Friday, July 31, 2015

The unlikely creep

I get typecasting most of the time.

To use two completely random examples, Michael Ironside always plays a villain (Starship Troopers excepted) because he's got a world-class sneer, and Henry Fonda always played a nice guy (Once Upon a Time in the West excepted) because his baby blues contained within them an ocean of empathy. These guys were stuck on their career trajectories pretty much no matter what they did.

But sometimes, actors get typecast for reasons I totally cannot fathom.

Take Martin Donovan, one of the secondary antagonists in Ant-Man. Corey Stoll's over-the-top performance (speaking of sneering) takes top villain billing, but Donovan is there to lend his own custom brand of nefariousness to the proceedings.

I call it a "custom brand" because this is how Donovan has been cast for years now. And I just don't get it.

I've been "following" this actor -- which is to say I've known his name and taken note when he appears in movies and TV shows -- for about 15 years now, and I have always thought he was possessed of a rare paternal warmth. He seems capable of such gentleness and comfort that if he were my therapist, I might collapse in his arms crying within ten minutes on our first session.

This is the guy I'm talking about:

But I had to scroll through a lot of pictures before I found one I felt was worth using. Because this is not how Hollywood sees Martin Donovan. It sees him much more like this:

Or like this:

Or like this:

Someone shifty, someone in the shadows, someone far more likely to stab you in the back than hug away your problems.

Ant-Man is only the most recent example. You can go back through his filmography and check out the series of reprobates he has played.

In Nurse 3D he plays a psychiatrist and bad stepfather who cheats on his wife pathologically. In Sabotage he plays some kind of corrupt DEA agent. (Actually, I could not find evidence that this character was evil from the Wikipedia synopsis, but anecdotally, I remember this film as a contributor to my notion of how Donovan was being utilized in films.) In The Haunting in Connecticut he plays an alcoholic father.

Okay, as sometimes happens when I dream up an idea and start writing about it before I've done the actual research, I'm not overwhelmed by the examples I'm finding. I've also discovered that there's a lot of Donovan's work in the past ten years that I haven't seen. However, the sense I get of how he is perceived and used in Hollywood is still something I stand behind. People look for Martin Donovan when they want someone who may project a certain type of calm authority, but is actually sinister. In fact, just looking over some of the TV work he's done, and based on my knowledge of some of that source material, I see he played a decidedly malevolent character on The Dead Zone -- a power broker and member of the Illuminati who is trying to get an awful man elected president. He seems to have been someone shady in Weeds as well.

Whether or not I can provide you a preponderance of evidence for my claim is kind of immaterial. What I really want to know is: Are they right, or am I?

Do you find Martin Donovan essentially sympathetic, or essentially antagonistic? That's not a rhetorical question. I would love your thoughts in the comments, if you'd like to provide them.

What probably matters more to Martin Donovan than how Hollywood perceives him is that it perceives him at all. He's essentially a character actor, though he doesn't fit the traditional character actor mode. The point is, he's not a star, and the key to getting work is to represent a certain something to casting agents. If that thing is the fact that you are a shithead, then so be it.

But probably all it really is is that Martin Donovan is interested in playing complex characters, guys who are not either exclusively nice or exclusively mean. If he's trending toward exclusively mean, it could just be that the more complicated and interesting characters are the mean ones.

And if I just happen to find that his screen presence reminds me of a cup of cocoa, a pair of wool socks and a crackling fireplace, maybe that's a me thing.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

I prefer Ant-Man in his own universe

I was really digging Ant-Man. In fact, I was toying early on with giving it a four-star rating. As just one example, I loved that scene where Michael Pena recounts how he learned about the potentially unguarded safe, and all the characters in his story mouth the words of his story as he's saying them. That was probably Peyton Reed's best Edgar Wright impersonation of the film. Not because that's something Wright would actually do, but because it's in the spirit of something Wright would actually do.

But then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to come along and screw it all up.

"I think the first thing we should do is contact the Avengers," says Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), with a completely straight face, at what I would guess was the film's 40-minute mark.

The first thing I thought was, Wow, that line was delivered really awkwardly.

The second thing I thought was, Wait, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is not laughing.

The third thing I thought was, Wait, how does this civilian know about the Avengers?

The fourth thing I thought was, Oh yeah, because all the events of all the previous Marvel movies are things that actually happened in this world, and were covered by all the major media outlets. This guy knows about the Avengers because the Avengers are the most famous people in the world.

Yeah, that universe.

This was exactly the moment when Ant-Man lost a full star rating and never recovered it. A few moments later, Pym makes reference to something that happened at the end of the second Avengers movie, which I haven't seen but which I know about anyway. It's such a bad joke that you can almost hear the rim shot that accompanies it. He also makes mention of Tony Stark.

Here we go, I thought.

And here we went. A few scenes later, Lang is unwittingly trying to break into some kind of Avenger headquarters, and must face off against Falcon (Anthony Mackie). So too much attention is not drawn from our central figure, I guess, this is the only Avenger Lang actually meets, and he's one of the second-tier Avengers. (It's not the only Avenger who appears in the movie, however -- you are of course obliged to wait all the way until the end of the credits to see who else shows his face.)

I had been just fine with Ant-Man in his own cinematic universe and not a part of somebody else's. I didn't know until the closing credits (every last one of which I was compelled to sit through, even though I was in danger of missing the last tram home) that John Slattery was playing Howard Stark, Tony's father, in the opening scene. (If he played him in other movies, I either haven't seen those movies or have just plain forgotten.) But once we were reminded that Ant-Man is just a tiny cog in what is, by now, an impossibly unwieldy infrastructure of superheroes and supervillains, the movie lost its authority for me. Now everything that was going on would be subsumed into this larger narrative, a narrative so big that even its biggest players are inevitably now reduced to someone else's second fiddle.

This is why superhero movies worked for so long under this basic premise: the superhero in this movie is not only the only superhero in the world, he's also the first time the characters are even acquainted with the idea of a superhero. Most old-fashioned superhero movies -- and by "old-fashioned" I mean "more than ten years old" -- were not only origin stories for a particular superhero, but they were stories of the origin of the concept of the superhero. That's why the characters who witnessed this superhero at work were so amazed/astounded/ what have you.

But when a suit that can shrink a man to the size of an ant is only the 10th or 11th most impressive superhero trick out there, something is lost. This is a world where a man turns into a giant green monster when he gets angry. This is a world where a super-powered soldier from World War II was revived 70 years later. Shit, this is a world where an alien god can travel back and forth between Earth and his planet through some kind of interstellar bridge and has an all-powerful hammer. A man the size of a bug is small potatoes compared to all that, pun absolutely intended.

Can't I just be happy with a world where Ant-Man is the world's only superhero, and the things he does astonish us as though we'd never before seen something supernatural? Can't I live in a world where this power is not only described as the world's most powerful weapon, in order to hype up the stakes of this particular film, but actually is the most powerful weapon, because everything else that exists in this world exists within a framework of realism?

I can't, because that world is dead. I'm not sure if another superhero will ever step on to your IMAX screen without the baggage of all the other superheroes who may be slightly cooler than he (or she) is. D.C. will soon be part of Marvel's game -- already is, really, since both Suicide Squad and Superman vs. Batman feel as though they've already been released -- and anyone else who has any kind of superhero will never be able to compete with the two giants.

I for one would like to marvel -- pun again intended -- over the wonders of an unfamiliar superhero as though I'm just discovering what a superhero is myself. For about 40 minutes, I did just that.

But then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to come along and screw it all up.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Things should be better for Michelle Monaghan

I love Michelle Monaghan.

Let's just get that out of the way the start.

I've already devoted an entire post to my love for her, which can be found here. I think she is personality incarnate. She's bubbly and cute (physically but also in her mannerisms), but she can also bring it dramatically when need be (see the first season of True Detective). She should be a star.

However, True Detective is just about the only feather in her cap lately. The other places she's been turning up are just not becoming of a person of her talents.

I have two reasons for writing this post, but the first and most pressing seems to be this:

Now, I try not to damn a movie before I've seen it, especially when some movies that have received plenty of scorn -- most recently, The Giver, which I saw Sunday night -- have turned out to be big wins for me.

But the vitriol for Pixels has been at historic levels. Even by the pathetic standards of an Adam Sandler movie it is being shat upon. It's so generally acknowledged that this movie is or must be terrible that sites like Funny or Die have seen it fit to joke about the awareness we all share that it sucks. As seen here:

Oh, and then there's MovieBob's review that it so laden with colorful adjectives about the poor quality of this movie that I am either highly impressed by -- or take issue with -- the fact that he says he saw it just hours before the recording. As seen here:

So yeah, as you have determined by now, Michelle Monaghan is in Pixels. Maybe it was not a bad career choice on the face of it -- I mean, Sandler has flirted with respectability before, and continues to try to do so every third or fourth movie -- but the outcome was that she was front and center in what is being hailed as one of the biggest turds of 2015.

But what may be more disturbing is the fact that MovieBob does not see it fit to even mention her inclusion as being a travesty. He asks why Peter Dinklage or even Josh Gad would lower themselves to be in a movie made by such "shit-gargling fuckwits," but no mention is made of the lovely and charming Miss Monaghan. Either she did not register to him at all, or she did not register to him as someone who's great and deserving of better work.

So perhaps that brings me to my second point. The other place I've seen Monaghan's face most recently is on the cover of what we used to refer to as "straight to video" movies -- or movies that look like they should be that, in any case. Such as:


(Then again, these movies also feature Captain America and a recent best actor frontrunner, so maybe I should lay off.)

Or worse, a Nicholas Sparks adaptation:

Oh, she's working. There's no doubt about that. Hollywood recognizes her value on some level.

But I feel like Monaghan deserves the kind of career that another of my favorite actresses, Emily Blunt, is having. She should be not only in good big movies (Blunt was in Edge of Tomorrow), but also in good independent movies by hot directors (Blunt will be in Denis Villeneuve's Sicario later this year).

And Monaghan turns 40 next year, which is starting to be over the hill for a woman in Hollywood if you have not already firmly established yourself. I think of Monaghan as firmly established, but I guess your average person -- someone like MovieBob -- doesn't think of her that way. He thinks Josh Gad is more firmly established than she is.

Well, as usual with a piece like this, there is hope. Monaghan is currently filming the English language remake of the French thriller Sleepless Night, which I haven't seen, but which I have on good authority is terrific. Of course, American remakes of foreign films are certainly no guarantee to be good, but this one is being directed by Baran bo Odar, whose 2010 movie The Silence was really good. So it's not definite that it will be a good independent movie by a hot director, but it's in that realm, anyway.

Look, I just want the people I like to do good things. Is that so wrong?

And for Miss Monaghan's sake, I will eventually watch Pixels ... and hope to like it.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

TIL: Video stores destroyed their own inventory

You know how you used to go into Blockbuster Video -- and I must ask you now to think back to the halcyon days, when video stores used to exist -- and there would be a wall with 100 copies of Transformers, or Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, or whatever was the latest and greatest Hollywood new release that was expected to be watched by a bajillion eyeballs?

And then you'd go back to that same Blockbuster 30 days later, and those 100 copies had dwindled down to a modest 20 or so?

You didn't think those extra 80 copies had all just been quickly and efficiently sold off as previously viewed videos, did you?

Well, I kind of did -- to the extent that I thought about the issue at all. That is, at least until I watched this video. And if you don't want to go to watch the video itself, I'll summarize what it's about below.

The video is made by a former employee of Blockbuster, who released it allegedly to "expose" the now-defunct video rental giant for practices that I now know were not actually their fault.

But the black and white facts are rather starting, as seen above. Namely, Blockbuster employees were required to wipe their superfluous copies of movies so that they could never again be played, then basically just throw them away.


Yeah, that's what I thought too. Watching them lobotomize a bunch of perfectly good movies so that they were no better than coasters for your drink was rather shocking. But then someone in the Facebook thread where I originally saw the video explained what was really going on here, and though I didn't like it any better, I definitely understood it.

See, it was a mandate by the studios. They'd sell Blockbuster (and other video stores, presumably) a ridiculous quantity of these movies to meet the high demand for them upon their initial release, and they'd sell them at a price that was advantageous for Blockbuster's profit margin. The catch was that once the rental of these movies dropped down below a certain threshold, the excess stock would be obliterated from the earth in order to make way for the next wave of new releases.

And while that seems like a pretty draconian approach to business, one that seems to illustrate the earth-hating, sneering short-sightedness of Big Business, it actually kind of makes sense. The more of these movies that were out there as inexpensive previously viewed movies, the fewer the studio would be able to sell as new copies at Best Buy or other retailers. The market for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest would by highly diluted if there were 80 copies available at every neighborhood Blockbuster -- or in every neighborhood landfill, if someone only threw them away and didn't actually destroy them.

I guess it's the same approach to how currency maintains its value. You can't print a bunch of new money every year without destroying a bunch of old money. If the old money stays around, then eventually all the money starts to be worth diddlysquat.

But it's still rather striking, just on the face of it -- especially if you're a movie fan. Perfectly good movies that could go to charities -- as the guy in the video points out -- or at worst just serve as a fringe benefit to working at a Blockbuster -- as the guy also point outs -- were instead just wiped. And it's not like a couple could even "go missing," just as all the money marked for incineration is closely guarded. The studios had serious safeguards in place to ensure that x percentage of the copies of these movies ceased to be part of the natural world. The former Blockbuster employee who commented in this thread told a different story to the guy in the video -- he said that they had to actually return all the destroyed copies to the studios to prove that every last one was accounted for.

So obviously, Blockbuster is (for once) not the place deserving of blame here. But I guess in a way, neither are the studios. They made those kazillion copies of Transformers available at their own pleasure, and destroyed them at their own pleasure as well.

Well, those days are gone, as now digital copies of movies make the physical reality of any given one a moot point. As with any change in this industry, we win something intangible as we lose something tangible.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

You're either with me or you're against me

I had a little misunderstanding with my wife Thursday night about her, well, hovering while I was trying to watch a movie.

Feelings were only bruised, not fully hurt, but I basically told her -- nicely -- to shove off.

See, it's distracting to be starting up a movie while another person -- a person not watching the movie with you -- is doing things in the area that seem like they could be done at other times.

I made it through about five minutes of Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt before I disconnected my computer from the TV and decided to do some internetting until she cleared out. I wasn't actually going to say anything about it, but of course she said, "I'm sorry, am I bothering you?" Not in a sarcastic way, but in a genuine, nice way.

"It's just distracting to try to watch a movie while things are going on in the area," I told her.

I could have left it there and it probably would have been fine, but then I added (with some minimal kind of prompting from her that I could have easily ignored) that she was "fussing about." That got more at what I really felt, but it was also more hurtful. Or, bruiseful I guess, since no feelings were actually hurt during the making of this discussion. Or so she insists.

See, it comes down to this: I'm more than happy for you to watch the movie with me. In fact, I would love it. But if you aren't going to watch it with me -- if you're going to watch only about a single movie with me per week on average -- then you have to make it easier for me to watch the other four or five per week I need to watch.

My wife and I have a tradition of watching one, maybe two shows together after dinner. Then she goes off to the bedroom to watch a TV show that I have no interest in, and I stay in the living room to watch a movie she has no interest in. She's more TV and I'm more movies, so this works out well.

The problem comes with the difference in length between those two entities. Her TV show is at most an hour, but probably really more like 42 to 50 minutes. My movie is usually twice that, even when I choose something short, like Twixt (88 minutes). Which was really the only option for me Thursday night, as I'd unwittingly stayed up until 2 the night before but just had to feed that beast.

So because her show is shorter than my movie, she doesn't need to rush to get started on it, and might justifiably like to engage in various pre-bedtime routines, like a little rinsing of dishes or a little picking up of random odds and ends. I get that.

But me? I need to get started right away or I will be asleep halfway through. Even if something is short, like Twixt, but especially if it is longer than that.

And yeah, you can start watching a movie while your wife is still pottering around -- that's a bit less weighted of a phrase than "fussing about" -- but it's hard on a number of levels. There isn't only the distraction of the various noises that the person might make and the various visual interferences they may be creating by moving around in your peripheral vision. There's also the perception of needing to justify what I'm watching, even if that perception is only in my own head. "Yes, I have chosen this very night, July 23rd, 2015, to watch the Francis Ford Coppola gothic indie horror Twixt. I have no motivating factor in watching it tonight other than that it was on our Netflix queue and it is only 88 minutes long. What of it?" Again, that's my perception, not reality.

But the point is that it's all a type of distraction. Once she's settled in the bedroom, I'm not fussing about or pottering around or doing anything else in the bedroom. Because the bedroom has fewer things that can be done in it, it does not require my presence. But the living room connects the bedroom wing of the house and the kitchen area, so naturally it must be traversed for almost any household chore. And my wife should be able to do these before she goes to bed, especially since she's one of those people who sleeps better when certain basic tidying has been accomplished. If I make her feel guilty about doing those things then it's probably far worse than any disruption she is causing me.

So what I guess I really need is a den. I need some location where I can steal off alone to start playing my movie, where I won't be inhibiting anyone else's activities and they won't be inhibiting mine. But I guess the abruptness of that tends to underscore the idea that I'm just counting down to the minutes to my moment when I'm finally "free" to go watch what I need to watch. It feels a bit antisocial.

Like anything, it's a work in progress I guess.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Sexy Bond in a dumb poster

While I can't deny that having the sexy Daniel Craig staring penetratingly out of this poster at me with those radiant blue eyes is fairly arresting, I don't really see the point of this poster.

It's a picture of James Bond against a plain background. In other words, it doesn't say a thing about the movie and why it might be worth seeing.

Unless you like Daniel Craig's pecs and that suggestive bulge in his pants, that is.

I've taken a look back to other recent Bond posters, especially the Craig Bond posters, and it's not like they're models of plot specificity. But most of them at least have Bond placed in some kind of setting. Here, it's just like, "Hey Daniel! Have a minute? Come stand against this gray wall and look sexy."

It's almost like he's pursing his lips out at us in that joking, I'm-blowing-you-a-kiss gesture. You know, kind of like a gay man does to a straight man when he's trying to make an ironic assault on his heterosexual assumptions about himself. Or like Mike Myers might do before pawing at the camera and saying "Do I make you horny, baby?"

I think I'm on to something there. Is this poster just, like, totally for the women? And the gay men, of course. The gun in his hand for the heterosexual men. The gun in his pants for the women and gay men.

Yep, that's a lot of demographics you're covering right there.

I suppose the sexualization of Bond has been in full swing throughout the entire Craig tenure. Whereas the sexiness was somewhat incidental to previous Bonds -- especially Roger Moore once he hit his sixties -- it was in full force from when we first saw him emerging from the ocean in those close-cropped swim trunks back in Casino Royale. If I had had been wearing a necktie when watching Casino Royale, I would have been adjusting it with the international gesture for "Is it getting hot in here?" during that scene.

Well, it's not the most pernicious form of advertising you'll see this month, or probably even this week. But it is one of the most blatant. This is basically barely above a cologne ad. Take away that gun and that shoulder strap and this could be Daniel Craig hawking Eternity for Men.

But will it be effective?

Oh, almost absolutely. Just wait until Spectre once again becomes the highest grossing Bond movie of all time. Probably both by dollars and by number of ticket sales.

"And I'm too sexy for this poster, too sexy for this poster, the way I'm disco dancing!"

Something like that.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Audient Auscars: Around the World in 80 Days

This is the seventh in my 2015 series Audient Auscars, in which I clean up my personal best picture list of shame, chronologically, over the course of the year.

Now this was a chore.

I've approached some of the films I've watched in this series with trepidation and skepticism, but none before now has punished me the way Around the World in 80 Days punished me. The 174-minute running time was pretty much a guarantee that I wouldn't make it through in one sitting, but it actually took me three. And each sitting was worse than the one before.

Among nearly all of the now more than 80 best picture winners I've seen, I have at least recognized the superiority of some aspect of it that made it worth so honoring. The 1956 best picture winner may be the first instance where I really don't get it. Oh, I get why people saw it -- in 1956, they had no better way to see the far-flung locales included here, all of which were shot on location. I suppose that is superficially impressive, though far less so today, when we take the ability to travel the world virtually for granted. And really, the only reason why the shoot was even able to go ahead was because producer Michael Todd did a bunch of the financing with his own money.

But what was so appalling about this movie is how little there is to it. I have seen more attention to character development in a porn movie. The two main characters -- uptight British rich person Phileas Fogg (David Niven) and his goofy manservant Passepartout (Cantiflas) -- remain utterly unchanged from the beginning to the end of the movie. Fogg has been challenged by the poncey, stuffy members of his London club that he can't make it around the world in 80 days. He then sets out to prove them wrong, with a large amount of money at stake on either side. And that's the only motivation this guy has. He has no other character traits that are going to be prodded and tested during the course of the narrative. Oh, things will happen to him, but he maintains a blase detachment from them that is utterly off-putting. His whole attitude to the experience is this appearance of needing to find a clean location where he can drink some tea and eat some crumpets. I think that's supposed to be funny, but the film has no idea how to play it for comedy. Therefore, Fogg just goes through the movie sitting prissily on various transports, nary a ruffle in any of his outfits. The only things we really know about him is that he is famous for being punctual and that he loves the card came whist. Beyond that, he's a total blank.

The guy who does get his outfits ruffled is Passepartout, played by the Mexican film star Passepartout. It's unclear what his heritage is supposed to be because his name is clearly French, yet he is always saying "Si senor" to Fogg and running all sorts of ridiculous errands on his behalf. Throughout this movie, Cantiflas is basically doing his best Charlie Chaplin impersonation, and the set pieces devised for him are at about that level. This is not to suggest that a good Chaplin set piece is not a wonderful thing, just that Cantiflas' inevitably lesser version of that, shoehorned in this epic travelogue, just seems out of place. At least Passepartout is a man of action and gets to do some heroic things, though the film also paints him as a bit of a fool who is always chasing a skirt or doing something that is otherwise illogical and detrimental to the efficiency of their travel schedule. That said, he's the only one who seems to interact with the local surroundings with any sense of wonder or joy. The most Fogg does is smile wanly at some native custom or other.

And let's get into that troubling aspect of the film. It's incredibly racist. Or if not overtly racist, then at least extraordinarily myopic in its presentation of other cultures. In nearly every location where they spend any time, Fogg observes some local custom from some real or metaphorical pedestal and gives it his condescending blessing by seeming to display a paternal sense of pride over its primitive cuteness. I'm sure the movie thought it was being incredibly inclusive and multi-cultural, but the locals are, almost without exception, just paraded out as a curiosity and not presented as real people. And then there are the moments that are just downright wrong. In India, they rescue a princess from being burned on a funeral pyre with her husband by savage locals. She then follows them on the rest of their journey. The movie is excessively cruel to both kinds of "Indians," as Native Americans are later showing attacking the train they're taking across the U.S. I can't think of a better way to underscore the alleged savagery of a people than to indicate that you cannot successfully cross a country as large as the United States by train without being attacked by them.

Giving the movie even more of the feeling of a stuffed shirt is that it is constantly blaring the pompous ode to British might, "Rule Britannia," which gives the whole thing a completely unwarranted sense of self-importance. It's as though only a person of such particularly British perspicacity could tackle such a heroic world conquering as Fogg is tackling. It's almost sickening.

This movie is just shoddy technically as well. The editing is just awful, as many scenes end on abrupt fades that always come a few beats earlier than they feel like they should come. And aside from a few gimmicky camera tricks -- like placing a camera just behind the old-timey bicycle Fogg is riding in London, so it follows him from behind -- it is utterly unremarkable in terms of new technical ground broken. The cinematography, I suppose, looks good, but it's in the service of something completely empty.

Let's discuss a few more aspects of this movie that are worth commenting on.

One kind of weird thing about it, which actually prepared me for something I thought I might like, is that it begins with a preamble by none other than Edward R. Murrow, who introduces the film to us. That's a very dated technique, but I thought it did give the idea that this might be something historically significant I was watching. The whole premise of this preamble is to discuss how Jules Verne imagined the future, but it spends much of its time, curiously, on showing us segments of George Melies' A Trip to the Moon. Like, minutes of footage from that film. Odd, to say the least.

Then there are the celebrity cameos. The movie is a veritable Where's Waldo? of the spot the celebrity game, and I must admit I probably didn't spot half of them, simply because I'm less familiar with who the celebrities were in 1956 than I would be now. But few of the cameos were particularly interesting. One of the most prominent cameos is Old Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, who is the piano player in the San Francisco bar/restaurant that I found to be one of the film's most annoying scenes -- Cantiflas and some guy spend most of the scene feeding each other from a buffet. You see the back of the piano player a couple times, but he is otherwise unimportant to the scene. Then at the very end, Sinatra turns around and looks at the camera, symbolically if not actually winking. Isn't the function of a celebrity cameo supposed to be that the celebrity is actually doing something of note? Just playing the piano -- an otherwise meaningless component of the scene -- is not enough for us to have the intended "Oh, wow, that's Frank Sinata!" (Though I was pleased that I was actually able to identify him, unlike many of the others.) It's all just incredibly self-congratulatory.

Oh, and speaking of celebrities -- Shirley MacLaine is in this movie. I saw it in the opening credits, then didn't think about it again until the closing credits when I saw her name again. And then I finally said, "Ohhh, she must have played the princess." That's right, she played the princess saved from the savages in India who meant to burn her on a funeral pyre. Her character is so underdeveloped and such an afterthought, despite having possibly the third most screen time of anyone in the movie, that I was not even able to identify it as MacLaine while I was watching. That's how inept this movie is.

I could never have imagined that I would say this, but the 2004 remake of Around the World in 80 Days, which I saw in order to review it some ten years ago, is actually better than the original. That one I give only 2.5 stars. This one I give a full star less than that.

Okay, let's wipe our palette clean for August. Oops, no wait. I've heard that 1958 winner Gigi is morally reprehensible. This too shall pass.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The genesis of a new film-watching economy

Or, The most I have ever felt like a film critic

Or, "Guess I'll wait for the theater on that one"

Wait wait wait, Vance. Don't you mean "Guess I'll wait for video on that one"?

Not anymore.

It is now cheaper for me to watch a movie in the theaters than on video. Hold on, I'll explain.

Rarely do we experience a real sea change in the basic fundamentals of our movie-watching lives. You pay x amount to watch a movie in the theater, or maybe x minus 40% on a discount day. Or, you wait until video, at which point you pay 10 to 20% of x, maybe less if you get a deal. This is pretty much how we all go through our lives, prioritizing theatrical viewings based on the likelihood of it being worth the extra money to see it in the theater.

Well, for me, that whole equation has just changed.

Yesterday in the mail I received my membership card to the Australian Film Critics Association (AFCA). This is an organization that makes it easier for critics to do their jobs -- especially now that those jobs pay significantly less than they used to, and sometimes they pay nothing. If you are getting paid nothing to do a job, you should not also have to pay for the movies you see.

And now, as of last night, I no longer do.

For the annual membership fee -- which is $75, but I paid only a prorated $30 because the membership must be renewed each year on the 31st of January -- you get to go see any movie you want, in Australian cinemas, for zero dollars and zero cents.

Oh, there are restrictions. For example, the biggest chain, Hoyts, only allows you to go before 5 p.m. on weekdays, or any time on Monday and Wednesday. Another chain is supposed to limit the movies you can see to those in the first two weeks of their release -- a reflection of the fact that this card really is designed to help you do the job of reviewing the movie, if you miss the critics screening. Almost none of them allow you to use it after 5 p.m. on a Saturday or any time on a public holiday.

But these are fairly easy restrictions to get around, as long as you apply a little planning to your schedule. In the past, I restricted myself to seeing movies on one of two discount days, which were Monday and Tuesday. And even then it was $9 on Mondays and $13 on Tuesdays. Now I can go almost any day of the week to almost any theater, for nothing.

Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-a. My oh my, what a wonderful day.

Naturally, I was eager to test this out immediately. When I learned about a week ago that my card would be arriving in about a week, I immediately ceased all theatergoing activities and planned to finally catch up with Terminator Genisys once it arrived. And last night, that's what I did.

Oh, I'd heard the new Terminator movie was bad. Its 38 Metascore was anything but promising. But you know what? Now, that's all the more reason to see it in the theater. If I wait for a rental, it could cost me up to $4. As opposed to, you know, nothing.

So I made my way down to Cinema Kino, a half arthouse, half blockbuster theater that's just a stone's throw from my work (and an even shorter stone's throw from my wife's work). Learning from the guy who turned me on to this card that the clerks often cannot make heads nor tails of it, I made sure to carry with me the piece of paper I'd received from AFCA that explains the conditions of its use, explicitly outlining the policy of each participating cinema group. I actually hoped not to need it, because I was already planning on violating one of those conditions. See, Palace Cinemas, which operates Kino, has fairly broad allowances for the usage of this card, except for the fact that it must be a movie in the first two weeks of its release. Terminator Genisys is coming up on three weeks, so a smart knowledge of those restrictions could prompt them to reject me on my very first attempt. (I had a backup plan of seeing Ant-Man if that happened.) But the other thing I learned about this card is that when the clerks can't make head nor tails of it, they usually just give you the ticket as the only reasonable response to their befuddlement.

And sure enough, that's what happened here. I flashed the guy my card, hoping that would be all that would be necessary to ring up my ticket. He did start to ring it up, but then he said, "Sixteen." Apparently he thought it was some other kind of discount card. When I explained that it was supposed to be free, he filled out some kind of media voucher and had me sign it. And then I was on my way.

And no, Terminator Genisys was not very good. And no, watching it on the "big screen" couldn't have helped much, as it was playing on one of the theater's smallest screens, which contained a mere 33 seats.

But I was just giddy anyway. I had just walked into a movie -- a regular movie, not a critics screening -- without paying a dime.

And this can now keeping happening for me in perpetuity.

One of the things that's most exciting about it to me was that they don't give this membership to just anybody. Oh yeah, the organization is a bit scruffy around the edges -- when the guy sent me the bank account to send my $30 payment, it turned out that that account was closed and he had to give me a different one. My colleague who turned me on to this told me that his own card had arrived with the guy's grocery list included in the envelope. But my card looks nice and shiny with a cool logo, and they did indeed approve me based on the fact that I am actually working as a critic -- though not for pay -- in Australia. I sent the a link to a couple of my recent reviews and to my staff profile on ReelGood, and that was it -- I had passed their test and was worthy of inclusion in their awesome, awesome club. Who knows if I could have passed a much lower threshold for membership, but I know that just being a film enthusiast with a desire for discount movie tickets wouldn't have been enough.

So yeah, it feels great to have that kind of external validation of the career path I've chosen, even if it has not chosen to pay me. This is, now, my payment. Now, all the money I'd spend on going to the theater can be spent on other things. If that's not payment, then it's pretty damn close to it.

So now the world is my oyster. I can see whatever I want, no matter how bad it will be, as long as I can spare my time. All it cost me last night was a round rip bike ride in the cold on a windy winter's night, because I didn't want to pay the $7+ round trip on the tram. If this night was going to be free, I wanted it to be totally free.

Terminator Genisys was likely something I was going to see in the theater, no matter how bad it ended up being, just based on my commitment to the franchise. But the next moment when I truly appreciate this card will be when I see something I otherwise wasn't planning to see -- something so outside my normal interests, or something so probably terrible, that the expenditure would never otherwise have been justified.

So now "waiting for video" will be if the movie looks good, or if I want to see it with my wife.

To quote some guy named Nux, "What a lovely day."

Monday, July 20, 2015

Justifiable immodesty

In researching a piece I'm writing for another blog, I learned just now that Daniel Day-Lewis is officially on an acting hiatus.

It's hard to know with someone like Day-Lewis, who might go five years between projects just because he's spending those five years trying to learn his next character. He cares about it that much and is that good at it. (If he's that good at it, he should be able to do it in three, har har.)

But wikipedia ensures me that this is a scheduled break. Not a permanent one, you'd hope -- but after winning three Oscars, what more does Day-Lewis have to prove?

Officially, nothing. And I say "officially" because he appears to have said so himself.

I was a bit alarmed to read that Day-Lewis -- who, despite his greatness, strikes me as a modest person -- gave the reason for his hiatus as the fact that it would be difficult to top his last performance as Abraham Lincoln.

Not only does that make it seem like he's in love with his own performance -- any truly humble actor should say something like "Aw shucks, was I really that good?" -- but also that the only reason to keep working is to improve on what you've done before.

Certainly, a failure to heed at least the logic of that second notion has led some great public personalities to continue doing what they do long past the point that it remained dignified. Your average professional athlete will typically need to be a shell of his former self for a good three to five seasons before the idea of hanging it up even occurs to him. And with actors, you have greats who become laughingstocks as they try to extend their careers into questionable roles after their 70th birthday. (I'm looking at you, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.)

But by going in the opposite direction -- by going into a short-term retirement of sorts at only age 56 (the age he was during the 2013 Oscars) -- Day-Lewis has seemed to commit an opposite sort of sin. It may be more dignified, but it's also less gracious. He may not be craving the spotlight, but it's almost as though the spotlight is beneath him. He's mastered acting.

Justified or not, I'd be lying if I said it didn't annoy me a little bit. It's not exactly biting the hand that feeds him, but it is saying that he doesn't care if the hand stops feeding him. Since his audience is kind of that hand, and since I'm a member of that audience, I kind of care that he doesn't care.

But maybe it's more that I just don't think the world should be deprived of someone of Day-Lewis' staggering talents for long periods of time. Who does he think he is to deny us?

Oh yeah -- he's the guy who understands the phrase "leave them wanting more." That phrase is completely foreign to most public figures.

And even if he isn't officially working right now, I'm half inclined to believe he's applying method acting to whatever it is he's doing, so he'll be in the best possible shape to play an acclaimed actor coming out of semi-retirement for his next role.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

5 people I wish weren't in a superhero movie

Is no one immune?

Has the superhero movie, as a cultural phenomenon, become so inescapable that every working actor either has been in, will be in, or is currently working on a superhero movie?

My latest bout of despair over the all-consuming suffocation known as the comic book movie has been brought on by learning that Oscar Isaac plays the villain in the next X-Men movie.

Oscar Isaac, my current cinematic darling if any single actor could fill that role.

I'll watch anything Oscar Isaac is in. Which means, I suppose, I will be watching X-Men: Apocalypse.

Alright, alright. I knew I'd be watching X-Men: Apocalypse anyway. Not only have I watched every main series X-Men movie, but I've watched each one in the theater, and The Wolverine as well. In fact, the only X-Men byproduct I have not seen in theaters was X-Men Origins: Wolverine -- and I kind of liked that movie anyway. So this argument is sort of a straw man.

But still, I kind of think Oscar Isaac is above it, and I wished he'd considered himself that as well. Just because someone offers you the money, it doesn't mean you have to take it.

To be experiencing this disappointment over Isaac's choice seems especially strange, given that one of the next movies we're going to see him in is Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He's already busted into the big time, and if that movie isn't based on a comic book (which of course it isn't), the distinction is probably splitting hairs. But that doesn't make my disappointment any less palpable.

So since Isaac is obviously my #1, without any further ado, let's get into the four others -- listed in no particular order -- I wish had not "sullied themselves" by bowing to the holy comic book movie dollar.

2. Benedict Cumberbatch 
Role: Doctor Strange in Doctor Strange (2016)
Why it disappoints me: I'm not in love with "The Batch" or anything -- in fact, I found his Oscar-nominated turn in The Imitation Game (along with the movie) a little overrated -- but I do consider this actor to have a natural dignity, a Shakespearean quality that should place him above this "low" comic fare. Especially since he's not playing a main, known quantity, but digging deep into the Marvel catalogue to play the title role in next year's Doctor Strange movie. That said, I do own some Daniel Danger artwork that was inspired by this comic, which was a cherished wedding present from a dear friend, so I'm sure I will be watching this movie with a bit of added curiosity.

3. Mark Ruffalo
Role: Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk in The Avengers (2012) and The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Why it disappoints me: What I love about Ruffalo is also what I love about Isaac -- his eternal, unimpeachable naturalism. I'm pretty sure that's what Joss Whedon, or whoever cast him as the Hulk, liked about him too. And it's not that he's bad in the role -- I could only judge that from one of the two movies, as I haven't seen the second one yet -- but that the movie doesn't deserve someone as real and believable as Ruffalo. He's not a star; he's like a character actor that you cast as your lead if you want your movie to burst with a certain indie vitality. He has straddled that line between commercial films and indie films, as most working actors must, but it feels like a compromise indeed for him to have stepped into the Hulk's ripped jean cutoffs. The fact that he needed the money enough to do it is the sad part -- or maybe I'm holding him on too high of a pedestal, and he just thought taking the role would be a hoot.

4. Kate Winslet
Role: Jeanine in Divergent (2014) and Insurgent (2015)
Why it disappoints me: Do these count as superhero movies? They are YA novels and the main character is superheroic, so ... sure, for our purposes let's count it. Because it was the same "What was she thinking?" factor at play when I saw the trailers for these and saw "Kate the Great" front and center as their villain. Now, I have not actually seen either of these movies, so she could actually be great in them for all I know. But I trust the general consensus that these are not good movies, and even if they were better than I have heard, it would still not be a particularly encouraging turn of events that she had signed on to do one of them in the first place. I suppose I should condition myself to expect a little less from a woman who also saw it fit to appear in the disastrous omnibus comedy Movie 43.

5. Michael Shannon
Role: General Zod in Man of Steel (2013)
Why it disappoints me: Sometimes a bit of casting can seem like a great idea, and still end up a big letdown. Take Shannon in the most recent reboot of the Superman story. I didn't love the idea of anyone stepping into Terence Stamp's shoes, as his Superman II villain is one of my favorites of all time, but if someone had to be the 21st century Zod, I thought Shannon was the man to do it. Well, it turned into perhaps the only performance of Shannon's that I've ever seen that I can call "bad." Zack Snyder's directing is surely in part to blame for hissy fit lines like "I will find him!", but I gotta call out Shannon as well. Stamp never needed to get in a tizzy about anything -- his supreme equanimity was key to the menace he brought to that role. Shannon, meanwhile, ought to stick to what he does best -- the types of indies he's made with Jeff Nichols.

Dishonorable mentions: Michael Fassbender as Magneto in X-Men: First Class (2011) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

What I wonder is if these people regret it, or if they think that playing an iconic superhero -- or even one that's not so iconic -- is like stepping up to the big leagues. If you've warn tights, you've arrived. Something like that?

Well, I still love them. And if they've been part of the group brainwash that has taken over our whole culture, how can I blame them?

Now excuse me so I can go figure out when it might be a good time to get Ant-Man on my viewing schedule ...

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Colorizing movie music

So what's the biggest obstacle to modern viewers loving the movies that those of us who were young in the '80s loved when we were growing up?

It's not the plots, which are obviously good, otherwise they wouldn't keep remaking these movies in the droves they've been remaking them. It's not the actors, many of whom are still cinematic treasures today. It's not even the bad fashion.

Nope. It's the music.

I watched Midnight Run for the first time on Monday night. I'd seen parts of Midnight Run before, but unlike some other movies I suspect I have only seen parts of, I had never previously credited myself with a full viewing of the movie. Given that it's a cultural touchstone for a lot of people in my generation, I figured it was time I finally corrected that.

Naturally, the first thing I noticed about it that made it feel dated was the score. Funnily enough, the score is by Danny Elfman, but it's not what we typically think of as an Elfman score. It doesn't have the ethereal singers and the storybook quality of his collaborations with Tim Burton -- which is not entirely surprising in a buddy road trip movie featuring a bounty hunter and a corrupt accountant. No, as in many other movies made around 1988, the score relies heavily on electric guitars, saxophones, other horns, and the kind of synthesizer that sounds almost as much like it grew out of percussion than that it grew out of a piano. It's a score any hack could have cooked up, but Elfman was the hack who cooked up this particular one.

And yeah, it's cheesy. Cheesy enough to undermine the quality of the movie? No, but I grew up in the 1980s and love a lot of movies with similar scores. In fact, when I recently rewatched A Fish Called Wanda -- which came out the same year -- I was almost driven to distraction by its similarly dated score. And Wanda is in my top ten movies of all time.

But what about people who didn't grow up in the 1980s, but may still be candidates to love these movies? How can we help them get past being put off by a hopelessly outdated score?

This is not a real suggestion, but it does make me wonder why no one has tried to do it before:

You simply update the score.

You obviously can't redress the actors in better clothes or give them modern hairstyles, but you can update the score -- can't you? I mean, it's just an audio track. Some complication might arise with dialogue that's concurrent with the score, but with today's sophisticated audio editing equipment, I can't imagine it would be too stressful to separate the dialogue from the music behind it.

It would be akin to colorizing black and white movies. That was done in an attempt to modernize them and make them more accessible to audiences trying to appreciate these movies a couple decades after their release. And, lo and behold, it's been a couple decades since the release of Midnight Run. Jesus, it's been nearly three decades now.

I guess a problem would arise with the fact that you would theoretically need to keep doing this, since tastes are fickle enough that a new score for Midnight Run recorded in 2000 would already be hopelessly out of date by 2015. But at least it would be less out of date than the 1988 one. And as long as it wasn't too expensive and there weren't too many rights involved, it is something they could keep doing over time.

Of course, updating a movie's score would not have a whiff of legitimacy as an artistic venture. Everyone thought Ted Turner was an idiot for trying to colorize black and white movies, and anyone with an ounce of cinematic self-respect would turn their nose up equally at modernizing the score. However, just because people with good taste oppose a certain thing has almost never stopped someone from doing it.

The problem you'd run into, I think, is that the score -- while announcing itself far less as a slice of '80s cheese, and therefore providing less of the distracting element that takes a viewer out of a movie -- would still seem off, because it would be out of sync with the movie around it. The other thing my wife and I noticed as we watched it is how many people smoked in this movie and how many times they said "fuck." Both of those things are almost gone from movies that are trying to appeal to as many different people as Midnight Run would have been trying to appeal to. A movie where everybody smokes and says "fuck" needs electric guitar, saxophone, and a bunch of synthesized beeps and boops to keep everything feeling normal.

The question you may have is: Did the dated score -- which is similar to other scores I've absorbed, but still new to me just as the movie is new to me -- keep me from loving it the way my friends growing up did?

It did not, as I gave Midnight Run four out of five stars even without relying on nostalgia to bias me. It's a movie whose funny performances and smart dialogue rise above the now-embarrassing trappings of the era in which it was made.

And if others can't realize that, well ... they just don't know a good movie when they see one. A good movie should be more seen than heard.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Stigmatizing Africa by not stigmatizing Africa

One of the most inept movies I've seen in a while is Hector and the Search for Happiness, a star vehicle for the usually reliable Simon Pegg, which my wife convinced me to watch last night. I had been resisting it because I thought she was talking about the Simon Pegg movie A Fantastic Fear of Everything, whose poster just completely turns me off. Hector looked a little more promising, but what concerned me about it was that it had a bunch of recognizable stars and came out only last year, yet I hadn't heard of it. I smelled misfire from the start.

It's kind of a male Eat Pray Love -- or, I assume that's what it's trying to be, because I haven't actually seen Eat Pray Love. It also seems like a possible variation on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but I've only read that story and not seen any of the film versions. (I know, I know ... I'm still desperately trying to catch up with Ben Stiller's from two years ago.) Anyway, Pegg plays a buttoned-up London psychiatrist who goes on a voyage of personal discovery intended to help him find his own happiness, which will in turn better help him figure out how to prescribe a path toward happiness to his patients.

It had the potential to be trite and wet and saccharine, and indeed it is all those things. However, it's also disturbingly patronizing to the locals of one of the stops on this journey, and that's what I want to talk about today.

One problem with Hector is that its lead actually makes surprisingly few stops on his trip. Hector's girlfriend, played by Rosamund Pike (who is back in my doghouse after a brief uptick in Gone Girl), tells him that if he's going to do this trip, he should go all out. If only the movie followed the same advice, that would be something. But Hector visits only China, Los Angeles and the second stop on his trip: "Africa."

That's right. No city name. No country name. Just "Africa."

You've seen one part of Africa, you've seen it all, right? "Okay, I've set foot on any random piece of African soil. Now I 'get' Africa."

I scoffed at this extremely tone-deaf choice as it happened, before immediately realizing why they decided not to specify a country. The reason is that the movie was going to be so broad in its approach to its "Africa scenes" that any country that was singled out would have no choice but to be offended.

What's so offensive about the way Africa is portrayed in this movie?

Well, I'll tell you. It starts by Hector having to take a flight -- for reasons that are never properly explained -- from China to "Africa" on the least flight-worthy plane ever shown in a movie, filled with goats and poor people and anything else you can imagine. Naturally, this flight is going to ride through the world's worst lightning storm in order to accentuate the sketchiness of the situation.

But that's just the start. From the first moment "Africa" is introduced into the narrative, the movie is self-consciously off-setting its negative portrayals with condescendingly positive ones.

So Hector sits on this flight next to an "African woman" who speaks perfect English and is so taken with this sop that she invites him over to her family's house for sweet potato stew. It's abundantly clear that this is setting up a moment of overwhelming cultural pandering within ten to 15 minutes of screen time, but at this point we can only imagine what it might be.

So Hector lands without incident and is met at the airport by a fellow med school colleague who is going to take him to volunteer at a clinic for a couple weeks. (One weird thing about this movie is how much he's called upon to act as a medical doctor, when that's not really what he is.) Naturally, half the people in sight are soldiers with machine guns. You see, in "Africa," every country is in the middle of a coup at any given time, and corrupt men with guns are constantly walking the streets.

So Hector does the white savior thing for a couple scenes, using his alleged affability and purity of heart to be able to connect to sick young boys, even though the last thing they need is someone to diagnose their mental health. Oh but wait, I almost forgot to tell you about the scene in the bar.

Hector wanders into his bar wearing his goofy tourist hat (he's always wearing this hat, the film's terrible shorthand for his cluelessness, which it turns on and off as necessary), and everyone else in the entire bar is a soldier with a gun. Hector stays anyway, for some reason. Oh wait, the only other European is a guy in a suit played by Jean Reno, who is actually the most dangerous guy in the bar -- he's a local drug kingpin. Because Hector is so awesome, he figures out how to prescribe the proper meds to the kingpin's unhappy wife.

Now back to that sweet potato stew scene.

Concerned that it's been laying on the anti-Africa a bit too thick with all the soldiers with guns, the movie over-corrects with the life-affirming scene where Hector has sweet potato stew at the home of his neighbor from the flight. We jump into this scene by way of Hector -- the guest, mind you -- removing a pot of stew from the oven, and then swigging from a bottle of wine as no less than 72 smiling and happy Africans cheer him. What is supposed to be accomplished in this perfunctory minute-long scene is that we are supposed to learn a) just how happy and loving and amazing most Africans are, and b) just how easily Hector becomes one of the family. Yes, it's exactly as depressing as it sounds.

The scene ends with Hector having tearful farewells with all these people who are already planning to name their next-born children after him. He gets into a cab, falls into the back seat ... and wakes up later to discover that the cab has been hijacked by two criminals who are now taking him to rot in some makeshift African prison.

That's right -- Hector spends the next ten to 15 minutes of screen time in a cell without food or water, with only the "travel candies" he has been carrying with him. Because he is such a mensch, though, he actually shares his travel candies with the rat in the cell.

Why he is in this cell is never clear, except that bad African men with guns don't trust white guys who are unexpectedly asleep in the back of the cabs they steal. My wife and I discussed that in reality, upon finding him in the back of that stolen car, they would either just dump him by the side of the road, or shoot him and dump him if they a) didn't care about him at all, or b) thought he might be able to identify them and actually cared about that. What they would not do is bring him back in a cell to rot, pending some kind of forthcoming round of questioning and/or torture. In real life, they just couldn't be assed, to use the Australian expression.

So eventually the leader of this group of criminals decides to taunt and play Russian Roulette with Hector. I mean, actual Russian Roulette. Or, whatever variation of Russian Roulette involves pulling the trigger of a gun while pointing it at somebody's head. By the time he's fired off two empty chambers, you the audience assumes that all the chambers are empty and they are just trying to scare Hector. (Again, why they care this much about a psychiatrist from England is anyone's guess.) But no, for the third trigger pull he actually kills Hector's rat companion with the next bullet. So not only was he really possibly going to kill Hector in this sadistic manner -- again, we have no idea why -- but then he actually does kill Hector's rat companion. Cruel, cruel Africans.

But wait, Africans are not cruel! Hector gets out of the jam through a dumb contrivance which involves having accidentally borrowed Jean Reno's pen, and makes his way back to the village where he's staying. The people are so happy to see him that they throw him a huge party with posters that say WELCOME HOME HECTAR. Or maybe it's WELCOME BACK HECTAR. But either way it's supposed to be childlike and innocent of the Africans to spell Hector's name wrong. And then all the nice Africans, many of whom we last saw eating sweet potato stew, come out of the woodwork to party and celebrate like it's New Year's Eve combined with, well, whatever their favorite holiday is. "Hectar" is like the best thing that's ever happened to their village.

At this point, mercifully, Hector finally leaves Africa for Los Angeles.

I guess if these scenes were shot in my African country, I wouldn't want them to name it either.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Not just Trent Reznor's appendage

If you're watching a movie about the Beach Boys -- one that's actually allowed to use their music -- you wouldn't expect to be focusing on the non-Beach Boys music.

Yet that's precisely what I did when watching Love & Mercy, because I found an interesting name in the opening credits, reminding me who was responsible for its score: Atticus Ross.

I have previously known Ross only as a collaborator of Trent Reznor, the Nine Inch Nails frontman and my favorite working artist, who has turned lately to scoring high-profile movies. He won an Oscar for his Social Network score, and has also scored David Fincher's two most recent films, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl.

I say "he" and not "they," even though Ross worked with Reznor on each of those scores, because Reznor is known for subsuming other creative talents into himself. This is not to say that Reznor elbows these others out of the way to claim sole credit -- in fact, the opposite may be true. In the past, Reznor has listed other members of Nine Inch Nails as though they were full members, rather than what they really were: musicians who joined him for tours. Generally speaking, Reznor plays almost all the instruments you hear in the album recording of any of his songs -- the pianos, the guitars, the synthesizers, probably even the odd horn -- with only the occasional guest (say, Adrian Belew) being credited for his or her contributions. He is literally a one-man band, who has a group of revolving associates who sometimes join him for performances.

Ross has been one of those revolving associates, the most consistent one over the past decade. He has been a producer/programmer on each of Nine Inch Nails' last five studio albums, but he didn't really come out of the shadows to be recognized for his work until The Social Network, when he was of course listed with Reznor as a co-nominee.

Half of me assumed that this was just another instance of Reznor's characteristic generosity, that Reznor did all the work and just brought Ross along for the ride. After all, I didn't have any sense of Ross apart from Reznor, no notion of what any Ross solo work might sound like or even whether any existed. And since the music from their three movies sounded pretty much like Nine Inch Nails music without the lyrics, I figured Reznor was the one who deserved the credit and Ross owed Reznor a hearty thank you for allowing him to ride Reznor's coattails.

After hearing the Love & Mercy score, I'm not so sure. In fact, I might even like it better than his last two scores with Reznor.

That's not to say the score jumps out and grabs you. It doesn't. It's quite in the background, and about a third of the way through I realized I hadn't even consciously noticed it. I mean, there is a lot of Beach Boys music in this movie, understandably, as well as some other diegetic music that's appropriate to the film's two time periods. (I noted with no small amount of humor that Kenny G's saxophone breakout "Songbird" is playing when Brian Wilson goes to buy his Cadillac and meet his future love interest. It's followed by a song I like a lot less ironically, Heart's "These Dreams.")

But once I started specifically paying attention to what I knew must be Ross' contributions, I started really tuning in to some great sonic accomplishments. They are in the same mode that has been the primary reason why Fincher has used Reznor and Ross in the past -- setting a mood of eerie disconnection and creeping dread. The score announces itself in the moments when the paranoid Wilson is becoming untethered from reality, when they make the perfect complement to his encroaching mental illness. It's the score for Brian Wilson going way too deep inside his own head.

If it were only that simple, though, it might be just another installment in what I have found to be two fairly generic scores in a row by Reznor and Ross with Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. I mean, those scores have their moments, Gone Girl more than Dragon Tattoo, but ultimately I have not listened to them more than twice each. (Only once for Dragon Tattoo, actually, though you really can't blame me -- it's 37 tracks long. That's 37 full-length tracks.) But overall those two scores have depressed me as follow-ups to The Social Network, which felt like it opened a new world of possibility for the creativity of Reznor beyond what I'd already known and loved from Nine Inch Nails.

What's got me looking forward to purchasing the Love & Mercy score is that Ross has also done some sonic arrangements that sound like a combination of Beach Boys music, static, voices, distortion, and shapeless horror. During one of his moments of dawning concern over the possible degradation of his mental faculties, Wilson puts on a pair of headphones in the studio and hears what sounds like shrieking ghouls. I'm pretty sure Ross composed that also, and I want to hear that again.

I perhaps didn't realize the extent of Ross' noodling around until the closing credits, which list the songs from the score -- and then the clips of Beach Boys songs that appear in each song. Some of the songs contain snippets from like nine different Beach Boys songs, assembled as a kind of sonic soup that's swirling around in Wilson's brain as he tries to reconcile his own artistic aspirations with the type of music he is expected to write ... with a touch of paranoia over his fears of inadequacy and irrelevance, overlaid by a certainty that any day now the song-writing muse could just vanish entirely.

The brain of a possible paranoid schizophrenic isn't a wonderful place to be on a good day. Ross' score -- which I'm getting more and more convinced I'm going to buy as I type this -- shows you just how unwonderful it can be.

Trent Who?

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Slow and decidedly impassive

Exactly three months ago, in this post, I committed myself to catching up with the Fast/Furious series in 2015, in order to try to rank Furious 7 with my 2015 movies next January.

Well, it's not going very well.

It took me until last night to finally watch the movie at which I had been stalled (no pun intended) since watching 2 Fast 2 Furious in March of 2012: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. I would have watched it some three weeks ago except for the battery life issue described in this post.

Despite my slowness to pounce on it, I had somewhat high hopes. I had heard the idea that Tokyo Drift was being reappraised for its counterintuitive value, and that it may actually be one of the better ones in the series -- even lacking (almost) all of the series' main characters. Failing that, I figured it to at least have good kitsch value, as Tokyo Drift is kind of the new Electric Boogaloo -- an unlikely two-word phrase you attach on to the end of an unexpected sequel, to indicate its unlikeliness or perhaps its deviation from the series' main narrative.

Nope. It was just lackluster.

In fact, it was so dull that I did actually fall asleep, though I suspect the wine I had at dinner was a contributing factor to that.

Sure, Tokyo makes a pretty flashy setting for a car racing movie, and the set pieces are understandably different from the previous two movies. But it really lacked a sense of fun.

Plus, Lucas Black is just terrible. His cornpone accent is supposed to be part of the fish-out-of-water story, but his utter inability to convincingly deliver a line should not be.

Well, on to the fourth installment, Fast & Furious, which at this rate I won't watch until sometime in October or November.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

What ever happened to the courtship?

Legendary screenwriter William Goldman talks a lot about the shortcuts a good screenplay must take, which may happen to circumvent a little something called "reality." One example in his book Which Lie Did I Tell?: Why does the character hurrying to the courthouse in time to bust in on a trial always find a parking spot right in front of the courthouse? Because the movie doesn't have time to slow down, to show him circling the block three times to find the one available opening three streets over.

So yeah, I get that there's a certain shorthand at play which, in this case, essentially says "The character arrived at the courthouse without incident." It's a necessary bridging shot to get us to the next piece of action, nothing more.

But I'm starting to wonder if a few too many liberties are being taken in the interest of getting us to the next piece of action ... which is a "piece" of "action" indeed. In movies involving romance, what ever happened to the courtship?

This is a rather too-perfect subject for this post, but I have to explain it for you to understand just how perfect. Hateship Loveship, which we watched on Saturday night largely because of Kristen Wiig, is adapted from Alice Munro's short story Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. The "courtship" is not only gone from the title, it's gone from the movie itself.

But this is a larger trend of which Hateship Loveship is only the most recent and probably not the most emblematic.

Namely, how often does it seem like characters in the movies go immediately from their first kiss, which one of them usually was not expecting, to having sex? Only the time necessary to roughly remove each other's underwear passes between the first moment in which mutual affection was even established, and the moment of doing the dirty deed.

This happens twice in Hateship Loveship. The first is not actually between Wiig and her romantic interest, played by Guy Pearce, but between two seniors. Nick Nolte is leaving a dinner at the home of Christine Lahti (who at 65 is just looking better with age), ready to part without any amorous demonstrations passing between them whatsoever. Lahti blocks the door, which is Nolte's cue to kiss her. He does so for maybe five seconds before grabbing her around the hips as she straddles him, and carrying her upstairs to her bedroom as she laughs naughtily. How chaste.

Then it's Wiig's and Pearce's turn. Wiig has been staying with Pearce after a catfishing hoax by two teenage girls has prompted her to relocate to his city from another city. At this point in the story, Pearce has acknowledged no romantic intentions toward her, because he's basically an innocent pawn in the catfishing scheme -- completely in the dark about it as well. He's basically letting her stay while she cleans and they try to figure out what should happen next. Then one night she plants a kiss on him. No sooner does this happen then he has her horizontal and they're "going all the way."

I don't know about you, but any relationships I've started by sleeping with the person have not been destined for greatness. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to let the mystery of someone I really like linger for four or five dates before "doing the nasty." Jump in between the sheets too quickly, and that's how quickly the relationship will be over. So says my experience, anyway.

But I'm sure the reverse is also true for some people, where 60-year-marriages were consummated after too many margaritas at the corner Chi Chi's. (Did they have Chi Chi's 60 years ago? Does anyone reading this actually know what Chi Chi's is?) And then of course many movie characters are not really thinking that far ahead -- they are just responding to a moment of passion, and perhaps defined by their short-sightedness anyway.

So it's not like it's unrealistic, per se. I just think that some of these characters might proceed with just a wee bit of trepidation, if they did really like that other person. Which is definitely how Wiig's character feels toward Pearce's. I mean, can you just imagine Wiig's character saying "Whoa, hold on there dude. Yeah, I kissed you, but that doesn't mean I want to have sex with you right now."

Typically when a movie inspires me to write about a "trend," I can't think of the many other examples I've recently seen that would give me cause to label it a "trend" in the first place. In this case, though, I have to go back only three movies. Just last week I watched And So It Goes, where Diane Keaton's and Michael Douglas' characters hop into bed at about the same level of familiarity. (Speaking of seniors getting it on.) I suppose maybe that's a senior thing. Maybe "mystery" isn't so important anymore. Maybe the only "mystery" about a fellow senior is how long they're going to be alive. Zing!

But it does get back to what Goldman was talking about. The point in most movies where characters are drawn to each other -- either as a major or a minor part of the plot -- is something other than how they got together or how long it took to happen. A lot of times the point is to show that they've developed a level of intimacy that warrants or explains subsequent behavior in the story. The consummating of the relationship is what's important, not whether it took one, five or 50 dates to reach that consummation. Why not get there by shorthand?

As usual, when it comes to screenwriting, Goldman isn't someone to doubt.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

When "shit" means "damn"

Yes, I'm about to do this. I'm about to write a post about Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist in which the primary observation I will make has to do with a piece of controversially translated dialogue.

Welcome to The Audient.

So the scene in question is when the handler of our main character, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), comes to Paris to make sure Marcello is not losing his nerve about carrying out his mission. The handler, Manganiello by name (and yes, I was constantly thinking of the guy who strips in Magic Mike), is talking to an unseen Marcello, but a passing Parisian woman thinks he is speaking to the birds. The line she speaks to him, as translated into English for the subtitles, is "He thinks the birds speak Italian! Damn!"

Except the last word she clearly says is "merde," which everyone knows is the French word for "shit."

Do they think we're that dumb?

The answer is no, no they don't. They just think we want the meaning of what she said translated, rather than the words themselves.

In reality, the English "Damn!" is closer to what that "Merde!" is trying to express than the English "Shit!"

"Shit!" is an expression of a surprise change in fortunes, usually negative. Something bad happens, you yell "Shit!"

"Damn!", on the other hand, is an expression of amazement over the audacity of a person's behavior. Someone does something audacious -- like speak to French birds in Italian -- you say "Damn!" Or, if you are a character on an urban sitcom, it's "Daaaa-yommm!"

It reminds me of this post, on translation vs. transliteration. The goal is ultimately to convey meaning, not convey linguistic precision.

Look, I'm sure you don't really give a damn, or give a shit. What you might really want to know is: What did I think of The Conformist?

Yeah, it's pretty much a masterpiece. The only reason I didn't give it a full five stars was that I spent a good deal of the middle portion disoriented within the plot. There were certain things that were occurring live that I thought were flashbacks, and vice versa. It all made sense by the end, but the experience of being uncertain threw me enough and lasted long enough that I ultimately thought it might have been handled a little bit more gracefully. Still, this is tour de force filmmaking with especially remarkable camerawork.

While watching it, a character on an urban sitcom might even say "Daaaa-yommm!"

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Audient Auscars: The Greatest Show on Earth

This is the sixth in my 2015 monthly series catching up with all the best picture Oscar winners that I have yet to see, in chronological order.

You'd think from subject matter alone, The Greatest Show on Earth would be one of the most marginal best picture winners of all time. Either that, or from the fact that people often call the 1952 best picture winner the worst best picture winner of all time.

So you can imagine my surprise when I was, well, surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

In fact, it probably qualifies as the biggest surprise of the six films I've seen so far this year, probably bigger even than Cimarron, because I came in more certain it would be bad than certain that Cimarron would be bad.

You wouldn't think that a movie about the circus would even warrant consideration as best picture. You wouldn't think that a movie that devotes a good quarter of its running time to filler unrelated to the plot would be in line for such accolades, either. But Hollywood has always recognized a good spectacle when it sees one, and The Greatest Show on Earth was as good a spectacle as was around at that time. And that isn't limited only to the circus acts, some of which are dazzling. That also includes a surprise third-act train wreck that tested the limits of what 1952 could depict.

What's more, the movie seems to use the circus as a metaphor for the process of making movies, which is probably as apt a metaphor as any. If that's the case, Charlton Heston is Cecil B. De Mille's stand-in, functioning as director and producer rolled into one -- which De Mille himself actually was on many of his movies, including this one. (He's also the narrator, a fact I didn't realize until I just now looked it up.)

And then there's the fact that this movie also functions as a 150-minute advertisement for The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, making it one of the most crass intersections of art and commerce ever to have been so lauded.

We should probably get to some plot by this point, shouldn't we?

Heston is indeed the general manager of the very real circus being depicted in this film, which is in fact still going strong to this day. His Brad Braden is the driven, business-oriented force that keeps everything on track, knowing a little (or a lot) about everything that's going on in the three rings, and how best to translate all those disparate elements into the most ticket sales. He's currently in a fight with owners to give his performers a full eight-month season, when the bean counters have observed the changing times and tastes of audiences and advised a mere 10-week season. As he often does, Brad has a trick up his sleeve -- he's contracted the hottest trapeze artist in the business, The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), who is known as a guaranteed draw. The bosses recognize the coup Brad has scored, but soon realize that Sebastian will only work for a full season's worth of work. He'll also only work in the center ring -- a problem for Brad's girlfriend, Holly (Betty Hutton), who had been expecting to hold down that ring this season. Holly reacts to the news as expected, but finds her perspective toward the new star, an arrogant ladies man, complicated by the undeniable bond they share as trapeze artists, and the playful one-upsmanship during performances that grows both dangerous (they're taking too many risks) and romantic (he's wooing her, and succeeding). Brad also has his hands full with shysters running corrupt carnival games, a jealous elephant trainer (Lyle Bettger) who may be a threat to the elephant performer he loves (Gloria Grahame), and a clown named Buttons (James Stewart), who's on the run from the law.

When I heard that The Greatest Show on Earth featured Jimmy Stewart as a clown named Buttons, I imagined the movie must be some kind of variety hour rather than a real narrative, something George Burns or Milton Berle might have been involved with. When I started to figure out that Buttons wasn't just a jokey cameo, but rather the disguise persona of a doctor on the run for mercy killing his sick wife, I decided the movie was up to something more interesting than I ever would have guessed. It represents one of many of those narratives you always hear about circuses inserted into this movie. "I'll run off and join the circus," people say when their troubles get too great to bear. Buttons did just that, and to maintain his disguise, he is never seen without his makeup. A canny choice by Stewart to cover his very famous face, somewhat akin to the one made years later by Michael Fassbender when he donned the papier mache head in Frank.

In fact, even with scads of time devoted to frivolous circus acts -- to such an extent that this movie sometimes follows Busby Berkeley's notion of giving over the narrative to pure performance for performance's sake -- The Greatest Show on Earth is far more serious than you would initially expect. It takes itself pretty seriously, at any rate, and the most obvious example of this its News on the March-style interstitials throughout the movie. As mentioned earlier, De Mille himself narrates these, and they are full of bromides and platitudes about the day-to-day life of the circus. They are paeans to the raising of the bigtop and its nightly striking, as though there were no nobler or more poetic pursuit than to move a circus in and out of town. You'd be inclined to laugh if De Mille's narration weren't so earnest and crafted with such linguistic love.

So yeah, this movie could have been cut down from 150 to 100 minutes for all the plot it actually contains, but I suppose something would be lost in terms of atmosphere. And the plot it does contain is pretty engaging with a surprising amount of nuance. If you always think you know where it's going to go, you'll be wrong. Take Sebastian, for example. He seems like he should be a stock character -- the egotistical Cassanova who gets his comeuppance, only made all the more loathsome by being French. However, some of the things that happen to him, and how he reacts to them, entirely reframe his character into someone surprisingly sympathetic. If this movie only wanted us to be in awe of the circus and those who put it together, it didn't need to add layers of complexity to what might have been a one-note antagonist.

The Greatest Show on Earth is definitely amateurish at times. Some of the actors yell their lines like they are on a stage instead of in front of a camera. I noticed a couple serious editing gaffes as well. Still, this is far more than I would have ever expected from this movie, and it gets me more interested in some of De Mille's other classics that I haven't yet seen, like The Ten Commandments.

Will I also be surprised by the best picture winner that I have always most associated with The Greatest Show on Earth, in terms of sheer frivolity, which actually beat The Ten Commandments for the 1956 Oscar? We'll find out in July when I watch Around the World in 80 Days.