Elaine that he slept with her mother -- and yet we feel the loss of their relationship as something tragic and epic. So firmly has the inevitability of their connection been established that it takes only a single date to get us to that point.

Thus continues a series of erratic decisions by Benjamin that probably began when he first called Mrs. Robinson from that hotel, and only get more erratic from here on out. Benjamin vows to marry Elaine, even though she officially doesn't ever want to speak to him again. Benjamin moves to Berkeley to effectively, albeit politely, stalk her. The stalking actually works, sort of, and Elaine starts to entertain the notion of marrying him. Until her father intervenes, nearly coming to blows with the man and seeming to finally put a permanent end to any possibility of Benjamin and Elaine. In almost the very next scene, Elaine is not only officially engaged to this other guy (Carl), but actually at the church ready to marry him. If there isn't something surreal about these sequence of events, I don't think I understand the definition of surreal.

From here, Benjamin begins a mad hunt at high speeds to find that church and prevent Elaine from marrying her rich Aryan dufus. There's real blood and passion and craziness in this man, and his chase memorably culminates in the scene at the church, banging that window, screaming that name, and -- against all odds -- actually whisking the bride away from the altar onto the back of a bus leaving town. Followed by that memorable closing shot, where the two compulsive young lovers have made their ecstatic choice, and then are quickly overcome with the sense of spiritual disappointment and ennui that comes with all the questions that lie ahead of them. The thrill of their hunt is almost immediately replaced with the anticlimax of achieving their goal.

Like I said, an odd duck of a movie indeed.

And also an incredibly funny one, especially in the first half, when Benjamin trips all over himself first avoiding Mrs. Robinson, and then ultimately giving in to her, but in a fashion made klutzy by his overwhelming sense of guilt and wrongdoing. Hoffman plays these scenes perfectly. Especially funny are his dalliances with the hotel clerk played by Buck Henry, who also wrote the movie.

(As another parenthetical aside as it relates to another classic movie -- are those flashes of Anne Bancroft's skin, where we are meant to get an idea of her nudity without actually seeing it, a direct homage to Pyscho?)

Clearly this is a seminal film full of quotable lines, iconic moments and memorable performances. It ushered in a new era of Hollywood and was one of the earliest of a type of awkward comedy that has blossomed in the years since. Hoffman also became kind of a template for stammering, stuttering nebbishes who would particularly take off in the films of Woody Allen.

But is it my seminal film full of quotable lines, iconic moments and memorable performances?

Yeah. Yeah I think it is.

I don't know that I like it more than I did the first time, but I think I appreciate it more as an extremely unconventional film that must have blown the minds of the people who saw it at the time. At the same time I find it scruffy and shaggy and imperfect in many ways.

I suppose if it had been a bit more "perfect" in the traditional ways one might think of a movie being perfect, it wouldn't have made a name for itself. It wouldn't be The Graduate.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Waking up in the middle of a disaster

I'm not sure if All is Lost is a great movie, but it's close enough that the difference may be academic. What I can state for certain is that it's a great performance by Robert Redford, one I feel compelled to unpack a little bit, to put my finger on why it's so great.

It's a man-in-a-can movie, and I watched it in a can on Saturday -- in other words, on a plane to and from Sydney. Yes indeedy, I spent only the day there, as an old friend of mine was passing through town for the weekend. He had a spare bed in his hotel room, but I had to return to Melbourne for parenting duties and the like. I'm glad I got to make the unlikely trip at all, given that I didn't even know he was in the country before Wednesday. It all came together and it was a great trip.

A much better trip than the one Robert Redford has in the southern Indian Ocean in All is Lost. We know from the start it's going to be bad, and not only from the portentous opening, which features a narrated piece of writing from the desperate sailor (known in the credits as "Our Man"), written at a time when he's already given up on the struggle we are about to witness. This also constitutes just about the only dialogue in the whole movie.

After this prologue, we see the ever-reliable title card that flashes us back to eight days in the past, when we come in on -- for the first time, but not nearly the last -- Robert Redford sleeping.

And this is why I like Redford's performance so much -- it's the way he wakes up.

He wakes up to the beginning of the calamity, when we see him from above sleeping on one of those couches below deck that also functions as mess hall seating -- or at least that's how a person who is not nautically inclined, such as myself, interpreted it. Enter stage right: WATER. Enough so that someone might have filled a keg with it, cut off the top like a can of beans, and given it a mighty slosh in the direction of the floor below his bed. Enough water that this spells major trouble.

See, Our Man's boat has hit a shipping container that fell off Captain Phillips' boat, and it's now got a gash the size of a basketball in its hull. Only Our Man doesn't realize this right away. First, he's got to wake up.

There's a lot of blinking, of course, because blinking is not only a necessary means of calibrating you to the waking world, but it's also an involuntary reaction to something rather amazing: an alarming quantity of water breaching your heretofore impregnable hull.

But Redford doesn't acknowledge the change in his circumstances merely through the blinking. It's more from that oh-so-subtle "Oh shit, I'm fucked" expression that dawns on his face. One that's informed by just coming up from three layers of slumber, and one that graces his visage at least a dozen more times in the movie.

That's the great thing about this performance: Almost never does it exceed the looks of wariness, the looks of recognition, the looks of "Okay, that didn't work, what now?" that appear in Redford's eyes. Only once or twice does he become demonstrative over his frustration.

I keep thinking about how different this movie would be if it had been made in a different era. This is not to scoff at those eras when no one trusted the audience to understand things that didn't appear in dialogue; it was exactly that, a different era. But the 1945 version of All is Lost would have been filled with Redford talking to himself, from start to finish, in a vaguely theatrical way.

When Redford does have occasion to speak -- the third day, I want to say it was -- his first attempt is swallowed up in a whisper, the false start of a voice hoarse from lack of use. He's still got water to lubricate his speech, but merely not talking for three days puts the vocal chords into a dormant state. And really, we don't know long he was alone even before he ran aground on the Maersk dropping.

But back to the issue of Our Man sleeping. Over an eight-day ordeal, he obviously has to sleep from time to time, regardless of how dire his circumstances may be. A number of his awakenings are captured on film, and it's a real talent as an actor to both believably sleep and believably awaken. (On the former front, he is once shown giving his hand a perfect mid-sleep muscle twitch). Awakening isn't just opening your eyes -- it's arriving at consciousness. And each arrival at consciousness is accompanied by an initial confusion about where he is, followed immediately by the sad realization that wherever he was in his dreams is a lot better than here. What makes each awakening worse is that it's often the result a new challenge confronting him -- a new leak, an oncoming storm, the narrow missing of an opportunity.

One would have thought Redford could have sleep-walked his way to an Oscar nomination, but none was forthcoming. Redford now has something good to talk about with Paul Giamatti the next time they cross paths, I guess.