Friday, April 29, 2016

The fine line between Captain America and The Avengers

The following post contains very minor spoilers about Captain America: Civil War, not much more than what the trailers already show you.

Captain America: Civil War is, for all intents and purposes, an Avengers movie.

Except it's good.

Like, really good.

Which makes no sense.

Marvel Studios and Disney so tightly control the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and therefore the look and feel of their films, that when a director wants to bring his own vision to one of these movies, they just push him out. Bye bye, Edgar Wright. We want Ant-Man to be less interesting than you want it to be.

But for some reason, the Captain America movies have stayed above the fray. Civil War is no exception.

Which makes no sense.

These movies should be of a piece, yet the Captain America movies -- be they directed by Joe Johnston (the first movie) or the Russo brothers (the last two) -- are consistently superior products.

I'm sure someone could figure out why, but it's not going to be me.

As Joss Whedon has gone from Marvel golden boy to Marvel whipping boy, it's easy to just suggest that Johnston or the Russos are better directors than he is. But that's a pretty weird conclusion. None of those guys has the track record Whedon has, and just because his last Avengers movie was a stinker, it doesn't taint his previous output -- both for Marvel with the original Avengers, or in general as a writer/director/creator. Can we really say that these other guys "get" Marvel more than Whedon does?

And yet this is basically an Avengers movie. The Avengers are called out by name constantly in Civil War. Like Superman before them (about a month before them), they are culpable for wanton destruction and accused of being indifferent to the resulting loss of life. Just because the Hulk, Thor, Nick Fury and, um, Cobie Smulders are missing from this, it doesn't mean it's not really an Avengers movie. They've just replaced those guys with Spider-Man, Ant-Man, Black Panther and Bucky Barnes. (And who knew, by the way, that Captain America's movies would be so much about Bucky, well beyond The Winter Soldier and probably on into the next three or four installments?)

What I thought I would object to in this movie is the fact that everybody needs to be in it. As the paragraph above indicates, it's about the same amount of everyone as in the overstuffed Age of Ultron, but what seemed like it would make it worse is that they kept on adding new people. The introductions of Ant-Man and Spider-Man particularly had me worried. There wouldn't seem to be enough for everyone to do.

Yet Civil War somehow figures that out, too. Ant-Man and Spider-Man are both basically comic relief, and boy are they fun. They are used just the right amount, sprinkled in for flavor, rather than relied on heavily to bear out complete narrative arcs. (And there's one awesome Ant-Man thing that I don't think any of the trailers have spoiled yet.)

I'm wondering if we just find the Captain America brand name a surefire indicator of quality -- if, in fact, that's why this story contains the Captain America banner rather than the Avengers one. I mean, it's never too late for a series to curdle, but something about Captain America just continues to hum along at a creative peak. What's strangest about this is that the original, The First Avenger, was something I wasn't looking forward to in the slightest. I was worried this character would be terminally square, jingoistic in a completely unironic and probably painful way. The First Avenger figured to make me embarrassed about my country of citizenship. Instead, the three Captain America movies may well be my favorite three movies from the MCU.

I don't know that I should question it. Maybe I just need to accept it and move on.

Some other thoughts on Civil War ...

America first

If you're wondering how I've already seen this movie, well, I'm kind of wondering that too.

As I came out of the theater yesterday, I asked myself, "Wait, wasn't it the first weekend in May that Captain America and Batman v. Superman were fighting about back in 2014 or something? As far as I can tell, it's not May yet -- even here in Australia."

And indeed, when I got home, I checked IMDB, and the movie doesn't open for another eight days in the U.S.

No such delay here. A week and a day before its U.S. release -- which is really one more additional day because of the time difference -- Captain America has hit Australian theaters. Except they don't call them theaters here, or even theatres. They call them cinemas.

When it comes to movies and their release dates, Australia often taketh away. But sometimes, Australia giveth.

Imperfect teeth

There's a moment in Civil War when Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man tells Chris Evans' Captain America that sometimes he wishes he could punch him in his perfect teeth.

This was only a few minutes after I realized he couldn't say the same thing to Black Widow.

No, not just because heroes don't usually threaten to punch women in the mouth. Rather, because Scarlett Johansson's teeth are not perfect.

When she's on the phone with Steve Rogers following [a particular incident that I won't spoil here], the camera goes close on Johansson's mouth, and that bottom row of pearly whites is anything but straight. In fact, the teeth in ScarJo's front middle are actually trying to crowd each other out, one in particular protruding crookedly in front of the others.

Before you think I'm teeth-shaming Scarlett Johansson, I'll let you know why I'm bringing this up. It reminds us again why Johansson is awesome -- she's not perfect, but the combination of her appearance and her charisma often convinces us that she is.

In fact, in reality, she's just the girl next door with crooked teeth.

Okay, so that's being a bit disingenuous. She's a person of otherworldly beauty. But her beauty is not inaccessible, as you might think it were. There's a natural component to it, a regular component to it, nearly undetectable imperfections that ground her in our world. This despite the fact that someone actually made a "realistic" robot version of her. One with perfect teeth, I might add.

And sure, it could just be because she could never afford to take enough time off from acting to get braces. But I like to think that she just doesn't care. And that's cool.

A well-trained audience

People have figured out this Marvel thing by now.

Most of the time when you go to the movies, and the credits start to roll, you lose three-quarters of your audience right there. A hardy few will stay to look at the names of all the key grips and dolly grips, but most of them are gone -- to the bathroom, to the car, what have you.

Well, not in Marvel movies, at least not anymore. For a time, these people were leaving early and missing the now two extra sequences that appear -- one about a minute into the credits, and one after all the credits have rolled. But now everyone is hip to this. In my audience, we lost no more than ten percent, and even those who did leave, didn't do so until after the first installment of additional footage. The rest of us waited to the bitter end. It was really a rather unusual experience, a bunch of people looking at their phones with the lights up, still plastered to their seats.

And I'm proud to say I was able to figure out essentially what the final bit of footage would be. I won't tell you what it is, but I will say that I correctly guessed both characters that would appear in it and what the essential nature of their interaction would be.

Marvel may not contain all that many surprises these days, but Captain America continues to be the exception to that rule. He was the first avenger, and I'm increasingly convinced he's also the best.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

No Audio Audient: Intolerance

This is the fourth in my 2016 monthly series in which I am catching up with classic silent films I haven't seen.

When I asked my Flickcharters Facebook group which of four versions of D.W. Griffith's 1916 film Intolerance available on YouTube I should watch, one of the first responses was "The longest one."

It's possible that was a sarcastic response designed to subject me to a lengthy endurance test, but I took it at face value as meaning "The longest one is the one that's truest to the director's original vision."

While that's probably correct, it was with some reluctance that I discarded the 2:42, 2:46 and 2:57 versions and opted for the one that ran 3:17. Which would make this one of the longest films I've ever seen, right up there with Seven Samurai and 2014's Winter Sleep, though trailing the Abraham Lincoln epic Gettysburg.

Well, I don't know if you can sit there and give your full attention to a three hour and 20 minute silent film, but if you can, you're a better man than I am. Or if you're a woman, you're a better woman than I am.

It's fair to wonder whether I really gave Intolerance a fair shake. Almost from the start I was put off by its poetic, flowery title cards, which prized abstraction over narrative exposition. The fact that the title cards were used to beautify what we were already seeing, rather than to explicate it, meant that I probably should have been paying more attention to the images, rather than less. But I decided pretty much from the start that I'd try to multi-task through Intolerance -- that it would be the only way I'd survive the experience. I'd be sure to look up every time there was a new title card, but I could not be expected to stare raptly at the screen the rest of the time. Once I realized that the title cards weren't helping much with the exposition, it was probably too late.

The movie is divided into four stories of supposed intolerance through the ages, and makes certain to continue to remind us of the theme, as the word "intolerance" appears a good 20 times in the title cards. One is a modern story of a worker's strike and the unfolding repercussions on a girl ("The Dear One") and a boy ("The Boy," which is a funny name for him because he has a moustache and is clearly an adult for much of the movie). One is a story in ancient Babylon, which is probably the most grandiose but is also the one I tried least hard to figure out. One takes place in 16th century France. And then one is, naturally, the crucifixion of Christ. Transitions occur between these scenes with the aid of a figure rocking a cradle, intended to represent "eternal motherhood" or some such nonsense. He also goes to pages of a book to indicate the transition.

The one that gets the most screen time -- and the one I made the greatest attempt to follow, beat by beat -- is the modern story. Which makes sense, as the other three were added to a movie Griffith was already making, which seems a bit strange as they are by far the most technically ambitious three stories. Griffith apparently added them as he reconceptualized Intolerance as a response to the NAACP and others who criticized the racism in The Birth of a Nation from the year before. The odd thing about that was that Intolerance was not, as is sometimes thought, an apology for Birth of a Nation. Rather, Griffith dug himself in deeper by presenting himself as a victim of intolerance by those who didn't understand Birth. Puh-leeze.

And so again it becomes difficult to separate the art of Griffith from what we know about him as a person. Intolerance was obviously the most ambitious film that had ever been made at that point, but it may also be the most ambitious film that has ever been made, relative to the prevailing standards of the medium. Of all the other films that we think of as great technical breakthroughs throughout the years -- from Citizen Kane to Avatar -- few are perhaps as off-the-charts, go-for-broke ridiculous in terms of sheer gumption. The number of extras alone made this an astounding logistical feat, and that's not taking into consideration sets and costumes that seem authentic and then some. It's as though Griffith got a taste of grandeur in Birth and decided he was going to make what might come to stand as the greatest movie of all time.

Yet despite all this ambition on display, Intolerance fails as basic storytelling, which is why I came very close to giving it a thumbs down rating of 2.5 stars. I ultimately chickened out and went with a three. Still, I feel like one's feelings about the man shouldn't affect one's perspective on this film any less than they affect one's perspective on Birth. Although he does not offend in the text of Intolerance, he offends in the subtext, especially once you learn more about what drove him to make it. All the artistic skill and ambition are therefore tainted.

And I was really taken aback by his ego. There may be some logical expectation for this, but I kind of laughed to note that his initals -- D.G. -- appear in a little insignia at the bottom of most title cards. (I say "most" because the title cards are oddly inconsistent, with different fonts used and different formats presented -- I assume this was either to differentiate the stories, or perhaps as a later attempt to fix up the surviving cuts of the film with whatever materials were available at the time.) So while we would assume a massive ego based on what we know about Griffith, here we get actual evidence of a sort of narcissism that seems to have no functional explanation other than Griffith just liking the appearance of his own initials.

Before we just dismiss the movie as a bunch of impressive technique in service of empty and hypocritical platitudes, I should of course again reconsider the notion that I just didn't give Intolerance a chance. I was almost pre-checked out on it. There were baseball games I wanted to follow online as I was watching it, and follow them I did. During two of the three sittings it took to watch it. The other one, my shortest sitting, was at night, when I watched 23 minutes starting at hour two. And fell asleep about four times.

But I'm not watching this movie again. A little of it goes a long way. When you watch Intolerance, I think the point is to recognize it as a staggering cinematic achievement, to admire the commitment to grand spectacle, not to breathe in every nuance and really care much what happens in it one way or another. When you know the driving force behind it, you are even less interested in meeting it on its own terms.

So yeah, I've seen Intolerance once, or at least three-quarters of a time. I will never watch it again.

What will I watch in May? I think I need a light palette cleanser. How about a little Charlie Chaplin? The Kid it is.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Respecting the new distribution channels

It takes a lot for an old curmudgeon like me to change my ways/rules about something, especially when it comes to something as sacred as my year-end movie lists.

But even old fogeys sometimes have to wake up to the changing cinematic landscape and incorporate it into their manner of viewing the world.

Used to be -- in fact, it was up until now -- that I would only allow movies onto my year-end list if they played theatrically in the year in question. They didn't have to play theatrically in the United States -- that's a change I've also reluctantly made, since moving to Australia -- but they at least had to play theatrically somewhere. Festival environments don't count, unless it was me that saw it at that festival. Such as The Witch at last year's Melbourne International Film Festival. Even then, though, I knew The Witch would play theatrically, it just hadn't done so yet. So that made things easier.

So-called straight-to-video? It got left off my year-end list, if I even deigned to watch it at all.

But Netflix and other streaming services are changing how we think about the previously unbridgeable gap between cinematic releases and video releases. Twenty fifteen was a big year in that regard, as Netflix debuted its first film to which it had the exclusive distribution rights: Beasts of No Nation. Beasts threatened to cause me to have this internal discussion back then, but let me off the hook by actually getting a nominal theatrical release in order to qualify for awards consideration. (Which worked, as Idris Elba actually received a Golden Globe nomination.) But one of its next prominent exclusive releases, the Adam Sandler ensemble comedy The Ridiculous 6, received no such corresponding theatrical release (since, as might be assumed, no award nominations were expected for it, except possibly the Golden Raspberries). In large part because I didn't know what to do with that movie vis-a-vis my year-end list -- but also because I knew it probably sucked -- I just skipped it.

But it's a brand new year now, and Netflix figures to give us dozens of exclusive features this year, if its massive commitment to its own television shows is any indication. And Adam Sandler makes kind of an instructional case study in how we should start to consider this content, formerly stigmatized as merely straight-to-video. In the past there was the assumption that if something went straight to video, it was because there was not sufficient demand for it to get released theatrically, nor a sufficient assumed quality about it. Nowadays, though, big stars are committing to deals to have their movies released exclusively on the small screen. Not that Sandler is anyone's idea of a guy at the peak of his career, but his movies still generally make money at the box office, and you'd assume they'd continue to do so. Instead, Netflix snapped him up, meaning his next four movies would be exclusive to the streaming service, starting with Ridiculous 6 and continuing with The Do-Over, which is set to premiere a month from tomorrow.

So it seems useful to start thinking of Netflix as more than just a dumping ground for unwanted movies. I mean, I don't think anyone ever thought of it that way -- but they definitely thought of movies that didn't get theatrical releases as garbage looking for a dumping ground. Netflix has worked overtime to demonstrate that its content represents a certain level of prestige, even if Sandler himself has never had that word associated with him. He has been A-list, and that's what Netflix wants -- an A-list status.

That brings us to the movie I watched last night. Mike Flanagan's Hush played at this year's South by Southwest film festival, then was picked up by Netflix and debuted on the streaming service less than a month after its March 12th world premiere. It seems like this is going to be an increasingly common distribution model. The film has a 67 Metascore (though I didn't like it at all), so it's obviously not just somebody's trash being dumped as quickly as possible. In fact, the mere fact that it has a Metascore lends it a certain legitimacy in and of itself. Netflix looked at this movie and thought that it would work for their demographic (which is computed by all that metadata they get from their users), so they scooped it up and made it available to viewers as soon as possible.

In the olden days, I would have discounted this movie as straight-to-video and just never given it a second thought, much less a viewing. I mean, it definitely won't qualify for the Oscars this year, another loose determining factor in the films that qualify for my year-end list. But nowadays, I think I'm forced to accept it as just as legitimate as another trashy horror that plays in theaters for two weeks and slinks away with heaps of critical scorn and a 19 Metascore. Hush's director, Mike Flanagan, directed Oculus, a horror I loved from two years ago that definitely played theaters, and the film also features John Gallagher Jr., star of such mainstream films as Short Term 12 and 10 Cloverfield Lane. (He likes movies with numbers in the title, apparently.) If it walks like a duck, then gosh darn it, I guess it is one.

So you'll be seeing Hush on my 2016 year-end list. You won't see it very high on that list, but if you go down far enough, you'll find it.

I don't know that I'm swinging the gates open wide. Like, I still don't know if I'm going to watch any of Sandler's Netflix movies this year. But at least now I'm open to considering the applications of these movies for inclusion among the esteemed (or not so esteemed) ranks of the films I list from #1 to #whatever at the end of each year.

Whether that helps them or not is another question, but there's no such thing as bad publicity, right?

I guess when you're a blog that reaches as few readers as mine does, there's no such thing as bad anything.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Raise your hand if you rewatched Purple Rain this weekend

I did.

Here are some thoughts:

- Moments after I commented to my wife that "Let's Go Crazy" was the exact studio version of the song, the song went off on an unexpected mid-song tangent jam that I did not remember -- or like. It goes on for like four minutes. My next words to her were, "Boy, I sure am glad this is not the real version of this song." (Though that does beg the question -- is the "real" version the one on the album, or the one in the movie?)

- I loved the moment where [that girl] hands the Kid a tape of the song Wendy and Lisa wrote, which will eventually become "Purple Rain." It's a dark, indoor scene. For no reason whatsoever, the Kid puts his sunglasses on to receive the tape.

- Did Prince really do the ventriloquism in that scene where he has the puppet reject Wendy and Lisa? The internet says no, it's just ADR, which certainly makes sense. Ventriloquism works like gangbusters on stage, when the person is 20 feet or more away. But when you shoot someone in a movie doing ventriloquism, and they are less than five feet from the camera, you are going to see some telltale mouth movements if the person is legitimately doing the ventriloquism. There weren't any in this scene.

- The first time Morris Day walked on screen, I remembered what a hissable villain I always found him to be in this movie. I wonder if Day at the time (pun intended) realized he was just going to serve as Prince's foil in this movie, just the Washington Generals to his Harlem Globetrotters. I doubt Morris Day and the Time would have had a Prince-like career anyway, but this movie might certainly have played a role in short-circuiting that.

- I had forgotten about the little Abbott & Costello routine between Day and his sidekick Jerome regarding what password they're going to choose to get Day's attention when Apollonia arrives at the club. It's "what," but it takes them a long time to determine that, and Day still doesn't successfully recognize it when it comes up later on. It's actually a reasonably clever exchange, in terms of sheer linguistics and wordplay.

- Speaking of Apollonia, her bedroom eyes still slay me just as much as they slayed Morris and the Kid.

- It's interesting that both "Computer Blue" and especially "Darling Nikki" are presented as "bad songs" in the context of the movie. They are played back to back in a scene where the Kid is hitting rock bottom, and "Darling Nikki" is obviously overly personal and self-indulgent (I'm sure "the boss," Billy, didn't dig on songs that talked openly about masturbation in his club -- he tells Morris earlier that he wants a girl group who are sexy, but not dirty). But "Computer Blue" just seems like a good song. Why all the head shaking and concerned looks in the audience?

- I was surprised at how much of a performance Prince actually gives in this movie. I had remembered him just strutting around, posing and making Derek Zoolander faces, though of course I wouldn't have been able to characterize them as such at the time. But no, there's not as much posturing in this movie as I remembered, and Prince actually undercuts the sense of cool I always thought he was working so hard on by the fact that he lives with his parents. He's pretty subtle in most of his scenes, and rarely is that just under-acting.

- I thought it was an interesting choice to have "Purple Rain" unfold without Apollonia at all. I kept waiting for the moment when she'd appear in the crowd and be overcome by the power of the song, just like Billy and the rest of the audience. But it never came. Only later do you realize she did see it, when he encounters her backstage and her face is streaked with tears. At first I wasn't sure what I thought of this choice, because it robs us of that moment when you can see her entranced by the song. But then I decided I liked it. The performance of that song is not about winning her back, but just about doing the best work he can, and finally recognizing the contributions of the talented songwriters hiding in plain sight in his own band. He has that moment of reaching the goals of his narrative arc, and reaps the benefits with Apollonia after the fact, as it should be.

- In the old days I used to wish that this movie ended with "Purple Rain," but on this viewing I recognized how short-sighted that desire was. I remember feeling the tedium of having both "I Would Die 4 U" and "Baby I'm a Star" following the movie's emotional climax, but now I understand that the Kid needs to prove his revived marketability with more than just one mind-blowing ballad. Billy wants a draw in his club, something that has enough of the type of fun brought by Morris Day and the Time, which his audience obviously craves. These closing two songs prove the Kid can do that as well, and they end the film with a kind of cathartic exaltation.

- And hey, even Morris Day is getting into it! Aw.

- My biggest disappointment about watching this movie came after I finished it, and it was pointed directly at myself. When adding Purple Rain to my Letterboxd list of rewatches, I noted that the star rating I'd given it just three years ago was 2.5. Only 2.5 stars? So this viewing taught me that Purple Rain is not just a guilty pleasure for me, but a movie whose every scene actually works for me on some level. It doesn't have a bunch of embarrassing moments you have to giggle through -- in fact, it doesn't really have any. (That funny montage of new wave faces in the opening scene and the closing freeze frame of Prince's face are the closest it comes.) I may be looking at this movie through rose-tinted -- or purple-tinted -- glasses in the wake of Prince's death. But I really don't think so. That 2.5 stars should be at least 3.5, and possibly as many as 4.

After our Stan streaming service finished the credits for Purple Rain, it offered us some related films, including Graffiti Bridge (which I've seen) and Under the Cherry Moon (which I haven't). And though I've been listening to a bunch of Prince over the past few days and am in full-on Prince appreciation mode, I don't think I'll watch Under the Cherry Moon, a Golden Raspberry award winner for worst picture and worst director (Prince himself) in 1986. Not just now, anyway.

I like my purple-tinted glasses just as they are, only seeing the good in this departed genius.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Audient Auscars Concluded: The Last Emperor

Hey everyone. Welcome to the final installment of the series I started at the beginning of 2015.

I have now done something that always seemed like a distant goal on the horizon. I have now seen every best picture winner, all 89 of 'em.

The final entry, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, was a fitting way to conclude in any number of ways. Not only does it have the word "last" in the title, but it was also the last best picture winner before the beginning of my own personal "modern era" as a cinephile.

Before 1987 I think I already considered myself a budding movie fan. I think even at that time, I tried to see a few movies that weren't just the most obvious things offered up to my age group. But soon afterward a definitive change took hold, and that change was this: I started seeing all the best picture winners. Not just seeing them, but seeing them within a year or two of their release, or more likely, within a month or two. Rain Man was the first and then it went on from there. So not only was The Last Emperor the final best picture winner I hadn't seen, but it has always been the final picture winner I hadn't seen. Even things like Driving Miss Daisy were neglected by me for no more than a year or two -- I didn't have to finally watch it in 2007 or something like that. And by the beginning of the 1990s, Oscar fever had such a hold on me that it was unlikely I even missed any of the nominees for very long. In fact, there are only eight movies that have even been nominated for best picture since 1990 that I haven't seen, and no more than one in any given year.

Even at that time there seemed something mythic about The Last Emperor, and it's fair to say that has only grown over the years. I think it remains the only best picture winner to have won every award for which it was nominated, though I'd have to check on that. But at the time, in March of 1988, that impressed me to no end. It suggested that this movie must be of an unimaginably high level of quality, and it became daunting in that respect. Was I ever really ready to see a movie that was so great?

The length surely had something to do with me not seeing it before now as well. This is one of the first movies I remember seeing the runtime and actually registering how long that was. "165 minutes? That's like two hours and 45 minutes!" So not only was it grand, not only was it epic, not only was it really good, but you'd also have to really settle in for the long haul if you ever wanted to watch it.

To add to that, I imagined the subject matter being impenetrable. It was probably one of the first movies on my radar that wasn't set in America, or at least in an English-speaking country. So it seemed exotic, unlikely to speak to me in a way I could fully comprehend. I didn't know at the time -- and in fact, didn't know until I watched it this week -- that the movie was actually filmed in English.

So all this baggage was still with me when I was scheduling a time to sit down with The Last Emperor. I had first planned to watch it on Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon during my younger son's nap. But since he was waking up around 5 a.m. those days -- an annoying habit he has yet to fully abandon, four days later -- I needed to spend his afternoon naps in my own state of slumber. Or at the very least, doing things that did not require the purportedly immense levels of concentration demanded by something like The Last Emperor.

I toyed with watching it in chunks, just to make sure I got it in before the end of April. But if it was great as I was led to believe, I didn't want to do it that disservice. I should also mention that I'm relatively fresh off seeing another Bertolucci film I loved, The Conformist, which made it seem all the more important to give this one its just due.

Ultimately I lucked into a perfect scenario. My wife was going out on Thursday night and wouldn't be home until late. So even once she got home, if I weren't finished, there would be no pressure to watch something else with her. If I started it with my dinner, I could be done before 11, even with expected breaks. Of course, as it turned out, it was an especially rough day characterized by a rain storm that almost prevented me from picking up my kids on time, and their behavior after getting home ranged from moaning to whining to crying. So even with my best laid plans, I ended up having three glasses of wine with dinner and threatening not to complete the movie in one sitting anyway.

But I did finish it before midnight. And was indeed glad that I'd not only seen it all at once, but at night, where it deserves to be seen, on the biggest screen available in my house. Of course, now that I've expended so many words on preamble, I'll probably feel compelled to race through the qualitative portion of this post, just so I don't lose you. Oh well.

First and foremost I was glad to see how easy it was to follow. So, strike that impenetrability fear off the list. The Last Emperor manages the nimble feat of giving us plenty of exposition without making it feel like that's what it's doing. The screenplay is structured very helpfully in that regard, starting with the 1950 imprisonment of Puyi (played by John Lone as an adult) and then flashing back into his childhood at different ages as it checks back in regularly with 1950. It's always easy to tell where the story is going, I guess because this is a pretty standard biopic structure. And the story is a particularly interesting one, as it shows the clash between the traditional method of bequeathing leadership from generation to generation that had characterized China for thousands of years, and its 20th century transformation into a republic. It reminded me a bit of Downtown Abbey in that regard, and takes place at about the same time. The old ways were dying all across the world.

In terms of themes, The Last Emperor profoundly explores the paradox that a figure as apparently all-powerful as an emperor ultimately has little say about his own freedom and agency. Early in the film, someone tells Puyi he can do anything he wants. At the time, he indulges that freedom by splashing water in the faces of various servants, who must only laugh and accept this mild abuse. But it becomes clear over the course of the movie that his power is basically an illusion. He's really imprisoned inside his responsibility and his status as a figure of worship to his people. Part of this is a function of the age at which he gains the increasingly meaningless title of emperor, which is just three years old. He really does need adults to tell him what he really can and can't do. But this mentality toward him exists on into his adulthood. He is always being protected from himself. He has no real freedom, as for many years he isn't even allowed to leave the Forbidden City. (Which is actually where the movie was filmed, the first Western film allowed to do so.) We see this idea of a privileged monarch trying to escape the narrow constraints of his/her imprisonment in numerous other films, and it's conveyed powerfully here.

We can't go much longer without talking about the sumptuous set design. I suspect it did not have quite the impact on me as it might have had on a 1987 audience, as we have since been privy to numerous sweeping Hong Kong epics that have given us a sense of the grandeur of Chinese pageantry. I don't think audiences had that familiarity back then, so this must indeed have seemed like an odyssey of color and spectacle. DP Vittorio Storaro has a really keen sense of that color, giving the scenes set between 1910 and 1930 breathtaking blasts of color, while contrasting them with the drab grays and greens of the 1950s, when Communism was getting its foothold. It's easy to tell the difference in time periods by the age of the actors and their circumstances, of course, but the color scheme also smart delineates things.

I wondered whether the performances would be much good. Another thing I had also always known about The Last Emperor was that its Oscar sweep did not include any acting awards, since none of the actors were nominated. It would be easy to suggest that the acting is one of the least important aspects of this production, but Lone and others (particularly Joan Chen) indeed do quite good work. I can see why their work wouldn't have risen to the level of being nominated, but I also wonder if it reflects a bias against Asian actors by the Academy. They didn't give Peter O'Toole a best supporting actor nomination either, though. He didn't really deserve one, but at least there's no Sylvester Stallone in Creed thing going on here.

Regarding the ethnicity of the actors and the language chosen to tell this story, I was just a little distracted by the whole thing being in English, even though that was a very common convention at the time, especially in movies with awards ambitions. We live in a time now where something like the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel gets heavily criticized for being filmed in English, so that mentality couldn't help be in my thoughts a little bit.  But given my circumstances (wine), I was happy enough not to read subtitles.

Overall I was surprised how well the narrative moved along and how little it felt like a full 165 minutes. (Though I'm glad I didn't tackle the director's cut, which is an hour longer and was available on a second disc in my library rental.) I was really into it, and only the chemical influences of my wine forced me to take a quick nap or two near the end. But they were only quick naps and as I said, I finished before midnight, really touched by this story and where it concludes. I don't think it's actually the same level of achievement by Bertolucci as The Conformist -- probably no true cinephile would argue that -- but neither is it the totally Oscar-approved, sanitized version of a great filmmaker's vision. It's somewhere in between, and undeniably approaching the level of a masterpiece.

The Last Emperor was also fortuitously timed in that without rearranging my viewing schedule very much -- I may have foregone watching something on Wednesday night, but nothing more than that -- I was able to schedule it as the 4,500th movie I've ever seen. Seems an appropriate epic way to honor the occasion of seeing my final best picture winner.

Okay! That series is over, and now I can focus only on the current year's monthly series, No Audio Audient.

But I do have one more piece of business related to Audient Auscars. Join me in May as I wrap up the series with a complete ranking of all 89 best picture winners, completed with the aid of my Flickchart. This is a list I've been waiting my whole list-making career to compile, so I'm pretty excited about it.

Saturday, April 23, 2016


In all my years sneaking into the second movie after paying for the first, I haven't had an incident like the one I had last night, though it's the one I've been implicitly dreading:

That moment when the big, gruff security guard drops a hand on your shoulder and stops you dead in your tracks.

As it happened, I was already dead in my tracks (sitting in the third row of the theater) and it was a wiry hipster rather than a big, gruff security guard, but the effect was just as disquieting.

The thing is, I wasn't really even meant to be paying for either movie, though this is where it becomes a bit of a gray area.

You see, I had raced over on my bike after work let out to get to a 5:10 showing of Midnight Special in order to review it. I had meant to go on opening night, which was the night before, but my wife had a conflict. This only underscored how important it was for me to get to the movie the next day, as I was reviewing this and time was a-wasting.

The thing is, I'm not technically entitled to use my AFCA critics card for entry into a movie after 5 p.m. on a Friday or Saturday evening. And this was exactly ten minutes after the 5 p.m. cutoff.

I gambled that the theater staff wouldn't identify my attempt at chicanery, and indeed they did not, though they did puzzle over how to ring it up for three or four minutes before letting me in. It's a routine I've gotten accustomed to. But after racing across town on my bike and covering far more distance than I should have been able to in ten minutes, while also perpetrating an act of chicanery, I was understandably relieved when they let me in with just enough time to pee and get to my seat before the movie started.

I won't give you my thoughts on Midnight Special now. They will be accessible via the link at the right, shortly if not right as you're reading this.

So I had the perfect amount of time afterward to get to a 7:20 screening of Eddie the Eagle, which I had also agreed to review, though it would mean postponing my dinner until after 9:30. It wasn't really enough time to return to the box office to get another ticket, or so I didn't think at the time I made the decision not to. And having evaded detection once on getting to see a movie I wasn't really entitled to be seeing for free, I didn't want to chance it a second time.

All seemed to be fine as I watched some videos of Jake Arrieta, the Cubs pitcher who threw a no-hitter yesterday (and who is on my fantasy team), on my phone. But as the actual movie was getting started, an usher came down to talk to me.

I thought it was just to tell me to turn off my phone, something I was starting to do anyway. But rather, he asked to see my ticket to this session.

Um, what?

Like the proverbial deer in the headlights, I lamely started searching for it in my backpack, knowing that my search was going to yield nothing. I guess I thought it would buy me another second or two to think, but I did not use those seconds productively and rejoined him with, "I can't seem to find it." As though to try to regain my upper hand by turning it back on him, I asked, "What's the problem?"

He told me I needed to have a ticket to the session, and that he needed to make sure I did as I had been seen in an earlier session.


My instinct of course was to be annoyed by this. In my experience, movie theaters simply didn't care very much about surveilling their customers to make sure they had paid up for each distinct episode of viewing. If you evaded the lax security standards they had in place -- like breaching the inner sanctum with an initial valid ticket -- you basically had free roam of the place, as long as you proceeded with confidence and looked like you knew what you were doing.

Except this time it didn't work. The only thing I can imagine is that someone saw me move from one wing of the cinema to the other, even though I did it smoothly with only a quick glance upward at the signs that would direct me toward the Eddie the Eagle screening room. What didn't compute was that they had then waited ten minutes to drop the boom on me. I can only conclude that either they spent the remainder of that time vainly searching for me, or that they had a security camera that actually showed them which movie I went into, and were simply waiting for the moment of maximum flabbergast to descend upon me.

Yep, I was flabbergasted and I didn't bluff myself out of the situation very well. But I quickly decided to change tactics to the truth, and that's what allowed me to sit for the second movie.

"Well I'm a critic so I can get in to theses things for free anyway," I said, hearing myself sound like an asshole but not really knowing what to do about it. "But I'll leave."

"You're still meant to get a ticket," he told me. "Just please do that next time."

So I guess the critic thing had either really caused him to retreat, or he wasn't planning to remove me anyway, only scold me. Either way, I felt a bit shaken as only someone who has a righteous finger of guilt pointed in his face feels shaken. If he'd known the rules a bit better he would have known I wasn't entitled to a free ticket to this session anyway, but in all likelihood, his desire for a heated confrontation was just as scant as mine.

I didn't really recover for about five minutes into Eddie, but after that it receded to my personal back burner.

Oh, and my Eddie review should also be up shortly on the right if you want my thoughts on that movie.

So Cinema Nova ultimately gave me a pretty fair shake in this situation, even if their impulse to confront me in the first place felt a bit abrupt and unsavory. So indeed, I won't violate their rules again. I'll see all my movies within the first two weeks of their release (I do that anyway) and I won't try to use my card after 5 p.m. on Friday or Saturday (I don't usually do that anyway).

And if I'm going to a second movie, just take a damn extra two minutes and go downstairs to get a second ticket.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today ...

Thus go the first seven words of the album Purple Rain, Prince's soundtrack to his 1984 movie of the same name. The soundtrack is justifiably more famous than the movie -- I'm not a Prince aficionado, but I can't see how it's not his best album -- but the movie itself has some indelible moments, especially its rousing climax. The soundtrack would not be half of what it is if it were just a regular studio concept album. It needs that movie to give it a sense of context, a sense of place.

I have been feeling out of place within myself ever since I woke up this morning to discover that Prince -- the man, the myth, the legend, the guy who temporarily went by a symbol that magazines had to import into their computers in order to write about him -- had died.

I didn't even know he was sick, though it was supposed to be just a bad flu. He was found unresponsive in an elevator at the complex where he lived. I hope we don't learn more about the circumstances of his death. I hope it was just that a man who always seemed slight, always seemed small of frame, had succumbed to something just a bit too powerful for his slender physique to handle.

But however small he was, his talent was prodigious. His voice was malleable, ecstatic. His guitar was ferocious. His songwriting was legendary. He was legendary.

Purple Rain the movie was something I discovered out of a prurient interest, rather than a musical or cinematic one. Somehow I learned that you could see the boobs of the movie's ingenue, the single-monikered Apollonia (who actually has a last name in IMDB, Kotero, which was heretofore unknown by me), in a scene where she strips to jump into a lake. When I was 13 or 14 and just really starting to get into the opposite sex, I discovered that my mom had recorded the movie off cable (The Movie Channel) and that, hey, I know how to use a fast forward button. But at some point I watched the whole movie, and even though it's cheesy and overwrought in spots, it's also incredibly satisfying, especially that ending. It didn't only lay claim to my loins, it laid claim to my heart.

I haven't seen Purple Rain in something like 25 years, but I've listened to the soundtrack dozens of times. It begins and ends with my two favorite Prince songs, "Let's Go Crazy" and the title song, "Purple Rain." ("Purple Rain" is not actually the last number in the movie -- both "I Would Die 4 U" and "Baby I'm a Star" follow it -- but it quite fittingly closes the soundtrack.) It's the epic quality of both songs that really transport me, one an ecstatic celebration (which is, interestingly, also a contemplation of life and the afterlife), the other a melancholy ballad. "Purple Rain" runs 8:41, and I luxuriate in every last second of it, down to the strings that fill the final minute but are never actually heard on the radio. "Let's Go Crazy" is somehow only 4:39, though it feels like double that, given that sermon opening, the places it goes within the song, and that amazing guitar solo it ends on, which of course is Prince strumming that axe himself.

And even though those songs have far surpassed the moment of their origin in that movie, when I hear them, I still see Prince scurrying around on that stage, a man possessed by the power of music. Those songs circulated through his body like a bolt of electricity. He was a consummate performer, even if he wasn't a great actor. Simply put, he brought it.

No other Prince work really had the same effect on me, though I do own several of his other albums, including his famous soundtrack for another movie, Batman, without which you could argue that that movie would only be a fraction of what it is. That album also has at least two great songs, "Batdance" and a ballad that always teared me up, "The Arms of Orion." But his creative pinnacle was reached five years earlier with Purple Rain. I only saw him as an actor in one other movie, Graffiti Bridge. The less said about that, the better.

The more said about Prince, though, the better. He was a Michael Jackson-style superstar. Much has been written about him, but he has always remained at a bit of a remove from us. Now that he's actually been removed from us, my heart aches.

On a day like today, I think it's appropriate to print the whole opening "sermon" of "Let's Go Crazy." Here it is:

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
2 get through this thing called life

Electric word, life
It means forever and that's a mighty long time
But I'm here 2 tell u
There's something else
The afterworld

A world of never ending happiness
U can always see the sun, day (day) or night (night)

So when u call up that shrink in Beverly Hills
U know the one - Dr. Everything'll Be Alright
Instead of asking him how much of your time is left
Ask him how much of your mind, baby

'Cuz in this life
Things are much harder than in the afterworld
In this life
You're on your own

And if the elevator tries 2 bring you down
Go crazy

Prince was brought down in an elevator this morning. Here's hoping that he can now see the sun, day or night.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Out of practice

When you go six weeks between film reviews -- the last film I reviewed was Zootopia on March 10th -- you start to worry about your skills dulling. In fact, you wonder if you even remember how to do this at all.

Those six weeks more or less coincide with a visit from family, who came over from the U.S. starting on March 3rd. But they've been gone a week now, so it was time for me to get back on the horse.

Or the sheep, as it were.

The other thing about having a long layoff between reviews is that you'd kind of like to get started again with something easy. You know, a light comedy or a dumb action movie. Something where you can write the first line or two of the review even before you've seen the movie.

Rams, perhaps the only movie I've ever seen that was made entirely in Iceland and by Icelanders, would fit none of those descriptions. It's a drama (described as a deadpan comedy in some quarters) about sheep farmers who are brothers in rural Iceland, who haven't spoken in decades because of a never-named beef, and who are both competing for the prize of top ram in their local community of fellow sheep farmers. The movie itself won top prize in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes last year.

After I left the 8:40 screening on Tuesday night -- utterly exhausted from my younger son's third straight 5 a.m. wakeup call -- I had no idea what I would write about the movie. The beginnings of a review were not forming themselves in my head, trying to burst out of my fingers before I could get them to my keyboard. Simply put, I had nothing.

Had I met my match? Was this one layoff too long?

I'm relieved to report, no. My son's fourth 5 a.m. wakeup call actually did me a favor, as I had the whole thing written before anyone else in my family even got up. Anyone else but him, that is.

And I'm rather proud of it, actually. It's here if you want to read it.

Now lest you think I'm suddenly into big-upping my own writing, really, I just wanted to get up another post so that I didn't start to stagnate here too. It's been since Saturday, which would be Friday in the U.S.

But it won't be another six weeks before I write my next review. Midnight Special is opening tomorrow, and I'm seeing it after work on Friday. Review to follow shortly thereafter.

If that one doesn't burst out of my fingers, well, I guess I'll have to hope for my son making it a week straight of serving as our personal rooster.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

O.J. & J.C.

Only because of a scratched disc did I watched the sixth episode of The People vs. O.J. Simpson and the movie JCVD in the same evening.

I intended to rewatch Tony Scott's Deja Vu as an accompaniment to O.J. -- which would also have been a fitting pairing, as the whole of Ryan Murphy's series is a revisit of something we first watched 20 years ago -- but the library rental succumbed to a large imperfection on the surface of the DVD about 15 minutes in. In fact, it started to resemble the concept of deja vu as seen in The Matrix, all glitchy and jumpy, before ceasing to play altogether. When I determined that there was no way I was going to buff this out with the corner of my shirt, I moved on to the next thing.

And the next thing, after browsing Netflix for a couple minutes, was JCVD, the surprisingly French language film from 2008, in which Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a version of himself who gets unexpectedly ensnared in a robbery/hostage situation taking place in a Belgium post office. (And as I'm typing this I'm wondering if this movie surfacing on Netflix has anything to do with Sense8 -- speaking of the Wachowskis -- as Van Damme's image appears on the side of an African bus in that series, making for a perfect if obviously unanticipated addition to the world portrayed in JCVD, where Van Damme struggles with the unfortunate byproducts of his celebrity.)

The reason O.J. and JCVD make such appropriate bedfellows is that Van Damme himself is originally mistaken for the perpetrator of this crime, rather than a hostage. The result is an absolute media circus in which the world is watching in real-time as the star of Bloodsport and Hard Target and Timecop is apparently holding a bunch of innocent Belgians at gunpoint, in order to pay his legal fees for a contentious custody battle with his ex-wife. (O.J. was only holding himself at gunpoint, but you better bet the world was watching.)

And I realized that one of the reasons I love The People vs. O.J. Simpson so much is that it's amazing to watch the unfolding of real-life drama whose only points of comparison come from the movies. The fact that the plot both resembles something from the movies, and involves a person we actually know from the movies, makes it doubly engaging.

What makes O.J. more than just a tawdry, tabloid-style trip down memory lane is the absolutely astonishing commitment of the actors. In the past few weeks since we started watching, I have spent the most time praising the work of John Travolta (in an increasingly smaller role) and Courtney B. Vance (in an increasingly larger one), but now it's Sarah Paulson I'm feeling should be this show's Emmy frontrunner. The narrative unfolding here is the personal tragedy of Marcia Clark, a surprising streak of gender politics intermingled within the overriding politics of race, and Paulson is absolutely killing it (pun sort of intended) in this role. It's especially powerful to me as Paulson is an actress I have not previously liked. But as literally everyone else is bringing their A game to this material, to dwell on any one performance underappreciates just how successful the entire ensemble is.

And that's something this has in common with JCVD as well. Simply put, who knew Jean-Claude Van Damme had this kind of performance in him? I mean, I sort of knew it from hearing all the praise of Mabrouk el Mechri's film, which I had been meaning to see for years (though wouldn't have believed it dated all the way back to 2008 until Netflix told me that). But Van Damme burrows deep inside his own tortured soul to conjure a truly naked performance, one that struggles with celebrity, parental failings, the approaching end of his career and even a philosophical reckoning with the moral value of portraying violence on screen.

There's one scene in particular that floored me, the scene that caused me to tack an additional half star on to the four I was already planning to give it. Near the start of the third act, el Mechri momentarily untethers from the film's faithful sense of realism to give Van Damme a soliloquy. As the actor is sitting in the post office, under the watchful eye of his captors, he travels off into a flight of self-analysis that is set off by an off-screen platform elevating the actor up toward the lights above the set, indicating a moment of artifice within the proceedings (and giving us another meta moment that reminds us that we are watching a movie). Shot at a distance of only a few feet away while Van Damme faces the camera, the actor now has a floodlight and other backstage ephemera visible over his shoulder -- he's gone beyond the bounds of the movie and is now addressing us, the viewer.

And what he says, during an unbroken take that lasts about four minutes, is an uncompromisingly, uncomfortably real form of self-crucifixion, an unblinking examination of his own weaknesses and human failings. They say the hardest role to play is yourself, so one wonders whether this is actually close to the real Van Damme or an entirely imaginary version with just a few of the same problems (the fading career part is certainly real, but I have no idea if the real Van Damme was involved in a custody battle over his child at the time the movie was made -- only that he's been married to the same woman since 1999, though it's his second marriage to her). Either way, he brings astonishing emotional honesty to the scene, which is just an intensified and concentrated version of how he's laying his soul bare over the course of the whole movie. One wonders if Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu received any inspiration from JCVD when writing Birdman, or particularly in casting Michael Keaton as a thinly veiled version of himself.

The film also ends in an intensely satisfying fashion, giving us what we want without selling short the real issues about celebrity, Hollywood and hero worship the movie has raised. Which is where it will probably finally deviate from The People vs. O.J. Simpson. What makes Sarah Paulson's performance so moving is that I know Marcia Clark is not going to win this trail, that a man who was truly monstrous -- which this show and Cuba Gooding Jr's. performance are both revealing to me more than I ever knew before -- will win the day.

So JCVD ultimately has a more hopeful view of the world. In the movies, the good guys always win.

On TV, and in life, not so much.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

I finally saw: Labyrinth

The other day I was discussing other people's nostalgia. Here is another good example of that.

Labyrinth has not heretofore had any role in my 1980s nostalgia, because before yesterday, I hadn't seen it. But it seems to get referenced with some regularity, and by the time David Bowie died and it got a lot of mentions in connection with that, I had fully acknowledged it as a blind spot in my personal viewing. So seeing it available from the library made it not only a must-borrow, but a must-actually-watch-before-it's-due-back.

The thing that surprised me most about Labyrinth is how good it still looks. Perhaps that shouldn't have been a surprise, as puppetry does not date the way special effects date -- or rather, it always looks a bit old-fashioned, but charmingly so. As I was fresh off my first rewatch of Beauty and the Beast in 25 years, and was taken aback by how little that still seemed like cutting edge animation, I expected more of the same from Labyrinth. But it has the type of crispness and natural physical reality that people always cite when praising practical effects. Labyrinth is like Exhibit A for what we've lost with the onset of digital technology.

I was actually kind of amazed at what Jim Henson et al did with their practical effects, some of which actually looked sort of digital. I think in particular of one example where the lead (Jennifer Connelly) is interfacing with a pair of ornate door knockers, which take the shape of faces. Henson seamlessly blends the puppetry of their moving countenances with the rest of the door, so everything has the same steel gray appearance, yet part of the door is actually alive. When I say it looked digital, I mean the good of what digital can offer. If made with actual digital effects -- as the whole of Labyrinth surely would have been made today -- it wouldn't have had an ounce of the charm.

There were also a couple characters that seem so beloved that I can scarcely believe they never escaped the confines of this movie to become general cultural touchstones. Like, shouldn't I have known about this guy sometime before yesterday?

That's Ludo, a large creature who's kind of like a combination of a gorilla, a bear, a yak and a bison. Not only does he look cool and is he a sweetheart, but he also has the ability to move rocks with the power of his mind and neanderthal howl. How could Ludo have eluded me all these years? It's sad, really. He deserved to be better known.

I think why Ludo wasn't better known was that there's something inescapably strange about Labyrinth, something that would always keep it from entirely being embraced by the mainstream. It might be a bit dark -- both lighting and subject matter. It might be a bit garish. It might be more Return to Oz than Wizard of Oz (though I understand Return to Oz has its staunch defenders). But man, I loved it. It was delightfully screwy and truly visionary.

As essentially the only two humans in the movie, Connelly and Bowie both impressed me. Connelly is quite assured for a 15-year-old, though she was also good in Once Upon a Time in America two years earlier. Her reactions all seemed smartly calibrated and in the proper scale for what was happening to her -- bewildered and frustrated, but accepting the reality of her situation as perhaps only a daydreaming teen would be capable of doing. And Bowie is perfectly sprightly, clearly an adversary of Sarah's but also seeming like he's trying to lead her to the goal of trying to understand and appreciate the circumstances of her life. It's like he's putting her through a gauntlet toward greater maturity. I also enjoyed the perhaps unexplained melancholy of his character, particularly during their climactic meeting in the M.C. Escher staircases (Escher's estate actually received acknowledgement in the closing credits). There's a music video quality to his scenes, but not only because he's singing songs and he's a rock star. It's more that he's expressing inexpressible emotions in his songs, some of which seem to have little to do with his tete-a-tete with Sarah and more to do with some kind unquenchable sadness inside him.

So this movie is weird in all the right ways, and I really look forward to seeing it again.

The only part I didn't like was when Henson inexplicably chose to leave the lovingly realized reality of this maze and all its strange and wonderful denizens and present some of the action against a green screen. The green screen technology is not nearly up to snuff on its own, nor in sync with the practical reality of the rest of the sets, so it really stands out. That whole scene with those bouncing pink creatures with the removable heads, which look kind of like Animal from the Muppets crossed with a pink flamingo, should probably have been excised. The song isn't great, and the green screens are really distracting. Oddly though, other scenes involving camera tricks look completely believable, specifically when Jareth (Bowie) climbs the Escher stairs at the end. There's one particular trick where his body whips around a curve from upside down to right side up that should have been impossible to film realistically, yet it looks great. So no idea why it looks so bad in that one scene with the pink muppet flamingos.

Labyrinth was also nice to watch in the wake of Bowie's death, as it renewed the accompanying senses of sentimentality and loss. Not in a depressing way, though -- just in a way that reminded me how many facets this man had to appreciate. I borrowed his Ziggy Stardust album from the library after returning Labyrinth yesterday, just to keep the vibe going.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A regrettable assumption of poor quality

I'm not sure when it happened, but I have come to think of the appearance of Simon Pegg in a movie as being a surefire indicator of its poor quality.

Maybe not just the appearance, since I'd still say he holds promise in a supporting role. But any time he's the lead? Any time it's a Simon Pegg vehicle? Watch out.

I'm not sure when it happened, but I'm sure how. It happened because Simon Pegg suddenly stopped being able to turn down a role, and suddenly, his face was on every second movie poster you saw.

This is something that has existed in my subconscious for some time now. It became conscious this week, when my wife and I were considering options to watch on our anniversary, which is today. One of those she suggested was Man Up, and I thought to myself with a grimace, "Oh, that's that Simon Pegg movie."

That's that Simon Pegg movie? What?

It's true. This inherently charming Brit who won his way into our hearts with Shaun of the Dead, then never left, has come to symbolize inferior quality for me.

Let's take a step back and figure out how this whole thing happened.

I started to realize that Pegg was fallible around 2007, when he appeared in the highly disappointing David Schwimmer-directed Run Fatboy Run. The bloom was really off the rose the following year with How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, an entertaining book but a terrible movie.

But Pegg wasn't down for the count. His next film was Star Trek, an unqualified hit -- but a film where, tellingly, he played a comparatively minor role. Paul in 2011 was also a big favorite of mine, but he was a co-lead in that with longtime collaborator Nick Frost (as well as, I suppose, Seth Rogen as the eponymous alien). That same year, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol reminded us of his value in a supporting role.

But it's been kind of downhill for Pegg since 2012, in which he appeared in this weird thing that I still haven't seen (though I feel comfortable calling it "weird" sight unseen):

Twenty thirteen brought the second Star Trek movie, which was not as good as the first, and The World's End, which represented major diminishing returns within Edgar Wright's Cornetto Trilogy (I like Hot Fuzz, but it's a big step down from Shaun of the Dead). I suspect I'm in the minority in my thoughts on The World's End, but that doesn't mean it informs my perspective any less.

But the current phase of Pegg's career, the one I find so troublesome, probably started in 2014. Since then, with a few prominent exceptions (among them the latest Mission: Impossible movie, which I also found to be a disappointment), Pegg has started going it alone as the main star of his own vehicles. Granted, I've only seen one of them, but I hated the one I saw:

As you will recall me discussing here.

Since the start of 2014 we have also gotten this:

And this:

And, of course, now this:

To be fair, any one of these movies could be great. I have it on good authority that Kill Me Three Times is awful, but even so, it could be great. (I don't always agree with that good authority.)

The point is, Pegg's choices and career trajectory have now poisoned me against him. A guy I once considered a surefire way to get some reliable chuckles and a good dose of heart can now reliably deliver me neither.

There's definitely some judging a book by its cover here. These have not been particularly high-profile movies, though each has a co-star or two that potentially interests me. (In fact, after In a World ..., I'm as high on Lake Bell as you can probably be.) And Nicolas Cage has surely made twice as many paycheck movies in the same time that Pegg has made this comparatively modest number of anonymous pseudo comedies.

But I don't want to be comparing Simon Pegg to Nicolas Cage, and the fact of the matter is, that's what I'm doing.

So will any of these movies bring me back around on Pegg? Because I want to be brought back around. Really I do.

If you've seen any and care to let me know, please do so in the comments. There's a Simon Pegg out there I love ... I just want to find him again.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A terrific female cast ... and Chris Hemsworth

Perhaps because of the presence of Australian Chris Hemsworth, we are getting The Huntsman: Winter's War a full two weeks before you in the U.S. are getting it. (I assume you are from the U.S., but you could be from anyplace, in which case, my apologies to you for assuming you are American.) It opened here on Thursday.

But Hemsworth is not what gives me a smidgen of interest in seeing this film, though it's only a smidgen.

Simply put, this movie has about the best assemblage of female acting talent in any movie I can think of recently -- which is all the more shocking because it's just a shitty FX-heavy sequel to a shitty FX-heavy movie. (I'm assuming Snow White and the Hunstman was shitty, though did not actually see it to have any authority behind my judgment.)

Charlize Theron was in the first one, so her involvement should not be (and wasn't) much of a surprise to me when I learned of it. But Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain? What's going on here?

What's going on, of course, is that it is, and always has been, difficulty for actors to resist wads of money being waved in front of their faces. I get it. I could not resist a wad of money being waved in front of my face, and it would be a far smaller wad than the one that was waved in front of theirs.

But Chastain and Blunt in particular have always impressed me as selective women, women who have made excellent arthouse work that gave their characters agency and stood for something progressive. Theron has had a more varied career of hits and misses, but she's also the only one of the group who has an Oscar (and was talked about as a surefire nominee last year for Mad Max: Fury Road, though that never transpired).

None of these women are new to blockbusters. In the past two years, Chastain has made the big sci-fi epic kind of her thing, as she was in the biggest scale space movie of both 2014 (Interstellar) and 2015 (The Martian). I'm sure healthy paychecks accompanied both jobs. Twenty fourteen also saw Blunt try on her bankability in a couple high-profile roles, one of which was a big hit with me (Edge of Tomorrow) and one of which was a major miss (Into the Woods). Like Chastain, Theron has also recently appeared in a big movie for Ridley Scott (Prometheus), but she's also not above idiotic comedies (A Million Ways to Die in the West).

So why should the Huntsman sequel -- actually a prequel -- seem so different for these three?

I'm sure it's a totally subjective thing, but to me, the movies listed in the above paragraph seemed like good bets, while this one does not. Each of those movies, even the Seth MacFarlane comedy, are high concept in some way, movies they would have seemed smart to involve themselves in if they'd been hits. And a number of those movies were hits, whether critical, commercial or both.

The Huntsman? It's a total cash grab. Again, I didn't see Snow White and the Huntsman, but was that anyone's idea of a promising new franchise, one that tried to clear the low bar of being about more than just making money? It made $155 million in the U.S., which is no small sum, but it also cost $170 million to make. Okay, internationally it made nearly $400 million -- a solid hit. But few movies, on their surface (because that's the only level on which I can actually judge this), seem to be more emblematic of the soulless Clash of the Titans-style approach to churning out big-budget FX movies for the masses. (And a sizeable chunk of the money probably came from Twilight fans showing up to watch Kristen Stewart -- who will not appear in the sequel.)

You're better than this, I want to say to Jessica, Emily and Charlize. You can do better.

But these ladies have a retirement to plan for. Blunt may be only 33, but Chastain and Theron are 39 and 40, respectively. And we all know what Hollywood does to women over 40 -- or more accurately, does not do. It does not employ them ... at least, not in roles where they can make very much money.

Maybe I should look at the prospect of seeing The Huntsman: Winter's War as a way to contribute to the retirement of three of my favorite actresses, many years in the future though I hope it is.

Then again, I'd be seeing it for free with my critics card, so I can't help them anyway.

Friday, April 8, 2016

That part of Batman v. Superman I really liked

Stipulated: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is not a very good movie.

Everyone knows this. The critics know it. The filmmakers probably know it. The internet definitely knows it, the loud braying of a bunch of overexcited fanboys notwithstanding.

But there was one part of the movie I really liked. In fact, there was one part I thought was flipping awesome.

When I finally watched the movie on Wednesday night, nearly two weeks after it had been released here in Australia -- which, with all the memes and discussions it has generated, felt like an eternity -- I was really nervous during the first 15 minutes, because I realized it was possible I might love this movie.

Never would I have guessed that when a movie I heard was this bad went back into the events of another movie I didn't like, I would love it. But that's what the first 15-minute (or so) revisit of the climax of Man of Steel did for me.

I can't describe the epic chill I experienced from getting the street level, WTF-is-going-on view of that large alien ship drilling Metropolis like an oil rig, and the sounds that were emanating from it. Man of Steel was long enough ago, apparently, that I hadn't remembered the sounds that ship made, or its awesome appearance. But it's also very likely by the end of the running time of Man of Steel, I'd just had it with that movie, and the climax could never have had much of an impact on me -- other than worsening my already bad impression of the movie.

But at the beginning ... something about it just froze me in my tracks.

Enter Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who unbeknownst to us was one of the little ants scurrying around on the Metropolis streets, being squashed by the big bugs of Krypton. This street view immediately becomes Bruce's view, and although he's anything but an average joe himself, his perspective functions as that of an average joe in this situation. It helps to have a specific pair of eyes through which to view these casually horrific events, which do indeed feel titanically horrific as depicted in Batman v. Superman.

They are "casually" horrific because the destruction isn't even the intention of any of the fighters, who include primarily Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon), but some other nameless Kryptonians as well. It's just collateral damage from using such outrageously strong biological weapons on each other -- and in this case, "biological" means "produced directly by their own alien biology." Sure, Zod et al are hellbent on destruction in a general sense in that they mean to colonize this planet for the survivors of Krypton, which also means shaping it into something entirely different than what it currently is. But they don't have a specific malice directed toward any of these people or buildings. They don't destroy merely out of a perversity of spirit.

Superman must, of course, use similar weapons to fight Zod et al, hence the beams that shoot out of his eyes slicing a building in half. Which is an astonishing thing to witness in this movie indeed.

But what's so singularly fascinating about this sequence is that you don't actually see Superman or Zod, or not in any real way. They are little powerful specks in the distance, and could be the size of Mighty Mouse for how small they seem. That something so small could cause so much damage is, well, the principle upon which all nuclear and chemical warfare is based.

But not seeing them is what really gives this scene its sense of powerful realism. The scene is not beholden to the ordinary narrative dictates that would require us to get close-ups of the faces of Superman and Zod ... dictates which, for obvious reasons, were in fact in place in Man of Steel. Without being privy to their faces, and therefore, without having some sense of their motivations, it all just seems like wanton destruction, chaos without meaning or end.

In short, the crumbling of these buildings, the loss of these lives, and the understandable horror on the face of a helpless Bruce Wayne knocked my socks off.

The rest of the movie? Well, you know.

Everybody does.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Somebody else's nostalgia

It's less true nowadays, but in the seventies, eighties and nineties, there were any number of films made that trafficked in the nostalgia of earlier decades of the 20th century.

Surely those films were designed to speak to baby boomers and others who could actually remember those eras, but that doesn't mean they were the only ones with whom these films resonated. You could appreciate somebody else's nostalgia as long as you were at just the right age when those movies came out.

Case in point: I was 12 when Stand by Me hit theaters in 1986. The year 1959, in which the film was set, meant nothing to me otherwise. I wasn't even going to be born for another 14 years. But this film instantly became a cherished favorite because I could relate to the age of the kids, and of course probably also because it's extremely well made. It came right in the thick of Rob Reiner's truly astonishing 1980s hit streak.

However, the same was not true for another film that was arguably similar: American Graffiti. That film was set three years later, in 1962. But it came out 11 years earlier than Stand by Me, when I was still a wee little tyke sucking my pacifier, and I didn't see it until I was in my 20s. At the time I saw it, I would have identified with the age of the characters, like I did with the age of the characters in Stand by Me. But nothing else about it connected with me. I had missed its zeitgeist moment, and so American Graffiti would never be "my nostalgia."

A similar thing was at play yesterday when I watched The Sandlot, the realization of my desire to watch a baseball movie to celebrate the start of the season. The Sandlot owes a ton to Stand by Me, using the same type of voiceover narration and even some similar incidents. (Both films deal with the comically outrageous threat posed by a menacing dog.) It's set at about the same time as the other two films I've mentioned. The difference this time is that I was too old for the movie when it came out, rather than too young. I was six months away from turning 20 when The Sandlot was released -- exactly 23 years ago today, in fact -- and I was in my sophomore year of college. A movie about approximately 12-year-old kids was the last thing on my mind at that time. Instead of being one generation ahead of me, it was one generation behind.

And so as I was watching it yesterday, I got a sense for why it might be revered and treasured by viewers, and especially baseball fans, who were born in the early 1980s rather than the early 1970s. And it did feel classic in some way, like an alternate universe classic. The scenes felt iconic in some familiar way, as though they were bouncing through the ionosphere in my general vicinity, but had never actually hit me until yesterday. It was kind of like I was watching an old favorite through somebody else's eyes ... which was enough of a remove from it for it probably not to become one of my own personal favorites.

Or was it?

Despite a disjointed viewing -- which began the night before and proceeded in dribs and drabs throughout my Wednesday, finally finishing at a cafe in the afternoon over a coffee -- by the third act of this film I felt myself wiping away tears. In fact, the woman at the cafe came at just the wrong time to ask if she could clear away my mug and saucer, as I could answer only wordlessly through a nod and a gesture. I'm a sap for baseball at the movies, I already know that, and that certainly explains my reaction. But the accumulation of nice scenes had really amounted to an emotional whole that was greater than the sum of its emotional parts, as characters I didn't think were necessarily all that well fleshed out, or even able to be differentiated from one another, struck me sentimentally as I heard what they had gone on to do as adults -- words that were accompanied by them disappearing from the screen in the midst of some kind joyous act of baseball.

And suddenly, in the midst of all this, somebody else's nostalgia had become my own.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Scooby Day

Somehow, Scooby Doo ended up become a central part of my cinematic day on Tuesday.

It started in the morning when I was randomly going through Netflix. I had started out trying to find the sports movie section, something I never actually accomplished, either because it doesn't actually exist or because I don't know how to use Netflix properly. (Still trying to find a baseball movie to watch in conjunction with opening day, a feat I eventually accomplished through iTunes. You'll read more about that tomorrow.)

While poking through I came across this:

Which I thought was absolutely hilarious.

In case you don't know Enter the Void, well, you should read this post, as it gives you some idea what it's about. But let's just say Scooby-Doo and Enter the Void couldn't have less in common in terms of subject matter or target audience. I do know why Netflix linked them together, as they both deal with the supernatural in some respect, particularly ghosts. But that's kind of like saying Donnie Darko and Monty Python and the Holy Grail have something in common because they both involve killer rabbits. If anyone at Netflix were doing the cross-referencing on these things, they'd realize that they are also playing Gaspar Noe's other two films, each of which is more shocking than Void, and so should have a plenty good idea about the content of his work. One of those two films involves a lengthy and graphic rape scene and someone getting his head bashed in with a fire extinguisher, while the other features actual pornography, including an ejaculation directly at the screen that was designed for the film's 3D theatrical run. Yeah.

Though I do suppose a suggestion of Enter the Void "because you watched Scooby-Doo" would have been far worse.

I thought this was so funny that I posted this screen grab to my Facebook Flickcharters discussion group, which engendered many likes, laughs and incredulous comments.

The second part of my Scooby Day came after we had returned from morning errands and my younger son was having his nap. My older son was actually with me yesterday as this is the second of two weeks of school holidays between term 1 and term 2. As the younger one had awoken before 6 that morning (we just had daylight savings over the weekend), I was in no shape to engage my older son and actually slept on the couch while he watched an episode of -- yep -- the Scooby Doo TV show he had gotten from the library.

But that's not where it ends. There was actually a third part of my Scooby Day.

Watching this episode gave him an appetite for more of Mystery Incorporated, but apparently, none of the three other episodes available on this DVD. ("Too scary," apparently.) So he asked, "Can we watch more Scooby Doo on your computer?"

By this he meant Netflix. However, as of a few months ago, Netflix is not only available on my computer. Now we can get it through our TV, thanks to an intermediary device called Fetch TV, which also gives us access to a bunch of free (and paid) OnDemand programming. As of a few months ago we can get Netflix, Stan (an Australian streaming service) and YouTube through our TV, so I switched over to the Netflix app and searched for episodes of Scooby's TV show. There were none, but the aforementioned Scooby-Doo movie and its sequel, Scooby-Do 2: Monsters Unleashed, both came up in the search. After thinking about it for a moment, I decided these probably were not inappropriate for him.

For some reason he chose the sequel, even though he hadn't seen the first, and even though he was fully aware that was the choice he was making. That made the difference between me watching it and not watching it. While I might have rewatched Scooby-Doo -- I rather liked it, actually, and not just because I saw it at the drive-in -- Monsters Unleashed was a higher priority, as I'd never seen it despite liking the original. Liking the original did not prevent me from realizing that the sequel was probably terrible, which is probably why I've never bothered before in the 12 years of its existence. But I always figured it was something I would see eventually. Why not now? So I shook off my nap and promptly settled in for an unexpected viewing of Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.

Indeed I did not end up really liking it, but I was going to give it a positive star rating until the final 20 minutes or so, which get bogged down in especially dated-looking special effects and dumb histrionics involving sort-of-real monsters. (Which I thought violated the core principles of the show, in which everything apparently supernatural is ultimately revealed to have a logical and earthbound explanation.) The reason I even liked it all was tied to the performances of the actors, who continue to give their all in impersonating the famous characters. I was again especially taken with the work of Matthew Lillard as Shaggy and Linda Cardellini as Velma, who continued to both be adorable.

My son liked it without reservation. Actually, he did acknowledge it was a bit silly. But I saw this as a clear victory, since the movie is live action and he has traditionally shown some antipathy toward that.

It's Wednesday now, and I do not expect Scooby Doo to make any appearances today.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The actor's modesty

I was listening to an interview with Tom Hiddleston about his Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light, which is now in theaters, and he made an innocuous comment that struck me.

Talking about his experience on another film, Hiddleston said, "I made a film with Guillermo del Toro called Crimson Peak," and then continued on with whatever his point was.

It struck me as incredibly modest, even though in the wrong hands it could have seemed like false modesty.

Two things about that comment showed charming modesty, I thought. For starters, he was reporting it as news, that he had made a film with this well-known director, like almost everyone listening to the interview wouldn't already be aware of the latest film by the director of Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and Hiddleston's involvement in it. The second charming part was that he revealed the name as though that in itself were a piece of information that needed to be divulged, never once taking for granted that the listener might already know of the movie.

But it occurred to me that this type of thing doesn't always work. There comes a point where a movie is well known enough that to pretend your audience doesn't know it would just be insulting them.

Like if Harrison Ford said, "I made a film with George Lucas called Star Wars," you'd say, "Duh, Harrison -- we know what Star Wars is." And you'd be a little bit annoyed because you'd know Harrison knew you knew. It wouldn't help much to switch it up to, "I made a little film with George Lucas called Star Wars," because even though the word "little" changes the inflection of the comment -- now we know he's joking, because everyone knows Star Wars is not "little" -- it still has the effect of kind of big-upping himself. The very acknowledgement of its size indicates that you are overly proud of that size.

So in that case, to seem normal, Ford would just have to say, "On Star Wars we ..." and get on with the comment or anecdote. There that would be okay. It wouldn't be modest per se, but it wouldn't insult our intelligence either, and when you've appeared in four Star Wars movies and four Indiana Jones movies, excess modesty probably doesn't fit very well anyway.

But Crimson Peak is about the perfect sized film to maintain that modesty, and Hiddleston about the perfect level of star. He's not a household name yet, and with his underlying eccentricity, may never become one. But he did play Loki in The Avengers, one of the highest grossing films of all time, so it's not like he's Mr. Anonymous either.

Hiddleston continued to charm me with his lack of pretension about himself and his genuine humility. Later on the interviewer made a comparison between his character in I Saw the Light and his character in Only Lovers Left Alive, and Hiddleston was so chuffed by the comparison (even though it didn't take any particular display of cleverness by the interviewer to make it) that he revealed an anecdote from the set -- an anecdote he would have held back if the interviewer hadn't prompted him by mentioning the Jim Jarmusch movie from 2014. It was an interesting anecdote that had a lot of relevance to the discussion, but he would have kept it tucked away if the interviewer hadn't given him a clear opening. Why? Modesty. You don't tell war stories about other movies during an interview unless given a darn good reason -- it's kind of the equivalent of name dropping. (And lest you consider his original mention of Crimson Peak to have been a case of telling war stories/name dropping, I can assure you it did not come across that way -- though neither do I remember the point he was actually making.)

Another time he seemed genuinely flattered by the interviewer's praise of his performance, like he might have been receiving such praise for the first time in his career -- like he had never before considered the idea that someone might consider what he does to be good.

There was an interesting secondary display of modesty in this interview, this time by the director, Marc Abraham, who did the interview alongside his star. Rather than modesty, it was actually a way to display your pride over your own work without seeming in the slightest like that's what you're doing -- and in fact seeming quite magnanimous in the process.

Abraham said that both Hiddleston and co-star Elizabeth Olsen were "so great" in the film, or something along those lines. To be clear, this didn't strike me at all as bragging about the quality of the film, because the praise was clearly directed at the stars, as if he himself bore no responsibility for extracting good performances from them. However, if you unpack the comment, it is a suggestion that something about the film itself is "great," so as the de facto author of the film, he is indeed sort of praising himself. It's funny that creative types can get away with this, heaping praise on one another without implicitly also praising themselves. Just to reinforce his own sense of personal modesty, Abraham, while describing certain directing luminaries whose styles were an influence on him, explained, "I'm not saying at all that I am that quality of filmmaker" -- not those exact words, but something more succinctly self-deprecating. And indeed, it honestly didn't feel like he was saying that.

The interesting thing is that both these genuinely refreshing personas must be an act on some level, even as genuine as they seem. If not Abraham, a guy I've never heard of before, then certainly Hiddleston, who has been through numerous press junkets already in his five or so years of high visibility as an actor. You do so many interviews and get so many questions from interviewers who are each trying to find something profound and unexpected to ask, but are invariably covering much of the same territory. It can't really be possible to be genuinely charmed by and appreciative of each interviewer, though Hiddleston did it masterfully, and his director followed his lead.

And now I really would like to see I Saw the Light, a biopic of a person who otherwise wouldn't interest me (and seems like a strange fit indeed for the effete Hiddleston), just to see how good of a job these two guys really did do in their respective roles.