Saturday, October 31, 2015

For Halloween, finally watching my first BluRay

Not the first BluRay I've ever seen, dummy. The first one I ever bought.

That's right, five years and two months ago, when we bought our first BluRay player -- a moment that was memorialized in this post -- Bram Stoker's Dracula was one of the first two BluRays we ever bought. For the purposes of this post, I'm calling it the first, because a) I forgot what the other one was that we bought at that same time, until reading the above post, and b) Dracula was the first I inserted into our BluRay player, just to take a gander at the difference in image quality from the new format. (And if you read that post, you'll note that my first instinct was not to be particularly impressed.)

However, once my test was done, I never inserted BSD into my BluRay player again -- until last night. (While meanwhile, we've watched that other movie I forgot -- Where the Wild Things Are -- twice.) Thought Francis Ford Coppola's gothic pop horror would make a good nostalgia pick to usher me into Halloween weekend.

Oh, but it ended up being so much more than that.

Not only do I still like Bram Stoker's Dracula, I still love it.

Here are some thoughts:

The flaw in the diamond

As I was watching the movie, I had an idea about an imperfection making something more valuable, or essentially proving its value. But when I did a little looking around on the internet this morning, I couldn't figure out exactly what I'd been thinking of. I decided I must have been thinking about how most diamonds have a flaw, but part of that phenomenon is not necessarily that the flaw makes it more valuable. Well, I'm going to run with it anyway.

Keanu Reeves is the flaw that proves the perfection of Bram Stoker's Dracula. And I couldn't imagine the movie without him.

From the first moment he arrived on screen, I was reminded that this was one of those performances -- along with Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing -- that established the conventional wisdom that it's unwise to cast Reeves in a period piece. And there's no doubt that he struggles with the material a little bit. But it's an absolutely endearing struggle. It's kind of like you're watching your own child try to pronounce a really challenging word. You feel kind of proud, even if that pride is tinged with the knowledge that it's a child's best effort, not the expected result from a professional actor.

And yet I can't envision this film with anyone else in the role. I like that his Jonathan Harker is so blank. It makes the undeniably charismatic Gary Oldman all the more undeniably charismatic. And it really underscores the problematic choice faced by Mina (Winona Ryder, going the opposite of Reeves and chewing scenery from time to time).

Oddly enough, Reeves' most effective moment is his biggest. When Dracula brings in a screaming infant to feed the blood lust of the three succubae who have their way Harker, Reeves reacts to it with shrieking revulsion. The response is absolutely appropriate in context, and I would argue, perfectly modulated by Reeves.

The lushness. Oh, the lushness.

One of the reasons I selected this as one of the two BluRays we bought when we bought was that I have always considered this to contain some of the most lush, sumptuous and immersive art direction I've seen in a film.

After this viewing, I still feel that way.

In fact, I'm convinced that the only reason I gave a subdued initial appraisal of the BluRay's quality upon testing this movie back in 2010 was that the opening scenes, which all take place four centuries earlier when Vlad the Impaler was just a violent crusader for God, are intentionally a sort of muddy version of red. They are meant to show us a very different era, not the turn of the 20th century Transylvania and London we get in this film.

Everything else looks just as wonderful as I always remembered it, but really, even those opening scenes look wonderful. This is just a visionary production design. There's no two ways about it.

Throwing it all away

Speaking of those opening scenes, they gave me chills -- for a couple reasons, only one of which I'll delineate in this subheading.

I love how Vlad's transformation from a returning hero to a damned monster occurs within the space of about 90 seconds. I'm not talking about 90 seconds of screen time -- I'm talking about 90 seconds of Vlad's real life.

Vlad returns home from a war in which he has vanquished his enemies, wanting only to be reconnected with his wife, Elisabeta (also played by Ryder). What should be a sweet reward for his courage turns tragic when he discovers that vengeful Turks have sent a false report that Vlad was killed, causing her to plunge herself in the river to her death -- only hours before he got there, it would seem. He unleashes a pitiful demonstration of sorrow, but that sorrow turns to rage when the priests tell him her soul is damned because she committed suicide. They barely have time to make the sign of the cross before he is renouncing God, overturning a bowl of sacred water, stabbing a crucifix with his sword and forcing the statues in the area to cry blood.

It's perhaps the most epic crash and burn in the history of literary characters, and by the time it's over, it would seem that he has self-transformed into an immortal creature who sprouts fangs, can turn himself into multiple apparitions, and can convert others to his undead state.

You go, Vlad.

Coppola citing his influences

The other thing that gave me chills about the opening was a recognition of the first movie Coppola wanted to pay homage with this film.

In recounting this battle and Vlad's return from it, Coppola seems to very deliberately draw attention to Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter. He uses an almost intentionally artificial design -- "stylized" or "storybook" are better ways to describe it -- featuring silhouettes fighting on a battlefield, then returning home via carriage to his castle. In the way these are shot perfectly from the side to make them look two-dimensional, they call to mind Laughton's use of the same technique in Night of the Hunter.

Then for the first time I also noticed Coppola giving his due to Dario Argento's Suspiria. It's just a small touch, but there are a couple times here that Dracula's eyes appear disembodied in the sky, looking down on events at which he is otherwise not present. This seems to be a clear reference to the eyes flashing in the darkness at the beginning of Suspiria, just before the mayhem of the opening scene finally kicks in.

All four of the times I've seen Suspiria have been since the last time I saw Bram Stoker's Dracula, and I also benefited from rewatching Night of the Hunter just a few months ago. So glad I had recent viewings of both films in order to have them in my mind when I watched Dracula.

Lest you think I am trying just to cram every interpretation into my own limited circle of familiar cinematic references, I should probably acknowledge that the eyes in the sky are just as likely a reference to Tod Browning's original 1931 version of Dracula, which relied heavily on close-ups of Bela Lugosi's eyes.

The camera. Oh, the camera.

The things DP Michael Balhaus is doing with his camera in this movie are simply enthralling. Just a few examples to illustrate what I'm talking about.

When we first meet Renfield (Tom Waits) in the sanatorium, he's crouched on the floor, looking upward at his master, who is hovering somewhere above him -- either for real, or in his imagination. When Renfield stands to full height, the camera also pulls up to keep his body about the same size in the frame. Then, when Renfield squats down again, the camera stays, meaning he returns to the size of a speck in the frame, indicating his physical insignificance relative to the vampire.

When the wraith in the chariot arrives to take Harker to meet Count Dracula, the camera zooms in on the bony hand that reaches out to usher him into the chariot. It's a wonderful effect because in that moment of creepy disorientation, you have no idea if that bony hand is about to wring Harker's neck.

The Dracula POV stuff is all awesome, when a slightly distressed version of the image moves forward in violent fits and starts as the wolf incarnation of Dracula scrambles through the underbrush and the grounds of the Weston estate, ready to feed on Lucy (Sadie Frost).

And then there are just the great individual shots, only one of which I'll mention because it's this one shot I always think of. It's the night when Lucy's suitors are standing guard to keep her safe from the monster, and Arthur (Cary Elwes) falls asleep in his chair. The way we know he's fallen asleep is that we see his arm fall slack, a snifter of brand falling to the floor and completing half an arc underneath his chair. For some reason, that single shot encapsulates everything I love about this movie.

The quotes. Oh, the quotes.

Back in college, when the movie first came out, I used to torment my roommate's golden retriever (in a way fully endorsed by his owner) by shouting "wind ... Wind ... WIND!!!!" It would work the dog into a frenzy, and we would both laugh hysterically. That's of course what Dracula shouts when he uses his powers over meteorology to expunge his grief over Mina marrying Jonathan.

But there are so many other lines of dialogue that I love and have reproduced in various contexts over the years.

In no particular order:

I love when Anthony Hopkins' Van Helsing shouts "Dracol!" I love that this movie never explains the various times that the word "Dracula" is pronounced with fewer than its total number of syllables, and not always the correct sounding vowels.

"Take me away from all this DEATH." The way Mina over-enunciates the word "death" is just awesome, and represents the pinnacle of Ryder going for broke with her performance.

"I have crossed OCEANS of TIME to find you." There's an ethereal ecstasy in Oldman's voice as he says the word "oceans."

"I never drink ... wine." Self-explanatory.

"I'm not a lunatic man! I'm a sane man fighting for his soul!" The first time you really realize that Renfield is not just completely bonkers.

"An autopsy? On Lucy?" "No, no, no, not exactly. I just want to cut off her head and take our her heart."

"How did Lucy die? Was she in great pain?" "Yeah, she was in great pain. Then we cut off her head, and drove a stake through her heart, and burned it, and then she found peace." (Anthony Hopkins is hilarious in this movie.)

"I starve! Feed me!" (Van Helsing never lets his work affect his appetite.)

I could go on

I've only scratched the surface. But my daytime duties now call to me, meaning I need to leave this wonderful tale of the night behind me.

Happy Halloween.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Mysteries of the internet

If we take the position that found footage is an oversaturated genre -- and I do take that position -- then it should stand to reason that subsections of this genre are feeling the overall strain even more acutely. While you could argue that variations on standard found footage are a way of breathing new life into it, what seems to be the case is that the variations box themselves even more into the corners that tend to suffocate the already flimsy credibility of this genre.

Found footage movies set on computer screens should be a prime example of that apparent struggle between breathing new life and fatally losing credibility. If the last one I saw -- Nacho Vigalondo's Open Windows -- was any indication, having a movie occur in real-time with web cams and instant chats only makes it seem all the more absurd. If you recall what I wrote about Open Windows back in March, the ridiculous decision to have all the internet-connected characters be constantly on the move -- while always maintaining a network connection and somehow always knowing what each other is up to -- took the film beyond laughable to just plain awful.

Unfriended certainly could have -- should have -- fallen into the same traps. It is, on the surface, the same type of movie. You'd wonder, then, why I picked it to watch while I was carving my jack-o-lantern on Wednesday night. Well, I did hear good things, and besides, better to watch a movie while carving that you don't need to give your full attention.

Unfriended did not turn out to be such a movie.

The fact that none of the characters leave their bedrooms is a good start on making it better than Open Windows. Every other creative decision works to remove the credibility stumbling blocks that typically trip up movies like this ... and also makes it all the more creepy.

I'll give you the plot in broad strokes before getting into the topic I teased in my subject line. It's the year anniversary since a teen who was cyber-bullied took her own life. She wasn't the "it gets better after high school" type, one who was chronically picked on. Rather, this was a popular girl, even a mean girl, who couldn't handle it when a video anonymously materialized on the web, showing her drunk, nearly passed out, and not having reached a toilet in time. The video of her shooting herself on school grounds is also seen. It's all seen from the computer screen of Blaire, who was her friend but also possibly her frenemy -- this movie contends, and it seems as though it may actually be the case, that many popular kids these days are stuck in that limbo between friend and enemy that is so accurately distilled by that portmanteau that joins the two words. Blaire first does a little Skype flirting with her boyfriend before ultimately being joined on a group Skype chat by four other friends -- and one mysterious, generic user they can't identify, who looks like this:

Chillingly minimalist in the context of what's about to happen, right? And what's about to happen is that all the friends are about to start getting tormented by this mystery entity. They can't hang up on this entity, they can't remove "him," and in an interesting commentary on internet trolls, they continue referring to this troublemaker as "him" even as the evidence begins mounting that it is somehow, impossibly, the spirit of their dead friend invading their computers. They start getting messages on Facebook from the dead girl (Laura Barns), and she begins posting damning videos and pictures of the friends, many of which involve them stabbing each other in the back, that they can't delete -- they literally don't have the functionality to remove them, as in delete buttons have been excised and X's no longer appear in the upper right-hand corners of screens. And I bet you can guess what starts happening, one by one, to the friends.

So that last paragraph starts to get into what I'm talking about when I refer to "the mysteries of the internet." What I found so chilling about Unfriended was not necessarily the slasher stuff, which is pretty ordinary, in the end, and is all stuff we've seen before. Rather, it's the inability to know what's going on with someone you can't fully see who is doing something, somewhere, on the web.

Let me try to describe that a little better. You know how when you are chatting with someone on Facebook, and it says "Bill Smith is typing ..." And then: Nothing. Bill Smith was writing something, but for some reason, Bill Smith never hit send. Or Bill Smith was writing something for a very long time, and ultimately, all he said was "Yeah." What was Bill Smith originally typing, before he thought better of it? Why did Bill Smith inexplicably stop responding?

Unfriended captures these things perfectly. Most likely, Bill Smith got a phone call, or was distracted by something else he was reading on the web, or even had someone come up to him and start talking to him. There was nothing nefarious or mysterious about why Bill Smith started typing you a response and never sent it. But when you are dealing with an angry ghost, and it starts typing but doesn't send anything ... that's scary.

Then there's just the stark failure of technology to operate as designed. Why does this email that was sent by Laura have no option to forward? Why is the option to unfriend her on Facebook grayed out? A character in Unfriended says she has weird computer stuff happen to her all the time, and we all have that. But when you refresh the page or reopen the browser, it usually fixes whatever glitch was happening. These are unfixable glitches, and when the movie makes its regularly exquisite use of silence -- a choice that would seem to belie the loud and busy online environment of the modern teen -- it just makes these moments of basic functionality breakdown all the more disquieting.

In the end, Unfriended was actually about the worst movie I could have chosen to watch while carving a pumpkin, because so much of its information is conveyed visually. There's so much reading of emails and chats and instant messages that it was almost like choosing to carve a pumpkin while watching a film with subtitles. Then of course you also need to watch for flickers of disturbing imagery in the background of various web cams, or windows popping up in the background that are not completely visible, but contribute to our understanding of these characters and what's happening to them.

So I was less than halfway done with my jack-o-lantern at the end of Unfriended's 83 minutes, with almost all the detail work still to go. But other than my slow progress requiring me to stay up until well after midnight, I'll make that trade any day. A good movie is always worth the "inconvenience" of having to actually watch it.

In order to finish my work, I just threw on an episode of Survivor, and barely needed to look at the screen at all.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

No more coffee jokes

I've seen lame sequels to animated movies before, but rarely have I seen an animated sequel with such a gap in quality between the first and second as the gap in quality between Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2.

I could go on at length about the tired predictability of the script, the perfunctory attempt to give all the returning characters meaningful arcs, and the queasily bright colored world of animals made of food that probably sounded a lot better on the page than it came out in reality. But today I want to focus on one of the primary indicators of the script's tired predictability: Its reliance on extremely played out coffee jokes.

This is not the first time I've noticed lazy caffeine jokes in the movies -- far from it. But it's the first time in a while I recall both varieties of lazy coffee jokes being used in the same movie.

Lame coffee joke #1: People who drink too much coffee become addicted to caffeine and start talking really quickly, usually with one eye twitching.

I suppose it's the age-appropriate version of the lazy joke seen in adult comedies, where a character accidentally ingests cocaine and then starts talking a mile a minute. (Most recently seen by me in the awful comedy Hot Pursuit.) Here, what happens is that the hero of the first movie, Flint Lockwood (voice of Bill Hader), gets poached by a tech genius (voiced by Will Forte) to come work at his amazing tech company in San Fran Jose (ha ha). Naturally, because the movie believes that tech geniuses rely on crutches like caffeine to make their minds work more quickly, Flint is given a latte even before he enters the building, and immediately starts to act amped up. He is then told "there are caffeine stations every ten feet" and is offered a "soy-free soy latte." (Hi-larrrrious!) He is further told that "caffeine patches are available 24 hours," and is joined by scientist with the aforementioned twitching eye who proceeds to slap a seventh caffeine patch on his face. After which he immediately falls over in some kind of convulsive caffeine overload.

Flint is not seen without a coffee for about the next 12 scenes.

Lame coffee joke #2: People customize coffee in really complicated ways.

It seems that certain writers find the Sally(of Harry and Sally)-esque way that people order coffee to be the height of cutting edge wit. It might have been ... when someone first wrote a joke about it back in 1998.

The mustiness of the humor doesn't discourage these writers, who bring Officer Earl Devereaux (first voiced by Mr. T, now by Terry Crews) along with Flint (inexplicably) to San Fran Jose, and set him up working at a cupcake shop that serves coffee. When Flint needs to gather his team together a few scenes later on, we find Officer Devereaux (in a ridiculous pink outfit) fed up with his latest order: "Triple decaf mochaccino boba latte with skim soy and nutmeg sprinkle."

Yep, he's ready to return to Sallow Falls, and I'm ready to get out of this movie.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Scruffy looking

Be careful what you wish for ... you just might get it.

The laments of Star Wars fans about the prequel trilogy are well documented, but of course they've also got vocal laments about what George Lucas has done to their beloved original trilogy. You know, "Greedo shoots first" and all that. Part of "all that" is that it's virtually impossible to watch those three films in their unmolested form, without digital additions of Jabba the Hutt and the like.

Virtually impossible.

Imagine my surprise when I ended up watching the original theatrical version of The Empire Strikes Back this past weekend, as my fifth movie in a year of rewatching the original six movies prior to the release of The Force Awakens.

Here's how it happened. I tried to borrow Empire from the library, as I've done with all four of the previous movies I watched. However, Force Awakens fever must be kicking into high gear, because I was third on the wait list for both available copies of the movie. I was trying to watch Episode V by the end of October, following on with the pattern that dictated I watched the first four by the end of February, the end of April, the end of June and the end of August, respectively. So I knew I'd have to resort to other methods to get my hands on it.

I knew that our friends owned DVD copies of the original trilogy, and my wife was heading over to their house on Saturday to visit (we have sons that are within a year of each other), as well as to return something we borrowed from them. She did indeed come back with Empire -- one of the two discs, anyway. At first we were worried that disc 2 had only bonus features, and that we'd be out of luck, but then we noticed that no, it also houses the original theatrical version (!!!) of the movie.

I had thought numerous times over the years, "Oh, if only I could watch these movies as they were originally released, without all the enhancements and corrections and remasterings that have messed them up." I had heard stories about fan cuts of these movies being available on the internet, but I didn't think they were available in any sanctioned format. I idealized these as some pure and unadulterated version of the movies I loved, thinking that I could unilaterally dismiss the changes that were made to them ... but as it turns out, I cannot dismiss those changes.

Simply put, this Empire Strikes Back looked like junk. Who's scruffy looking? This movie.

For one, the widescreen did not properly fit our TV. It was too scrunched down, filling only about half of the available space with the image. I later learned that this is because it was transferred from laser discs, meaning for some reason that the aspect ratio did not conform properly to a modern TV. (This DVD was released at least a decade ago, which explains the availability of these original theatrical versions in the first place.) I don't entirely understand that, but I'm glad it wasn't my TV at fault -- I spent some time fiddling with the settings, knowing my kids had been mucking around with the remote control.

Then the images themselves just looked so ... 1980. It was then that I realized how I've been spoiled by the digital remastering of Empire that I first saw in 1997 when the special editions were released, and then again in 2007 when I revisited the movie for the first time since then. And as most people know, Empire was the original movie that Lucas messed around with the least, so what we basically got in the Empire special addition was a crisper, nicer-looking image with almost none of the additional bullshit content we didn't want. So Empire was the movie that would least benefit by watching the original version.

These visual factors certainly complicate a conclusion I think I may have reached after this particular viewing:

I actually like Star Wars more than I like The Empire Strikes Back.

I suppose that's not quite as shocking as making it a single-sentence paragraph would indicate, but for someone who has long happily subscribed to the conventional wisdom that Empire was the best Star Wars movie, it felt like a shock indeed.

Why didn't I care so much for Empire this time? It's hard to say exactly. But I'll try.

The first obvious conclusion is that it suffered in comparison to my last Star Wars viewing, which enthralled me so much back in August. The images looked so great on that BluRay version that I almost didn't care about the aforementioned Jabba insertion and the aforementioned display of inept marksmanship by Greedo. Looking as good as it did, it wrapped me up in the story and made me realize how intensely satisfying it is.

During this viewing of Empire, I tended to focus on the ways the story did not leave me satisfied. The story actually felt very rushed to me this time watching it, which is in direct contrast to the very deliberately paced opening of Star Wars. Even though the opening crawl is supposed to do the work of reminding me where we are in the story -- and I had quibbles even with that, as it describes Luke Skywalker as the leader of the rebellion, when he's really more of an instrumental figure than the leader -- it nonetheless felt like the movie was not properly set up. How much time has passed? How did they get to Hoth? If they had time to set up a whole base on Hoth, why is Han Solo still with them? Didn't he have one foot out the door at the end of Star Wars? I feel like I must have known the answers to these questions before, or if I didn't, not knowing didn't bother me.

Then I felt myself getting stuck on the details. If R2D2 calculated the odds of surviving the night out in the Hoth cold as 725 to 1, why did Han basically have no trouble with that, once he found Luke? I mean, his Tauntaun didn't even survive, yet once he set up camp, you get the idea he just passed the night drinking hot chocolate and singing folks songs. He's no worse for the wear in the morning when the search mission finds them, and doesn't need to spend any time in a cauldron of bubbling medical liquid. I was thinking that I'd like to see a movie devoted to the harrowing night passed by Han and Luke on Hoth, when they nearly froze to death and at a million different moments you didn't know if they'd survive. But Han and Luke didn't have that kind of night, so what was all that 725 to 1 talk?

I felt a certain hastiness on Dagobah, as well. How long is Luke there? How much training has he done? If he and the others left Hoth at the same time, and the others only had a couple days at most of fleeing the empire, that means that Luke should only have a couple days at most of training. I mean, yeah, the point is supposed to be that he goes off to face Vader when he isn't yet prepared. But how could Luke think he was even almost prepared? He trained for a day or two with Ben back on the Millennium Falcon, and he trained for a day or two with Yoda here. And only when blowing up the Death Star or getting his lightsaber back in time to slay a Wampa did he really demonstrate any fitness with the Force at all. I remember when I was younger thinking, "Okay, Luke's still a rookie, but he's almost ready to face Darth Vader." For reals? That would be like me going through an intensive week of learning how to play baseball and then thinking I could cut it in the major leagues.

Before I go shuffling my Flickchart rankings, though -- Empire is currently at #5, and Star Wars at #8 -- I think I need to get my hands on the special edition, and see if I still have these problems with the plot. On the one hand, that's kind of an idiotic thing to think, because how a plot functions should have little to do with how the picture looks. On the other hand, could I have really been wrong about The Empire Strikes Back all the other times I watched it? I have to think that unpleasantness of watching this version of Empire -- even as it brought back a certain nostalgia for the quaint version I saw for the first time 35 years ago -- had something to do with my loss of certainty about its narrative.

As I got through the prequels and on to Episode IV, I assumed that the rest of my Star Wars viewing schedule would assume a very pro forma quality, and that few surprises would await me. Now that this Empire shocker has just happened, I wouldn't be surprised at all to find that I think Return of the Jedi is the best Star Wars movie when I watch it sometime before the December 17th release of The Force Awakens.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Not an anomaly, unfortunately

It's that time of year again -- the time when the buzz is coming on strong for certain awards contenders and potential year-end critic faves.

It's also the time of year when I realize which ones I won't be able to see before my ranking deadline, because I live in Australia.

Tops on that list this year: Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa.

It seems like barely a month ago, I was not even aware this movie existed. As you can see, it doesn't even have a proper poster yet. When I did learn about it, I heard that it would be popping up in a few film festivals here and there, but still seemed destined for a 2016 wide release. Now it's getting that New York and Los Angeles release before the end of the year, expanding wider not long after the start of the new year. A definite 2015 film.

And a real contender for the top spot in my 2015 rankings, if Kaufman's history is any indication. Two movies he's written (Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) have topped the years they were released in my personal rankings, and the one movie he's directed -- Synecdoche, New York -- would have been a contender for my favorite film of 2008 if I hadn't allowed some of the more befuddled reviews to scare me off. Now that I have seen it, something I finally accomplished back in 2011, it's in my top 100 movies of all time.

So it will be a gaping wound in my 2015 rankings indeed when I don't get to consider Anomalisa alongside all the others.

Up until a couple hours ago, I was hopeful that it not yet having an Australian release date meant that it could still end up coming out before January 14th, when I need to sign, seal and deliver my rankings. (That's the morning the Oscar nominations are announced.) Unfortunately, at that point I found a February 4th, 2016 Australian release date listed for the movie.

For my personal tastes, that's going to be my most regrettable miss this year, but there's one that would be more shocking to most people: The Hateful Eight.

That's right, Quentin Tarantino's ninth feature releases a week after my rankings close, marking the first time I won't have seen a Tarantino movie in its ranking year since Jackie Brown.

His recent history is a little more uncertain in terms of being a contender for my top slot. While Inglourious Basterds was in my top ten of 2009, Django Unchained came in at only 30th for me in 2012. Either way, it will be a bummer not to have it up for consideration.

Also not getting Thomas McCarthy's Spotlight or Lenny Abrahamson's Room, though maybe Room will be getting released early enough in the U.S. for me to rent it on iTunes before my deadline.

All this said, there's cause for some end-of-year optimism, as there are a couple of movies I was sure I'd miss that will indeed be accessible to me before the 14th of January.

One of these is The Revenant, directed by the director of my #1 film of 2014, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Inarritu will indeed get a chance to repeat the #1 showing he earned with Birdman, as The Revenant makes its Australian bow on January 7th. I'm excited enough about this one that I have been steadfastly refusing to watch the trailer.

Then there's David O. Russell's latest, Joy, which hits theaters on Boxing Day. Boxing Day is also when we get The Danish Girl (awards bait, but I'll still watch it) and The Good Dinosaur (delayed from the American Thanksgiving release date, as always happens with the big animated Thanksgiving release -- Big Hero 6 and Frozen in each of the past two years).

What may have surprised me the most was that it seems like I'll be able to squeeze in Todd Haynes' Carol, which releases here on the day my rankings are due -- in other words, some 12 hours before the actual Oscar nominations are announced, meaning I can squeak it in. I figured this one would be a definite February release, just because I don't know.

Goosebumps also, inexplicably, does not come out until that day, but I probably won't try to cram in a double feature. (Next issue to tackle is to get Australia to care about Halloween, so Halloween movies actually come out in October.) If Carol is to have a double feature partner, it probably has to be Steve Jobs, which I've learned only during the editing phase of this piece is also coming out on January 14th. Danny Boyle just so happens to be another guy who's directed a year-end chart topper (2010's 127 Hours).

As for The Hateful Eight and Anomalisa, I'll have to do a better job prioritizing an eventual viewing than I've done for some of the other late-release casualties since I've been in Australia. One year later and two years later, respectively, I still haven't seen either The Wolf of Wall Street or Inherent Vice. That's Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson we're talking about there, people.

There is one ray of hope: the critics screening. In neither of my previous years in Australia was I regularly attending critics screenings, and it's very possible one or both of these movies will screen for critics well ahead of their theatrical releases.

Then I just have to convince the editor at my website to let me go to those screenings instead of him.

He just so happens to consider Adaptation his favorite movie of all time, so that's going to be a tall order indeed.

Friday, October 23, 2015

My escape velocity from The Martian

As you know if you've seen it, The Martian is a movie all about using science to solve problems -- or more often, redirecting one intended use of science into another. It's also a movie that has a lot to do with things like timing and vectors and velocity, using mathematical calculations to achieve very specific and unlikely outcomes.

Kind of like the calculations I used on Monday night to determine whether I'd catch the last tram home after the movie got out.

It was a 9:30 start for a movie that lasts 141 minutes. Even without trailers, that would get me out at 11:51. But there are trailers, of course, and more than that, there's an even longer period of just plain commercials. (Nice though they usually are, making them almost like short films.)

The last 57 tram ran at 12:12 a.m., with a few more minutes of leeway until the last 59 tram (12:15). And it would take a good five minutes to get from the theater to the tram stop.

It was going to be tight.

As the credits started, I powered my phone on to discover that it was 12:09 a.m. And even though these were the kind of credits that show the actors smiling, triumphant faces and even mete out a little extra story to us, there was going to have to be a sacrifice if I was going to make that tram on time. Maybe not a sacrifice equivalent to the extra millions (billions?) of dollars devoted to going back for a stranded Matt Damon on Mars, but a sacrifice nonetheless.

So I started for the exit, slowed only enough to make sure that my half-finished can of Diet Coke did not spill.

I hurtled down three escalators and out of the Melbourne Central shopping complex, now within only two or three minutes of the tram's expected arrival. If I missed it, it would be a 30- to 40-minute walk home, or -- shudder -- a cab.

As I hot-stepped it down the "footpath" (sidewalk) on LaTrobe Street, my vectors all pointing me toward Elizabeth Street, I saw not one, but both trams pulling into the station. My last two tickets home, and I was almost in danger of miscalculating the necessary velocity and trajectory for making them.

Yet my body -- celestial or otherwise -- did successfully collide with the first of those two trams before it left the station, meaning my choice of time to leave, my velocity and my vector were all calculated correctly.

Thank God for that, else I might have needed to start growing food right there in the middle of Elizabeth Street.

Or hit a 7-11 at the very least.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

My odd relationship with Back to the Future

Back to the Future has been either my #2 or #3 movie of all time since I officially re-did my Flickchart rankings a couple years back. It was #3 when I had Raiders of the Lost Ark listed as my #1 movie, but it jumped up to #2 when I dropped Raiders down to #3.

Yet any discussion of 2015 being the year Marty McFly traveled into the future has been met by me with a colossal shrug of indifference. (Can something so indifferent truly be described as "colossal"?) Back to the Future Day -- today in the U.S., yesterday in Australia -- seems as good a time as any to try and dig into that.

If I love Back to the Future as much as I do, I should be all over the arrival of October 21st, 2015, which is the date when Marty and Doc arrive in their flying Delorean and ride their hovering skateboards. Yet it passed without me even noticing it yesterday, in part because that was my birthday in the U.S. and I had to spend my available internet time bushwhacking through a thicket of birthday notifications. (This is not me bragging; it's actually me taking the piss out of myself for feeling the need to individually respond to each birthday greeting.) Also, since I have a lot fewer Facebook friends in Australia than I do in the U.S., it wasn't until my October 22nd that I really saw the flood of geekdom on Facebook.

But now that I've caught up, I'm still shrugging a bit.

Part of that I think has to do with the fact that this should really be thought of as Back to the Future II Day, and I'm just not as big of a fan of Back to the Future II as I am of the original Back to the Future. (I'd say "Who is?", but I had a co-worker once tell me he considered all three movies indistinguishable from one another in both content and quality, which is just ludicrous.) And though I did once love the sequel for its perhaps even more ambitious dive into time travel conundrum logic, I now primarily think of its garish 2015 imagery, which has an unpleasantness to it that I can't shake. I haven't sought out Back to the Future II to rewatch since sometime in the early 1990s, and in fact it's possible that I've seen it only once. The arrival of the date that appears in that movie isn't enough to change that.

But even the original Back to the Future is not something I regularly rewatch, even with its lofty spot in my Flickchart rankings. It shares that in common with its neighbor, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I also don't own or regularly rewatch. I rewatched Raiders in 2011, but it's been since 2005 that I watched Back to the Future. That's when I showed it to my wife, then girlfriend, who had never seen it. And that's ten years ago now.

And this gets us to that realization that film fans always have sooner or later: That the movies you consistently rewatch are not necessarily your favorites. In the time since I last watched Back to the Future, I have seen Step Brothers five times. Does that mean I like Step Brothers more than Back to the Future? Of course not. Does it mean that Step Brothers is giving me more in my life right now? Possibly, but not necessarily, especially after my love for that comedy dulled ever so slightly after my most recent viewing last month.

What I really think it is is that Back to the Future entrenched itself so fully into my psyche that I haven't needed to continually revisit it in order to know it intimately, quote it regularly, and feel like it's an ongoing central component to my personality. It's kind of like when I rewatched Star Wars for the first time in 18 years earlier this year. It was like it had only been a day.

Back to the Future and I are good. We may not email every week, every month, or even every year. We may not comment on or even like each other's status updates. I may not know what Back to the Future is up to right at this moment -- well, right at this moment, yes, because everyone's talking about it. But in general, I don't know what's going on in Back to the Future's life right now. Back to the Future might have a new dog or a new job or a new mailing address, for all I know.

But I know Back to the Future, and that's what's important. And I don't need the hoopla about the arrival of some day on the calendar to make me prove it to the world.

So if not this occasion to check back in with BTTF, then when? Who knows. And I kind of like not knowing. It may be when we both least expect it, and that may make the joy of reacquainting myself with it all the more profound.

Not that reacquainting should even be necessary. Back to the Future knows me and I know it and that's all anybody needs to say.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A surefire cure for spoilers

The only real way to avoid spoilers about Star Wars: The Force Awakens is to not read anything about it, look at anything about it, or watch anything about it. Even this newly released poster supposedly contains some previously unspoiled plot and character information, though I'm not trying too hard to piece it together. And then of course there's yesterday's release of the latest (and final?) trailer, which I have not yet watched -- though I suppose it's only a matter of time until I do.

However, at least these are only the spoilers the filmmakers are happy to give us. And I've got a great way to avoid spoilers that are spread the other way, from people who have already seen it.

Simple: See the movie before anybody else does.

And that's what I'll be doing on Thursday, December 17th at 12:01 a.m. Melbourne time, which is 8:01 a.m. Eastern time -- on Wednesday the 16th.

Yesterday my wife surprised me with a birthday present of tickets to the first Melbourne screening. Because our release days are a day earlier anyway, and because our time zone puts us a minimum of 14 hours ahead of the U.S., that means I'll likely be seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens more than 36 hours before even the most ardent American fans out there. It's possible I'll see it even before the early critical buzz has christened it as a classic or damned it as another misfire.

Try spoiling this movie for me now, trolls!

Assuming that the problem of having the movie spoiled for me will be solved by this, the next problem is how to start watching a movie that's two hours and 16 minutes at midnight.

Then again, with the crowd whoopering and hollering and cheering constantly, I don't think nodding off will even be a consideration.

I can't wait.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Wild Tales from New Zealand

My family returned Sunday from New Zealand, where we experienced some wild tales indeed.

Of course, I would probably not be inclined to specifically characterize them as such, except that I watched Wild Tales at the start of my trip. About two hours after finishing the movie, in fact, was the first of these wild tales.

My iTunes rental was going to expire in two days, so I counted myself lucky that I got to watch half of it on the plane (not a given, considering how my younger son was behaving) and the second half at the hotel in Auckland that night. However, if watching that movie contributed to any of the things that were about to happen, I probably would have been better off letting the rental expire.

(Actually, they're not all bad, and even the bad ones have comparatively happy endings.)

As this movie contains six wild tales, I will give you six here also.

Wild Tale #1: I finished the movie at about midnight, and farted around on the internet until about 12:15. The kids had been up late, so I was expecting them to sleep late as well. But it wasn't one of the kids who ended up waking me up, and it wasn't at 6 a.m. or sometime sort of reasonable. It was my mom's boyfriend, staying in the room next door to us, and it was at just after 2 a.m.

It seems that my mom slipped outside the shower before going to bed. My mom is pretty spry for someone her age, but the fall was due to stepping directly on the wet floor because she thought there was no bath mat, since the bath mat was virtually indistinguishable from one of the towels. Anyway, she hurt her side and also hit her head. The head wasn't a problem, but the side hurt like hell. Still, she was just going to go to sleep and see what happened in the morning. Unfortunately, she awoke during the night and was worried enough by how much it hurt that she woke her boyfriend up. He was more worried about a possible head injury, since that's the type of thing that can become a serious problem if left untreated.

The long and the short of it was, by about 2:15 we were in the car on the way to the hospital, waiting for our GPS to wake up and tell us which direction to go. It finally did, and steered us there a few minutes later. She ended up in a bed near a guy at least ten years older than her who kept complaining about wanting to leave, and a 23-year-old girl (I know her age because the doctors kept asking her to repeat her birthdate as a proof of her cognitive functions) who had a giant swollen contusion on her head. I made small talk with my mom's boyfriend for two hours before we finally were offered a place in a family lounge to sleep. I took the floor and slept fitfully until about 7, at which point I drove back to my hotel to update my wife on the situation. (Our cell phones don't work in New Zealand, you see.)

My mom was finally discharged around 9:30, once X-rays had revealed not even the broken rib that we had assumed by now was a given. More importantly, nothing was wrong with her head, and it seems that if she had never mentioned hitting it in the first place, he might never (wisely, I might add) have insisted they go to the hospital at all. Then again, she might have gone in the morning, which would have wiped out the possibility of making our 1 p.m. tour at Hobbiton -- a good two-hour drive away.

Wild Tale #2: Despite all four adults being up for most of the night -- my wife didn't get back to sleep easily because she had no idea what was going on, nor the severity of my mom's situation -- we actually had an amazing day at Hobbiton, one that was hardly impacted by anyone being delirious from exhaustion.

We were 45 minutes late for our tour, but only because the GPS was taking us to a different place than the printed directions were taking us. That wasn't anyone's fault, it's just that there's a possible departure point both from the tourist center in Matamata and from just outside the actual farm where the Shire set is erected. That didn't matter anyway, because there were tours every 15 minutes and openings on all the tour times around ours.

I could probably write a whole blog post on Hobbiton, but I'll just say that the experience left me exhilarated. To top it all off, after touring the Shire, we were entitled to a free drink in the Green Dragon, the Middle Earth pub that isn't actually located in the Shire in the books/movies, but where a number of scenes in the movies take place. We also bought a meat pie and these moist chocolate balls sprinkled in coconut that were both amazing. I took more than 200 photos on the day, I think.

Wild Tale #3: Because of being late for Hobbiton, we had to push one other activity to the next morning, which was the Glowworm Caves in Waitomo. These are tours of a cave system where the ceiling of the cave is covered with glowing worms, which creates kind of a night sky constellation effect.

Unfortunately, not two minutes in to the tour, it became clear I was not going to be able to see them.

My younger son threw a fit when he got underground, either because he was scared of the darkened conditions, or because he couldn't walk around wherever he wanted, or both. It quickly became clear that he wouldn't improve and that the situation would be untenable. That was confirmed when the tour guide gently asked us to take him out.

My wife had done the "hard yards" (Australian term) at Hobbiton the day before, letting me take pictures while she chased children, so it was my turn to take one for the team. The guide said I could get a refund, but he also offered to meet me at the bottom where the boat lets out (did I mention there was a boat?) and show me the worms on a separate little trip. In the confusion I just kind of nodded, hoping for the best but expecting that the whole thing was a bust for me. I was disappointed, but not all that disappointed -- I actually really like taking one for the team, because of the gratitude it earns me.

Well, it earned me a whole lot more than that.

When my younger son and I did find our way down to the appointed place, I got more than I could have ever hoped. After all the others in the tour disembarked, probably very grateful for not dealing with my screaming son for more than three minutes, the guide welcomed me aboard and pulled the boat along a rope hanging about shoulder height through the caves. So it was just me and my Maori guide, moving quietly through the silent space, casting our eyes upward into the dark, the silence only broken by him occasional pointing things out or giving an abbreviated version of his tour talk.

My eyes were wide with wonder, my mind filled with serenity. This lasted possibly as long as ten minutes.

"I never get this kind of quiet in my day," I told him.

Needless to say, I did not actually seek a refund.

Wild Tale #4: Our next stop was Lake Taupo, another couple hours to the south, where we were going out on a boat.

It being only a lake, I expected it to be quite the placid experience.


The boat rocked and dipped and dived over waves. Miraculously, my older son did not get sick. Not sure why he's so much more immune to boats than cars -- he constantly threatened car sickness on this trip, and actually threw up once, which I caught all in a bag on the night after the harrowing hospital adventure -- but the fresh air certainly has something to do with it.

Nor did any of the older generation take a header, nor did my younger son slip out an opening in the ship's outer deck that was perfectly sized for a nearly two-year-old.

Thankfully, this Wild Tale is wild only because of the water conditions.

Wild Tale #5: Because of squeezing in the Glowworms on Friday morning instead of Thursday night, we had a third activity on Friday as well. This was walking up next to some geothermal activity escaping out of the crevices in the rocks at the site known as Craters of the Moon, also in the immediate Lake Taupo area.

Unfortunately, with the cascading effect of everything else, we thought we were going to be too late to get much more than a taste of it. Fortunately, the place was open until 6 instead of 5. Unfortunately, that was almost the problem, as it lulled us into a false sense of having more time than we really had.

The walk around Craters of the Moon is recommended for about an hour, which probably assumes not a huge amount of dawdling. Well, there was some dawdling, which can more charitably be described as lingering to enjoy the majesty of nature. And so it was that our group got splintered in a predictable fashion along the twisting wooden pathways that run through the grounds, children running ahead and being chased by their parents, and the older generation taking their time and lots of pictures.

We noted the sign that says when the siren goes off, you have 30 minutes to leave the grounds. This is because the gate closes precisely at 6 p.m., after which they cannot be responsible for any cars or people stranded inside. Having become at least five minutes separated from the other half of our group, though, we had no way of telling them or even knowing if they saw the sign. But by the time the siren went off, it looked like we still had plenty of distance to go to -- and they were still plenty of distance behind us. I sent my wife and older son off in one direction and hoisted my younger son on my shoulders to head back in the other.

They did read the sign, but left to their own devices, the siren had not significantly increased their speed, and they were still stopping off to look at things rather than determinedly marching toward the exit. I got us to start doing that, but even so, I had only a vague sense of how far the exit was. I wasn't carrying a map of the grounds, and I knew that they might not think twice about locking the grounds and just leaving us there.

The real trick was to establish a pace that kept our eyes on the prize, but did not overwork the two older folks, one of whom had recently had heart troubles and the other of whom had spent two nights ago in a hospital and was still in pain. All the while recognizing that the day was warm enough and the grade steep enough that I could be endangering them. But also realizing that we could face serious difficulties if we got stuck inside Craters of the Moon.

It was with an exhalation of sweet relief that I finally saw the exit, and still had all the members of my party intact. In fact, we still had ten minutes to drive a little ways down the hill to where the gate would be closing. We didn't have enough time for anyone to use the bathroom, but that's a story for another time ...

Wild Tale #6: Wellington, where we would be arriving the next day, is a small city. Its population is small, its streets are small, and its parking garages -- or carparks -- are extremely small.

Unfortunately, a car big enough to drive around four adults and two kids is big -- big enough to be referred to euphemistically as a "people mover."

The size of our vehicle almost got us into trouble a couple times on what turned into a harrowing Saturday on the roads.

The first was when we had to actually stop driving in the direction we were going on one of the streets around the hotel, because a car was parked just far enough off the curb that we literally did not have enough room to drive past it without hitting oncoming traffic. Sure, that car was a little poorly parked, but that's the sign of a street that is just too narrow. (When we passed the same car again later, its rear-view mirror had actually been smashed.)

The next was when we were going to visit my wife's friend, who lives up in the windy hills above Wellington, which would seem familiar to those who know the Hollywood Hills. My wife's friend lives in a house that's so difficult to get to, it does not even have its own driveway. You climb stairs to get to it, which I can assure you is a perfectly reasonable trade-off for the amazing view. But when you are trying to park, it leaves you with a difficult task indeed. My wife and I each took a pass at parallel parking in a space that was scarcely large enough for us, all the while having cars coming along that needed to pass on a street that was only wide enough for one. At one point I even had to pull to the cliff side of the road to let a car pass, leaving our vehicle half in a bush, and squealing pebbles out from under it when I tried to reverse and got nowhere. This was the point that I slumped down on the wheel in despair. Ultimately we realized that there were other spots that were just a slightly farther walk from her house, but not after getting involved in another Mexican standoff with a car where were both trying to turn around in space not designed for turning.

But the real adventure came when we were trying to park back at the hotel, after 10 p.m, with two sleepy kids in the back seat. We'd witnessed the tight quarters of the parking garage first hand earlier, when we'd managed to park in the one space that didn't require you to make this tight corner down into the dungeon lower level, which had about ten additional spaces. But that spot wasn't available when we came home, so we descended into that dungeon, quickly realizing that not only did we not have the turning radius to get into any of the three available spots, but getting the car back out would require a perfectly executed swirl upward in which gravity would be pulling us back down, and the corners were so tight that we'd be truly lucky not to clip a bumper or anything else jutting out at unlikely and problematic angles. After making several failed attempts to park and actually trying to get someone from the hotel to help us, we were told that there was actually an affiliated parking garage next door where we could park for the parking fee we'd already paid. We breathed a sigh of relief, but this was not the end of our troubles. As I nudged forward up that ramp and tried to accelerate (but not too much), my wheels squealed under me, the smell of burnt rubber emanating nauseatingly upward. Grim panic was on both my wife's and my faces, as though we were in hour 12 of some kind of hostage ordeal. After several more similarly unsuccessful efforts, I decided I just had to back up, grit my teeth, and make a determined lunge upward, fast enough to avoid the slippage but too fast to be sure I was not going to hit anything. I determined the best trajectory I could and just went for it ... and emerged unscathed.

"Let's get out of his hellhole," my wife said.

The carpark next door had only marginally better turning radii, but the parking spaces were actually manageable.

Bonus Wild Tales:

The time I thought I lost my wallet.

The time we thought we lost the car keys.

The other time we thought we lost the car keys.

The time the fruit salad spilled fruit juice all inside the diaper bag, also drenching our extra chocolate balls from Hobbiton.

The time it was so windy on Sunday morning in Wellington, I had to hold my older son on my shoulders and clench his legs tightly, just to be sure he didn't blow away.

The time I bought breakfast for everybody except my older son.

The time I had to read my son an epic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles story in the backseat of the car on no sleep.

The time somebody wandered off.

The time somebody else wandered off.

The time everybody was talking at once and no one was saying anything.

Yes, it was a stressful trip, but as you can tell, it was also an awesome one.

I'll take Wild Tales over boring ones any day.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

All wrapped up? Not a chance

After watching Fast Five, part of me wondered if they weren't finally deciding that five was enough installments of the Fast & Furious series.

The part of me that didn't realize there was a post-credit sequence, that is.

That part of me found out about the post-credit sequence only by reading a review of the movie, which teased the inevitable Fast & Furious 6, and which I then proceeded to watch on Youtube. Except it seemed somewhat evitable after the way they so tightly wrapped things up at the end of Fast Five.

Then again, since the fourth installment wasn't a huge hit -- not a huge critical hit, anyway -- I guess they couldn't have known that they'd keep pushing this series, even past the point where one of the two lead actors died. Fast Eight is still a go, right?

What I'm speaking of is this movie's ridiculously happy ending. Like, the happiest of all happy endings. Typically, even when the good guys triumph in a movie like this -- which they sort of have to -- they don't each get to keep the $11 million they were trying to secure in the heist. Here they do, and they all get to survive (well, except for one guy who was basically there just to get bumped off), and they also all get paired off with members of the opposite sex -- except of course for the two Spanish speaking guys, who came as a pair in the first place, and the two black guys, whose status as rivals and frenemies is this close to being played as romantic.

Of course, the post-credits sequence tells us "Yeah, they're happy now -- but it ain't going to last." And also answers my question in last month's post about the inevitable return of Michelle Rodriguez.

If it sounds as though I'm wantonly hurling spoilers at you, I guess that's because I am. See, the assumption of me marathoning Fast/Furious movies in 2015 is that I'm catching up with where you all already are. My goal is to watch the two remaining installments in the two calendar months before the end of this year, so as to rank the new one with my 2015 films, and lo and behold, I'm right on track for that. Even if I had to jam in my viewing of Fast Five before leaving for New Zealand, because I'd already exhausted my two library renewals and felt absurd having to return the movie and borrow it again -- especially since I'd reserved it the first time.

Anyway, because I'm departing for the airport in just a little more than six hours, and because I don't really have time to be writing anything right now (but am conscious of not having updated this blog in five days, with another expected five-day drought after this one), I won't spend a lot of time combing through the finer details of this movie. I will say, though, that it deserves to have its finer details combed more than any so far in the series, so my quick blog treatment will be one I sort of regret.

Yes, I'm subscribing to what seems to be the general and unlikely consensus that the fifth movie in this series is the best one -- so far, anyway. What other series can you say that, and not just be trolling someone?

However, that's still only a three-star rating for me. A strong three stars, but it doesn't quite notch up to 3.5. I'll mention a couple things that bothered me or made me laugh:

1) I love how after they send that prison bus into a roll at the beginning as a means of breaking out Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), not only is no one killed -- as a news report makes sure to point out -- but Dom is the only one that escapes. It's one of the great pains this series goes to to show you that none of the criminal behavior of Dom et al has any effect on anyone innocent, even those who are not really innocent like guys serving life prison sentences. A plan that probably should have killed most of them, including Dom (who appears not to have been in on it), instead comes off swimmingly. Allowing a handful of other impossible plans to come off during this movie.

2) In fact, Dom and his friends are so inherently just in their criminal activities that they win over even people like a straight-laced DEA agent (Dwayne Johnson) and supposedly the only cop in Rio who can't be bought (Elsa Pataky). So much for law enforcement ethics in this series, as Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) was long ago permanently corrupted to Dom's team.

Still, this movie does have excellent set pieces, I'll give it that. And I for one don't mind the switch to a more Ocean's Eleven style approach to making a movie like this, as I never cared all that much for seeing guys race each other for pinks.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Audient Auscars: Tom Jones

This is the tenth entry in my 2015 project to clean up as many of my unseen best picture winners as I can, one per month.

I spent much of the first half of Tom Jones aghast that this movie won best picture. I was wondering what kind of terrible year 1963 must have been for the movies.

I spent much of the second half thinking, "Well, it's not Tom Jones' fault that it won best picture. The people who made it were probably just as surprised that it won as I was." I feel pretty certain that the people who made Tom Jones never had anything like the Oscars on their minds.

What Tom Jones has going for it in terms of traditional Oscar credentials is a period piece setting and its status as an adaptation of a work by a major author (Henry Fielding). What it has going against it are many things, most notably a ribald tone and an anachronistic filmmaking style that makes it more resemble an episode of Benny Hill than the staid Merchant-Ivory style that shaped the notion of cinematic period pieces for someone like me, who came of age cinematically in the 1990s.

The poster I've chosen here says all you need to know about how cheeky this movie is -- and I don't just say that because there's a giant lipstick print planted on Tom's cheek. Everything in Tom Jones is broad, much of it very intentionally so. One of the first ways I became familiar with Albert Finney was in his 1980 movie Scrooge, in which he plays the title character. Although I kind of liked that movie as a kid, there was always something garish about it in general, and Finney's performance in particular, that never sat well with me. I now see the roots of that garishness, though I'd say that Finney is hardly the one we should blame for this film's problems.

It's basically the story of an 18th century bastard who is raised among a rich family, falls in love with a rich girl (Susannah York), but can't have her because of his status as a bastard. Ah, if it were only a bit more like Wuthering Heights than that. The girl is of course engaged to a suitor of an equivalent station (David Warner, in his film debut) who has supposed aristocratic virtues, but little in the way of kindness or warmth. The suitor schemes against the bastard and has him sent away, where he encounters numerous adventures on the road to personal redemption and the unveiling of a secret related to his actual parentage.

It all sounds like pretty standard stuff, really, but it plays as anything but. Again bringing in a very modern reference, Tom Jones seems to have more the tone of something like Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story than it does the tone of Howards End. Many if not most of the characters are extreme exaggerations, either overly wicked or overly buffoonish, and sometimes both. Many skirts are chased and much liquor is consumed, and one sequence even involves a sexual seduction executed via slabs of meat eaten at a dinner.

I might have gotten more of the intended sense of fun from this movie if everything didn't look so dreary and grainy. Now granted, I was watching an old version that may have been ripped from a VHS tape for all I know, which was kindly uploaded to the web by a friend of mine and shared to me in her Google Docs. So I was not expecting a pristine copy of the print. But even adjusting for the expected degradation of the image, I could still tell that Tom Jones looked like garbage, especially compared to some of the truly handsome-looking pictures that were honored with Oscars around the same time. At its best it looks like a shoddy version of something made on the BBC; at its worst, far worse than that.

And the filmmaking style of director Tony Richardson is truly puzzling. Richardson made this in between a serious movie, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and a bit of a bizarre movie, The Loved One. It's not as good as either of those, though it does share a bit of the spirit of the latter. I made that reference to Benny Hill in part because there are, actually, several scenes in which the action plays at double speed to underscore the goofy hijinx of characters running after each other, much like Mr. Hill regularly did on his show. There are also some very fast edits and some very grotesque close-ups of characters, giving the whole production a truly warped sense. I guess the people who like this movie like that about it. I don't, and I didn't.

But I can't say that I hate the movie either, though I was expecting to after 30 minutes. I sort of fell in step with its mood as it went along, but only sort of. I appreciate it as an odd curiosity and something truly different, perhaps something ahead of its time -- to the extent that I appreciate it at all. I suppose I also have to appreciate just how unlikely it was that this movie would even receive positive reviews, let alone be bestowed with a golden statue by a body of voters widely known for being humorless. It very definitely stands as one of the most unusual best picture winners of all time.

One of the strangest things about it, though, is how little it seems to care whether we like its characters or not. Even the characters we're supposed to like are frequently involved in wretched behavior, or are portrayed as dolts. I think we're supposed to like Tom, but he's the one most guilty of skirt chasing in the whole movie, even though his feelings for Susannah York's character are supposed to be pure. No modern movie would have a guy sleep around on his way into the arms of his beloved.

Also: Only after watching for more than an hour did I realize that York played Superman's mother.

Okay, in November, on to something I expect to be a bit more traditional: My Fair Lady.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Preparations for Middle Earth

I'm adding a new country to my list later this month.

Actually, that's not technically true. I've set foot in New Zealand before, in the sense that I've been in one of its airports. I stopped over in Auckland on my first trip to Australia back in 2007, but I was bleary eyed and sleep deprived and it just looked like the inside of an airport.

But from October 14th to 18th, I'll actually be visiting the country, known to fans worldwide cinematically as the home of Middle Earth.

In fact, its status as the setting for Peter Jackson's six movie adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books is the primary reason we're going. We had always intended to visit New Zealand while we're living in Australia, as it's so close by and my wife has a good friend from high school who lives there, but what's actually prompting this visit is the visit of my mother and her boyfriend from the U.S. Her boyfriend is a huge fan of these books and movies, and it was always an unspoken precondition of him making the trip to Australia with her that they would also go to New Zealand. When push came to shove, though, my mom hesitated when she realized it would mean time away from her son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons, which would be particularly precious given that the total duration of their trip was only two weeks. So for a moment it looked like he was going to come all this way, this close to New Zealand, and then not actually get there.

We decided that couldn't happen, so proposed that all six of us spend five days and four nights in our neighboring country to the east. It's only a three-hour plane ride, and we may not get a better opportunity for our own visit, especially if we are planning to return to the U.S. sometime in 2016 or (more likely) 2017.

So on Thursday, October 15th, we will be touring Hobbiton and dreaming ourselves away into the world that Tolkien envisioned and Jackson brought to the screen. (Most of the landscape shots were actually on the south island, the one we won't be visiting, but we're trying not to focus on that part of it.)

I don't think we actually needed any preparation to excite us for this, but I scheduled some anyway in the form of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, my favorite of the six movies. We watched it Friday night.

Forthwith, some thoughts.

Taking it out of the realm of a joke

For a couple years now, I have been using a different one of the Lord of the Rings movies -- The Return of the King -- as a joke that I have long since beaten into the ground.

The joke goes something like this. It's late at night, probably after 10, and the subject comes up of whether my wife and I should try to watch something else or just yield to our palpable exhaustion. I am fond of saying, "Well, we could throw on Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." Which of course is the longest of these movies at 201 minutes. And which we don't actually own anyway.

My wife may have cracked a smile the first time I made the joke. Now I just make it as callback to the other times I've made the joke and as a way of taking the piss out of myself for repeating jokes until they've lost any shred of their original humor value.

So when I emailed my wife suggesting a viewing of The Two Towers, I titled the email "Not a joke this time."

The 179-minute running time -- which turned out to be more like 165 before credits, and 173 after them -- still daunted us. However, I'm pleased to inform you that we made it through the whole thing without any signs of nodding off. That's the power of a good movie, I guess.

Starship Towers

When first considering my approach to writing about The Two Towers on my bog, I latched on to the idea of just how good the digital character of Gollum still looks, even 13 years after it was created. (How good Andy Serkis is, making Gollum one of the great movie characters of the 21st century, was another pleasant rediscovery.) So I considered writing a whole post focusing only on older movies whose digital effects still looked top notch.

The one that came instantly to mind was Starship Troopers, whose arachnids continue to seem as realistic and as ferocious as the day they were created, "way back" in 1997. I considered some other options (the Star Wars prequels, for example) before deciding that the arachnids and Gollum were the only ones I'd actually argue for passionately.

But then that got me thinking of some other narrative similarities between these two movies.

They both involve armies of humans fighting armies of mindless drones they can't understand, which are bent only on their destruction, and in fact on the very annihilation of their species. They both feature scenes in which these armies succeed in impregnating a fortress that was previously though to be impregnable, by pouring wave after wave of these drones at the fortress walls. They also both involve an attempt to neutralize the strength of these drone armies by defeating a certain queen or command center -- the "brain bug" in Starship Troopers, and Isengard in The Two Towers.

Only one, however, features the epic line "They sucked his brains out."

How old is John Rhys-Davies?

It had always subconsciously nagged at me that John Rhys-Davies, who played Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, plays Gimli in these movies. In short -- no pun intended during the discussion of a dwarf -- he would have seemed too old to play the part.

My assumption of Rhys-Davies' elderliness, however, is built on my assumption of how old he was when he played Sallah. I would have guessed that he was in his mid-40s then, which would put him in his mid-60s when playing Gimli. Not so old that he couldn't do it, but old enough that it seems like it would have struck a casting director as an odd choice for the role, especially since Rhys-Davies is not what you would call a star.

It turns out Rhys-Davies was only 37 for his first appearance as Sallah. What makes that especially strange is that he was two years younger than Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones. I had always considered Sallah to have a slightly paternalistic relationship to Indy, but in light of these revelations, that's even more off base than it might otherwise have been.

Twenty years after Raiders, that left Rhys-Davies a much more reasonable 57 when he first played Gimli. He's a relative spring chicken in a series that also features Ian McKellan and Christopher Lee ... and featured them both again in the Hobbit movies a full decade later.

The impact of a little Irish

As much as I think I would have been caught up by the events of The Two Towers regardless of any preconceived notions, those of you who know me or have read me will remember that I didn't particularly care for The Fellowship of the Ring when I first saw it. I have later come to like it much more, especially in the wake of the affection I developed for these movies after The Two Towers, which even continued to me holding two of the three Hobbit movies in high esteem. But The Two Towers presumably had to do a number of things to win my affection after the series took a misstep out of the gate.

After this viewing, I've decided that one of these things was its music.

Although I don't specifically recall Howard Shore's work in The Fellowship of the Ring, I don't remember it being nearly as inflected by Irish tradition as the Two Towers score is.

And because I find Irish music to be inherently melancholic, in a good way, I think that's a big part of why I became so invested in these characters in this installment. I found the long distance romance, carried out in dreams and visions, between Aragorn and Arwen to particularly benefit from this. The first time around, I didn't get why Liv Tyler's character was even in the movie. This time, when she has a smaller and much less essential role, I totally got the significance of it and her bond with Aragorn. In fact, the sequence in which she imagines a future life with a mortal like Aragorn, which ends in his inevitable death, may have been the very scene that erased any lingering doubts I may have had from Fellowship and fully got me on board the LOTR train.

And that sorrowful, lilting Irish score has everything to do with that. I'm a guy who thinks "Oh Danny Boy" is one of the most beautifully mournful songs ever written, so throw anything that's vaguely in that tradition at me and I'm putty in your hands.

That opening

I suspect the other thing that drew me right into this movie is its opening. I love that it takes us back into the first movie, the scene where Gandalf fights [the large horned beast, not looking up his name right now], and shows us stuff we didn't see the first time.

That he continues to fight this creature while falling -- and even eventually fights him atop a craggy, snow-covered mountaintop, which we don't discover until later in the film -- was cool enough. But what really gives me the chills, even now as I type this, is that shot where their falling, burning bodies illuminate a whole underground cave filled with water, which might be as big as the state of Delaware. It's a wonderful reminder of the scope -- not only of this world, but of this movie -- to see that they are really just a speck in the distance of this massive underground chamber.

"He fell"

Speaking of falling, and John Rhys-Davies, one of my favorite lines from the movie comes when Gimli reports to Eowyn what he believes is Aragorn's death during the Orc attack on the way to Helm's Deep.

"He fell,"  he tells Eowyn, his voice choked with emotion.

What I love about this line is that it can be read two ways. I was going to say "The first, most obvious reading," but now I'm not sure if either is more obvious, and that's what makes it so wonderful.

One reading is that he's using the word "fall" as a direct synonym for "die," as one would talk about "fallen soldiers" as the ones who died in battle. It's a more poetic and softer way to announce someone's death.

My preferred reading is that the emotion of the situation has made Gimli overly literal, as in "Aragorn literally fell over the side of a cliff," and you can imagine what happened to him as a result. It's like a child reporting the exact physical circumstances of the situation. "He fell" ... a long, long way to his death.

Fortunately, the movie lets all these characters off the hook for their emotional suffering by having Aragorn show up pretty soon after that. But it undoubtedly contributes to the emotional weight of this film that characters have to experience the deaths of friends, even if those characters are not actually dead. Gimli, Aragorn and Legolas also think for a moment that Merry and Pippin have been killed, and have a moment to consider themselves as failures to their friends. And that may also be a way that I appreciated this movie more than its predecessor, whose ending I thought was weakened significantly by the maudlin display of emotion after the turncoat Boromir is killed. These displays are more restrained ... even when the people who supposedly died are more deserving of our grief.

It's so damn quotable

And speaking of quotes, I was reminded just how many great ones there are in this movie. Which is especially surprising because I feel like the dialogue was one of the primary things people picked at in the new Hobbit movies.

Here's a small survey of the quotes that really resonate with me:

"Look for your friends, but do not trust to hope. It has forsaken these lands."

"The courtesy of your hall is somewhat lessened of late, Theoden King."

"Keep your forked tongue behind your teeth."

"Open war is upon you whether you would risk it or not."

"Here you will dwell, bound to your grief, under the fading trees until all the world is changed and the long years of your life are utterly spent."

"War will make corpses of us all."

"What can men do against such reckless hate?"

"We come to honor that allegiance."

"There is no curse in Elvish, Entish or the tongues of men for this treachery."

"And all that was once green and good in this world will be gone."

"Frodo wouldn't have gotten far without Sam."

How many of these lines are directly from Tolkien, though, I could not tell you. Well, I don't so much care if I'm getting Jackson and his three fellow scribes or the original author. All that matters to me is that this movie has collected them up and brought them to me.


New Zealand? Yeah, I'm ready.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

I once was Night, but now I'm Found

Found footage, that is.

Some people may be willing to go with the "once lost, now found" narrative for M. Night Shyamalan's career in terms of The Visit, but I'll only go as far as "found" in terms of found footage.

The Visit is almost certainly Shyamalan's best movie since Signs, but given the string of turkeys on his resume, that's pretty faint praise.

Still, it looks good and is genuinely creepy in parts, which means that it has already surpassed two-thirds of his filmography. (Most of those others looked good, but most of them made us laugh at the times they were supposed to be creeping us out.)

The "looks good" part is one of the causes for concern, though, because this is supposed to be a found footage movie. I mean, it is a found footage movie -- the "supposed to be" part relates to the fact that it's meant to look like it was shot by an amateur. Or two amateurs, in this case a teenage brother and sister. That it does not, and that's part of the problem.

Another problem is that there's something basically depressing about someone like Shyamalan having to try to find his groove in a genre as dessicated as found footage. There have actually been a number of found footage movies I've really liked in the past few years, such as Ti West's The Sacrament and Adam Robitel's The Taking of Deborah Logan, which actually covers thematically similar territory to The Visit. Still, it feels like a desperate refuge for someone like Shyamalan, who made his initial reputation on a tightly controlled type of compositional formalism. Then again, if there was anyone more desperate for something new than Shyamalan, I don't know who it would be.

Only the subgenre of found footage is new, though, really. There's a getting back to his basics element of The Visit that is surely causing those who are praising the movie to praise it. (I am not one of those who praises it, though I do marginally recommend it.)

In fact, it's kind of funny how many of Shyamalan's previous concerns are represented here in one way or another. And I'll be including a couple Visit spoilers here, so if that's a concern for you, you can stop reading now.

One of the most effective moments in The Sixth Sense, the one that still gives me a chill as I'm typing it now, is when that sick girl, the one whose mother is poisoning her, emerges vomiting from under that blanket. Well wouldn't you know it, vomiting factors prominently into the first night the kids detect there's anything wrong with their grandmother. The girl sees her walking straight forward downstairs and spewing up her dinner. The impact is significantly less in this film.

When the boy rises up and attacks his "grandfather" (not really his grandfather) at the end, it's very reminiscent of the "swing away" ending to Signs. Both involve a character who had been stunted in an athletic competition in their past, which had been eating away at them. Both moments involve that character taking action and atoning for their previous inaction, in order to save the day. This moment actually even has a bit of the ending of After Earth in it, as that also involved a boy who had to rise up and conquer his fears in a kill or be killed scenario.

Then there are little things that call back to his other films. The general affect of these grandparents is reminiscent of how the people in The Happening behave before they kill themselves. The stark appearance of the trees and other environment reminds a person a bit of The Village. And that part where the boy magically conjures a wall of ice to defeat an army of soldiers arriving by sea is straight out of The Last Airbender.

Wait, scratch that last one.

But despite the fact that he has made a blatantly unbelievable version of a found footage movie, and also is blatantly ripping off his own filmography, and also is blatantly ripping off other tired horror tropes (some of the way the grandmother is visualized owes a lot to Ringu and other Asian horror in which the hair obscures the character's eyes), The Visit is still quite watchable and has some enjoyable moments.

It also has likely bought Shyamalan, who already seemed to owe the longevity of his career to a deal with the devil, another couple movies.

Perhaps enough time to truly be found.