Saturday, December 26, 2015

Never too late to fall in love with Tangled

It's a milestone Tangled post for me -- the tenth time I have tagged a post as Tangled-related in the nearly seven-year history of this blog. (Only five of those years matter, though, because Tangled didn't exist until November of 2010.) But it's the first one in just over a year, so I'm hoping you don't feel totally Tangled out.

I've averaged a viewing of Tangled for every year of its existence, as Christmas brought my fifth Tangled viewing, though my first since August of 2013. (Tangled was actually the backup plan; we were supposed to watch The Book of Life, but for an iTunes downloading mishap.)

It was the fourth viewing for my wife, though you wouldn't know it. She remembered it as only her second viewing. I don't know how well it speaks of Tangled that she forgot two entire viewings of it, but she made up for that fact by finally loving it.

Oh, she liked Tangled when I insisted she go to the theater to watch it in 2010. Her primary complaint was that she thought Rapunzel didn't have enough agency in the final scene, as she thought Rapunzel should have made the sacrificial gesture, not Eugene. (Rapunzel tried to make it, but Eugene out-sacrificed her.) I knew she carried that complaint with her, so I was kind of surprised that she agreed to a second viewing when I bought the BluRay the next spring (April 16th, to be exact), and then a third the December of the following year (the 22nd, to be exact). (Thank God for obsessive record keeping.)

I don't know which two viewings she didn't remember. I'd be inclined to say she forgot the two home viewings, because people typically remember having seen something in the theater, but wouldn't it be weird to not remember that you'd watched a movie at least once sitting on a couch in your own living room?

But it doesn't matter, because indeed, she does love it now. I could tell from the ways she laughed over the antics of Pascal, the lovable chameleon shown above, that this was a new level of Tangled commitment than I'd seen from her before. In fact, when my son's interest seemed to be flagging late in the second act, she told him he could go do something else if he didn't want to watch the movie. Not that we could turn off the movie, a movie that had primarily been chosen as a family option to kill the time that his younger brother was taking his nap. But rather that he could bugger off and let Mummy and Daddy finish it if he weren't going to stop squirming.

I asked her point blank later on if she were no longer troubled by the decisions made by the characters at the end, which gender got to be self-sufficient and all that. Having been bothered by this previously was also something she appears to have forgotten.

Me? For the fifth damn time I got choked up in the places in Tangled that usually choke me up. The fifth damn time. The parts that weren't choking me up were giving me goosebumps. Probably also for the fifth time.

Nice to know I'm not going to fall out of love with it anytime soon.

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Murrier Christmas

Thanks to Netflix, many people had A Very Murray Christmas this year.

But ours was even Murrier.

Taking the risk of its potential inferior quality in our hands, we saved the Netflix original holiday special A Very Murray Christmas for Christmas Eve. The next night, violating my own personal rule of no longer watching Christmas movies at any point after December 24th, we watched the Bill Murray vehicle Scrooged, which my wife had never seen and which I hadn't seen since it came out in 1988. (Twenty-seven years ago. Jesus.)

So our Christmas was definitely chock full of Murray. But was that a good thing?

Let's called it a mixed bag. The Murray jury is still out.

Mixed not because one was good and one was bad, but mixed because both were kind of bad ... but also kind of good.

Actually, only one moment from A Very Murray Christmas really stood out as being genuinely funny, and not half-funny and half-cringeworthy. That moment came when (spoiler alert) George Clooney, scheduled to appear as part of Murray's holiday variety show that gets ruined by a blizzard that shuts down New York City, does actually appear in a dream sequence. He provides an expected dose of glitz and glamour as he dances with Miley Cyrus, but he also does something very unexpected. In the next song, kind of a jazzy, R&B-inspired number where Murray is the lead vocalist, Clooney pops out from behind a Christmas tree and sings: "Santa Claus wants some lovin'. Santa Claus wants some lovin' - yow."

My wife and I might have been forcing tepid laughs earlier to try to get ourselves in the swing of this special, but we both erupted here. There was just something so absurd about a) the voice in which Clooney delivers this line, and b) the way he leans stiffly out from behind the tree, then back behind it once his lines are finished. The tuxedo makes it all the more wonderfully goofy. We loved this moment so much that it has already become a meme in our family in just over 24 hours since we watched it. It made the whole disappointing affair worthwhile.

Scrooged actually has more in common with A Very Murray Christmas than just being holiday-themed. In this movie Murray is also involved in the preparations for a live holiday special, though this is a version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol titled Scrooge that the IBC network advertises with a fire and brimstone campaign of Murray's character's choosing. The network president has to search his soul to go on the same path to redemption as Dickens' most famous character.

Scrooged dates really easily -- there was one joke about throwing ice water on somebody because they thought he was Richard Pryor. That apparently relates to a long-forgotten episode in which Pryor set himself on fire in 1980, which even then was eight years before the movie came out. I'd say that's probably typical of what passes for humor in this movie, though it does also get a lot broader than that. But I was surprised that the moments with heart still worked on me -- sort of.

I was interested to note something else the two pieces have in common -- they both feature a guy I had completely forgotten about until I saw him last night. One of the "special guests" for Murray's new Christmas special was David Johansen -- so not all that special, since I'd forgotten entirely about his existence until I recognized his name in the credits. Looking him up, I determined he was the singer who once went by the name Buster Poindexter, and a person I hadn't thought of in 15 years suddenly popped back into my consciousness. Lo and behold, Johansen also played the ghost of Christmas past in Scrooged -- you know, the one that drives the taxi cab -- hence probably explaining his presence in A Very Murray Christmas. (FOM -- Friend of Murray.)

If Christmas is not yet past for you, have a merry one.

Or I guess a Murray one, if you are prepared for some lumps of coal mixed in with your gifts.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The gateway drug to grown-up movies

Twenty fifteen has been a year of transition -- or at least, hoped-for transition -- for my five-year-old son, when it comes to the movies.

As he's gingerly taken the first few steps into live action, he's also recoiled in horror. Pan was obviously a mistake, but even the dog and penguin movie Oddball presented difficulties for him -- first in terms of boredom, then actual fear. Meanwhile, Inside Out and Hotel Transylvania 2 continued to prove his love for movies ... the right movies, that is. Taken in total, the year provided ample evidence that he wasn't ready for Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- superfluous evidence, as we had pretty much ruled it out even before any of the live-action mishaps of September.

Those were all theatrical screenings. Maybe we needed to try something at home instead. And maybe it needed to be a Christmas movie about a hilarious, oversized elf.

I got the inspiration to try Jon Favreau's Elf, which I consider to be in the holy triumvirate of Christmas movies (along with A Christmas Story and It's a Wonderful Life), maybe a month ago, though it could have been as long as a year ago. In fact, I remember people talking on Facebook last Christmas about showing Elf to their kids, and even asking them if age four was too young for it. At the time they told me probably not. I couldn't remember myself, because even though it's in my top 100 films of all time and I own it, it has shockingly been more than a decade since I've seen it. (I've probably seen parts since then, but not the whole thing.)

About a month ago I convinced my wife that "our son" (to use the phrase overused by Han and Leia) was ready for Elf, and that December 23rd would be the perfect time to do it. It'd be exciting for him because he could stay up past his bedtime to watch it out on the couch with Mummy and Daddy, he could eat that candy cane he'd been asking about all week, and if he didn't like it, all he had to do was go to bed. There would be no leaving the theater, no crying, no wasted money. Plus, staying up later on the 23rd would probably make him fall asleep earlier on the 24th, or so the thinking went. (We'll find out tonight for sure.)

Well, I'm pleased to say it was a total hit. Helped along by his father's encouraging laughter -- genuine laughter, but probably a tad more than I would have otherwise provided -- he instantly got how funny and endearing Will Ferrell was as the title character. And the rest pretty much went smoothly, with only a few hiccups that I'll get to in a minute.

Simply put, I was astonished by how well this movie is constructed to cater to the interests and attention spans of children. Even live-action movies that are more directly aimed at children -- such as Stuart Little and The Smurfs 2, which we've tried and sort of half-finished at home -- have a lot more dead spots, where a child's attention might wander. Not Elf. It is action-packed from the start, and never releases you from the grasp of its charm.

I did worry at the very start. The movie begins with the soft, folksy, almost intentionally boring rhythms of a Bob Newhart narration, and for a moment I thought a) the whole narrative structure they were going for might be over my son's head, and b) Newhart himself might turn him off. But he made it through that, which really is only about a minute of screen time before the action proper begins.

It certainly helps lay the groundwork that the entire first 20 minutes (or so) take place at the North Pole. This goes a long way toward telling a child "this movie is for you, and it exists in a world you love and are familiar with." So even when the action shifts (permanently, my son was sort of disappointed to eventually learn) to New York City, the memory of this being a North Pole adventure is still intact. Certain movies would have hurried to get us to New York, but Elf knows that showing us the world Buddy knows is key to us appreciating the world Buddy doesn't know, and seeing that world through his eyes.

Then of course there are the great touches of Buddy talking to the Rankin-Bass characters, the woodland creatures and the debonair snowman. My son hasn't seen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer -- the next oversight I must work to correct -- but he obviously knew that kind of thing was aimed at someone his age. When the narwhal surfaces to wish goodbye to Buddy, I leaped at the opportunity, knowing that there's a narwhal in one of my son's favorite shows, Octonauts. He didn't instantly remember the name of that mammal, but a smile crept across his face when I reminded him of it.

He laughed at Buddy's long walk south -- "That's a long way to walk!" -- and joined us in the laughter over Buddy obliviously getting hit by a taxi, trying the revolving doors for the first time and taking his first steps onto an escalator, which turn into that long lunge forward that makes the best use of Ferrell's elongated body. I couldn't help but think of my son in that scene, both literally, when he tried his first escalator (something my two-year-old is currently grappling with), and figuratively, as the whole movie of Elf was kind of like a metaphorical escalator for him.

No, I'm not entirely sure all the laughter he produced was involuntary, or if some of it was social laughter to show us that he got the same jokes we did. But it kept him engaged, and that was the important part.

I had a worry early on when there was talk of whether Santa was real or not. Even the possibility that Santa was not real was not something I wanted him to think about. Fortunately, this movie's position is that Santa is absolutely, 100% real, so the lack of belief in him is a characteristic ascribed only to those on the naughty list. There's also that part where Artie Lange plays the department store Santa, and his beard is pulled off, revealing an imposter. My son did have a few comments about that, but they did not lead to the conclusion that all the Santas he's seen in various shopping malls have been imposters. (Not one that he voiced, anyway.)

He did get bored at exactly one point, and it's funny how easy it would have been to predict. It's that scene when James Caan's boss, played by Michael Lerner, visits him in his office and makes threats about the security of his job if he doesn't meet a certain deadline. A totally necessary scene for advancing the plot that probably lasts about 90 seconds. Yet this was enough time for my son to ask how much time was remaining in the movie, and my wife to get irritated and tell him that if he wasn't enjoying it he could just go to sleep. This was the only time that I feared we wouldn't complete Elf, and the fear proved short-lived as Buddy returned front and center in the next scene.

This is an astonishingly tight script. At about the 50-minute mark, my wife told my son that there was an hour left, and I worried that if that were really true, we certainly might lose him. But not long after that the movie starts moving in high gear toward its conclusion and wraps up in a neat and tidy 90 minutes, bringing a tear to my eye in several spots, as it always does. The fact that there is zero fat in this script makes it even funnier that my son's primary complaint about the movie was that it was "a bit long."

And being up until 9:15 meant that there were no bedtime shenanigans. No sooner had the movie ended than he disappeared to the bedroom and was not heard from again. Leaving his parents free to provide ample evidence of there being no Santa, by building the "pirate fortress" that Santa is going to bring him later on tonight.

So my hope is that Elf is what was needed to get my son over the hump, to make the next movie with no animated characters just that much easier for him to swallow. With a distant eye on the long-term goal -- being absolutely sure he's ready to go to the movies with me for Star Wars: Episode VIII in May of 2017.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Compulsory captioning

I just watched (deep breath) A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence on Netflix, and for the first time I can remember, was not allowed to turn off the closed captioning.

If I wanted English subtitles for the Swedish dialogue at all -- though one might debate the need to understand any of the dialogue in a movie like this -- I also had to have those descriptions of the sounds on the soundtrack, almost like audio stage directions, along with them.

At first I thought this would bother me to no end. Especially with a movie that relies on its absurd and beautiful visuals as much as Roy Andersson's does, the last thing I needed was extraneous white text on the screen, telling me when there are the sounds of bicycle spokes spinning or birds chirping.

Then I came around on them.

I decided that especially in a movie comprised of absurd and poignant vignettes, which satirize the very idea of narrative filmmaking while also getting at something deeper and more profound, having audio stage directions kind of contributed to the whole mood.

If a king on horseback from four or five centuries earlier suddenly stops in a modern-day cafe while the rest of his soldiers march by outside to battle, there is something kind of wonderful about the movie telling you that the sound of horse hooves can be heard. It's essentially a diagram of the humor, the kind of thing you might provide for someone as a proof of concept.

And I suppose it did contribute to my own reflection on existence as well.

I've now seen two of the three films in Andersson's absurdist trilogy, having seen Songs from the Second Floor way back in 2001 when I was crossing the country to move to Los Angeles (seems like a lifetime ago). You the Living still eludes me. But I've decided these are definitely my kind of movies. They don't make a lick of narrative sense, and that's often a problem for me, but not when it isn't. I guess that's just more proof that each film must be taken on its own terms, and two similar films can strike us very differently depending on things like tone, shot composition and performance.

All of those are perfect in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, and the closed captioning gave me an interesting insight into how somebody thought this movie's subtle rhythms should be interpreted to someone who can't hear.

It's a movie for all your senses, really.

Monday, December 21, 2015

My Force Awakens thoughts - in my own voice

You need to read everything related to Star Wars: The Force Awakens with a spoiler awareness anyway, but I'll make it official: SPOILER WARNING. Anything and everything about the movie will be spoiled in this post.

There are such a mind-boggling number of things a person could discuss related to Star Wars: The Force Awakens that it leaves me daunted to even consider doing it here. However, leaving none of my thoughts on the movie on my blog also didn't sit well with me, and seems irresponsible to you, my loyal readers. (One of whom actually asked me if I'd be writing something about it.)

Fortunately, I've got a good compromise.

I recorded a podcast on Saturday night, the latest ReelGood podcast, all about it. We had been off since August until two weeks ago, in part because one of the guys was out of the country for two months, and then due to some scheduling conflicts once he returned. But we're back in full force, pun totally not intended. Two weeks ago we started up again with In the Heart of the Sea, and this time, we sunk our teeth into the seventh Star Wars movie, perhaps unsurprisingly at twice our normal length.

You can listen to it here.

However, on the off chance you don't want to or don't have time to listen to an hour-long podcast in the heart of Christmas season, I'll included a few little "featurettes" below on the movie. They don't come close to addressing my full thoughts, but they do give you two stand-alone blog post ideas that seeing the movie inspired me to think of.

My private pain

Given that I saw this movie at least 36 hours before most people I know, you can imagine how difficult it was to live with the knowledge that was burdening me: that the lovable rogue known as Han Solo, one of the most iconic characters in film history, is no more.

I wanted to tell someone. I had to tell someone. But I told no one. I lived with this pain privately.

And indeed it was pain. The death of Han Solo really ruined the end of the movie for me, not to mention parts of the next few days. Which is no comment on the way the movie ends, or the events of those days in my life. It's just a comment on how difficult it was to feel optimistic about anything when one of cinema's great characters has just gotten impaled by a lightsaber and fallen down one of Star Wars' trademark bottomless pits. At the hands of his own son, no less.

The first thing I could compare it to (SPOILER COMING ABOUT A REALLY OLD STAR TREK MOVIE) was the death of James T. Kirk. Kirk of course dies in Star Trek Generations, a movie that, my God, is now 21 years old. And though that was tragic, at least Kirk died saving the universe, pretty much literally. He fell heroically to his death, but not his instant death, allowing him a few dying words before the lights go out. Sad but satisfying.

Han Solo? He gets a touching final gesture, the soft caress of his son's cheek, but other than that, his death is pretty much immediate. It was heroic in its own right, I suppose, as it involved trying to save the soul of his son. I guess not everyone can die saving the universe.

It felt so funny walking around with this knowledge imprisoned in my breast, knowledge I couldn't share with almost anybody. It wasn't that I wanted to spoil the movie for other people, only that I wanted to seek some kind of personal counseling while talking it over with them. Being killed by your own son is crazy hardcore, even if that was a possibility that was underlying both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. If these new movies are going to be about the redemption of Kylo Ren -- and Adam Driver's conflicted performance certainly suggests they will be -- then having killed your father makes that a lot harder. To quote Seinfeld, that's a pretty big matzah ball.

I couldn't keep it in, but somehow I did. But now you all know, and that does make it a little bit better. We'll get through this ... together.

Stormtroopers are people too

My favorite new character was Finn, played by John Boyega. Having not been a huge fan of Attack the Block, I was surprised by just how much I liked him here. He was everything I wanted from a Star Wars character.

Though it did make me ponder the nature of the stormtrooper.

I think we don't yet know everything we are eventually going to know about the back story of this reformed stormtrooper, which might explain why he's actually pretty good with a lightsaber and why he has the heightened sense of empathy that seems to be entirely lacking from other stormtroopers. But if we are to take it on face value, that he is "just" a stromtrooper, it does make us reconsider everything we think we know about stormtroopers.

Even though stormtroopers are not actual clones, we've kind of always thought of them that way, haven't we? Even when we've heard their voices and they do sound like "regular guys," we haven't seen a single stormtrooper with his helmet off -- the only unhelmeted stormtroopers we've ever seen were Han and Luke posing as stormtroopers. They must have thought, wisely, that it would be too humanizing of these villainous pawns, many of whom are killed or otherwise disposed of in thoughtless fashion, if we saw what they really looked like. Saw just how much they are "regular guys."

But they certainly have a clone mentality. They do what they're told and they don't ask questions. They never doubt the morality of their orders and they never hesitate when asked to carry them out. In short, they are deserving of no mercy.

Until Finn, that is.

Finn -- whose "name" is some alphanumeric code beginning with FN -- first has an awakening about the evil nature of The First Order when he mourns the death of a fellow stormtrooper. Yeah, he's horrified about the killing of civilians on Jakku, but his actual moment of crisis relates to the death of a fellow stormtrooper on the battlfield. In that moment, and for the rest of the film, the guy is overloaded with empathy. And eventually, he also has a surplus of bravery and moral fortitude.

What I want to know is: Is any stormtrooper capable of this? Could any of these "drones" break rank and decide to rebel against the nefarious ways of their masters? And if so, why doesn't it happen more often? WHAT HAPPENED WITH FINN ON JAKKU?

The Star Wars movies have never shied away from coincidence in the telling of their stories, so I won't be all that surprised when it turns out that Finn is a "special" stormtrooper. Though so far, the idea that he might be Lando Calrissian's son seems a little far-fetched, and also possibly racist -- the only two black guys in the Star Wars universe don't need to be related to each other.

But wait ... there is another black guy in the Star Wars universe. Could he be ... Mace Windu's son? Or grandson? Or great great grandson?

Episode VIII comes out in May of 2017.

As for this one ... I'm seeing it again on Wednesday. That's as good a single-sentence summation of my thoughts on The Force Awakens as you're likely to get.

Friday, December 18, 2015

In 2016, tackling the silents

When I started these yearly month-by-month series back in 2010, the aim was to get more acquainted with types of movies that I don't automatically seek out as part of my daily movie-watching routine. I had specifically designed it to get more caught up on older films, but strayed from that goal throughout, as when I looked at Australian movies two years ago (all the movies in that series were released after 1980) or when I watched famous flops the year before that (most were from the last few decades).

In 2016, I'm going to go back farther -- and challenge myself a lot more -- than ever before.

This is definitely the one I've been putting off. I had this idea a year ago, but let myself off the hook by going for Oscar winners instead.

That's right, in 2016, I'm going silent.

In keeping with the play on words of Audient Auscars and Australian Audient, I'll call the series No Audio Audient. Catchy, eh?

I have not yet mapped out the movies I'm going to watch. In fact, I don't even have half of them, which tells you something about how much of a challenge I consider them to be (I've been procrastinating thinking about it, actually). But that's okay, because that gives you some space to recommend some, if you like. I've seen fewer than 20 silent films, so chances are, if you recommend it, I haven't yet seen it.

Look, I'm not some philistine. In fact, my objection to silent films, to the extent that it can be characterized as that, is more a matter of the ways I've chosen to compare apples to apples when deciding what qualifies as a film, and what does not.

Being otherwise willing to compare almost anything someone would consider a "film" to something else someone would consider a "film," I do have two rules that distinguish them:

1) Works of art created to be consumed on television, with no expectation of any kind of theatrical viewing. Those have failed to rise to the level of "film" for me on many occasions.

2) Those that do not meet a minimum length requirement.

Number 2 is what has given silent films a disadvantage as far as I'm concerned. If we want to go all the way back to the origins of the medium, you're talking about "films" that are two to three minutes long. I can't seriously watch a two- to three-minute movie and meaningfully compare it to what we would today consider a feature-length film.

But if I am going to be completely rigid in my thinking on this topic, it's going to disqualify a lot of films from before The Jazz Singer introduced us to sound. Films that are genuinely important for any serious student of film to see.

So I've decided that I can lower my minimum length requirement to 30 minutes for what constitutes a feature, just for the silents. (Today, a movie has to be at least 65 minutes for me to consider it a feature.) This will allow me to count a couple films that I already have targeted, which really did pass all existing litmus tests of the time for what constituted a film.

I'll get started in January with the feature that really helped guide me with that new length standard: Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. This is seminal Keaton viewing, but if I'm going to stick to my traditional length standards, I'd miss it. Keaton's The General qualifies for my standards, at 75 minutes, but Sherlock Jr. is a full half-hour shorter than that.

But hey -- if I consider this to kind of be like homework, at least I'll have a whole lot less of it!

Meet me back here in January, and watch Sherlock Jr. if you can.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Buffering without streaming

I should have guessed my viewing of That Sugar Film was doomed from the start.

First I succumbed to the allure of a 99-cent rental from iTunes, even though I was not that interested in the film, and have a number of other prominent documentaries I need to watch before I close off my rankings.

Then I kept pushing it back and pushing it back until yesterday, when it was set to expire within 40 hours, and my only chance to watch it would be in the window of time between the end of my meeting and the start of my midnight showing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

I was looking at something theatrical for that time slot, but I've been getting out to the theater a ton lately, and the only movie I really wanted to see -- Mississippi Grind -- started too late (9:40) for me to be sure I'd be able to get over to a different theater in time for the start of Star Wars. (We'll be getting a ton of new releases on Boxing Day, but for now there's pretty much of a drought -- especially with movies trying to avoid coming out around the same time as Star Wars.)

So I reluctantly brought my laptop along with me and spent that downtime in a Starbucks, where That Sugar Film would reluctantly be my appetizer for the main meal. Appropriate, at least, in that it was about food. Appropriate also in that I had just bought a bag of M&M's, a bag of Hershey's Miniatures, and two white Reese's Peanut Butter cups to accompany my bag of gummy snakes, which were all designed to give me diabetes to keep me awake during the midnight screening. I added a toffee nut latte to that excessive expected sugar intake and got to work.

At the time I started, it was just after 9, and I should have had plenty of time to finish a 100-minute movie before I had to leave for the theater. Except that I was hit by an almost immediate Sugar crash.

Extremely annoyingly, the movie started buffering. Which makes absolutely no sense, because it was not streaming.

So it was really "buffering," I guess, not actually buffering.

One of the great benefits of iTunes is supposed to be that once you've downloaded the movie, you can watch it anywhere without interruption. That file exists completely on your hard drive, and it should not be the least affected by ephemeral environmental factors like a poor wi-fi signal.

Yet here I was, watching the movie pause, then go on fast forward for 30 seconds to catch up, then have its video out of synch with its audio, then just come to a complete standstill.

If this had happened once, it would have been a glitch. When it happened the twelfth time, or thereabouts, and after two reboots of the PC as well, I basically had to give up. With more than an hour still remaining in the movie -- an hour I will struggle to squeeze in before the rental expires tonight around 9 p.m. And even if I do find the time on approximately four hours of sleep, there's nothing to say that these shenanigans won't repeat themselves.

It may just be this one file having an issue, and the other four movies I have downloaded from iTunes may not be similarly afflicted. But you better bet I wasn't ready to test one of the others, as that would start that movie's 24-hour expiration clock ticking.

Before I go writing a letter of complaint to Apple, I must acknowledge two things:

1) I am at least five, and probably more like ten, versions behind on my iTunes. This is because half the time I upgrade to the latest version, it seems to wipe out my library and I have to restore it from a backup. Easier now just not to upgrade.

2) My PC is, sadly, getting long in the tooth. Just lately it has started to show increasingly erratic behavior. It turns five years old in May.

So is this the beginning of the end for my PC? Certainly, the ability to play movies on iTunes is not an essential feature -- not the kind of thing that would total it, anyway. But this time of year, especially with four other movies already downloaded, I do feel like I rely pretty heavily on it. And I'm certainly not buying a new PC any time between now and January 14th.

So here's hoping That Sugar Film was just That Faulty File. And not my PC slipping into a permanent diabetic coma.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

I'm seeing Star Wars before you are

I've been giving Australian release dates a hard time lately.

Today, I praise them.

Because release dates are a day earlier in Australia than in the U.S. -- Thursday vs. Friday -- and because Australia is x number of hours ahead of the U.S. anyway -- between 16 and 19, depending on what coast you live on, or whether you live on a coast at all -- I can say with confidence, no matter who you are or when you read this:

I'm seeing Star Wars before you are.

It's 17 hours away as I type this. Less when you read it.

It'll be about 8 a.m. Wednesday on the east coast when my midnight screening starts, some 40 hours before even the most die-hard American fans figure out how to finagle their way into the earliest possible screening.

Miraculously, I go in almost completely untainted by excess familiarity with the images from this movie.

I watched the original teaser and then the second teaser, but I never watched the full-length trailer for The Force Awakens. It didn't appear before any films I saw in the theater, and now that I'm not planning to see any more films in the theater before tonight, I can say with certainty that I've avoided that entirely. I've also avoided it online, which was easier when the choice to click or not click was always mine.

So I will basically be awash in this new world, or in this revisitation of a world I know, just with fresh new permutations.

I will do you the courtesy of not posting my thoughts here. If there were ever a movie that you should go into with full reserves of optimism, it should be this one. In fact, I don't even know if the buzz is good or bad on it yet, except for what people who have seen it early -- like, actors in the movie and, I believe, the poster artist Drew Struzan -- have glowingly said about it. I'm not going to go to Metacritic now to check, but I believe if I did, I would not even see an existing Metascore for this movie. Good job Disney on really keeping the lid on this movie until it came out.

The thing that worries me the most now is that I don't know what kind of shape I'll be in come midnight tonight. I meant to go to bed early last night, but didn't. I meant to sleep a little later this morning, but couldn't. I'm going to load myself up on caffeine tonight, but I don't want to create a dire bathroom emergency that overtakes me about halfway through the running time.

In the end, though, I guess it's reasonable to assume that the inherent excitement of the experience, couple with a raucous crowd, will be enough to carry me through to the finish line.

I've got my Millennium Falcon shirt ready and my tickets already in my backpack. It's now -- hey -- it's now only 16 and a half hours away.

Look, I'm not trying to make you feel bad. You'll see Star Wars soon. Really you will.

But not as soon as me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Audient Auscars: Patton

This is the 12th in my 2015 series Audient Auscars, in which I'm making quick work of all remaining best picture winners I haven't seen.

We're into the decade I was born now with Patton, the 1970 best picture winner. Which is the only best picture winner from the seventies I hadn't seen.

Patton does not, however, fully feel like a seventies movie -- which may not be surprising, given that the sixties only just ended. It does show progressive signs of moving to the next level in terms of structure and presentation, and it ended up being one of my favorite movies in this challenge so far.

Patton is old-school in the sense that it has an intermission, and that -- on the surface -- it appears to glorify the exploits of a heroic general in World War II. Not too many years before this, a movie like this would have starred John Wayne and it would have been a straight-up jingoistic lovefest for a Great American Soldier. (Or maybe it wouldn't have -- I haven't seen a single John Wayne war movie, so I am only making assumptions about those movies that may not be supported by the evidence.) It also has a lot of mid-level shots of characters in closed shooting environments that were popular throughout the middle decades of last century.

But George Patton, as portrayed in this movie, is not portrayed just as a hero or just as a Great American Soldier -- though he may be both of those things. He's also presented as an irascible bastard whose ability to lead effectively may not be merely a function of his tactical strategies and how much he can motivate and intimidate his soldiers. Truly old-school ideas of military courage and leadership have it that you get the most out of your men by driving them hard and reminding them of the sacredness of their duty. Patton, on the other hand, anticipates the era of greater sensitivity and political correctness in which we now find ourselves, where the psychologies of soldiers must be coddled if you want to get them to perform -- and where fragile psychologies may alone excuse them from performing. It's interesting how many of Patton's fortunes turned on an incident in which he slapped a soldier in front of a room full of people, calling him a coward when the soldier said his nerves were frazzled from the explosions and other combat-related emotional trauma. I fully expected Patton to be the kind of movie in which Patton is considered to be in the right for this reaction, not punished for it.

In fact, I suppose part of me was expecting the same kind of over-the-top portrayal we saw from George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove six years earlier. The famous opening sequence, in which he gives a rousing speech in front of a backdrop consisting entirely of an American flag, certainly prepared me for that kind of over-the-top performance. (And also let me know the origins of that part in Homer's "Forget it Marge, it's Chinatown" speech that talks about the pile of goo that was your friend's face.) Surely, his casting in that movie was the type of thing that made him a candidate to play Patton in the first place. But while Kubrick's film is a comedy -- a very black comedy -- this is more a tragedy, as the very human-scaled Patton suffers from his failings to understand that he is not fighting battles in the centuries of antiquity, but in today's world, where soldiers' frazzled nerves are something he must contend with. He's a self-stylized man from another time, and says as much on numerous occasions. Oddly, this does not affect his success rate in the field almost at all, but it severely damages his knack for public relations, which end up being a more important factor in his ability to rise, or fail to rise, within a military structure governed as much by politics as battlefield results. And his social failings are ultimately one of the things that most characterize his legacy.

Scott is really good. He's actually understated more often than he is loud and manly, which gives texture to the kind of tragedy we see here. I mean, it's a happy tragedy -- we won World War II, and George Patton was a big part of that. But something is lost on a personal level, and Scott really makes us feel that. Interestingly, in the course of reading up on Patton I learned that Scott refused his Oscar win for this performance, which was apparently a protest of the dog-and-pony show that is the Oscars rather than any kind of response to this particular movie or its content.

I was surprised also by two other things: 1) the amount of time this film spends with the Nazis, showing us their perspective on the events unfolding, and 2) how funny it is at times -- often in scenes involving the internal discussions of the Nazis. Two more things I didn't expect from a movie that was frequently unexpected.

And it's a nice way to end this series. Or is it?

Yes, it's a nice way to end it ... but I don't think I'll end it after all. I've only got three best picture winners I haven't seen left -- that is, until they crown a new winner in late February. So I hereby intend to extend Audient Auscars into the first three months of 2016, after which I can then finish this series off properly by ranking all of the best picture winners in order -- all 89 of them, at that point.

But that won't stop me from starting a new monthly series in 2016. Stay tuned to The Audient for my reveal of my 2016 monthly series, sometime before Christmas. It'll leave you speechless. (That's a bit of a hint.)

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Not a good Christmas tree movie

I think of it as an informal tradition each year on the night we erect our Christmas tree to settle in for some nice viewing that enhances that holiday mood.

Last year, for example, I think it was the sweet little indie Happy Christmas, the Joe Swanberg movie that just plastered a big smile on my face.

Checking my records, it was not in fact Happy Christmas, which we did not watch until December 21st. That would have been more than a week after we got our tree. But Happy Christmas is the kind of movie you watch in this scenario, anyway.

Beasts of No Nation is, um, not.

Nor should it have ever been considered to be such. In fact, we pretty much knew it wouldn't be. But near the end of 2015, we have backed ourselves into a bit of a cinematic corner. We've front-loaded all the "easy" viewing, the stuff that seemed like a "fun" watch. Leaving us with a bunch of important documentaries and things like Beasts of No Nation, which, to its credit, earned Netflix a Golden Globe nomination (for Idris Elba) just a few days ago.

There was a point in the film's first 20 minutes when I said "You know what? A good movie is a good movie, and it doesn't matter if the subject matter is challenging. It can still give you that much sought-after 'special feeling,' simply because that's what the movies can do. They can transport you and give you the kind of cinema-affirming experience you seek in a Christmas tree movie, even if they are about youth soldiers killing each other in Africa, just because great cinema is great cinema, and great cinema rewards even when it punishes."

After those first 20 minutes, Beasts of No Nation punished, but it did not reward.

And boy did it punish.

I certainly wasn't expecting anything rosy from the guy who directed season 1 of True Detective, the brilliant Sin Nombre and the very good Jane Eyre, none of which are the least bit rosy, nor from the guy who cited creative differences in stepping away from the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King's It because he wanted to make it more depraved than the studio could stomach. Cary Fukunaga is not a rosy filmmaker.

But this?

To get a bit of an idea how much the rug is pulled out from under you in Beasts of No Nation, the first 20 minutes of this movie are actually funny. I laughed like six times. There was absurd humor and life-affirming humor and a sense that things were basically okay even in a part of the world where things were basically not okay.

Then things became really, totally, absolutely not okay, and stayed that way for the rest of the movie.

Neither do I want Cary Fukunaga to sugarcoat what's going on in Africa right now, what has been going on for years and what will be going on for years to come. But if you're going to give me a brutal look at feral soldier types indiscriminately spraying machine gun fire, indifferently executing some people, and then very consciously executing some other people in very barbaric ways, at least do it for less than two hours and 17 minutes. I get the gist of that kind of thing over a lean 95 minutes, thank you very much.

As ever, Fukunga is a technician of the highest order -- he shoots his own movies and makes everything look absolutely terrific. But if you thought the True Detective first season story was meandering and plodding and ultimately didn't go where you thought it was going to go, or worse, didn't seem to go anywhere at all, you should expect more of the same here. And you should expect it to frustrate you more than perhaps it did there.

And dammit, it's just not the thing to watch when you've spent the earlier part of the evening screwing trees into tree stands, hanging lights and ornaments and listening to the score for A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Unfortunately, Peanuts is not out here yet, and it's really not out yet on video.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Vance 1, Australian Release Dates 0

Every year, some of the most critically acclaimed releases are lost to my personal oblivion by coming out in Australia after the date I close my rankings.

This year, I've been able to rescue at least one of them.

Lenny Abrahamson's Room came out in the U.S. back on October 16th, but for some reason it hasn't been scheduled for release in Australia until the 28th of January. That's two weeks after I say sayonara to 2015 -- which only really means that I'll try to wait a couple months before watching another 2015 movie, and won't be able to rank that movie among my official rankings.

But I was able to get Room in before the deadline -- a month before the deadline -- by attending a critics screening last night.

Of course, it wasn't easy. In fact, in the end it was a pretty hard-fought victory that came perilously close to defeat.

First I had to get my editor at the website a list of these titles I'm otherwise going to miss, which includes things like The Hateful Eight and Spotlight, in the hopes that he'd think of me for the advanced screening of one of those films. He's already reviewed The Danish Girl, which doesn't come out until January 21st, so I know they're doing these screenings pretty far ahead of time. As luck would have it, he was already scheduled to go to a Room screening on December 10th. This was about December 3rd, and he said he'd see if he could get me in as well. (He always had the option of getting me in as his +1, though I didn't mention that to him at the time.)

So he got me in. But then the issue was that my wife was already scheduled to be out that night, a holiday dinner with some friends. I didn't want a case of poor timing to allow Room to slip through my fingers, so I got on to thinking about a babysitter.

Fortunately, my sister-in-law was free and was all too eager to spend the evening with her two nephews. She's a good egg.

But the timing was still going to be cutting it fine, as they say here. The screening started at 6:30, but it was back downtown -- and not only downtown, but south of the river. (Knowing you probably have no idea about Melbourne's geography, I'll just leave you to imagine how far away "south of the river" might be.) Leaving work at 5, I'd have to pick my kids up from school at 5:30 and do the hand-off with my sister-in-law in that half-hour window before I needed to leave at 6. That would ordinarily be plenty of time, but it's been a couple months since she babysat and I knew I needed to go over everything again so as to leave her feeling confident and to have the peace of mind I would need myself.

As it turned out, she got there a lot earlier than the 5:45 she had projected -- a full 20 minutes earlier. I wasn't even back with the kids yet, in fact. So this downshifted my otherwise stimulated nerves into a more relaxed state. And excess relaxation means a slower pace and a more casual approach to things in general.

So by the time I'd cooked up their dinner and reminded her of all the basics -- things I could have either handed off to her or done a lot quicker if I'd felt rushed -- I hadn't taken a bit of advantage of her early arrival. I still didn't make it out the door until 6, at which point I had what should have been sufficient time -- a half-hour to cover a distance that should take no more than 15 minutes.

When there's no traffic, that is.

Traffic is a consideration for us nowadays, because as of about six weeks ago, we have a car. I don't think I bothered to tell you about this on the blog -- I mean, what am I going to do, list my top five movies about people acquiring cars? (Actually, that's not bad.) But indeed, we inherited it from my generous father-in-law, who decided it would be better served with us than as a trade-in on his new car. This has opened up new worlds of possibilities for us, and means the days of awkwardly pushing strollers up the steps of trams are in the past.

The screening space for Room was far enough way that the car was the first option that occurred to me. I say "first" because riding my bike did also occur to me. But I ruled out the bike, not because it would be impractical in some way (in fact the trip there would be mostly downhill, and I frequently ride home much later at night than 8:30), but simply because I could rule it out. I have a car, the screening space has a parking lot (or "car park"), and dammit, adults who can drive should.

Of course, I didn't properly consider -- though I well and truly should have -- that Spencer Street would be an absolute nightmare at this time of night. I shouldn't have remembered that from driving, but I certainly should have remembered that from riding my bike, as I've had occasion to take this route on my bike -- during rush hour -- a half-dozen times. But the optimist in me won out, so I took off in our car.

That's when Spencer Street -- the most direct way to get to the theater, and a route I'd have to contend with one way or another, no matter what other way I tried to go -- happened.

Spencer Street killed me to such an extent that I knew drastic measures would be necessary. When it had taken me ten minutes to go something like four blocks, and I was still more than a mile away from the screening room, and it was 6:20, I made the command decision to ditch my car. You know, like the good old days, when the line of cars getting into a rock concert was at a total standstill, and your only option was to hoof it. Fortunately, that full fecklessness of youth was not necessary, as the side street I chose actually had an available parking space that seemed to be perfectly legal. So I did ditch that car, hoping that the single word I had texted to my editor as a joke about five minutes earlier -- "Stall" -- might actually be heeded.

The good news was that the first two-thirds of the trip would be downhill, and then it would flatten out. No uphill at all. The bad news was that it was still only ten minutes until the screening was set to start, it was a hot early summer day, and I had more than a mile to cover. Not a lot more than a mile, but more than a mile. (I just checked, and it turns out my estimate was pretty good -- it's 1.9 kilometers, which is about 1.2 miles.)

So with the assistance of gravity and the cooperation of some very fortuitous changings of traffic lights, I clomped down the long and slow incline of Spencer Street, past LaTrobe, past Lonsdale, past Bourke, Collins and Flinders, and to the point of crossing the river. (The Yarra River.) It was during this river crossing (by land, mind you) that another text came in from my editor. (Earlier he had joked "I'll call in a bomb threat" as a response to my text.) At least, I assumed it was from my editor, but it also could have been from my sister-in-law, either because she was having a problem with the kids (oh God) or because she couldn't find the backpack I'd asked her if I left on our bed, the other alternative being that I left it on top of the car when I drove off (OH GOD). And yes, I did just use more urgent capitalization to talk about a possible loss of a backpack than a possible problem with my kids. However, any attempt to properly check the text would slow me down fatally -- even though it was also possibly my editor telling me that there was a technical problem with the movie and not to hurry. So for the moment, it remained a mystery.

It was also at this point that I had time to consider that I am in much better physical shape than I thought I was. Yeah, I bike four or five days a week, but a surprise two-kilometer road race in shoes that weren't designed for it is an entirely different story.

Pretty soon I was rounding the bend on the right turn that took me into the street of the screening room. Miraculously, I was not dead and I was going to be only about five minutes late.

Which it turns out was not late at all, as my editor had, indeed, mentioned my impending arrival and gotten them to delay the start of the movie. I left a one-seat buffer between us so as to not overly offend him with any sweat smells I'd accumulated on my run, and to lessen the noise pollution of me catching my breath for the next five minutes.

Interestingly, this is not the first time I have shown up to this theater desperately out of breath after a mad dash to make it on time. If you recall, the same circumstances met me the first time I went, when I was on foot the whole way but overshot my destination and had to furiously backtrack through a labyrinth of back streets. At least I knew where I was going this time ... but also knew exactly how long it would take to get there. But then again, also knew that I could do it. And did.

When I got there and told my editor what had happened -- because to this point, he only knew I was running late -- he immediately told me I was mental, but in a way that also indicated he was oddly impressed.

And he dropped me off at my car afterwards, meaning at least it wasn't a trek I had to repeat -- uphill at that.

Thinking about it now, I do realize that there's something "mental" about leaving your car in a place where you're not 100% sure it won't get towed, running through traffic, and putting your 42-year-old heart to the kind of workout it doesn't usually get, just to be sure you can see a movie in time to rank it before an arbitrary deadline.

Well, what can I say: When it comes to movies, I'm mental.

Oh, and what did I think of Room? Was it worth all this effort? Check back in a couple days for my review linked on the right.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Late-season mid-level prestige cram session

You know how you vaguely hear about movies earlier in the year that are supposed to come out during awards season because they have vague ambitions toward earning awards, but eventually there become so many of them that sort of fit into that category that a bunch inevitably slip through the cracks?

Yeah, I caught up with two of those on Tuesday night.
Having an open window to see a couple movies but having nothing else that was a must-see, I decided to take care of a couple if-I-have-time-sees in a double feature at Cinema Nova in Carlton.

And they ended up having a lot more in common than just being mid-level prestige late-season releases.

The first was James Vanderbilt's Truth, which I describe as "James Vanderbilt's Truth" even though I have no idea who James Vanderbilt is. The reason not knowing the director surprised me in this case was because this has all the hallmarks of a full-level prestige movie, including starring a recent Oscar winner (Cate Blanchett) and a Hollywood legend (Robert Redford), plus a team of useful supporting players (Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss and Stacy Keach). It's of course (why of course? maybe you don't know it) the story of how 60 Minutes screwed up the story about George W. Bush's apparent period of being AWOL in the Texas Air National Guard, a story they aired two months before the 2004 election on the basis of a memorandum that had not been properly validated as legitimate. The scandal ended up taking down no less than Dan Rather (played somewhat indifferently by Redford). It's watchable but fairly artless, and a bit naive.

The second was Stephen Frears' The Program -- and yes, I do know Stephen Frears. This is a story of interest to me in that I have a long history of disliking Lance Armstrong (as discussed here). It is for all intents and purposes a Lance Armstrong biography, as it starts a decade before he was famous and takes us pretty much up to today. It has an excellent central performance from Ben Foster, and Chris O'Dowd as a more sympathetic journalist than any of those in Truth. It's also distinguished by an eye for technical details and visual panache that we might expect from a veteran like Frears. My only problem with The Program had nothing to do with the film itself, but rather, with my exhaustion level at the time I watched it. Through no fault of its own, I was in and out of sleep for around the last 30 minutes, leaving the whole experience as something of a blur (albeit a very positive blur).

Both films are about journalists who are trying to uncover lies and corruption and run the risk of libeling their subjects via unsubstantiated reporting. In the case of O'Dowd's David Walsh, it was more whispers and suggestions than outright accusations, though eventually he's able to support his suspicions with evidence. 60 Minutes goes more fully into attack mode, believing itself to be on solid ground that ultimately isn't. Both showcase moments of highs and lows in the field of journalism, a field in which I was once a full participant.

Neither movie probably gets there on its awards ambitions, though. In a lesser year -- not lesser compared to this year, but lesser in general -- Foster would have an outside shot at a nomination for playing Armstrong. But the film ultimately doesn't feel all that consequential, even though I really liked it.

What both movies do do is add to my running total of 2015 films. And with just more than a month left until I close my list, that's the real thing I'm trying to accomplish at this point of the year.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Return of the Jedi, now with 83% more Hayden Christensen!

I've seen Hayden Christensen inserted into the end of Return of the Jedi, so now I've seen everything.

And now I've also seen everything in terms of my six rewatches in my Year of Star Wars, leading up to The Force Awakens next week.

In truth, I was not as bothered by it as I expected to be. I was not even all that bothered by the insertion of "No!!" as Vader throws the Emperor down that shaft at the end. (Oops! Spoiler alert!) Even though in this post I fully expected to be. (And I just now realized I spelled "Anakin" wrong throughout that post. Who knew the name didn't have three N's?)

And in fact my wife -- who has been very critical of any recent changes to the movies, and even thought she didn't want to watch Jedi with me because the Ewoks were too "Jar Jar Binksy" -- actually offered a reasonable defense of it. She argued (as others probably have, but she's certainly never read their arguments) that Anakin returned to how he looked before he'd fallen from grace. And explaining the age discrepancy between the young Anakin and Obi-Wan and Yoda at the age they were when they died, the latter two never fell from grace, so they have nothing to "return" to.

I rejoined with my own unexpected justification of it. When that Anakin ghost used to be Sebastian Shaw -- the actor who plays the unmasked version of Vader at the end of Jedi -- he was dressed just like Obi-Wan, in traditional Jedi robes. But the thing is, Anakin never wore Jedi robes at the age he was when he died. So essentially, they fit him with some post-mortem afterlife Jedi robes that he never actually wore when he was alive. Seems a bit funny when you think about it.

What did bother me were some changes that have been around since the special editions in 1997, which I've already seen once if not twice. And both are in what I've now decided are my favorite portion of the movie, the part set on Tatooine.

One is, of course, the stupid song added to the first Jabba lair scene. Back in the day, Max Rebo's band never had a singer, but as of 1997, it now has two. Two shitty digital characters who look like cartoon characters more than the great practical-effect characters that surround them. This is a pretty typical complaint about the nature of Lucas' additions to the original trilogy, and Return of the Jedi in particular. However, I do have a more specific thing that bothered me about both characters -- their mouths. Adding to the cartoonish quality is that Lucas thought it would be funny (I guess) to focus on these characters' mouths. First it's the female singer, whose mouth is on the end of a long snout-like protrusion. Lucas has her lips come out toward us, almost like you would if you were thinking of having the movie in 3D -- which, to my knowledge, has not actually been done with these movies yet. Then the male singer does a similar thing in terms of jumping out at the camera, but he has just a regular (albeit big) mouth. So instead of protruding, it just opens up unusually wide. It's cartoon humor and it has no place in this scene -- especially since it indicates a kind of "good time" vibe that is not really what we're feeling in that moment.

Then I was also bothered by the mini mouth in the Sarlacc pit. This is not the plant from Little Shop of Horrors. This is the almighty Sarlacc, and the less we know about exactly how its victims are digested in its stomach over a thousand years, the more mysterious.

Still, I loved the Tatooine scenes because they reminded me of how weird the whole Jabba interlude is in the timeline of the Star Wars saga. Most of the rest of everything else is focused on this direct rebellion of the rebel alliance against the empire, but some of the key players in the rebellion have to take time out from that issue to go deal with a bunch of gangsters. Not only that, but they have to develop a plan to beat Jabba the Hutt that is nearly as intricate as any of the previous plans to steal Death Star plans and the like. Of course, the confidence with which Luke is brimming leaves you pretty certain that everyone you care about will make it out alive, but there are definitely some hairy moments. That confidence also gives you your first indication of how much Luke has developed as a Jedi in the three weeks? four weeks? two months? it has been since he fought Vader on Bespin. The only thing we know for sure about how long it's been is that a) they've had time enough to develop their plan, and b) Lando has had time enough to infiltrate Jabba's inner circle. If you're looking for a Star Wars spinoff movie, the story of Lando passing himself off as a disreputable bounty hunter type would be a good one.

The Jabba portion also has one of my single favorite touches in the whole saga: the Rancor keeper shedding a tear (or a whole cascade of tears) over the death of his beloved pet. It's one of the purest examples of the idea that everybody loves somebody, and they totally could have left the whole thing out, except that at that moment, somebody decide to remind everyone that we're all creatures with feelings and that, to anticipate R.E.M., "everybody hurts, sometimes."

I don't have a lot of specific takeaways to report on regarding Endor, but I did like those scenes too. And I decided that the Ewoks do not seem too Jar Jar Binksy for me. In fact, I thought it was kind of a stroke of brilliance that the gruff and macho Han Solo has to contend with a bunch of furry little creatures. His reactions to them are priceless. I also love when the Ewoks start to drive the walker while Chewbacca is still standing out of the cockpit, nearly knocking him off the top of the walker. His near stumble and quick grab to avoid falling make for a very humorous moment.

What I was most interested in, coming into this viewing, was how I would see Return of the Jedi in comparison to Empire Strikes Back, since you remember that my affection for Empire suffered a few hits back in October when I watched a copy of the original movie as it looked when it was released in 1980. Complicating any and all apples to apples comparisons, the Return of the Jedi I watched was, like Star Wars, the BluRay version, which indeed did look great. But if I am going to try to focus only on the stories that are told and the bits of character development, which seems like kind of an impossibility at this point, I did indeed find that I liked Jedi more than Empire as well this time. Jedi's got the Emperor and Jedi's got the terrific Tatooine stuff. It also felt less rushed to me, which was also my takeaway from watching Star Wars again. By comparison, Empire feels very rushed.

So now I've arrived at the last moment in the saga that occurs prior to the first moments we'll see in The Force Awakens next week. And not that I really needed this little six-movie refresher to be ready, but I'm glad I've done it -- it's been fun, even if containing some surprises that have shaken certain parts of my whole foundation for how I thought I viewed these movies. Perhaps that's a good thing. Or perhaps that's just a fluke, and next time I see Empire I'll love it again.

Incidentally, when I borrowed this BluRay pack from the library, it did also come with Empire and I did think of trying to watch it again. But it's the end of the year and I have plenty of 2015 movies to catch up on. Who's got time?

T-minus nine days and 11 hours until I see The Force Awakens.

Like I said, I'm ready.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Splashing the pot with talent

There's no doubt Joe Swanberg has come a long way since his mumblecore roots, but I'm not sure anyone realized he'd come quite this far.

Not in his filmmaking style or the subject matter that interests him. That's about the same as his first film, ten years ago. (Or so I would tell you if I'd actually seen that film, called Kissing on the Mouth.)

Rather, it's the fame of the actors chosen to execute only a slightly more polished version of that decade-old mumblecore.

Swanberg has collected a lot of really famous friends along the way, and in Digging for Fire, they all show up.

I'll take you through my thoughts as I watched the opening credits -- one by one with each set of credits that appeared together on the screen.

Jake Johnson

"Right, knew about that. He was in Swanberg's breakthrough movie, Drinking Buddies. And he's on the poster."

Rosemarie DeWitt

"Right, knew about that. She's in all these Duplassy type movies. And she's on the poster."

Jane Adams
Steve Berg
Mike Birbiglia

"All right, this is interesting. One of the cast members of Happiness, and a Marc Maron-style breakout comic. Don't know who Steve Berg is."

Orlando Bloom
Tom Bower
Sam Elliott

"ORLANDO BLOOM?? And Sam Elliott? Don't know who Tom Bower is."

Anna Kendrick
Brie Larson
Judith Light

"Now wait now. You're talking about two of the hottest commodities in Hollywood under 30. (One of whom was in Drinking Buddies, and also last year's Swanberg-directed Happy Christmas.) And ... Angela from Who's the Boss?!?"

Ron Livingston
Melanie Lynskey
Chris Messina

"Okay, now just get right out of town. Two solid indie character actors who have had their share of Hollywood crossover success (one of whom appeared in Drinking Buddies), plus a great Kiwi actress who should be more famous than she is (and was also in Happy Christmas)."

Kent Osborne
Sam Rockwell
Timothy Simons

"Okay, now it's starting to get a bit obscure except HOLY SHIT! Sam Rockwell?!?!?"

Jenny Slate
Jude Swanberg

"Another breakout comic, and of course the director's son. Who was also in Happy Christmas."

That's enough recognizable names and faces for three regular movies, let alone one Joe Swanberg movie.

Remember that part in Rounders when the etiquette of "splashing the pot" -- or more properly, not splashing the pot -- is discussed? It's considered bad form to throw your poker chips with such little regard for their landing spot that they either bowl over the existing sense of order of the other chips, or become indistinguishable as a separate bet that has not yet been assimilated into the pot. Well, here, Swanberg is just splashing his movie with talented people, tossing them almost indiscriminately at the production.

And though it's nice to see all those familiar faces, pretty much all of whom I have at least limited affection for, it does seem a bit like overkill. Elliott, Lynsky, Messina, Livingston, Light and Slate all have exactly one scene, but because they seem to demand something greater than just a throwaway role, each kind of seems to start on a bit of a character arc that of course never goes anywhere. I suppose that could be part of the design of a movie like this, which is meant to put across only the faintest of messages while concentrating more on providing us a slice of real life. But especially with someone like Slate, who is only the woman who DeWitt and Johnson are housesitting for and doesn't even get to say a single funny thing, it seems like a bit of a waste of talent.

Still, what I find really promising about this is how much it demonstrates the yearning of these actors to be in something they consider to have meaning. Some of them have got the meaning pretty well covered, appearing mostly in indies that are mostly pretty good, but then you take someone like Bloom, whose movies have grossed more than almost anyone else in history between the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and the two Tolkien trilogies, and who spends more time starring on the covers of tabloid newspapers these days than appearing in movies. (Or is it only in Australia where we get constant updates on the status of his relationship with Australian model Miranda Kerr?) He's desperate for an indie makeover, though I'd hardly say this qualifies as the start of it. (He's fine but unremarkable.)

In any case, at the very least, no one is doing this for the money. They probably each got paid a buck twenty-five to appear in Digging for Fire, with an invitation to pocket as many bagels from the craft services table as they care to.

All in all it's a nice and perceptive little movie, not quite reaching the heights of Happy Christmas but far clearing the low bar that (I thought) was set by Drinking Buddies. (And where is Olivia Wilde in this cast, anyway? She's the only person of any note that Swanberg has worked with who's missing.)

Now that I've seen three of Swanberg's films and have about 19 more to go, I can't decide if I'm more excited to look forward to his next project or back to the ones I haven't yet discovered (Hannah Takes the Stairs is a name I hear discussed with some regularity.) The path forward may be more studded with stars, but it's possible the path backward will feel more honest.

Either way, I like this director and look forward to seeing more of his movies ... whether he splashes them with talent, or just with truth.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Irving Thalberg wasn't an old man

Whenever I've heard the name "Irving Thalberg," I've imagined one of those ancient Hollywood guys who lived until he was 110 and continued casting votes for the most old-fashioned best picture nominees until the day he died. A studio system institution who meddled in projects decades longer than his input was actually wanted. That kind of guy.

As it turns out, Thalberg died when he was 37 years old, way back in 1936, when the Oscars were only seven years old.

And this is the reason I'm listening to Karina Longworth's podcast You Must Remember This.

I'm only 26 minutes into the first episode of the "new" season -- er, latest season (it's been out for three or four months now) -- which is also the first episode of the whole podcast I've ever listened to. But I can already tell that I need this podcast.

You see, my knowledge of Hollywood's classic era is a lot more limited than I'd like it to be. For five years now I've been doing annual viewing series designed to improve my overall knowledge of older films, and though I've gotten sidetracked on things like flops and Australian films, these series have been pretty helpful. But I've still been slow to develop a good overall understanding of the studio era and the star system. I'd like to be one of those guys who refers casually and confidently to MGM musicals, for example, and have a good idea what I mean by that.

As luck would have it, this year Longworth is tackling MGM in particular. This season is called "MGM Stories," and the first episode is devoted to Louis B. Mayer vs. the aforementioned Mr. Thalberg. I now know a ton more about both of these guys than I ever did before, like the fact that Mayer cut his teeth in my hometown of Boston and pawned all this belongings (including his wife's wedding ring) to get the New England screening rights to Birth of a Nation -- a decision that ultimately made his entire career.

It seems I may be a bit of an auditory learner. I'm a slow reader, always have been -- I find myself having to read paragraphs twice sometimes, because my mind started wandering halfway through. In fact, a good example of my failure to learn through non-fiction books about Hollywood history is the fact that I abandoned the widely acclaimed book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood after about a hundred pages. This had more to do with where I was in my life at the time, as I still remember a lot of what I did learn from that book, and if I were reading it today I surely would have continued. But the fact remains that it daunted me at the time, and I don't dive into these types of books very readily.

If a podcast can teach me this stuff, though, I could really be in business. I like how audio books kind of drive forward the pace of reading by refusing to let you put down the book and get sidetracked on something else. Unless you're actually going to pause the audio, the pace is going to proceed forward on its own. It's rare that I have to "read a paragraph twice," as it were, when I am listening to something.

And I can already tell that Longworth might be the one to be my auditory teacher. She has a great delivery that is, in many ways, purely functional -- she doesn't have a lot of verbal flourishes, nor does she seem to be performing the material. However, there is a definite charisma in her style that prevents you from losing focus, and it helps that the podcast also contains music and other background audio, in addition to other speakers reading quotes from the people she's talking about. In this episode, for example, someone playing Mayer delivers a number of his typically saucy quotes -- not actually impersonating him, probably, but just setting off the quote from Longworth's storytelling in a way that makes it more dynamic than if Longworth just read the quote herself.

Will I emerge from this season of You Must Remember This an expert on MGM? Probably not. But at this point I just want to build up my framework for understanding this powerful studio and the influence it had on Hollywood at a particular time. (Also learned that MGM is now Sony -- my, how things change.) It's having a mature framework for understanding that allows you more easily to take looses pieces -- i.e., the tidbits of information that we learn on a daily basis -- and assimilate them into the overall framework.

Without that mature framework, those loose pieces just remain scattered on the floor of your brain.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Sometimes, a 9-month delay is not a good thing

That's a joke, really. A nine-month delay is almost never a good thing.

But when that nine-month delay puts your release date "in the heart" of December, well then, that's a bit of a different story.

The conventional wisdom was that In the Heart of the Sea was being pushed back from March to December because it had a chance to factor into the Oscar talk. But maybe it's just because it wasn't all that good.

Ron Howard's new movie is not terrible, which I would argue describes all Ron Howard movies at a minimum. He's not always transcendent, though he does manage that on occasion. But rarely does he deliver a straight-up dud, either. And whatever your thoughts on movies like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Da Vinci Code, I wouldn't call them straight-up duds. (I have yet to see his most atypical film, the romantic comedy The Dilemma -- that could certainly be a dud.)

It's just ... kind of boring.

One part of that is an issue of structure. Because it's based on a true story and does differ from the famous novel that story ultimately inspired -- you may know it as Moby Dick -- it has different narrative rhythms, which tend to be less (slightly less) sensationalistic in nature. Without giving a ton away, though you could certainly look it up if you were inclined, let's just say that many of the big pyrotechnics come around the middle of the film, rather than at the end. We are especially accustomed to backloaded thrills in the Marvel era, when movies need to end with nothing less than a 39-minute action sequence that have nothing less 73 individual stories playing themselves out within that.

But the movie also just doesn't have much urgency. This particular story struggles to attain modern relevance, even in an era of economic challenges in which characters must make huge sacrifices to earn money for their families. It feels flat, even though you can tell the actors are trying really hard for it not to. No one's mailing this one in, but it just kind of flops about like a fish on the deck of a boat, gasping for breath.

Some shots are cool and some effects pop in 3D, but all in all, a bit of a snooze. (And not just because I literally fell asleep near the end.)

One interesting thing about the screening last night was that it was the first time in ages I can remember the playing of the film having a technical problem. It was actually the projection unit at fault, I believe, but the problem materialized in an interesting way I had never seen before.

It started with the trailer for the Will Smith movie Concussion. I noticed, to my surprise, that the trailer was entirely in pink and green hues. Not just that the images had pink and green highlights over ordinary colors, but that the entire images were comprised of blotchy pink and green. (I thought maybe I'd had a concussion when watching it.) Figuring it was just that one trailer, I rode it out.

When the second one was similarly afflicted, I grabbed my backpack and headed out to the lobby to notify the staff. The usher came in with me and told everyone that she'd get the manager and get it fixed. She did, but not until we'd watched about four minutes of In the Heart of the Sea under these, er, fishy circumstances. Fortunately, they started it over from the beginning.

It must have been something to do with the 3D, because the effect became markedly worse when you actually donned your glasses. Then it was like your eyes were being pelted by visual machine gun fire, making for a completely intolerable condition.

Then again, if you are seeing just blurry pink and green shapes, it doesn't really help if they have a third dimension.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Some silly notions of promotion

So I went to an advanced screening of The Night Before on Monday night (it doesn't come out here until Thursday), and was greeted in the lobby by three dudes with oversized heads.

The oversized heads were those of the three main characters in the movie, played by Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie.

It's not like oversized novelty heads are completely unheard of, but I feel like they're something that would have gone out in the 1990s. Or if they hadn't gone out, then at least they would be reserved for use with characters we know and love, like Darth Vader or Batman. Oversized heads of actors, only one of whom (Rogen) has what you would call a distinct look, seems like a funny choice indeed -- especially when it's anything but clear that this film will be a hit and give these characters an ongoing presence in popular culture. (It took in less than $9 million on its second weekend of release in the U.S., bringing the total to just over $24 million.)

Then the oversized heads were actually giving out t-shirts. At least, I assumed they were t-shirts. They looked smaller than your average t-shirts, and all I saw in the scrunched up balls of fabric in their regular-sized hands was the color white. But when I put up my hand to try to claim one, Oversized Anthony Mackie confused my intentions and came over to slap me five.

Then on each seat there was a postcard-sized advertisement for a Seth Rogen-inspired donut that had been created by a placed called Doughnut Time. Not just inspired, but actually named "The Seth Rogen." Mind you, this was not a card offering you a free "Seth Rogen donut" if you went to Doughnut Time -- it was just announcing its existence. As I said, there was one on every seat in the theater, even though probably only half of them were in use. What a waste of paper.

I will say, however, that I appreciated the fact that everyone got a complimentary ice cream upon entering. Typically it would be popcorn or maybe a soda, but I assume someone thought ice cream was more "stonery."

All in all, a promotional mixed bag.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The year of the fembot

Spoiler alert: If you don't want to know which 2015 movies might have female characters who are robots and which may not, you may want to stop reading now. However, to list actual movie titles is kind of the spoiler itself. I'll include the one that's the most spoilery toward the bottom. I've already spoiled Turbo Kid, I suppose ... if you care about that, which I argue you should not.

I suppose 1997 is the actual year of the fembot, as that's the year that Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery hit theaters. However, 2015 is shaping up as a close second.

I just saw my fourth 2015 movie last night in which a female character either becomes, or is revealed to be, a robot. And in three of those, one of the characters is in love with that female robot. (In the fourth and the last one I will reveal, the love is also there, but it's maternal.)

Turbo Kid (dir. Francois Simar, Anouk Whissell & Yoann-Karl Whissell)

The most recent robot on my viewing schedule appears in the post-apocalyptic 80s throwback/ exploitation movie Turbo Kid, which sounds as awesome as it ended up being not awesome. The character is Apple, a girl the title character finds in "the wasteland" and ends up reluctantly befriending/loving. The fact that she's a robot is not immediately revealed, but once it is, they play it up for about half a dozen false deaths. It grew very tiresome, just like this movie. I did think actress Laurence LeBoeuf (wait, that's a woman's name?) was probably the best part of the movie, though it took me a while to warm up to her character.

Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)

The female robot most central to the plot of the movie is, of course, in Ex Machina -- and it's really one of a handful of female robots. But none of them hold a candle to Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, who easily seduces (emotionally, if not physically) the young programmer summoned to the remote technical fortress of an internet billionaire/genius. Even knowing the character is an example of artificial intelligence, Caleb (Domhnall Glesson) still falls for her. I guess maybe I would too. The movie is chilling and excellently explores the host of existential issues related to such a character.

Tomorrowland (dir. Brad Bird)

One of the weirdest aspect of the total misfire Tomorrowland is not that the most compelling character is, again, a robot. It's not that a childhood version of the male character falls in love with her anyway. It's not even that some 50 years later, when that character is now played by George Clooney, he's still in love with her, though that is pretty weird. No, the weirdest thing is that he somehow still feels betrayed by her -- a robot who failed to be a compatible love interest for him -- and that she still has the appearance of a child, making his romantic feelings an example of thankfully unconsummated pedophilia. Yeah, someone didn't think this movie through, though this is hardly the only evidence of that fact. Still, as with Turbo Kid, the actress Raffey Cassidy as Athena is the most compelling reason to watch the movie.

Final spoiler warning.

Chappie (dir. Neill Blomkamp)

This is the one outlier on the list in the following two ways: It's both the one instance of maternal robot love, and the one instance where a character is actually turned into a robot. (Three ways, actually, if you consider that the initial relationship involves a human woman and a male robot.) How do you actually turn a flesh and blood creature into a robot? Chappie has the answer, of course: You download a character's consciousness and install it in a robot body once its human body has failed. That's what happens to Yolandi, a mother figure to the title character, at the very end of the movie after she's gunned down in the climactic battle. And even though Chappie has possibly the most far-fetched usage of fembot technology, it's almost my favorite -- Chappie and Ex Machina are currently very closely situated in my 2015 rankings.

Honorable mentions:

There are actually two 2015 movies that also feature what I would call "enhanced" female characters. Though they are definitely not robots, they each have bionic components that make them all the more lethal. The first is Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in Mad Max: Fury Road, who has a robotic hand replacing the half arm she has lost. Then there's Sophia Boutella as Gazelle in Kingsman: The Secret Service, whose blade legs not only help her run, they also help her slice and dice flesh. I suppose if you want to get technical, Gazelle should be "first" because Kingsman came out before Mad Max.

So is 2016 the year that fembots actually overthrow our society, perhaps led by Ava as implied at the end of Ex Machina?

I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Cinematic land mines

It's American Thanksgiving day as I write this, so I thought it was finally time to tell you about Creed.

"Finally" tell you about a movie I saw only four days ago, but which has been quivering around inside my body ever since then.

And this Thanksgiving -- which we celebrated last night with a modest plate of traditional Thanksgiving foods -- I want to give thanks for being reminded earlier in the week of cinematic land mines.

What, exactly, is a cinematic land mine? Well, like a real land mine, it's something you encounter without any foreknowledge that something is about to happen to you. And when it explodes, it may just blow your mind.

Creed was such a film. Until a week or two earlier, when I was invited to attend an advanced critic screening this past Monday night, I hadn't even been consciously aware that Rocky VII, as you could dismissively refer to it, was on this fall's release schedule. I've seen every Rocky movie except Rocky II, which can be explained by the fact that I started with Rocky III and only just saw the original two years ago, so this was likely something I was going to see eventually. But without the critic screening, I don't know that I even would have prioritized seeing it in the theater.

It wasn't until I actually got to the screening that I realized that Ryan Coogler, the director of Fruitvale Station, was reunited with his Fruitvale Station star (Michael B. Jordan) for this movie. I mean, I knew Jordan was the star, but I didn't know Coogler was the director. Fruitvale Station was my #11 movie of 2013, so my anticipation level went up a tick at that point.

But I couldn't have guessed how this movie would proceed to blow the roof off.

I'm not going to give you an itemized breakdown of what is so great about Creed, but I will direct you to my review, linked on the right, if you want to read my thoughts. I'll also say that even as the longest review I have yet written for ReelGood, it was only half of what I might want to say about this remarkable movie. It's so jam-packed with discussion-worthy topics that I felt like I needed to write a sequel to my review.

So today, I'll just be thankful of one of the things I love so much about watching movies: the element of surprise. Sometimes you literally have no idea what movie may just knock your socks off. Did I ever guess, in a million years, that Ruby Sparks would be my favorite movie of 2012? No I did not. Did that make me love it all the more? Yeah, I think it did.

No talk yet about whether Creed is my favorite this year, but I'll tell you that it's certainly in the discussion. And that's something I would have never been able to tell you when I walked innocently into that screening on Monday night.

When the movie was over, I applauded. That's right, I stood up and applauded, with tears glistening in my eyes.

So yes indeed, this Thanksgiving, I'm giving thanks that Creed blew my legs clean off my body. And the reminder that any movie can do that, at any time. As film fans, we live one day to the next, never knowing the next thing that is going to rock our worlds.