Thursday, March 31, 2016

Pure imagination; not enough chocolate

My older son and I had an experience last month that was profound for both of us: We visited a chocolate factory down on Phillip Island, about two hours from Melbourne on coastal Victoria.

You would expect that something like this would interest a five-year-old. Its intoxicating effects on a 42-year-old might not be so readily apparent.

But the Pannys chocolate factory did everything just right. It whetted your palette with a first few "educational" rooms about how chocolate is made, much of it using materials that seemed a good 40 years old, giving off the impression it might remain well-meaning but corny throughout. But just as you were lulled into a sense that this was nice but you weren't quite sure it was worth the entry fee, the place lays on you a delirious succession of ever greater wonders, the mere enumeration of which would not do them justice. Let's just say that somewhere between the machine that uses a robotic penguin to dispense you as many chocolate discs as you could possibly want and the machine that mixes ingredients for you to make your own custom chocolate bars, I lost track of who was more giddy, him or me. Somewhere on the order of 250 photos later, we emerged, exhausted from sheer exhilaration.

That experience gave me the confidence to introduce to him a movie whose other key descriptors -- a live-action movie made in 1971 -- might ordinarily take it out of his wheelhouse. On the first Tuesday of school holidays, during my younger son's nap, I had little more to do than read the title Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and he was putty in my hands. In fact, he was so primed and ready for the experience that I didn't feel I could deny it him, even once we realized that the BluRay borrowed from the library was scratched to a point beyond which the player could even identify it. This was now something that was happening, so I paid $2.99 to rent it from iTunes just to ensure he was not disappointed.

I did worry that his interest might wane during the 30 minutes or so it would actually take to get to the factory, but this wasn't the case at all. In fact, he showed a genuine concern about the decreasing quantity of Willy Wonka's five golden tickets, even at the same time that he demonstrated his shrewdness by predicting that Charlie Bucket, our hero, would surely end up with one of them. And therefore he was properly fooled when the fifth golden ticket was apparently found by a man in South America, a claim of course later proven to be fraudulent. He seemed visibly relieved when his preconceptions about what would happen had been restored. So even though he guessed what would happen, he was fully invested.

It was the actual arrival at the chocolate factory that started to sour him on the movie.

He was again tickled by the false limp Gene Wilder's Wonka perpetrates after first appearing on screen, revealing himself as a bit of a trickster by ultimately finishing his entrance with a somersault that belied his apparent affliction. My son gave me a look that said he was going to enjoy this movie.

But things started to go bad after the first scene with the chocolate river. My son dug all the edible scenery and the idea of consuming an unlimited supply of chocolate, kind of like we had done (on a smaller scale) at the Phillip Island chocolate factory. But this setting was the last to leave him tickled, and only part of that was concern over what might have happened to Augustus Gloop.

Simply put, this movie kind of stops becoming about chocolate after that.

You get your first preview of the weird turn it's taking with the surreal boat ride and all the words that rhyme with "going" and "rowing." That scene is pretty far out there, and I think it may have been my son's first introduction to something purely psychedelic in a movie. He wasn't scared of that scene, per se, but it was definitely something that didn't compute for him. Either on its own or in relation to the rest of the movie.

And in truth, I get that. After young Herr Gloop disappears in the chocolate river, a very chocolate factory type thing to happen, the disappearances stop being about that. Violet Beauregard blows up into a blueberry, which is food, but not chocolate. Veruca Salt vanishes down a garbage chute in her pursuit of a goose that lays a golden egg. And Mike TV turns into a pocket-sized version of himself. By this point, the idea that we're even still in a place where consumable items are produced has been lost. (And I wondered why Charlie's own naughty behavior doesn't lead to his own demise. Is drinking that fizzy drink that makes you float really any less of a transgression than those committed by the others?)

By the time the movie ended, when I asked him if he'd liked it, he said, "Not really," but felt he needed to qualify that. It was a sophisticated "not really," a genuine case of being troubled by the direction a story took.

And I got that. I was on the same troubled trajectory.

Officially, this is my second time seeing Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Unofficially, it's been one of a dozen or so movies on my list that I'm sure I've seen, which is not quite the same as knowing I've seen them. I know I've seen parts of it, and assume I've seen the whole thing, but the only things I can be sure of are that I've read the book and seen the awful Tim Burton remake. This could have been my own first viewing of Mel Stuart's movie, which also left me impossibly delighted for its first half and somewhat troubled by the second. Fortunately, as an adult, I can recognize how the delight outweighs the troublesomeness, leaving me unambiguously positive on the movie -- especially when compared to a piece of miserable drivel like Burton's remake.

Which I will not be showing to my son, whether it has more actual chocolate or no.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

No Audio Audient: Regeneration

This is the third in my 2016 series where I catch up with one per month of one of my biggest blind spots: silent movies.

Regeneration marks the first movie of this series into which I came in having no preconceived notions whatsoever. It's also the first non-comedy. While I started with silent comedy superstars Harold Lloyd (The Freshman) and Buster Keaton (Sherlock Jr.), the only name I knew associated with Regeneration was Raoul Walsh, who would later direct the excellent White Heat, starring James Cagney. So this movie -- which I learned about only because it was mentioned as newly available on Youtube by someone in my Flickcharters Facebook discussion group -- interested me as a study of a directing career that bridged from silent films to talkies. In fact, Walsh's career dove deep into the talkie era, as he made his final film in 1964 and lived until 1980. Regeneration was his first feature.

The other interesting thing about it is that it immediately became one of the three oldest features I've recorded myself as having seen -- and that includes The Great Train Robbery from 1903, which is only a feature in the loosest definition of that term. When I want to find the next oldest I have to skip ahead a whole 12 years to 1915, which now contains two films I've seen: Regeneration, and of course The Birth of a Nation. (Interestingly, Walsh appears in Nation as an actor -- he played John Wilkes Booth.)

As Regeneration came out nine months after Nation, it understandably does not get the same credit for redefining the narrative form that D.W. Griffith got. While watching it, however, I didn't have any idea of their respective release dates within 1915, and I wondered why more people didn't talk about Regeneration for its sophistication within early narrative film. Not only is there a real sense of editing and the varying of medium and long shots, both attributes that Griffith generally gets credit for, but the camera even moves tentatively on a dolly, which likely also occurs in Nation (don't remember that movie all that well) but startled me in a movie as old as this.

Speaking of the film's age ... this also marked the first time I have ever watched a movie that was more than a century old when I saw it. I've seen movies that are now more than a century old -- well, just The Great Train Robbery and The Birth of a Nation, I guess -- but they were not yet that old when I saw them. Kind of neat.

So in terms of plot, this is a gangster movie, which would come to be Walsh's specialty. (Since I've only seen this and White Heat, though, I can't really compare and contrast the silent Walsh and the talkie Walsh like I hoped I might be able to do.) However, Regeneration is not particularly heavy on plot, as you might expect. Or rather, there's enough plot, but it goes by slowly, and some of the nuance is lost by the decision to have comparatively few title cards. The title cards it does have tend to be long and somewhat flowery, though the actual blow-by-blow of conversations between characters is often left mostly to the viewer's imagination. That did cause my mind to wander a bit, and at times I thought I was lost within a more complicated plot. Later, I realized that not that much had really been happening, which is not all that surprising for a film made at the very dawn of sophisticated narrative filmmaking. It takes 71 minutes for not that much to happen, but they're a pretty interesting 71 minutes for the flavor you get of that time.

In short, it's the story of an orphan named Owen, who grows up poor and eventually falls in with a gang, steadily rising to become its leader. He then meets a girl who makes him want to change his ways, and the story is essentially his attempts at heroic redemption as his old life keeps pulling him back in. What's perhaps most profound about this movie in terms of its sophistication (spoiler alert) is that it does not have a happy ending. The beautiful girl that tries to save him ends up dying at the hands of a villain who was once in league with the hero, the hero not quite shaking off his dark side enough to save her. I would have guessed that at the very least, the filmmakers of 1915 were trying to send their audiences home happy. I didn't figure that tragedies would be very big in the nascent years of feature-length filmmaking, but tragedies have been big on the stage through the history of drama, so it shouldn't have been a surprise to me that Regeneration ends tragically -- but was anyway.

One thing that really impressed me, especially compared to what I remember of Birth of a Nation, was the subtlety of the acting. I remember Birth of a Nation being pretty big, but here the actors communicate a lot with subtle shifts in their facial expressions, and long, solemn looks. That seems like it should be a credit to Walsh for sure.

I found it interesting how easy it was to differentiate a movie from 1915 from a movie that came out in, say, 1925. If you had any tendency to lump all silent films together in the same group visually, Regeneration is the type of movie that reminds you otherwise. Some of this is damaged footage that was only partly salvageable, but even beyond that, the stock looks different -- more sepia. I also noted the old-fashioned effect of having only a small area lit around a character on a close-up, for all intents and purposes changing the shape of the frame to that of a locket -- probably not altogether surprising given that lockets were still quite in fashion back then.

One technical achievement worth drawing attention to is a fire aboard an excursion ferry, complete with flames, characters rushing in a panic and even a long shot of people jumping off the flaming boat. It's not Titanic, but it's pretty darn impressive for 1915 -- which would have been only three years after the real Titanic sank. (And actually, it was based on the real sinking of a boat called the General Slocum in 1904. The Slocum sank in New York's East River, killing more than a thousand of the 1,342 people on board.)

Okay! I think in April it might finally be time to tackle a true demon -- not only a silent film, but a silent film with an incredibly long running time. Let's grapple with an actual Griffith film and move forward one year to 1916, with the 163-minute Intolerance. Here's hoping I can tolerate it.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The prophecy I Am Legend foretold

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is being unleashed around the world right now, and boy do the reviews stink.

But for me, it feels also like the ultimate case of life imitating art, one that had been gestating for nearly a decade.

When I saw I Am Legend in 2007, I noted that one of the billboards hanging in post-apocalyptic New York was for an upcoming movie called Batman vs. Superman. Unaware of a narrative thread in the comics that brought these two titans in opposition to each other (but also fairly aware that this is the type of thing that does happen in the comics), I thought this poster served as a commentary that seems prescient given what has happened superhero movies since then. This was a full five years before The Avengers, yet even in 2007, some shrewd observer could foretell that our nascent superhero craze would have its ultimate realization in movies that contained not one spandex suit, but a whole heap of them. At the very least the film was envisioning a future project that Warner Brothers would likely actually greenlight, which definitely made I Am Legend look like it was giving us a glimpse of our actual future, making the idea of a plague that will wipe us all out by then all the more chilling.

I guess I Am Legend imagined a more immediate future, as the date in this poster seems to be sometime in 2010. It took Warner Brothers six years longer than that to actually do it, and change up the signage just enough so it wasn't the exact logo from the movie.

So now I am awash in the weirdness of seeing the actual arrival of something that always seemed like a speculative future. It's like how we will all feel when we see our first hoverboard in use. And not that one that Tony Hawk rode for like a minute at one inch off the ground, but a true, versatile hoverboard like in Back to the Future II. Or, more directly similarly, when we watch the Aquaman movie that was first parodied in Entourage -- a moment that will actually occur in 2018.

But this may very well be the most interesting thing about the actual Batman vs. Superman. You're supposed to withhold judgment until you can see any movie for itself, but you can also make educated predictions based on track records. And Zack Snyder's is trending very negatively. Watchmen was great in 2009, but since then it's been a downward decline with The Owls of Ga'Hoole, Sucker Punch and Man of Steel. The odds that Snyder would suddenly seem more inspired in another Superman movie were always fairly low.

But I will dutifully go to see it in the theater ... even if only because then it will be free for me, rather than costing me $3.50 for a rental.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

My week without a blog post

This is still a movie blog and I still watch movies. I swear.

It's just been a very busy week as any number of things are going on, not least of which is my sister, my father and my father's wife visiting from the U.S. The latter two had been visiting since the beginning of March, but when my sister joined the group last Thursday -- the day of my last blog post -- things got even busier. In a good way, I assure you.

Then there's the impending start of the baseball season and all that that entails for a person like me, which includes participating in two types of fantasy league, both of which feature me in the role of commissioner. That's been the case for the past decade with one of them, but is a new development this year in the other.

But some cinematically significant events have been occurring. And by that I don't mean finally watching the disappointing My Week With Marilyn.

One of those was attending the ReelGood Film Festival on Saturday here in Melbourne. ReelGood is the site I write for, and each year in March, it holds a festival of short films in a hip warehouse-studio location in Collingwood complete with beer, a burger truck, and two screening rooms filled with beanbag chairs. I went last year not knowing anybody, as I had not even yet met my editor at ReelGood in person. I went this year with my wife and sister in tow, and was greeted fondly by no less than ten people I knew. A reminder of what a good last year it's been in terms of forging cinematic bonds in the local community. Yeah, I felt just a teensy bit like a rock star. And since I also served as a judge on the competition, I helped determine the films that would walk away with the night's top prizes, further increasing my sense of self importance.

Actually, that's the only thing. But I guess that's enough in a busy week.

It'll be a couple more days before any type of real post transpires here, as my family (all seven of us) is going away for the four-day Easter weekend to the Great Ocean Road, a beautiful stretch along the southern coast of Victoria. More movies figure not to be watched there.

Back next week with ... something.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Days past, when a mind could still be blown

There are no more worlds left to conquer.

Maybe there never were. But it used to feel like there were.

In the eight years between Cloverfield and Cloverfield 2 -- and I'm not going to say if 10 Cloverfield Lane actually has anything to do with the original Cloverfield, because I'm going to avoid spoilers in this post -- something has been lost in our larger pop culture entertainment landscape. And that thing is the ability to really be surprised by something.

Both movies were released with little advanced hype and campaigns that emphasized the mystery of what they were or might be. Or rather, there were not six months of advanced hype, but the month or so of advanced hype we did get, when these movies were suddenly unveiled as impending releases, was intense. A buzz developed around these movies that made them cultural moments. Or at least, that was the case for Cloverfield in 2008. How successfully they recreated that with 10 Cloverfield Lane is a little unclear to me because I've had a busy couple months, and have had my head in the cinematic sand in terms of new releases.

Cloverfield converted on the hype. The mystery of what we weren't seeing in the teaser trailers was exquisite, and exquisitely realized in the final film.

10 Cloverfield Lane didn't convert, at least not for me, at least not to this extent. It could just be that I'm older and less susceptible to this type of thing, but more likely is that we're all a bit more jaded than we were eight years ago.

I blame Lost.

Lost was contemporaneous with Cloverfield, but its most mind-blowing suppositions actually predated Matt Reeves' movie. I think it was in the spring of 2005 that we first learned of the existence of "the hatch." After that, the big question on everyone's lips was "What's in the hatch? What's in the hatch? WHAT'S IN THE HATCH???"

Although it did not seem like the response could possibly be satisfying, it was. At least for a couple seasons. Whether you remained satisfied with what was in the hatch, or any of the many outlandish twists and turns the Lost story took, was more specific to the individual. But at first we were all primed and excited by this, and suddenly, we wanted every entertainment option that existed to make us question what was in its version of "the hatch."

So they all tried to do that. All of them.

It was not yet inescapable by 2008, even if it started (on TV, anyway) a couple years before that. Cloverfield had its hatch, and that hatch was a Godzilla-style lizard captured through the lens of a single video camera. It also had military cover-ups, redacted information on confidential documents, Easter Eggs, and everything else an enterprising sleuth could want.

10 Cloverfield Lane has a hatch -- literally. That's not really a spoiler. Even the poster above gives that much away. The trailers also pretty much show that we are in an underground bunker. We don't want to know what's in the hatch, but rather, what's outside of it.

But hatches have been dropped like a hot potato. Have you ever noticed that you may have ate, drank, slept, and dreamt Lost up until that finale, but two weeks later, you never actually thought about it again? Lost itself was dropped like a hot potato. As quickly as it collectively swept us up in its spell, it deposited us back out again (kind of like a smoke monster, disappearing into the ephemera). Nowadays, people seem to forget Lost was even a thing, and it ended not even six years ago.

It's not that we've stopped craving the type of surprises Lost and Cloverfield could deliver, the kind that gave them a reason for existing in the first place. It's that the bar has been raised to impossibly high levels. In the latter half of the aughts, television writers and screenwriters were given free rein to imagine the most out-there scenarios they could possibly concoct, as everyone was desperate to be "the next Lost." Eventually, though, we reached a saturation point. Now instead of looking for "the next Lost," we could probably pick back through to sometime in 2014, when something was probably "the last Lost." At least until people start becoming interested in hatches again, maybe in the early 2020s.

So let's get back to 10 Cloverfield Lane. It's a good movie that is made really compellingly in parts. But it doesn't grab us like Cloverfield did, because probably nothing can do that these days. Everyone has already imagined the most outlandish possible thing that could be on the other side of that hatch door. When it ends up being among the first half-dozen things we would guess, we aren't impressed.

But maybe it's just me. Maybe I've become a cynical old bastard. Maybe the teenager who was too young to see Cloverfield will have his or her mind blown by 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Or maybe today's writers just need to find new ways to conquer those worlds.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Why so convoluted, film noirs?

Noir is not one of my favorite genres, and after Monday night's viewing of Inherent Vice, I'm starting to piece together why.

I just don't want to do the work.

It seems to be a hallmark of the genre that plot is completely incoherent, or in some cases, even an afterthought. Big noir fans will tell you that it's not supposed to be coherent, that that's not what you're supposed to take away from a successful noir. Well, I'm sorry if this makes me hopelessly conventional, but I like to know what's going on in a story, and have some hope of following its twists and turns to the conclusion.

Inherent Vice, I'm sorry to say, is a shining example of the narrative mess that is allowed to go unchecked in a movie with thugs, private dicks and femme fatales. It's also an example of something I discussed in yesterday's post -- how a much beloved director has started to lose me in his (or in that case, her) last two films. Lynn Shelton lost me with Touchy Feely and Laggies after Your Sister's Sister, and now Paul Thomas Anderson is doing the same by following up There Will Be Blood (my #1 movie of 2007) with The Master and Inherent Vice.

But it may not be Anderson's fault, as confusion seems to be the inherent vice of the noir genre.

I think most notably of the example of The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks' 1946 film of the Raymond Chandler novel, in which Humphrey Bogart stars as Phillip Marlowe. This film is consistently larded with praise, so when I finally saw it in 2013 it seemed long overdue. After I watched it, I wish I had snoozed on it longer. I had no idea what the hell was happening in that movie, and famously, neither did the people who made it. Whole narrative threads have no conclusion, satisfactory or otherwise, and it's a lot of who did what with whom, where. Names are strung together in a meaningless succession of actions and consequences, none of which can be sorted out. I suppose it might be okay if there were anything interesting dramatically or technically going on, but I felt The Big Sleep to be particularly challenged in those areas as well.

Rian Johnson's Brick is another noir I did not like, though I do appreciate it more after a second viewing. In that case, the technique is great, as Johnson's film at least looks good. But the obnoxious noir patter (seeming worse when coming out of the mouths of teens, and stylized to sound like the 1940s, even in the 21st century), with where this guy saw that guy and what connection that girl has to that other guy ... well, I just don't know that I have the energy to figure if it all works out, or even if I care whether it all works out.

As I think about this, I wonder if it's overly detailed plotting in general that I just don't care for.

This is going to be a pretty poor comparison, but I think it makes a certain amount of sense, so bear with me for a moment.

More than 15 years after it debuted, with a rate of two seasons per calendar year, I am still watching the reality show Survivor, and can count the number of episodes I've missed on one hand. (It helps that there's gambling involved, as I've been involved in a Survivor pool for about 30 of the 32 seasons.) One of the core parts of Survivor is its challenges, usually a reward challenge (which brings the contestants food or other luxuries) and always an immunity challenge (which helps determine which contestants are safe from the vote). Like noir movies, these challenges themselves can be pretty convoluted, and I often tune out during the 45 seconds or so when the object of the challenge is explained prior to actually competing in said challenge. I figure, I don't need to understand every rule of what they're trying to do -- I just need to see how it all plays out, as I will appreciate the drama of seeing contestants gain and lose leads, get angry at each other, and potentially hurt themselves.

Noir movies -- The Big Sleep in particular -- are like 90% challenge explanation and 10% the resulting drama. I simply don't care to devote such a high percentage of the time I'm watching a movie to learning about how this off-screen character might be connected to/have double crossed/have been killed by this off-screen character. Especially because then, when I do see those characters, I have to remember which names match up to which faces. If I'm wrong, I might make the situation all the worse for myself. I mean, cinema is a show-don't-tell medium. Noir spends way too much time telling me things -- The Big Sleep in particular.

Like any noir movie, Inherent Vice spends quite a lot of time on introducing new characters, introducing new subplots, introducing new wrinkles, and then failing to connect them all up. Or, it connects them up in a way that might hold water, or it might not, but by then I just don't care anymore. By then I just want the thing to be over ... especially when it meanders past the two-hour and twenty-minute mark, like Inherent Vice does.

There's a scene near the end of the movie when some important stuff starts to happen, some real action to set off all the talking. I did sit up in my seat at that point. However, it's worth noting that I failed to understand how the characters involved fit into the larger plot, especially since they were introduced so late in the narrative that I didn't even really know who they were. I understand you don't want everything to be a Scooby Doo plot, where the guy you met briefly at the start ends up being the one who did it, but there's a reason Scooby Doo was plotted that way. You want it to matter, to be meaningful, who did the thing and why.

Now, at least one thing I can say for Inherent Vice, which I can say for all Anderson movies, is that it looks good. There's this shot where Joaquin Phoenix and Katherine Waterston run off into the rain searching for an address that isn't there after a Ouija board told them to do so that I'm still thinking about today. Plus it is completely authentic in terms of its 1970s look. I'd almost say that Phoenix's appearance, with that mop of curly hair and those big mutton chops, is so distinctive that it would make him into kind of an iconic character -- if only the movie were better.

As I'm trying to explore my feelings about noir in general, what interests me now is the exceptions to the rule. If you combined The Big Sleep and Inherent Vice you might get Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, in which Phillip Marlowe is updated to the 1970s and played by Elliott Gould. Yet I love The Long Goodbye. I don't know that the plot of The Long Goodbye is heaps more coherent than these other two, but I did follow it better, perhaps because I liked what was going on around the margins more. (Interestingly, Altman is probably one of the biggest influences on Anderson, as felt most noticeably in Magnolia. I wonder if Inherent Vice was supposed to be Anderson's tribute to Altman?) I also really like some other famous noirs like Double Indemnity and Chinatown, though I think in both of those cases, the plot is done better justice.

But if I'm looking at another film that is at least superficially similar to Inherent Vice in terms of its stoner themes, my antipathy toward noir could also weigh into why I don't care for The Big Lebowski as much as your average person does. A couple years ago, when the Filmspotting podcast used to schedule annual or bi-annual double features at a Chicago-area drive-in, they ended up pairing Lebowski with either The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye -- one was ultimately unavailable, so they chose the other one. So it's seeming even more and more like The Long Goodbye is an exception to my rule. On the other hand, staying within the Coens' own oeuvre, I like Miller's Crossing and The Man Who Wasn't There, which can both be seen as noirs if you do a little squinting.

Maybe I just need to conclude that Inherent Vice didn't work for me and just leave it at that.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Come back out of your shell, Lynn

I don't know if my examples are plentiful enough to truly prove the point, but I'd say a warning flag should go off when a writer-director names a character after themselves.

I most recently experienced this in Gaspar Noe's Love, which I suppose was intended to have some autobiographical elements. As would figure to be the case, Noe applies those elements in an unpredictable and haphazard way. Although it would seem that the movie's main character is based on him, as both are (or were) aspiring filmmakers who grew up in a different country than where the action is set, it's this character who at one point talks about naming his child Gaspar. As I never actually got what the connection was, my groan was delayed until the end of the movie, when I finally learned there was no explicit one.

Lynn Shelton's example in Laggies is a bit more whimsical, but no better. That turtle you see in the poster is named Lynn. There's as little ultimate explanation for it as there is for much of anything in this scattershot and highly disappointing movie.

I can sort of imagine how the bit came together, though. Shelton's last name is actually kind of a joke name you might give to a turtle. If you were into giving turtles comical names, you'd probably go with something more odd than "Lynn" as a first name, but "Shelton" would be a perfect last name, for sort of the same reason that one of the characters on Octonauts is called Shellington. So this theoretical whimsical turtle might be named something like Bartholomew Shelton, and he might also be a professor of turtleology. But the director abstracted the joke, got rid of all turtle-related references to her last name and just went with Lynn.

I think you can get away with something like this if it's less obvious who the director is, or if the person is someone you've never heard of. But Lynn Shelton has made a name for herself, and as much as they try to neuter all the interesting parts out of her, many of the people watching Laggies would have known that she directed it, making the groan upon hearing the turtle's name all the more immediate.

Of course, there's something more metaphorical at play here in terms of Shelton's career. A few years ago, I thought she was the tough side of the turtle, the shell side that made only solid contributions to the world of cinema. But in the last few years, her squishy turtle underbelly has been revealed, and she's vulnerable to criticism the way I would have never guessed or hoped. Maybe now she's hiding in that shell rather than using it to show her strength.

From the years 2009 to 2012, Lynn Shelton could do no wrong. Now granted, that only covers two films in her career, but they were the first two films of hers I saw, and they knocked my socks off.

The first was Humpday, co-starring Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard (from The Blair Witch Project), and it completely took me by surprise with its honest and unflinching look at the dynamics of a male friendship pushed into uncomfortable territory. Two friends kind of dare each other to make a porn video with each other, which sounds pretty high concept but is actually one of the finest examples of the mumblecore film movement out of which Shelton came. (And also, arguably, her last such film.) I ranked it as my # 12 film of 2009, though today it would easily make my top ten.

Then in 2012 she made Your Sister's Sister, a contender for my #1 film of the year right up until I confirmed Ruby Sparks as the winner on the night before I closed my rankings. The production values took a big bump up with this one as Duplass was joined by Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt, but the keen observational eye of mumblecore was still present as two sisters and one of their best friends/secret crushes navigate a weekend in a mountain cabin where things go to unexpected places. It touched me and moved me and ended perfectly.

Since then, though, it's been two features taking two steps in the wrong direction.

I thought 2013's Touchy Feely was okay. It was about a massage therapist (DeWitt again) who develops a phobia about being touched. High concept again, but this time the production values are in some weird no man's land between the good-looking Your Sister's Sister and the intentionally grungy aesthetic of Humpday. Nothing about the look of this film feels intentional, and it has a lot of flat and dead spots. I think I was kinder to it than it deserved simply because of the way I adored Shelton's two previous films.

That kindness had left me by the time I watched Laggies Sunday night. The movie is sort of more agreeable than Touchy Feely in ways, as it has a cheeriness to it, not to mention the luminescent Keira Knightley and the always funny Sam Rockwell. But this story of a stunted late twentysomething who starts hanging out with teenagers as a means of avoiding her search for a career and her impending wedding is also dead on arrival. It involves countless odd plot contrivances and clumsy moments, and never generates any viewer sympathies for its characters. I guess I'm not much of a fan of Chloe Moretz lately, but Knightley and Rockwell are both in fine form here, yet nothing they do can save a movie that is juvenile, boring, and strangely icky in ways that are not immediately evident, or not in the ways it wants you to find it icky. I could go off more on this movie in a full review, but I'll just leave it at that for now.

So what I can't figure out is how the insight that Shelton displayed in those first two films I saw -- and, as I understand it, earlier in her career -- could have abandoned her so much in the two films since then.

It seems pretty likely that a familiar old story is being told here. Make a good movie, gain wider recognition, get a little more money, get a lot more money, get a much more famous cast, put yourself in a position where a studio can and will give you notes. Come out the other end and no longer have a clear image of yourself, of the filmmaker you used to be.

But it could be argued that Shelton already passed that test when she made Your Sister's Sister with a genuinely hot commodity (Blunt) and two others who were starting to blow up (Duplass and DeWitt). Why was the decrease in quality delayed by one film?

I suppose these are unanswerable questions. Sometimes you just get an idea you think will work, and it doesn't work. And if anything, I suppose the involvement of financiers would make these movies seem more like neat packages, tighter but soulless, where the problems with Touchy Feely and Laggies seem to be that they meander and flop all over the place.

I suppose if I'm not having much luck going forward with Shelton, I should go back. She's made three films which I haven't seen, all of which promise the truer version of Shelton I'm hoping for: We Go Way Back (2006), What the Funny (2008) and My Effortless Brilliance (2008).

Maybe those earlier efforts will seem both effortless and brilliant.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Audient Auscars Extended: Platoon

This is the penultimate of my viewings of all the best picture winners. Eighty-eight down, one to go.

Platoon is a prime example of a film that surely would have impacted me differently if I'd seen it the year it came out -- 30 years ago -- than seeing it now.

I was 13 when Platoon won best picture, and I think it was the first Oscars where I was really conscious of the timing of the ceremony, though I can't recall if I actually watched it. I was aware of past winners, but Platoon had the most real-time immediacy of any Oscar winner to that point. For example, I remember looking at the headline in The Boston Globe the next morning that pronounced Platoon the winner. (And I guess they put the newspaper to bed particularly late on Oscar night, since the ceremony would have finished after midnight -- another likely indicator that I did not actually watch it.)

Over the years I think I built up some rather mythic notions of how violent, bloody, and overall disturbing Platoon must have been. I'm not going to say that was the reason I've avoided it until now, because I've been willing to wade knee deep into blood in my subsequent viewing experiences. I just haven't gotten around to it, and the likelihood that Platoon is a really strong movie seemed to decrease with me over the years as I no longer heard it talked about much. It was one of those best picture winners people just seemed to have moved on from.

Having watched it now, I get why.

In many ways, Platoon does not feel very remarkable -- technically, emotionally, thematically or dramatically. Aside from a couple gory looking injuries, it wasn't as graphic as I expected it to be either. It was hardly the first movie about Vietnam -- in fact, films such as The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now had delved into it almost a decade earlier, and those are only the classics. But it did kick off a string of other mainstream Vietnam movies, from really good movies like Good Morning Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July (also directed by Platoon director Oliver Stone) to more forgettable entries like Hamburger Hill and Casualties of War (neither of which I've seen in order to forget them). And that was just the remaining three years of the 1980s. The cinematic obsession with Vietnam carried on into the first half of the 1990s. Platoon was a trendsetter for sure.

But it's not a great movie. It's a pretty good movie and I'm glad I've seen it, but nothing about it stands out as particularly strong or memorable. At the time, it was enough that Platoon was a document containing broad strokes about The Way Things Were in Vietnam. With Platoon out of the way, other films could concentrate on more specific elements of the war. Platoon had been our primer, and now we were ready for those more specific elements -- you know, like boot camp (Full Metal Jacket), the experience of civilians tangential to the war (Good Morning Vietnam) or the return of wounded veterans (Born on the Fourth of July).

Part of its lack of technical distinctiveness can be tied to the fact that it was one of Stone's very first films. I guess I didn't realize at the time that Stone had essentially burst on the scene with Platoon, which made his second Oscar win for directing Born on the Fourth three years later all the more striking. I had thought these awards were a culmination of years of Stone gracing us with his cinematic skill, and apparently, even becoming more sophisticated about film history over the years, I had still not realized that Stone's filmography basically started with Platoon.

Wait, Vance. It sounds like you're still not very familiar with Stone's filmography. He directed his first feature in 1974, a full 12 years before Platoon.

That's true. But had you heard of the film Seizure? Neither had I. Or for that matter, had you heard of the film The Hand, his second feature he directed in 1981? Neither had I. Given the anonymity of his first two films and the crazy 1986 he had -- in which his other film, Salvador, received two Oscar nominations, including James Woods for best actor -- then saying he burst on the scene in 1986 seems to be pretty accurate.

But this movie just doesn't look as sharp, as polished, even as Wall Street would look a year later. I've always thought of Stone as a technical director, but his technique is pretty raw in Platoon. Some of it looks downright shoddy. Then again, I do have to remember that it was the 1980s, and the standards for what looked good are not necessarily comparable to today's standards. I'd like to think I'm saying it looks shoddy even within the context of 1986, but I should note that potential biasing factor in my assessment.

I was also surprised to learn that both Tom Berenger and Willem Defoe were nominated in the best supporting actor category. Much as I love him in Major League, Berenger has always struck me as a pretty limited actor, and I wouldn't say Platoon goes a long way toward disabusing that notion. Defoe is definitely better, but his [SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT] death scene is pretty much a parody of a war death scene, especially when viewed through a modern lens. If you didn't know, it's him with those iconic outstretched arms that adorn every piece of publicity related to Platoon. The funny thing about that death is that he reasonably would have been dead already, as he was shot -- twice, I think, and in the chest -- by Berenger's Sgt. Barnes just ten minutes earlier. And here he is running away dramatically from VC, going down a couple times before his final face plant in the mud. It's as histrionic a death as you are likely to see on film.

It's also very Christian in its obvious symbolism. Earlier in the film, someone (Barnes?) says of Defoe's Sgt. Elias, "Guy's been here three years and he thinks he's Jesus Fucking Christ." What's especially funny about that is that Defoe was actually cast as Jesus two years later in The Last Temptation of Christ. It's possible the filmmakers already knew about that casting when making Platoon. But it's clear within the context of this particular film that Defoe is supposed to be the savior taking on others' sins. He's the one always fighting to treat the Vietnamese civilians fairly rather than brutally, as seems to be the default position of his platoon mates. Those outstretched arms remind you of Jesus on the cross for a reason. Again, though, what I would see as cliche now would not necessarily have been cliche 30 years ago. So again I point to the different impact Platoon would have had on me if I'd seen it in 1986 rather than 2016.

I do feel like I should have been more emotionally invested, though, no matter when I saw it. I expected the various grunts to have more sway over my feelings, but with a very few exceptions, they did not. Charlie Sheen's Chris Taylor is a pretty unlikable protagonist, especially since his character arc is handled in a really funny way -- he loses it on a civilian in a way that makes no emotional sense given what we've seen of him so far in the movie. A descent into apparent madness is just not very believable in the hands of Charlie Sheen, who was also living down his father's similar (but much better) performance in Apocalypse Now. (It's funny, now that I think of it, that they both seem like younger actors in their respective Vietnam movies, even though Apocalypse Now was only six years earlier.) His narration also seems particularly leaden.

I did really like Keith David, as I always do. When his tour ends, I felt sure he'd step on that helicopter and it would immediately blow up, but thankfully, good old Keith gets to return home to the good old U.S. of A. I was glad for that. I guess the movie had already used up its really cliche death earlier, when an anonymous grunt shows Chris the picture of his girlfriend in his wallet, indicating beyond a shadow of a doubt that he will be dead within ten minutes of screen time.

Among the other supporting characters I was really surprised to see were Johnny Depp and Kevin Dillon, both of whom seemed like they would be too young to appear in Platoon in 1986. Depp was 22/23 during filming and Dillon 20/21 -- no wonder they both have such baby faces. I wasn't surprised to see Living Colour lead singer Corey Glover, since one of the things I'd always known about him was that he had appeared in Platoon. He does a good job -- not sure why he didn't appear in more movies, even though he was busy with the music career after that.

Platoon also allowed me to finally learn the name of that guy I always mistake for Charles Grodin: Mark Moses.

For a movie I only thought was pretty good, I do seem to be going on and on. But I'll try to wrap up now. One thing I found interesting was how much Berenger reminded me of Tom Hardy in The Revenant, both in terms of appearance and in terms of his character's function in the movie. Not only do the two sort of look alike, but they are both a "good guy" who kills someone good for selfish reasons before finally getting theirs in the end. The climate is different, but the character is the same -- and both got Oscar nominated for their efforts.

Okay, this is it! We're at the finish line. The last best picture winner I need to watch, which I'll watch in April, also has the word "last" in the title. It's Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, which won every award it was nominated for in 1987. I've always been interested in seeing this, but am even more so in the wake of having seen and loved Bertolucci's The Conformist last year.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Let's talk about the Wachowskis

I'm about to tiptoe into a minefield of political correctness, and I'm not sure I'm ready for it.

Whoops! Here I go.

A couple months ago it occurred to me that it must be highly unusual for there to be more than one gay child in any given family. If we are to accept the notion that homosexuals constitute ten percent of the population, which is pretty much agreed upon at this point, and that homosexuality is a biologically determined rather than socially determined predisposition, which is pretty much agreed upon at this point, then every family with ten children would have one gay child. That also means that there would only be one gay child out of every five families with two children. As usual you have to pick "the right five families" to get those results, since it would be easy to inadvertently select two families with gay children and feel like your statistics weren't bearing out the conventional wisdom. Of course, that's not how statistics work and I am now belaboring a point for no reason.

The point is, most families do not have ten children. In fact, few even have five. So if you're looking at the typical family that has no more than three children, having two of them come out of the closet as gay would seem to be highly unlikely. In fact, depending on their political leanings and personal prejudices, those parents might have long, dark nights of the soul trying to figure out what they "did wrong" or how they contributed to an environment in which their kids might "become gay."

So it would seem even stranger, wouldn't it, for two children in the same family to extend gender and sexual identity norms outward to an even further degree and declare themselves both to be transgender.

Yet that's what we have gotten this week from the former Larry and Andy Wachowski, who now go by the names Lana and Lilly. They're film directors, which is why we're talking about this subject at all on a blog devoted to movies. (And it's now officially time to change the name of the label I apply to posts when I discuss these two, which had been "the wachowski brothers.")

Lana Wachowski has been with us for some years now. Various rumors seeped out at various different times, but by 2008 she had transitioned, and by 2010, the former Larry had started to become widely acknowledged and credited as Lana.

This past week we were introduced to Lilly, who, unlike her sister, decided to ditch the first initial of her birth name and make a full transition of moniker as well as gender. Well, "decided" may be an inaccurate term for what the former Andy Wachowski did. If you read her angry confirmation of being transgender, Lilly was forced to come out to the world by prying journalists, trying to grab hold of the last vestiges of it being on her own terms.

Through one rather startling piece of news, the Wachowskis have managed to throw all our notions of nature vs. nurture completely out of whack.

I call the news "startling" because I can count the number of famous transgender people on basically one hand. In fact, if I want to go beyond Lana and Caitlin Jenner, I have to really think about it. And no, the stars of Tangerine don't count as "famous."

So to get both former brothers, now sisters, of a famous directing pair saying they prefer to be referred to with pronouns that are different from the ones they were born with, is unusual indeed.

Here's where it gets really thorny from the standpoint of political correctness.

Is it really possible for this to be a biologically defined rather than a socially defined choice?

They say that no one decides to be gay, and of course that's true. But it's a bit of a grayer area when it comes to gender. Surely transgender people say, and I believe them, that they always felt like they should have been the other gender, and their transition to the other gender is only a means of correcting biology's mistake.

But could biology really have made the same mistake with both brothers in the same family? Is there no nurture factor at play whatsoever?

I have to wonder.

I don't know how may quizzical opinion pieces like the one I am writing now have been published, simply because this is a very "dangerous" issue -- it's one where if you say the wrong thing, you will be shouted down on the internet and both your sensitivity and your basic humanity will be questioned.

So don't get me wrong. I don't care that the Wachowskis are now sisters instead of brothers. I just wonder how it happened.

The way to approach talking about this is of course from the perspective I have chosen -- the matter of biological likelihood. Whereas extensive research tells us that one in ten are gay, research about people self-identifying as transgender tends to relate more to responses to surveys. And Google tells me that only .3 % of the population identifies themselves as transgender.

So that would mean that in a family that had 300 children, one would be transgender. Or at least, that would be the one that was willing to admit it.

And maybe it's the second part that has more to do with it. Lana was willing to admit it. Lilly wasn't. Or not yet, anyway. Or not to us, anyway. Maybe the number of transgender people who are unwilling to acknowledge their true nature to themselves -- or more to the point, to a society ready to judge them -- is a lot higher.

But still ... two in one family? At least they have two natural-born sisters, Julie and Laura, meaning that "only" 50% of the children of Lynne and Ron Wachowski are transgender. Though 100% of them are now women.

Lilly addressed the apparent unlikelihood of it all in an acidic joke that gets at the larger tone of the letter in which she came out as transgender. She wrote that "my father ... injected praying mantis blood into his paternal ball-sac before conceiving each of his children to produce a brood of super women, hellbent on female domination." I sure hope the aforementioned Ron Wachowski is not one of those aforementioned parents with their aforementioned long, dark nights of the souls.

I don't really know what to conclude. But I also find it laughable to suggest that the former Andy saw what his former brother, now sister, had decided to do with her life and thought that it "seemed like a fun thing to do." I mean, there's loving and admiring a person, and then there's undertaking a radical life change that will put you at odds with a large percentage of the people you meet, and make some of them actually want to kill you.

So the conclusion is: Biology is sometimes a funny thing.

But it also makes you wonder: If we are saying that people have no choice about being transgender, and that means that there is a biological component to it, doesn't that also mean that it's something that could be in a person's genes, and therefore inherited by one generation from the previous one?

It's certainly a question the Wachowskis and their unusual circumstances prompt us to ask. But I also think it's one scientists have looked into and rejected, at least when it comes to homosexuality. Or at least that if it's a gene, it's massively recessive, which is why it doesn't often manifest in the actual sexuality of offspring. (Or the fact that gay people often don't procreate, so they can't pass it on.) If there is an inherited biological aspect to a person's sexuality, I haven't heard about it -- though that could also be because it would just cause too much hysteria among people who blame themselves for "making their child gay."

Okay, I think I better quit before my carefully chosen words start to betray me and I say something that someone interprets as insensitive. Because believe me, I've got nothing but love on the topic of changing genders. I have a good friend whose child is transgender and Tangerine was one of my favorite movies of last year, which I've already seen twice. (And yes, I know this sounds like the "I'm not racist, I have a black friend" argument. But really, I'm not.)

What I do wonder is whether this will have any impact on the Wachowskis' future as directors -- or whether we will be able to distinguish the impact on their careers from the impact of continuing to make expensive movies that don't perform well. Although we really like Sense8, one could argue that the Wachowskis have been failing, at least on the big screen, ever since the first Matrix. While the two Matrix sequels made their money, they were critically lambasted. Some of their releases since then have received slightly warmer reviews (Cloud Atlas), but some of them have been both critical and commercial failures (Speed Racer and Jupiter Ascending). By Andy Wachowski coming out as transgender at the same time as Hollywood having good financial reasons for withdrawing creative control from the siblings, a perfect storm has been created where it will be impossible to distinguish people's moral judgments about them from people's financial judgments.

Well, here's hoping they get to make more seasons of Sense8 (it's been renewed) and that their next movie marries their undeniable vision with something that sort of makes sense and has a lot more box office appeal. Then Hollywood will have every reason to keep betting on them and we can all be happy.

I also hope Lilly Wachowski can be personally happy, given the way she was thrust out into the cold light of day, against her will, into a world that suddenly became much harder for her.

Friday, March 11, 2016


I've been dreading watching Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void again. Dreading it.

Maybe not as much as I've been dreading watching Gaspar Noe's Irreversible again, but dreading it nonetheless.

Ordinarily, if you were dreading watching a movie a second time, the solution would be simple. You just wouldn't watch it a second time.

But that's what makes Noe's movies so unusual. You don't really want to watch them again because of the ways they've unsettled you, but you are also magnetically drawn to them. They're like a drug you know you shouldn't take because it gives you a terrible trip, but there's also something unforgettable about that terrible trip. Something transcendent, even.

Ironically, it was not quite getting this sensation from Noe's latest, last year's Love, that pushed Enter the Void up to the top of my rewatch list, that prompted me to cue it up on Netflix Thursday night.

Love was compelling on a basic level and it was easily recognizable as a Noe film. Its X-rated eroticism was actually pretty sexy, and it goes to the margins of being haunting. But it falls short of the mindfuck that is both Enter the Void and Irreversible, the other of which I will probably now be prompted to watch at some point in the coming months as well. And even ejaculating penises grow repetitive after a while.

I suppose one might argue that parts of Enter the Void grow repetitive, but that's part of their hypnotic charm. "Charm" would be the wrong word, though. Definitely the wrong word. "Spell" is better. "Fever dream" might be even better. "Nightmare" might ultimately be correct.

I won't tell you a whole lot about Enter the Void, mostly because I don't recommend it for just anybody, so selling any particular person on watching it is not my goal. Also, it's worth not knowing exactly what's going to happen to you when you start watching it.

But I'll tell you what happens RIGHT when you start watching it, when the mood is set via the complete credits of the movie assaulting you right off the bat. No, it's not the slow northward crawl you get with most credits. It's a strobing, stroke-inducing blast of information in different fonts of different sizes, different production company logos, different languages, and even probably some hieroglyphs. Then there's the intense, driving music that also pummels you. It's Noe's unique way of preparing you for the shocks to your senses that are about to follow.

Ironically, what then follows is completely different in tone and speed. The movie starts with slow, dreamy POV shots of an American drug dealer living in Tokyo, first as he gets high (and stares up into the swirly colors of the ceiling for about ten minutes), then as he goes to a bar to deliver some drugs to a partner.

And that's when things go really off the rails.

And don't even get me started on that car crash.

What both Enter the Void and Irreversible -- you know, the one with the brutal extended rape scene -- do so well is that they create a feeling that you are unsafe. They are suffused with ominous foreboding, the kind that manifests itself in the score and in all the visuals, the kind that seeps into your skin. Noe's is a dark, sad, violent world, where good people come to bad ends. It's also invigorating and bracing and impossible to forget.

Once I tackle my second viewing of Irreversible -- oh Lord, that rape scene -- I'll need to go back and watch Noe's first feature, I Stand Alone, his only feature I have yet to see. It came out in 1998 and, I understand, is just as hard to watch as his other films, with the possible exception of Love, which may dangle you over the edge a couple times but never drops you.

And for a new Noe film, it'll be quite the wait. Never have fewer than four years elapsed between his films, and it was seven years from Irreversible in 2002 to Enter the Void in 2009.

So will Noe again leave me feeling unsafe, in whatever film he makes in 2020 or 2021?

I'm already dreading it.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

IMDB's outlier

The 50 highest ranked movies by the users of IMDB reads like a typical list of the usual suspects -- The Usual Suspects actually being one of them, at #25.

And then there's the one that comes in at #38, which I suspect most of the fans of the other 49 have only heard of because of its inclusion on this list.

It's Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache's The Intouchables, a heartwarming French dramedy from 2011 starring mostly people that IMDB's heavily American viewership have never heard of, which would also describe the film's co-directors. Or so we would think it was heavily American, if The Intouchables didn't prove to the exception to that rule.

I myself had actually heard of these directors, as I have seen their follow-up film, 2014's Samba, which also stars the outrageously charming and charismatic Omar Sy. But before yesterday, The Intouchables was one of only two of the IMDB top 50 I had yet to see, the other being The Green Mile just behind it at #40.

In fact, I'd guess most viewers would figure this as a French remake of Brian De Palma's 1987 film, The Untouchables, about Elliot Ness and Al Capone. The two have nothing to do with one another, of course. This is a story of a French billionaire paralyzed from the neck down, who invites one of the least likely candidates for the job -- a Senegalese immigrant with a healthy distrust of authority and a wicked sense of humor -- to be his arms and legs, as it were.

Having now finally seen the movie, I can understand why its broad populism would have earned it a place on this list -- but only just. There are certainly far more effective crowd pleasers that are nowhere near this list, and that were made in Hollywood, seemingly making them far more likely to climb a list featuring the likes of Star Wars, The Dark Knight and The Godfather in the top ten. In fact, its 8.5 star rating makes The Intouchables the fifth highest ranked foreign language film on IMDB, behind only Seven Samurai, City of God (itself an unusual inclusion), Life is Beautiful and Spirited Away (though many were likely to have experienced this last with an English language dub). But even if we narrow it down to French language films based on real-life paralyzed people, I'd like to see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly a lot higher than this.

So what, did a bunch of French viewers just stuff the ballot boxes for what became the country's second biggest box office hit of all time?

Something like that must be the case, but if so, why don't we see that phenomenon occur more with Bollywood films? We already know that Indians represent a powerful voting bloc on IMDB, as more than 44,000 of them engaged in a movement to make a movie called Gunday the all-time lowest rated on IMDB -- not because of the film's astounding ineptitude, but because it had some political affiliations that they found objectionable. Yet their best efforts have only managed to push a nearly three-hour 2009 comedy called 3 Idiots to #113 on IMDB. (For reference, Deadpool is already up at #78).

A little googling might discover the answer for me, but for now I'm just interested in musing about these statistical anomalies. They always fascinate me. Some movies' successes in an open and democratic forum like this are just kind of inexplicable, as are some movies' total failures. At #67, Citizen Kane seems to have claimed a particularly low spot on this list, since it is almost always in the top five of any critics' list of all-time great movies. Though that said, Vertigo -- the current title holder for best film of all time in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll -- is three slots lower than that at #70. If you go four slots lower, you get 1957's Witness for the Prosecution, a film I've heard of but am not even really embarrassed about not having seen. Before clicking on it just now, I could not even have told you its director (Billy Wilder) or any of its stars (Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton). Who can explain it? Not I.

As I said earlier, though, I can explain the appeal of The Intouchables. It's a warm and fun movie. Still, it's a bit broad and does almost nothing unexpected, other than delivering us an absolutely joyous Omar Sy performance. Given how predictable it is, I gave it "only" 3.5 stars on Letterboxd.

I guess people's love for this movie is one of its intouchable aspects.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Netflix clues in

A moment passed in our house on Friday night, a moment we thought would be earth-shattering when it finally came, but one we ended up greeting with a shrug instead.

It was the moment we decided we'd probably be giving up our U.S. Netflix account.

Two-and-a-half years ago, when we first moved to Australia, such a thing was unheard of. In fact, our ability to continue using Netflix through a proxy was one of our lifelines that eased our transition from routines that comforted us to a new way of doing things. Netflix, after all, did not exist at all in Australia at that point, and the site was set to function only within the confines of countries where it was actually offered. It was supposed to fail entirely when you tried to access it from Australia.

This was where the proxy came in. The proxy (ours was/is called Hola) tricked the website into thinking we were still in the good old U.S. of A. We streamed as usual and counted ourselves lucky that such a thing existed.

Then in early 2015 (or was it even 2014?), Netflix landed on Australia's shores. We got occasional glimpses of how spare the offerings were compared to the U.S., as discussed here, whenever our proxy was accidentally shut off and we tried to access the site. Each time we breathed a sigh of relief that the use of proxies had not yet been cracked down upon. And the more Netflix encroached into the world market -- do I hear now that it's in 190 countries? -- the less likely it seemed that the company would worry about people illegally accessing the catalogues from other countries. Local customers would just be happy with their local Netflixes, and that would be that.

But then a couple months ago my wife reported reading an article that Netflix was, indeed, planning to crack down on proxies. I pooh-poohed it. I'd believe it when I saw it, I told her.

On Friday night, I finally saw it. Probably a lot longer after they'd started doing it than I thought, which feeds into my larger point.

We'd been continuing to watch Netflix through a proxy, or so we thought, for some time now. But in reality, it appears as though we'd been watching only stuff that Netflix was only too happy to have us watch, no matter what country we watched it in -- Netflix original programming like Beasts of No Nation, A Very Murray Christmas, and just recently, their smart and funny series Love, produced by Judd Apatow. Either that or other TV shows they were offering in both places, like Maron or Parks and Recreation.

On Friday night I finally decided, for the first time in ages I guess, to watch a movie from somewhere down in the depths of my queue. As you can probably tell from the poster above, it was Amy Heckerling's Clueless, which I had not watched since sometime in the late 1990s. (It had come up a couple times in the past week, first when Stacey Dash appeared on the Oscars, then when it was referenced in a podcast I listen to. I guess I saw it as a sign to end my Clueless drought.)

Netflix greeted the attempt with the following message:

I needn't visit the advertised address. I knew what this was all about. But I tried again anyway. A couple times.

When it didn't work, I turned off Hola and saw my Netflix My List shrink radically before my eyes. There were still some decent titles, but not the wealth of options that had just been there.

And not Clueless, either.

Oh well. I hadn't been married to Clueless anyway.

When my wife came through the room again on her way to bed, I reported what had happened and she said, "Oh well. I guess we should stop paying for our U.S. account."

Just like that, we both shrugged and the moment was over.

Just like that, a large swath was cut out of our potential viewing schedule on any given night.

But you know what? It didn't really matter. And here's one of the reasons why.

We subscribe to an Australian-based stream service called Stan, and you know what? Stan has a ton of good offerings. (We also subscribe to something called Presto, which has not as many good offerings but does have the distinction of offering Mr. Robot, which we were watching with increasingly less interest until we stopped two episodes short of completing the season. Presto is not doing well and may go by the wayside.)

Not only does Stan have a really great selection of movies -- most notably having just added Mad Max: Fury Road, which we both want to rewatch -- but we can watch it via an app on our TV, meaning no longer do we have to plug in one of our laptops with an HDMI cable. We can do that with Netflix as well, but the perceived reliance on our proxy had been preventing us, as such an intermediary does not work through the TV.

So as soon as Netflix robbed me of Clueless, I flicked on the Stan app and scrolled through page after page of offerings, just in the comedy category and mostly things I thought were pretty damned decent, until I found an acceptable substitute:


Which I then proceed to watch, and determine that it had not aged particularly well. It's now a 3.5-star film for me rather than a 4-star film, but that's not really germane to this discussion.

What is germane is the symbolism of the passing of the torch from Netflix to Stan, at least in our household. And how little that moment seemed to matter, in the moment. I didn't find what I wanted on Netflix, but without missing a beat I found it on Stan -- and didn't even have to hook up my laptop.

Oh, we'll probably still subscribe to Netflix in Australia. There are still things we want to watch that we can only get on Netflix. Enough of them that it'll probably make a new subscription worth it.

And it'll feel kind of nice to actually be above board, to not fear the nebulous menace of potential legal reprisals, to actually use the app on our TV to connect to Netflix.

And if we want an actual decent selection of movies, we'll always have Stan.

The world is becoming more and more globalized the deeper we move into the 21st century. Sometimes that's not a good thing, but more often it is. And sometimes, when it seems like it's a bad thing, it's really just a thing. And the competition offers you another thing that's just as good or better.

So the next time I'm looking for a little guilty pleasure to fulfill my movie viewing needs, and my selection of current library loans seem just too cerebral for a Friday night viewing, I'll remember Stan's page after page of offerings -- in the comedy section alone.

And I'll remember less and less the time when Netflix was my lifeline in a new and frightening world.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Lost Ark

When I went to see the Coens' Hail, Caesar! last week, I had the odd experience of seeing only a single trailer before the film.

It was odd both for the number of trailers -- the usual total is about three for this theater -- as well as for the film being advertised, which was first released 14 years ago in its native country and a dozen years ago in Australia.

I discovered that night that Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark was returning to Australian cinemas, for reasons I have yet to figure out despite several internet searches devoted to the subject.

And it reminded me that watching this film is a conquest I started but never completed.

If you haven't heard of Russian Ark, you obviously aren't as big a fan of the long take as I am. Since I was so wowed by the work of Emmanuel Lubezki in Children of Men -- though I suppose it goes back 15 years earlier to my first exposure to an audacious single take in Robert Altman's The Player -- I have considered myself something of a devotee of long, unbroken shots in film. Russian Ark should have been right up my alley, then, as it is constituted of nothing but one unbroken 96-minute take. The shot goes through the Russian State Hermitage Museum and involves 2,000 cast members enacting scenes from Russian history in gorgeous costumes.

Unfortunately, I chose to watch that 96-minute shot starting at something like 10 o'clock at night, something like two years ago. I got through about 15 minutes and never resumed. It wasn't that I was bored, but ... okay, yeah, I was a little bored. Sleep was the dominant obstacle, but boredom definitely factored in.

But I can count the number of films I've started and not finished on two hands, so seeing this trailer for this movie piqued my interests, especially since I couldn't otherwise fathom why it was being re-released on April 7th. (And the internet is still unwilling to tell me.)

One thing I find especially odd about the timing is that the movie boasts itself as the longest unbroken take in cinema history, or at least it was at the time it was made in 2002. As it so happens, an even longer single take is being released to Australian theaters next Thursday -- and this one I have already seen.

It's the 2015 film Victoria, which I meant to devote its own entire post when I saw it late last year, specifically because of the kind of technical feat that usually turns me to jelly.

Victoria, a German film directed by Sebastian Schipper, runs a full 42 minutes longer than Russian Ark on that one single shot. Yes, that means you are watching the same shot, without any edits, for 138 minutes. And it's possibly even more ambitious than (what I saw of) Russian Ark, in that it is not confined to a locked down building in which everything is under the director's control. This shot goes in and out of cars, apartment buildings and bars, up and down streets, up and down stairwells, and who knows where else.

And it was one of the most prominent examples I can think of where a technique that I love and admire this much left me this cold.

It's not coming out in Australia until next week, but I rented it on iTunes back in December based on the much earlier U.S. release date. Not 15 minutes into this story of the titular woman who stumbles out of a bar and gets caught up with a gang of friendly but unstable men who go on a crime spree, I start to squirm, conscious of how long I would be stuck in this movie with this device. Don't get me wrong -- on a purely technical level, it is absolute genius, a feat to be celebrated as one of the greats of the last 15 years in terms of pure degree of difficulty. But as an actual story with actual characters I care about and things I care about happening to them ... it didn't work. And just as I said I felt trapped inside the awful movie Open Windows in this post because of its gimmick of all taking place on a computer screen, I felt trapped inside Victoria, a decidedly better film that just doesn't quite work despite the heroic efforts of its actors, its cinematographer, its other logical support staff and especially its actors.

Fresh off that experience (relatively speaking), I don't know that I'm eager to give Russian Ark another go right away -- though going to see it in the theater would be one way to ensure I didn't yield to a flight impulse. It would also be a way to ensure I spent too much money on it, since I doubt my critics card would be accepted for this special engagement. Plus I think it's still streaming on Netflix, though I may be wrong about that.

I'll locate that lost Ark one day, though.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

From best picture to worst

Monday was a queer day in the old-fashioned sense of that word, before it had anything to do with a person's sexuality. It was a day we only get on the calendar every four years, a day I have traditionally celebrated (the last two times, anyway) by watching something absolutely god-awful. However, since it was also the same day the Oscars were playing (in Australia, anyway), it was a day where I needed to cram in a three-plus hour awards show as well -- one that we couldn't start until after we put our kids to bed.

Somehow I managed it all. Thank goodness for the earlier recording of the telecast and the ability to fast forward commercials.

It was truly odd to go from the producers of Spotlight accepting the best picture win to watching the opening shitty frames of Manos: The Hands of Fate on YouTube less than five minutes later.

Manos is the third in a grand tradition of February 29th films, joining the Nicolas Cage version of The Wicker Man in 2008 and Howard the Duck in 2012. But Manos created a whole new level of terrible that few if any films have ever matched.

For those not familiar with it, Manos is a 1966 low-budget "horror" directed, written by and starring a man named Harold P. Warren. It gained notoriety when it went under the Mystery Science Theater 3000 lens, its sheer indescribable awfulness having helped it transcend the more pedestrian sort of badness displayed by the other movies that show skewered.

How awful? Let me try to tell you.

But first some "plot."

It involves a "young" couple in a convertible and their daughter (Warren is not particularly "young"), who are trying to find an inn where they're supposed to be staying. They get lost and instead come across a home tended to by an eccentric proprietor who is acting strangely and advises them that he watches over the place "while the master is away." Unable to find their way back, they reluctantly go inside and see a mysterious painting of a man and his ghoulish-looking dog. Ultimately the family's dog escapes outside and is killed, and eventually they discover "the master" and his small clutch of wives, i.e., captives.

The very broad strokes of this story preview something chilling, but all it takes is one second of viewing this movie to realize that it may be the worst movie ever made. Every creative element that goes into the making of a movie is delivered at a Z-minus grade of quality. You could probably argue until the cows came home about whether the photography, the editing, the lighting, the sound or the acting was the worst element of the movie, but the directing is the one element that seems to encompass all of those, so let's just say that this is almost definitely the worst directed movie ever made.

Vance, how many god-awful movies have you seen to make a statement as bold as that?

Not nearly all of them, to be sure. But watching any one minute of Manos -- literally, choose randomly from the entire 68 minutes -- will convince you that it's almost not possible for someone to make a film more incompetently than this one is made. Ten random homeless people could make a better movie than this if they replaced this film's ten most important collaborators.

To call the editing haphazard doesn't even come close to describing the depth of its ineptness. The film is cobbled together from camera angles shot either three degrees to the left or right of the previous shot, played consecutively with each other rather than as a return shot after a cutaway. The camera is rarely if ever set up in a location that makes the most sense for capturing the action, with crucial objects sometimes appearing half out of the frame. Lighting has been applied so indifferently to the proceedings that sometimes it bathes the performers in a blinding whiteness, and other times it is totally absent, so you can't even see anyone's face. And let's talk for a minute about the ADR. Clearly films on this budget would not have synchronous dialogue that you could hear clearly, but the post-dubbed dialogue doesn't even come close to matching the mouths in the pictures. Plus even the silence is noisy, as the soundtrack has a background noise that sounds a bit like air being released from a tube, a constant stream of polluted quiet.

The terrible acting and directing deserve their own paragraph. The best you can say about the acting is that people's reactions are in keeping with the general mood of what's expected of them -- in other words, no one sounds happy when they are supposed to sound sad. Literally any and every other acting sin is committed here, from excessive flatness (that's Warren) to giant, over-the-top scenery chewing (Diane Mahree and Tom Neyman, as his wife and "the master" respectively). What is most odd, though, are the delayed reactions, the two- to three-second pauses after lines of dialogue that would seem to require an immediate response. You can almost see Warren off camera saying something like "Wait ... let it sink in. Pause for effect." Though to be honest, the notion that Warren had any guiding principle whatsoever on how to direct this movie is baffling.

And then there are just the hilarious things that transpire in this movie. I can't mention them all, but there is the repeated sub-plot of another couple who keeps getting harassed by the same police officer while making out in the back of their convertible. For a while I thought this had something to do with the rest of the movie, but I honestly can't figure out what it is. Then there's the supposedly horrific scene where a victim gets slapped to death by the master's crazed wives. I'm not talking about a brutal episode of violent slapping that bludgeons someone to death. I'm talking about five or six mid-strength slaps that somehow result in the victim expiring. There's also the absurdity of the fact that the father carries around a drawn gun for the last 15 or so minutes, even when there are no villains nearby and when he is trying to do things that require the dexterity of his hands, like pick up and carry his daughter. He's pretty damn lucky he didn't accidentally discharge a bullet into her temple. (Spoiler alert.)

What's truly terrible about this giant collection of cluelessness, though, is that it generally does not have the delicious moments of grand spectacle that distinguish other such terrible movies. There's no "You're tearing me apart, Lisa!" (The Room). There's no "OH MY GOD!" (Troll 2). I suspect that if they tried to show Manos: The Hands of Fate as a midnight movie (and I'm sure somebody's considered if they haven't actually done it), I have no idea what would work as the "bring down the house" moments. It's like a slow, trudging march toward an ending that seems like it will never arrive. I find myself wondering how they tackled this challenge in that MST3K appearance that brought the film to prominence. They must have come up with something good, otherwise we probably wouldn't even know about it at all.

The movie is of course fascinating for the simple reason that someone (Warren, I guess) looked at this dailies every day and said "Yup! Nailed it." But let's just say, not fascinating enough for me to ever watch it again.

When I get around to ranking this on Flickchart, I will seriously be considering it for my lowest spot on the chart.

Never too early to start planning for February 29th, 2020, right? Suggestions welcome.

It's a Saturday, so I definitely won't be watching the Oscars the same day.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


Three nights earlier I had been on a podcast saying that the Oscars didn't interest me much anymore because they contained few if any surprises.

So what a surprise the 88th annual Academy Awards ended up having in store for me Monday night (Australia time). A couple, actually.

Unfortunately, they weren't all good.

If you had asked me to pick any one award that I thought was a total lock, I would have told you it was Sylvester Stallone winning best supporting actor for Creed. Yes, perhaps even ahead of Inside Out winning best animated feature and Leonardo DiCaprio winning best actor.

But it did not happen.

Instead the award went to the deserving Mark Rylance, who might have been my second choice, but a distant second to good old Sly.

And yet again one of the acting performances closest to my heart, the one with at least a 50/50 shot at winning, goes against me.

There are likely numerous examples over the years, but the ones that leap immediately to mind are the losses by Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (both to Sean Penn, actually), and Michael Keaton just last year in Birdman. All three of those men were the leads in my favorite movie of the year. As it happens again with the secondary lead in my second favorite of the year, I guess I have to cover my ass with an ironic #oscarssowhite and #oscarssomale and #oscarssoold to account for my choices for the performances I most wanted to see awarded.

I'm sure in that same time there have been wins that delighted me just as heartily, but it's the tough losses I remember most. I didn't realize how much I wanted Stallone, who is otherwise not a favorite of mine and historically never has been, to win, until he didn't.

But not all the surprises were bad.

Spotlight taking home best picture made for probably my biggest surprise in that category since Crash sucker-punched us all back in 2005 -- a moment I mentioned in that ReelGood podcast as the last time I was really surprised in general by the Oscars. I'd venture I've guessed the best picture winner correctly in every Oscars since then, even at the times I was desperately rooting for a different winner (The Social Network). So it was a nice surprise to see Spotlight beat out presumed favorite The Revenant, which had the in-show momentum of having just picked up best actor and best director, yielding the spotlight (if you will) to a movie that hadn't picked up an award since the evening's very first (best original screenplay).

What wasn't a surprise to anyone who has marveled at what he can do on a stage is how Chris Rock struck the perfect tone for his monologue and ensuing comments about race throughout the evening. He hit hard, but he hit in both directions, which was an incredibly smart and in itself a bit unpredictable way of handling his predicament. He let Will Smith and Jada Pankett have it even harder than those allegedly perpetrating the racism, to the extent that one wonders if those two will ever attend another Oscars. (Pinkett may not have the option, since, as he so bitingly pointed out, she wouldn't have been invited in the first place.)

The most killer segment that had me laughing hardest was when Whoopi Goldberg, Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan and Rock himself made their way into parodies of some of the most nominated films, there to exemplify the lengths black actors must go to to get cast in Oscar-worthy films. Morgan brought gales of laughter in drag as The Danish Girl, danish in this case being a reference to the pastry he was cramming in his mouth, but then Rock outdid him as the black astronaut stranded on Mars that two NASA officials (played by Martian cast members Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig) would not pay $2,500 to save. "I can hear you mother[bleepers]!" Rock says as they do the cost-benefit analysis within earshot over a satellite video link. "I don't see a black astronaut stranded in space. Do you?" Wiig says to Daniels through winks.

Other general thoughts:

- The scrolling of the thank yous didn't accomplish anything, as many of them ended up being repeated anyway and they just gave the whole thing a cable news network feel.

- Why were only three of the five songs performed? Were the other two nominees too busy to attend?

- As moved as we were all supposed to be by the Lady Gaga song, her gesticulations, vocal or otherwise, were just so wild that I couldn't help cracking to my wife that she was reminding me of Barbra Streisand.

- I didn't get the sense that the black actors and actresses who presented felt they had done some kind of deal with the devil. It seemed to be more or less just business as usual, and that was good.

- More of the comedic banter worked than usual. I liked Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe going back and forth about the number of Oscars they had between them, and Tina Fey pretending to be drunk was great. Sarah Silverman and Sacha Baron Cohen (as Ali G) proved just random enough to keep us on edge and never know what they might say next.

- I was interested to note a correction of previous awards biases in favor of actresses over actors. Best supporting actor was plunged deep into the program, as many as ten awards after best supporting actress, and best actress came a whole two awards earlier than best actor (broken up by best director). Maybe they thought that in a year they were being criticized anyway, just go for broke and lean male as well as white?

- The only one of Rock's lines of commentary that left me feeling a little funny was the objection to women being asked about more than their dresses, but it did set up his funniest line of the night, which was: "If George Clooney came to the Oscars wearing a lime green tuxedo and a swan coming out of his ass, I guarantee you they'd ask him: George, what are you wearing?"

- Other than DiCaprio, who gave one of the most succinct and poised speeches I've ever seen at the Oscars, the acceptance speeches were pretty dull. And not only because the music started playing most of them to their finish not 15 seconds in.

- That guy who said he may be the first openly gay person to receive an Oscar pretty much has to be incorrect about that. Even keeping in mind the word "openly," I'd say there had to have been at least five others in the last decade alone.

- Dave Grohl's In Memorium performance of "Blackbird" was a highlight.

- Even if their movie didn't win, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Emmanuel Lubezki set astonishing precedents by winning awards both back-to-back and back-to-back-to-back. I'm not looking this up right now, but I'm kind of wondering if anyone has ever won Oscars in three straight ceremonies like Chivo did this year. Probably Edith Head or somebody. I know for certain that only two other directors have ever taken home back-to-back trophies. Good on them.

- With my own predictions, I was on a roll at the start of the night. I got something like the first seven correct before finally failing to pick Mad Max: Fury Road for the first time when I should have. After that my track record returned to being mediocre.

- Our recording ran out in the middle of the producers' acceptance speech for Spotlight. Oh well.

Okay, now I must go to bed as it is 2:21 a.m. here, and what the hell am I still doing awake.