Monday, March 30, 2015

Meeting my fans

I had an experience I've never had yesterday. I met some fans.

Writers -- at least writers who work in general anonymity, like I do -- are not supposed to have fans. We toil away, day after day, and for the lucky ones of us, it's a labor of love. But we don't expect to be recognized other than an editor complimenting us on a well-written piece, the occasional comment on a blog post, or our parents telling us we did a good job.

But yesterday, at the ReelGood Film Festival here in Melbourne, some complete strangers told me they loved my work. I barely even knew I had "work."

And I have to say, it was a surprisingly discomfiting experience.

But let me back up a step to set the stage for you. is the website that has been sending me to free screenings (well, three so far) and publishing my reviews since last October. The guy who runs the site held a festival of short films yesterday here in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. I wasn't sure of the general stature of this website prior to this event, but having seen what he put together, and the fact that he may have attracted in the neighborhood of 150 people over the course of the day, I came away pretty impressed. This is more than just a guy with a website who's good at social media.

I had never met John, who runs the website, in person, so I was pleased when he recognized me as soon as I walked through the door. He did know my picture from Facebook and from a random snapshot of myself I submitted for a group year-end piece, but people often look different in person, so I was pleased that he immediately knew who I was.

What I didn't expect was when his brother found me after the end of the first session of shorts.

"Are you Derek Armstrong?" he asked.

Why yes. Yes I am.

I followed him over to meet two other women and another guy. It was unclear to what extent they knew who I was, but they also seemed impressed with me.

The guy's brother -- God love me, I can't remember his name -- told me that my writing was really good, but not in that forced delivery that's required when you realize the situation calls for someone's ego to be stroked. It was with a genuine sense of awe in his voice. He then proceed to describe me as the "star" of the site.

Not only did I blush, but I think I actually kind of shriveled up inside myself.

I thanked them for the compliment, and then proceeded to sort of hold court with them for the next 15 minutes, but in the most awkward way imaginable. They seemed to be hanging on my every word, even when what I was saying felt incredibly banal to me. The more I tried to fulfill what I perceived their expectations of me to be, the more banal I felt. However, they were the ones who seemed oddly nervous. Like, they were in the presence of greatness or something.

Eventually I excused myself to go to the bathroom, and the next session of shorts started. I didn't cross paths with any of them again.

While in a way, this seems like the realization of a dream -- to be held in high esteem for the thing you love to do -- I must say that I felt incredibly unnerved by the whole experience. I imagine that it's a very small version of what celebrities feel once they are recognized in a certain environment. Prior to that they may have been enjoying a sense of anonymity, but once someone has told them they love their work, now they are concious of being on display in some way. Now they are living up to somebody's expectations of them, rather than just existing.

To even compare myself to a celebrity is, of course, ludicrous. But in that one moment, I got a small dose of what it must feel like.

Removed from the actual moment, I feel a significant amount of pride in it. We all want to be acknowledged as good at what we do. For all the times you feel like a nobody, it's good to sometimes be recognized as Somebody.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

I finally saw: This is 40

This is 40 was too regrettably symbolic a film for me to have missed for this long.

When it came out in December of 2012, it caught me in the last ten months of my thirties. So if I'd stuck to my plan to watch it in the theater, I wouldn't yet have been 40 when I saw it, but the number would have been looming enough for the movie's themes to really resonate with me.

But then I heard that it was essentially two hours of arguing between Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann. The memory of Funny People's extremely distended 146-minute running time, which took the story through all sorts of narrative branches and circumlocutions, was still fresh with me, so I felt particularly wary of a bloated Judd Apatow arguefest. I decided to give that theatrical viewing of This is 40 a pass. Besides, it was December and I had to focus on Oscar contenders before my list closed in January.

It would have been clever of me to watch it when I was actually 40, or even for something like my 40th birthday, if it hadn't figured to ruin that birthday for me. (The Internship, apparently, proved a much more worthy candidate.) But by October of 2013 it was sort of off my radar. Not that I'd forgotten about it, but that it wasn't leaping to mind with any regularity, asserting its need to be seen.

Now I'm about five months into age 41, and I finally saw it on Tuesday, the result of picking it up at the library. My wife showed no flicker of interest when seeing it in the stack of new rentals, so I ended up watching it by myself.

Hey, I liked it.

It's not Apatow's best -- he'll probably never top The 40-Year-Old Virgin -- but it kicks Funny People's ass, I'll tell you that.

First, let's address that "two hours of arguing" charge. Not true, really. Rudd's and Mann's characters have fights, to be sure, but they have an almost equal number of delightful exchanges, in which we're privy to a private lingo that demonstrates how much compatibility they've built up over 15 years of marriage. In fact, anyone who would claim that the amount of fighting they do is excessive a) hasn't been married, or b) is projecting something of their own scenario onto that relationship. Mann and Rudd fight about things that are reasonable to fight about, but also make genuine attempts to hear and love each other. I was concerned that this would be a tone-deaf succession of shouting matches that were supposed to play as funny, but that would reveal the true ugliness of anyone who thought they were funny. That's not what we're getting here at all.

And their interactions did play as funny. The hardest I laughed was when Mann is giving Rudd shit (pun intended) for having spent the past 30 minutes in the bathroom. As an indication of their comfort level, Rudd is actually trying to pretend that he's just engaged in a really long bowel movement, when in reality, he's playing Scrabble on his iPad. I'd be the other way around -- I'd rather my wife think I had stolen away to play internet Scrabble than that I was taking a shit for 30 minutes. But the laugh line is this: "Who takes a shit for 30 minutes?" Mann asks. Without missing a beat, Rudd answers "John Goodman."

All I had to do was think back to that line later in the movie if I wanted to bust out laughing again.

The leads get great support from the likes of Chris O'Dowd as Rudd's colleague at his record label (all of O'Dowd's lines are good) and Albert Brooks as Rudd's father (I'll take this version of Brooks over the one we get in Drive any day). Lending decidedly unexpected support is Megan Fox, who is actually funny in this movie, possibly for the first time ever. (This is 40 did not improve my opinion of another of its co-stars, Charlyne Yi, who is reprising her role from Knocked Up. I still haven't gotten over the terribleness of Paper Heart, I guess.)

Some of the conflicts in This is 40 get wrapped up too easily, or don't get wrapped up at all. But given that this is the reverse problem of what I thought it would have -- I was preparing for 12 rounds of truly reprehensible behavior -- I'll gladly accept that. Ultimately, Apatow, Rudd and Mann -- presumably the film's most important three collaborators -- have a good sense of the wrinkles in a real relationship, and how those might play out in ways that are challenging without actually bumming us out. It's a tone that works.

And I'd like to pause for a moment to make special recognition of the treasure we have in Mann. She has never attained the stardom of some of her peers or become a household name, but she's got absolutely dynamite comic timing and is never anything less than totally believable in her dramatic scenes. The movie on which she met her husband, Judd Apatow, is one of my favorites of all time -- that being The Cable Guy. And while that's more of a straight role, she showed her fitness for especially physical comedy the next year with the surprisingly delightful George of the Jungle, and has been routinely pleasing us ever since. She's been dynamite with Apatow (Virgin, Knocked Up) and without (The Bling Ring). I'm always happy when Leslie Mann pops up in a movie, and I think I might have to see last year's certainly-terrible The Other Woman, just because she was in it.

Besides, she was born only a year-and-a-half before I was, and we fortysomethings have to stick together.

Funnily enough, I am publishing this on Mann's 43rd birthday -- her 43rd birthday in Australia, anyway. Happy birthday, Leslie. If this is fortysomething, you make it look good.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Free, plus a cab charge

So much for my free screening of Shaun the Sheep Movie actually being free.

The latest movie I'm reviewing for, whose title sounds like something Borat would say, had an unexpected surcharge when I had to take a taxi to get to the Sunday morning screening, due to public transit being all screwed up by both a charity run and a festival. It's not a weekend day in Melbourne if there's not a charity run and a festival.

If I were just seeing the movie for my own purposes, I would have of course skipped it. But since I both had to review it, and wanted to make my four-year-old son happy, a taxi it was.

We knew we were taking matters a bit too lightly when we left with only an hour and ten minutes to get to the 10:30 showing. Not only was this a theater I had never been to -- the Village Cinemas in South Yarra -- but it was also an area of town I didn't know. In fact, by 9 a.m. I was only just barely figuring out how to get there by tram. We'd have to switch trams, and the journey was predicted to take us 47 minutes, according to the handy dandy trip planner provided by the public transit website.

The website also warned us of possible delays and route changes due to a festival, but at this point I didn't have time to worry about that. We had to get moving.

The 55 tram arrived at 9:33 as expected. No issues there. Well, there was one issue. Instead of reading Domain Interchange as its ultimate terminus, the tram read "Flinders Street." And instead of reading 55 as its route number, it read 55a. Something was amiss, but again, it was too far along to do anything differently at that point.

When the tram dumped us well short of Domain Interchange at about 10 of 10, and I didn't know where to go to get the second tram, I knew we were in trouble.

So I hoisted my son up on my shoulders in order to gain faster mobility, and continued south.

We crossed the Yarra River, at which point we saw the run that was bisecting the city this morning. It was so densely packed at the point we wanted to cross that we actually had to risk colliding with a runner in order to get through. Fortunately, he corrected his course to avoid the father frantically crossing traffic with a child on his shoulders.

As I plunged into the area of the city called Southbank, and noted that streets were closed off this way and that, and it was creeping up on 10 a.m., I started trying to hail a cab. The third one I tried could take us, but it was pointed in the wrong direction, and coming up on another thicket of closed off streets.

When he finally got himself turned around, making a few semi-intelligible protestations about the likelihood of getting anywhere in this traffic, we were stuck in a slow-moving procession of cars, about three of which seemed to be getting through each time the light changed. My son started to look at me and his eyes seemed to question whether we would make the movie on time. Then, so did his mouth.

I reassured him that we would. Probably.

However, we almost certainly wouldn't have had the cab driver not made a command decision that turned out to be extremely fortuitous. Disliking the devil he knew, he chose to radically change his route, a gamble that could have been disastrous. Instead, we started moving quickly along thoroughfares that were not quite so choked with cars. A mere 10 minutes later I could tell that we were only blocks away, and indeed, we were disgorged with eight minutes to spare before the movie started.

I didn't realize until we were almost there that coming by cab involved an additional hazard beyond the mere financial. See, my son sometimes gets car sick. And with the way the cab was swerving and stopping short to make the 10:30 deadline of which I'd already advised him, we could have had a whole different mess, a literal mess, on our hands. My son reminded me of his potential for car sickness when we were, thankfully, only a block or two away from the cinema. He told me somewhat uncertainly that his stomach felt hungry, not sick. Fortunately, that's all it was. I gave him some mango slices not long after we got out of the cab.

You don't usually tip cabbies in Australia, but I was so pleased with this one's on-time delivery that I found a $2 coin to give him -- and would have dug out a second one except that I couldn't find one in a timely fashion.

So yeah, it cost $23 rather tan the mere $3.76 it should have cost for my son's round trip tram fare (I was on a weekly pass, so my costs were more abstract). But we got there. And hey, that's still cheaper, a lot cheaper, than it would have cost if we'd both been paying for our movie tickets.

Of course, the movie didn't actually start until nearly 11, a reality I realized as soon as we got to the lobby and saw that it was bursting with other children, none of whom had obviously been let in yet. Oh, did I mention that this was a special free family event? So everyone was getting free tickets. Mine were just arranged by the studio specifically for me to review the movie, rather than won through some web raffle or whatever the case may have been for the others.

We also got free popcorn and water upon entering the theater. Unfortunately, that was not effectively advertised, so I'd already purchased a water and M&M's that somehow came out to a whopping $11.70.

So yeah, free is never really free. But when the movie ends up being a charming family entertainment from one of the world's most reliable purveyors of charming family entertainment, Aardman Animation, you can't complain too much about any additional costs incurred along the way.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Picking over the bones of another video store

When I first arrived in Australia, I described it to a friend back home as "kind of like the U.S. in the 1990s."

This is not to say that most things are backward or particularly behind here. In fact, certain things -- like the ease of paying for goods, where you can sometimes just tap your card against a screen -- are a bit ahead of the U.S. Rather, what's old-fashioned is the quaint ongoing viability of certain things that have long since fallen by the wayside in the U.S.

Pay telephones, for example. It's easy to find a pay telephone here in Melbourne. They are few and far between in the U.S., but they are still plentiful here, still a resource that provides a useful service to the public.

Book stores? Don't get me started. You can't go a city block in almost any part of the city without tripping over a book store. And the price people will pay for books -- even used books -- is absurd. I'm sure people have their kindles and their iPads, but by and large, they still love reading a good old paperback or hardcover book.

And video stores?

Well, it looks like the times are finally catching up with Australia in some respects.

Until recently, I had two video stores that were equidistant from my house. The one I regularly frequented -- well, on $2 new release Tuesdays, anyway -- was called Video Ezy, and then Network Video. The other I've never even set foot inside, because a phone called told me they didn't have any equivalent to $2 Tuesdays.

Well, I'm going to have to learn what deals they do have, because Video Ezy/Network Video is no more.

My wife broke the news to me about a week back. She'd received a text, apparently, that they were going out of business and that everything was on sale. Why I didn't receive this same text, I don't know -- they texted me once when they thought I didn't return a movie on time, which turned out to be their error. Since then, they must have lost my number.

So I planned to go there on Wednesday, to pay my last respects.

Except it was closed on Wednesday. From now until April 2nd, when it shutters for good, it will only be open Thursday through Sunday. Which I can certainly understand, since they're not renting anything anymore, only clearing out the remaining unsold inventory.

I made sure to return this past Saturday, this time with only the older of my two sons in tow.

And I guess my purpose was not so much to thank Video Ezy for all the good times -- it had always been a pretty lame video store, if I'm being honest -- but rather, to figure out which movies I could buy on the cheap.

So though I do still recognize the passing of each remaining video store that closes with a bit of sadness, now the inevitability of the event has adjusted my perspective. This new version of me doesn't dwell on the sadness. Instead, apparently, this new me tries to dig in and find deals.

I instinctively avoided the new release wall, because a) those movies were selling for $7 instead of $3, and b) I don't necessarily want to buy movies that have just come out on video, since they aren't the kind of old favorites I typically add to my collection. (The good titles had been picked pretty clean by Saturday, anyway.)

It's an interesting challenge, to choose titles from a whole video store that's separated out by genre, and know that pretty much everything is affordable. There were still a couple thousand titles available, so it wasn't like I was down to just the dregs. My idea was to look extra hard at the comedies, because those tend to be the ones with the most repeat watchability (and the ones my wife is most likely to repeat watch with me). I gave cursory looks at the other sections as well, but came away with more comedies than anything else.

Having not bought a movie in more than year, I thought I could go a little hog wild. So after circling the store for about 20 minutes, coming up with an initial pile of purchases about twice this size, and driving my son to the brink of boredom-inspired insanity, I came away with the following seven titles:

Seen this twice, but the second viewing was probably four years ago. My wife likes it too, so we'll probably throw it in within six months.

Really liked this one and have only seen it once. Also, I don't know if my wife has seen it yet, and it's right up her alley.

Comments for Cedar Rapids are pretty much ditto for this.

I've already seen this twice, but it's been more than three years since my last viewing. My wife doesn't like this as much as I do. Then again, I don't think anyone likes this as much as I do.

Okay, leaving the comedies behind now ...

Did I say "leaving the comedies behind"? I should have waited one more movie before saying that. The funniest Star Trek is in my top 100 of all time, and I haven't seen it in forever.

My favorite movie of 2005. I may not have a burning desire to see this again, having seen it again about five years ago, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to own one of my #1 ranked movies. This was the last to make the cut.

And finally ...

I've seen this movie three times already and it only came out in 2013. Obviously I love this movie and need to own it.

Some that didn't make the final cut: Private Parts, Go, Headhunters, Philadelphia, a few others I can't remember. These are movies I like or in some cases love, but I just couldn't quite pull the trigger, either for repeat watchability reasons (Philadelphia) or having just seen them recently reasons (again, Philadelphia). Besides, that was $21 worth of movies, and I still had to pay another $10 for two videos my son wanted -- which were priced at $5 apiece because they were brand new.

So while I'm sad that another chapter is closing in the way we watch movies, at least I can salve my wounds with seven nice new additions to my video collection.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The uncool favorite

The Shawshank Redemption is a problematic movie for me, and I imagine for many others as well.

It's gone through a rather strange evolution, from underdog at the time of its release (a clearly second-fiddle best picture nominee after Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction) to modern classic that regularly appears at or near the top of IMDB's top 250 (it's currently #1, actually). This evolution is credited to its regular appearance in the rotation of cable networks like TNT, where it has gotten the opportunity to ingratiate itself to viewers who are wiling away a lazy Sunday afternoon. 

So why should a person be ashamed of saying they love a movie that ranks #1 on some kind of theoretically reputable movie list?

Because more than any other movie, it seems like the movie that identifies you as a "new-school cinephile."

See, the same people who made The Shawshank Redemption #1 on IMDB are the people who have elevated such films as The Dark Knight and The Avengers through the rankings. Their latest project appears to be Interstellar, which is all the way up at #22 on IMDB. That's a pretty high ranking for a movie that was actively disliked by a significant percentage of the people who saw it.

So if new-school cinephiles like sci-fi and comic book movies so much, shouldn't Guardians of the Galaxy be #1 on IMDB? Or one of the aforementioned titles?

No, because even those guys know that although they may love those movies, those movies are not strictly speaking "reputable" movies. Those movies are not "serious" movies about "real" issues. 

When looking for such a movie, they go Shawshank.

"Real" cinephiles don't really talk about Shawshank much, because on some level they probably recognize that it is a really, really good movie. However, because of its popularity, they distrust it in a similar way to how they (more rightly) distrust the aforementioned Forrest Gump. They think the mere fact of its popularity means there is something objectionable about it. Any movie chosen to be #1 in a democratic system must be inferior, because Joe Blow does not know how to properly assess the quality of a movie.

I sort of agree with this thinking. In general, I would hope that my favorite movie of the year was not also the movie that made the most money at the box office. I pride myself on not being a snob, but you have to be at least somewhat snobbish or else you aren't going to display that kind of selectivity that inspires you to seek out hidden gems. You want a movie to speak to you in a way that is not just the most surface-level interpretation that can be attained by just anybody. If everybody loves a movie, there must be something too obvious about it by half. 

So that finally brings us to my Saturday afternoon viewing of The Shawshank Redemption, my first viewing of it since I started keeping track of repeat viewings back in 2006. I'd say I'd seen it three or four times all the way through before that, and countless bits here and there on TV. 

I haven't seen it yet in the era in which it has become such an unqualified beloved hit, in which it is actively troublesome for people who imagine themselves to be discriminating consumers of cinema.

It was with this sense of wariness that I threw it in the DVD player. I was kind of scared of both possible outcomes. I was scared of loving it, because it would align me with all those less-discriminating viewers who have elevated it to the top of the IMDB chart. But I was also scared of not loving it, because that would mean I have continued to champion something that really isn't as good as it's cracked up to be. It's still #25 on my Flickchart, though that's down from a high of around #18 or #19.

Well, I still loved it. In fact, I was surprised to find myself overwhelmed by emotion at a finale that I knew all too well. 

The experience of watching it was like getting back in touch with an old friend. I knew its rhythms, and I fell right back into them. I didn't need to watch every moment of it with undivided attentiveness, which I sensed, allowing me to select it as the movie to watch while disassembling my computer. (I'd gotten a disc stuck in there the night before.) I think this is why it became such a hit on TNT -- a lot of people watched it in the background of their lives as it played in their living rooms while they were doing other things. 

And is there something wrong with that? No, no there isn't. I love a movie that reveals a little bit more about itself on every new viewing, where visual easter eggs are hidden that can only be detected through multiple viewings. I love discovering unexpected themes running through films, and how the creative camera or editing choices highlight those themes. I love films that challenge and frustrate. But I also love a straightforward movie that just does what it does exceptionally well. The Shawshank Redemption is such a movie.

If that makes me uncool to "real" cinephiles, then I'm uncool.

Hey, Lester Bangs said it was okay.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Meek's, cut off

Poor Meek's Cutoff.

It is officially getting the runaround from me at this point.

I've already seen this movie once, back in its original release year of 2011, but I've been eager for a revisit ever since then, as it's a film that keeps growing in my retroactive estimation. I've borrowed the movie at least three times from the library, probably more like four, which you know is a no-no if you read this post. Multiple rentals are much more likely in Australia than they were in the U.S.; there, you could borrow only three at a time, but here, your rentals are limited only by your imagination, and the likelihood that you will be able to gather them all together to return them by the due date. (The actual restriction is 50 items at once.)

Meek's Cutoff has got to have felt like its turn for a rewatch was finally due, especially given my flurry of rewatch activity lately -- in March alone, I had already watched a dozen movies that I'd already seen.

And I did indeed pop it into the DVD player yesterday afternoon. I needed something that I'd already seen, and preferably something calm and methodical, to watch in the background while I worked on my computer. (A different DVD from the library -- another recent rewatch, Night of the Living Dead -- had gotten stuck in my computer's DVD player, and I was going to need to do surgery to extract it.) Meek's fit both descriptions.

Unfortunately, when the movie started playing, Meek's Cutoff was cut off.

There were black bands on the sides of the screen. Not the tops and bottoms, but the sides.

Tops and bottoms = good. That means you are getting a widescreen presentation.

Sides = bad. That means the damn thing is a pan & scan version of the movie, and therefore, an extremely hobbled version of itself.

For those who may not know what I'm talking about, I will spare a few words of explanation. "Pan & scan" is the derisive term to describe movies that have been formatted to fit the standard 4 by 3 dimensions of an old cathode ray tube TV. Average people seemed to like that format because it meant the image filled their entire screen, but purists always hated it because they knew that the sides of the image had to be cut off to make it fit. The term "pan & scan" comes from the fact that on occasion, an actual artificial shifting of the "camera" had to be introduced into the image so that crucial information form the side of the screen was not lost. I think most notably of one of the first times I recall seeing something in pan & scan, when I watched Pulp Fiction with a friend, and noticed that the "camera" was panning from side to side of the elevator in order to capture both Vincent and Jules' faces as they went up to shake down the three low-level criminals. In the original movie, of course, that is a static shot, but the actors are far enough to the sides of the screen that you'd lose half of each guy's body if you just did a straight chopping of the sides of the image.

Now that many TVs are more rectangular than square in shape, pan & scan movies look even more egregious because you get the empty space -- the very thing studios were trying to avoid when they initially conceived of pan & scan -- on either side of the screen. So not only is the image butchered, but the butchering is no longer "seamless" to the untrained (average moviegoer) eye. For that reason, pan & scan versions are much more rare these days, and I think not seen at all on BluRays, though I may be wrong about that.

Needless to say, I resist any scenario that will involve watching something in pan & scan, especially when the movie is thoughtfully composed. If it's a dumb comedy I will probably just watch it that way, but something like Meek's Cutoff? No way.

So I cut off Meek's Cutoff after less than 30 seconds, and put in my own copy of The Shawshank Redemption instead. (Full post to follow on my experience of watching Shawshank for the first time in more than a decade.)

It's not the first time in the past six months I've been forced to abort a viewing because it was a pan & scan version. I had been determined to watch The Shining for the first time in eons around Halloween, but discovered (to my horror) that the copy we owned was indeed in this dreaded format. I blame my wife. She's a good film fan, but it's not second nature to her to check the aspect ratio when she buys a movie. And this is one she bought ages ago.

The next time I see Meek's Cutoff at the library, I'll make sure it's on BluRay.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Alien vs. Aliens: Finally, an informed opinion

It's one of those cinematic discussions that seems to keep on circling back around. Every couple years, like clockwork, I seem to be around people having the following debate:

Which is better, Alien or Aliens?

They seem to find this debate especially interesting because, as they are fond of pointing out, Ridley Scott's seminal 1978 film and James Cameron's phenomenally successful 1986 sequel exist in two different genres. Alien, they point out, is a horror movie, or even more specifically, a haunted house movie. Aliens, on the other hand, is an action movie, even a war movie.

I don't mean to belittle this debate or suggest that the people who have it are not creative. I've probably initiated this discussion myself on occasion. I'm just kind of surprised by the legs it's got. People just can't get enough of comparing and contrasting the first two Alien movies.

As much as I have been involved in this debate, though, I've tended to take on the role of the curious onlooker. I mean, I've suspected where my preferences lay, but having only ever seen Aliens once, in the 1980s -- and having seen Alien all three of the times I've seen it since then, including twice in the past five years -- I didn't know if I could confidently choose the original over the sequel, without giving Aliens its due via another viewing.

And as there have been more and more years that have passed since I've seen Aliens, its mythology has grown accordingly. Having already had a sense of its greatness as an action movie, I have since decided that it probably exceeds the sometimes limiting confines of that genre. I mean, just think about the mythical badass that Sigourney Weaver is in this movie.

Until Sunday night, though, when I finally sat down with Aliens again.

The first thing that struck me was the withered, old-fashioned look of the 20th Century Fox logo as it popped up at the beginning of the movie. That's what the logo looked like in 1986, but that made me realize I had this weird persistent idea of Aliens as "new." It's nearly 30 years old, Vance. Some age is going to show on it.

I had forgotten that the movie began with Ripley being rescued from years of hypersleep -- 57 years, as a matter of fact. That figure chilled me when Paul Reiser revealed it to a groggy Ripley. Aliens was interstellaring us years before Interstellar.

The setup is great. In an Aliens appreciation piece I read recently, the writer noted that nearly nothing that can be described as conventionally exciting happens in the first hour of the movie. I was rather staggered to hear this. You could never get away with something like that in 2015, as an action movie would be almost contractually obligated to begin with a ten-minute action set piece, even if it then proceeded into a half-hour plus of laying the groundwork for the second half of the movie (but it probably wouldn't actually deprive viewers of explosions or fisticuffs for any half-hour period of its running time). Yet the opening hour of Aliens works exquisitely, slowly building tension until the creatures are unleased on us in all their fury around the 55-minute mark.

A surprising thing happened then, though. I actually sort of became less interested for the next 45 minutes or so.

Although this is the part where the marines realize how terribly overmatched they are, and it also contains Bill Paxton's most quotable lines, I found both the alien kills and the marines' responses to them less clever than I expected them. This is probably also the part of the evening when I started to get really tired, having gotten a later start on the 137-minute movie than we would have otherwise liked.

Of course, once the cast is pared down basically to just Ripley, Newt and Bishop, the movie really grabbed my attention again. Perhaps it was seeing Aliens for the first time as a father, but I got damn near emotional when Ripley appears in the power loader and spits out her epic line: "Get away from her you bitch!" I love that her fight in the loader takes on an almost slow-mo quality because the loader is so very big and deliberate in its motions. Anyway, the ending felt incredibly satisfying.

I think it's kind of funny that both of these movies end with the alien being shot out of an airlock. Now I'm curious to go back to Alien to see how similar that end scene is. I imagine it's different enough, but it's funny to consider the similarity since these two movies are otherwise thought of as so different in their tone and intention.

So my first viewing of Aliens in about 25 years did in fact convince me of the superiority of the original, which ranges from a slight superiority to a more significant one. Both are obviously first-rate films.

And in case you were wondering, I won't be widening my net to revisit Alien 3 or Alien: Resurrection any time soon ... even if the directors of both of those films have gone on to have very interesting careers, and it would be useful to see how these films fit into them in retrospect.

Now I'm looking ahead to what Neill Blomkamp will do with an Alien reboot/sequel ... and after watching Chappie last night, I feel even more encouraged about his maturation as a director and his ability to pull it off. Given the robotics and mech suits he's used in his movies, a reappearance of the power loader in the next Alien film is almost a guarantee.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Revival of a nearly four-year-old vow

When you run a blog, sometimes you end up making empty promises.

One of those on this blog was a planned series called Random Rewatch, which was going to involve me choosing a movie randomly from all the movies I've seen, and rewatching it. Then choosing another, and so on. I'd use a random number generator, and the number would correspond to my ranking of that movie on Flickchart. So if I got #533, I'd randomly rewatch the movie I had ranked #533 on Flickchart.

On August 26, 2011, that random number was #672, which corresponded to Full Metal Jacket at the time. (It's now #844.)

On March 17, 2015, I finally rewatched Full Metal Jacket.

Why did it take so long? I have no idea. For two years (almost exactly) after that post, I still had a Netflix disc-through-the-mail account, which would have allowed me to order up the movie any old time. But I'm not sure I even added it to my queue. Perhaps I expected to stumble across it randomly, and that never happened.

Well, never say never. It did finally happen this past weekend, when I picked up Stanley Kubrick's 1987 film at the new Melbourne library branch at the Docklands.

This was almost certainly not the only time I've seen Full Metal Jacket available at the library, especially since I used to cruise Los Angeles libraries for movies as well. But it's the first time where when I saw the movie on the shelf, I thought "You know, I told my readers I was going to rewatch that, way back when." This time, I decided to convert that old promise to a reality.

It's not like it was a bad movie to have randomly gotten through the number generator. A "bad" movie, for the purposes of this particular exercise, would be something I hated and had no intention of ever watching again, or something I'd watch again without being forced to do so. The best outcome is something like Full Metal Jacket, where I thought something clear could be gained from a second viewing, but I probably wouldn't otherwise have prioritized it. In the case of Full Metal Jacket, I had only seen it once, and had unresolved feelings about whether the first 45 minutes were really that much better than the next 75. (It's really kind of two different movies.)

So, what did I discover from my second Jacket viewing? (Spoilers to follow.)

The second "half" (really more like two-thirds) has more of substance than I thought it did. I remember thinking that it meandered and was more arthouse in nature, having few in the way of real plot developments. I now recognize that it's a series of effective vignettes that each demonstrate various aspects of the notion that "war is hell." Taken individually, they may not have as much impact as similar scenes in other movies, but they are more powerful than I remembered them being, and worked pretty well as a collection. The death of Cowboy seemed particular poignant this time out, as did the sniper baiting the battalion by continue to put (non-fatal) bullets into the two fallen troops on the battlefield. Kubrick's use of slow-mo in that scene particularly struck me.

However, some of it feels a bit on the nose. The interviews the soldiers give to the Stars and Stripes camera felt a little obvious in terms of a soldier's standard complaints about serving in a war in which the U.S. is meddling and the locals aren't appreciative. Then again, this was 1987 and I suppose some of that stuff was being said in that way for the first time on film. One scene that I thought was supposed to really wallop me, but didn't, was the soldiers standing over the mortally wounded Vietnamese sniper, who turns out to have been a young(ish) girl. They seem really torn by the fact that it's a girl they've killed (or are in the process of killing). Since she's such a lethal weapon, having taken out nearly a half dozen of the American soldiers, the amount of time they lingered on her seemed disproportionately regretful.

One thing that's for certain is that the opening is, indeed, the more effective portion of the film. It too has on-the-nose moments, and I noted this time thinking "Hey, Private Pyle made it -- why does he still want to kill his drill instructor and himself?" But whether Pyle's actions have a totally believable psychological reality or not, it certainly is an effective portrait of how a man's sanity and will to live can be broken down by someone using such extreme means to make him a more effective soldier. I had forgotten how many truly terrific lines of dialogue R. Lee Ermey has as he chews out his soldiers -- if I were Pyle, I'd have a hard time stifling my grin as well.

Other quick observations:

Matthew Modine's superior at Stars and Stripes is played by the same guy who played Jack's father on Lost, John Terry. Of course, when I first saw him I thought it was the guy from Seinfeld whose favorite song was "Desperado," who is obsessed with the Karl Farbman furniture.

For some reason I thought the scene that 2 Live Crew quoted in their notorious song "Me So Horny" comes at the end of the movie. In fact, it comes right at the start of the "second half."

Okay, having fulfilled my promise, I would now like to return to this series with semi-regularity. Really!

Of course, that will depend on my ability to find the movie that's ranked #2843 (of 4098) on my Flickchart. The random number generator has not been quite so kind to me this time.

And #2843 corresponds to ...

... Hollywoodland, directed by Allen Coulter in 2006.

I'm not sure how much more I have to discover about Hollywoodland, but discovering it or not discovering it I will be, at some point. I may lack some of the options I used to have of getting hold of random movie titles, but I see that this one is available for rent on iTunes.

So now I really have no excuse.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

From Water Babies to The East: 3000 movies on video

When I thought about writing a post to commemorate my 3000th movie seen on video, I didn't remember that I'd actually already done this for my 2000th.

What can I say. I notice, and write about, milestones.

Adding the movie Water Babies to this post showed me that a Water Babies label already existed, and I soon found the post where Anitchrist had been written about as my 2000th movie on video back on January 18, 2010. 

Little more than five years later, I've added another thousand.

The movie this time was The East, directed by the director with my favorite name in the biz: Zal Batmanglij. 

It was about 35 years ago that I got started watching movies on video. That first one, Water Babies, was watched at my friend Jed Lambert's house on his Betamax. As I wrote in the Antichrist post, I also remember watching The Black Hole at his house around that time, but I'd already seen that in the theater. The Black Hole may have been the first movie I ever saw twice, but that's another post for another time. 

This time around, it's probably as interesting to talk about the speed with which I watched another thousand as the milestone itself. Watching 1000 movies, period, in five years and two months would be pretty impressive for most people. But that discounts all the movies I've seen in the theater during that time.

However, I also acknowledge each time I reach another milestone of one thousand movies seen, so we don't need to go into too much detail there either. I'm at 4,157 right now, so don't worry, there's a while still to go before we get to the next one of those.

So what do I want to use today's post to do?

Not much. I guess I'm not feeling particularly philosophical today. 

It's a milestone and milestones should be marked, so let's just do that and be done with it.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Cormac McCarthy can stuff it

I have never read a Cormac McCarthy novel.

But from the films I've seen of his work, I'm tired of hearing people speak about him in such hushed and reverent tones.

He could be the most talented wordsmith to string phrases together since Mark Twain, but his stories leave me cold, and not in a way that nourishes me.

The first McCarthy adaptation I saw was the disastrous 2000 film All the Pretty Horses, starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, and directed by Billy Bob Thornton. I didn't know who McCarthy was at the time, though I do remember hearing his name discussed -- to me he was just some novelist I had never heard of. Even if I had been inclined to blame McCarthy for the failure of the movie, I probably wouldn't have. All the talk was that the version Thornton wanted to make was entirely butchered by the studio, leaving the final movie without crucial passages that would have contextualized key parts of the narrative. I just wrote it off as one of those movies that never stood a chance.

The first movie I was conscious of being an adaptation of his work was the 2007 best picture winner, No Country for Old Men. I was with the movie big time for its first half, when it was following the beats of a good Coen crime thriller, with just enough narrative eccentricity thrown in to make it interesting. But then the Coens began engaging in an intentional campaign to frustrate us, leaving key confrontations and plot developments to occur off-screen, and petering out into an unsatisfying non-ending. (Don't worry if you disagree; you would obviously not be alone.) When I learned that this was very faithful to the way things go down in McCarthy's novel, I began to grow skeptical of the man.

Next up was The Road in 2009, which remains my favorite movie based on McCarthy's work. But I have to qualify that pretty significantly. First, just as an aside, I'll say that I believe I confused this novel with another one, since I got it into my head that it took place just after the Civil War, not in an apocalyptic future like the movie. That of course turned out to be wrong. As this was director John Hillcoat's follow-up to The Proposition, which I liked very much, and as post-apocalypse movies have always interested me (and were not quite as plentiful six years ago), I was super excited to see The Road. The only way to describe my reaction to the movie, then, was disappointment. I recognize it as a good movie, but it was bad bleak (like The Rover) rather than good bleak (like Children of Men). The Rover would not have been an available reference to me at the time, but it is now.

Then last night I saw The Counselor. The Counselor is not based on a McCarthy novel. Instead, it's a McCarthy original screenplay. What that does that's particularly instructive is it prevents us from blaming any intermediary for mucking up McCarthy's vision. Yeah, Ridley Scott had some say in why The Counselor was so bad, but those are McCarthy's words, unmolested and unfettered. Indeed, The Counselor is a base, disquieting affair, but I hesitate to use those words to describe it, as they make it sound more interesting than it actually is. I love being disquieted by a movie, but as with bleakness (which is also on plentiful display here), there are good and bad ways of being disquieted. McCarthy's way involves exclusively unlikable characters passively navigating a simple plot that's difficult to follow (how's that for a contradiction) because it's so clumsily executed and because the dialogue is overwritten to the point of preventing you from following it. What's more, the things that were supposed to be shocking about this movie ended up boring me. (And were, in fact, the reasons I watched it in the first place, despite the negative reviews.) The story is so muddled, in fact, that I had to consult the plot synopsis on wikipedia twice while the movie was still running, just to give myself the hope of possibly getting something out of the parts I had not yet seen. No such luck.

With these four McCarthy cinematic works as my evidence, I have decided the man is a one-trick pony. His every work is devoted to the idea that people are evil to their core, and any exception to this is an aberration, not a cause for hope. Oh, there may be different degrees of evil. Some people may just make choices that are contradictory to their nature because they sense an opportunity to profit. Others are naturally venal, but not openly harmful to people. And then there are just the anarchists, who seem to enact the most extreme forms of violence against others for the pure pleasure of it, and show nary an ounce of mercy. They comprise a disturbingly large percentage of McCarthy characters.

But everyone is compromised in some way or another, and there's no chance they are going to come to good ends. I suppose there's a certain moral rectitude to the idea that bad people come to bad ends, but then there are all those bad people in McCarthy's films who never get punished for what they've done, or whose punishment comes in truly unrecognizable forms. Where's the optimism?

Maybe I like The Road the best because it does end with just a hint of hope for the future. If I recall correctly (SPOILER ALERT), the boy's father dies, but he takes up with new guardians who seem to give him the distant hope of a new and enduring family unit. Of course, some of that is speculation, and The Road isn't so rosy as to guarantee us a positive outlook for the character. But it does not end on the purely bleak note of his other films. Maybe it's just that if you are going to put the world through an apocalypse, you have already amply demonstrated your pessimism, and are obliged to give us some possible ray of sunshine at the end.

Conversely, The Counselor is probably his bleakest. But it comes by that distinction cheaply, as it doesn't develop any of its characters enough for us to appreciate what's happening to them or why it's happening. These characters are basically cyphers, which leaves their ultimate position in McCarthy's moral universe totally arbitrary.

The only thing worse than the point McCarthy is repeatedly trying to make is having no point at all.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

New Zealand, the "new" home for horror comedy

For a pretty darn small film industry, New Zealand sure does produce a lot of horror comedy.

Having watched Housebound last night as a themed Friday the 13th viewing, I have now seen two Kiwi horror comedies from 2014 in the past six months. The other of course was What We Do in the Shadows, which I watched on the plane back from the U.S. in November. These might also be the two preeminent horror comedies, period, from 2014, though I'd have to think hard about other contenders before I arrived at that conclusion. (Also, What We Do in the Shadows is really more of a straight comedy with a horror backdrop than a movie that's actually trying to scare you.)

However, calling New Zealand the "new" home for horror comedy is not exactly accurate, either. Kiwi horror comedy dates back to the 1980s and the sensibilities of future auteur Peter Jackson.

Jackson started his career with the horror comedy Bad Taste in 1987, and continued making movies in that vein all the way through The Frighteners in 1996, after which he plunged himself into Middle Earth and other Hollywood blockbusters, and never looked back. Though I understand he is actually going to look back in the next stage of his career.

So horror comedy seems to be in New Zealand's cultural legacy. Jonathan King made the horror comedy Black Sheep in 2006, about a flock of bloodthirsty sheep, and he specifically credited Jackson's early movies as an influence on the film's slapstick style. There have been a few others that seem to fit the bill over the years, but none that I've seen.

Wait a minute, Vance. A handful of movies sprinkled over a country's entire history of making films is not enough to really posit a trend, is it?

Maybe not, but the number of horror comedies relative to the total number of films certainly suggests that Kiwis are predisposed to this type of movie, or at least feel perpetually indebted to Jackson for inspiring them. According to wikipedia's page on films made in New Zealand -- which is by no means exhaustive, since it does not even include Housebound -- only an average of about three movies per year were being made in New Zealand as recently as the turn of the century. Very quaint. And in 2002, one of those three movies was Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which has mostly foreign financing. Only in the past decade has New Zealand beefed itself up to between eight and ten movies per year ... but then as recently as two years ago, only two total films are listed -- and one of them is the second Hobbit film.

So to call New Zealand's film industry "fledgling" would still be quite accurate, which isn't such a surprise for a country of fewer than five million people (compared to Australia's 23 million). I think it's fair to say that horror comedy represents a disproportionate percentage of the country's output.

And they're pretty darn good at it. What We Do in the Shadows was perhaps my favorite comedy of 2014, though that isn't saying a lot as there were few comedies that really impressed me last year. Housebound isn't as consistently funny, though it did make me laugh out loud a half-dozen times. And it made up for that by genuinely scaring me on a couple occasions.

It's probably worth offering you a short synopsis of each to give you that extra little push to go see them. Both have delicious high concepts. What We Do in the Shadows invites a mockumentary crew into the Wellington mansion of a quartet of vampires who live together. They range in age from a sprightly couple hundred years old, and still suave, to an ancient Nosferatu type with gnarled claws and an ability to do little more than hiss. We get interviews with each, and the camera follows them around through their daily lives. It's as delightful and tonally perfect as it sounds. Housebound, on the other hand, takes place in a different type of mansion out in the country. Its protagonist is sent there for house arrest to live with her daffy mother after trying to rob an ATM. Her mother is convinced that the house is haunted, and she starts to believe the same after a series of unexplained events. They can't just leave the house, though -- the convict's ankle bracelet makes sure of that. It's already scheduled for a U.S. remake.

Both are worth your time, especially What We Do in the Shadows. And if you watch, perhaps you will help in some small way to boost New Zealand's meager output from three films per year to four.

And help ensure that there are plenty more great Kiwi horror comedies yet to come.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Go 3D in style

As if you weren't already spending enough money when you go to a 3D movie, Hoyts Cinemas thinks you might want to fork out an additional $15 to $20, just because.

At Hoyts -- at least the one at the Highpoint Shopping Centre -- you can buy your own 3D glasses, right there through a handy dandy vending machine in the lobby.

Note I said "can." They'll still give you a pair, as a ticket taker confirmed for me -- I had to ask him because I was concerned this was just another upsell. But the pair they give you will be flimsy and disposable. You'll get to see the movie's 3D effects, but you won't be able to do it in style.

I greeted this vending machine with a chuckle, but then I decided, "Hey, why not?" Surely there are people who do think it's worth doing. Australian society seems to function on the idea that people are not very attached to their disposable income, and this is no less of an egregious example than some others I've seen. Especially since one of the most common complaints I hear from people about going to 3D movies is "I hate the glasses."

You can get something that's functional, designed to go over your existing glasses ...

(Though note that they tell you it's "designer," which justifies the $15 charge.)

Or you can get something that's whimsical, based on an existing movie franchise ...

Or you can get something that's adventurous, also based on a (no longer) existing movie franchise ...

Or something that's extra fancy ...

Or something that's extra cheap ...

(Though I guess, still better than the free ones -- or maybe they are just trying to fool people into buying something they'll give them for free, which is perhaps the most shameful upsell of all.)

And then, finally, there are just the ones nobody wants ...

Me, I'm content just paying the $4 surcharge for 3D and being done with it. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Gimmick fatigue

I'm told some people didn't like Birdman because they felt exhausted by the lack of edits. Essentially, the gimmick of making the movie seem like one continuous shot was a burden that distracted them and eventually ruined the experience of watching it. Perhaps they felt that an edit would give them a chance to breathe, like how you sometimes welcome an ad break in a particularly intense TV show.

I know what they're talking about now, but not because I watched Birdman again last night. In fact, I liked Birdman just about the same amount on second viewing as I had on the first, with the one difference being that it actually seemed to move faster for me this time. So in that sense you might say I actually liked it better.

I know what they're talking about not because of the movie I watched on Monday night, but because of the one I watched on Sunday night. That was Nacho Vigalondo's Open Windows, and it was a fatiguing burden indeed.

Vigalondo is the director of the 2007 time travel movie Timecrimes, which is one of my favorite small discoveries of the past decade or so. We went in without knowing anything about it, and were thrilled to see where it went, what surprises it had in store, and what individual bits Vigalondo contributed to the already saturated genre of time travel conundrum movies.

Vigalondo has apparently had another film in between Timecrimes and Open Windows, 2011's Extraterrestrial, but that was actually not on my radar until after I'd finished Sunday's film. So I pitched Open Windows to my wife as Vigalondo's long-awaited follow-up to our much-beloved Timecrimes, and it jumped straight to the top of our queue.

I did also know the gimmick going in, and though it probably worried me on some level, I figured it would work out fine in Vigalondo's hands. The gimmick is this: The entire movie is supposed to take place on Elijah Wood's computer screen. Whatever would happen in the story of an obsessed fan stalking an attractive movie star would be reducible to what could happen on the open windows on his laptop. But given the multifarious types of video feeds that can now be accessed on a person's computer screen, this still left a lot of possibilities for the type of action the audience could witness.

Too many, as it turns out.

Open Windows barely considers it a limitation that the action is confined to Wood's laptop. The character, Nick, changes locations multiple times and gets involved in all manner of complicated hacker intrigue without even once losing his internet connection, to say nothing of the loss of battery life on his laptop itself. I mean, seriously -- couldn't they have spared a single line of dialogue explaining why he never drops his internet? They couldn't, because there was too much else ridiculous to accomplish that they literally didn't have the time.

I will spare you a deeper description of what happens in Open Windows, but know this: It relates to multiple video chats with hackers and other shady personalities, instant access to live security cams and other unlikely recording devices (a bag full of "ping pong ball cameras," anyone?), an omniscient awareness of what's going on by any number of people (yet an inability to hear each others' simultaneous chats on Nick's computer), and the unfettered ability of anyone to send various apps and live camera feeds to Nick's laptop at a moment's notice. For a guy who appears to know something about computing, Nick has a truly shitty firewall, and displays no aversion whatsoever to clicking on mysterious links offered him by sketchy strangers. At the very least, he should be worried about downloading a virus.

Oh, and all these high-level hacks, frame jobs and other intricate planning worthy of Jigsaw in the Saw series are in service of a plot to humiliate a movie star. That's a rather too pointed commentary on our celebrity-obsessed culture. If these people had these computer skills, shouldn't they put them to better use by hacking into a bank and stealing all its money?

Perhaps the worst part of Open Windows, though, was the claustrophobia I felt 20 minutes in to a 100-minute movie, knowing that I was going to be trapped in its format for the next 80 minutes. Looking at -- and trying to believe the reality of -- these cascading windows on his computer screen was going to be a chore to get through indeed. Vigalondo seemed to know this, which is probably why he gets Nick out of his hotel room and has him driving around a rigged-up rental car for the movie's second half. Of course, this was the worst of both worlds -- like the biggest concept offenders in the found footage genre, it violates the conceit nearly as often as it adheres to it. So while we're still stuck on Nick's computer screen, we can't buy anything that's going on. We're being tortured by someone teasing us with our freedom, then snatching it away.

Open Windows would be just a failed attempt to execute an ambitious concept if it didn't end with a truly inexplicable series of absurd twists that can scarcely be reasoned out or reconciled with each other. So after cheating on an exhausting gimmick for most of the movie, but at least holding together a basic storytelling logic, it then entirely collapses as a narrative.

To be fair to Open Windows, I may have already been conditioned against this gimmick from an experience a couple days earlier. The reason Open Windows came up at all for discussion, actually, was that my wife and I watched an episode of Modern Family on Hulu where the entire thing takes place on the screen of Claire's laptop. While that was executed a lot more cleverly, it was similarly unlikely in terms of her multi-tasking and shuffling between windows -- with the number of digital balls she kept in the air in this episode, you'd think she were a twentysomething, not a fortysomething. Making matters a bit more exhausting, we didn't get a break from the gimmick at all, because a glitch in Hulu caused none of the ads to play. (It was this experience that put me in touch with the value of having an occasional one-minute break from what you're watching.) So while I was laughing and ultimately applauded the effort, I felt a bit worse for the wear by the time the 22 minutes were up.

Now imagine that over 100 minutes, and you'll get an idea of the relentlessness of Open Windows.

If anyone felt during Birdman like I felt during Open Windows, I truly pity them.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The regrettably brief prime of Kathleen Turner

Few actresses can have Meryl Streep's career. Streep is not only an outlier by continuing to work regularly and prominently for nearly 40 years, she's a significant outlier. It's a lot more common for an actress to rule the roost for no more than 10 or 15 years. Hollywood is just not kind to most actresses once they hit their 40s. It chews them up and spits them out.

There may be no better example of this than Kathleen Turner, who came on the scene, climbed to the top very quickly ... and then was gone.

Actually, not gone -- not for good, anyway. But her current incarnation is an unfortunate illustration of the major differences between an aging male star and an aging female one.

I was always aware that Turner was an actress of great beauty and great charisma. I mean, she had charisma with a capital C. She was genuinely spunky. It wasn't until I saw Body Heat on Thursday night, though, that I realized she also possessed a huge amount of sex appeal. Next to the word "sultry" in the dictionary, a picture of Turner in Body Heat appears. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's this picture:

After creating such an impression with her first starring role, Turner quickly made the world her oyster, starring in her most recongizable role in 1984's Romaning the Stone, then adding Peggy Sue Got Married and the sequel to Romancing the StoneThe Jewel of the Nile. The Accidental Tourist and The War of the Roses soon followed, and she also iconically voiced Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? 

The kind of stardom Turner was bound for seemed sustainable. It really felt like she could do no wrong. But around the time V.I. Warshawski came out in 1991, Kathleen Turner was over. The Kathleen Turner we knew previously, who was one of the hottest commodities of the 1980s, was over, in any case. She was only 37 at that point, but that was kind of it.

By the time she materialized in Serial Mom in 1994, I remember the sensation of having already kind of forgotten about and her and been surprised to see her turn up. And here she was being used to satirize the kind of wholesomeness which she had (at times) represented in her career (when she wasn't playing the femme fatale in Body Heat or a prostitute in Crimes of Passion, that is).

But what happened next with Turner was perhaps more unexpected. She started taking roles that played up the huskiness of her voice and some increasingly mannish qualities that were probably exacerbated by the fact that she stopped paying such close attention to maintaining her figure. I guess some of that is on Turner -- I mean, you have to keep going to the gym if you want any hope of sustained viability in Hollywood -- but what seemed unfortunate was that the industry began collectively thinking of her as some kind of monster, some kind of freak.

She kept appearing through the rest of the 1990s in increasingly more obscure roles, occasionally popping up in an arthouse movie (The Virgin Suicides) or an awful cash grab (Baby Geniuses). But it was around the turn of the century that things really changed for her. In 2001 she took the semi-recurring role of Chandler Bing's father on Friends. That's right, his father -- who had undergone a sex change into a woman.

Suddenly this was now how people saw Turner -- a gender-confused figure of fun. After Friends, she was off the scene entirely for five years before doing more voice work in 2006. But no longer was she doing the sexy rabbit. Now she was voicing an oversized circus freak in the animated film Monster House, who looked like this:

She had more TV in her future on Californication, but here again she was presented as repulsive. She played a character whose voracious sexual advances on Evan Handler's Charlie were always unwanted, and not just because she was his boss. She disgusted him, which is no surprise, because Turner was required to play the part over the top, emphasizing the character's basest and most raunchy instincts.

Twenty fourteen found Turner again being cast as a middle-aged woman who is supposed to be gross compared to her former self. She plays the grown-up slut Freda Felcher in Dumb and Dumber To -- a character both Harry and Lloyd lusted after when they were younger, yet whom they greet with looks of revulsion when they meet her again, 20 years later. We aren't supposed to be taken aback by this, because the last 15 years have asked us to adjust our perspective on Turner so that we think of her like they do: an abomination of a human being. At least Dumb and Dumber To doesn't overplay her outrageous behavior in an attempt to turn us even further against her -- more than anything, she just plays the part as exhausted, which may be how Turner really feels at this point. Except for the unfeminine plaid shirt, the following picture is even almost complimentary:

However, let's also not forget that the Farrelly brothers have been known for putting "freaks" in their films, like the character in Shallow Hal who has spina bifida. Is Kathleen Turner just another one of these freaks?

Look, fame is a two-way street. If Turner wanted to extend her prime, she knew what she probably had to do. She had to get work done, and she had to stay in shape. She could have gotten the 25 years that Julia Roberts has gotten, even if she couldn't have gotten Streep's 40. It was her choice to accept the roles offered to her where her curdled femininity was the point being emphasized.

It's just a shame that it had to be this way. If Turner were a man, she could have survived fluctuations in her weight. She could have kept getting cast in lead roles, because stories are written about middle-aged men. They aren't so much written about middle-aged women.

If I'm going to end more positively -- and with someone like Turner, I'd really like to -- I might say that Turner should earn our respect for being a Hollywood survivor. No, she's no longer glamorous, no longer young, no longer sultry. But she's still showing up on screen. She's still on our radar.

She's just working with what she's got. That's what she did when she had the looks and the figure, and that's what she's doing now that she doesn't.

And we should just be grateful that she didn't have the kind of work done that would have turned her into a true monster. At least she's still employable ... which cannot be said for someone like Meg Ryan.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Witches aren't scary - except when they are

Witches are just as prominent in the coterie of Halloween baddies as ghosts, goblins, vampires, mummies and zombies. But their union has not been doing a great job with PR. While many of those others can be quite frightening, witches are often consigned to the category of "funny" monsters. They may cackle and they may have green skin, but we can usually laugh them off. They're harmless.

Given this perception, it sometimes surprises me how many truly chilling movies there are where witches are the primary villains.

In each case that I have acknowledged this, I've written it off as an exception to the rule. But how many exceptions can you have before you start re-thinking the rule?

Here are five such movies, starting with the one I re-watched on Sunday night for the first time since 2006:

1) Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento) - I have to admit, the first two times I watched Suspiria, I thought the opening 15 minutes so terrifying that the rest of the movie inevitably paled by comparison. However, that opening is terrific enough that I went ahead and bought the movie on the strength of those 15 minutes alone. (The Goblins score certainly helped grease the transaction.) In thinking about Suspiria, I would sometimes tell myself that witches being the villains are a primary example of why the rest of the movie doesn't live up to that opening, when the identity of those antagonists has yet to be established. This time, though, the whole movie filled me with dread, and I appreciated certain things that maybe didn't land as effectively on previous viewings: like the supernatural, undead snoring of the witch Helena Markos, or that mysterious room in the top floor of the dance academy where the witches go to perform their rituals at night. The witches discomfited me enough on this viewing to inspire this post.

2) The Blair Witch Project (1999, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez) - It's right there in the title, but I bet people don't often consider the fact that what they're afraid of in this movie is witches. Or, one witch in particular. But as with Suspiria, it's scary as hell, and some people consider this one of the most frightening movies they've ever seen. Perhaps the key is that you really don't know what you're afraid of in this movie -- you know they're looking for a witch, but all you actually see is inconclusive evidence of evil, all you hear are noises that your imagination conflates into whatever terrorizes it the most. But when you come right down to it, it's a witch that's giving us the spooks when we watch this, the granddaddy of the modern found footage movement.

3) Paranormal Activity (2009, Oren Peli) - I'm just now realizing that both of the most successful found footage horror movies of recent years use witches as their monsters. You find this out to a greater extent in the sequels to Paranormal Activity as the mythology becomes better developed, but it's a coven of witches at the center of all the spooky happenings in these movies. You get frightening flashes of them from time to time, and they are ghastly creatures indeed.

4) Rosemary's Baby (1968, Roman Polanski) - Yes, even Rosemary's Baby features witches -- witches in cahoots with the devil. Witches are the devil's servants, and never has that been more evident than when they ensnare a woman for the devil to impregnate. So again, as in Blair Witch, it's not what we see of the witch that scares us so much -- it's what we don't see. Minnie and Roman Castavet look and usually act like harmless old New York busybodies ... until we see what they are really like, through glimpses of a drugged haze, and near the end when the jig is finally up. Everything that's unholy and unsavory about Rosemary's Baby is tied to their status as these practitioners of the occult.

5) The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming) - And why not? Although Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West is in many ways the template for our modern green-skinned Halloween witch, she does not soft pedal the role in the least. And though she may not be terrifying to a lot of adults, her shrieking intensity has some real balls to it, and could scare the pants off plenty a little kid. I'm sure she scared me when I was young enough ... though I think the flying monkeys were slightly more traumatizing in that regard.

And Hollywood knows we're still secretly horrified by witches. Next up is this year's The Witch, which won the directing award at Sundance.

It may just be the next one to turn our skin green.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A tale of blossoming love

They say a new ranking year doesn't really get started until you see something you love.

(I don't know who says that. Shhh. You're getting sidetracked.)

Well, 2015 is officially GAME ON.

And when I talk about a tale of blossoming love, I'm not describing the plot of The Last Five Years. I'm talking about me falling in love with The Last Five Years over the last three days.

Depressed by the 1-2 punch of The Wedding Ringer and Jupiter Ascending that started my year, I was particularly susceptible to seeing a 2015 movie that actually figured to be good pop up on iTunes. The Last Five Years had only just gotten a theatrical release on February 13th, but you can't hold a thing like that against a movie these days. The game has changed.

The movie was only even on my radar because one of my friends in the Flickchart Facebook group, a noted musical theater buff, had been talking up its arrival for a while. And when it finally came, it didn't disappoint her. She ranked it 45th out of the 2300+ movies she had ranked, the highest she had ever ranked a movie on a first-time viewing since she began using the site.

Seemed worth a gamble.

Since I watched it on Monday night, my life has been kind of dominated by this thing.

But before I go singing its praises (pun intended), I should probably tell you a little bit about it, shouldn't I?

The plot is simple. Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan star as Cathy Hiatt and Jamie Wallerstein, a cute couple of New Yorkers who fall head over heels for each other and begin a doomed five-year relationship. We know it's doomed because the first number, sung by Cathy, comes in the immediate wake of reading the breakup letter he wrote her. We've begun at the end of their relationship, but hold on, that's not all. The second number -- this time sung by Jamie -- plunges us five years into the past, to their first romp in the hay, when he's reveling in her lack of Jewishness and how it would crush his mother. The story continues on that way, with Jamie's songs moving forward in time, and Cathy's moving backward.

There's something so simple and so fundamentally appealing about this format. It means the movie is essentially a sine wave of emotion, reaching a low point at the beginning and at the end, and a high point in the middle. Even within that structure, though, there's melancholy alternating with joy on every other track. The opening juxtaposition of Cathy's remorseful "Still Hurting" and Jamie's jubilant "Shiksa Goddess" gives us an idea what we've got in store, and keeps us from ever staying down for long. And it says something profound about how the two aspects of their relationship -- the initial joy and the eventual pain -- inform each other and ultimately intertwine. Kind of like in any relationship, which experiences its ups and downs even in good times.

What's wrong in their relationship isn't anything so profound. Jamie, an aspiring writer, has his novel published and becomes an overnight success. Cathy, an aspiring stage actress, trudges through a series of uninspiring auditions that go nowhere. Much as they would both like it to be otherwise, the relationship can't handle the disparity in their levels of self-actualization, and they eventually and perhaps inevitably land on different planes of existence. Their earnest attempts to save things are what give the movie its tragic soul.

So how much do I love this movie?

Well, I gave it "only" 4.5 stars on Letterboxd. But that was Monday night. Consider the events since then:

1) On Tuesday afternoon I watched it again. I was home with only my younger son, who had a whopping 4.5 hours worth of naps during the day. During the afternoon one, once I had determined I had had a productive enough morning, I gave the movie a second watch before my rental was set to expire later that night. It therefore joins a select few movies that got multiple watches during a single rental period.

2) On Tuesday evening I contemplated watching it a third time. I considered pitching it to my wife. The kids were in bed early, so if we'd started around 7:30, we could have watched it again before the rental expired around 9:15. (She didn't need to know about the second viewing that afternoon.) That would have been three times in 24 hours and twice in the same day. But I abandoned the plan when I saw that it would have required too much of a sales job on my exhausted wife, who is less inclined toward musical theater than I am anyway.

3) Later on Tuesday evening I purchased the soundtrack from iTunes. Freed from watching the visuals, I figured I could concentrate more on the thought-provoking and clever song lyrics. With an $11.99 investment added on to the $6.99 I'd already paid for the rental, that was nearly $20 spent on this movie in just over 24 hours.

4) On Wednesday morning I wrote a review of The Last Five Years for ReelGood. I tweaked it and fussed over it for probably two hours after I was finished. Granted, that was in part because my children kept bothering me. (Children. Who knew they needed things.) If you want to read it, the link may be up on the right by the time you read this.

5) On Wednesday afternoon I listened to the soundtrack on my iPod. This was instead of talking to my child -- the one who can talk -- while walking him to the park. That's not entirely unprecedented, since a long walk can feature long periods of silence, and I'd rather fill that silence with something in my ears. I figured that while listening to music (as opposed to a podcast), I could drop my earphones and answer any question he had to ask, without really losing anything. Nope. I got really annoyed whenever he interrupted me ... but to be fair, my suspicion that he had nothing really to say was confirmed.

6) At the park while he was playing and my younger son was napping, I finished listening and became highly annoyed when I discovered that the final song had failed to copy over to my iPod. I felt robbed of the movie's highly cathartic ending.

7) Now it's late Wednesday night and I am writing this post.

So what does Thursday hold? It remains to be seen.

Why do I love this movie so much?

For one, it seems like the modern-day musical I've been yearning for ever since Rent underwhelmed me 15 years ago. My then-girlfriend took me to see it on Broadway, fulfilling a desire I'd had for years. Perhaps it could never live up to that hype, as I walked away unsatisfied, and have yet to watch the film version. But the idea of a really terrific musical set in modern times stuck with me, which is probably why I reacted so positively to John Carney's Once, and stuck with the TV show Smash through its entire run, even as it underwent a demonstrable decrease in quality. The Last Five Years has scratched an itch I hadn't even consciously acknowledged before I saw it.

While my first exposure to this material is the film, and I will likely hold that above any other version of it, I suspect most of what's terrific about this show is there in book, not what Richard Lagravenese brought to it in his adaptation. I love his adaptation, but it's the songs and lyrics that so transport me. The life given them by Kendrick and Jordan is undoubtedly a major factor, especially since I have a wee crush on Kendrick (and like Jordan from the aforementioned Smash). But I give primary credit to the music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, who knows how to blend the happy and the sad, the hilarious and the lacerating. He's literate without overwriting, and he's emotional without being schmaltzy. Well-played, good sir.

The filmmaking itself is also totally captivating. As I understand that the show itself is pretty minimal, featuring only Jamie or Cathy on stage with barely even any prop or set accompaniment, Lagravenese's fleshing out of the scenes is an unqualified success. He also sends his camera moving around his actors in subtle but inventive ways, adding a degree of difficulty to capturing the impassioned performances by the two leads. Just because he's filming a show, it doesn't mean he's trapped in a stage mentality, and the ways he bursts out of that are nothing short of enthralling.

And then there's the fact that I'm always drawn to intelligent attempts to analyze people's behavior in relationships. Some of my top movies of the year (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Ruby Sparks) have been about that ... not just casually about that, but specifically about that. The Last Five Years does not examine this with the same rigor as those, nor is it the movies those are ... but the fact that I'm even mentioning it in the same sentence means I think it warrants the comparison.

So you should go out and see this movie right away, right?

Depends. I'm not so sure it works as well for someone who's tepid on musicals. I'd like to think that a great movie overcomes a viewer's ingrained aversion to its genre, but the fact of the matter is, I have only my own subjective perspective to draw on. I love musicals -- ones that are done well, anyway -- so I'm within this movie's target audience.

More than anything, I'm grateful to The Last Five Years for reminding me that I do indeed love musicals. Movies like the recent versions of Les Miserables and Into the Woods may conspire to convince me otherwise, but then movies like The Last Five Years come along to save me. They wrap me up in a spell, and leave me wanting to consume no other form of sustenance for the time they've got their hold one me.

If that's not love, I don't know what it is.

Well, it's obsession at the very least.