Sunday, May 31, 2015

Multiple Bova/eries


How many adaptations or pseudo adaptations of Gustave Flaubert's most famous novel can one cinematic year support?

At least two, apparently.

I've had Gemma Bovery on the brain lately, as I just reviewed (and liked) the film, and was freshly reminded of it as it finally opened in Australian cinemas on Thursday. (I say "finally" because I went to the screening like three weeks ago.)

So imagine my surprise when I went to the movies on Thursday and also saw a poster for the upcoming Madame Bovary, directed by Sophie Barthes and starring Australian favorite daughter Mia Wasikowska.

It would be tempting to say that one was piggybacking off the other, but I don't know which one that would be, as they are being released only six weeks apart but were actually both screened for the first time in 2014. And of course, Gemma Bovery is not actually a proper adaptation of Flaubert's novel -- it's actually based on a graphic novel, involving characters who have the same names as the characters in the novel, a fact that they are aware of.

I think it will be really funny if, and I daresay likely that, both will actually be playing in some of the same cinemas at the same time. That's something even the competing volcano movies or meteor movies or White House captured by terrorist movies could never say. Gemma Bovery would have to hold on until Madame Bovary's July 9th release date, but it certainly seems possible that it will, especially somewhere like Cinema Nova in Carlton, which has enough screens to keep riding moderate hits until they are deader than dead. At that point, Madame Bovary may be facing stiffer competition from Far From the Madding Crowd, which releases June 25th.

Who says costume dramas about women in moral peril are dead?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Not knowing


I did something extremely rare Thursday night: I went to a movie theater without knowing what movie I was going to see.

Usually my trips to the theater are dictated by a particular title, sometimes with a backup in mind should the one I want to see sell out, or if I get a flat tire on the way to the theater. (See: The United States, when I had a car.) But Thursday night, I was going for an entirely different reason. I was going to acquaint myself with the theater.

You see, I'm applying for a job as a part-time marketing assistant at Classic Cinema in Elsternwick, a century-old arthouse cinema that these days is forced, by financial necessity, also to screen the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road, Tomorrowland and the movie I ended up seeing, Paul Feig's Spy. If a marketing assistant job sounds like a rather lowly position for a 41-year-old, it's intended as an entry point to returning to writing about movies in a full-time, professional capacity. (Er, part-time.) As my wife make "the big bucks" (compared to what I make nowadays, anyway), I can afford to do something like this, if they'll hire me. My earning potential is somewhat capped, anyway, by the fact that I'm working only three days a week, so now is the time in my life to try something like this.

The application is due on Monday, and I've been procrastinating big time on writing the cover letter. I actually wrote it this week and was prepared to send it off, but my wife asked to look at it to make constructive criticism. I knew my heart wasn't in the version I'd written -- I was doing it just to finally get it done -- so her recommendation to customize it more to this particular theater was a welcome one.

And then it hit me: I could never write a convincing application to work for a theater where I'd never even seen a single movie.

The reason I haven't been to Classic Cinema is that it's pretty far from my house. It takes the better part of an hour to get there, which is certainly a consideration when applying for a job. But I'll cross that bridge when/if I come to it. For now, I just needed to get to the Classic, to help with my cover letter mojo.

If I went straight from work, the choices of movies to see, that I had any interest in seeing, were Tomorrowland, Partisan and Spy. If I came home first and made a separate excursion out later, the choices expanded to include A Royal Night Out. But my wife insisted that I go straight from work -- absolving me of nighttime child duties, bless her -- so I was left with the first three.

And I had an odd kind of thrill riding the train out there, not knowing which one it would be.

One of the questions was whether I'd be ready for Tomorrowland and Spy, which started within five minutes of each other at 6:40 and 6:45. But getting to Elsternwick an hour early removed that as a concern. (And the theater is right outside the train station, so there was not even any poking around and asking for directions.) I leisurely had a drink in a pub and explored a little, at which point my pad thai dinner did actually endanger me for making the start of Tomorrowland. But I finished with five minutes to spare and less than five minutes to walk, so Tomorrowland remained a possibility. But the word has mostly been bad on this one, so I decided against it. That left Spy or Partisan, and the beer I'd consumed (combined with staying up until all hours the night before watching Blue Velvet) told me that I didn't want to twiddle my thumbs for another 30 minutes while waiting for a foreign language movie to start. (Only later did I learn that Partisan is actually in English.)

So, Spy it was.

And one of the ways "not knowing" applies to Spy is that I wasn't actually sure, until earlier in the day, what it was about.

As it turns out, it's a pretty prominent film, so I blame my ignorance on a) no longer living in the trailer-happy U.S., and b) trying not to watch trailers in general.

When I saw it on Classic's roster of films, I looked it up on wikipedia. Reading that it was the latest Melissa McCarthy vehicle directed by Paul Feig (there have been three now, with a fourth one coming), I was inclined to rule it out. But reading further into the wikipedia entry, I discovered that it currently boasted universal acclaim on Metacritic and that "the surprise comedic performance of Jason Statham" had been singled out for praise. Suddenly, this seemed like a strong contender -- even though I have not been a fan of McCarthy, pretty much ever.

Glad this is the one I chose. A bag of gummy worms was there to ensure I didn't fall asleep, but I didn't need it. The relentless spate of action and laughs -- not just comedy, but actual laughs -- took care of that plenty well for me.

Yep, I've finally found a genuinely enjoyable use of Melissa McCarthy's talents.

I have to say that this has been eating at me a bit. I feel like I come by my distaste for McCarthy's cringe-worthy shtick legitimately, but I have always been worried that others would think I don't like her because I don't want to sleep with her. But you can't give comedians points out of mere political correctness. Either they make you laugh or they don't.

Finally, McCarthy really made me laugh, and I couldn't be happier.

The whole ensemble is really good, with Rose Byrne, Allison Janney, Jude Law, Peter Serafinowicz and delightful newcomer (to me, anyway) Miranda Hart there to lend help. And let's not forget the aforementioned Mr. Statham, who takes the piss out of his typical screen persona with a lot of good humor and genuine comic timing.

It's basically a cavalcade of great physical action-comedy, delightfully complicated yet perfectly observed insults and out-and-out raw vulgarity. And it made me laugh a ton.

Sometimes, not knowing what you're in for is just the ticket to a great night at the movies.

And maybe, just maybe, I can now write a credible enough application to work in the marketing department of a hundred-year-old movie theater.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Audient Auscars: All the King's Men


This is the latest in a monthly series in which I catch up with the best picture winners I haven't seen. 

I had a couple good options for posters for the 1949 best picture winner, but I chose this All the King's Men poster because of its funny usage of the words "very great." When was the last time you heard anyone refer to something as "very great"? Any writing teacher worth his or her salt will tell you that the word "very" is a sin in good writing. (Which isn't to say that most of us don't use it from time to time.)

Well, I guess All the King's Men IS sort of "very great." At least, it's the best movie I've seen so far in this series, just edging out Cimarron for that distinction.

What I like so much about this film is how cynical it is. I can't remember where I saw it, but at some point recently I either heard or read someone describe a movie as "dipped in battery acid." (I'd credit the author, but I just googled it and the search produced nothing.) That's kind of how I felt about this movie -- it was so suspicious of human nature, that the Academy had to cleanse itself by handing out subsequent trophies to trifles like An American in Paris and The Greatest Show on Earth. (Of course, I have to ignore the Oscar given the very next year to All About Eve, which sort of destroys my thesis.)

The story is based loosely, or perhaps not so loosely, on the life of Louisiana governor Huey Long. It details the rise to political power of one Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), a gifted orator and one-time idealist (or at least, more of an idealist) whose political education becomes dominated by learning the best tricks to get what he wants. After several early defeats, he learns he needs to be more mercenary, and gains the support of an entourage of political allies, who either believe that his earnest policies justify the dirty methods used to secure them, or admire him for the very dirty methods he employs so effectively. Among these are an otherwise clear-eyed reporter (John Ireland), the reporter's girlfriend (Joanne Dru), her uncorruptible brother (Shepperd Strudwick) and judge father (Raymond Greenleaf), not to mention Stark's family members who get caught in the crossfire (a son, played by John Derek -- Bo's future husband -- and his wife, played by Anne Seymour). It's a fairly straightforward story of a politician's political trajectory into venality and, well, total reprehensibility. A lot of tragedies befall various characters along the way, as Stark gets more and more powerful, adding to his list of enemies at the same rate that he adds his name to the public projects he pushes through via a combination of persuasion, will power and back room deals. The question of the whole movie essentially becomes: Do the ends justify the means? Because the ends produced by Willie Stark are, most would agree, objectively good.

Few movies had taken on politics as mercilessly as All the King's Men did. It has had reverberations down through the years, not only inspiring the 2006 remake, but also movies like All the President's Men, and even something like Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, which exists in the same southern political milieu and also details the steady corruption by power of a once-innocent figure. It's a pretty tough watch in the sense that there are few characters who are completely untainted for us to root for, and rarely does anything happen for the purpose of pleasing the audience. It's also unflinching in its presentation of things like Stark's alcoholism and how that affects the people around him (particularly his son). This movie isn't at all naive, and it doesn't offer much hope. The most hopeful thing, I suppose, is that Stark eventually does get his in the end -- which is a pretty sour type of hope.

I don't suppose I have a lot more to say about this film, which is no indication of my feelings toward it. And though I've given it four stars, I'd say it's a movie I admire more than one I love, or am likely to revisit any time soon.

Next month we get to see exactly how much of a trifle The Greatest Show on Earth, the 1952 winner, really is. It'll also be the first movie in this series that I can actually borrow from the library, rather than having to rent it from iTunes.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Really determined to rewatch Blue Velvet


I wasn't going to let a broken remote control or having to stay up until 1:30 a.m. deter me on finally rewatching Blue Velvet.

This is a revisit that's been on the docket for some time. I made an attempt around a year ago, but had to bail when the disc was scratched. Then I borrowed it from the library about a month ago, but it never made it into the player.

This time I had a BluRay from the library, not a DVD, which somehow seemed to increase my resolve to get it done. However, I inadvertently chose the worst of those three conditions to try to watch it.

See, our remote control for our BluRay player is broken. I should say, it's still broken, because it's been 10 days now and we still have not done anything about it. I should also say, it might be broken. Part of the unusual delay in fixing such a central component of our entertainment setup is that I can't be sure it's the remote itself that's broken. The first signs of its failure were that any time you pressed one of the buttons, the red Ghostbusters circle appeared on the screen - as in, "this command is not valid." Now, however, it won't react in any way at all. (And yes, I've changed the batteries.)

Although in situations like this in the past, I may have assumed it was the remote at fault, for some reason now I am paranoid that the sensor on the BluRay player may be broken. If it is, and if I buy another remote, it will just be money down the drain. And perhaps the difference is that I live in Australia, where they want to charge you half the price of the player itself to replace the remote (or so I assume, but then again, I guess the price of all these electronics has come down in recent years). I tried to program the player to run off one of our other remotes, but it never accepted any of the codes as valid.

So while I twiddle my thumbs and hem and haw about what to do, half-heartedly trying the remote again every couple days to see if something has changed, I've been careful not to acquire any new discs, figuring to just focus on iTunes and streaming options for a couple weeks. But then my son said he wanted to go to the park near the new library yesterday, and being near the new library, which has a fantastic movie collection, I could not resist swooping in and picking up eight new BluRays.

I popped in Blue Velvet last night, fairly certain that I would fall asleep at some point during it, but also certain that I could resume after a short nap (this actually works surprisingly well for me). I was also pretty certain, from trial and error last week with A Separation, that I had a method for resuming my spot in the movie, even though I had no pause option.

No such luck. Perhaps because it's a BluRay rather than a DVD, and therefore more sophisticated than (in this case) you want it to be, it started me over from the beginning. Which wouldn't have been a huge problem, because I knew where I left off, except that I also don't have the ability to select chapters or fast forward.

So what do you think I did?

Well, I let the movie -- a two-hour movie -- play again from the start, starting at 11:30. And as good as Blue Velvet is, I didn't watch the whole first hour again. I occupied myself with things on my computer until it was time to tune back in.

And yes, I'm really tired today, to quote George Costanza in the "yada yada yada" episode.

But I'm glad to say the rewatch was worth it. It confirmed the greatness of the film. This is going to be an odd thing to say for a David Lynch movie, but I had forgotten how weird it is. What I mean by that is, my standard line of discussion on Blue Velvet, formulated after my first viewing (which was sometime in the late 1990s I think), is that I was surprised by how conventional of a movie it ended up being. According to my memory, although it was certainly a scarring experience, there wasn't so much about it that was downright weird -- as in, you can't make sense of it or it could be a dream, etc. So, there was a bit more of that than I remembered, specifically the whole odd visit to Ben (Dean Stockwell), in which he lip syncs along to Roy Orbison's "In Dreams." Loved that stuff.

And now that I'm a bit more immersed in Lynch's total filmography than I was when I first saw it, Blue Velvet kind of seems like his greatest hits -- even if some of those hits had yet to be made. Specifically:

1) The shots travelling down the canal of the severed ear and through the blades of grass are reminiscent of the shot going into the radiator in Eraserhead.

2) The lounge singer milieu would be seen again in Mulholland Drive.

3) The recurring use of a diner and the setting of the film in a (presumably northwestern) logging down both anticipate Twin Peaks. (Oh wait, I see the setting is North Carolina. Well, I'll just leave it.)

I have many other takeaways from Blue Velvet, but some are fairly banal for anyone who's watched the movie a number of times and read any analysis of it, so I'll leave off there.

What to do with the other seven movies I have borrowed from the library and really want to watch -- and what to do about the busted remote control, and how to respond to my son the next time he wants to go to that park -- remains to be seen.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Giving out star ratings - for beer


If you think star ratings are a hopelessly ineffectual way of ranking movies, try using them to rank beers.

If you think that nearly every movie you see is somewhere between a 2.5 and a 4, I repeat -- try using star ratings to rank beers.

I was in a position of doing that on Friday night, as the Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular rolled through town. (I say "rolled through town" because there is also one in Sydney, not because it's actually some kind of moveable drinking feast complete with clowns and carnies.) I went with a co-worker, and we met up with his housemate, his brother, and another friend.

Here's what you do. You buy a bunch of "tokens" (actually, thick-cut paper squares attached to each other along perforated edges). You get a paddle with a chalkboard surface with five holes in it. (You will get what I'm talking about when I post a picture at conclusion of this paragraph). You review the 118 beers on tap listed in the festival guide, and choose five per paddle, all within the same range of 20 beers. You scrawl their numbers in chalk, one under each of the holes. You then wait in line (or "in the queue") in front of six different beer stations, each of which has 20 taps. You return -- very carefully -- with samples of five beers, each in plastic cups that are about the size of one-and-a-half shots. Then, over the course of the evening, you steadily get drunker and drunker.

Here's that photo:


Because I am not a beer aficionado -- I like what I like, but I can't really "talk about" beer -- I decided to choose which beers I sampled completely randomly.

It was a blast. None of the 30 beers I sampled were outstanding -- more on that in a minute -- but the steadily getting drunker and drunker part was more than enough to make up for that. Plus, the company was good, a BBQ sandwich really hit the spot about midway through, the venue was grand (the Royal Exhibition Building, former home to the Melbourne Museum), there was a giant game of Jenga, and there was a brass band playing pop songs, so it was just a great evening.

Don't worry, we're getting back to movies. Now, in fact.

Because the others were doing it -- and because it dovetails so completely with my nature -- I gave star ratings to all the beers I sampled. Yes, all of them -- I remembered to keep doing it even as 11 p.m. rolled around and I'm not even sure I could have even written my own name at that point.

Nearly half of the 33 beers I ranked -- I had three others donated to me from others who didn't care for them -- got that middle-of-the-road, three-star ranking. That's 16 of the 33. Three-point-five was the next highest with nine, then 2.5 had four, 4 stars had two, and then one each for 2 stars and 1.5 stars. That 1.5-star beer I clearly remember -- it tasted like bargain basement raspberry soda with alcohol in it.

Wait, didn't I say I was getting back to movies?

I think the point of my comparison is that after a while, everything just blends together and you are giving a three to everything. You don't actively hate very much, but you don't love anything either. It seems like a lot of movies that come down the pike are ones that you feel like you should rate lower, but they do whatever they do well enough that they deserve at least three stars. Such was the case with Friday night's beers.

However, there's also that idea of grading on a curve. A star rating is not always an absolute thing -- you sometimes can't help but think of it in comparison to other star ratings you've recently given out. My favorite beer of the night ended up being #72, "Almonds of Steal," from Mildura Brewery. This is a funny/interesting choice for two reasons: 1) My father-in-law taught in the town of Mildura for a good portion of his career, and 2) It was quite possibly the only vegan beer there, and I'm not usually a vegan type of guy. Because it was one of the first ten or so beers I sampled, I skewed conservatively and gave it "only" four stars, expecting that it would have a number of competitors over the rest of the evening. In fact, it did not -- and the only other four I handed out, I think I did so because it seemed ridiculous that not a single other beer had made it into the four range.

I'm living through the opposite curve problem now in the movies I'm seeing, though I guess if you love movies (as I do), the only reason you'd think of it as a "problem" is because you wonder if it means you're not being critical enough. Since the beginning of May, I have only seen a single film that received fewer than three stars (2.5 for Anna Karenina) and a full nine movies that are four or higher. The other five have been three or 3.5. Of course, at times like this I wonder if the movies I'm seeing are really all that good, or if I've just established a higher-than-normal baseline with one of my recent ratings and now everything else is skewed as a result.

So what do I ultimately conclude from all this?

I don't know. I think I just wanted to write a post about drinking beer.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A deeper Separation than even I knew


I ranked Asghar Farhadi's A Separation my #1 movie of 2011, but because that was before I wrote a little blurb about my top ten films in the year-end post, I've never even had the chance to write about it.

But if I had written about it, I wouldn't have discussed the things I discovered about it on my second viewing, which further deepened my appreciation for it.

At first, though, I was concerned. My viewing looked like it was going to be severely compromised, as it was broken up into three chunks -- or four, depending on how you want to define a "chunk." I started it Monday night about 9:45, but had to stop after ten minutes when my younger son, who is sick, started squealing in the other room. Since our BluRay player's remote control has just recently broken (possibly a topic for a longer post), I couldn't actually pause it -- I had to press stop on the front of the player itself. Fumbling for the buttons in the dark, I accidentally ejected the disc, which means I had to start over from the beginning when it didn't remember my place (and when no option exists on the front panel to choose a chapter manually or even fast forward -- you are really limited if you don't have the remote).

After about 40 minutes I got tired and stopped it -- this time, figuring out what I needed to do to make it resume from the same spot. I resumed from that spot sometime after midnight when I had insomnia, and made it through to about 75 minutes in.

At this point, I was pretty sure A Separation would, through no fault of its own, drop a level or two in my estimation. Sometimes it can be hard to separate (pun intended) the quality of a movie from the circumstances of your most recent viewing, especially if it's the second viewing or less, when your opinion on the movie has not yet been validated by a positive rewatch.

But while my son was napping the next day and I was home from work, I finished the movie, and developed a take on it that I hadn't had previously (though I'm sure others have had). And if you haven't seen A Separation, now is probably the time to bail on this post as I am about to get into spoilers.

At the time, I obviously loved A Separation, but valued it mostly on the surface level of a single family struggling through irreconcilable differences in the parent generation and an unfortunate incident with an in-home care worker that might be criminal. Actually, the film is a struggle for the very soul of Iran.

I'll explain.

On a core level it is a conflict between New Iran and Old Iran, but various people represent various sides at various times. The most complicated figure in that regard is Nader, played by Paymen Mooadi. He's the father of the family, the husband. From the very start he is set up in opposition to his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami). She want to leave Iran, as they had been planning to do, even securing travel visas for the whole family. However, he wants to stay, as he has a responsibility to care for his father, who has Alzheimer's and no longer even recognizes him as his son.

It's significant that this is Nader's father, not his mother. They both represent the patrilineal history of Iran, though there's a clear sense that it's dying. In fact, over the course of the narrative, this character goes from speaking a few words (touchingly, it's his daughter-in-law's name, Simin, we hear the father speak), to becoming mute -- further indicating the diminishing hold Old Iran has on the country. Nader seems stubborn for trying to cling to it, though not in an uncomplicated way, as caring for a sick parent is clearly a noble pursuit. Like everything in this film, shades of gray rule the day.

On the other side of the equation is Simin, a woman, who represents the future of Iran. Unfortunately, the overt meaning here is that the future of Iran is to leave it. That's one of many not-so-subtle comments about the state of Iran included in this film, one of the reasons it seems like such a surprise that the state actually supported this film (while imprisoning filmmakers like Jafar Panahi). However, a more symbolic reading is that the "leaving" that's being done is from the old way of thinking.

There's a different type of New and Old Iran on display here, though, and they may be kind of related to one another, except that Nader is on the other side this time. The conflict is between Religious Iran and Secular Iran. The reason Razieh (Sareh Bayat) makes such a bad carer for his father is that her fundamentalist Islamic views consider it a sin for her to touch a man other than her husband. When Nader's father soils himself, she can't help clean him, though finally does provide some limited assistance after an external confirmation from a religious advisor that she can don gloves and it won't be a sin. Nader is not religious at all, but as a patriarch he is also a representative of Old Iran. Perhaps that's why it seems that although he doesn't agree with her old-fashioned views, he understands them and never directly opposes them because he realizes they are kind of kindred spirits. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and both Nader and Razieh have enemies in the New Iran.

However, complicating issues is that Razieh is a woman, meaning there is a new school aspect to her that aligns her with Simin. In fact, late in the film, she goes and confesses the true circumstances of her miscarriage to Simin, even though Simin is overtly aligned with her enemy, Nader. She tries to get Simin to agree to accept the information in confidence, even though it is directly against Simin's interests to have her husband and daughter continue to be threatened by Razieh's husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). And through this we see Razieh is also in direct conflict with her own husband, who she says "would kill her" if he found out she had made this confession to Simin. She's another woman trying to escape the patriarchy -- even as the patriarchal aspects of Islam are her primary guiding principles.

Complicated, yes?

But there are some other key characters we haven't considered yet. There are two children in this movie, and it seems significant that both of them are girls. Each family has a female child, one 10 years old and one about five. These are unformed characters who still must decide their fate. In fact, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), Nader and Simin's daughter, is being repeatedly asked to choose between her mother and her father, between the Old Iran and the New Iran. (We have less of a sense of the internal life of Razieh and Hodjat's daughter, as she has a smaller role.) The movie ends on a moment of ambiguity, as we don't know who she has chosen in the end. This seems to indicate that Farhadi finds Iran at a crossroads, trying to figure out whether it wants to become an active participant in the western world and western culture, or retreat into its intractable positions of isolation and religious intolerance. Since he doesn't know which way it will go, he doesn't tell us who Termeh chooses. Whatever private idea he has about who the character chooses -- if he has one at all -- indicates whether he is, in his heart of hearts, optimistic about the country's future, or pessimistic.

There's one other young character we haven't considered -- Razieh's unborn child, who is lost in the film's first half. It seems significant that it's revealed this child was male -- a throwaway line after the miscarriage that Farhadi needn't have included if he hadn't had a specific purpose to it. So there are two mute male characters in this film, at opposite sides of the age spectrum -- one is in the generation older than Nader and Simin in their family, and one is in the generation younger than Razier and Hodjat in their family. So the oldest and youngest examples of the possible future of Iran's patriarchy have nothing to say to those making the decisions in the present -- like Simin, Razieh and Termeh. They must choose on their own. However, the death of the unborn child suggests that Iran's future is very much in doubt -- that a new way of thinking may never get a chance to come into existence at all.

Of course, there's a good chance that this is how everyone was interpreting this film from the start, and I'm just late to the party.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Down on docs


A telling thing happened at the library on Friday night.

I was meeting the rest of my family and my mother-in-law, in town from Tasmania, for an early dinner on the main commercial drag of North Melbourne. Instead of coming home first, I met them there after work, but got there a good 30 minutes before they did. So I used the opportunity to browse leisurely through the movies at the library, instead of having to do it quickly while frantically looking over my shoulder to make sure one of my children wasn't destroying something or crawling out the door. (Or, walking out the door, these days.)

I did a bunch of that methodical finger flipping through the boxes -- you know, the kind made famous as a method of browsing used CDs back in the day. But when I came to the documentary section I stopped.

"Nah," I thought. "Not worth it."

As in, there could not possibly be any documentaries I would be interested in borrowing.

It's not something I would have consciously admitted to myself before this incident, but when it happened, it became abundantly clear what kind of fiction phase I'm in right now. In fact, the last documentary I watched was way back at the beginning of February, more than three months ago. But so total has my recent dismissal of documentaries been that I was at first convinced that I hadn't seen one since before I closed my 2014 movie list, when I watched the Nick Cave doc 20,000 Days on Earth on January 14th. Then I found Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father on February 6th, making my drought seem just a tad less staggering.

It's not like I'm down there with your average viewer, who watches fewer than one documentary a year. But considering how I used to program documentaries as part of my regular viewing habits -- probably on the order of at least one per month -- it seems like more than just a scheduling quirk. This is a pattern forming.

It's not like access to docs is hard for me right now or anything. I've got a ton on my Netflix queue that I mean to see -- eventually.

But "eventually" has been a timeframe I've found a hard time reaching lately.

I'm not sure exactly what it is, but I do have some theories. That Netflix queue is part of it. Now that Netflix shows a sprawl of recent documentary arrivals on the home page, and most of them are ones I have never heard of, I'm finding it harder to determine what's considered a "legitimate" documentary. Now that the means of delivery of all movies has changed so radically, that's even more the case with the documentary, which has never been a cinematic stalwart in the best of times. With more documentaries premiering on TV or online, it's hard to distinguish what is a "real documentary" and what might just be a "television program." I try to observe that separation of church and state (TV and movies) on the lists I keep, and a movie that doesn't easily categorize itself questions my sense of order. (Of course, most people would say you should just watch a non-fiction program whose subject matter interests you, and not worry about whether it neatly fits into the taxonomy of programming types.)

But I'm betting that the bigger factor is that I'm into escapism lately. That may be a rather obvious statement to make about a cinephile -- our need for escapism is what causes us to become cinephiles in the first place -- but I'm feeling the truth of it more than usual. Documentaries, by their structure and often their subject matter, can feel like work more than an escape from work.

Or perhaps I'm still reeling from the documentary that felt most like work of any I've seen in ages -- the one that came right before 20,000 Days on Earth. That was Particle Fever, whose poster has the honor -- or in this case dishonor -- of adorning this post. Who would have thought that a movie about something inherently awesome -- the Hadron super collider -- could be so deathly boring? Okay okay ... maybe it was our fault for thinking it wouldn't be.

Well, as I like to do in these pessimistic posts, I'll end with a vow -- a vow to aggressively force some non-fiction filmmaking back on my schedule. Because there are some docs out there that have been tantalizing me for a while -- I just have to let them come to the forefront. I just have to let them get "thrown on." There's the 2013 film The Institute, to name one. I understand I'm supposed to know as little as possible about it going in. Hey, that sounds like a good fiction film!

And maybe next time I'm at the library without any kids, I'll give that good old documentary section a finger flip.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The most quotable line from Poltergeist ... II


One movie reference that has persisted for years in our culture is the notion that something is "baaAAAaack."

That's how I write it whenever I use it, anyway. I've seen it written as either "ba-ack" or just "baaaaack," the latter hoping, I guess, that you will imagine the vowel sound going up in that sing-songy fashion without any visual cues to indicate it.

This is, of course, the ominous pronouncement of one Carol Anne Freeling upon realizing that the Poltergeist ghosts have returned to her television. She announced their original arrival with "They're heeEEEeere."

But the meme that has persisted in our culture is not "They're heeEEEeere." It's "They're baaAAAaack." It is most often used to describe the return of someone or something that we'd thought was, practically speaking, dead. I used it most recently to describe Boston Red Sox hitter Shane Victorino, a former star who has suffered through a panoply of injuries and ineffective play over the past two seasons, who hit a home run and led his team to victory on Thursday. (A friend of mine is obsessed with Victorino.) That was a decent usage, but it's better for (staying in the world of baseball) someone like Alex Rodriguez, who missed all of last season after an infamous steroid suspension but has been playing like gangbusters early on in 2015. It should really be for someone you hoped was gone, but now is back -- like those Poltergeist ghosts.

Of course, it's not actually from Poltergeist. It's from Poltergeist II.

When you think about it, it makes sense. It was the perfect marketing hook for a Poltergeist sequel, playing off the most famous quote from the original movie. What's odd is that it has risen up above the original quote in prominence and frequency of usage, even as the second Poltergeist movie on the whole is justifiably forgotten and dismissed.

For example, did you even remember, without seeing that poster, that Poltergeist II was subtitled The Other Side?

Alright, that one was too easy. Yeah, you remembered.

But it's funny that when we think we're doing "the Poltergeist quote," we're actually doing "the Poltergeist II quote." It's kind of the same as that time I discovered that most of my friends and my favorite quotes from Airplane! were actually from Airplane II -- although not really the same, because Airplane II is also really funny. Whereas Poltergeist II ... well, that old guy at the beginning really scared me, anyway.

I haven't seen any advertising for this summer's Poltergeist reboot, but I imagine that, also, would be a good opportunity for "They're baaAAAaack." Of course, "they" can never really be back in a soulless reboot that is as likely to scare me as it's likely to do my taxes.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Conspiracy thriller meets Irwin Allen meets His Girl Friday


I saw the oddest and most wonderful hybrid movie on Friday night, a movie whose description sounds so unusual that you'd think it must be working on the level of kitsch. Nope, Peter Hyams' 1978 Capricorn One is a genuine, straightforward film with nary a wink to it -- and it's damned entertaining.

What makes it so unusual is that not only is it such a determined and counterintuitive mix of genres, but it also stars an unlikely mix of major celebrities -- the more they sound like they should be a guest star on The Love Boat, the better.

Let's get the high concept plot out of the way:

Three astronauts are being sent on humanity's first mission to Mars. Minutes before they're about to leave aboard the eponymous rocket, a strange man in a suit calls them out of the cockpit and demands that they come with him, but that there's no time to explain. Reluctantly, the astronauts follow, and soon find themselves aboard a private jet to a remote location. Meanwhile, the countdown is still going and the rest of the world believes they are watching three astronauts launch into space. The astronauts arrive in a remote airplane hanger that's decked out to look like the surface of Mars. It turns out their trip is going to be faked. At the 11th hour, tests revealed that the life support systems for the astronauts would fail after only three weeks, so instead of losing face (and losing the funding Congress has threatened to withdraw from NASA) by canceling the expedition, the astronauts will be compelled to cooperate with a hoax. However, when something goes wrong aboard the actual ship ...

I'll leave off with an ellipses right there, since there's much more to be discovered about where this movie goes, which takes it even further afield from the already unusual mash-up of two genres (movies about the space program and conspiracy theory movies). The movie also has a delicious relationship to the real world, because it addresses rather pointedly the theory that the moon landing might have been faked ten years earlier.

But wait, we haven't even gotten to the cast yet.

And to do it justice, we need to list the names like they did in the ads for those Irwin Allen disaster movies, complete with a picture of each actor, preferably turning toward the camera when their name is called and smiling.

"And starring ...

"James Brolin, as the brave captain of Capricorn One!

"Sam Waterston, as fellow astronaut Peter Willis!

"Elliott Gould, as intrepid reporter Robert Caulfield!

"Hal Holbrook, as the shifty NASA operative!

"James Karen, as the vice president!

"With special guest appearances by ...

"Telly Savalas, as the grumpy crop duster pilot!

"And O.J. Simpson, as astronaut John Walker!"

Simpson is actually more a star than a guest star, but as the oddest name on the list -- especially today -- he gets final billing.

Beyond Simpson, many other of these actors probably seem more unusual today than they did at the time. We think of James Brolin as the guy who married Barbra Streisand in 1998, and Sam Waterston as the guy who starred on several hundred seasons of Law and Order. (Savalas had already been Kojak.) Still, this is a rogue's gallery, isn't it?

But I still haven't told you the funniest part.

There's a part of this movie that so clearly resembles His Girl Friday, with the high-speed banter between a journalist and his estranged ex and a journalist and his editor, that not only did I think of it at the time I was watching, but the review I read afterward made reference to its "rapid-fire dialogue worthy of a Howard Hawks comedy."

As one final enticement: This movie contains possibly the two most ominous helicopters in movie history, which behave more like insidious sentient beings than aircraft.

So you've, like, got to see this movie, right?

The answer is yes. Yes you do.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

A funny thing that happened that is probably not worth writing about.


I was at a screening of the charming-enough new movie Gemma Bovery earlier this week when one of "those moments" happened. You know, moments that make you stop and wonder what is a coincidence and what is, like, a supernatural event.

Okay, it wasn't that big of a deal, but I still thought it was worth writing about. (Though, probably not.)

The movie is about a case of life imitating art, involving a couple named Gemma and Charles Bovery who start behaving suspiciously like Emma and Charles Bovary from the novel Madame Bovary. It's not just a modern-day Bovary update -- the characters in the movie are aware of the novel -- though I guess it half functions that way.

As my mind wandered for a moment, I started thinking about the fact that I just started making a list of all the books I've ever read in an Excel spreadsheet (!) and that Madame Bovary belonged on it, because I'd listened to an unabridged audio book of it back in the late 1990s. For some reason I then thought of Roald Dah's two "Charlie" books -- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator -- and how I needed to include them too.

Snap back to the movie, and Gemma Arerton's Gemma says to her husband, played by Jason Flemyng, the very next moment, "Charlie, do you have a bucket?" See, rain is coming in through their roof.

Here's the weird part: Charlie Bucket is the main character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

What makes it 10% weirder is that this is already a movie about the mysterious interplay between "reality" and "fiction." Not only is there the characters in the movie resembling the characters in a famous book, both in name and action, but there's the (probably intentional) decision to cast Gemma Arterton, the only working actress of any prominence with the first name Gemma, as a character named Gemma Bovery. (The movie is based on a 1999 graphic novel, so the character wasn't inspired by the actress or anything.) Take it out one layer further -- or at least, sideways on the same layer -- and my interaction with this movie as an audience member also has an unusual and inexplicable moment. And this actually sort of creates a closed loop, in that the movie goes back to having a connection to a novel -- even if it's just a personal moment experienced by no one but me.

Why did I think of Charlie Bucket moments before Arterton was about to say "Charlie" and "bucket" in the same sentence? Why didn't I think of a Stephen King novel instead?

Who knows.

See, I told you it wasn't really worth writing about.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Body horror


You know that feeling you get when you've started to vomit, but haven't totally chucked up your guts? Some people call it a vurp?

Except that a vurp implies a single violent incident, not the steady rising and lowering of a reservoir of vomit in your throat, like a toilet forever on the verge of overflowing.

That's kind of what it's like watching the German film Wetlands.

And if I'm using vulgar terminology about vomit and overflowing toilets, it's only in a desperate attempt to keep pace with this movie.

There are two reasons my description doesn't quite work for Wetlands:

1) It's an exaggeration. I probably only felt that way a dozen times throughout the movie, not all 110 minutes.

2) The movie is actually good, in the end.

But boy is it gross.

It's the story of the woman you see there in the picture -- I'll say "woman," but it's hard to tell exactly how old she is. She could be anywhere from 16 to 25 (the actress was 28 at the time), and her current age computation is complicated by the fact that the story contains numerous flashbacks, only some of which feature a younger actress playing her role. It's further complicated by the fact that she wants her parents to get back together, which makes her seem stunted in adolescence even when she might be in her 20s.

That woman, as the poster tells you, is Helen, who has an almost sexual fascination with germs and bacteria -- and an actual sexual fascination with everything else. In a reckless attempt at self-contamination, she wipes her nether regions all over the tops of dirty toilet seats -- the dirtier, the better. However, in a bit of irony, her immune system doesn't cooperate with her, fighting off her every attempt to infect herself.

She does, however, have hemorrhoids, and gets an anal fissure during a shaving accident, which results in her being hospitalized. Her hospitalization forms most of the movie's present tense.

Still with me?

I could enumerate all the grossness that follows, but I'd rather describe how the overarching grossness imbues things that aren't gross with the queasiness of this movie's fixation with smells and bodily fluids.

All the actual body fluids you can imagine are present in this movie -- shit, piss, semen, menstrual blood -- but what's most insidious is how these infect the movie's regular imagery. Even something as beautiful as rain dropping on a wrought-iron gate comes to remind someone of splashes of errant urine, and something neutral that already looks gross -- say, a bowl of lumpy yogurt -- gives off the nauseating impression of a quivering mass of coagulated yeast infection.

Feeling the vurp now?

The interesting thing about this movie is that it's so beautifully shot. Director David Wnendt has a terrific eye, and this film has a unique knack for playful visuals. Perhaps because it's German, it reminded me at times of Run Lola Run's visual scheme, though Lola does not have the pristine appearance of Wetlands. Wetlands is a movie about gross things that's shot with inimitable artistic delicacy.

But it does have a much more pernicious agenda, which is to repulse us with its fascination with the swampy brackishness of the human body -- specifically, the female body. Helen is constantly sniffing, scratching, shaving, picking and penetrating, and though we don't see all of it, the parts we do see make us imagine the parts we don't. In Nathan Southern's terrific review on Allmovie.com, he compares it to the shower scene in Psycho -- we start to think we're seeing things even when we aren't seeing them.

What I couldn't help wondering while watching this movie is whether it's feminist or anti-feminist. Certainly, Helen's liberation from the hygiene standards expected by society is a type of feminist victory, as she would have been perfectly at home without a bra or a razor at Woodstock. And Carla Juri's fearless performance and willingness to offer up her body as an insidious type of laboratory are a further bit of rebellion from those norms. But I don't know if Wetlands ultimately wants us to be grossed out by the female body, or to love it, (literally) warts and all. The novel on which the film was based was written by a woman, if that helps.

So I'm ultimately recommending Wetlands, but I'll say this:

Prepare to get wet.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

When did Charles Grodin become ancient?


I suppose there's a reason Charles Grodin's rapidly advancing age took me by surprise when I saw While We're Young on Saturday:

The guy has barely been in anything the past 20 years.

Of course, I didn't know that until I looked up his recent work. And I also would have been more prepared for it if I'd been caught up on Louie, but only watched the first two episodes of last season last night (now that it's available on Netflix). In fact, it was seeing him on Louie that pushed this topic up to being blog-worthy.

I thought, "Man, he doesn't look well for a guy who must be around 67 years old."

Nope. Charles Grodin is 80.

It shouldn't be a huge surprise. I mean, Grodin was a contemporary of Robert DeNiro when they were in Midnight Run, and DeNiro is 71. I guess I just didn't know Grodin was nine years older than DeNiro.

Plus, we've gotten used to DeNiro aging as the man has been in approximately 11 films a year for the last 15 years.

Grodin?

The Ex represented an anomaly for him in 2006, and I do remember seeing him in that, come to think of it. (I reviewed that movie and specifically referenced how funny he was.)

Before that? The Clifford movie and the dubious sequel to A Christmas Story, alternately titled It Runs in the Family and My Summer Story. Both were released in 1994.

Wikipedia offers no explanation for his acting hiatus, and I don't feel like digging through the rest of the internet to find it. It does seem odd, however, that a 60-year-old man (the gender distinction is important) appearing in successful movies (the Beethoven movies were coming out around that time as well) would just hang it up. He did host a radio talk show in the late 1990s, but even after that talk show ended, it was another eight years before The Ex. And then another eight years again before While We're Young, with some TV work sprinkled in there as well.

So the answer is, Grodin has been becoming ancient for a while, we just haven't been privy to it.

Well gosh darnit, that's a shame, because this guy is still hilarious. I've only seen one of the apparently four episodes of Louie Grodin appears in, but it's vintage Grodin. He's a physician who basically dismisses the idea that there's anything that can be done about Louie's back pain because the human spine was never meant to accommodate walking. He tells Louie that it will probably hurt him for the next 20,000 years of evolution.

His role in While We're Young is not strictly a comedy role, but he does get to deliver at least one killer line: "I've been sitting here watching a six-and-a-half hour movie that I thought was seven hours too long."

While he's still young enough to bless us with his great comic timing, here's hoping Grodin finds his way into one or two more dynamite roles before he retires for good this time.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

George Miller reborn


I can't believe this is my first time writing about Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that opens tomorrow here in Australia. And I can scarcely believe I will wait until next Tuesday to see it, when ticket prices are cheaper for a night.

There are so many great posters for this movie that you'd figure I would have chosen that excuse alone as a chance to write about it, just to show them off and take vicarious credit for their awesomeness. (Many of them not commissioned by the studio -- I've gone conventional and chosen a studio one here.) Maybe I'll save that for another day.

Simply put, I am more excited for this movie than I have been for any since Gravity.

I broke my 2015 rule of not watching trailers in order to catch the first Fury Road trailer that was released, back in January or whenever it was. I felt I had a pretty good excuse: I wasn't expecting much from this movie, which seems like it was once scheduled for release as long ago as 2013, and a good trailer would have probably been needed to change my mind.

Did it ever. Since then I have been like a salivating dog, just waiting for May to arrive. 

I've left the subsequent trailers untouched. I want the rest of Fury Road to just wash over me next Tuesday, and the early critical indicators are that it will rush so fast and so hard that I'll be gasping for breath.

Seriously. It's got an 87 on Metacritic and a 98 on Rotten Tomatoes. I may be meeting a friend for drinks after work tomorrow, and I'm tempted to just pop straight over to a screening after that.

But I think the thing that's so crazy about how awesome Mad Max looks is that it's directed by the guy who directed the original Mad Max.

Although it may look like the visionary work of some hot shot who's fresh from his latest ground-breaking music video (or whatever today's cinematic proving grounds may be), nope, this is George Miller -- the same George Miller who directed Mad Max in 1979. (The same George Miller who also had a hand in both Babe movies and both Happy Feet movies, oddly enough.)

The same George Miller who is currently 70 years old -- an old dog still learning new tricks.

Just from the throbbing energy and scuzzy magnificence of that one Fury Road trailer I saw, it appears that Miller is not just back to his old form -- it appears that he's actually learning a new cinematic language.

I'd say it's a surprise that "they" "handed Miller the job," but it actually sounds like this is a treatment Miller himself has been working on for more than ten years. If something's been sitting with you that long, it's no surprise that you want to be the one who makes it -- even if you have spent the lion's share of the previous twenty years on children's movies.

A template exists for this type of thing, I suppose: Ridley Scott directing his own new Alien movie in Prometheus. The passage of time between the original Alien and Prometheus and the original Mad Max and Fury Road is very similar as well. The difference is that Scott has been as prolific as ever into his 70s, and continuing to demonstrate his visual ingenuity in each film (even though many of them have been a disappointment beyond the visuals). Miller, meanwhile, gave off the appearance of being retired -- or practically "retired" in the sense that he has not directed a movie for adults since 1992's Lorenzo's Oil.

Will Mad Max: Fury Road be even better than Lorenzo's Oil?

I guess we will just have to wait and see. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sometimes they come back


If you had told me I would need to find an alternate poster for the movie 54, because I was actually going to write about 54 twice on my blog (and have a policy of never using the same poster twice as the lead art on a post), I would have told you you were crazy.

Yet 54 was the lead art on this post back in 2009, and somehow, I find this forgettable movie elbowing its way back on to my blog again in 2015.

Reason: They are re-releasing this dog. In Australia, anyway.

I saw the poster (not this one, the more familiar one) on the wall at Cinema Nova on Saturday. At first I mistook it for vintage decoration, since Nova does have exactly one such poster -- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- hanging among the ones advertising upcoming releases. But nope, emblazoned along the bottom was a June 11th release date.

June 11th, 2015, not June 11th, 1998.

I don't know who saw it fit to restore some never-before-seen footage to this movie and actually try again with it. Aren't there certain movies where you should just walk away?

The write-up advertising it on the Nova website describes it as a "weightier, darker, more drug-addled and above all queerer film than the original." That's the result of restoring 40 minutes of the film that were cut at the producers' behest, and trashing the 25 minutes of reshoots that were demanded to fix the gap of those missing 40 minutes. This version played at this year's Berlin Film Festival in February, apparently to some acclaim, else it likely wouldn't have seen the light of day beyond that.

But other than director Mark Christopher's mother and father, who is clamoring for another go at 54? Exactly no one. At the very most, just release a special edition BluRay and be done with it. Though wikipedia tells me that a special edition BluRay was already released in 2012, containing "several additional and alternate scenes."

It reminds me of the inexplicable existence of something like three or four additional versions of Oliver Stone's Alexander, beyond the one that was released in 2004. I haven't seen any of the versions, but I know the film to be a dud on the order of 54. Yet as recently as last year, versions were still emerging -- and apparently, the most recent one is good enough to have landed on critic Keith Uhlich's highly eccentric top 10 of 2014 (though to contextualize that eccentricity, his list also included several TV shows).

An ordinary rant on this topic would decry the need to meddle with classics like Star Wars and E.T., which have had infamous changes made to the "official" versions of those films. But that's tampering with something sacred, and this ... this is tampering with something irrelevant. With movies that should be lost to the dustbin of cinematic regrets.

I guess if this footage makes 54 a better movie, why not? I just think it's overestimating the public's appetite for it, that's all.

At least it gives Neve Campbell and Ryan Phillippe the chance to say "I have a movie coming out this weekend!"

In Australia, anyway.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The minions are coming


Uh oh. I've really done it this time.

I've opened the door to the minions, and now they are barging through. And this time, they're coming at me where I live.

It's already started, but it doesn't figure to end any time soon, if I know my sister-in-law.

But let's go back to the beginning.

I have already written twice (here and here) about hating minions, the walking yellow globules from the Despicable Me series, so I won't rehash those arguments at length. I will remind you, though: I hate minions. We can allow this post to serve as my inevitable minions rant that would have accompanied this summer's release of Minions, the Despicable Me spinoff.

Because of that spinoff, there are a ton more minion-related products flooding the marketplace than usual ... but I am again getting ahead of myself.

When we were in the U.S. last fall, my older son found a yellow minion winter hat at T.J. Maxx and put it on his head in the store. I immediately balked at it, just because of what it was, but almost as immediately I realized how cute he looked in it. I refer you to Exhibit A:


As Exhibit A amply demonstrates, I caved and bought the hat.

I figured, my son doesn't actually know what minions are. He has been very carefully kept separate from them. To him, it's just a cute yellow hat with eyes. And it made a nice little accoutrement for the rest of our trip in America.

Well, it's been summer since then here in Australia, so we haven't seen a lot of that hat. But the weather has turned, and we are nearly a month-and-a-half into autumn -- a season that actually begins on the first of March, by convention, rather than its 21st. And lo and behold, that hat has found its way out again, like an evil that had been hibernating, waiting for its chance to pounce.

It's still cute, but now it is also portentous.

See, my sister-in-law saw it yesterday for the first time. We were having lunch over at the kids' grandfather's house, and then she was taking them for the afternoon so we could go see a movie (While We're Young). And whenever she takes them, their collection of toys, books or clothes ends up enlarging by more than a few items. (She's about the most generous person I've ever met.)

I was aware of some the items upon first getting home. But it wasn't until clearing out the dish rack this morning that I saw not one, but two of these:


I repeat: Uh oh.

Now just because my sister-in-law brought them one minion item, it doesn't mean that she is going to start hitting the minion meme with the full weight of her purchase power. The kids have plenty of other interests, especially since a specific interest in the minions has not yet been established, as such.

But the encroachment of these guys in our house means that they could gain a foothold, and that's what worries me.

The funny thing is that when the topic of my son's hat came up at lunch yesterday, I made sure to immediately contextualize its purchase. I explained to my sister that I thought the Despicable Me movies were rubbish (I didn't actually say "rubbish," but I'm feeling particularly Australian this morning), but that the hat was cute so we bought it. I didn't want her to confuse me with someone who actually endorses minions, and I wanted to be as clear about that as possible.

The message she took was: "The kids like minions, and it doesn't really matter what dad's thoughts on the subject are."

I'm not blaming my sister-in-law. It was I who opened the door. It was I who stood there at the decisive moment, with my credit card in one hand and a minion hat in the other, and made the purchase.

But if they want to go to see Minions, I'll leave it to her to take them.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

When not being funny is supposed to be funny


All I ever heard after I watched and didn't like Wet Hot American Summer was that I was crazy and that I had missed what was so funny about it.

Okay, Kingdom of Comedy Nerds Who Consider This Movie Your Bible, I'll watch your precious Wet Hot American Summer again.

So I did last night.

Nope. It's just not funny.

I'll go you one further. It's not funny because there are not any jokes.

Wet Hot American Summer expects to slide by on an ongoing undercurrent of absurdity, with nary a peak or valley, or a moment specifically constructed to make a person laugh in any traditional sense. While this may be why some people worship it -- and no, worship is not too strong a word -- it's why I'm hoping there's a silent majority that doesn't "get it."

I also wonder if people think that David Wain, who has since morphed into a much more traditional (and therefore more effective) type of joke-slinger (and therefore won me over), has sold out. I mean, the nerve of the guy, deciding it's time to try to actually make people laugh.

I can see all you Wet Hots (that's what we'll call you guys, like Grateful Dead fans are called Deadheads) champing at the bit to get this post over already so you can get to the comments section and tear me a new one. So, I will steal your argument right from behind your lips and tell you why it doesn't work.

"Vance," -- you're still calling me Vance in this argument -- "it's a parody of an unfunny 1980s camp movie, so the very fact that it's unfunny is kind of the point."

No, parodies of unfunny movies are still funny, as long as the people who are writing them are funny. As long as those people can actually write jokes -- you know, bits of a humor that have a beginning, a build-up and a payoff, or simply zing by in a blur of crackling wit.

The scenes in Wet Hot American Summer are not even constructed to end on a joke. They move on to other scenes when they feel like moving on to other scenes, not once they've released us on a laugh. Because if they were waiting for that, this movie would just be one long scene.

Look, I get what this movie is trying to do, and I respect it. And there are moments that work in an almost performance art type of way. But far too much of the time, the direction seems to have been "Okay, react to what this person says in a way that is exaggerated or wildly inappropriate in context." You know, like the campers guffawing at the terrible Borscht belt comedian, and booing the genuinely good performance of the song from Godspell.

And I suppose that's where this film gets its most defining trait: its inconsistency. If there's any one comic mooring this film should have, it should be to do what it starts out to do, which is to establish Janeane Garofalo's camp director as its straight man. Garofalo should serve as the one person who is above the fray, navigating the last day of camp with a clear focus and a solid head on her shoulders. In short, she should be the audience surrogate, the one who looks aghast at all the daffy shenanigans and tries to sort her way through them.

Instead, her character has at least three epsiodes where she becomes just another braying lunatic. There's the trip into town where the group parties so hard they become heroin addicts. There's the return of Joe Lo Truglio to report that the campers have been abandoned on their rafting trip, when she starts running around like a chicken with her head cut off and in fact wipes all the items off a desk in her directionless panic. Then there's her earnest participation in the goofy science experiment designed to change the path of a falling chunk of space station.

Let's take the first of those three incidents. The idea is great. A group of camp counselors jumps at the opportunity to ride into town, not wanting to miss ... Lord knows what, but it's gonna be great. The movie then has the right idea by having them get involved in all sorts of ludicrous activities (including mugging an old woman), and then revealing that the trip only lasted an hour. Yes, this is funny. What's not funny is the execution. We don't let out surprised laughter when they mug the old woman. We don't let out surprised laughter when they buy a bag of cocaine as big as a football. And we don't let out surprised laughter when they lie around a flophouse with needles sticking out of their arms. Because the actual direction of the scene is flaccid. I told my wife, a newcomer to this movie, that this was the type of montage that Leslie Nielsen could (and regularly did) make funny.

"Oh great, Vance. You are comparing one of the most arch, sublime comedies of the 21st century to a guy who bugged out his eyes and made incredibly broad genre parodies."

But at least Leslie Nielsen knew how to play a scene for a laugh. Did every scene in every Nielsen movie end in a laugh? Of course not. Did his career whimper out into ten years of forgettable garbage? Of course it did. But when Nielsen was on, he was on. And his overall success rate is probably higher than the success rate of the "humor" in Wet Hot American Summer -- even with his years of duds thrown in.

Maybe that's too harsh. I mean, there are certainly moments in this movie I respect. The one that probably works best is when the counselors sit around discussing getting back together in ten years from this day, and spend a dozen lines of dialogue just on whether the meeting time should be 9 or 9:30. And it ends with what I would consider the type of punchline I'd like the whole movie to have. "Because I have something at 11."

Something at 11! On a random day ten years from now, which had only just been nominated for consideration as a reunion date 30 seconds earlier! That's funny!

But it still didn't make me laugh. It made me smile.

There was one single image from Wet Hot American Summer that I carried with me through the nearly 14 years since I first saw it, as the defining image of what didn't work about it. During this viewing, I was kind of waiting for the scene to arrive, to see if it was really as much a thud as I thought it was the first time. I imagined this single scene would be a litmus test to whether I found the whole movie salvageable or not.

And there it came: Ken Marino, driving down the road in that van, singing happily to himself and fully paying attention to where he was driving, but then suddenly hitting a tree, out of nowhere.

"See, it's funny because it's so ridiculous! It's supposed to be contrived! Where did that tree come from??"

But as with everything in Wet Hot American Summer, I feel like I'm looking at this joke sideways. It just doesn't land because the timing, because the delivery, because something is off.

So I'm sorry, Wet Hots, my second viewing of this movie also totaled itself against that tree. Not only will a third not be forthcoming, but I won't be watching the upcoming Netflix show based on it, either.

I'm just glad that David Wain figured out how to make movies like Wanderlust and They Came Together, and no more like this one.

Friday, May 8, 2015

I wasn't going to, but then I did


Hey! You!

The next time it's 9:30 and I know I should be getting to sleep, but throw in a 130-minute movie instead, tell me not to.

What? You're not at my house so you have no way of knowing when this situation would arise?

Excuses, excuses.

Anyway, I've decided I have a bit of a sickness. Each night I am faced with the same dilemma around 9:30, when my wife retreats to the bedroom: Go to sleep, as I probably should do, or stay up and watch something. And I almost always choose #2, which means a) I'm not getting enough sleep in general, and b) I'm not getting nearly as much as I should be out of the movies I do watch.

It worked out okay on Wednesday night. The movie was last year's The Other Woman, and it was "only" 109 minutes -- long for a comedy, but short compared to the other movies I borrowed from the library this week. I watched it straight through without any naps. (And was pleasantly surprised, at least by the first half, before it became more formulaic and uninspired in the second half.)

But then Thursday night, when I had almost definitely resolved to either go to sleep early, apply for a job I don't really want (but to which my wife encouraged me to apply) or watch this week's episode of Survivor, instead I threw in Anna Karenina, which is 130 minutes long and not easy subject matter for that time of night. Just about every other movie I borrowed from the library this week is 130 minutes, so the pickings were slim. (I'm pretty loath to watch movies on Netflix right now, because our internet at home really sucks -- in part due to the strain placed on it by the arrival of Netflix in Australia, we are guessing.)

I watched 55 minutes of it, which included one nap, and I can't tell you what's happened so far in the plot of this movie. I can't tell if that's because it's an incoherent movie, or because of the circumstances under which I'm watching it. In any case, before I finish it tonight, I'll have to read the first half of the wikipedia plot synopsis to try to figure out what the hell is going on.

The problem would be mitigated slightly if a) my wife didn't have about 20 minutes of activities to complete before stealing off to bed, or b) I didn't care that my wife had 20 minutes of activities to complete before stealing off to bed, and just started up my movie even though she was still pottering around and possibly clanging dishes in the kitchen sink. But, neither of these is true.

But I also don't have any other time when I can watch a 130-minute movie. Starting at 8 and watching it with my wife isn't much of an option, either, because she doesn't have the stamina for a 130-minute movie even then, and there are only comparatively few she wants to watch anyway.

I'm giving myself the same challenge tomorrow night when I go to see The Avengers: Age of Ultron. That is also starting at 9:30, and it's even ten minutes longer than Anna Karenina.

But at least it's in the theater, and at least I probably won't have to consult a wikipedia plot synopsis to figure out what's going on.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

1930's films that look like 1950's films


If you had shown me The Adventures of Robin Hood without telling me anything about it, and I didn't know the approximate ages of the actors or the date of its release, I would have placed the movie sometime in the 1950s.

Nope. It came out in 1938.

It's another reminder of just how rapidly film capabilities progressed in the 1930s. At the start of the decade, there had only been a comparatively small number of films that had even been made with spoken dialogue. By the end of the decade, Hollywood was capable of sweeping, brightly colored epics like this one.

It's not that the year 1938 itself strikes me as too early for a color film, though Robin Hood was the first film Warner Brothers made using this particular color technique (the "three-step Technicolor process"). Only a year later, The Wizard of Oz famously used color in the Oz sequences, and of course Gone With the Wind was also in color, becoming the first color movie to win best picture in 1939.

But the following is telling about how new color was: When I googled "what was the first color movie," I got a bunch of people responding that it was, indeed, The Wizard of Oz. The Adventures of Robin Hood came out a year before that, and it doesn't even feel like it is just taking the tepid first steps into color filmmaking. It appears to be a fully mature epic, so assured in its style and production design that I thought it could have been made 15 years later than it actually was.

Simply put, this film is an absolute delight. I don't know how I can say it any better. It is a rousing crowd-pleaser full of busy action scenes, surprisingly sophisticated stunts, hissable villains and charming heroes. It is constructed in episodic enough fashion for individual moments to stand out as set pieces, but with enough cohesion to contribute to a central narrative thrust. It has an immensely satisfying climax and even effectively uses comedy to make us laugh.

Could this be the earliest ever blueprint for the modern blockbuster?

Without having seen a lot more movies from that era than I've seen, I can't assert that argument with any confidence. However, it feels like a sample of perfection in a type of filmmaking that was pretty new in most respects -- kind of like Pixar coming directly on the scene with its best movie, Toy Story.

Another thing that makes it seems a bit more modern: Its star, Olivia de Havilland, is still alive.

That's right, the actress known in recent years for her bizarre, decades-long feud with her recently deceased sister, Joan Fontaine, will turn 99 in less than two months. (If she makes it that far, of course -- at this age, any two-month period is likely to be the last two months of a person's life, I suppose.) It's just funny to think that the romantic lead in a movie made the year before my dad was born would still be going -- well, strong may not be the right word for it, but you get what I mean. Especially since her co-star, Errol Flynn, has been dead since 1959.

Anyway, very glad to finally check this one off my list. It's not like I had resisted numerous opportunities to watch The Adventures of Robin Hood, but I think part of me expected to see people running around in black and white in front of flimsy sets. I couldn't have imagined the scope and grandeur of this epic.

Now I also know why everyone thinks Flynn was so damn charming and, far and away, the definitive cinematic Robin Hood.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Question your assumptions: E.T.


E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial has been on the business end of both extremely positive and extremely negative assumptions on my part.

Once again we will use the film's placement on my Flickchart to discuss the respect I have accorded it among all the films I've seen. But first, a little background.

E.T. has held a spot in my top 100 for some time now, but it may be the top 100 resident I've gone the longest without seeing. I believe I've seen it twice -- I can't fathom that I've only seen this landmark movie once -- but I do have a very distinct memory of a frustrated attempt at a second theatrical viewing. We were on a family trip in the summer of 1982 -- I think it was down to see some friends who had moved to Tennessee -- and we needed to kill some time one afternoon. We decided to go for a second viewing of E.T., but the screening was canceled when we were the only ones to purchase tickets. I guess it was a better bet to refund our money than to pay the projectionist's salary for two hours.

Have I seen it since then? Um, I think so?

So E.T. must have made quite an impression on me to reside in my top 100, having not seen it in 25-30 years at the very least ... right?

Actually, it didn't really. I was never as big a fan of E.T. as everyone else. I'd probably say that I loved it, but not in such a way that I've, like, ever sought it out to watch again.

So, top 100? Really?

Once I got it in my mind that E.T. was not a worthy entrant in my top 100, I started consistently driving it downward, via a combination of films jumping above it by beating other films, and by films beating it directly. It was ranked 83rd back in October (don't ask me how I know this), but now it has been driven down to 99, nearly cleared out of that hallowed ground altogether.

So now that it's almost banished from the rarified air of my top 100, I'm wondering if I've replaced an unjust bias in favor of E.T. with an unjust bias against it. Sounds like an ideal candidate for a re-watch, eh?

It got off to a bit of a rocky start, I'm afraid. I had entirely forgotten -- and was a bit taken aback by -- the fact that the movie starts on E.T. himself, not on Elliott and the other human characters. In fact, it's only after about ten minutes of the stranded alien running around the forest, being chased by a bunch of flashlights, that we even get to Elliott and his family. We should start on the character whose story it is, and I kind of think that's Elliott. Even if the movie is named after E.T., we can't really adopt his perspective, can we? The point, of course, is that the alien has an empathic relationship with humans, so we as viewers should be able to "see through his eyes" in that respect. But this seems problematic especially since the character himself was not shown during the advertising campaign for this movie, as though his appearance was being saved as a "big reveal." That the movie starts on him, and we get glimpses (though not good glimpses) of what he looks like from the fist minute of the film, seemed to make a mockery of that approach.

This carried over in the fact that there didn't seem to be any of the type of "declamatory sentences" you'd expect to set up Elliott and his family, once they do appear. If their appearance is going to be delayed for ten minutes, we need to start learning key character traits about them right away. But Elliott is a pretty indistinct protagonist from the start, taking shape more thanks to the performance of Henry Thomas than to anything in the script. In fact, from this viewing, I would argue that the film is as effective as it is precisely because the actors -- particularly the younger actors like Thomas and Drew Barrymore -- so fully bring their characters to life. Their characters do not exist on the page -- they only exist in the performances. And though the actors are there to save the characters, I still never felt 100% bonded to those characters because of the sort of shocking lack of back story for them.

Then there was the appearance of E.T. I realized with a bit of a sinking sensation that although I could not pinpoint the last time I had watched E.T., I know I did not see this version of the movie, because this was the one re-released for the 20th anniversary in 2002. That means it contained not only the infamous changing of the agents' guns to walkie talkies, but also some digital re-renderings of the alien himself. Although I'm sure Steven Spielberg would have liked us to perceive those re-renderings seamlessly, he does himself no favors by including a rather obvious digital enhancement in our very first viewing of E.T., when he is uncovered in that cornfield. I knew right away that this was not the same animatronic puppet I had seen in 1982, and I didn't like what I saw. And though I later discovered that Spielberg's digital changes were fewer than I thought -- I thought almost every close-up of E.T. had been altered, but this was not the case -- by this point I had developed an unshakable bias against the changes that definitely poisoned the rest of my viewing. I perceived digital fixes even when they weren't actually there.

We also noted some of the funny ways the film is clearly the product of another era. For one, I don't think there would ever be a joke about E.T. drinking beer and Elliott acting like he was drunk at school if this movie were made today. And my wife noted something that I did not pick up on -- that Elliott's mother leaves him home sick by himself, and on a second occasion entrusts his even younger sister to watch after herself. Ah, the 1980s.

Another funny realization: Although the fact that E.T. loves Reese's Pieces is one of his most well-known traits, the candy is never actually mentioned by name in the movie. That's funny, especially since there are actual product placements for both Coke and Coors.

These problems with the movie did not prevent me from putting myself back in the shoes of the eight-year-old me who saw this movie in 1982 -- on occasion, anyway. It wasn't a detriment to me understanding why the film is so beloved. But it did make me realize that it is not beloved by me -- nor should my Flickchart ranking reflect that it is.

Although I still recognize that the bikes levitating into the sky is a magical moment in cinema history, you can't see it again for the first time, just the same way you can't see the brontosauruses in Spielberg's Jurassic Park again for the first time. However, I'd be lying if I said I went through Sunday's viewing entirely goosebump-free.

I'm starting to wonder if carrying a film like E.T. in your heart is inextricably bound to all those repeat viewings at an impressionable age. Are movies like WarGames, Time Bandits and The Goonies really better than E.T., or do I just think of them as such because I wore out those VHS tapes, but went a quarter century between viewings of E.T.?

I suppose it's useless to determine the validity of cherishing the childhood films we cherish -- you can never examine them in a way that's removed from the influences of your own personal history. It's easier just to recognize that E.T. missed being a personal favorite of mine, and now likely never will be.

Now the question is whether I forcibly rank the movie even further down my chart, or just let nature take its course. I suppose I'll just let it sit where it is for now. E.T. likely deserves at least that much.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Lightsaber Yoda ain't enough


As you may recall from this post, I set out to watch one of the six Star Wars movies per two-month period of 2015, in the order of the story's chronology, leading up to the release of Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens in December. I did watch the next movie by the end-of-April deadline, but the fact that I dragged out the write-up until May shows you how little of value I'm finding to discuss in the so-far disappointing series.

But proceeding diligently onward, with the knowledge that things will get better by mid-summer ...

It shows you how much we were still in the clutches of prequel optimism that I went to see Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones twice in the theater, merely on the strength of seeing Yoda brandish a lightsaber.

That was still pretty much the only time I was inclined to wake my wife as she slept through the second half of the movie on our couch last Saturday night. Conscious of an incident that's famous in our household -- the so-called "Nacho Libre incident," where I inexplicably shook the cushion to rouse her during the third of act of a movie that was disappointing us both -- I decided just to let her sleep.

Thirteen years removed from the release of Attack of the Clones, that still-cool climactic moment is so evidently, clearly, obviously a case of too little, too late.

While I have tended to think of myself as a decent-sized supporter of this movie, my 2015 viewing has reminded me of the criticisms that are all too familiar from any discussion of the movies that are now dismissively (though technically accurately) referred to as the prequels. And though Jake Lloyd was heavily criticized for his portrayal of Annakin Skywalker as a child -- a criticism that is hardly charitable for an actor his age -- I now wonder if Hayden Christensen may make out worse as the older version of Annakin. Especially since as an adult, he should have more finely tuned acting instincts.

He was only barely an adult, having turned 21 less than a month before the movie's release, but he makes the cutoff nonetheless. Still, there's something about the petulance to the way he plays the role that makes him seem even more childish than Lloyd. Although almost none of this was done in The Phantom Menace, for the obvious reason of not wanting to make a child seem like a sadistic monster, one of the main narrative goals of Attack of the Clones always had to be to plant "Darth seeds." Even though the character is generally heroic, we have to see his future turn to the dark side start to be foreshadowed.

And the way Christensen -- and let's not forget the hardly blameless George Lucas -- does it is to act really pissy for almost no reason at all. Although I guess I was not all that bothered by this back in 2002, nowadays I notice how awkward it is for him to spit out anger at characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi, without that anger being supported by the characters' actions. Obi-Wan has one or two moments of superficial scolding of Annakin, and it leads to abrupt Annakin tirades about jealousy and the like.

In any case, it's next to impossible to figure out how an intelligent, cool babe like Padme would fall for him.

My wife's primary observation -- from the part of the movie she saw, anyway -- was how humorless George Lucas is this time around. Another well-worn observation in the internet communities that discuss this kind of thing, but those communities usually carry a lot of baggage, and my wife does not. So it was a good reminder to see her reach these conclusions on her own, without being poisoned by the opinions of a thousand trolls. She saw and identified the stiffness of these movies on her own -- indeed, it was such stiffness that had limited her previous prequel intake to only The Phantom Menace.

Taking her own observation and building upon it, I offered the following contrast from another movie in the series directed by Lucas. And this is the first time I'm trying to imbed a gif into my blog, so let's hope it works:


If Lucas could make his characters funny in Star Wars -- or as we are now obliged to call it, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope -- why couldn't any of that have carried over here? Oh, he tries. During that really-not-very-exciting opening chase scene among the flying cars in that city on Coruscant, Obi-Wan quips "I hate it when he does that" after the headstrong Annakin does a seemingly random freefall to the point he believes the car they're chasing will be. It's not funny, like a Harrison Ford line delivery -- it's as leaden as Christensen's plummeting body.

"Pompous" is the word my wife also used to describe the affairs in this movie, and I believe that may be the first time I've heard anyone apply such a just term to these movies.

Having said all this, my wife still vows to try to watch Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith with me before the end of June.

Assuming she is allowed to sleep through whatever percentage of it she deems fit, that is.