Sunday, August 30, 2015

Tiresome tropes: The jabbering coward

I finally caught Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation this week after it had been theaters for nearly a month, and was disappointed by how rote it was. The plot was rote, the dialogue was rote, the characters were rote, even the action set pieces had a certain roteness within their predominating spectacularness. That is to say, they were sort of spectacular, but they were also sort of rote. However, I suppose they were also enough for me to give the movie a marginally positive review.

One of its easiest disappointing aspects to point out was one it shares with most movies of its kind, and even many that are not of its kind. Namely, there has to be some jabbering, blubbering, more cowardly side character alongside the hero, disgorging improbable amounts of nervous, very specific dialogue, even during scenes where the sheer physical circumstances of their predicament would make such verbose nattering highly unlikely.

I'm calling this guy "the jabbering coward," and in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, that thankless role was played by Simon Pegg.

Pegg's Benji probably did the same in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, but since I liked that movie much better than this one, I didn't notice it (or don't remember, if I did). After all, he's the comic relief. After all, this is what he does.

The problem with this trope, which appears in almost every movie where there is some kind of buddy dynamic (though the traits can definitely be underplayed, which is a relief), is that the character is not really a coward. In fact, more often than not, this character is about 90% as courageous as the hero, which is a bravery ratio that holds up for Benji and Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt as well.

But strap that guy into a car being driven maniacally through the streets, and all the sudden he'll piss his pants over things that aren't a tenth as threatening as much of what he's just been through.

Perfect case in point, and there are some mild Rogue Nation spoilers to follow if you want to look away.

The notable thing about the scene screen-captured above is that it's one big set piece immediately coming on the heels of another, bigger set piece. For the sake of shorthand, we'll call them "underwater computer" and "car chase turns into motorcycle chase," because really, aren't the set pieces, and their very ability to be distilled down to these short descriptions, the reason for even making this movie in the first place? (And the fact that Cruise is going to do all his own stunts in these set pieces?) Anyway, in "underwater computer," Benji is placing himself in harm's way based on the extremely unlikely prospect that Ethan will disarm some extremely intricate and improbable security system. If Ethan fails -- and there is about a 99.6% chance that he actually will fail -- then Benji will be killed at worst, or never again see the light of day while being tortured round the clock at best. With these kind of odds, this is where Benji should be a sniffling, sniveling mess.

Yet Benji walks through that scenario coolly and collectedly, as he needs to do in order to emerge from it unsuspected. Good on ya, Benji. We wouldn't have expected anything less of you.

Until the movie tells us five minutes later to expect far, far less.

No sooner have all involved emerged (improbably) alive from "underwater computer" than they are thrust into "car chase turns into motorcycle chase." The joke is that Hunt has nearly drowned, so his ability to drive a car should be limited at best -- after all, he's responding erratically to tests of his mental acuity, and he can barely even stand. Yet The Indestructible Ethan Hunt does jump into the driver's seat, perhaps because driving is his forte and it is, um, decidedly not Benji's. That leaves Benji flailing about in the passenger seat, unleashing a stream of steady cautions and expulsions of sheer terror.

Which is really funny, because you figure Benji had probably already been through "car chase turns into motorcycle chase" at least four or five times before, but had likely never experienced an "underwater computer."

If you want to drill down deep and try to discover an actual explanation for this, you might say it's the looming threat of actual physical harm that really scares Benji. In "underwater computer," the threat is far more abstract, so there's no physical stimulus to cause him to shit his pants. Or maybe you could say that he's all the more eager to brown those boxers precisely because he's been holding in his fear for so long during "underwater computer." "Car chase turns into motorcycle chase" is, therefore, a release for him -- a release of tension, a release of bodily fluids, what have you.

But I'm not looking for a logical explanation, because neither is the script. The script is just looking for someone to provide a motormouth running commentary as a car in which he's riding is careening out of control. The script is just looking, for some reason, for someone to provide additional contrast with Cruise, to again show us just how badass Cruise is. It's not enough that he's doing his own stunts, and that "car chase turns into motorcycle chase" is only about the fourth most potentially fatal thing his character (or the actor) has done in this movie. The script has to eradicate that tiny remaining kernel of uncertainty of just how brave Ethan Hunt is by having someone sitting next to him turn into a blubbering mess, just to underscore how grave their situation is.

I say Benji deserves better, but so too does Pegg. Hasn't Pegg come far enough along in his career where he doesn't need to scream "Watch out!" every time Cruise drives through a piazza and is about to kill everyone in it, including the two of them?

I suppose in a way, it's a bit like a laugh track on a TV show. The laugh track is there to tell you when something's funny, and it doesn't have to be a bad thing. I mean, try imagining the classic Seinfeld without a laugh track. Sometimes, you just need it. If there wasn't some fool advertising his horror over what was going on, would we even know it was a dangerous situation? Well, we'd know -- but would we feel like something was missing?

If there's any positive news to the sad inescapability of this trend, it's that at least they're no longer casting actors of color to play this role. Or not as much, anyway. Used to be, the character prognosticating doom and gloom was the black character, and Hollywood thought it was balancing everything out by having this character behave heroically when really put to the test. Not realizing, of course, that it was a pernicious stereotype about black people who talk a lot that caused them to envision this actor in that role in the first place.

To all the Benjis out there, I say: Rise up! Free yourself from the shackles of the role you are required to play. Next time you're in a car and the driver seems a bit unstable, just realize you're in a movie and that you have been through far worse scrapes with this guy before. If you survived those, what makes you think your luck is about to run out now?

Or if you are scared -- as, let's face it, all of us would be -- my God, just keep it to yourself. Your unbecoming shrieking is only going to ruin the driver's concentration anyway, and then you really will crash.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Twice the Vertigo ... still not much fun

I've always struggled with Vertigo -- the movie, not the affliction -- but the crowning of it as the best movie of all time in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll made the condition all the more acute.

Whereas others -- specifically, the plurality of critics who responded to the poll -- have hailed it as one of the best movies of all time, I have never even considered it among my five favorite Hitchcock movies. Possibly not even among my ten favorite.

What can I say. This movie has always left me cold. Which it's supposed to do, I think, but cold in a way that you find stimulating and thought provoking. Not cold in a way that just makes you not want to watch it again.

But true enough, I have not wanted to watch it again, and have been stuck on just that single viewing, which probably occurred sometime in the 1990s. Just that single viewing of what is now reasonably considered The Greatest Movie of All Time. (Being a huge fan of Citizen Kane, which is one of my ten favorite movies of all time, and which got bumped from Sight & Sound's top spot by Vertigo, has intensified my Vertigo resentment since 2012.)

But the opportunity to reckon with Vertigo a second time arose when the other two guys on my podcast got enthusiastic about making this the next repertory pick for us to discuss, to balance out the new releases that usually comprise the podcast's discussion format. Because I have not been entirely comfortable with my minority feelings on Vertigo, I embraced this suggestion as my own opportunity to revisit it. We record on Sunday, and I watched it again last night.

Before I tell you how I felt about it on second viewing, I should tell you about the secondary meaning to the title of this post. As is quite appropriate for Vertigo -- a movie in which doubling is such a major theme, it's almost inescapable -- this was not only my second viewing of Vertigo, but I watched parts of two different Vertigos. Let me take a moment to explain.

As is always my preference when I need to get a hold of a specific movie to watch, I checked the library to see if it was available. It was, but it was being held in offsite storage and needed to be transported to one of the branches for me to pick up. A week passed, and when I checked on Tuesday -- cognizant of the approaching viewing deadline for the podcast -- its status was still that generic purgatory of "Offsite Storage."

So I cut my losses and just spent the $2.99 to download a rental from iTunes. As it turns out, I should have waited just one more day, because the next time I checked the library's website, my reservation of a Hitchock DVD four pack (including also Psycho, The Trouble With Harry and The Man Who Knew Too Much) was "Awaiting Collection." I had to go to the library anyway, so I did collect it -- even though I had a copy on the computer at home. My reasoning had something to do with not wanting to annoy the library by reserving something and then never collecting it, especially on the heels of reserving two copies of Star Wars earlier in the month and then leaving one of them uncollected. I didn't want to get my name put on some list, or my picture hung behind the counter with a note that reads "Do not reserve to this guy."

I'd say it's a good thing I had both copies, but really, I only would have needed the iTunes copy. (The reverse, however, was not true.) I started watching Vertigo on DVD because it requires less setup (I don't need to connect my computer to the TV), but when the performance started suffering from the imperfections on the disc's surface, I didn't fight it for long before just switching to iTunes.

The funny thematic parallel notwithstanding, it wasn't a particularly successful second viewing of the movie. I wouldn't say I like Vertigo any less, but neither do I like it any more. And my suspicion of why I didn't like it very much in the first place seems to have been confirmed by this viewing: It's just not very much fun.

Whether a movie is fun or not does not typically play a huge role in how much I like it. If I graded movies only on how fun they were, I wouldn't have selected 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days or United 93 as parts of my top 25 movies of the 2000s. But when it comes to Hitchcock, fun does really seem to matter to me.

In looking at my two favorite Hitchcocks, they are both exceedingly fun. These would be Rear Window (which is in my top 30 of all time) and North by Northwest (which is just outside my top 100). My three and four Hitchcock -- Rebecca and Psycho, though I'm not sure the order -- are not as fun, but they are both a laugh a minute compared to the somber Vertigo.

And perhaps the inclusion of Rebecca and Psycho in this discussion allows me to expand upon my definition of "fun" in this context. Certainly, both of those are very dark movies when compared to Rear Window and North by Northwest, which have dark moments but are overall more like popcorn thrillers. And in ways, both Rebecca and Psycho are far darker than Vertigo.

But just because a movie is dark doesn't mean it can't be fun. Speaking of Psycho, American Psycho is incredibly dark but also incredibly fun -- in fact, it is as fun as it is dark, if not more so. Psycho is like that in that it contains these cathartic releases of fear and tension, and has its own twisted sense of humor. I remember Rebecca less well because I haven't seen it since we watched it in my film class my senior year in high school, either 1990 or 1991, but what strikes me as fun in that movie is the gothic melodrama milieu of Daphne du Maurier's novels (another of which, Jamaica Inn, I read earlier this year, leaving it fresh in my mind. Jamaica Inn is a Hitchcock du Maurier adaptation that I have yet to see).

Vertigo doesn't meet either a traditional or a non-traditional definition of fun, and it has no sense of humor. Simply put, it's a drag. It's a deep dive into the sad psyches of scarred individuals who are manipulating each other. These manipulations take on interesting forms, and the "mystery" of Vertigo is fairly satisfying (if revealed too early in the narrative, and with too little fanfare, in that scene where Judy writes out her confession). But entirely too much time is spent on what amounts to stalking behavior, and a type of madness that I have seen explored in more engrossing ways elsewhere. Vertigo is neither fun nor "fun."

There's a lot more I can and will say about this movie, but I'll say it on the podcast this weekend. And speaking of the podcast, here's a link to our most recent one on Trainwreck if you would like to check it out.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

New hope

Now, don't think I'm embracing the newly popular practice -- even among people who should know better -- of referring to the original Star Wars as A New Hope, or even worse, as Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. I'm not down with that. It's revisionist history and I don't like it. Even recognizing the need to differentiate the movie you're talking about from the other movies in the series, I don't like it.

However, I do think it's useful as a title for this post, because it welcomes us to the second half of my "Star Wars year" -- and to the movies in this series that we can all agree are actually good.

As you recall, I'm watching one of the current six Star Wars movies, in order by episode, each two-month period of 2015, leading up to the release of The Force Awakens in December. By the end of August, it was my task to watch the one movie actually known as Star Wars -- the first, which then became the fourth.

And new hope is indeed what I felt when I watched it.

In fact, I kind of felt like I was watching it for the first time, which was indeed an enthralling experience.

Star Wars is a bit of an oddity for a movie in my top ten movies of all time, in the sense that it may have been as long as 18 years ago that I last saw it. In fact, grimacing at the "newly" added scenes and digital effects as I watched it this time, I feel quite certain that my only previous experience with them was when I saw Star Wars for its digitally enhanced re-release in 1997. My wife and I watched Empire and Return of the Jedi between Christmas and New Year's in 2007, but we left off Star Wars at her suggestion. Although she might disavow having said this if I confronted her with it, I believe she said something like "Let's not bother with Star Wars. Let's just watch the good ones."

What? The good ones?

To be fair, I don't think she actually said that. But I think she implied it. I think her tone implied that Star Wars was slow, or old, or like a black-and-white movie compared to the more colorful Empire and Jedi. (Not colorful enough? Did she forget about the cantina scene?)

But my wife is not alone in feeling this way, if she did indeed feel the way I'm saying she felt. A guy in my Flickcharters group conducted his own rewatch for the first time in five years -- he's in his early twenties, see, so he can't afford 17 years between viewings. Here's what he said about it in describing his re-ranking of Star Wars from #3 down to #57.

"It's still a technical marvel, and I can't separate how much it's impacted me. But, well, I think it was [a person in our group] who commented on how the droid stuff drags on Tatooine, and I think he's right. It does kind of drag, not giving you really any stakes or characters to invest in yourself. Until Luke is excited that the droids are a part of the Rebellion, the most interesting scene has been Vader stomping around the Tantive IV. And the fight scenes, while well-planned, are not very tense because of the film's genre aspirations; it homages constantly to films without these tensions, so why would you carry them?

"Additionally, for the first time, I see exactly why this first Star Wars might not even appeal to someone at ALL on their first watch. There's so much inextricable information for me in scenes like the cantina, the R4 unit "Red," details about the Imperial Naval Academy, the fate of Dr. Evazan and Ponda Baba, the excision of the awful Jabba scene, what in the heck a Jawa is anyway. I understand not finding anything to attach to and finding the rest of the film a little annoying."

Although I almost regret giving this guy's views so much real estate on my blog, because I don't know half of what he's talking about anyway -- Dr. Evazan? Ponda Boba? -- I can't deny that these words (or the memory of their general tone) was in my head as I sat down to watch Star Wars. (With my wife alongside me, returning to this project for the first time since she fell asleep halfway through Attack of the Clones.) I didn't have it at #3 on my Flickchart, but I did/do have it at #8. Would this viewing of Star Wars drop it to #57 or even lower?

Well, I don't re-rank on Flickchart after each instance of revisiting a film, but if I did, I don't think it would even move down one spot.

In fact, I was overjoyed to reckon with how elemental of a piece of filmmaking it is. The last time I remember feeling this about a movie, it was during a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark sometime in the early 2000s. The feeling I had in both instances was "This movie is so effective, it could just as easily be in black and white." That's not some kind of backhanded compliment or outright insult about black-and-white films. Rather, it's a declaration that the things we might think we need to draw us to the movies we love -- modern effects, colorful scenery, etc. -- aren't remotely necessary when you have a good story and great characters. (Incidentally, this was years before Steven Soderbergh put his black-and-white version of Raiders on the internet.)

So yeah, there was a part of me that felt like I was seeing Star Wars for the first time. It felt like that kind of a revelation about its fundamental greatness. On the other hand, it was equally surprising to see how much I remembered exact lines of dialogue and exact vocal inflections on those lines of dialogue, a recognition of how this movie has become ingrained and enshrined in our collective subconscious. Although there are certainly more mainstream examples, I specifically remember noting this when C3PO spots the Jawa transport on the horizon and yells "Over here! Help! Please help!"

And let's talk about those "boring" robots and their time on Tatooine. Actually, this was the most enthralled I was in the whole film, perhaps because I was watching it the most closely for cracks in Star Wars' armor. I marveled over the fact that the movie takes its time -- but really, not too much time -- getting to the sale of the droids to Luke and his uncle. With the Flickcharter's comments in the back of my mind, I imagined that the scenes of C3PO and R2DS roaming the desert on their own might go on interminably, and I had just forgotten about it. Nope. This script actually keeps things moving along, it's just not in a hurry to bypass scenes that all have their place in establishing this world.

And I loved the notion that this major intergalactic power shift is hinging on the crash landing of an escape pod on a desert planet, and these two battle-weary droids getting sold to the correct farmers. Sure, there's a fair amount of coincidence involved here, but when isn't that the case in a story worth telling? And sure, the whole rebellion could have been quashed if the star destroyer gunner were just a little more trigger happy and had blasted the escape pod out of existence, rather than adhering to his superior's unusual request not to waste ammunition on a craft carrying no life forms. And sure, in retrospect it's a bit odd that a small disagreement between R2 and Threepio would prompt robots who had been friends for decades to go their separate ways and potentially not see each other again. (Hey, it's debatable how much of this story George Lucas actually knew about at the time, especially when Ben Kenobi has selective amnesia about the two droids.) But those things don't even register to me as problems. They are just delightful details of one of my favorite movies.

When an hour had elapsed and they hadn't even left Tatooine yet, I found myself amazed that an hour had passed -- not that they hadn't left Tatooine yet.

There's a lot more I could say about Star Wars, I'm sure. But it's Star Wars. If there's one movie almost anybody reading this already knows, it's Star Wars.

I will say that my wife no longer had a tone, implied or otherwise, about this movie. At the start she was making noise about not knowing whether she had the stamina for the whole movie, but at the end, there she was, still awake -- until the Death Star exploded and beyond.

New hope? I've definitely got it for the next movie as well. In part because Empire was the special edition that they meddled with the least.

Monday, August 24, 2015

See formula for success, copy formula for success

The latest D.C. comic book movie news trickling out this week is one of the most egregious examples of Hollywood doing something that Hollywood obviously does: Try to fit a square peg into a round hole, because that particular square peg was so successful in its square hole.

To put a finer point on it, Hollywood steals what it thinks is hot and tries to spread the heat -- even if its application of that heat is not particularly logical.

What other explanation for Australian visionary filmmaker George Miller -- who has really only been called a visionary for about the past three months -- being rumored to direct the next Superman film?

That's right, Man of Steel 2 is supposed to in the hands of the director of Mad Max: Fury Road, because the only message Hollywood has gotten from the success of Fury Road is "We need to make movies that look like this."

Which, to be fair, is a great message to take from the movie, and not only because it could actually be a financial boon to the company. We should want to see more movies like Mad Max: Fury Road.

Assuming, that is, the movie would benefit from a Mad Max: Fury Road style approach. And it's not entirely clear that Man of Steel 2 would. (I'd argue that not any style of approach would probably put Warner Brothers in a position to make a better Superman movie, but that's another discussion.)

To understand why George Miller is a square peg to Man of Steel's round hole -- though maybe he should be the round one and Superman the square one -- you need to look no further than the reason everyone thought the latest Mad Max was great: It had almost exclusively practical stunts and used digital effects only when (rarely) necessary.

I'm sorry, how again do you make Superman fly without the use of a computer? Unless, that is, you're borrowing one of those human cannonball cannons from a 1930s circus.

And then you've got the fact that in these "darker" D.C. movies, many if not most scenes seem to take place at night. At least in the Batman movies, they do. (And isn't Batman probably going to be in Man of Steel 2 anyway?) Who do you want to get to direct a great night scene? Oh yeah, how about the guy who doesn't have a single action scene at night in his currently hot film, and in fact seems to revel in the very clarity of action provided by the blinding whiteness of the desert?

Seems like a great fit, yeah?

I'm sure this news has geeks salivating, though. Even if Mad Max wasn't necessarily in the wheelhouse of most comic book nerds -- though it was probably close enough -- few of them would have failed to recognize a certain greatness in the film. (I say "a certain greatness" only because I have some qualms about that movie, ones that are ultimately unimportant to the current discussion.) Those comic book nerds can just imagine how someone making a movie like that could redeem Superman's tarnished silver screen image.

But the only reason Miller could make a movie like that was because he was largely free from studio meddling. His heart and soul pulses through every frame of the film, and takes the physical form of the grit in the camera lens. Give him something like Superman, and he won't be able to do the things he did that made Fury Road what it was.

Oh sure, the studio will tell him he has carte blanche, in the hopes of tricking him into that headspace where his colossal gambles end up making great art rather than great trainwrecks. And they might think they're actually giving him carte blanche, because they might be hip enough to know that their own meddling is the kind of poison that kills lesser movies. But once the first sign of that possible trainwreck, the type of trainwreck that worked out great for Fury Road, rears its head, they'll be meddling like they've never meddled. And some outlandish use of risky and expensive practical ideas will be immediately replaced by digital images and mouse clicks.

Don't forget, Marvel tried this already when they hired Edgar Wright to write and direct Ant-Man. Remember how that turned out? Yeah, Wright felt so pinned in by concessions to the studio's creative direction for the project and for its intertwined universe that he left the movie, and a much more pliable director was brought in to churn out a hack job. (A hack job with some enjoyable moments, but a hack job that I have nonetheless basically already forgotten.) What makes them think Miller would bend any more agreeably to the constraints of the D.C. universe? If he doesn't, he'll walk off just like Wright. And if he does, they won't get the Miller they hired to make a special kind of movie. They'll get the Miller who made Happy Feet. (Okay, Happy Feet is not that bad. But I don't like it very much.)

Miller is accustomed to making his movies adhere to a universe, but it's a universe he created and he has overseen. And he's willing to deviate from the particulars of story and plot that are in other parts of his universe in order to keep the essence of the universe intact, which is what made Fury Road what it was. Give him someone else's universe of scowling superheroes and he'll wonder what he's gotten himself into.

So we can all superficially applaud Warner Brothers for trying to do right by its most famous superhero property, for its attempt at really "getting it" -- really hearing the audience feedback and trying to make a better movie.

But check back with me two years from now, and when Brett Ratner's name appears on Man of Steel 2, you'll know why.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The regrets of ranking early

There's been a lot of 2015 talk in my various film circles about What We Do in the Shadows and how good it is.

Unfortunately, I saw the movie in 2014, so I've been left out of that talk.

Oh, I can still talk about my affection for it. I just can't boost it 20 spots on my real-time rankings as a result of all this reinforcement of its greatness, because I'm not ranking it in real time. I already closed off my 2014 rankings back in January, where What We Do in the Shadows ended at a fairly pedestrian #41 for the year (out of 136).

That's not only the top half, it's the top third. So that's no slouch of a ranking. But if I'd already seen the film twice by my ranking deadline -- my second viewing didn't come until March 20th -- and if I'd already been privy to all the buzz from my (largely American) film circles who were only getting to see it for the first time this year, I would have found a way to get it those 20 spots higher.

The latest reminder of my regret is just now, seeing it as this week's 99 cent rental on iTunes. I have resisted (so far) making that purchase for my third viewing, but it also means I may be hearing more about the movie this week as others use this as their excuse to see Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement's mockumentary masterpiece, which is better than all but maybe one of the mockumentaries Christopher Guest directed. (Waiting for Guffman.) And earlier this week one guy posted in my Flickcharters group with a picture of his copy of the movie, saying it was the only movie that had come out so far in 2015 that was worth owning.

But it didn't come out in 2015. Not in Australia, anyway. It came out in 2014, and I saw it on the plane back from the U.S. in November. So even its DVD release was in 2014. I had to rank it last year -- or so I thought at the time.

But I couldn't have anticipated how warmly it would be received upon its eventual U.S. release, and how all the warm feelings about this movie would have bumped it higher and higher in my mind. And indeed they have. (That second viewing, not on an airplane, didn't hurt either.) In fact, I think I wrongly assumed that the movie might have somehow gotten "missed" in the U.S., since I figured a movie featuring American crossover Jemaine Clement would have gotten a same-year release or none at all. Last year was possibly the only relevant year in which to rank it.

I can't seem to figure out how to be in the right year. Usually my complaint is that half the Oscar contenders don't release here until after my ranking deadline, so I'm essentially a year late on them. (I still haven't seen The Wolf of Wall Street or Inherent Vice, because they became less of a priority once they missed my ranking deadline.) Now, instead of missing the boat, I got there before it even sailed into the harbor.

Of course, any year's rankings are necessarily subject to rapid ossification. They are a reflection of how I felt at that exact time, and they fail to anticipate which films will stay with me, which films will greatly improve on a second viewing, and which films will greatly drop. In the cold light of mid 2015, it's easy to see the films I now would have ranked below What We Do in the Shadows -- sometimes as a result of the second viewings of those films. For example:

11. The Interview (big drop on second viewing)
16. Foxcatcher
19. Begin Again
23. Locke
34. Tusk
35. Joe
37. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

(Wait wait wait ... I had the fifth Paranormal Activity movie ABOVE What We Do in the Shadows???)

But those are just some examples, and it doesn't mean they're bad movies. It just means that in mid 2015, What We Do means more to me, and would have likely beaten them as well as some others.

So I guess this post is my mea culpa. And what I can do -- in the shadows or otherwise -- is just keep moving it up on my Flickchart as it wins duels against movies I now realize are lesser. When all is said and done, on my deathbed, assuming I still care about ranking movies this way, Flickchart is going to be the be-all and end-all commentary on my movie tastes, the grand aggregation of everything I thought about the movies I saw.

And I assume What We Do in the Shadows will still make the elderly version of me guffaw.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

MIFF: 17th century immersion

It's taken a couple days to get up my final MIFF post, and it's now been more than 36 hours since the carnies packed up all the tents and took the first train out of town. I'm feeling a little of the melancholy of the festival being over, as well as my friend Don leaving town.

But Don and I finished on a good note Friday night with Robert Eggers' The Witch at The Forum, the venue where I started two weeks earlier with The Lobster. In fact, at the start, I thought it could have been a great note -- for the first 15 minutes of this film, I was sure it was the best I had seen all year. I just hope it actually gets released this year. As of now, I can't even find a poster online, so what appears above is what you get. I almost think I'd have been better off with just the picture of Anya Taylor-Joy, and done away with the anachronistic looking text.

The reason anachronisms are so inappropriate with this movie is that it works so hard, and with such success, to plunge you directly into its world. The movie takes place in what would become Massachusetts in 1630, and I'm pretty sure that was also where and when it was shot. What? Time machines don't exist? Could have fooled me.

Eggers fastidiously recreates the era of this film's action, perhaps never more noticeably than with the dialogue, which is fairly close to one of Mel Gibson's experiments with using the real language of the characters portrayed on screen (in both The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto). The dialogue is full of dosts and doths and thous, and those are the easy ones. In fact, the dialogue is so dedicated to early 17th century realism that it frequently comes at the expense of coherence -- though not in a bad way. Sometimes I wouldn't understand a word they were saying for as many as ten or 15 seconds, and other times would grab hold of a single word and extrapolate a context for the sentence from that. Overall, it didn't affect my understanding of the plot, so it was a minor price to pay -- and a major boon to the film's overwhelming sense of realism.

I suppose I should tell you what the story is actually about. A devoutly religious pilgrim (Ralph Ineson) believes that the town he and his family are living in is too sinful a place for their religious freedom to flourish, so he builds a homestead on the edge of a wood that many believe is haunted. At first things go fine; William's pregnant wife Katherine (Game of Thrones' Kate Dickie) gives birth to a baby boy, and their crops thrive. But then the baby disappears while under the watch of their oldest daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), and the crops die. Although a wolf is blamed for the disappearance of the baby, the persistent rumor of the cursed woods -- specifically, witches -- can't escape the characters' thoughts. Katherine wonders aloud if it's her own daughter Thomasin who is bewitched, while Thomasin sees suspicious behavior in the twins, who are around six years old and who have (what may be a pretend) nefarious relationship with a black goat on their farm. That leaves the father and early teenage brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) in the middle, and all of them looking for answers that will prevent their family's story from turning permanently toward tragedy.

What The Witch does exceptionally well is set a sense of mood. In the opening ten or 15 minutes, which are largely free of dialogue, the film feels a bit like Terrence Malick's The New World, only more authentic in its appearance. It captures these perfectly gray Massachusetts woods through dynamite camera work and a crisply matter-of-fact production design that gives you an immediate sense of place, and immersion. And without dialogue, it feels a lot like something Malick would actually make, without relying on the whispered voiceover that can sometimes irritate in a Malick film. We just get images of this world and their life, accompanied by a chilling sound design that features everything from eerie angelic voices to the jarring concatenation of brass and wind instruments. It's an orchestra of sensation indeed.

It's not that it becomes anything less than this after these first 15 minutes, it's just that they are clearly the film's strength. Story is not necessarily its strength, though that is certainly arguable. Where this story goes, objectively, is fine, and in fact some might find it to be the perfect realization of what this story is supposed to be about. As with any witch story, one of the narrative goals is to recognize the hypocrisy and short-sightedness of those who accused others of being witches with only the most circumstantial evidence to support their claim. That is certainly present here too, and by limiting the dynamics of such paranoia to just one family, it creates a terrific claustrophobia. Eggers also gives certain supernatural aspects of the story a chilling physical reality that is incredibly effective.

What ultimately leaves me a little cold, and with a slight hesitation about the wholly enthusiastic recommendation I want to give it, is that the story itself could probably never be a fully satisfying extension of what the first 15 minutes of The Witch gives me. Which doesn't mean it's a bad direction, or even the wrong direction, to take the movie. A movie can't be as scary as The Witch is with only ambiguous hints of what's happening to this family -- sometimes you have to get what's actually happening. And what's actually happening was inevitably a mild disappointment for me.

But should you see this movie? HELL YES. One thing I have yet to mention is the uniform superlative level of the acting, especially among young actors. Scrimshaw has one powerhouse scene, and Taylor-Joy is a true find, likely to break out from this movie in a big way. Much of the film's ambiguity lies in her character, and she brings a fecund earthy specificity to her performance that is at times startling. Simply put, you can't take your eyes off her -- she is confronting you with some kind of unspoken sexuality that's unsettling.

Let's just hope you will actually have the opportunity to see this movie sometime soon. It seems an unusually long gestation period for a film that was such a hit at Sundance this year, especially with Halloween barely two months off and no release date yet set for the film. To be sure, it's not your typical Halloween horror and may not ultimately be a hit, but the idea that it's languishing around without a release date seems kind of absurd, given the undeniable talent that is dribbling out of every pore of this movie.

Thanks for another great MIFF, MIFF! See you next year.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The James Ponsoldt staggered release schedule

The goal at MIFF each year is to see films that I wouldn't otherwise be able to see for quite some time.

I figured The End of the Tour was not one of those, since it's already out in the U.S. I figured in Australia, it would be dawdling by about a month, but then it would come along sometime maybe in early September.

Nope. The End of the Tour releases in Australia on December 3rd.

That's not an unusual delay, of course. Movies that come out around Thanksgiving -- you know, the early Oscar contenders -- sometimes don't hit Australian cinemas until February. Which means they miss my cutoff for ranking my films each year. Quite to my consternation.

It does feel a bit strange for movies released earlier than that, though. I don't notice those long delays earlier in the year, or at least not nearly to the same extent. It's usually more like a month. Definitely not the four months of this delay. Even at the end of the year, it's three months at most.

But it's not unprecedented. In fact, James Ponsoldt's previous film, The Spectacular Now, had almost the exact same release schedule.

When I checked the website that projects Australian release dates for films sometimes as many as three years into the future, just to see when End of the Tour would actually be coming out here, I was surprised not to find it until December 3rd. Which immediately made me think of The Spectacular Now.

See, I had a chance to watch The Spectacular Now before leaving for Australia back in 2013. As I come up on the two-year anniversary of moving here, I find myself reflecting back to the period of time when I knew I was leaving. I made a trip to Chicago in early August to visit my friend Don, and Don and I always see at least one movie when we get together. We saw Fruitvale Station on that trip, but The Spectacular Now was one of our options.

The Spectacular Now came out on August 2nd of that year in the U.S., but I had to wait until December 5th to see it here. (But actually saw it on December 9th.) Now, Ponsoldt's next film, which released on July 31st in the U.S., is coming out on December 3rd here. In other words, not only the same window of time between the two releases, but the same dates on the calendar.

It's not entirely a coincidence. Both films were distributed in the U.S. by A24 films, and though there's no direct correlation between American distributors and Australian distributors, one would assume it's the same distributor for both films in Australia. (I googled but was unable to get an answer on this.) The American distributor considered both of Ponsoldt's movies to be good late summer movies (even though Tour takes place in the dead of winter), and the Australian distributor considered both of Ponsoldt's movies to be good early summer movies (there's little snow in Australia, so I guess snow is exotic at any time of year).

Maybe the real coincidence is that Don factors into both stories. Don is here now visiting, and he saw (and also loved) The End of the Tour with me.

There's one more sort of funny coincidence. In 2013, we had the chance to see Spectacular Now but saw Fruitvale Station instead. The stars of these two movies -- Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan -- are appearing together in a movie that is also hitting theaters now, the disastrous latest reboot of The Fantastic Four.

You may be yawning, but I get off on this stuff.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

MIFF: Uber to the rescue

So my third MIFF screening was another 6:30 screening, just like my second. But this time I wasn't popping over after work. My friend Don (who is visiting from Chicago) and I had been watching my younger son on Tuesday, one of his two days home from daycare each week. So in order to get to our screening of The End of the Tour, we had to hand off the baton to my wife, who needed to leave work early, or at least on time, for this to happen.

She, however, seemed to have forgotten this.

Because we had to take not one, but two trams to get to the cinema, we really needed to leave by 5:45 to ensure an on-time arrival. When she called me at around 5:30 on another matter -- the school had called her to tell her our older son was sick, when they were supposed to call me -- and she was only just leaving, I suspected our on-time arrival was in jeopardy. But I remained optimistic.

When it was after 6 and she wasn't home yet -- a fact that shouldn't have been surprising, given the time I know it takes -- I realized that we weren't going to make it on time. Not by tram, anyway.

Uber to the rescue.

I'd had the Uber app installed on my phone at a poker game some three months ago. It was around 1 in the morning and the last train was an hour in the past. I knew I'd have to get a cab home, and I knew it wouldn't be particularly cheap. But then the topic of Uber was broached. And before I knew it, in my drunken haze, someone had installed the app on my phone and a driver was coming to pick me up inside of ten minutes. Not only that, but the first ride was free as a first-time customer perk.

I hadn't used it again since then, largely because our lifestyle does not generally require it. But I knew it would be great to have in the case of an emergency, and such an emergency presented itself on Tuesday night. Within a matter of about a minute I had an eight-minute ETA for a diver to arrive at our house. During that eight-minute window, my wife came home, and by 6:11 we were on our way to the Comedy Theatre on Exhibition Street. We were outside the cinema by 6:27, and though we had to sit in the front row, this was not one of those shitty front rows that ruins your viewing. We probably even had five more minutes to play with.

And when I went today to look at how much we had been charged for the ride, my jaw dropped -- but not for the usual reason a person's jaw drops in the expensive city of Melbourne. I was expecting a charge that would easily be in the twenties, but over $30 wouldn't have surprised me either.

Nope. The ride that saved our screening of The End of the Tour cost a mere $13.17.

Uber to the rescue indeed.

Before we (finally) get into the particulars of the movie, I should tell you the other reason it was essential that we made it to this screening, beyond merely looking forward to the movie: We were meeting people for dinner afterward, and expected to discuss what we had just seen. See, this was also the occasion for a "meet-up" of Melbourne listeners to the Filmspotting podcast, one of whom I had connected with via email shortly after moving to Australia, but hadn't yet met in person. I decided MIFF was the occasion to finally make it happen, and he and another listener both went to the screening and met us afterward for food at a Pan-Asian cuisine restaurant right around the corner. I won't go into detail on that dinner. I'll just say that they were two interesting people with a shared love of our interest in film, and Don and I were glad we got a chance to meet and dine with them.

All four of us loved this movie. It's the (of course true) story of David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), a Rolling Stone writer and aspiring novelist, who pitches a story to his editor to profile David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), the most talked about writer in the country after the publication of his massive tome Infinite Jest. This is 1996. Wallace is finishing off his book tour, and Lipsky's going to join him in the snowy midwest for the last leg, meanwhile trying to figure out what makes the brilliant writer tick. They strike up an interesting rapport that falls somewhere between the friendship of naturally compatible individuals and the professional rivalry of guys trying to succeed in the same industry. The story is overshadowed by our knowledge that Wallace has committed suicide, as the story starts in 2008 with Lipsky providing a remembrance of him on NPR upon hearing the shocking news.

Other than Segel's masterful performance -- he disappears into this role like he never has before -- what makes the film so great is that the audience (at least this Audient) is content to just exist with them in conversation over the course of a couple days, barely with even the need for a plot. The plot is fairly minimal -- it involves traveling to the final tour stop in Minneapolis, meeting up with a couple of Wallace's female friends (and some complications that arrive from that) and then returning home, with Lipsky all the while prodding him in ways that range from gentle to more invasive. The movie is essentially one long conversation with pauses and changes of venue, as the two men suss each other out and assess the level of trust they are building with each other. We know that journalists are supposed to keep their professional distance from their subjects, but this is a different kind of interview, in part because Lipsky so clearly wants to achieve what Wallace has achieved, and Wallace so clearly needs a confidant. Their relationship slouches toward friendship, then toward frenemyship, then ultimately toward an intimate understanding of one another's foibles and innermost fears.

However, none of it is didactic and all of it is interesting to listen to. The movie is extremely well written (by Donald Margulies) without being overtly clever, which I'm sure has partly to do with the fact that audio tapes of their interview are available and that much of the dialogue is either very close to what actually happened, or perhaps the actual things that were said. James Ponsoldt directed The Spectacular Now, which I did not particularly care for, but the improvisational looseness of his directing in that film really works with this material. Segel and Eisenberg are so comfortable in their characters -- even when the characters themselves are highly uncomfortable -- that the performances have that "two guys just talking" quality of the best improvised movies. Yet the dialogue is also precise in a way that gets you completely inside both writers' heads. Wallace's is, for sure, the more interesting head to be in -- even if you haven't read Infinite Jest (and I only made it through the first 100 pages before it beat me), his dialogue here gives you a sense of how Wallace thinks and exists in our world, how he is both fully a product of it and highly skeptical of its pitfalls. However, Lipsky's psychological reality is also extremely fascinating, as he's a bit of a dick (isn't Eisenberg always these days?) but also eminently relatable. He wants what Wallace has -- even if Wallace is quick to assure him that maybe he shouldn't.

The fact that we know Wallace killed himself -- but not until 12 years later -- makes the experience of observing him interesting as well. We are of course looking for seeds of suicidal tendencies, and they are more than just seeds as the topic of suicide is actually broached. But we also realize that this guy is not about to kill himself immediately, which makes his behavior all the more fascinating as a preview of what's to come. He's struggling with something, but the struggle is not nearly over, and in the ensuing dozen years we have to hope that there were wonderful times along with the fact that there were obviously bad ones. Segel has made us care about him enough to hope for that desperately. If there's any justice, he'll earn his first Oscar nomination for this performance, though there's some doubt as to whether the film will rise to the level of prominence necessary for him to be so recognized.

Perhaps the biggest indication of just how much I liked it is that I never had a sense of how close it was to being over, and I didn't care. Usually I'm big on structure, trying to determine where I am within a story and whether it feels like it's progressing along a satisfying arc. In The End of the Tour, I just could have listened to these guys swap philosophies on life, culture and the quest for personal greatness until the cows came home.

As far as MIFF is concerned, the cows are coming home this Friday night, when my 2015 MIFF concludes with The Witch. There's been a lot of deja vu from 2014 to 2015 -- I saw a Jesse Eisenberg movie on August 11th both years -- and if that continues, it might mean that The Witch is my favorite on the schedule (just as last year's final film, The Skeleton Twins, was my favorite).

Check back here on Saturday to see how it all wraps up.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

MIFF: Themed short films

I was a bit concerned when I heard there was a short playing before Radu Muntean's One Floor Below, my second MIFF screening, on Friday night. The Romanian thriller started at 6:30, and I needed to be at a showing of Trainwreck -- albeit in the same theater -- at 8:45.

This would ordinarily seem like perfect spacing, but the MIFF guide left it totally unclear how long One Floor Below actually was. The short, Albert, was clearly 16 minutes long, but then the time listed next to the movie was 122. So if taken as a package, that would mean 138 minutes, and me missing the start of Trainwreck by three minutes. Which is okay, I guess, because there are usually 15 minutes of commercials and trailers before most movies. But still, I don't like to cut it that close -- especially since we're discussing Trainwreck in our next podcast, and I would have no opportunity to catch it again between now and the podcast (having a friend in town who's already seen it for the next week).

The reason why the length of the movie was unclear was that a different time was listed next to One Floor Below for its second screening on August 13th. That one said 117 minutes. Then the way it was listed, Albert was actually listed second, which made me wonder if perhaps the short would actually play after the feature -- highly unconventional, but who knows. If that happened, at least I could skip out.

The uncertainty of it all led to small (but obviously manageable) doses of panic.

When I was in my seat at Cinema Kino, I asked the MIFF volunteer if a short was indeed playing before the movie -- because at this point I couldn't be certain even of that. She confirmed. "And then the movie is two hours also?" "Oh no," she said. "The movie is about 90 minutes."

While this relieved me, I decided I should do what I should have done in the first place. I went on IMDB and found that One Floor Below was, indeed, 93 minutes.

Well, I'm really glad Albert didn't play second and that they showed it at all, because Albert was great -- and One Floor Below was decidedly short of that. The amount they had in common, though, was truly phenomenal, making this perhaps the best themed pairing of a short film with its feature length counterpart that I've ever seen. And while I chose to see One Floor Below because of an apparent resemblance to my favorite Hitchcock film, Rear Window, if I'd known I would have chosen it for its similarity to Albert.

(And finally the disparity in running times was explained -- the whole package ran 122 minutes on one day and 117 on the other because for this screening, the director of Albert, Melbourne filmmaker Raphael Elisha, was on hand to introduce it. He was charming except for the inexplicable joke he made about film luminaries who recently died, which fell flat.)

So both of these films are about an older man who overhears the arguing of a couple in a neighboring apartment and wonders what he should do about it. The arguing in Albert is of a much more violent nature, with objects being thrown and voices reaching truly terrible volumes and agonizing levels of despair, while the arguing in One Floor Below is of a much quirkier nature. However, it's the second arguing that leads to a murder, or at the very least a suspicious death. I won't tell you what the first arguing leads to, because Albert is a short and that would threaten to ruin the entirety of it.

So the older man in One Floor Below is Patrascu (Teodor Corban), a happily married father of a teenage boy, who is big into his dog, Jerry, and a new fitness regimen he's gotten involved in. He's also the owner of a small business that assists people in transferring the registration of their vehicles to other owners. His life is going along pretty swimmingly, but he makes an impulsive mistake one day when climbing the stairs in his apartment building and hearing two people inside his neighbor's apartment having an argument of a sexual nature. Perhaps thinking he's about to overhear something titillating, he lingers at the door -- long enough for the man to storm out of the apartment. Patrascu quickly covers his eavesdropping to make it seem as though he was putting the leash on Jerry, but the man -- another neighbor, living one floor below that -- recognizes it for what it was. When the woman, Laura, turns up naked and dead in her apartment a couple days later, Patrascu becomes the only loose end who may have known that the man was there -- since that man is married to his own wife and wouldn't have otherwise been expected there.

This is, you will agree, a great setup for a movie. Unfortunately, it doesn't really go the places you expect it to go, or any of the places you would hope it would go if you hoped it would go somewhere unexpected. So where it goes is, indeed, somewhat unexpected, but not in the way you would hope.

I chose this movie because I have loved some Romanian films that have come out in the past decade. If you follow this blog closely, you will know that Cristian Mungiu's two films that I've seen, the "Romanian abortion drama" (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) and Beyond the Hills, ended up in either my #1 or #2 spot for the year in my year-end rankings (of 2008 and 2013, respectively -- even those films were released in Romania in 2007 and 2012). However, in giving my blanket approval to films from Romania, I'm forgetting that at least one also left me nonplussed. That was Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective (2009), which I guess is a satire, and which got intentionally bogged down in the mundane aspects of police procedure. That was supposed to be the point, but it made for a real slog to sit through.

One Floor Below was sloggish in parts as well. For a 93-minute movie, it has pacing problems, and that's because at the point that the story should be really ramping up, it instead ends. It spends a huge amount of time on very humdrum aspects of Patrascu's life, like walking his dog and going through the day-to-day machinations of his business, in order to show us the normal life that is being interrupted. However, it then doesn't interrupt that life to the extent it seems like it should be interrupted. When you expect the conventions of what's supposed to be a thriller to really kick in, the credits roll. I guess that's kind of a spoiler, sorry -- but I feel like it helps to know that you will be disappointed if you are expecting this film to adhere to the (albeit timeworn) conventions of its supposed genre. In this way it was a bit of a flashback to my second MIFF film last year, the Chinese film Black Coal, Thin Ice. That was also supposed to be a foreign take on a familiar genre -- a cop movie -- but it also didn't obeyed genre conventions and felt like it ended in the middle of a sentence.

So each of the first two movies I've seen this year -- The Lobster and now One Floor Below -- have borne similarities to the first two movies I saw last year, both of which disappointed me relative to my anticipation for them. The deja vu trend has every chance of continuing on Tuesday, when I get into the American film portion of my schedule (just as I did last year) with a film starring Jessie Eisenberg (just as I did last year). The film last year was Kelly Reichardt's terrific Night Moves. This year it's James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour, the David Foster Wallace movie, with Jason Segel as Wallace.

See you back here Wednesday to discuss it.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Audient Auscars: Gigi

This is the eighth monthly entry in my year-long quest to see the remaining best picture winners I haven't seen, in chronological order.

So this series has definitely run itself into a bit of a rut.

My worst entry came with last month's Around the World in 80 Days, and I can't say that Gigi, the 1958 best picture winner, is a significant amount better. I think the 1950s was just a shitty decade for movies.

In this case I had reason to be wary, as Gigi is actually the only best picture winner I ever started and didn't finish. I started to watch it maybe five years ago, but it being due back at the library (if memory serves) prevented me from finishing. (I probably started watching it too late at night or something.) I watched about 30 minutes at that time, and knew that I wasn't going to love the rest of it when I did eventually get around to watching it.

And I carried in some additional baggage from hearing it discussed recently in my Flickcharters group on Facebook. When I opined last month that Around the World in 80 Days was the worst best picture winner ever -- a claim that may have been exaggerated by the immediate loathing I felt for it, which may subside a little bit over time -- they came back with Gigi as another nominee for that honor. At the time I thought, "Hmm, it doesn't seem particularly distinctive, but I don't think it will probably be horrible either." And then I learned their primary objection to it, which I hadn't realized was even an aspect of the movie when I watched those first 30 minutes: It documents, and perhaps even romanticizes, a Parisian lifestyle in which wealthy men pair up with courtesans who receive all sorts of tutelage in how to be sophisticated society ladies.

What Gigi is about is fairly oblique, but once you know what it's about you can't stop seeing it -- and can't stop being grossed out by it. The film's high "ick" factor is not derived merely from its subject matter, which is obscured by a lot of subtle innuendo and dressed up by some very catchy Lerner and Lowe songs. (In fact, I'm still singing some of them in my head, three days later.) It's derived even more from the fact that the titular courtesan-in-training -- at least I hope she's still in training -- is supposed to be 15 years old.

Leslie Caron is absolutely delightful in the title role, and reminds me a bit of Audrey Hepburn in her spunk and general appearance. But boy does she deserve a better movie than this one, not to mention a movie that will be better to her character than this one.

What may be more shocking than the subject matter of the movie, though, is how little dramatic conflict there is in it. In fact, I can't imagine a movie having lower stakes than these. Narrated by an incurable, incorrigible, extremely self-satisfied old product of the system named Honore Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier), the story is actually about his nephew, Gaston (Louis Jordan). Gaston's big problem is that he's bored. He has every creature comfort a man could want, but life bores him. If hash tags existed then, critics could have dismissed this one with a big #firstworldproblems and been done with it.

So what is the remarkable insight he has to cure his boredom? "I know, I'll try paedophilia!"

It's not quite as simple as that. In fact, the entire first hour of this movie gets squandered away on not much -- and criminally, features very little of Leslie Caron at all. Gaston is miffed that his current courtesan has taken a shine to an ice skating instructor, so much time is spent on how to publicly humiliate her and then keep up public appearances so it does not seem like Gaston is sulking over the rejection.

Stopped caring yet? Yeah, I did ages ago.

So eventually during some card game with Gigi -- with whom Gaston has an avuncular relationship to this point -- he loses a bet to her and is forced to take her on a seaside holiday. Here he falls for her, though we see very little of that. Instead, we spend time on the older Lachaille failing to remember the particulars of his relationship with Gigi's grandmother. (The charming song "I Remember It Well," in which the two swap memories, but his are pretty much the exact opposite of the true details of their first date.)

If it weren't for Gigi's songs, it would truly be nothing at all. But the songs are pretty good, even when they are creepy and pervy ("Thank Heaven for Little Girls").

By the second half, some form of narrative conventionality takes over, sort of, but we're still asked to root for Gigi getting together with a man who intends to rob her of her innocence even while he parades her around in society like a show pony. Somehow, audiences of the time found this appealing.

If I had recognized going in that Gigi was directed by Vincente Minnelli, my warning flags would have gone up a lot earlier. I know this man is revered as a directing treasure and is kind of Hollywood royalty (he was married to Judy Garland, and they gave birth to Liza Minnelli), but I haven't really liked any of his three films I've seen. Those included another best picture winner (An American in Paris) and Meet Me in St. Louis. Each was curiously inert to me in some essential way, and curiously lacking in story. The third time with Minnelli wasn't the charm; in fact, I think it may have been strike three.

One thing I'll say for it, though: As the lead character is named Gaston, it did put that great song from Beauty in the Beast in my head for a couple days. And I was pleased to have a song in my head that reminded me of a movie that was actually good.

We keep the musical theme going with my September best picture winner, 1961's West Side Story. I feel like -- I hope that -- I'll like this one a lot better.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The universal "don't take my drink" gesture

Judd Apatow's Trainwreck finally opened here yesterday, and I'm seeing it tonight -- cramming it in despite the fact that MIFF is going on. Also despite the fact that a friend is coming to visit from the U.S. for eight days starting tomorrow, because we'll be discussing this movie on the ReelGood podcast the night he leaves. In fact, despite the fact that I'm seeing my second MIFF screening tonight as well, at 6:30.

But I've been appreciating its poster for a lot longer than that, since about February or March, when I heard about the movie for the first time.

In this poster, Amy Schumer -- I like to think it was her idea -- is putting her finger on (so to speak) something that may never have been discussed out loud, but is instantly relatable: That there is a universal drunk-girl gesture for "Don't take my drink away from me."

Of course, this poster is saying so, so much more than this.

The fact that she is wearing a cocktail dress -- bridesmaid dress? -- would usually indicate that she was at least a respectable drunk girl, or at least a drunk girl who owned a respectable dress. This drunk girl would usually be on her ninth or tenth cosmopolitan.

Instead, this particular drunk girl is drinking cheap wine (or possibly a 40) from a paper sack, which is hobo behavior. This particular drunk girl understands why we would be trying to take her ghetto liquor from her and she still objects.

What I also like is that she looks like she could be arguing a semantic point. "No, you misunderstand me," she could be saying. "But before I explain the myriad ways you have misunderstood me, let me take a sip of my Mad Dog 20/20."

Then of course there's Bill Hader.

Hader is taken aback by her behavior, but not in a "I'd better get the hell out of here" way. It's more like "I better buckle my seatbelts, I'm in for a bumpy night."

And his presence behind her, in a nice tuxedo, indicates that she is also redeemable. This girl is a trainwreck -- we all know one -- but with Bill literally behind her, she may see her way through to salvation.

If I got that much from the poster, I can't wait to see what I'll get out of the movie.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Inside Inside Out

It feels good to be back.

It's been four long years -- almost to the day -- since I last heard my own voice emanating from a podcast. On August 10th, 2011, I recorded my second (and final) guest appearance on what was then the official podcast of Flickchart, called Flick Fights. The guys who ran the podcast also lived in my city, so I guested once, and guest-hosted once when one of those guys was out of town. But they only recorded a few more episodes of the podcast before their lives became too busy to continue it.

And let's just say I like the sound of my own voice. I'll admit it. I've probably listened to each of those podcasts a half dozen times, just because it's one of those things that reminds you that you do really do the thing you tell everybody you do. It was one of those things that reminded me that even when I'm not getting many other reinforcements of this fact, I am still a critic.

Well, I'm being reminded of that fact more than ever these days, as I talked about here and here. Part of my increasing responsibilities with ReelGood, the awesome Australian film website (, is that I am now a proud member of the ReelGood podcasting team. Their previous trio was turned into a duo when one of the guys moved to Turkey, and as luck would have it, this was also when I started getting to know the ReelGood founder and chief thing-doer better than I had before. Out at drinks one night he proposed that I join the crew, and we recorded our first 'cast this past Sunday night.

I think it went well, but you can judge that for yourself:

I'm the one they refer to as "Derek."

Hope you enjoy. We'll be doing one on Trainwreck two Sundays from now, then one more before the end of August, when the chief thing-doer goes on holiday to New Zealand for two months.

Anyway, it's good to hear myself again.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Directors so often resemble themselves

I was going to call this post Things We Lost in the Fire: The Logging Years, but I thought the headline I chose would get more eyeballs.

The reason I was going to call it that was because Susanne Bier, the Danish director who directed the Halle Berry movie Things We Lost in the Fire, also directed the movie I watched on Monday night, Serena.

The movies are superficially dissimilar, but both deal with a main female character who is in some ways recovering from the trauma of losing family members in a fire. They are, in fact, the only two movies I've seen that Bier has directed, although her 2010 film In a Better World won the best foreign language film Oscar.

Perhaps if I had seen any of Bier's other films, I would not have been inclined to write this post. But from such meager seeds grew a much larger idea in my brain: The realization (not for the first time) that directors are perhaps one of the most prominent artists to get rewarded for essentially repeating themselves throughout their career.

This is no slight at Ms. Bier, to be sure. Even if these two films have similar themes, their settings and time periods are entirely different. Other far more acclaimed directors can get accused of similar things, whether it's the approach to set design of someone like Wes Anderson or the reliance on involving characters in bizarre sexual play-acting of someone like Yorgos Lanthimos. (Who is on my mind as I just saw the third of his five features on Friday night, and it's remarkable how interested he continues to be in exploring the same themes.)

In fact, this should probably be no slight on directors, either. Creative individuals the world over seem inclined to repeat themselves, whether in the themes themselves or in the actual content of their art. I think of the joke about AC/DC, whom no one has ever accused of being more than the purveyors of fun rock music. Whether this really happened or not is unclear to me, but the joke has it that an interviewer once asked a member of AC/DC how he addressed the criticism that they have ten albums and they all sound exactly the same. "That's ridiculous," he responded. "We have 11 albums."

Yet because I am a film fan first and foremost, I tend to notice repetition more in filmmakers than I do in authors or painters or musicians. I notice when the same themes of sexual perversion, death and punishment of women tend to follow around Lars von Trier, or when Woody Allen continues trying to explore the dynamic of an older male character and a younger female one.

On the whole, however, we don't condemn directors for continuing to explore what becomes an obsessive life-long pursuit of one particular kind of emotional truth. Why is Martin Scorsese interested in gangsters? Why is Noah Baumbach interested in hipsters? They just are, and we love that they are trying to continue to discover the final word on what makes people like that tick. Because in some way, they are trying to discover what makes themselves tick.

However, I'm generally more impressed with filmmakers who have something to say through their approach to storytelling, not so much in needing to explore one particular thing that interests them. This is why I'm so floored when I discover that Tom Tykwer can make both Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which don't have a single thing in common in their look or themes. This is why the career of Ang Lee fascinates me so much, because no two films in an impressive filmography have seemed to bear any relationship to one another. This is why I'm trying to get my hands on A Most Violent Year as soon as I can, because after Margin Call and All is Lost, I have the sense that J.C. Chandor can do literally anything he wants.

It makes me wonder if being surprised is as much a key to loving the movies I love as anything else. If, for example, that's the reason I held Birdman in as much esteem as I did, because it felt like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu showing us a side of himself that all previous evidence had indicated was not there.

So at this point in these musings, I must admit to you that Susanne Bier made a particularly poor news peg for this post indeed. Looking into the plot of Things We Lost in the Fire on wikipedia, I am reminded that Berry's husband in that film was not actually killed in a fire. He was killed while trying heroically to defend a woman who was being beaten by her husband. The fire referenced in the title is either metaphorical, or an event that happened years before and may have only involved property damage.

So Bier may be more like Tykwer or Lee than she is like Scorsese or Anderson. And even Scorsese and Anderson may not be like Scorsese and Anderson -- Scorsese with tell you indignantly that he made Hugo, and Anderson is known to bristle at the suggestion that all his films are the same.

Anyway, as with any of the famously stream-of-consciousness discussions film fans have with each other -- and sometimes with themselves -- you don't always end up where you think you are going to end up when you started. And sometimes you realize your original thesis was totally wrong, or at least, incompletely considered.

The thing is, all the directors I've mentioned in this post make far more good films than bad ones, and I'm always interested in seeing what they're going to do next. Tell the same story, tell a different story ... just tell it well and you've got my attention.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

MIFF: Beyond language, beyond origin

It's MIFF time again!

The Melbourne International Film Festival began on Thursday night, and I was at my first screening the very next night, ready to go. Which led to quite a bit of deja vu.

Like last year, I started at the Forum Theatre on Flinders Street, and like last year, I started with a movie about the unusual relationship between humans and animals. Last year, it was Hungary's White God, about an uprising of dogs against their human oppressors. This year, it was Yorgos Lanthimos' English language debut, The Lobster, about a society where coupling is legally mandated, and singles who can't meet their soulmate within 45 days of arriving at a singles resort are turned into an animal.

Yep, that's the director of Dogtooth and Alps for you.

Unfortunately, the deja vu extended to my tepid response to a film I was anticipating. Both White God and The Lobster ultimately received only three stars from me.

You wouldn't have known it from The Lobster's first 20 minutes or so, which I spent in a state primed -- primed -- for laughter. Every little absurd tic -- and this is a movie comprised of absurd tics -- produced a titter in me. In other words, I was putty in this movie's hands, and was already thinking about how close to the top of my year-to-date rankings it would end up.

Unfortunately, it ultimately settled in the lower half of the movies I've seen so far in 2015. I attribute this primarily to a change halfway through that alters the mood and direction of what I thought the movie was doing. I won't say anything more about it than that, for fear of spoiling a movie I know many of you are anticipating as much as I was.

I will say that the way this movie uses language is something fascinating, something I want to spend some more time talking about.

As I noted, this is Lanthimos' English-language debut. The Greek director made his first four films in the Greek language, unsurprisingly.

It is not, however, his "Hollywood debut." "English-language debut" and "Hollywood debut" are phrases that tend to get used interchangeably, mostly because people are speaking off-the-cuff and not properly considering what they're saying. This is not a Hollywood film -- none more than either of his other two films I've seen, even.

It does, however, show a sort of curious deference to American audiences, but in ways that may not be immediately obvious. They were probably more obvious to me because I've been living in the British Empire for two years now.

So Colin Farrell and Ben Whishaw are two of the bigger names in the cast, which also includes John C. Reilly, Rachel Weisz and Lea Seydoux. Farrell is of course from Ireland, and Whishaw is English. Both get to speak in their native accents -- something Farrell doesn't do all that often -- but the words they speak actually betray them. Early on, Farrell's David refers to a bisexual experience he had "back in college," when of course anyone with his brogue would say "back in university." And then Whishaw's "Limping Man" talks about being bad at math, when he would really say "bad at maths."

I guess it's all part of the sense that this strange land these characters inhabit -- which, it should be no surprise, is never identified (the film was shot in Ireland) -- is without a particular nationality. English is the spoken language, but not all the characters speak it very well, nor is it their native tongue. A maid who works in this resort (Ariane Labed) is one of two French actresses in the film, along with Blue is the Warmest Color's Lea Seydoux. In fact, at one point they have an entire conversation -- a conversation with some bearing on the plot, it would seem -- in French, without any subtitles. The conversation might last two minutes of screen time, which is an eternity when it comes along at the juncture of the plot that it comes, when the rules are changing and when something crucial is clearly being communicated.

In this way Lanthimos sort of seems to be putting his audience in the same position as one of his stars and key collaborators during his career -- a position of not really understanding what's going on. Angeliki Papoulia, who starred in both Dogtooth and Alps, appears here as well, not surprisingly. (I should mention that Labed is also a veteran of Alps -- although she was raised in France, she was born in Greece.) Papoulia doesn't speak any dialogue in her first four or five appearances in the film, so I thought Lanthimos might have been throwing some work her way without actually requiring her to learn English. (Or at least, learn how to parrot the words in English, even if she doesn't understand them.) But Papoulia does have a couple dozen lines of dialogue, which lends credence to the notion that pretty much any foreign actor of any prominence finds it in their interest to be able to work in English-language movies. Anyway, there's little doubt that even if she does have a preliminary grasp of English, she might not get everything that's going on -- even if the director speaks the same language she does and might be equally at sea in some respects.

So the whole movie kind of has this sense of displacement, of discomfort -- which certainly is to its benefit. Perhaps the guy who stands out the most is John C. Reilly, the only American present. And his language is affected by the decision to give his character a lisp, though I couldn't tell you entirely what that means beyond its contribution to the aforementioned theme of displacement.

The essential anarchy of Lanthimos' approach is good for this film -- until it stops being good. Until the absurdism starts to leave the realm of comedy and become something more recognizably Lanthimosian in terms of its sadism and need for shock value. However, that alone wouldn't have been a problem if I'd liked where Lanthimos had taken it, as I did in Dogtooth but as I did not in Alps.

So while I'm certainly glad Lanthimos' English-language debut is not more Hollywood, I will be hoping for something a bit more, shall we say, structurally satisfying on his next outing.

As for MIFF, I'll have a week between viewings now before I see the Romanian drama-thriller One Floor Below next Friday.