Friday, February 27, 2015

Villainous scenery chewing by 2014 Oscar winners

When Jean Dujardin won best actor for his performance in 2011's The Artist, he made a really funny video about the opportunities that were being presented to him now that he had been so anointed. It was a compilation of his auditions for villainous roles in various upcoming Hollywood blockbusters, among them Mission Impossible 5, Bridesmaids 2, We Bought a Zoo Too, and Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer 2. (From Larry Crowne 2: "Larry Crowne? More like Larry Drown!" To get the rest you have to watch.)

Well, it appears that this year's acting winners have gotten a head start on things.

In one of those serendipitous turns, I went to the movies the night after I watched the Oscars, and who did I see? Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore, masticating the sets and props like it was the last role they ever planned to take.

Now, I am certain of the colossal failure of Redmayne's effort, having seen an entire movie of it (Jupiter Ascending). In this movie, Redmayne is the Billy Corgan of bad villainous actors. You know, like the Smashing Pumpkins frontman, he has a soft voice and a LOUD voice. He talks in the soft voice -- accurately described by Josh Larsen of Filmspotting as sounding like he swallowed a carton cigarettes -- for most of the movie. It's the big, screaming voice -- used sparingly, but pictured above -- that people will be imitating when this movie shows up on bad movie double features for decades to come. It's Redmayne's natural fey quality whipped up into an hysterical hissy fit.

Moore's work remains to be seen, at least here in Australia, where Seventh Son has yet to be unleashed on the world. But the trailer, which I saw before Jupiter Ascending, promises wonderful things. We don't get to see the exact nature of her overacting, and I seriously doubt it can be as committed as Redmayne's. But we do see her breaking chains, summoning winged demons, issuing ominous commands and purring seductions toward corruption. It's going to be hammy alright.

More than a reminder that there's a fine line between great and awful, these roles really remind us that actors work. The idea that that golden bald man on the pedestal significantly changes the equation for them is rooted in falsehood.

Sure, they took the roles before they knew they would win Oscars, but they might as well take them afterward as well. After all, if you're going to parody the hand that feeds you and be selective, you might just end up like Jean Dujardin. Since that Oscar win, the only Hollywood movies in which Dujardin has actually appeared are The Wolf of Wall Street and The Monuments Men. Having still not seen Marty Scorsese's three-hour epic, I don't know the size of his role, but I can tell you that he probably wishes he was in even less of The Monuments Men than he was. (Dujardin has been in French movies, but those don't "count," right?)

So scream your brains out, Eddie Redmayne. The next Stephen Hawking may be a long time coming.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Involuntary deluxe

Look, I knew Jupiter Ascending was supposed to be terrible.

But it had been more than a month since I'd seen my first movie of 2015, and that was the likely more terrible The Wedding Ringer, which I was reviewing. I wanted to get my 2015 rankings truly off and running, and you can't call them "rankings" until you have at least two movies. Besides, no matter how bad the Wachowskis' latest movie was, it was definitely the kind of movie whose best chance at enjoyment would come via a big screen viewing.

Unfortunately, I had to settle for a bigger screen than I actually wanted.

Having missed the chance to see it when my itch really started last "discount Tuesday" because of my wife's work conflict, I made sure to schedule my screening for this "discount Tuesday" at Hoyts. I noted earlier in the day it was playing on two different screenings at 9:30 at the local theater, acknowledging with a bit of a grumble that neither of them would be the base discount price of $13. One was 3D, and one was labeled "Lux." Not wanting to invest in 3D for this particular movie, I figured I'd live with the Lux option.

Of course, once I reached the theater, I realized that I had confused Lux with a third type of upsell at this theater, which is called Xtreme Screen. What's Xtreme Screen? Well, it's a bigger screen. You know, the size screen that back in the olden days, theaters thought it was their obligation to provide us without any adjustment to the ticket price.

What's Lux? Yeah, that's the one where they bring you food at your seat and you can make use of the "private lounge" before the movie starts. You also get popcorn and a drink complimentary with your ticket. Which costs $30, even on a Tuesday. It's around $10 more than that on other days. If you just want the seat and no popcorn, it's still $24.

So I grumbled again and shifted gears and decided I pretty much had to buy the 3D ticket. I'd be saving around $8.

Except no. The other Jupiter Ascending was not only 3D, it was also Xtreme Screen. So instead of $13 or even $16, it was $19.50.

$19.50 to see a shitty movie on "discount night."

I believe this multiplex has a fourth kind of upsell in the form of IMAX. At least I didn't have to get involved in that.

So when it came down to it, if I wanted to watch Jupiter Ascending at the Hoyts in Melbourne Central, I had no choice but to watch it on one of these jumbo formats.

It occurred to me that it's kind of the functional equivalent of tiered ticket pricing, which is a concept that has been discussed about how to get people to watch smaller movies in the theater. The theory is, you charge the big bucks for the tentpole movies, the ones people just can't wait for video to watch. Then you let them see the indie movies and the arthouse movies for the comparatively reasonable price of somewhere between $6 and $10.

Those indie movies are never going to play in 3D, on Xtreme Screen or on IMAX ... though I suppose they could play on Lux. I mean, I'd probably enjoy a craft beer with Birdman.

I guess our only choice, if we want to fight something like this, is to just let a movie like Jupiter Ascending descend even further on its path to flophood by waiting for video. At least by giving the movie my $19.50, I'm eroding some infinitesimal part of the studios' unwillingness to invest in future movies based on original concepts.

That's something, anyway.

Of course, Jupiter Ascending ended up being just as bad as everyone says. It overloads on exposition at times it needs to show rather than tell, then leaves whole plot points unexplained. It has no good acting performances, and one truly terrible one (Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne). It builds such a flimsy world that you never feel the weight, size or distance of it. And it is unintentionally hilarious at points.

But it's still my #1 movie of 2015.

I mean, it's still better than The Wedding Ringer.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Blackening a white Oscars

Hey, my movie won best picture!

But I've talked enough about that. So instead, let's spend my recap of the 87th Academy Awards talking about the elephant in the room.

Oscar heard the uproar about too many white nominees this year, and boy did it respond. But the strength of the response itself smacked of overcompensation, and that might even be worse.

Naturally, there would be a slew of African-American presenters in any given year at the Oscars, since the Oscars are always PC conscious, and because African Americans make up a sizable percentage both of the country and of Hollywood. But this year? It got ridiculous as the evening wore on. Which would not be a bad thing at all, except that it was so obviously a reaction to accusations of racism that it must have made the presenters themselves feel like they were involved in some kind of sordid campaign to convince the world the Oscars are colorblind.

It wasn't just black actors who are having a moment who were presenters. It was even some we hadn't heard from in a number of years.

With a little help from the interwebs, here are the black actors who presented, performed or were in some way prominently referenced last night:

Oprah Winfrey
Kevin Hart
Eddie Murphy
Octavia Spencer
David Oyelowo
Kerry Washington
Zoe Saldana
Jennifer Hudson
Viola Davis
John Legend
Lupito N'yongo
Terrence Howard
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Idris Elba

And Dwayne Johnson also kind of counts.

That's a pretty significant effort to showcase black faces. Some of those folks are in their prime (Hart, Saldana, Washington, Ejiofor, Elba), but some are kind of on the back burner (Murphy, Howard, Davis). You can be sure that the show's producers turned to at least two or three of them merely because of the color of their skin -- and they had to know it. At least once they saw how the evening turned out.

But there was still something weird about how the show handled this apparent deference to its members of color. Take the moment with David Oyelowo. For starters, didn't Neil Patrick Harris actually refer to him as a nominee? That got things off to a bad enough start, since Oyelowo was famously snubbed for his portrayal of Martin Luther King in Selma. But then it turned out that he was also being used to deliver a joke about the poor quality of the remake of Annie, starring Quvenzhane Wallis and Jamie Foxx. When they could have chosen any of last year's poorly received films to be the punchline of this particular joke, they instead chose one with black actors in two of the central roles -- and then chose a black actor (a snubbed black actor at that) to deliver the punchline in order to take the sting out of it. Of course, he was supposedly chosen for being British -- not for being black.

Then what about the weird part where Harris told poor Octavia Spencer -- who had the sorry task of having to play along, all night long, with Harris' labored joke about predicting the winners -- that she couldn't leave her seat even for a snack? And lingered on that particular line for laughs? Like the husky Spencer doesn't have the ability to control her own eating habits? (Incidentally, it wasn't the only line directed at a husky black woman that appeared to be making fun of her weight -- though Harris did explain that his lame comparison of Oprah Winfrey to American Sniper's box office, which amounted to her being "half the room," had to do with her net worth, not her girth.)

The real sigh of relief must have come when Selma won one of the two Oscars for which it was nominated -- and Common and John Legend gave the best acceptance speech of the night. (Why they were accepting, when they didn't actually write the song, I have no idea.) Their performance of the song "Glory" brought the house down, and reduced the aforementioned Mr. Oyelowo among others to tears. With that kind of incendiary display just having occurred, it would have been a major disappointment to see the peppy "Everything is Awesome" take home the award, in the very next ten minutes of screen time no less. So it was certainly the most serendipitous turn of events that the Oscar voters actually had the good sense to award this song, one that has so much more weight to it than the Lego Movie song, which exists merely as satire. It almost makes you wonder if there wasn't someone backstage, engaging in a last-minute envelope switcheroo upon realizing just how necessary it was in that moment for "Glory" to win.

But I don't think anything like that happened, and you know why? At a core level, I don't think the Oscars are actually all that racist. There have actually been a veritable parade of black winners in recent years, from Jennifer Hudson to Mo'Nique to the aforementioned Ms. Spencer, not to mention the Oscars honoring 12 Years a Slave (and by extension, its black director, Steve McQueen) last year. That's been the weirdest thing about the uproar this year over the lack of black nominees, because it comes immediately following a year in which a righteous historical epic about racial inequality won the top award. Just because that type of movie is not going to be honored two years in a row does not make the Oscars racist.

Would it have been great to see Ava DuVernay be the first African-American woman nominated for best director for Selma? Sure it would have been. And if the nominations were chosen by a committee of old white men who got together to hash these things out -- and we sometimes discuss them as though they are -- then she surely would have been. Those dozen old white men would have been smart enough to know that it was a good opportunity to make such an historic nomination for DuVernay's achievement. (One I will finally be able to appreciate myself when I finally see Selma this weekend.)

But the Oscars are voted on by individuals, a whole lot of individuals, who come in all sizes, ages, packages, and yes, colors. They choose nominees from movies they've seen, by and large, and Selma didn't get its wide release until January in most parts of the U.S. They had their screeners, to be sure, but they also had to watch a bevy of other late releases.

The Oscars are at their most racist-seeming when they so obviously pander to their critics, as they did the other night. They are also pandering to those proud members of the Academy they believe they've offended ... and then making them help in the effort to save face.

The thing is, as the "Glory" victory proves, the Academy recognized it made some oversights this year, and compensated for them in the best way possible -- voting a great song to victory, and giving the first major motion picture about Martin Luther King at least one Oscar.

That's how you really show your character. Let's hope it was enough to make up for the first way they tried.

Monday, February 23, 2015

My highest Oscar stakes ... ever?

I haven't missed an Oscars since sometime in the late 1980s. But it's been a good ten years since I really felt the stakes of the contest.

Sure, every year I have my favorites, as well as those I really want to see shut out. But it's been since 1997 that my favorite film of the year actually had a legitimate chance of winning best picture. Titanic did that, but there also wasn't much drama to it. It was the foregonest of foregone conclusions.

In 2014, my favorite movie was Birdman (let's do away with the subtitle, even though it took more words to explain doing away with the subtitle than it would have to just type it). Birdman has an actual shot of winning best picture, and according to whom you ask, it may actually be the favorite. But it has no Titanic-sized lead, so it will be pretty exciting when some aging Hollywood luminary finally tears open that envelope.

A moment I'll be seeing probably about eight hours later than the rest of you will see it.

Yep, I'm in Australia, and yep, it's Monday, and yep, that means I go to work. The Oscars air both live here (at 12:30 p.m., the time I have to remind myself to get off Facebook) and then at some ungodly hour at night on replay (I think it's like 9:45, though only the broadcasters understand the thinking behind that time slot). Fortunately, I did remember to set up the recording last night (after a weekend away, when my brain was fried), so we should be able to settle in at a more reasonable 8 or 8:30, once our kids have finally given up for the night.

I said a few weeks ago that I may actually be rooting for Boyhood, Birdman's main competition, despite the fact Boyhood was only my #8 of the year, while Birdman was #1. I can't deny, though, that my tune has changed since then. I feel myself growing more excited the more I hear Birdman discussed as the potential winner, the more I see Birdman detractors starting to show sour grapes, which somehow seems like a confirmation of its impending victory. I mean, I won't be disappointed if Boyhood wins -- it's a great film whose win would say a lot for the Oscars' capacity to surprise us -- but I now know where my true rooting interests lie.

I don't know why I need the Academy or some other body to confirm my own tastes. Over the nearly 20 years I have been keeping track of my favorite movies of the year in list form, my #1 has only received a nomination for best picture five previous times: Titanic, Gosford Park, Lost in Translation, There Will Be Blood and 127 Hours. And that last probably only made it because of the expanded field of nominees. So I haven't had this type of alignment much, and I can honestly say I haven't needed it. If the Academy does not want to save a best picture slot for Ruby Sparks, that's their business. (Ha.)

But now when I'm faced with it, with the possibility of my own favorite film being feted as everyone's favorite film (so to speak), I am really relishing the possibility. Although critics should be confident in their pronouncements and must trust their own aesthetic sensibilities, we also want to be right. A conclusion we reached about a film before it was nominated for an Oscar is something we want to have validated, because it means, deep down, that we are actually good at our jobs. Or it might mean that, anyway.

So yeah, that's pretty high stakes indeed.

We will see in a couple hours whether I'm any good at mine.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

That smells stinkovich

Well it's official, I'm off on my 12-month journey to revisit the first six Star Wars movies. (I'd call them the only Star Wars movies, except that execrable piece of junk Star Wars: The Clone Wars actually got a theatrical release.)

Thanks to the Melbourne Public Library, which had a BluRay copy reserved for me last Wednesday when I showed up to pick it up, I watched Episode I - The Phantom Menace last Thursday night with more than two weeks to spare before my self-imposed end-of-February deadline.

The following disjointed collection of thoughts is how I feel about the movie now, nearly 16 years after I first saw it and probably 14 years since I last saw it. In upcoming installations of this series, I'll reflect on how the movies seem in comparison to each other while watching them during a relatively compacted time period ... though that obviously won't be possible after just the first one.

First, I must talk about Jar Jar Binks.

Over the years I have taken a contrarian's position on Mr. Binks. I have been so bored by the incredibly cliched perspective of hating George Lucas' most loathed creation, that I have become a Jar Jar Defender. That does not mean I like him, per se, but that I find him to be a piece of absurdist comedy rather than something actually obnoxious and loathsome. This perspective is divorced from the legitimate concerns about possible racial insensitivity in his depiction, which I think are not definitive enough to get stuck on. (Though I acknowledge their possible validity.)

One thing I'd forgotten about the movie is how many of Jar Jar's lines a friend of mine, who takes up a similar perspective on the character, and I used to quote. The fact that we could regularly crack each other up over idiotic lines of his brings a smile to my face. Anything that makes me feel that happy is something I view in a positive light, even if we're laughing at Jar Jar more than with him.

One of these is the line "That smells stinkovich," or probably "Dat smells stinkovich" if you want to cross that dangerous Ebonics line that Jar Jar is already flirting with. Of course, the word is not actually "stinkovich." If you look it up online, the imaginary word is apparently "stinkowiff," which makes more sense inasmuch as any of Jar Jar's jargon makes sense. I find it funnier, though, if the word has a random Russian suffix on it. So, "stinkovich" it is, and always shall be.

What else about this movie?

1) The Phantom Menace will always carry a certain cache as the only movie in which Darth Maul appears. It could be easily argued that Darth Maul is the most distinctive character of the prequel trilogy -- his main competition would be, I suppose, the aforementioned Mr. Binks. Qui-Gon Jinn (also only in this movie) might give him a run for this money if he didn't suffer from what one might call a "generic human Jedi" look. Anyway, he's definitely the coolest, and not just because he was the first one to bust out that two-sided lightsaber. (Interestingly, future Sith must have decided it was an inefficient weapon -- why else don't we see Darth Vader using one? Other than the fact that, you know, Lucas hadn't thought of it yet.) Oh Darth Maul, we hardly knew ye.

2) Jake Lloyd was not quite as bad as I remembered. There, I said it. He has been almost as much of a whipping boy as Jar Jar for, you know, general suckitude, so I thought it was worth saying that I found his performance non-terrible. Were you expecting a kid under the age of 10 to already project badassery? He's a little boy. Even evil masterminds were all once innocent little boys -- yes, probably even someone like Hitler. It's a point worth underscoring, especially in the context of the movies' six-episode arc, and Lloyd's performance effectively does that.

3) I was reminded of the moment I knew this didn't seem like one of our good old-fashioned Star Wars movies. It's when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are on Naboo, and they swim down to the Gungan city. I remember thinking "Water? There's no water in the Star Wars universe." Which of course there is, but having never seen anyone interact with water in these movies (other than the swamp on Dagobah), it stuck out like a sore thumb. The scene where they go through the planet core (also the source of some good Jar Jar quotes) just underscored the weirdness of water in the Star Wars universe. It made me wonder: Is a lightsaber waterproof?

4) Overall I guess I just kind of felt bored watching it. Maybe four times (twice previously in the theater, and once more on video) is just too many times to watch The Phantom Menace.

I'm sure I could write more, but a) do you really want it? and b) I started writing this nearly a week ago, and it's time to get the damn thing posted.

I'll be back here to discuss Episode II - Attack of the Clones sometime before the end of April.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Valentine's Days with Zoe Kazan

In the tradition of classic posts like "Father's Days with Richard Linklater," The Audient proudly presents "Valentine's Days with Zoe Kazan." We hope you enjoy it.

I don't know if it's her heart-shaped face or what, but we have spent each of our last two Valentine's Days with Zoe Kazan.

Last year I chose Valentine's Day as the time to expose my wife to my favorite movie of 2012, Ruby Sparks, which Kazan wrote and in which she stars. I might have been planning that particular viewing for a couple weeks, and made heart-shaped meatloaf to accompany it.

This year, Kazan's involvement in our Valentine's Day viewing was considerably more accidental. After I flamed out in an attempt to borrow romantic movies from the library -- I interpreted Anna Karenina as an appropriate choice, and am embarrassed I don't know more about the story -- I turned to good old iTunes as an option.

Actually, I'm lying a bit about the sequence of events. I didn't realize I'd flamed out on my choices (which also included Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and an inarguably romantic movie we'd both already seen, Moulin Rouge!) until after I'd already downloaded this week's 99 cent rental, which was on my list of movies to see in time for my 2014 rankings. And only after starting to download it did I recognize it as a good match for Valentine's Day (which is why Apple made it this week's 99 cent rental in the first place, I'm sure).

What If is one of about three different 2014 Zoe Kazan romantic comedies which, on their surface, might be easily confused for one another. In fact, if I'd seen any more than one of them I surely would have written a post about Kazan's ubiquitousness in 2014 indie romantic comedies. The others are The Pretty One (which I did see but did not like) and In Your Eyes (which is actually described as a "paranormal romance"). What If turns out to be the straight romantic comedy in the bunch. (One hopes it was the success of Ruby Sparks that got her these roles, in kind of the same way Matrix fans enjoy seeing Matrix knockoffs -- it confers a certain significance to the movie that I'm still hoping the larger world will retroactively assign to Ruby.)

There's nothing high concept in What If like there is in Ruby Sparks, but it also goes down more easily if your desire is not to be too challenged by your romantic movie. It's basically the story of a med school dropout (Daniel Radcliffe) who has been burned by love enough that he approaches every new potential romantic entanglement with wariness and cynicism. Until he meets the plucky Chantry (Kazan), whose only fault is that she already has a serious boyfriend (Rafe Spall) of five years. However, the two enjoy each other's company enough that they fall into the "friend zone," that relationship purgatory that they have varying degrees of interest in trying to escape. Advising them on their lives and decisions are a group of best friend types, who include Adam Driver and Megan Ward.

Pretty standard, right? But What If is elevated by intelligent dialogue and winning performances. The characters feel pretty fleshed out, and the scenarios they find themselves in give you good doses of both comedy and romance. One particularly nice moment on the latter front involves Kazan's character getting stuck while trying on a dress that's just barely too small for her. She's stuck at the point that the thing is mostly pulled off, but it's covering her eyes and she can't move in either direction at this point. She summons Radcliffe's character (Wallace) to the changing room to help with the emergency, but doesn't want him to see her bra and panties so requires him to close his eyes. It's a nice and tender scene. (I also like the fact that when she first calls out to him, he's checking his phone. I like movies that take the time to get the details right. If you're waiting for a female friend to try on a dress, you check your phone. It doesn't mean you're some kind of self-obsessed boob or that you can't devise more idealized ways of passing the time.)

So it was quite a lovely way to pass a Valentine's Day that also featured our favorite delivery pizza, beer, and ice cream treats on sticks to finish off the evening.

If it's still Valentine's Day where you are, enjoy this Valentine to you in the form of Zoe Kazan's heart-shaped face:

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Engineering the ultimate gender crossover

What one task is of utmost importance for studios who make movies for children?

If you answered "Create something that will appeal equally to boys and girls," give yourself a gold star.

We saw Disney openly struggle with this with Tangled, which they refused to name Rapunzel because they thought it was unlikely to woo little boys. (This being one of the only times a person can use the phrase "woo little boys" without feeling icky about it.)

The mentality continued, somewhat, by taking a movie about a punching bad guy brute from a video game (Wreck-It Ralph) and inserting the character into a game where all the colors are some shade of pink. Frozen slouched back toward what they were afraid of with Tangled, appealing more to girls than boys, but the results spoke for themselves. An unnecessary course correction came in last year's Big Hero 6, which wooed mostly only those little boys. (Don't you like how I talk about these movies as though they are conceived and delivered entirely since the most recent previous movie on Disney's release slate, rather than being massive ocean-liners whose course is almost impossible to correct.)

While doing boffo box office with their theatrical releases, though, Disney has also maintained a burgeoning straight-to-video business. And in early 2014 they released a movie that seemed designed to address any and all concerns about which gender would be more interested. Answer? Both.

It's The Pirate Fairy, as you likely surmised from the poster art above. The title contains one masculine word ("pirate"), one feminine word ("fairy") and one definite article ("the"). That's about as split down the middle as you can possibly get.

Too bad we couldn't have seen how it would have done theatrically.

Actually, The Pirate Fairy did have a theatrical release of sorts. It played in some theaters internationally, and played at the El Capitan Theater (but only that one theater) in Hollywood for three weeks in March. But despite boasting A-list vocal talent like Christina Hendricks, Tom Hiddleston, Mae Whitman and Lucy Liu, and looking like a shimmering example of state-of-the-art Disney animation, it was branded with the stigma of straight-to-video.

I know what little I know about The Pirate Fairy because my son borrowed it from the library last week, and watched it twice before he had to return it. Just stopping in the room in passing, I was so taken in by the quality of the images that I almost wanted to plop down on the couch and watch it with him. (My snooty disavowal of films released straight to video ultimately won out.)

My son is Exhibit A of the gender crossover working. I mean, I could take one look at this movie and say "This is a movie intended for girls." But all he saw were the pirates and pirate ships. (Plus, he doesn't yet consciously turn up his nose at things girls like.)

The funny thing is, despite how I've characterized this as some kind of cynical attempt on Disney's part to reach the most number of demographics possible, this movie has ancient origins. It's yet another product from Disney's expanded Peter Pan universe, which has also yielded the kids show Jake and the Never Land Pirates, one of my son's favorites. You could say Peter Pan was one of Disney's original gender crossovers, featuring both both flying sprites (Peter and Tinker Bell) and evil pirates (Captain Hook). In fact, The Pirate Fairy is the sixth in the straight-to-video Tinker Bell series of films, which in the past has included such girl-leaning titles as Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue and Secret of the Wings. Adding the word "pirate" to the title does grab the interest of boys like my son, but it actually adds nothing new to the Peter Pan universe.


One thing I thought was funny about it was that it put me in a position of having to try to explain the concept of a prequel to my son. The villain in The Pirate Fairy is Captain Hook, but it's when he's younger and still has both hands. I don't think my son got this when he was watching because, well, he doesn't look like Captain Hook.

But in a little interlude that gets dropped into the closing credits, you see Hook, vanquished, hanging on to a bobbing wooden barrel in the ocean. He's using a hook to help grapple with the spinning barrel (wink). He's saved when a ship pulls alongside, and over the side pops Smee, Hook's eventual sidekick, who hadn't previously appeared in the movie (according to my son).

Later, my son asked me, "Dad, what was Smee doing there in the ocean?" He clearly didn't get how this story was associated with the world of Peter Pan at all, it taking place some 10 or 20 years earlier.

I tried to explain it, but laughed at myself upon hearing myself say things like "The events of this story take place before the events of Peter Pan." Even if he understood the chronological sequencing I was trying to convey, which is doubtful, he probably wouldn't understand what I was talking about anyway because he has not actually seen Peter Pan. In fact, I'm not even sure if he knows who the character Peter Pan is. I should have told him that it takes place before Jake and the Never Land Pirates, but to be honest, I'm not even sure how that show fits into the larger narrative.

Maybe the thing to do is get our hands on a copy of Peter Pan, and try to start showing him how it all fits together.

That can be the test run that prepares us for the screwy chronology of the Star Wars movies, which we plan to show him next year or the year after.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Long-movie Tuesdays

Hey, did I tell you? I've got a new schedule.

It's not new new, but as of about a month ago, I've started working part time. I'm trading places with my wife, who was working part time for the first year after our second son was born (the last eight months, actually, as the first four were maternity leave). That year came to an end in January. But because we don't want him to go to daycare any more than his current three days, that necessitated a change in my schedule. And since I both make less money and have less of a career going than she does, it wasn't a difficult decision to knock my work week down to three days. (The difficult part will be next month, when I have to find a new part-time job because my current job could only employee me part-time until March.)

This means I watch the 13-month-old on Tuesdays and both him and the four-year-old on Wednesdays.

Since the 13-month-old still takes two naps a day and is essentially malleable to my whims, my Tuesdays are now my favorite day of the week.

Those two naps can occupy up to four hours of the day, leaving me plenty of time for various cleaning projects ... and of course, watching movies.

The cleaning projects have taken precedence on my first handful of Tuesdays under the new schedule, but I've just this week thought of a good way to fit in the movies.

Now, watching an entire movie on a Tuesday may sometimes be possible, though it feels a little indulgent. While his nap can run 2.5 hours on a rare occasion, the more likely duration is around 100 minutes, meaning I could only complete a movie if I started it the moment he falls asleep.

A better use of his naps on Tuesday -- his second naps, so I can be productive during the first and reward myself during the second -- will be to finally watch some of those movies on Netflix that have always seemed like too much of an undertaking to handle on any random weeknight. That's right, I'm talking about the behemoths, the movies that are over two-and-a-half hours long.

Sure, you can start a movie like this one night, take six mini naps on the couch and realize at 12:47 a.m. that you still have more than half of the movie to go. Sure, you can finish it on the next night.

But how much better to fit it all into the same day? Watch as much as you can in the afternoon, then finish up the remaining portion before bed?

I did the trial run of this yesterday, when I finally tackled Once Upon a Time in the West -- one of the finalists for the movie I was most embarrassed I had never seen in this post. In the past I had looked at its 165-minute running time and thought "Eh, not tonight." But when tonight becomes this afternoon, your whole perspective changes.

As it turns out, I saw an hour of it while my son was sleeping and then easily tackled the remaining 1:45 that night. And ended up loving it. That's a big deal for the western genre, which leaves me cold a lot more often than it hits for me.

Now, I don't want to commit to anything so regular as knocking off a behemoth every Tuesday, even as I feel bullish by the success of yesterday's experiment. But there's something exciting about the idea that these movies, which I've wanted to see for years, will no longer get passed over simply because of how many minutes of celluloid they contain. I'm starting to imagine the possibilities as I type this.

Goliaths? Your David has come to slay you.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Steps taken to avoid hagiography

"Hagiography" is a word that has not been in my vocabulary for all that long, maybe only the past couple years.

If it's not in your vocabulary, it refers to a biographical treatment of a person (or I suppose in some circumstances an entity, like a charitable organization or sports team) that tends to lionize that person as a saint, ignoring noteworthy faults that shouldn't be ignored if the intention is a complete and honest portrait. A hagiography is almost always bad, as it is thought of as manipulative ("whitewashing" is the decidedly more negative term you will often also hear used). But I suppose in certain contexts (like political propaganda) it might be praised if it is done shrewdly enough.

Of course, in any serious film about a historical figure, you'd want to shoot squarely for biography, and would roll up your sleeves and fight someone if they called your movie a hagiography.

The biography/hagiography divide struck me last night as I was watching John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln for the first time. Upon reaching the end, I specifically had the thought that it was more a biography than a hagiography, because I thought Henry Fonda really captured the ways Abraham Lincoln was human (in addition to getting down his look and posture to an alarmingly precise degree).

Of course, when I read an old colleague's review of Young Mr. Lincoln on my former site, the first line was "More hagiography than biography, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) took such outrageous liberties with historical fact that its value as a portrait of the nation's sixteent president remains questionable."

Oh well. Back to the drawing board, Vance.

Of course, my colleague then goes on to characterize this as nonetheless one of the greatest works in the careers of either Ford or Fonda, its failure to follow historical fact and its (apparently minimal) whitewashing of Lincoln being secondary to its other successful elements. He's most interested in the fact that the court case that makes up the spine of the plot, as this movie focuses on the early legal career of the man on the $5 bill, was based on an actual trial covered by the screenwriter when he was a reporter, not something that occurred in the 1830s.

However, we rightly tend to measure movies by the overall thrust of their truth, rather than the accuracy of the details. And my colleague and I both agree that the overall thrust of this one is splendid.

Still, I was now possessed of a desire to examine why I had said this movie, which is obviously very generous toward Lincoln, falls short of hagiography. So if you don't want to know anything about Young Mr. Lincoln, a 76-year-old movie, you'd be advised to stop reading at this point.

I suppose it's the little places where it zigs when it could have zagged in portraying the man. Here are a couple of them.

1) When quelling the fire of an angry mob looking to lynch a couple brothers accused of murder, Lincoln shouts down the ringleaders as they are trying to break into a home with a large pole. He then tells any of them to fight him individually, "because I could lick anyone here." Whether true or not -- and I think true, since Lincoln was known for his wrestling skills -- the subject of a hagiography would not typically boast about his fighting prowess. That said, he's "boasting" merely in the context of a larger rhetorical argument in which he is trying to save two men who haven't had a fair trial from vigilante justice.

2) Several times throughout the movie, Lincoln is seen draping himself over various furniture with his legs kicked up in the air, either lost in thought or being deliberately provocative as part of a strategy for questioning a witness. The subject of a hagiography would not have such little respect for the laws of proper body decorum, would he?

3) Lincoln delivers several well-timed barbs designed to humiliate an opponent, particularly his opposing counsel. The whole room collapses in hysterics. The subject of a hagiography would never stoop to such levels of common insult, would he?

3) But here was the moment that got me really thinking about the hagiography/biography divide. As the family is pulling out of town on their coach at the end, their sons having been exonerated of the crime in question, the matriarch offers Lincoln a pittance for his legal services. "We ain't got much, but here's a little something for your troubles," she says, or something to that effect. Knowing how they are just scraping by and that the future won't be easy for them, a hagiographical Lincoln should have politely declined the offering, as it means much more to them than it does to him. But this Lincoln politely accepted it. Of course, dig a little deeper into this moment and you realize couple things: 1) He did work their case and he did exonerate the sons, so he is of course entitled to demand a fee, and 2) He probably considered it a point of pride for this woman to be able to pay for his services rendered, and to be viewed as a charity case would deflate that pride indeed.

Okay, so maybe Young Mr. Lincoln is a bit of a hagiography after all. But when you're talking about one of the greatest human beings America has ever produced, you might have a hard time deliver anything but.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A reminder of the state of video stores

These days, the only things you can reliably expect to find at a video store are the most popular movies released theatrically between six and 12 months ago. Anything else is a crapshoot.

But you'd think that if there are any older movies you'd be able to reliably find, the Star Wars movies would be them.

I found out otherwise yesterday at Network Video, formerly Video Ezy, in Flemington.

As I wrote in this post, I am doing a bit of a Star Wars challenge in 2015 -- watching one of the six existing movies, in the order of the story's chronology, during each of the two-month segments of this year, leading up to the release of The Force Awakens in December.

Well, hoping to do it, anyway -- pending the availability of the movies.

I stopped by Network Video yesterday in the hopes of scooping up Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, which would rent for a mere $1.90 for an entire week. I'd probably try to watch it on one of the next three nights and return it on Tuesday when I had an easy opportunity to do so.

Except it wasn't in. In fact, unless someone else is doing the same challenge I am, I suspected that they didn't carry it at all. A suspicion confirmed a few moments later when I asked the clerk.

"Yeah, we just have two of them. Whichever two are there."

Those two were The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of the Sith, episodes V and III.

A rather random assortment of Star Wars movies. They are arguably the best of their respective trilogies, but I'm sure that has nothing to do with why Network is carrying them.

My guess is that they had all six at one point, but the other four were never returned by someone who rented them, and they just never bothered to replace them.

It's a pretty bottom-line decision. We carry movies that either a) we rent consistently, or b) we already have in our collection. And if one from group a) no longer falls into group b), well, it's gone and forgotten.

It makes sense, but offends my basic instincts toward completism. A Star Wars collection at a video store should look more or less like the one in the picture above, not the two lonely DVDs resting on their sides that I saw yesterday.

Now I am actually worried whether I can get The Phantom Menace at all before my self-imposed February 28th deadline. iTunes doesn't carry it either.

Fortunately, I just now looked at the good old library, and believe I have successfully reserved myself a copy that I can pick up at my local branch.

It shouldn't be so hard to get your hands on one of the biggest financial successes in the history of movies, though, should it?

Then again, if we're talking "should" and "shouldn't," we also "shouldn't" be in a time when video stores are about to go extinct entirely.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The unconventional 2014 best picture winner

Whatever else they've been, the recent best picture winners have been conventional choices.

That doesn't necessarily mean they've been the movies you initially expected to win. But it does mean that once they won, you could construct a short, simple, cynical, reductive explanation as to why Hollywood might have chosen them.

Let's consider the past five:

2013 - 12 Years a Slave (political correctness) 
2012 - Argo (Hollywood to the rescue!)
2011 - The Artist (classic Hollywood)
2010 - The King's Speech (classic Oscar bait)
2009 - The Hurt Locker (war movie)

You have to go back to Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 to find a movie that Oscar anointed simply because it was a "good movie." This isn't to say that Slumdog is better than those movies, just that you can't immediately summarize the thinking that made it the obvious choice to win, other than its quality. It has no other element that traditionally ensnares an awards body with a particular mindset and a particular tendency to congratulate itself. I'd argue that the two that came before are similarly unusual choices (No Country for Old Men and The Departed), and that you have to go back to Crash in 2005 to get another "typical" best picture winner (important social issue movie). 

Well, it's possible that this year will kick off another three years of Oscar iconoclasm. 

At this point in the season, you'd have to say that the race boils down to the two B's -- Boyhood and Birdman. The frontrunner had been Boyhood all along I think, but some recent significant wins have caused this website that devotes itself to handicapping the winners ( to anoint Birdman the new frontrunner. 

And either would be a "weird" best picture winner indeed. 

On the one hand you have a movie made over the course of 12 years, with virtually no input from Hollywood and featuring a handful of non-professional actors. It doesn't have a traditional narrative, narrative structure or catharsis, and on a technical level it is rather workmanlike. It is a contender primarily because it is believable, relatable and sneakily emotional. It created perhaps the year's most communally shared audience experience. But rarely do you see a movie that closely reproduces a realistic version of life in line for such accolades.

On the other hand you've got a movie that is cynically reducible to one crazy stylistic choice, which is to shoot the entire movie as though it were one shot. While this tends to get film geeks aflutter, it typically does not translate to the type of success with mainstream audiences that Birdman has enjoyed. It does have some classic Oscar credentials by being about the theater (which captures Oscar's desire to celebrate entertainment history) and by involving the redemption of a Hollywood actor (a little bit of the "Hollywood to the rescue" mentality of Argo). But canceling that out is the fact that it's about a guy who played a superhero, and has a title (an abbreviated title, anyway) that sounds like an actual superhero movie. No superhero movie has ever been nominated for best picture.

Either winner would be a celebration of some kind of landmark technical achievement. In fact, the way they were made has been an equal part of the conversation as what they are actually about. In Boyhood, the way it was made and its subject matter are intrinsically linked. In Birdman, they have nothing to do with each other. In both cases, you'd have to say that without the unusual technical approach to making them, they would not be nominated this year (though I do sometimes wonder how many of Birdman's viewers actually notice that there are no visible edits).

Like them or not, these are weird movies. They are made by filmmakers who were thinking way, way outside the box. In most years, both would be the consensus deserving choice that ended up losing to something like The Imitation Game. This year, one will win. 

Having had both in my top ten, and one at my #1 spot, I'd honestly be happy to have either carry off the win, which is an unusual position to find myself in. Most years I have a favorite I'm clearly rooting for over a rival I don't find deserving, but not this year. Unless some more conventional movie makes a last gasp at contention, it'll be one of these two -- and I don't see The Imitation Game suddenly coming out of nowhere to seize the zeitgeist. (The Grand Budapest Hotel would also be a good unconventional choice, but I'd have to say it's a longshot at this point, despite tying for the most nominations.)

So what will happen?

If we are to further psychoanalyze Hollywood -- which is the premise this entire post is based on -- I'd have to say that Birdman will emerge. As unconventional as it is, it is definitely more conventional than Boyhood, in the sense of celebrating Hollywood and featuring actors it is time to honor (Michael Keaton has a significant edge over Ethan Hawke in that regard, though Patricia Arquette should definitely win in the best supporting actress category). And if you believe the narrative that the most critically acclaimed film of the year is the one that never wins best picture -- see examples like The Social Network and L.A. Confidential -- then that same fate could easily befall Boyhood.

The thing is, I don't get the sense that Boyhood's most ardent supporters consider whether it wins best picture to be any necessary measure, or perhaps even a desirable measure, of its success. They don't need to have that external validation of the emotional experience they had watching this movie. And even if they do secretly crave that external validation despite being unwilling to admit it, they will be satisfied with Arquette's win. And Richard Linklater seems the best bet to win best director whether his movie wins or not. 

I said earlier that I didn't care which movie won, but I obviously did have one ranked higher than the other. Boyhood was only my #8 movie of the year, while Birdman took top honors. So I should be rooting for Birdman to win, right? I actually don't think I am, and here are three reasons:

1) A win for Boyhood would be a much-deserved recognition of the myriad ways Richard Linklater has been expanding our cinematic horizons over the course of his career. Boyhood is not an isolated experiment for Linklater. It is just the latest in a career defined by (mostly successful) experiments.

2) A win for Boyhood would celebrate the movie of the year. I would say Boyhood defined 2014 at the movies, whereas Birdman just happened to come out in 2014. 

3) But perhaps most importantly, a win for Boyhood would be the choice that gave me the greatest reassurance that the system is not broken. A win for Boyhood would teach me that just when I thought I had gotten the Oscars all figured out, I had to go back and reconsider all my assumptions. A win for Boyhood would condition me to expect the unexpected in Oscar's future.

Also, it's just a damn fine movie. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Too good for Hot Tub 2, not too good for Drive Hard

John Cusack may be in every straight-to-video movie this side of the 99 cent bin at your local Big Lots, but he's also dying to show you he still has standards.

How else to explain his rapid decline into B-movie ubiquitousness, yet his apparent unwillingness to appear in the sequel to Hot Tub Time Machine?

There are probably other ways -- and I've tried to find out the actual truth why he's not in it, only I can't seem to locate it on the interwebs. But knowing that he's a total prick, I prefer to think of this as a case of misplaced snobbishness.

"A sequel to some dumb comedy? Puh-leeze."

Knowing how indiscriminate he's been with his film choices in the past five years, I found myself genuinely surprised not to see him in the (godawful) trailer for Hot Tub Time Machine 2 the other night. (And considering how godawful it looks, perhaps he was on the right track in avoiding it.)

How indiscriminate has he been? Why, I'm glad you asked. I mean, he's basically the second coming of sometimes costar Nicolas Cage.

Consider some of these titles, compiled only from the period since the original Hot Tub Time Machine came out:

Shanghai (2010)
The Factory (2011)
The Numbers Station (2013)
Adult World (2013)
The Frozen Ground (2013)
The Bag Man (2014)
Drive Hard (2014)
The Prince (2014)
Reclaim (2014)

Heard of any of these, other than them showing up suspiciously quickly on your VOD? Didn't think so.

Yet the idea of associating himself with an actually popular product ... now that's just crazy.

Some of these certainly seemed to have been conceived as better films than the market ultimately deemed them to be ... I mean, not every straight-to-video film knows it will be that from the start. And some of the above did have limited theatrical releases, and during that time Cusack also appeared in such legitimate films as The Butler (2013), The Paperboy (2012), The Raven (2012) and (the barely legitimate) Grand Piano (2013).

So maybe instead of no longer being a popular casting choice, Cusack is just throwing himself into his work to keep himself busy. Better actors have done the same before him, including, arguably, Cage.

I mean, perhaps you make a ton of movies just so you don't have to take Hot Tub Time Machine 2. The original made me chuckle a couple times, but overall I think it's a bit of a mess. And the sequel looks like even more of one. Adam Scott has gamely stepped in for Cusack, joining Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry and Clark Duke from the original. None of those three looks especially pleased to be back, to be honest.

Or maybe Cusack just doesn't view himself as a comic actor anymore. Maybe he wants to focus on dramas or action movies or thrillers.

All of these are possible, so here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to turn this post on its head and consider why all the movies above may have been better choices than Hot Tub Time Machine 2.

Shanghai (2010) - World War II movie directly by legit director Mikael Hafstrom. Bankrolled by the Weinstein Company. Permits to shoot in China revoked a week before filming due to sensitive subjective matter, so shifted to Bangkok at the last minute. Never released in the U.S., but certainly promising enough credentials.

The Factory (2011) - An overly familiar story about a cop chasing a serial killer of women, but at least it was produced by Joel Silver.

The Numbers Station (2013) - Spy thriller set in England, where Cusack works for the CIA. But at least Malin Akerman is a legit co-star.

Adult World (2013) - Cusack plays a poet named Rat Billings. That should be enough. Indie about a girl (the popular Emma Roberts) working in an adult book store. Scott Coffey directed another movie I like (Ellie Parker).

The Frozen Ground (2013) - Alaskan serial killer movie co-starring Cage. Maybe this is the most straight-to-video in nature of the group. But hey, it does also star and was produced by 50 Cent.

The Bag Man (2014) - Thriller. Hey, De Niro's in this! Talk about actors fallen on hard times.

Drive Hard (2014) - Action comedy filmed and set in Australia! That alone should give it a pass. Thomas Jane is a legit co-star.

The Prince (2014) - Gangster movie. Bruce Willis is also in it. Talk about actors fallen on hard times. And again, 50 Cent!

Reclaim (2014) - Thriller about an American couple traveling to Puerto Rico to adopt a child who become embroiled in a deadly scam. Actually sounds moderately high concept and socially relevant ... but then I learn that Ryan Phillippe is one of the stars.

Okay, so they aren't all better choices than Hot Tub Time Machine 2.

It's fascinating how difficult it can be to make the right choices, even if you aren't snootily turning your nose up at comedies that you believe to be beneath you. The first portion of last year's terrific The Congress deals with the famously bad choices made by Robin Wright, playing herself in Ari Folman's film. Yeah, Wright took The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, but she also turned down Jurassic Park, Batman Forever, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Born on the Fourth of July and The Firm. Sometimes you just never know ... or you do know, and you decide you don't want it.

When Hot Tub Time Machine 2 scores its 23 on Metacritic, maybe Cusack will read this post and laugh.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The movies ain't got nuthin' on real life

Exhibit A of why I don't care for most sports movies: Super Bowl XLIX.

In case you don't know -- though as a human being living in the world, I'm sure you do -- my New England Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks yesterday by a score of 28-24, taking home their fourth championship in 14 years and first since 2004. 

And if it had happened in a movie, I wouldn't have believed a second of it.

Check that -- there were plenty of believable seconds in the game yesterday. Just none in the final minute of action, which is the important part when thinking about the game cinematically. 

To set the stage a little bit, the Patriots came into the fourth quarter down 24-14, having yielded 17 straight points to the Hawks and seen their earlier momentum completely vanish. Sitting there on the couch at a local sports bar in Melbourne -- appropriately named the Turf Club Hotel -- I felt another loss creeping its way toward inevitability. I say "another" loss because the Patriots lost Super Bowls in 2008 and 2012, both to the New York Giants, by heart-breakingly close margins. It didn't appear this one would be so heart-breakingly close.

But New England quarterback Tom Brady is known for his calm under pressure when needing to score, so if anyone could come back, he could. He had brought this team back from multiple 14-point deficits against the Baltimore Ravens just three weeks ago. He could do it now. 

And he did. Brady constructed two determined drives and threw two touchdown passes, turning a 24-14 disadvantage into a 28-24 lead. Brilliantly, he worked down a significant chunk of the clock as well, leaving only 2:02 for Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson to mount his own comeback drive to win the game.

Unfortunately, Wilson is also cool under pressure and brought his own team back from a seemingly insurmountable 16-point deficit against Green Bay earlier this postseason, and that was with like three minutes left in the game.

Suffice it to say I was not yet feeling confident on the couch there at the Turf Club -- just less depressed than I had been 30 minutes earlier.

Sure enough, Wilson began advancing the ball. Down four, he still had to get his team in the endzone rather than just settling for a field goal, and I knew this would not be easy against a determined Patriot defense. 

And that's when things started to get crazy.

Wilson lofted a pass down the right sideline to a receiver named Jermaine Kearse. New England rookie cornerback Marcus Butler tipped the ball, enough of a disruption to the pass that Kearse couldn't come down with it. I saw the ball bounce off Kearse's hands and breathed a sigh of relief at another wasted down. That meant only two more times the Patriots would need to stop Wilson and the game would be over.

Except Kearse actually caught the ball.

The contact with Butler knocked him on to his back, and since Butler's tip had sent the ball aloft, Kearse hit the ground before the ball did. And in fact, the ball did not hit the ground at all. It bounced on his body once, twice, three times, before he ultimately corralled the thing in for a complete pass.

Just yards from the endzone, with plenty of time left on the clock.

My Patriot fan heart sunk. It was a play very similar to this by New York Giants receiver David Tyree that had kept the decisive drive alive in the 2008 Super Bowl, which ultimately ended the Patriots' hopes for a perfect 2007 season. That ridiculous catch was made with the football pinned against Tyree's helmet. This one might have been even more ridiculous, as it was just dumb luck that the ball fell on to his body rather than the ground.

Well, now Wilson had all the time in the world to run whatever plays necessary to score the go-ahead touchdown. He was no longer desperate or under the gun. He had literally dozens of options, the best of which was to hand off the ball to stud running back Marshawn Lynch, widely considered one of the most unstoppable at his position in all of football. He did just that on the next play, as Lynch rumbled to the one-yard line, putting another Super Bowl on the brink of extinction for the Patriots, in a manner that might be the most painful of the three since their last championship.

Then came the game's least believable moment. Instead of handing to Lynch again on the next play, Wilson threw a pass to the goal line -- and Butler stepped in to intercept the ball. The very same Butler whose inability to fully knock the ball away from Kearse had put them in this situation in the first place.

Game over, this time in favor of the Patriots.

At the Turf Club Hotel, I shouted until I was hoarse, and hugged my friend Conan.

Now, why were you reading this post again?

Oh yeah -- the point of all this was, if you had watched it as a movie, it would have seemed like a bunch of screenwriting bullshit. The veteran quarterback trying to win one last Super Bowl. The absurd catch that seemed so eerily familiar to the ones that had beaten him in the past. The rookie cornerback coming in to save the day, redeeming himself for an earlier miscue (even though that Kearse catch was just dumb luck). The play that never should have been made, costing the villains the victory. (The Seahawks are the villains in this scenario, because the Patriots won the game, and in a Hollywood movie the good guy has to prevail. Of course, I'm fully aware that Deflate-gate, other cheating scandals in the past and the general dislike directed toward a team that wins a lot would leave many viewers casting the Patriots as the villains instead). 

It's a succession of unlikelihoods that makes a fictitious movie about sports seem far-fetched. We love sports in real life precisely because "you couldn't script it better." On those rare occasions when sports resemble a movie about sports, that's when they are the greatest and most memorable. Conversely and perhaps a bit paradoxically, we don't get the same rush from that movie about sports because it sets off our bullshit meter. 

Super Bowl XLIX had to be a real event for us to believe it. To get that rush, we had to know it really happened.

I sure am glad I told my boss my son had conjunctivitis. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Old Oldboy vs. new Oldboy

I have been wanting to see Spike Lee's Oldboy since it came out ... but I have also been wanting to reacquaint myself with Park Chan-wook's Oldboy before I did so.

Both are streaming on Netflix, so I figured, might as well make it an Oldboy Weekend. So I did this past Friday and Saturday nights.

I realized recently that although I hold Park's original, the middle of his Vengeance Trilogy, in very
high esteem, I could remember very little about it.
There was the classic fight scene and the classic tooth removal scene, but I couldn't even remember why the character needed vengeance in the first place. A little jogging of my memory reminded me that he was locked away for 15 years and then mysteriously released back into the world, but what happened from there remained a blur.

In fact, I probably would have watched it again long before now if I hadn't persisted in the belief that the version streaming on Netflix was dubbed into English. My friend Scott watched over an hour of it while he was babysitting for us back in the first few months of my older son's life. The restlessness of my son kept him from watching the whole thing, but he didn't get back to it on his own (at least, I don't think he did) because he wasn't enjoying it as much as he thought he was supposed to be -- and that could have everything to do with the fact that it was dubbed.

When I found it again on Netflix, I marveled at two things: 1) It's no longer dubbed, and 2) Netflix wanted to know if I wanted to "resume" my viewing. That's right, Netflix still had a record of the fact that someone on this account had started watching this movie on December 22, 2010. Talk about a long memory.

I'm glad I saw it again rather than just going into Spike Lee's cold, because it gave me a good means of assessing the success or failure of Lee's effort. (You can argue whether it's fair to judge a movie against the movie it's remaking, but it's only human nature that we do so.)

And honestly, I was expecting to hate Lee's version. People I trust have said it's terrible, and Lee is someone I have trusted a lot less in recent years (I greatly disliked Red Hook Summer and avoided The Miracle of St. Anna altogether).

You know what? Lee's version is fine. Really it is. Better than fine, maybe.

Not better than the original. I will never go that far. But a worthy attempt to remake a popular Korean film? Sure, why not?

I think what struck people as so strange about Spike Lee remaking Oldboy was that this director had chosen this project in particular. Nothing about his resume suggests that it is a good match for him.

But let's set aside Lee's affiliation and look at it merely as a business idea. Remaking Oldboy is no stranger than remaking any of the dozens of other hot Asian properties from which Hollywood has tried to spin gold, most notably the horror franchises The Ring and The Grudge. Those films are not Korean, but Bong Joon-ho's The Host had been lined up for an American remake that has apparently stalled out. The objection you could have to remaking Oldboy is the objection you could have to remaking any great film whose legacy should not be tarnished.

It's actually almost too shrewd, too Hollywood a move for someone like Lee. It did not seem to fit his character, and in fact, the movie does not have a major studio's backing. It was distributed by FilmDistrict, which has since been absorbed into Focus Features. But wouldn't that almost suggest that Lee would be free to bring something fresh, something original, something funky to the project?

Maybe that's why people were so disappointed -- there is very little of Lee in this film, or so it would seem. One of the supporting roles goes to Samuel L. Jackson, whom Lee put on the map back in 1991 with Jungle Fever, and there's one instance of Lee's trademark dolly shot, where a character appears to be floating through his environment. Beyond that, though, any studio hack probably could have made this.

Which is not to say it's clumsy. In fact, it feels quite technically accomplished in a lot of ways, in the sense that it is a clean, crisp, unfussy telling of the story that excises details of the original story that, indeed, may have been superfluous.

Of what do I speak? Well, I may be getting into a bit of spoiler territory now, so look away if you don't want anything spoiled.

One thing I noted is that the character the main character tells his story to is gone. In the original Oldboy, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) emerges from his suitcase atop a building, where a businessman is contemplating suicide nearby. He saves him, momentarily, from this suicide attempt by grasping his tie as he starts to plummet over the edge of the building. After Oh tells him the story of being imprisoned for 15 years, and leaves the man by himself, he actually does go through with it, caving in the roof of a nearby car. It's as though this final glimpse at man's inhumanity to man was what convinced him to go through with it, rather than the story saving him in some way.

Is this character really necessary, though? It wouldn't seem so -- though the shot of Oh hanging on to the man creates a visual parallel to the method Lee Woo-jin used to kill his sister, an event that occurred in the past but has not yet been visualized in the movie.

Yeah, so Lee just gets rid of him altogether. No great loss, really.

Lee also lessens the screen time of the villain (Sharlto Copley's captor has only a couple scenes, and is not nearly the unhinged scenery chewer I was led to believe he'd be), and does away with the explanation for how the villain got the captive and his daughter to fall in love. Park has them both hypnotized, whereas in Lee's film, their meeting relies on the meddling of an intermediary (played by Michael Imperioli) who pretends to be on the captive's side (he's named Joe Doucett in this one, and played by Josh Brolin). The hypnotism element comes back in to Park's film at the end, when Oh wants to forget that he shagged his own daughter and tries to have the memory hypnotized out of him (though possibly not successfully -- the ending is vague on that front). But you don't really feel its absence in Lee's film.

Naturally, then, the ending is a bit different too. In neither film does the daughter find out that she has had incest with her father, but the fate of her father is quite different in the two films. While the ending of Park's film is clearly tragic, Lee opts for optimism, with both Joe (who has chosen to return to his imprisonment, somewhat inexplicably) and his daughter Mia (Elizabeth Olsen, who drives off to start a new life) with smiles on their faces. I wouldn't call it a happy ending, exactly, but it certainly leaves the characters pointing in the direction of a brighter future.

The details of the scandal the main character witnesses differ as well. In Park's film, Oh sees his eventual captor fooling around with his own sister, a rumor he ends up sort of passively spreading, without any malicious intent. In Lee's, it's his captor's sister and her father he sees in sexual congress, and spreads the rumor willfully and mean-spiritedly. Perhaps Lee thought that in the age of bullying as a serious social issue, the film needed to come down strongly and unambiguously against bullying -- even if it means his protagonist is more guilty and less sympathetic. Lee's film is further on the side of Copley's character in the sense that it's his father, not himself, who is ultimately responsible for taking his sister's life.

Then there are the more minor details, like how Oh and Joe tortue the man hired to keep him locked up. (And yes, I am just now realizing that Oh Dae-su and Joe Doucett are nearly identical sounding names.) Oh engages in that aforementioned act of tooth removal, while Joe performs a ritual that's supposed to be more gruesome but ultimately has less effect on the viewer -- he removes little bloody chunks from Sam Jackson's neck as part of a plan to eventually pull his head off with his bare hands.

The other scene you're probably wondering about is how Lee handles that famous fight scene, the one where Oh has only a hammer and has to fight off an alley full of henchmen trying to get him. The famous things about this shot are two: 1) It is shot entirely from a side angle, like the character in a video game walking left to right and seeing what he encounters next, and 2) It is performed all in one take. While the fight choreography might be slightly less accomplished in Lee's version, and there's a notable lack of blood involved, Lee doubles down on the complexity of the shot by having it continue down a ladder and on a second level, where the challenge essentially resets for Joe. The effect of this little bit of cinematic bravura is pretty much what Lee would have intended.

But I guess the real issue with Lee's version is that it's just not, I don't know, weird in the ways Park's version is. One of the great moments in Park's film is when Oh eats a live octopus, kind of stuffing it into his face as the legs continue to squirm around, making it certainly seem like Choi actually did eat the live octopus to get this shot. Then there's the desperate pleading of Oh in the final scene when he wants to prevent his daughter from finding out that he's her father. Not only does he promise to be his captor's dog, licking his shoe and crawling around on all fours, but he then puts his money where his mouth is, so to speak, by cutting out his own tongue. It's a mad moment of atonement that really resonates. In Lee's film, both of these scenes are alluded to, but that's it -- one in a shot where Brolin examines an octopus hugging the glass wall of a fish tank, and the other in the form of a severed tongue (of Imperioli's character, I believe) being sent in a box to Joe from his captor. One senses that he considered trying to match the outrage of Park, but just went limp in the attempt.

I should probably point out a couple of moment of real awkwardness in Lee's film, as well. Notably, the first 15 minutes are just terrible. They involve Joe sabotaging an important business deal in the most ridiculous manner imaginable -- he essentially has his client on the hook, but then blows it by making a pass at the client's girlfriend while the client is in the bathroom. Even if this is meant to indicate that Joe is a real jerk, and the rest of the movie is supposed to function as a redemption of that jerk, I didn't buy it for a second and in fact thought it was clumsy as hell. Brolin's performance of his subsequent drunkenness is pretty over-the-top, but that's actually consistent with Park's approach, as we meet Oh in a police station where he's a soused mess.

Speaking of Brolin's acting, his reaction to learning that he has slept with his own daughter needed to be re-shot, as it has a bit of an "Annakin Skywalker realizing Padme is dead" quality to it. Given that this is the movie's emotional climax, Brolin and Lee really needed to sit down and re-think it.

Still, this movie doesn't quite deserve its bad reputation. And lo and behold, after finishing Lee's Oldboy, I discovered that the movie's reputation is not quite as bad as I thought it was. Metacritic's 49 score for it translates to "mixed or average reviews," which include a 91 from none other than one of my personal critical heroes, Owen Gleiberman, who was then of Entertainment Weekly. That's to balance out the zero from The New York Observer's Rex Reed, I guess.

Okay, that's just about enough of that. Out with the Oldboy, in with the new.