Tuesday, June 30, 2015

When older women look better than older men


The assumption on which society in general, and Hollywood in particular, is based is that men retain their looks into old age while women do not.

As I was watching Rob Reiner's And So It Goes last night, I was pleased to see that's not always the case.

I don't know who Diane Keaton's plastic surgeon is, or if she even uses one, but she's not paying that person enough. Really, though, I can't be sure if she even uses one, and to remain blissfully ignorant on the topic, I'm not even going to google it.

Keaton is only 14 months younger than her And So It Goes co-star, Michael Douglas, yet she looks a decade younger. It almost seems like one of those typical instances of vanity for a male star, where they cast him against someone far younger than him. Keaton only looks far younger.

To be fair, it's not that Douglas looks old for a 70-year-old. This is pretty much what 70-year-olds look like. It's that Keaton looks very young for a 69-year-old. (In the movie she's playing a 65-year-old.)

In fact, she looks so young that it barely seems unusual that the story revolves around her trying to make it as a lounge singer -- trying to make it at what is often considered retirement age. In fact, she doesn't look out of place on that stage, though it must be admitted that Keaton's voice is probably not quite the attraction necessary to bring in the crowds that she brings in.

So while I am focusing on the fact that Keaton hasn't lost an ounce of the bounce and spunk that has always characterized her interactions with the opposite sex at the movies, in Douglas I am focusing on his chicken neck and a sincere hope that he doesn't just keel over there on camera.

To be fair again, it hasn't been an easy decade for Douglas. Just a couple years ago he was at death's door. He had stage IV tongue cancer that necessitated chemotherapy. The pictures of him we saw on tabloid magazine covers, gaunt and frail, figured to be the last ones we saw of him alive.

Somehow, he came back to full strength and won an Emmy for his portrayal of Liberace in Beyond the Candelabra. Still, the illness definitely aged him. He didn't actually make a film in 2004, which would be ten years before And So It Goes, but even in 2006's You, Me and Dupree, he definitely looks more than ten years younger.

What was Diane Keaton doing ten years before And So It Goes?

Funny you should ask.

In 2003 Diane Keaton made basically the same movie as And So It Goes, which was directed by Nancy Meyer and called Something's Gotta Give. In it she plays the same type character -- a "woman of a certain age" living in a beautiful waterfront setting who is prone to crying a lot. And in it she also tussles with an irascible potential suitor with whom she eventually, awkwardly, sleeps. Only there it wasn't Michael Douglas, it was Jack Nicholson. Nicholson is now 78 and doesn't even act anymore.

So while Diane Keaton's male co-stars are slowly getting run out of the business, Keaton herself seems like she could make this same movie again ten years from now.

Talk about a role reversal.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

American heroism vs. American self-interest


There's no doubt San Andreas, this summer's foremost natural disaster movie, wants to position itself as just the latest film to pay its respects to the American heroism of the first responders. This is both an ongoing form of patriotism and a continuing shout out to those who gave their lives on 9/11.

Then why the hell does the hero of this movie, played by Dwayne Johnson, abandon his post during probably the greatest disaster to ever strike his country?

If you really don't want to know more about San Andreas than what I've already told you, you should probably consider this your SPOILER ALERT.

Let me give you a bit of the set up before I bring out the big guns.

Okay, so The Rock (I should really stop calling him that) is a helicopter pilot for the Los Angeles fire department. We know he's really heroic because in the opening scene, he saves a girl from a car that's hanging over a crevice in the San Fernando Valley. This is no ordinary rescue mission, as it's clear he has to endanger himself and his crew just to get the chopper in position to make the rescue. And when there comes a moment when it seems like he should abort, instead he hands the controls over to his co-pilot and descends to save both the girl and one of his fellow rescuers who got himself pinned in his initial rescue attempt.

So it's pretty clear that Johnson's Ray Gaines will go above and beyond the call of duty.

Except, you know, when the entire west coast falls apart.

Gaines is in his chopper bound for the Hoover dam area, which has just been demolished by a massive earthquake where seismologists thought there were no faults. As would logically happen in a situation like this, rescue personnel are called in from distant municipalities to save the unexpectedly crippled region. So Gaines gets the call.

As would not happen, Gaines is alone in his chopper. Apparently, one firefighter per chopper is the ratio favored in a scenario where rescue personnel are flooding in from other areas in whatever numbers the local police and fire can afford.

As would really not happen -- at least, not with the type of hero Gaines is supposed to be -- Gaines doesn't report in with his supervisors or return back from whence he came when the shit starts to hit the fan, and the titular fault erupts in such a way as it will destroy downtown Los Angeles. No, instead of following some kind of emergency protocol that would definitely be in place even if communications were down, he flies to the downtown L.A. highrise where his soon-to-be ex-wife (Carla Gugino) is meeting an inexplicably little-used Kylie Minogue for lunch. Conveniently, he was on the phone with her at the time the quake hit, so he knew where she'd be.

As would really REALLY not happen, once he has improbably rescued his wife (and only his wife, since no one else made it to the roof), the pair of them determine to fly on to San Francisco, where they have learned their daughter might be trapped in a collapsing parking garage. (Because, you know, they have no trouble getting her on the phone when a quake has just ripped California a new asshole.)

We would not blame them for their responses as parents. However, his response as a qualified professional whose job it is to assist during disaster relief, and who is piloting a multi-hundred thousand dollar piece of city-owned equipment, is completely unjustified. When you are a firefighter, you don't have the luxury to pick and choose which people you save (not once, but twice). You save the nearest people who can most readily benefit from your help. Especially when neither of the people you are attempting to save are particularly likely to be saved by your help.

What's all the more absurd about the impromptu trip to save the daughter (Alexandra Daddario) is that the quake that has hit San Francisco is from a Los Angeles epicenter, meaning it hasn't been nearly as disastrous as the L.A. portion of the quake. Local firefighters, who are actually doing their job properly, should be sufficient to help the young Miss Gaines. Or, more to the point, they are the only ones who can help her, since a trapped in a collapsing parking garage situation is not necessarily the type of situation that will hold for the two-plus hours it would take to fly a helicopter from Los Angeles to San Francisco. (It could take longer than that. Does a 747 fly only twice as fast as a helicopter? I doubt it.)

Of course, bigger shit is still in store for San Francisco, but none of the Gaineses could possibly know that. They aren't seismologists, and even if they were, they wouldn't likely know that the highest ever recorded earthquake is about to drop hell on San Francisco.

These concessions to both logic and duty are to support something that the movie spends a great amount of time on, even if it never does it very well. Namely, the Gaines parents lost their other daughter to a drowning on a white water rafting trip -- a drowning Ray thought he should have been able to prevent. Characters in earthquake movies always have back stories like this, and yeah, we want them to get their redemption if it's done right.

But "done right" means an anguished parent putting him or herself in harm's way, going the extra mile to save his or her family member when everyone else thinks there's no chance. More points to that parent if he or she is not a big, strong person whose source of employment gives him or her an increased chance of pulling off the rescue. "Done right" is not when a rescue professional forsakes all the thousands of other people who needs his or her help in order to prioritize the safety of his or her own family member.

I still gave San Andreas 2.5 stars on Letterboxd -- in other words, an almost thumbs up. I attribute this to my policy of not watching trailers anymore, which means that I had not seen a single image of destruction before sitting down Tuesday afternoon.

And hey, at my core, I still like to see shit get blowed up.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Shakes on a plane


I took two iTune rentals with me when my wife and I flew to Port Douglas in north Queensland this past weekend to go snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef with friends who had flown over from Maryland. That experience would probably deserve its own post if this weren't, you know, a movie blog.

Since it is, I'll tell you the movie-relevant aspects of the trip.

One movie I took was Cymbeline, a modern-day adaptation of one of Shakespeare's lesser, later plays. The other was The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which is my first step in trying to catch myself up in that franchise.

I considered watching Tokyo Drift first, in order to symbolically "rev me up" for the big weekend. But I decided I might be more exhausted on the way home (despite three days without my kids, and theoretically as much sleep as I wanted), so I saved the movie that required less concentration for the flight home. (As it turned out, I couldn't watch it anyway, as we had a partial power outage in the cottage where we were staying, meaning that my fully charged laptop had lost most of its battery life by the time we had to leave for the airport, and I never gained another opportunity to charge it.)

I was right to recognize that I would need to concentrate more on a movie which, while set in the modern day, still uses Shakespearean language. What I failed to properly anticipate, however, was that being on a plane, where it can be harder to hear things on your headphones, might not be an ideal environment for watching a Shakespeare adaptation at all -- especially one I was not previously familiar with.

There's some precedent that indicated possible success. On my way over to Australia when I moved here, I watched Joss Whedon's lovely adaptation, also a modern-day adaptation, of Much Ado About Nothing. And in that case it was in the middle of the night, when I was pausing to sleep for short bits. I ended up loving that one, but that was at least my second time, and possibly my third time, experiencing the play. I'd seen Kenneth Branagh's adaptation (which I didn't like so much), and I think I may have also read it back in school.

Cymbeline, on the other hand, was entirely new to me. As soon as I started I thought "Shit, I could very easily get lost in this and never recover." Which would be a darn shame, because this was from Michael Almereyda, the same director who mounted a modern-day adaptation of Hamlet, also starring Ethan Hawke, which ended up being my favorite movie of 2000. (At the time -- it has since been eclipsed by Almost Famous and possibly others). So my anticipation for this one was pretty high.

And then I realized the best way to watch Shakespeare on a plane -- I'd simply turn on the subtitles.

It turned out to be a great choice. Not only did I easily follow the action, but it allowed me to appreciate language that is probably best encountered on a page to be fully appreciated anyway. (Tell that to the crowds who visited the Globe Theater in the late 16th century/early 17 century.)

As for Cymbeline itself, it's a pretty odd duck as a play. It's like a greatest hits of his most highly regarded plays, coming off as a hybrid of Romeo & Juliet, Othello, Macbeth and even Twelfth Night. The oddest thing about it, though, is that it's not actually a tragedy, even though three of those four plays are tragedies. Despite containing several character deaths and being about a pair of warring armies (represented here as a drug-dealing biker gang and the cops who are trying to stop them), the play has an ending that would be most at home in one of Shakespeare's comedies. An odd duck indeed.

But Almereyda's adaptation of that odd duck was pretty engaging, and contained some strong performances from a pretty established cast. Who doesn't want to see Ed Harris as the leader ("king") of a biker gang? The film also gets typically good work from Hawke and a surprisingly nuanced performance by Dakota Johnson, erstwhile of Fifty Shades of Grey. (Actually, it's not a surprise to me as I liked her in that otherwise forgettable movie and was a huge fan of hers from the short-lived sitcom Ben & Kate.)

It's no Hamlet, but here's hoping it helps give Almereyda a chance to direct another modern-day Shakespeare adaptation sometime before 2030.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

More bad movies by good directors


The second movie I watched in the past week for purely masochistic reasons was The Cobbler.

It was better than Accidental Love. But then again, the director of Accidental Love actually took his name off of it, which can't be said for this one.

I knew from the concept that the movie seemed ridiculous. The Cobbler stars Adam Sandler as a Brooklyn cobbler who discovers an old stitching machine in the basement of his shop, which was owned by his father. When a pair of shoes are stitched up with this machine, the person who wears them can temporarily transform, physically, into the owner of the shoes. So when Sandler for some reason tries on a pair of shoes he just stitched up for a gang banger, he discovers to his surprise that he turns into that gang banger -- appearance-wise -- for the period of time he's actually wearing the shoes.

Got it?

On the surface this sounds like some high concept comedy along the lines of what Sandler has made in the past, such as Click. However, learning who directed it, I realized it was likely to be far more of a misfire.

That's right, this film is directed by Thomas McCarthy, who I guess is now going by Tom McCarthy -- perhaps that's his version of David O. Russell calling himself Stephen Greene for Accidental Love. If that name doesn't ring a bell -- which wouldn't be entirely surprising, as it's a pretty generic name -- McCarthy is the critically acclaimed director of the features The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win. He originally made his name as an actor, appearing in the final season of The Wire among other projects, which also distinguishes him among today's field of working directors.

McCarthy is good at a lot of things -- I love both The Visitor and Win Win -- but I seriously doubted his ability to make a concept like The Cobbler work. Tom Shadyac, Dennis Dugan or Frank Coraci, maybe. McCarthy? No.

Indeed, it doesn't work, and indeed, I kind of knew that going in, as the film was basically dumped with little fanfare and had been greeted with howls by certain parts of the critical establishment. (Its Metascore is only 22.)

What I didn't know, and could never have guessed, was that it would be weirdly racist.

Just from watching it, I got that kind of itchy, icky feeling of racism, but couldn't quite put my finger on it. I was more focused on the truly odd concept, especially when this film has kind of the surface appearance of one of Sandler's recent dramatic turns -- an idea supported by the guy directing the movie, whose funniest movies have still been only seriocomic in tone.

But a viewer on Metacritic who awarded it a zero crystallized that ickiness I felt in his own brief review. So, with compliments to TheRealMcCoy, let me explain how weirdly racist this movie is.

Some spoilers to follow.

Sandler has exactly three black customers bring him shoes.

The first is the aforementioned criminal -- who I'm calling a gang banger in what may be my own possible bit of accidental profiling, but who may just be your garden variety criminal. He's played by Method Man, and though he's got a big smile on his face in this picture, that's a decidedly less typical moment. Machismo and intimidation are his more familiar modes, and it turns out he's into some high-level stuff, as well as some good old spousal abuse. When Sandler is in the guise of this character, Leon Ludlow, he comes across a scene where Leon's cohorts are torturing a guy who ripped them off, and also comes home to the wife or girlfriend who accuses him of beating her. This is not great stuff, but what they do with it is even worse. As Leon, Sandler displays mercy on the tortured turncoat -- who, problematically, is also white -- as well as apologizing to the beaten spouse. The unfortunate suggestion is that only this white cobbler can countermand the criminal and violent instincts of this black thug.

The second is the guy you would cast specifically if you are trying to balance the borderline (or not so borderline) racist portrayal of your primary antagonist. It's this guy, a character actor named Wayne Wilderson, who I have seen plenty before (among other things, he was "the convict" in that great episode of The Office where Michael Scott profiles this clean-cut guy based on the fact that he spent some time in prison). Just to show you how opposite this guy is to Leon Ludlow, the never-named character is listed as "Young Preppy Guy" on IMDB. So what do they actually choose to do with this character? They have him go eat an expensive meal at a restaurant, then go to the bathroom and change out of his shoes, so he emerges as Sandler and can slip right out without paying. That's right, even though they had a half-dozen characters they could have chosen from based on the shoes Sandler had already stitched, most of the others of which are white, they chose this black character to skip out on a check at a restaurant. It's Sandler's character doing it, of course, but he as a character -- and by extension, the movie -- has chosen to reinforce a pernicious stereotype.

The last character is an unambiguously saintly boy, seen here. He's Miles J. Harvey, and he's fat. The character always claims that he's not fat, that he's just big-boned, but nonetheless, our takeaway is that he has bulked up on McDonald's fast food as a result of being unable to control his appetite. And progressiveness wins again.

The only other black characters in the film are Leon's cohorts (though some of them are other races, if I recall correctly).

Taken in combination, it just looks bad. And more than that it looks clueless. It's not like the film is not conscious of potential drawbacks to the way it portrays blacks. Rather, it's conscious of that possibility, but then tries to address it in moronic ways that makes the problem worse.

But really, to get hung up on the fact that The Cobbler is sort of racist overlooks the bigger problem that it's just a bad movie.

Let's hope McCarthy gets himself figured out next time. Sandler, on the other hand, will probably never figure it out.

Monday, June 15, 2015

David O. Russell through a Stephen Greene filter


When a director walks away from a movie mid-production -- in other words, after some of the filming has been completed -- you expect his or her mark to actually appear on the movie.

That makes Accidental Love even more of a head scratcher than it already is.

David O. Russell was making this movie as long ago as 2008, under the title Nailed -- which, let's be honest, was probably never going to last. (The new title, though, is a blatant example of this trend.) He actually co-wrote it with Kristin Gore, Al's daughter. It was a movie those of us who followed Russell's career always knew about, and distantly wondered when or if it would ever materialize.

Then in the past six months or so we learned that it did indeed still exist, but that the production kept on getting stopped because of financial difficulties, and Russell actually left the project years ago. In fact, he has so distanced himself from it that it is being directed by Alan Smithee -- though Alan Smithee happens to be going by the name Stephen Greene in this case. Russell's name does not appear anywhere in the credits, and indeed, Stephen Greene is listed as its director. The movie was completed without him and dumped earlier this year as more or less straight-to-video -- VOD, with a limited theatrical release a month later.

Russell enthusiasts such as myself were undeniably curious about it, though. If it had attracted him in the first place, and if he had worked on it for a while, there had to be interesting things about it, right?

No, there aren't. Not really even one. In fact, I considered giving it the lowest star rating possible on Letterboxd, a half star, before ultimately deciding it wasn't that level of an abomination and generously awarding it one star.

But what's weird about it is how little there is of Russell in it. Not very much in the subject matter, but even less in the production values.

If you aren't familiar with the story, its the tale of a small-town Indiana girl (Jessica Biel) who works as one of those rollerskating waitresses at a diner, and gets a nail from a nail gun embedded in her head. (How is not important, but it's one of the movie's least credible elements.) Because she doesn't have health insurance, surgeons at the local hospital refuse to remove the nail, as it's not considered life-threatening at the moment, and in the short term only figures to scramble her personality a bit. Anyway, Biel's character sees an ad on TV for her local freshman congressman (Jake Gyllenhaal) in which he extends an open offer to his constituents to come to Washington so he can help them with their problems. Biel does just that, trying to get the congressman to pass health legislation that allows coverage for catastrophic injuries to the uninsured. In the meantime, they fall for each other.

Although it certainly sounds like a bit of a tough sell, it's not outrageous subject matter for a movie. What's outrageous is the tone and the way the actors go so over-the-top in their performances -- an obvious consequence of the lack of a strong directorial hand.

In considering the likelihood of this material as something Russell would be interested in, we have to remember that at the time he started working on it, he was coming off his broadest and most ridiculous film, I Heart Huckabees. Considering Accidental Love as a follow-up to Huckabees, the over-the-top performances and absurdist tone make a bit more sense. And after I so loathed Huckabees, I wouldn't have been surprised at anything Russell did next.

But what's shocking about Accidental Love is how shoddy it looks. I mean, kooky as it was (and not in a good way), Huckabees at least had good production values. This movie, on the other hand, is just awful looking. The lighting is the thing you notice the most. It's terrible in almost every scene. Then you notice the little things, like the fact that the handheld camera is distracting (especially since it isn't being used for any particular purpose) and that it is failing at the most basic level to do things like place its subjects in the middle of the frame. The editing is also terrible, but that's something that obviously would have taken place after Russell was no longer with the project.

I could understand some scenes looking terrible because obviously they were directed by somebody else (or maybe nobody), but what about the scenes Russell did direct? Not having much money cannot alone be an explanation for the film's fundamental inability to look appealing. Yet the film is consistent in its terrible appearance, meaning that even the Russell scenes looked like shit.

It did almost seem like the film was being shown through some kind of terrible filter, a filter that made even Russell's scenes look yellow and washed out, a filter that made every shot look like it was lit by someone holding a desk lamp just above the heads of the actors.

I guess we can at least credit Russell with having the good sense to recognize this as a disaster and do everything within his contractual power to disavow it as the product of his own creative impulses. But the terribleness of Accidental Love can't all be attributed to some other person taking the job he started and finishing it on the cheap. He was the one who set the ball rolling on this path to oblivion, and just because he jumped out if its way doesn't mean he's in the clear.

Just add another episode in the "David O. Russell is difficult" file. At least he's proven his smarter instincts ultimately prevailed in movies like Silver Linings Playbook (big time) and American Hustle (to a lesser extent). And he'll get his next crack at audiences this Christmas with another Jennifer Lawrence starrer, a drama this time, called Joy.

But those awful instincts are still in there, somewhere, and I'm betting we'll get at least one more Accidental Love from Russell before he yells "Cut!" for the last time.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Advanced


Now that it's taken me nearly a week to write this, it doesn't seem quite as exciting, but last Sunday I got to see Pixar's latest, Inside Out, a full 11 days before it hit Australian cinemas. That's 12 days before U.S. (Thursday release vs. Friday release), and 13 if you consider that we're a day ahead.

That makes it probably the coolest advanced screening I've gotten to attend as part of my reviewing gig at ReelGood.

But it was also the best for another reason -- Inside Out is the best movie, period, I've seen in some time.

We're not just talking about Pixar getting back on top of its game. We're talking about Pixar getting back on top of everyone's game.

I won't go on at length about how great Inside Out is -- if you check back soon, I'll have a link posted on the right-hand side to my actual review -- but I do want to discuss one of the most phenomenal and unlikely things about it:

It wasn't the least bit hard for my four-year-old to understand.

You surely know that Inside Out features a cast of anthropomorphized emotions vying for control of a child's brain. It deals with all sorts of heady concepts like Core Memories and Abstract Thought and Islands of Personality. Advanced concepts, to be sure.

And Pixar made it effortlessly accessible to a child.

I must admit I was bracing myself for a barrage of in-movie questions. I wasn't prepared to love it as much as I did, so in my mind I was fully prepared to answer them without being annoyed at the disruption. The worst possible outcome would be that my son was bored and would want to leave, but I had that nipped in the bud. You see, my wife was at the screening with us while my sister-in-law stayed home with my younger son, and I made sure to emphasize that if anyone had to depart early with him to the lobby, it had to be her. After all, the only reason any of us were there in the first place was that I was reviewing the movie -- the whole movie.

Near the start I was concerned that my worst fears might be realized. There were telltale signs that my son would, at the very least, be a distraction, and at worst force my wife to leave early on in the movie. I had clearance to stay, but I'd feel guilty if they had to twiddle their thumbs in the lobby for an hour. What happened was that after the absolutely lovely opening short, called Lava, my son turned to my wife and complained that he was hungry. Normally we would have picked something up at the concession stand with which to ply him, but we wasted our pre-movie time on window shopping outside the cinema. So this plea for food was going to go unanswered, and could certainly metastasize into far worse behavior.

Except once the movie started, there was not a peep from my son. Not a peep.

Actually, he did make one comment during the movie, but it wasn't even a question. I can't remember exactly what it was, but it was some kind of observation. The kind that proved he was engrossed, and would not be a threat to leave.

He also laughed in a lot of the right spots, even if I felt some of it was just social laughing based on the reactions of others. And our audience laughed a ton during this movie.

After we got out, I asked him if he had any questions about what had happened in the movie. He didn't. And to pry further, in order to rule out the fact that he was just pretending he understood because he didn't even know where to start with his questions, I asked a few follow-up questions. He ended up offering a startlingly intelligent analysis of why the movie was called Inside Out. I mean, intelligent for a four-year-old.

Maybe it's my son that's advanced.

But for now, I'm just crediting Pixar on making a firgging awesome movie.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

World of Trevorrow


Or, Trevorrowland, if you prefer.

I'm going to see Jurassic World on Sunday night, and have considered it one of this summer's movies I'm most excited to see. (And I haven't let a highly negative review from two different acquaintances unduly poison my anticipation.)

However, being excited about it has required overcoming, or even forgetting about, some of my initial trepidation regarding the movie.

Namely, that it was being directed by the guy who directed Safety Not Guaranteed.

Both because I didn't like Safety Not Guaranteed, and because even if I had, it wouldn't have seemed like the type of platform to launch a director into the stratosphere of tent-pole, A-list directors.

Indeed, Colin Trevorrow has not made any feature film other than Safety, whose only claim to the arena of big-budget blockbusters is its high concept. If you haven't seen it or don't know, it's the story of a newspaper reporter (Aubrey Plaza) who tracks down a man (Mark Duplass) who has placed a personal ad, trying to find someone to travel through time with him. She intends to write a quirky story about him, but disguises her identity as a journalist and of course ends up falling for him. Hijinks ensue.

Weirdly, the film contains almost no special effects, and is really an indie movie in pretty much every aspect except for the fact that its subject matter does not usually appear in indie movies. Why Universal thought this alone was reason to hand Trevorrow one of its most ripe for rebooting franchises is anyone's guess.

It was one of an inexplicable series of directing announcements around the same time, all involving people who didn't seem to have earned the big shot they were getting. I think also of Josh Trank, director of the shitty found footage movie Chronicle, who was handed the keys to both the Fantastic Four reboot and a standalone Star Wars movie. Word about Fantastic Four has already not been good, which is one of the rumored reasons he was yanked from the Star Wars movie last month. (He says he chose to leave "in order to pursue something original." Because, you know, most people just walk away from a Star Wars movie.) At least Chronicle had some legit special effects and big canvas ideas, even if the acting was shitty and the adherence to the found footage conceit was basically nil.

So "World of Trevorrow" is not just a clever play on words, though it is also that, if I do say so myself. (And I imagine it has already been used plenty of other times on the web, but I came up with it without seeing any of those other usages.) It's also a description of the state of Hollywood right now, where the world is the oyster of people like Trevorrow and Trank, and others whose names do not begin with "Tr." Hollywood execs seem -- or at least, seemed a few years ago -- to be desperately in search of someone hip, someone cutting edge, someone who could "become the next big thing," someone they want to get to before he or she actually becomes the next big thing.

Well, it seems a course correction could be underway, if not already, then after the probable tanking of both Jurassic World and Fantastic Four. There's a reason studio bosses have always entrusted their expensive commodities to proven directors, or at least directors who are more proven than Trevorrow and Trank. There's a lot of money on the line, so having a vision is not enough. Knowing how to manage a crew and relate to actors is also a big part of it, and that only comes with time and experience.

It's the mid-range gambles that have worked better. As much as I was underwhelmed by this movie, another Chris Pratt movie, there's no arguing that Marvel made an excellent decision in hiring James Gunn to direct Guardians of the Galaxy. That was certainly a leap forward for Gunn, and likely a step outside his comfort zone, but at least Gunn had already directed two features in thematically similar genres, in addition to having written a bunch of scripts. Yet more established, but still a fairly unlikely candidate for the job he got, was Joss Whedon on the two Avengers movies. In fact, Marvel is all about this, with the Russo brothers on Captain America: The Winter Soldier as well. For whatever reason -- the guiding hand of the studio in the creative process, perhaps -- these have all worked out.

Since we've already been talking Star Wars, it's worth noting that Star Wars is more or less following this approach. J.J. Abrams directing The Force Awakens was kind of a perfect combination of cutting edge and established -- he's already helmed a number of successful movies (including two in the other biggest sci-fi series, Star Trek), but he doesn't feel like the kind of guy an octogenarian studio boss (theoretical though this octogenarian studio boss might be) would choose to restart the franchise under Disney. Rian Johnson, the director of Episode VIII, is slightly more of a step into unknown territory, though I'd argue that the construction of Looper was so confident that it probably put to rest any nerves the studio had about his fitness for the job.

Because I must be some kind of masochist, I will see my fourth straight Jurassic Park movie -- and probably the third straight I will not like -- in the theater on Sunday night.

For the sake of my own prospective enjoyment, I hope I'm wrong about Colin Trevorrow.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Serious shit


Note: Only after posting this did I realize the death of Christopher Lee, which actually occurred back on June 7th, had just been announced. I mention him as Count Dooku in this piece -- strange coincidence. Anyway, I'm just adding this note and leaving the post as is.

I'm done watching the prequels. It's all downhill from here.

Now it's just Star Wars before the end of August, The Empire Strikes Back before the end of October (maybe a birthday viewing for me on the 20th?), and Return of the Jedi sometime before Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits theaters in December.

And though re-watching the prequels was generally an unpleasant experience, it did end on something of a positive note. I'll explain.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith has represented an unusual movie for me among the prequels. It's the one I always tell people I think is the best, yet it's the only one I hadn't seen more than once. Hell, I think I'd even seen The Phantom Menace three times, meaning I have now seen it four damn times. That's quite the unjust imbalance.

I suppose what happened between 2002 (when I saw Attack of the Clones twice in theaters, having done the same for Phantom Menace in 1999) and 2005 (when I saw Revenge of the Sith only once) was that I turned 30 and officially retired my inner geek. It's not that that inner geek is not still lurking around in there, somewhere, but let's just say that the only movie I've seen twice in theaters since then on the strength of sheer "AWESOME!" was Cloverfield in 2008. And even that was only because my friend wanted to go to the movies five days after I first saw it, and he hadn't seen it yet. By the time Revenge of the Sith came out, my friends were all fully anti-prequel. In fact, one close friend even refused to see Revenge of the Sith altogether, and has kept his promise to this day. (Oh yeah, I did see Gravity twice in theaters on the strength of sheer "AWESOME!" Apparently, I'm not dead yet.)

But Revenge of the Sith really is the best, and this viewing confirmed it. After a muddy first 30 minutes that really left me unsatisfied -- I swear, that opening space battle is about as boring as that much hectic CGI can get -- the movie really gets down to business and keeps its focus on the end game of the series. There aren't any goofy interludes on Naboo where Anakin Skywalker rides on top of some goofy alien horse. There's just the steady descent into madness. And oh yeah, some goofy interlude on Utapau where Obi-Wan Kenobi tracks down General Grievious and rides on top of some goofy alien lizard.

But really, this movie is focused on what I have called in the subject of this post "serious shit."

Watching this movie again reminded me just how dark it actually is. You could accuse George Lucas of populating his movies with cute characters in order to appeal to little kids (Jawas, Ewoks, Jar Jar Binks), but you can't accuse him of soft-pedaling the end of his prequel trilogy to appeal to those same little kids. This movie gets as dark as it can be expected to get, including the severing of Anakin's legs and the subsequent burning to a charcoal crisp of his body.

If that's not enough for you, how about a particularly intense lightning bolt-lightsaber clash that prematurely ages Darth Sidious into a withered prune? And he's the one who gets off easy in that one -- Mace Windu gets tossed over a balcony. Then there's the (mostly off-screen) slaughter of the younglings by Anakin. And let's not forget that the end of those crappy first 30 minutes is a ruthless beheading of Count Dooku.

And though the general quality level of this stuff is still not quite what I would hope, I was surprised at how involved I was in the movie once it becomes entirely plot-focused and ceases the pussyfooting around that engulfed much of rest of the prequels.

This is certainly not to say I have no complaints about Revenge of the Sith. One thing I was analyzing especially closely this time was Anakin's conversion to the dark side, and my feeling toward it is fairly conflicted. I can't decide whether it's paced correctly or ridiculously sudden. I think I have to talk this out.

On the one hand, Lucas includes lots of little moments in this movie that represent rungs on Anakin's descent into pure evil. The first rungs are actually in the previous film, when he slaughters the Sand People. (Do they actually get called Tuscan Raiders at any point in any of these movies, or do we just know them as that from general lore?) The next step down is his merciless execution of Count Dooku, but even then he's still fighting on the right side. I mean, Dooku was responsible for a lot of fucked up shit, so killing him had a certain pragmatic upside to it -- the sooner he was dead, the more certain you'd be that he could not gain the upper hand again. And he follows that action by refusing to leave behind a wounded Obi-Wan no matter what the costs to him and a fleeing Chancellor Palpatine. This is still "our Anakin."

The next rung is Anakin's failure to be promoted to Jedi master, a denial that is delivered somewhat rudely by Windu and his cohorts. (They obviously had good reason not to trust him, but it's a bit of a chicken and egg argument -- if they had promoted him to master, would they ever have occasion to fear him in the first place?) We're meant to believe this is a deep betrayal that he feels more acutely because he has notoriously poor control over his emotions. Okay, that's fine.

What I wonder about are these visions of Padme dying. They are the key rung in Palpatine converting him to the dark side. Are we meant to believe that Palpatine planted those visions there? Or was he just relying on their random occurrence to execute his plan to convert Anakin? That seems too flimsy. Yet we are given no evidence that Palpatine planted the visions. Because Anakin is unable to let go of the things he loves the most, he is undone by his feelings and converted to the dark side. In trying to do good, he does the ultimate evil, epitomized by his mission to slaughter the viceroys and his eventual extinguishing of the younglings.

The problematic moment is when he interferes with Windu killing Palpatine and then immediately starts responding to Palpatine like a drone under his spell. Given how conflicted he has felt at each moment of his descent thus far, it seems like a real misstep to have him falling into "yes, my master" so soon after his decisive move down the dark path. The only thing I can conclude is that Palpatine is actually hypnotizing him in some way, a hypnosis that may have begun in that compelling scene at the "opera" (or whatever it is) where Palpatine tells Anakin the story of Darth Plagueis. Without some explanation like that it feels too abrupt. But considering that most of Anakin's downfall needs to take place in this movie, and a lot of stuff still needs to happen after it occurs, the movie handles it reasonably well.

The fact that I am still compelled to provide this level of analysis of the film ten years later, after every internet troll and his mother has torn the bowels out of these movies, means that they had to be doing certain things right.

A few isolated observations about this movie, which all have to do with bit parts:

I thought it was pretty funny that Peter Mayhew, the actor who plays/played Chewbacca, receives a prominent acknowledgement in the closing credits, even though Chewbacca is barely in the movie and when he is, he is not "our Chewbacca" (in other words, he has no personality). I even thought it might be a digital Chewbacca, though if so, it was probably Mayhew doing the motion capture. I thought it was even funnier, then, that Ahmed Best received a prominent listing in the closing credits, when Jar Jar Binks is in exactly one scene for exactly two seconds, seen marching dejectedly in Padme's funeral procession. He doesn't even speak a line of dialogue. Did they really need Best to don the mocap ping pong balls just to walk as a dejected Jar Jar for two seconds?

Then there's the case of Joel Edgerton appearing as Uncle Owen. I was going to say how funny it was that they cast Edgerton, who already had a career going, just for one two-second scene in which he turns toward the rising suns of Tatooine holding the baby Luke. However, just now I looked it up and realized that he actually appears in the previous episode, a fact I'd forgotten. (You'd think I'd remember, having just seen Attack of the Clones six weeks ago.) So, just strike this most recent paragraph from the record. (Go back and delete it, you say? Never!)

A final thought on the prequels ...

What I've determined is that although this was nobody's idea of a perfect prequel trilogy -- probably not even George Lucas' idea -- what we've tended to forget in the past 15+ years of prequel bashing is just how high the bar was. We seem to believe that it should have been "easy" for Lucas to duplicate the magic of the original trilogy, when we all know how hard it is to maintain a particular level of quality in anything great, be it a movie series, a TV show, a musical act's discography or even a collection of popular novels. Where I disagree with the haters is the extent to which George Lucas failed, and what we had a right to realistically expect from him. They seem to think that anything less than the neighborhood of the quality of the original movies is a massive disappointment, whereas I would argue that the way he went about making these movies was basically reasonable and consistent with the intended spirit of Star Wars. He didn't outrageously miscalculate where to take the story or which actors to cast to play which parts. He just produced results that ended up being sort of flat -- on their own terms for sure, but especially when compared to the original movies.

And look, flat Star Wars is still Star Wars.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Two for the price of none


I'm a bit of a bastard I guess.

Not only did I get to go to a free screening at Cinema Nova last night through my reviewing gig with ReelGood, but I stayed for an extra two hours of free entertainment on the house.

Yep, for the first time ever, I saw two movies in the theater without paying a single admission fee.

I did buy a $7.50 popcorn just to make myself feel a little better.

Well, I've been going easy on Cinema Nova lately. During my first six months in Melbourne I had the free time in my schedule to see a movie every discount Monday, if I wanted to. I regularly stayed for a second movie -- probably at least once a month. However, it's been 18 months since I pulled one of those, and in fact, the last time I saw two movies during the same trip to Nova -- in January of 2014, when I caught Inside Llewyn Davis followed by Her -- I actually paid for both.

In fact, this was my first cinematic double feature of any kind since I saw Into the Woods and Dumb and Dumber To at Hoyts this past January. So I've been going easy on the whole Melbourne theatrical establishment. I was overdue.

The movies I ended up seeing were kind of funny for a free double feature, as it turned out.

The first was the new documentary The Emperor's New Clothes, directed by Michael Winterbottom, which is Russell Brand's attempt to make a Michael Moore movie. He fails -- in part because that format for a movie is pretty played out, but in part because he just doesn't do it very well. However, I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the movie's merits.

Clothes is about the disparity in wealth between the rich and the poor, but that's not why it was a funny choice. I mean, I can hardly characterize myself as "the little guy" in comparison to an indie cinema that still allows people to pay only $6 for a movie as long as they see it before 5 p.m. on a Monday. It's funny because at one point in the movie, Brand hops a turnstile in the London underground, getting the same kind of free ride on the tube that I got when I attended my second movie.

Which was Samba, from the same star and directing team of The Intouchables (which I still need to see). In it Omar Sy plays the title character, a Senegalese national living in Paris, whose attempt to gain legitimate residency ends up getting him ticketed for a deportation to Dakar. He actually lands in an intermediate zone where he's no longer being detained, but also has been issued an OLFT (Obligation to Leave French Territory) letter. He is cautioned by his uncle to be even more careful than he had been before, and among the other things, the uncle advises that Samba "pay for all his metro rides."

Two references to turnstile hopping in one night?

It's like they were on to me.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The top 200 movies of 2009


I keep separate Microsoft Word documents for each movie release year, which serve as an ongoing repository for all the movies I've seen in each year.

And because I keep track of things like this, I could have told you that 2009, as a result of whatever combination of factors, has been way out ahead of the rest. In fact, I've seen 17 more movies released in 2009 than in the next closest year (2007).

I could have also told you that 2009 has been on the verge of a milestone for some time now. What I never could have told you was how long it would take to get there.

On August 1, 2014, I saw my 199th film released in 2009 -- the Australian film Van Diemen's Land. It took until June 5, 2015 to see #200 -- another Australian film, the "aboriginal comedy" (clever bolding of the "ab" in the tagline) called Stone Bros.

I don't want to belabor how long it took to get to #200 at the expense of celebrating the achievement (another thing that I probably shouldn't belabor, but will). But consider this: According to my Letterboxd diary, the longest I'd ever gone between seeing 2009 movies was four-and-a-half months. This drought was more than twice that. You'd almost think I was avoiding them, waiting for that perfect 2009 movie to be #200.

But nope, it was just letting my viewing schedule fall where it may, as should be evidenced by the eventual viewing of Stone Bros. Stone Bros is a stoner road trip comedy starring Aboriginal actors and produced by my wife's boss. She watched it out of obligation, but ended up liking it out of good taste. As did I. I'd say that I even loved it, except it's patchy in some spots. But it has a ton of heart and I laughed a ton. Glad I got the chance to see it, since I never would have stumbled across it otherwise.

As this is the first release year to reach such a milestone, I thought it was worth acknowledging it by revisiting the year in some way. (And don't worry, I won't subject 2007 to the same treatment 17 movies from now.) So I thought I'd show you my rankings of all 200 movies I've seen that came out in 2009, taken from my Flickchart.*

There's an asterisk, as you can see. The asterisk is that the movies Flickchart considers to be from 2009 are not necessarily the same movies I consider to be from 2009. So I went through and noted all the movies where we agree. Where we didn't agree, I just eliminated their (wrong) 2009 movies and plugged my (right) 2009 movies into the list where they seemed to go. And as with any list on Flickchart, it's the inexact result of a lot of random duels, meaning some things are higher than they should be and some things are lower. I'll highlight some of those at the end.

For now, though, the list is yours just to take in:

1. Moon
2. Where the Wild Things Are
3. Mother
4. Agora
5. Inglourious Basterds
6. Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
7. Mr. Nobody
8. Watchmen
9. Humpday
10. Goodbye Solo
11. Away We Go
12. Sin Nombre
13. Fantastic Mr. Fox
14. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
15. Disney's A Christmas Carol
16. Fish Tank
17. The Human Centipede (First Sequence)
18. Star Trek
19. TiMER
20. The Messenger
21. Monsters vs. Aliens
22. Zombieland
23. (Untitled)
24. Two Lovers
25. A Prophet
26. It's Complicated
27. An Education
28. The House of the Devil
29. The Proposal
30. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
31. A Serious Man
32. Triangle
33. Whatever Works
34. The Escapist
35. The Hangover
36. Cold Souls
37. The Girlfriend Experience
38. Phoebe in Wonderland
39. Drag Me to Hell
40. Bunny and the Bull
41. Crank: High Voltage
42. Sugar
43. The Vicious Kind
44. Pontypool
45. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
46. The Secret in Their Eyes
47. Lebanon
48. OSS 117: Lost in Rio
49. 2012
50. The Princess and the Frog
51. Surrogates
52. Crossing Over
53. I Love You, Man
54. The Men Who Stare at Goats
55. The Burning Plain
56. Amreeka
57. Avatar
58. Thirst
59. Trucker
60. Up in the Air
61. Big Fan
62. Mary and Max
63. Extract
64. Grace
65. Paranormal Activity
66. Coraline
67. Food, Inc.
68. World's Greatest Dad
69. State of Play
70. Stone Bros.
71. The Cove
72. Soul Power
73. Knowing
74. The Soloist
75. The Hurt Locker
76. The Road
77. Samson and Delilah
78. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
79. Sleep Dealer
80. Good Hair
81. He's Just Not That Into You
82. Invictus
83. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
84. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
85. Michael Jackson's This is It
86. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
87. The Invention of Lying
88. Up
89. The Haunting in Connecticut
90. Bright Star
91. I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell
92. Antichrist
93. Taking Woodstock
94. Uncertainty
95. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
96. I Sell the Dead
97. Funny People
98. (500) Days of Summer
99. The International
100. The Girl Who Played With Fire
101. Planet 51
102. Nine
103. District 9
104. Duplicity
105. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past
106. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
107. The Time Traveler's Wife
108. Valhalla Rising
109. Whip It
110. Carriers
111. In the Loop
112. Ink
113. The Blind Side
114. Lo
115. 9
116. Bruno
117. Police, Adjective
118. I Am Love
119. Couples Retreat
120. A Single Man
121. My Year Without Sex
122. The Secret of Kells
123. Tyson
124. The Lovely Bones
125. Jennifer's Body
126. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest
127. The Loved Ones
128. My Sister's Keeper
129. Observe and Report
130. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
131. The September Issue
132. Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant
133. Management
134. A Perfect Getaway
135. Life During Wartime
136. Public Enemies
137. Sunshine Cleaning
138. Brothers
139. The Informant!
140. Gentlemen Broncos
141. Saw VI
142. The Collector
143. Easier With Practice
144. Sorry, Thanks
145. My Tehran for Sale
146. The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day
147. Taken
148. Harmony and Me
149. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
150. Astroboy
151. Van Diemen's Land
152. Fired Up!
153. Lymelife
154. Spread
155. The Fourth Kind
156. Julie & Julia
157. Pandorum
158. Law Abiding Citizen
159. The Ugly Truth
160. War Eagle, Arkansas
161. Downloading Nancy
162. Battle for Terra
163. Powder Blue
164. The Answer Man
165. Everybody's Fine
166. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
167. Land of the Lost
168. The Informers
169. Crazy Heart
170. Dead Snow
171. The Cell 2
172. Post Grad
173. The Unborn
174. Miss March
175. The Uninvited
176. Adventureland
177. Death in Love
178. Inkheart
179. Did You Hear About the Morgans?
180. New in Town
181. Gamer
182. Shadowland
183. Confessions of a Shopaholic
184. The Box
185. Personal Effects
186. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
187. S. Darko
188. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
189. My Bloody Valentine 3D
190. Terminator Salvation
191. Gigantic
192. Year One
193. iMurders
194. Push
195. Paper Heart
196. Shrink
197. Transmorphers: Fall of Man
198. The Final Destination
199. Paul Blart: Mall Cop
200. Motherhood

(A bit) too high: Avatar (#57), Invictus (#82), (500) Days of Summer (#98), A Perfect Getaway (#134)

(A bit) too low: Up (#88), Bruno (#116), The Loved Ones (#127), The September Issue (#131), Gentlemen Broncos (#141), Julie & Julia (#156), Year One (#192)

Of course, nearly half of these I have seen since 2009. Let's note how my top ten compares to the top ten I selected in 2009 (or, early 2010).

Then:

1. Moon
2. Where the Wild Things Are
3. Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
4. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
5. Away We Go
6. Sin Nombre
7. Inglourious Basterds
8. Watchmen
9. The Education of Charlie Banks
10. Fantastic Mr. Fox

Now:

1. Moon
2. Where the Wild Things Are
3. Mother
4. Agora
5. Inglourious Basterds
6. Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
7. Mr. Nobody
8. Watchmen
9. Humpday
10. Goodbye Solo

The top two are identical. The next two on my current list (Mother and Agora) were films that got ranked with my 2010 films. Inglourious Basterds, Precious and Watchmen are the other repeats. The Education of Charlie Banks wouldn't qualify because it is now categorized (by me and elsewhere) as a 2008 movie, though its ranking among the 2009 movies was legit at the time. Humpday has made a jump up from a lower ranking in 2009, and Goodbye Solo and Mr. Nobody are both movies I have seen more recently.

Whew. I'm done with this. You?

Monday, June 8, 2015

The unsatisfying Final Girl switcheroo


Oh Zombeavers.

You could have been the next Piranha. Instead, you were the next Piranha DD.

Just having bad animatronic zombie beavers isn't quite enough to make a bad movie transcendent. It also needs to be funny -- or, much funnier than this one was. Strangely, it is quite funny in its first 20 minutes before the titular creatures show up, but once they make their first appearance, the script loses all sense of how to plumb the natural ridiculousness from the situation. What could have been a cult movie ends up being just another movie that earns a low star rating, just another schlock horror that doesn't hit beyond its awesome title.

But I'm here today to talk about a different kind of disappointment to be derived from Zombeavers, one that has to do with its adherence, or lack thereof, to narrative conventions in general and genre conventions in particular.

Namely, the girls they cast were in all the wrong parts, and then, the wrong girls ended up dying in the wrong order.

ZOMBEAVERS SPOILERS TO FOLLOW

You are surely familiar with the horror trope of The Final Girl, such an established trope that it can (and should) be capitalized. She is the one guaranteed survivor of some kind of alien, monster, undead creature or serial killer. It is perhaps the most reliable and consistently applied trope in all of horror.

Zombeavers has three candidates for the correct Final Girl, and the one it chooses is the worst of the three.

Let's take a look at this cast. I'll provide photos so you get a bit better sense of what I'm talking about.

First there's Rachel Melvin as Mary. She is the most obvious choice for The Final Girl, as she is the sweetest and probably the most established as an actress. She's the first listed in the cast, anyway, and she was in last year's Dumb and Dumber To, where she was very sweet. Mary is the one whose family owns the cabin where they are having a girls weekend. (It's only a girls weekend because one of the girls was cheated on by her boyfriend, but more on that in a minute.) Mary is also the most chaste (she won't take off her top to go swimming) and she's the one who establishes the rules of no texting and no talking about boys. Plus, she's got that cute little button nose.

Then there's Lexi Atkins as Jenn. Atkins is a comparative unknown -- although there's a hyperlink to her page in the wikipedia cast for this movie, she doesn't actually have a page yet. Jenn is the girl who was cheated on, who might also be a good candidate as The Final Girl because of her betrayal. Having a zombeaver kill her off would just be piling on her existing misery. Atkins is pretty sullen, which is understandable for a girl whose heart was just broken. But she doesn't exude any likability, which could just be her inexperience as an actor. Anyway, you have no desire whatsoever to root for her. Her blonde hair also usually labels her as someone unsavory, by traditional Hollywood metrics.

Finally we have Cortney Palm as Zoe. She also does not have a wikipedia page. She's the slut. We know this because she is the only one who does take her top off when they go swimming. She's constantly making rude jokes and generally being ribald. And when her boyfriend inevitably appears (after all, you need men to knock off with impunity in horror movies), they have the most carnivorous sex. The sexual carnivore is usually the first to go in a movie like Zombeavers, because horror tradition dictates that a woman must be punished for acting on her sexual desires.

So let's examine where things start to go wrong -- not with the beavers, but with the narrative.

The first sign of trouble is when it's revealed that Mary is the one who induced Jenn's boyfriend to cheat on her. Jenn doesn't know this, but the arrival of the three boyfriends -- including Jenn's ex, who is trying to make amends with her -- means that it's about to become public knowledge. What's weird about this is that Mary is incredibly sweet, by all outward appearances, and she has already shown her purity by not taking off her top and by banning the use of cell phones. Yet she's the one who stabbed her good friend in the back.

An easy way to fix this would just be to swap these two roles. Atkins profiles more as a cheater and Melvin profiles more as an innocent. Why not just reallocate the resources you have to get the actors in the right roles?

Even keeping in mind that Jenn is the one cheated on, though, we still have a problem because Jenn is actually the first eliminated from contention to be The Final Girl. She is bitten by an undead beaver (off screen, which is one of this film's many curious decisions) and is the first to try to chomp her friends and convert them. (When bitten by a zombeaver, humans sprout beaver teeth -- a funny idea with a not-all-that-funny execution.) So insult is added to injury, or injury to insult, when the poor betrayed girl (who is the wrong actress cast in the first place) is among the first victims.

The film makes a misstep, as I've already mentioned, by having Mary be the one who betrays her friend. Well, then it makes matters worse by interrupting the crisis with an impulsive episode of bathroom sex between Mary and the guy she cheated with. This scene is included primary so a zombeaverfied version of Jenn can come in and bite his dick off, which I get. But it makes Mary even more terrible, when she should be sweet, and also makes her just seem stupid, when she was previously the one who seemed to display the most intelligence. I mean, who pauses from an ongoing zombeaver crisis to have sex?

Mary is not killed in this scene. She and Zoe both escape as Jenn, the rest of their men, a pair of older neighbors, and a local hunter are all picked off by the beavers. We know of course that two girls cannot survive, so maybe the movie is finally trying to reestablish Mary as The Final Girl, even though she's not the pure character we once thought she was. But then Mary is the next one to sprout beaver teeth -- even though we didn't see her get bitten either.

So Zoe gets to be The Final Girl. The one who should have been killed first.

Of course, there actually isn't a Final Girl, because right before the credits roll, Zoe gets splattered by a truck whose driver is texting. (Every zombie movie, by tradition, needs to have some social commentary, so I suppose this qualifies as this movie's version of that.) This scene also ties back to a joke at the very beginning of the film.

So after you've written all this, Vance -- you still call me Vance in these hypothetical scenarios -- wasn't it kind of pointless? Mightn't they have actually saved the worst death for the worst character?

No, because even if you are going to kill The Final Girl in a Final Joke, she's still The Final Girl. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

You could argue that the filmmakers are consciously breaking the rules as a means of freshening things up or even as a means of surprising us. And there can certainly be good reasons to consciously break the rules. However, Zombeavers is the kind of movie that proves why the rules exist in the first place. The progression of character deaths is unsatisfying here, and that contributes to an unsatisfying entire final 45 minutes. That's breaking the rules for the wrong reasons, in my book.

Anyway, one area where I do agree with you: That was probably way too much to write about Zombeavers.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Wherefore art thou, Zombie-o?


Mild Warm Bodies spoilers to follow. 

I liked Warm Bodies at least ten percent less on my second viewing than when I saw it the first time, meaning it can (and probably should) drop a half-star from my initial lofty 4.5-star rating.

Ironically, I also found it ten percent more clever than the first time.

That's in part because I can be dumb sometimes.

I loved Warm Bodies, ranking it #12 for the year in 2013, even without realizing that it's based loosely on Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet.

I suppose it might have been obvious if I had been looking a bit more closely. The protagonist (pictured here, played by Nicholas Hoult) is a zombie who's called R, because he can't remember his full first name. (And it's never revealed, in fact, though I could have sworn that it was.) That would have been a tipoff. The fact that the girl he falls for is named Julie (played by Teresa Palmer) might have been a second clue. Then there's the broader fact that any work of art featuring "star-cross'd lovers" can be thought of as taking inspiration from Romeo & Juliet, and a zombie and a human -- mortal enemies on most occasions -- are as Montaguelike and Capuletesque as you could want.

But the scene that really clicked it home for me is when R risks everything by trying to pass for human in the walled human city, and comes to the garden below Julie's balcony to speak to her. How anyone could see a boy talking to a girl in a balcony and not think of Romeo & Juliet is beyond me, but that was me two years ago when I first saw this movie.

Saw it and fell in love with it, as I said.

Imagine how ga-ga I would have been if I could have also detected the Shakespeare homage. Not only is there the stuff I've already mentioned, but there's also a symbolic double suicide (which ends a bit happier for these characters than those in the play) and even a scene where the zombie Romeo kills his rival, as Romeo kills Paris in the text. Instead, I had to get that homage only on a second viewing when the rest of Warm Bodies left me a bit more cold, so to speak, than it had the first time.

It's still a movie with a surprising amount of heart and soul, but this time it connected with me less emotionally even as it connected with me more intellectually. I guess we can see which type of connection I value more.

I wonder in retrospect if this was Hoult's de facto audition for Mad Max: Fury Road. I mean, it proved he could play a pale-skinned, sickly looking guy desiccated of most of his blood.

Attitude's a bit different, though.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Preaching to the choir


Sometimes you watch a documentary to discover something new and different about a world you don't know or understand.

Other times, you watch just to quiver with righteous agreement.

(If you think I'm burying the lede, yes, this is my triumphant return to watching documentaries -- and I even picked it from the same library collection that I shunned in this post.)

The Armstrong Lie is the latter. It's not that I know so much about the world of cycling, the world of doping, the world of cancer survivors or the world of douchebags. But I do know from Armstrongs. After all, I'm one of them.

And Lance Armstrong has besmirched our good name. We used to have both Neil and Lance to be proud of. Now, Lance has almost entirely canceled Neil out, leaving us nobody. (I like the actress Samaire Armstrong pretty well, I guess. She's cute. And Curtis Armstrong was good as Booger. Wait, we also have Louis Armstrong. Never mind.)

Actually, I was never all that proud of Lance Armstrong, and that's why I'm so gratified to finally sit down and watch him get torn limb-from-limb over the course of an unnecessarily long 122 minutes. I consider it a badge of honor that I doubted the good-guyness of Lance Armstrong years before anyone else did, for reasons I won't really get into right now (though they are legitimate, especially now). In fact, I'm so proud of the early adoption of my hatred for Lance Armstrong, telling anyone who will listen about it, that you'd think I would have seen Alex Gibney's movie in the theater, instead of finally watching it on video nearly 20 months after its release.

So I'm the choir for this film in two senses: 1) I always doubted Armstrong for reasons that have nothing to do with sharing his last name, and 2) I share his last name, so he's been a special embarrassment to me, if you pretend for a minute that I care a lot about the sanctity of my last name and that him being a shithead actually has any kind of reverberating impact on my ancestors and heirs.

The funny thing, though I guess not surprising thing, is that the movie is actually pretty fair to Armstrong. This is Alex Gibney we're talking about. His thoroughness knows no bounds.

I emerged from The Armstrong Lie not hating Armstrong more, though there's certainly evidence presented in the film that would make a person hate him more. (But maybe not this person, since I already hated him plenty.) In fact, at times the film successfully convinces us that he's sort of a tragic figure -- while also being a shithead.

The prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in my favorite sport, baseball, has forced me to consider just how harshly we should judge these professional athletes who are considered to be cheaters. Yes, they're cheating, there's no two ways about that. What's open to interpretation is how bad the cheating really is. The point is made -- not for the first time in this documentary, but in a way that connected with me -- that the playing field really kind of was even for Armstrong and his fellow riders, it just wasn't the playing field we thought it was. A bunch of super-charged athletes with recent transfusions of their own doped-up blood were out there, competing against each other. Course records may have really been the thing that suffered as a result of their dishonesty, not the other athletes themselves. "Everyone was doing it."

The film reminds us of something I've never lost sight of, which is why I forgive certain baseball players caught using steroids but not others. It's the vociferousness of the denial that carries the worst taste, the abject and utterly false righteousness that accompanies it. And this is why I didn't like Armstrong even before anything about steroids had been proven about him. He seemed offended by the very possibility that he might be guilty of something, that anyone would dare breathe a word of his potential guilt, when some evidence of his guilt already did exist. But I don't think I even knew about the accusations against him when I started hating him. This vociferous arrogance was what I hated, and I'd heard about it in connection to the way he treated people that had, in any small way, betrayed him, according to his own perspective on the topic. There was one specific story, though I'm not going to research the details now, that had something to do with how he treated a colleague whom he had once promised to help set up a bicycle shop (or something middling like that). The guy apparently did something Armstrong didn't like, and he squashed him, with a certain kind of malevolent glee.

That Lance Armstrong is in this film. He drops f-bombs on a couple occasions and certainly does not look like the image of the clean-cut, all-American hero that he cultivated so strenuously. He is openly flippant about people and a nearly sadistic disdain for them emerges repeatedly.

But I also think the long-term trajectory of Armstrong's story reveals other aspects of him that contextualize his behavior. I didn't know, for example, that he grew up without knowing his father, and that some of his striving was to fill that hole in his life. The other thing we seem to forget is that we think Armstrong was the start of all this stuff, like he was The First Cyclist and any shady behavior must have all started after his era of cycling began. Not true. The system was already ridiculously broken when he rode his first tour -- a tour in which he was definitely clean (and got destroyed). When he started out, he didn't know he was going to become LANCE ARMSTRONG, MORAL PARAGON. He was just a cyclist who opted into a system tainted by rampant cheating, and the only way to have any hope of making a name for yourself was to cheat. He would never have become LANCE ARMSTRONG at all if he didn't cheat. He is essentially being pilloried because he was the best and most successful cheater. Meanwhile, the cheaters who didn't have his talent and didn't cheat as well as he did are living lives of comparative anonymity. If they have not actually been forgiven by us, they have been passively forgiven in the sense that we don't even remember their names.

Armstrong has only himself to blame. But he also has the system to blame. And, you know, the fact that he had cancer. He might never have become LANCE ARMSTRONG if he hadn't had cancer. So in a sense, the thing that made him most heroic in the first place was the thing that guaranteed he was to have the swiftest and most punishing downfall.

I don't hate Armstrong a whole lot less, I guess -- his snide and dismissive arrogance is downright poisonous -- but after The Armstrong Lie I do understand him a little bit better. And I think his choices were not so uncomplicated as we might make them out to be.

It was his choice to defend his lie until the day he died -- or, as it turned out, until the day when the preponderance of evidence made it impossible to keep defending it. But at least he finally decided to right the ship and fall on his sword. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, to take two examples from the baseball world, have still not done that, which is why they may never achieve the kind of peace toward which Armstrong has probably taken his first steps.

As for the Armstrong name ... well, it's doing alright, I was glad to discover this week.

A couple nights ago I heard my older son saying something about "the first person on the moon." It was part of his imagination play and therefore ordinarily would not confirm to any particular rules, but the specific phrasing caught my attention and I realized that someone must have told him about "Uncle Neil" (not really my uncle). I asked him, and it turned out that one of his teachers at school had been the one to tell him about Neil Armstrong and his genuinely heroic exploits in outer space. I felt a little rush of pride at that.

So yeah, the Armstrong name will be just fine, thank you very much.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Twice upon a Tuesday


Once upon a time, I wrote this post about how I planned to use my Tuesdays at home, when I have only my still-napping 17-month-old son to look after, to watch some of the epic movies that have eluded me because of their epic length.

Now I've followed the 166-minute Sergio Leone movie mentioned in that post with the even longer 229-minute Sergio Leone movie I watched this week.

And so I've taken down two more of the movies listed in this post of films I was most embarrassed about not having seen, with very similar titles. And I have my long-movie Tuesdays to thank for that.

Once Upon a Time in the West and now Once Upon a Time in America have bookended a number of other epic movies I've bested during the past three months. During this period I've also finally seen Dr. Zhivago (197 minutes), The Bad Sleep Well (151 minutes) and The Great Dictator (124 minutes), and finally rewatched The Sound of Music (174 minutes). It's been a period of great classic cinema.

And speaking of great ... who knew how great Sergio Leone was? The two Onces have really floored me. They have both fallen just short of perfect star ratings on Letterboxd (4.5 apiece), due largely to some nitpicking that seemed significant enough to preclude them from receiving the highest possible score. But they have each qualified as a major surprise for me, and it has everything to do with my previous perception of Leone.

One of the reasons this guy has gotten a bad rap from me was because I considered him synonymous with the term "spaghetti western." I'm not an aficionado of the western genre, so I figured this phrase could only be a derogatory way to refer to westerns made by Leone and other Italians. In fact, I've determined that it's probably more of a judgment-free description of their Italian origins, and possibly affectionate. But because it's so politically incorrect, it would never have been coined today -- even if it was coined by an Italian journalist. That left me thinking it couldn't help but be a disparaging term. It suggested to me that Leone and his countrymen who worked in the genre churned out gunslinger movies made on the cheap, and that the Ennio Moricone scores that accompanied them were the winking auditory embodiment of a certain acknowledged kitschiness.

Now that I've seen the two Onces -- there's a third that is known more commonly as Duck You Sucker or A Fistful of Dynamite -- I should probably get to the movies that would have convinced me of Leone's import as a filmmaker if I'd actually seen them years ago, like most cinephiles did. That's the Man With No Name Trilogy, a.k.a. The Dollars Trilogy, a.k.a. A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I actually credit myself with having seen A Fistful of Dollars, but I feel pretty skeptical about whether that viewing actually occurred. At the very least I would need to see it again to prepare for the later two, even though I understand their plots relate to each other only in superficial ways.

And as it happens, I have a good opportunity to do this, as my father-in-law just got these movies from his girlfriend for Christmas -- either this past Christmas or the one before that, I can't remember.

Whether I'll watch them on a long-movie Tuesday, or catch them with my wife during traditional evening hours, remains to be seen. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is nearly twice the length of A Fistful of Dollars, and my wife is no good with long movies, so that may give me some idea.

Well hey, I'll be on this schedule at least until January ...

I don't want to get into an in-depth critical analysis of Once Upon a Time in America, but a few quick thoughts while we're here ...

1) This movie is epic with a capital E. The length alone isn't the direct indicator of that, though I suppose it allows the thing that is. I sat there slack-jawed as nearly the entire first 30 minutes of this movie is dialogue-free. That doesn't mean that no one speaks, because they do from time to time. But the whole first 30 minutes pass without any expository dialogue to really let you know what's going on. Those 30 minutes also include a long sequence scored by the incessant ringing of a telephone. Some of the stuff Leone is doing with sound and editing here is some of the most captivating I've ever seen, establishing once and for all something that I pretty much knew from Once Upon a Time in the West -- this man is an auteur with a capital A.

2) For some reason I had it in my head that this movie was from the 1970s, closer to the making of West. And so it was with some amount of surprise that I noted that not only Downton Abbey's Elizabeth McGovern, but also Jennifer Connelly, are in this movie. I thought both must be much older than I think they are, but then I realized that the movie was made in 1984. Duh. Connelly is a wee little 12-year-old, and adorable.

3) This movie seems to have been structured on The Godfather Part II, with its heavy usage of two different timelines (not to mention the similarity of the setting). Strangely, I find this movie more compelling than The Godfather Part II, even if that is considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that when I watched The Godfather Part II, accidentally watched the second disc before the first one. A source of incredible embarrassment, which would be even more embarrassing if my wife had not been watching with me and had not also failed to realize that we were watching the wrong disc first. I will rectify this eventually ... especially since I actually bought this movie at a garage sale about four years ago. I have yet to watch our copy.

4) So what keeps it from being a five-star masterpiece? At the midway point it was definitely that. I think a couple decisions in the second half left me cold, including withholding footage of what actually happened on the night that both opens and closes the movie. Maybe some of that is available in the even longer 251-minute version of the film. There is supposed to be a 269-version out there, but I'm kind of wondering if anyone has seen it.

5) I hate when so many versions of a movie exist, because you never know when you've really "seen" the movie -- the definitive version. Well, after this viewing I'm really glad I didn't somehow come into the possession of the 139-minute version that was savaged by critics in the U.S. The studio panicked about the long running time and cut out a number of scenes, plus ordered the remaining ones chronologically, which I now know would have totally destroyed the impact of the film (especially those captivating first 30 minutes). At least I appear to have seen the one that is considered by most people to be the "real" version of the movie.

Now that I've tackled a 229-minute film, maybe I'll use next Tuesday -- ALL of next Tuesday -- to watch Shoah, the 1985 documentary whose various versions run between 503 and 613 minutes.

Nah.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Well well well well. If it isn't little Alex.


This is just the type of post I might have written as a Question Your Assumptions piece, except I didn't really feel like I had any questions about the greatness of A Clockwork Orange, which I currently have ranked #107 on Flickchart despite only a single viewing some 15 years ago.

That doesn't mean there weren't interesting takeaways from Monday night's second viewing. Here are five, listed somewhat randomly, starting with an explanation of my subject:

1) This line is spoken, of course, by the police officer formerly known as Dim, played by Warren Clarke, as he comes across the "rehabilitated" Alex after Alex has been assaulted by a gang of old homeless people. I'm not sure why, but the way Clarke enunciates his lines made this line particularly memorable at the time that I saw it, such that I actually quoted it with my then-roommate -- who did not actually watch the movie with me on this particular viewing. The confluence of L's sounding like W's actually makes it come out more as "Wew wew wew wew wew. If it isn't wittiw Awex." Which somehow makes this moment of gleeful superiority seem all the more frightening, as the man's halfwit insanity is all the more unpredictable than would be that of a man with his full faculties. This was the moment of the movie I was most anticipating, and I greeted its arrival with my own kind of glee.

2) For the first time (makes sense, as this is only my second viewing) I noted a rather cheeky Easter egg. When Alex is in a record store, picking up the girls whom he will boff on fast forward in the next scene, he stops in front of a vinyl of the score for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Which of course was also directed by one Stanley Kubrick. What surprises me most about this is that I would have never pegged Kubrick as being interested in such juvenile methods of self-congratulation. I'd think they would be beneath him.

3) One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie is when Alex's uncle? family friend? who is that guy? accosts him in his bedroom as a means of trying to break through to him before it's too late. His method of asserting dominance over Alex is unusual and kind of arresting. Instead of standing over him, getting him in a headlock, or some other traditional display of strength, he merely leans the both of them back so they're lying down on Alex's bed. Alex is pinned, so the move is effective, but it is also incredibly non-traditional and almost passive-aggressive. I spent several minutes pondering the brilliance of that odd choice for this character. (I looked it up -- it's his probation officer. He wasn't quite avuncular enough to be an uncle, I guess.)

4) It struck me on this viewing just what a small percentage of the running time actually features Alex in full droog getup. Given that all the iconography from this movie surrounds Malcolm McDowell with that piercing look of utter anarchy in his eyes, you really only get 15 to 20 minutes, all told, of them involved in their ultra-violent shenanigans. Much more of the time he spends as a mop-topped dork in various stages of rehabilitation, actual or imaginary. But I guess that doesn't look as good on the posters.

5) I was still most shocked by the "Singin' in the Rain" scene, in part because you later learn that the woman they raped died a month after her rape. I hadn't specifically remembered that, though perhaps that's why it was so indelible the first time I saw it. I also noted that Mr. Alexander, her husband whom they beat in that same scene, makes me think of Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) on Breaking Bad. Because he's gagged and because Hector can't talk, they both share a kind of stricken, wordless apoplexy, powerless to stop whatever terrible thing is being done to them.

At #107 of the 4162 movies I've ranked on Flickchart, A Clockwork Orange will still beat all but the highest 2% of films I've seen. After this second viewing, now it will just do it with an extra dose of confidence.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A viewing 18 years overdue


In 1997, I bought the Lost Highway soundtrack.

In 2015, I finally saw Lost Highway.

There's a logical explanation for this, actually.

You see, Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails was the supervisor of this soundtrack, contributing two of his own songs ("The Perfect Drug," "Driver Down") and in all other ways overseeing its compilation. This included splicing in little bits of dialogue as he had done when assuming the same role on the soundtrack for Natural Born Killers three years earlier.

As that soundtrack had been a certified Experience with a capital E in its own right, independent from watching the movie, I had the same hopes for this one. So much so, in fact, that I never bothered to actually watch the movie.

Oh, I should probably also mention that Nine Inch Nails was my favorite band at the time. And continues to be today.

If the Lost Highway soundtrack had captivated me the way the Natural Born Killers soundtrack had captivated me, I might have prioritized a viewing before now. It didn't get to that level. I did listen to it a number of times, and acquired at least one new favorite song from it ("Eye" by Smashing Pumpkins), but it didn't transcend. And then I heard that no one liked the movie, and that was that.

Fast forward 18 years, and the BluRay is staring me in the face on a library shelf in Australia. This was undoubtedly not my only opportunity to watch it over the years, but I'm pretty sure it was the first time I had seen it in a free rental scenario. And so I decided it was finally time to check this long-delayed viewing off my list.

Yep, a pretty big disappointment after all.

Lost Highway is not without its moments. It definitely has some chilling bits in its first half, when Robert Blake is used most effectively, and he may just be the creepy weirdo breaking into the home of Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette and sending them video tapes of themselves sleeping. Some of this stuff works on a basic visual level. But where it goes is decidedly unsatisfying after its mid-point shift, when Lynch (did I mention this was directed by David Lynch?) inexplicably saps all the atmosphere from the movie. He makes a futile attempt to restore the atmosphere in the last 20 minutes or so, but by then a viewer will have been legitimately bored to death.

I did feel a certain sense of deja vu watching it, a result of all these songs I'd heard before. And since I hadn't listened to the soundtrack in probably ten years, it wasn't like I was ticking off all the appearances of songs I was expecting -- they really did come at me like half-remembered fragments of dreams. As in "Oh yeah, that insane sax solo by Pullman's character is from this movie." But overall I found that the songs appeared in what seemed like pretty different contexts from what I was expecting, most notably the usage of "Eye," which just plays in the background while two characters are dancing, in a not-very-creepy scene.

The biggest disappointment, though, was the reminder of something I think I already knew, which was that "The Perfect Drug" -- the only actual Nine Inch Nails song on the soundtrack -- does not actually appear in the movie. ("Driver Down" is an instrumental that's credited to Reznor himself.) When I got to the end and it hadn't played, I thought we might get it over the credits, but that's just the reprise of David Bowie's "I'm Deranged."

Lost Highway itself was too deranged to be a mainstream film, but not deranged enough to be a really satisfying entry in the Lynch canon. Oh well, on to the next one.

As we have now stepped away from the era in which we regularly purchase whole soundtracks, I don't know if there will ever arise another Lost Highway scenario, where I buy the soundtrack without ever seeing the movie. I did buy Reznor's score to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo before I had seen it, but then I saw the movie just a couple days later. And now I don't even have blind faith in Reznor anymore, because the Dragon Tattoo score was such an over-long, self-indulgent affair that I didn't finally buy his score to Gone Girl until months after I'd seen it. I've only listened to that one all the way through twice, and don't envision a third listen any time soon. (Though just so you don't mistake this paragraph for being anti-Reznor, I'll close the paragraph by stating for the record that I absolutely love his Social Network score, and have listened to it all the way through at least ten times.)

I'm also now one step closer to completing David Lynch's feature filmography, though Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me still elude me. I'm eager to correct at least the former of those omissions ... and also eager to see if the man ever gets off his butt and directs another feature. It's been nearly ten years since Inland Empire, Mr. Lynch.