Sunday, July 31, 2016

Good MIFFternoon

I've seen nine films before this year at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). Never before yesterday had I seen one in the afternoon.

And that's about the most interesting thing I have to say about the experience of my first MIFF movie of 2016, Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman (or Le Client, from its Cannes poster. And incidentally, it's weird that the French translation is Le Client -- isn't the client usually the person the salesman sells to? In other words, the opposite of a salesman?).

That doesn't mean I don't have anything interesting to say about the movie itself. It's just that in years past, I've managed to construct these posts about MIFF as some kind of anecdote related to the experience, in addition to some words on what I thought of the movie.

Yesterday, nothing anecdote-worthy happened. I showed up on time for the 4 o'clock show. I left after the movie ended. I admired the gorgeous interior of The Comedy Theatre on Exhibition Street in the meantime. Oh, and I ran into the former director of HRAFF, the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, on the way out. I worked with him last year in selecting films for that festival. I guess that's sort of interesting.

But let's just say that with nine more films on my MIFF schedule this year, I've got plenty of other opportunities for good anecdotes.

And since I'm reviewing eight of the ten films I see for ReelGood, I won't go into much detail about my thoughts on these films in the body of the post, unless it's something that's tangential to my review. In the case of my review for The Salesman, the review sums it up pretty well. I've written it already, but it being Sunday morning, it hasn't posted yet. You'll be able to find it in its usual spot linked to the right when it does post. (And if you don't want to wait for that -- I liked it, but it's the weakest of three Farhadi movies that I've seen.)

And tonight: Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women. This is one I won't be reviewing for ReelGood, so expect a more thorough writeup tomorrow.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Crossing over into the second half

I returned a bunch of movies to the library today, and didn't take out any new ones to replace them. That's something I almost never do.

Ostensibly, it was because I'll be occupied with the Melbourne International Film Festival for the next two weeks. But really, it's more significant than that. It means we are crossing over into the second half of my viewing year.

I realized recently that my viewing year can be broken into two halves, one of which is just ending and one of which is just about to begin. And since the halves don't correspond directly to the calendar anyway, I think I'll start with the second half first.

The second half of my viewing year covers the months from August to January. During these six months, I focus mostly on films that were released in 2016, in order to build toward the year-end list that I post in mid-January.

The months from February to July, then, are for rewatches and catching up with movies from other years.

It's seemed to me a good way to balance out the duties of a good cinephile -- a cinephile who wants to stay current, anyway.

And it's not absolute, of course. I've definitely watched movies from 2016 between February and July (44 of them, to be exact) and I'll definitely watch movies from other years between August and January (for starters, I've still got my No Audio Audient series to do). But it's clear where the priorities lie in each half of the year.

And as much as I love rewatching movies and watching movies from other years, the half that's starting right now is definitely my favorite. Compiling my year-end list gives me such great pleasure that I always welcome when the viewing for that goal becomes really intensive.

In truth, though, I guess I'm always ready for when the other half comes, regardless of which half it is. Once I'm done with that year's movies in mid-January, it feels like sweet relief to be able to just pick whatever old movie tickles my fancy at that exact moment.

In the last few years, MIFF has assumed a symbolic value in delineating the two halves. It starts on the last Thursday of July and runs for 18 days, so its actual positioning is at the halfway point of my viewing year. However, as it's also a first look at a bunch of movies that could be awards contenders this year, it fulfills that unofficial role of kicking off the countdown to the year-end list. And if history is any indication, chances are good I'll see something at MIFF that rates very highly with me on that list. Last year, one of the four MIFF movies I saw made my top 25 -- in 2014, it was two of five.

So as I head off to see my first MIFF movie this afternoon, Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman, I also cross over into that giddy time where each new viewing could be my favorite of the year, and everything assumes what seems to be a meaningful spot somewhere on the list.

And when you're in this half of the viewing year, you don't need no movies from the library.

Friday, July 29, 2016

On casting only white people

Earlier this week I saw God Help the Girl, the directorial debut of Belle and Sebastian lead singer Stuart Murdoch. I was not a huge fan of it, but it did some things nicely and that was enough for me to award it a marginally positive review on Letterboxd, three stars out of five.

I found my way onto its Wikipedia page, as I had kind of a passing interest in how others had perceived it. After all, it had originally come on my radar because a video essayist with a particularly good visual sense and editing skills had ranked it among his top films of 2014. I wanted to see if he was an outlier, or if the general regard for the film was in line with his feelings.

In the couple paragraphs devoted to the critical reception of films at the bottom of every Wikipedia film page, I came across a criticism of it that I found both valid and sort of ridiculous, simultaneously.

Sarah Sahim, a critic for Pitchfork, railed against the film's lack of racial diversity as "a microcosmic view of what is wrought by racial exclusivity that is ominpresent in indie rock."

So to summarize Sahim's thesis, it is no longer okay for a person to make a movie about three white kids in Scotland.

I am intentionally being reductive in my reading of what Sahim is saying. I get the very valid point she's making. I guess I just don't get her making it about this movie. And if you are to expand on her thinking, it means she's basically endorsing tokenism.

There are certain movies that would accurately be described as racially exclusive because they bypass an obvious chance to cast an actor of color, especially when that casting would more accurately reflect either a real version of reality, or a version of reality we would all hope for. Then there are just movies about three white kids in Scotland.

If you have three main characters in a movie, does one of them have to be of another ethnicity, or else the movie can be held up as an example of the way movies don't accurately represent reality? What if the reality is that these three white kids in Scotland don't know any black kids?

I reject the idea that every movie that is made needs to be conscious of the ethnic composition of its cast. Many, and perhaps even most, but not all. It's very likely that if you were making a movie about 18th century French aristocrats, you would be relieved of your responsibility to include people of color because people of color simply didn't move in the circles you are dramatizing. There are those movies that cast color blind in situations like this, and God bless them, but no one should be held accountable for failing to cast color blind out of a desire to adhere to realism.

The penalty you pay for this decision is that you shrink your audience and potential box office, which could result in the direct endangerment of future such movies on the grounds of their lack of profitability. The movie almost certainly won't play in the more urban theaters, to say nothing of how it will perform or not perform in China.

And that's okay. That's a consequence you willingly accept.

It doesn't seem to me that you should also earn the ire of an angry critic with good ideas that are being applied too broadly.

Sometimes, you just want to make a movie about white kids in Scotland.

Is that a less interesting topic for a movie than one that might be more racially inclusive? I'd say so. I certainly wasn't very interested by it. But I also don't know that making one of the characters Pakistani would have helped. That movie is white in ways that go beyond its casting choices, and a movie like that should be able to exist if it wants to.

The price God Help the Girl pays is financial. And it paid that price. According to IMDB, the movie made $101,542 in the U.S. On an estimated budget of $1.85 million. In other words, nobody saw it, making it far less likely that a financial backer would provide that type of money again.

In fact, given how feebly the film performed, Sahim almost feels like a bully picking on a frail little weakling -- except she couldn't have known it would be such a bomb when she wrote the review, and of course, the purpose of a negative review is, in a roundabout manner, to try to drive down a movie's box office. (She may have also been trying harder to make a point about indie rock than a point about movies.)

To Sahim's criticism, Murdoch replied on Twitter: "God knows I've yearned to know and love women and men of many nations, but being a poor sick white boy from Scotland has dashed my ambitions." To the point about frail weaklings.

I love that response, not only because it's in the right spirit (i.e. not too nasty), but because it's not really defensive. Murdoch could have said "Duh, just listen to my music, I'm obviously a liberal who is a friend to all liberal concerns." Instead he just knew that those who love him know what he is, and what he does or does not have to answer for.

In other words, he subtly took the air out of Sahim's criticism by telling her she was picking the wrong fight, but did so magnanimously, without having to belittle her.

Sahim's fight is a good fight. The casting of minorities in good roles has been a key discussion point in the Academy's high-profile reassessment of its own norms, as exemplified in the failure to nominate any actors of color at last year's Oscars. It's a good fight that we should keep fighting -- in a sensible way, that picks the right targets.

God Help the Girl is not the right target.

Sometimes, you just want to make a movie about white kids in Scotland.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Where was I for these sales?

The stores that specialize in selling/renting movies have mostly gone out of business here in Australia. When the last one near me closed, I bought a handful of movies for a couple bucks each that I discussed here. And then continued on my merry way.

A friend in my Flickcharters Facebook group is having a bit of a different experience back in the U.S.

A store called MovieStop, which was a division of GameStop and which may have existed in California (though I never noticed), is shuttering right about now.

And the sales are absolutely ridic.

In case you can't fully appreciate what you are seeing on the receipt above, that's a total expenditure of $18.43 to purchase movies, TV shows, what have you with a one-time retail value of $1862.68.

That's right, he saved $1844.25.

And probably didn't even care about half the things he bought, but that's a separate matter.

As just the examples we can see, they are selling a season of Farscape, a show I know nothing about that originally retailed at $39.88, for ten cents.

While it's exciting in one sense, it's depressing in another. Especially as I am also reading a book right now called I Lost it at the Video Store, which talks, among other things, about the demise of video store culture.

I guess the main purpose of this post, other than to wallow in a little nostalgia for times past, is as a public service announcement to you, my dear readers. If you have a MovieStop near you, "stop" there as soon as you can, while some of the last dregs of useful viewing options are still clinging to the shelves.

Wish I could be there alongside you, making my own collection unnecessarily large and undiscriminating.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Series I've abandoned

Another Jason Bourne movie comes out this week, reminding me of how much I dislike Jason Bourne movies.

"Dislike" is a strong word. The better way to describe them is that they don't do anything for me. When everyone was falling all over themselves getting excited about The Bourne Identity, I shrugged and thought it was "pretty good." A general dislike for the spy genre probably contributed to those feelings, but even as action I only thought it was "pretty good."

I tried to get myself in the Bourne groove with The Bourne Supermancy, hearing good things about that as well. That also left me non-plussed. It was fine, nothing more.

Since then, I haven't felt the need to watch any more Bourne movies.

And that got me thinking about other series I have abandoned, and that it might make for a fun blog post.

In order to qualify for consideration here, I need to have seen at least two movies in a series and then stopped keeping up with it. I can't, for example, call Madagascar a series I abandoned, because having watched (and obviously not liked) only the original, I never agreed to get on board for the series. There are numerous examples of that. Jason Bourne is a bit different because I came back for more, but still felt myself underwhelmed.

I'm also not including series where I've watched two or more movies, but not in order. I only saw the first and third Friday the 13th, for example. But I can't really say I "abandoned" that series, according to the way I'm currently defining it. I was never really working on it anyway.

Without further ado ... my abandoned series:

American Pie - It probably goes without saying that I didn't follow this series into this umpteen straight-to-video Band Camp movies, but neither did I see American Wedding or American Reunion.

Beverly Hills Cop: There was a Beverly Hills Cop 3, but I didn't see it.

The Crow: Do you count the later Crow movies? I don't really even count the second one, though I have seen it.

Final Destination: Final Destination 4 -- otherwise known as The Final Destination -- killed me. Sorry, Final Destination 5.

Hannibal Lecter: This is a bit of a weird one as the movies made about Hannibal the Cannibal have not had a consistent artistic guiding hand and have seen multiple actors play Lecter. But because I never got around to watching Hannibal Rising I suppose I should include this.

Harold and Kumar: Somehow I watched two Harold and Kumar movies, despite hating both of them. I believe there's some Christmas one I didn't watch.

Iron Man - I wasn't opposed to Iron Man 3, but I just never bothered.

Karate Kid - They stopped numbering these movies but I didn't see The Next Karate Kid or the recent reboot. I guess that counts.

Mummy - Wasn't there a movie called The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor? Yeah, I didn't see that.

Night at the Museum - Wasn't there a movie called Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb? I think it's already been established I don't watch third movies in series with the word "tomb" in the title.

Paranormal Activity* - You'll note the asterisk. I didn't watch Paranormal Activity 4 but I did return for The Marked Ones. But then I didn't watch The Ghost Dimension. I'm all over the map on this one.

Pirates of the Caribbean - On Stranger Tides was a bridge too far.

Police Academy - Just because I abandoned it a long time ago doesn't mean it doesn't count. I only saw the first two of an eventual 26 of these movies.

Poltergeist - I'm told there was a Poltergeist 3 in a skyscraper or something. Yeah, that doesn't make sense. I did recently watch the terrible reboot, as you know.

Rambo - Didn't see #3 or the reboot. If 2008's Rambo was as good as Rocky Balboa, though, I probably should.

Resident Evil - The third one was actually a big recovery from the awful second one, but I still didn't bother to continue after that point.

Rush Hour - Given how much I liked Rush Hour 2, I probably should have given Rush Hour 3 a shot, but I didn't.

Scary Movie - You'd figured I should just keep going if I'd made it as far as Scary Movie 3, but neither 4 nor 5 ever made it into my DVD player.

Scream - Yes, I made it one further in the Scary Movie series than in the series it was parodying.

Spider-Man - Not only did I never bother to see Spider-Man 3, but I didn't see either the reboot or its sequel.

Starship Troopers - There was a third. It was called Marauder, if I remember correctly.

Step Up - Yes, I saw more than one of these movies.

Transformers - I went farther than any self-respecting viewer should go. But I went extinct before Age of Extinction.

Up series: Okay, including this one as a bit of a joke. I fully intend to get to 56 Up but haven't done so yet.

So quite a few.

Will I get back to some of these? Probably. But let's just say I haven't made it a priority. Nor have I made X-Men: Apocalypse a priority, but since I know I will see it before the end of the year, I didn't see it fit to include it here.

In truth, we'd probably all be better off abandoning more series. If we watched fewer sequels, collectively, we'd probably get more original content.

Hollywood gives us what we demand, and if we don't demand much, we don't get much.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Inexplicably incorrect running times

My wife and I watched the movie God Help the Girl, the feature directing debut of Belle & Sebastian lead singer and songwriter Stuart Murdoch, on Monday night.

But it's only because of a strong constitution and an unusual appetite for endurance that we, or anyone else, would begin such an undertaking, given the length of time the DVD case told us we'd be watching it.

God Help the Girl was, you see, that rare indie musical set in Scotland that runs a whopping two hours and 27 minutes. Or so the box told us, anyway.

In reality? The credits actually start around minute 99, making for a very manageable 111-minute movie. There couldn't have been 12 minutes of credits, so even the "correct" 111-minute running time -- the one I found on Wikipedia about halfway through, thank goodness -- might not be totally correct.

But it's a lot more correct than the 147-minute running time advertised on the DVD case.

So what the hell explains those 147 minutes?

I can't tell, and googling doesn't help. The only thing I can imagine is that there are 36 minutes of special features. But when have you ever seen a DVD factor the special features into its listed running time? I almost never watch special features, but I did once randomly watch a making-of featurette on the vampire movie Daybreakers, which was nearly as long as the 98-minute feature (if not longer). I don't recall the package of that movie advertising its running time as 196 minutes.

I also don't assume that the people who packaged God Help the Girl are just high. So I don't really know what to assume. I don't really know what logical explanation may exist for things that just seem so arbitrarily, indefensibly incorrect.

God Help the Girl is not the only instance of this, either. You may recall that when I watched Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger earlier this year for my silent film series No Audio Audient, its case erred to the other extreme. The movie ended up running 23 minutes longer than the 71 minutes promised on the package.

The running time should be one of the easier pieces of information to get right. It's not like there's a mysterious, ineffable art to determining a film's running time. It's right there in objective numbers, totaling two or three inarguable digits.

You do a real disservice to a potential viewing audience by telling them the a movie is going to run on for 36 minutes longer than it actually does. I say that weeds out a good 50 percent of prospective viewers. Sure, Belle & Sebastian fans are going to watch a Stuart Murdoch film no matter how long it runs. But what about those who aren't initiated, who are willing to gamble 90-some minutes on a trivial little confection, but will run screaming for the exists when it blows past the two-hour mark?

If you are out there (which you are) and you are reading this (which you are) and you have any insight on this strange error and others like it (that remains to be seen), please let me know, because I really want to understand it.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

When movies aren't gay enough (to notice it)

On Friday I published a piece about gay textual and subtextual themes in Swiss Army Man (and, er, the music of Macklemore).

If I hadn't already written the whole thing on Thursday, so that all I needed to do was click a button to send it out into the world, I might have included another way in which gay subject matter in the movies struck me on Friday.

It should have struck me on Thursday, and that's the point of this current piece.

On Thursday I saw (and subsequently reviewed) Star Trek Beyond, the 13th movie in the Star Trek series. I didn't like it very much and said as much in my review. My primary complaint was that this was all old hat and it was time to retire these beloved characters who had gone on enough remarkably similar adventures.

Except there was something very much "new hat" about this new Star Trek movie -- if they'd done it effectively enough for me to notice.

Star Trek Beyond outs Sulu as gay. Which is pretty darn great, even if I didn't notice it, and even if I have my qualms about making the character gay just because the actor who originated him (George Takei) is gay. (I don't like what's implied by this choice, which is that the sexuality of an actor is a relevant consideration in the sexuality of the character the's playing. I'm sure Takei wouldn't like that either, except that a gay Star Trek character is such a necessary development that one has to applaud it no matter how it comes into being. And in fact, Takei was quoted on Facebook saying basically this. I suppose it's good that they did not decide suddenly that Spock is gay, because then that would suggest that a gay actor like Zachary Quinto could not effectively play a straight character. I guess it's good they'd already gotten him in a relationship with Uhura.)

So the reason I didn't actually notice that Beyond outs him as gay is because the moment is totally flubbed. The only reason I even knew there was supposed to be a gay character in the movie at all is because I read a review from the editor of my own website, who plies his trade in freelance form on another website (actually two, which is why he just couldn't see writing a third Star Trek Beyond review for our site, and turned the responsibility over to me). After I'd already finished and published mine, I read his.

His review never mentions which character is gay, so when I read it, I had to google it. My first thought was that it was the new character played by Sofia Buetella, an alien with white face paint, but then I couldn't remember any moment where her sexuality was mentioned one way or the other.

When I googled "gay character star trek beyond" I of course got to the big (is it big?) story about how a gay kiss involving John Cho's Sulu may have been edited out of the movie.

So that's why that scene made so little sense, I thought.

The pieces were starting to come together. It's a scene where the Enterprise is docked at a space station and Sulu meets two other acquaintances, probably family members: a man and a boy. Because I was not looking for gayness at that particular moment, and the movie had given me no other moments of potential gayness, I thought, "Why are they bothering to show us Sulu meeting up with his brother and nephew? And why aren't they showing a similar homecoming with any of the other characters?" At first glance, the other man he greets seemed also to be of Asian descent, supporting the possibility of a blood relationship. I guess Sulu can have a gay relationship, but not an interracial one. (And to give you an idea of my imperfect memory of the moment, I realize in reading about it now that the child was a girl, not a boy.)

Now, I could be the world's densest viewer, but I don't think so, nor do I think I was falling asleep yet as this was very early on. So I think it really was just poor execution that gave me such little recognition of the significance of that moment, a moment I surely would have referenced in my review had I appreciated or even known what it was actually doing. And the failure of that moment makes me probably one of the very small minority of critics to review the movie and not even mention one of the single most progressive things that has happened in Star Trek's progressive history. It seems almost an unconscionable omission on my part -- except that I didn't even realize it was an omission.

Then again, I guess if it was executed so poorly, perhaps I'm not the only critic who didn't get what was happening and didn't mention it. I hope, anyway. I suppose some critics would have been expecting that moment, having read up on the movie and the revelation about Sulu it was prepared to make. I, on the other hand, did no such reading.

Without that excised kiss, this greeting between Sulu and this other man is affectionate, but nothing more, giving it the sense of something brotherly rather than romantic, and giving the relationship with the child an avuncular rather than fatherly aspect. The fact that they didn't show anyone else meeting up with family quickly disappeared into the background of my thoughts, hanging on only as another of the seemingly loose threads that this film doesn't resolve in satisfying fashion, which contributed to its overall sense of seeming like a shoddy enterprise (pun intended).

The thing is, even if the big introduction of Sulu's homosexuality was carried off in such a way that dense old me could understand it, it still has a certain botched quality to it. If they had shown another crew member meeting up with someone who is obviously a romantic partner, I might have better recognized the relationship Sulu is supposed to have with his own partner. But that would have also better explained the inclusion of the scene in the first place, as in "Look, here are the crew meeting up with their families," and not "Look, here's Captain Kirk's gaze lingering on a single crew member meeting up with his husband and child."

It's a supportive gaze, to be sure, but in the 23rd century, aren't we centuries past even the need to treat homosexuals as "other"?

Certainly, Gene Roddenberry would have wanted it that way.

And certainly, if Gene Roddenberry were alive, he wouldn't have let that kiss be edited out.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Celebrating one year of free movies

On July 21st, 2015, I used my AFCA critics card for the very first time in order to watch Terminator: Genisys.

On July 21st, 2016, I used that same card for the 62nd time to watch Star Trek Beyond.

It's been a good year.

That's 62 movies that didn't cost me a cent. Or rather, only cost me a handful of cents here and there when I bought tickets for 3D or Xtreme screen -- and only when they actually remembered to charge me the surcharge. Or rather, only cost me the 7500 cents of the annual membership fee.

It's been a good year.

I'm leery about discussing this card in terms of it being free access to movies, like I'm getting away with something, because that tends to underemphasize the fact that it has a legitimate use. Probably half of those movies were movies I reviewed, and that's the legitimate reason behind having this card in the first place.

But I can't help it if it fills me with glee over what a great addition it's been to my life. It's not pay, but it's the closest thing to pay that most critics today are likely to get.

And though my editor asked me to attend Star Trek Beyond on Thursday night -- so I could review it, mind you -- I'd been planning to go anyway to mark the one-year anniversary of my first use of the card. And since this was exactly the one-year anniversary, that's also why I waited on Star Trek (which just opened that day) instead of blowing the anniversary celebration earlier in the week on Ghostbusters. (Besides, there seemed something wrong about watching remakes of Poltergeist and Ghostbusters consecutively.)

I was in such a sprightly mood that I even treated myself to a popcorn, something I almost never do these days. I think 62 free movies pays for one $8 popcorn.

I didn't love the movie like I hoped I would -- my review is here -- but it is better than Terminator: Genisys.

And whether movies I see in the theater are good or not is kind of beside the point these days.

Needing a movie to be good is for the suckers who actually have to pay for them.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The representation of gayness and not-gayness

Macklemore released a poignant song a couple years ago called "Same Love," which is also sort of hilarious if looked at the right way.

It's poignant because it celebrates gay rights, including lyrics decrying the homophobia of hip hop culture and a refrain by a female singer that goes "My love, she keeps me warm."

Macklemore himself is not gay -- the song would lose a bit of its meaning, in fact, if he were, because then he'd be writing it out of self-interest rather than a magnanimous impulse to fight hatred.

The funny part is his insistence on establishing that he's not gay in the song, which could read as problematic if the mere existence of the song weren't proof of his tolerance. The opening lyrics of the song go:

When I was in the third grade I thought that I was gay
'Cause I could draw, my uncle was, and I kept my room straight
I told my mom, tears rushing down my face
She's like "Ben, you've love girls since before pre-k."

It's just these four opening lines, and then the man born as Ben Haggerty never returns to the topic of his own sexuality. But they do read enough like a denial that the guys from Lonely Island thought they'd make a great subject for parody. Though I have not yet seen Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping -- and I can't even tell if it's going to get an Australian theatrical release, especially after the poor U.S. box office -- I understand it contains a song with similar lyrics to "Same Love," except Conner4Real inserts the disclaimer "not gay" in the middle of nearly every verse. It's a perceptive observation, as when I encountered this song for the first time myself (within the past year -- I bought the Macklemore CD for my wife two birthdays ago), I too was struck by just the tiniest bit of hypocrisy on the rapper's part.

This is all a way of backing into what I really want to talk about today: Whether movies that present apparently gay subject matter must actually be "gay."

The topic came up in reference to Swiss Army Man, and it came up in an email conversation with a friend who had also seen it (and liked it, but not as much as I did). Some of the following discussion assumes that you also have seen it, but I don't know that it necessarily spoils anything -- unless you consider the fact that Daniel Radcliffe is not as dead as he originally seems to be a spoiler. In which case, oops! Sorry.

There are a couple scenes in Swiss Army Man that register as gay on a textual level, but subtextually may be referring to something different -- or may not be. My friend and I disagreed about what that something different was, and whether it was even something different.

Even if you haven't seen it, you already know from the trailers that the castaway played by Paul Dano, named Hank, develops a friendship with the corpse played by Radcliffe, name Manny. What you may not know is that the film is unafraid of staging it as potentially more than a friendship. There's a lot of physical imtimacy, generally, in the movie -- as might be assumed in a scenario where one guy has to carry the other around -- but the intimacy also becomes emotional, and sexual.

In one instance, Hank dresses up as the girl on the bus that Manny thinks he remembers from a picture on his phone. Not only does Hank totally commit to the feminine persona, embracing it as more of a second skin than a costume, but the scene ends with Hank and Manny leaning in toward one another in the familiar fashion of incipient lovers locking lips for the first time. The kiss is aborted when Hank's balance shifts, serving to awaken him from his reverie, and to make him reconsider the wisdom of his impulse.

For those dissatisfied with that bit of coitus interruptus -- or at least kissus interruptus -- don't worry, because Hank and Manny do get it on later. And by "get it on" I mean "kiss." It's an underwater kiss that causes fireworks to go off -- in a rather literal way.

I didn't interpret this as Hank loving Manny. I interpreted it as Hank loving himself.

So I guess I am going to spoil a bit more of Swiss Army Man, if you still want to turn away at this late hour.

It doesn't take any analytical skill at all to realize that Manny is, in many ways, not a separate person, but an external manifestation of Hank himself. When we meet Hank at the start, Hank is about to hang himself out of the desperation caused by (what we think is) loneliness and starvation on a deserted island. Coincidentally, that's when he sees Manny. Sure, Manny might actually be a body washed up on the shore, and with all the jokes built into the things that his body does, his physical actuality is well asserted. But more likely is that it's Hank seeing into his own "future," as it were, as he contemplates taking that plunge off that cooler and hanging himself. Hank is moments away from being Manny in a very literal sense -- a corpse.

If you look at it purely in that way, then Hank's love for Manny is a growing love for himself and for his own life -- a desire, then, not to actually commit suicide.

My friend doesn't think that. My friend thinks that the moments when he's almost kissing Manny, and then actually kissing him, are the moments when he's setting himself free from the way he represses his homosexual desires, the very desires that may have led him to this suicidal place to begin with. There's a reason, so says my friend, that we see the gay theme returned to repeatedly. In a sense, Swiss Army Man is a further exploration of the way we know teenagers wrestle with their owns sexuality and the way they contemplate killing themselves when they are bullied. "It gets better," the movie hopes to tell us.

My friend may be right, and by saying "my friend my friend my friend" I am certainly not trying to demonstrate that I think his position is ridiculous. In fact, his position is the furthest thing from ridiculous.

But, to bring it back to Macklemore, something that's about being gay does not itself have to be gay. Or maybe isn't even about being gay, just because it has stuff in it that seems to be gay.

Rather, I think that the writer-directors of this film -- Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, credited as "Daniels" -- want to show how gay friendly and gay forward they are without needing it to be a function of their self-interest. They want to get credit for being progressive, and I don't mean that in a way that suggests they are greedy about being praised by those from the liberal and queer communities. What they want is to make a movie that openly flirts with gay ideas as just a normal part of self-discovery and artistic discourse, not as a central theme, because it's not concerned about being thought of as gay, or even welcomes the associations because it doesn't give a squirt of piss if someone thinks it is gay. They want to go one step better than Macklemore, in other words.

It's interesting, though. As a pair of men who are directing a movie together without being related to each other, they must get questions about whether they are in a partnership that's more than just business. Is this them saying "I'm not gay, but I like gays?" Or is even saying that beneath them because it acknowledges that it's anybody's business but theirs? (And I checked; they aren't gay.)

There's kind of a lot to unpack here. Both Hank and Manny pine after the character they call Sarah, whether that's actually her name or not -- she's played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. One of them apparently had the experience of seeing her on the bus and falling in love with her on sight. So much so that he surreptitiously photographed her and became sort of obsessed with her. Kind of the very definition of being straight, right?

Except maybe not. Hank mentions at one point that the thing that drew him to her was that she looked so happy. That isn't the typical reason listed for falling in love with someone. Usually it's that they're pretty or nice or funny. Someone happy is not necessarily someone you want to be with, although it certainly helps. It's someone you want to be -- especially if you are not yourself happy. Especially if you yourself are suicidal.

But there's a possibly gay wrinkle here. We also see a photo of Sarah with her husband. That's also a photo on the phone, and also a photo Hank/Manny has looked at before. Maybe he wants to be Sarah because he wants to be with her husband. Maybe.

And is it any coincidence that he's named Manny? Okay, now I'm really stretching.

Looking back on this post, it just seems like a bunch of rambling about gayness and not-gayness without any real point.

Well, maybe you'll find the point I feel like I didn't quite make, somewhere hidden in here.

Maybe my point is that Swiss Army Man can be what either of us thinks it is, or five other things, because great art is malleable and can fit itself into the worldview of the person viewing it. Great art means different things to different people, and not only allows multiple interpretations, but actually invites them.

And I do think Swiss Army Man is pretty great art.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Igby Goes Down ... in my Flickchart rankings

In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have expected to have perfect recall of the merits of a movie I watched secretively in the testing lab of my first IT job.

That's right, Igby Goes Down was one of at least three films -- along with The Powerpuff Girls Movie and One Hour Photo -- that I watched ripped digital versions of while passing the hours as a temp in my first IT job. I didn't know at the time that I was going to end up being a key member of that IT department, and was just trying to keep my head down -- while living on the irresponsibly reckless verge of being discovered by my boss, who had already reprimanded me once for minimizing my email when he'd walked up behind me.

But the layout of our floor meant that I'd have pretty good warning if he was going to be walking our way ... even though I had to have headphones plugged in to watch these movies. Fortunately, I was also around a corner.

Well, I didn't get caught, and thank goodness, because that boss would ultimately hire me away from that job to the one I held for nearly seven years after it.

I got back to Igby Goes Down for the first time since 2002 on Wednesday night. As I've already hinted, it really did not hold up well.

In fact, as it was going especially not-well in the first 25 minutes or so, I decided to check where exactly I had it ranked in my Flickchart, knowing it was pretty high.

Pretty high indeed: 392 out of 4314, good for the 91st percentile of my chart. Looking back on my rankings of films in 2002, I also see I ranked it 10th among all the films I saw in time for my deadline that year. Even 14 years later I still had it ranked on my Flickchart as the 11th best film I'd seen in 2002 -- and that's after adding a whole mess of other 2002 movies I hadn't seen at the time I did my rankings, two of which had ended up ahead of it.

Well, this could not stand.

So even though I don't usually re-rank a movie on Flickchart after re-watching it, I decided the risk of future misplacement was too great if I didn't bust Igby down to where he truly belonged.

And that ended up being ... 1616/4314. So from the 91st percentile all the way down to the 63rd.

So what did Igby do to go so far down in my estimation?

The better question may be to try to figure out what drew me to the movie in the first place.

I'd say in late 2002 I was probably still basking in the glow of one of my favorite movies of 2000, Wonder Boys, which I had occasion to write about on this blog just last month. Kieran Culkin likely struck me as a near-perfect stand-in for Tobey Maguire in that movie, and I remember making note of the acting chops I was surprised Macaulay's little brother had.

I now think of the movie as owing more to another movie from that time, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, which I still haven't watched again since then -- though do still carry around a bias toward it. I have been meaning to give Tenenbaums another chance, because I think it's likely I was only disappointed in it by the lofty standards of a Wes Anderson movie, not in its own right. I feel pretty certain, for example, that Tenenbaums is better than Igby -- even though Tenenbaums still lies in the ghetto of my mid-2000s on Flickchart. So when I do finally get around to that, there could be another re-ranking in the offing.

The problem I had with The Royal Tenenbaums is one I now have with Igby, which is that it's so self-indulgent that it's almost insufferable. I suspect at the time I had not seen as many movies about excessively intellectual high school dropouts wearing scarves as I have today. In fact, I don't think I'd even read The Catcher in the Rye yet, which obviously served as an inspiration for Burr Steers in writing Igby, though I did read it within a year or two of that (for some reason it was never assigned at my high school). The Igby character now strikes me as a totally artificial construct representing someone's wish fulfillment about the type of character they imagined themselves being -- Steers, maybe. He speaks in what sound like thesis statements and he pals around with adults as intellectual peers and he sleeps with two different desirable women and he even gets beat up. He's just shy of being a noir hero in his own solipsistic story of angst and pretty suffering.

That the film still ranks comfortably in the top half of my chart means I certainly did not hate it. I still recognize the success of its basic craft and there are still some highly effective moments. Overall though, it was more broad than I remembered, and not nearly as distinctive. Then again, as I said before, that could be because the type of navel gazing it is is something that has since been done repeatedly and far worse, tainting what once may have seemed like a true original.

Igby Goes Down stands as a good reminder of the fact that our thoughts on films are not fixed -- an obvious statement, perhaps, but one worth testing by revisiting these one-time sacred cows whenever we get the chance. I am sure there are plenty of other movies I'm ranking excessively high on my Flickchart based only on dim memories. Off the top of my head, Matt Reeves' 1996 movie The Pallbearer -- which I liked way more than anyone else I've ever spoken to about it, and ranked ninth for that year -- is probably one of those.

One at a time, though. My ego can't take too many reminders of its own fallibility.

I'm probably like Igby in that way.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The limits of cinephilia

What do you get when you take a 60-year-old film made in a foreign country in a fledging film industry with asynchronous dubbed dialogue about extremely parochial considerations viewed on a very poor print with very little plot for two long hours?

You get the limits of my efforts as a cinephile.

I tried with Pather Panchali. I really did. I tried over three sittings and nearly one-and-a-half total viewings. That's right, I watched 40 minutes of this movie about two weeks ago before I succumbed to sleep, then decided that I had gleaned so little from those first 40 minutes that I needed to watch them again when I made my second attempt at conquering Satyajit Ray's classic film.

But I just couldn't see what makes this film a classic. I mean, the time and circumstances of its creation undoubtedly factor into it, but the end product just wasn't there for me.

I'm disappointed in myself as a cinephile, but I'm trying not to be.

Pather Panchali was only on my radar at all because Ray was the subject of a recent marathon on the Filmspotting podcast. They subsequently started mentioning Ray's films every third episode, so when I saw Pather Panchali available at the library, I thought it would make another one of those valuable building blocks in my ongoing film education.


It's a really rough sit.

If any one, or two, or even three of the conditions I mentioned in the opening run-on sentence were in place, Pather Panchali might have made a positive impression on me. I mean, I have no problem with films that are 60 years old. I have no problem with films made in foreign countries. I don't even have a problem with films that look scruffy, because it's often less of a reflection on someone's aesthetic sensibilities than his/her budgetary realities.

But I didn't find any of Pather Panchali's qualities illuminating enough to overcome the many things about it that were difficult. I think we're supposed to see it as a profound examination of poverty in West Bengal, India through the eyes of one fairly ordinary poverty-stricken family. But I didn't find it profound. I didn't find the characters and their conflicts particularly engaging (when there were conflicts), and I didn't find Ray's approach to contain particular insight that would go beyond what I might guess would be the plight of his characters.

As I often do when a movie doesn't totally connect with me and I suspect I have missed some of the story's nuances, I read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia. I did indeed discover a few things about Pather Panchali that made it seem a bit more interesting than I found it, details that had gotten lost in moments of subtlety (or between episodes of dozing off). But what I found was enough for a really interesting 45-minute portrait of a family, not a slow-moving two-hour movie that was alienating in its failure to move things along.

The interesting thing about rejecting a movie that people tell us we're supposed to love is the guilt. Well, the guilt and the shame. The shame comes from feeling like you aren't intelligent enough, cultured enough, perceptive enough to have immediately recognized why the film in question was so brilliant. Then the guilt comes if you throw away that shame and proudly own your distaste for the particular film, which makes you feel as though you are shitting on something that is genuinely great.

But the least interesting thing to me is a person who rubber-stamps a movie as great just because he or she believes that it will be the easiest way not to stand out, not to be identified as the philistine who can't see greatness when it bites him or her in the nose. Not all great movies are my great movies. It's useful to recognize which ones aren't, and own it.

So I've given Pather Panchali two-and-a-half stars on Letterboxd. It's the guilt that keeps me from going even lower. I might have gone all the way down to two, but the plot synopsis saved it. The plot synopsis made me think that indeed, despite repeated attempts to get into the head space of this movie, I just never chose the right circumstances to truly be able to appreciate it. The extra half star acknowledges that I might be wrong.

Yeah, I could have given it four stars and just walked away, so that the people who see my star rating on Letterboxd can rest safely in the knowledge that I am a trustworthy cinephile. It's easier just to rubber-stamp something everyone loves and pick another cinephile fight to have when the stakes are not so great for your own credibility.

But I didn't, and noticed afterward I had some support in my allegedly controversial view. I was pleased to note that Pather Panchali was not necessarily well received at the time it came out. Some recognized its "genius," of course -- but others presumably had the same concerns I had about its shortcomings.

And that's ... okay.

If we are the movies we love, I don't need to try to convince someone I loved Pather Panchali.

Because then I wouldn't be being true to my own specific brand of cinephilia.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Willfully taking a pass

I'm probably going to love Sing Street.

I ranked John Carney's breakout film, Once, as my #2 movie of 2007. I was sure it was going to be #1 until There Will Be Blood entered the picture. Even Begin Again, his follow-up that was dismissed by some people, made it into my top 20 of 2014 (#19).

Carney's latest, Sing Street, opened here last Thursday, which means right about now is when I'd be planning to see it. I was considering it for tonight, actually.

But I'm not going to. In fact, I'm not going to see it in the theater at all.

Here's why:

The reason my wife and I can never get excited about watching movies together at home is because I've already seen everything that's any good.

This is not me championing my own impeccable taste. It's me acknowledging our similar tastes, and my ability -- especially now that I have this critic card -- to sniff out anything either of us would like to watch, and watch it while it's still in theaters.

The critic card is great in the sense that it allows me to watch movies I want to see in the way they were meant to be seen, on the big screen. It's not so great, however, in the sense that my wife and I are left with options like Zoolander 2 and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies when trying to find a new release to pop in.

She'll watch Zoolander 2 with me, eventually, but she won't like it.

Financial constaints on a person's viewing can be a helpful thing. I remember that I used to get really excited about the arrival of new releases on video that I had missed when they were in theaters, either because I didn't have the time or I simply didn't have the money. I mean, I always have the money -- I hope I never get to the point where I literally can't afford a movie ticket -- but there are times when you feel like an extra $20 will just hit your wallet too hard.

Of course, movies still do get through. And of course, there are the movies you didn't know were going to be great until you heard about them much later. But even these can be difficult to obtain a buy-in with my wife. Not because she's finicky or anything, but just because she, like most people, values her relaxation time enough to make a good bet on how to spend it, not just to make a leap of faith.

And as 2016 has not been a great year for movies so far, the movies I really want to see -- we both really want to see -- are infrequent enough that it's no trouble for me to prioritize seeing them during their window of theatrical availability. And so I usually do.

Not with Sing Street. I'm going to let it pass. And I'm going to enjoy looking forward to watching it on video in November or December with my wife.

It'll be good for me.

It'll be good for us both.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

To see how outraged I should be

We all complain about remakes and reboots and long-delayed sequels. I mean, everyone. The trend has gotten so ridiculous that even that mythical Dumbest Member of the Viewing Public probably has some sacred cow whose legacy has been just watered down enough through an uninspired remake that it's made him grumpy.

Yet many of us continue to see them anyway. Even when we know better. Even when there are plenty of other options to watch at our fingertips at any given moment of the day.


It's not enough to assume they fucked it up. We want to know how badly they fucked it up.

Which was pretty much my reason for watching the Poltergeist remake last night.

Since I still cite the original Poltergeist as perhaps the scariest movie I've ever seen -- and I'm speaking purely of my capacity to handle it at the age I saw it, not objectively the most disturbing -- I was perhaps even more curious about what kind of sacrilege they put up on screen in the 2015 remake. And part of that curiosity was, of course, a dim hope that it was worthwhile. Some of the basic elements of that film still bother me enough that a smart update of them could have had the same effect.

Gil Kenan's 2015 version of Poltergeist does not have smart updates of anything. As perhaps a single symbol of what grounds a timeless concept thuddingly in our present tense, the paranormal investigators send a drone into that ectoplasmic void in the upstairs closet. I tell you now from having seen it -- nothing I can think of is less scary than a drone. (Unless you're a terrorist or a civilian scampering around on the ground in a Middle Eastern country, of course.)

The new Poltergeist tries to hit the same story beats as the original, but it hits them with such a lethargy that it highlights just how perfunctory the whole affair is. For example, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire decides he has to give a shout out to the clown scene from the original and the tree scene from the original, so he puts them both in the same scene. Both sequences are directed by Kenan with such little flair that what makes a living tree and a living clown so frightening are almost completely lost. Which is a real shame, because Kenan directed the clever and scary animated film Monster House (which my son calls "Spooky House"), making him an obvious candidate for this job, and Lindsay-Abaire wrote a movie I absolutely love, Rabbit Hole ... making him not such an obvious candidate for this job, but also making him someone who should be able to write a better script.

Then there are the very minor alterations of things that happen in the original. The absolutely terrifying scene in the original in which that paranormal investigator sees maggots in his chicken and then starts tearing off his face is handled this time with Sam Rockwell's paterfamilias having the episode instead. But instead of the practical effect biological realism of the face-tearing incident, it's a predictably CG affair where he spews black tar-like liquid into a sink and sees CG worms in it. Bo-ring.

I will grant that even a PG-13 rating today is not what a PG rating was back then, so that accounts for some of the toned-down nature of that incident. Another way this Poltergeist is sanitized for the 21st century is that the parents, played in the original so memorably with such mutual affection and joie de vivre by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams, don't of course smoke weed in their bedroom after the kids go to sleep. No one is getting away with that shit in 2015. However, we need to know that Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt are cool, so instead they drink wine out of coffee mugs. Bo-ring.

CG really does this movie in, putting too fine a point on things that were scary for their minimalism back in the original. Of course we get Carol Anne at the TV again (she's called Madison this time), but where we thought we heard distant whispering in that static originally, we couldn't really be sure. The thing that was creepy about it was that Carol Anne was talking to the TV, validating those sounds we heard as the sounds of ghostly whispers. This time, however, Kenan thinks it's a good idea to have the girl touch the TV and have a hand come back from the other side. Then the screen fills up with hands. Might I find this scary if I hadn't seen the original? No way to tell, but I don't think so. She also repeats the line "They're here," but without wanting to directly imitate Heather O'Rourke saying "They're heeEEEEeere," she just spits out the words dully. As if everyone involved just knows this is a soulless enterprise, and going through the motions is the best approach they can imagine.

Don't even get me started on all the CGI ghouls they see when they send the drone into the void. I'd say I'd seen it in a thousand films before, but I actually think it's been thousands, plural.

In short, Poltergeist is exactly what a person would expect, and to even enumerate its sins as I've just done suggests I was expecting it to be something else. I shouldn't have been, and if I was, I was a fool.

So maybe I've enumerated its sins just to save you the trouble of watching it yourself in order to determine how badly they fucked it up.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

No Audio Audient: The Sheik

This is the seventh in my 2016 monthly series watching silent films I've never seen.

I understand Rudolph Valentino to be legendary for his suave screen presence, but in the first film of his I saw, I just thought he was pervy.

That's how he comes across for about the first half of The Sheik, George Melford's 1921 epic romance.

In regrettably backward fashion, Valentino's titular sheik captures an English singer, Diana (Agnes Ayres), while she's on horseback in the desert outside of Biskra in Algeria. In that backward time, you might say she "had it coming" by having dressed up as an exotic local dancer in order to gain entrance into an Arabs only casino where Sheik Ahmed was being entertained. During that time, she bewitched him and he got his mind set on capturing her when she went out into the desert on a trip to some remote villages.

If this behavior weren't creepy enough, though, Valentino makes it more so by the broad acting style that made him seem unlikely to transition successfully to talkies (if his death hadn't come before talkies did). Valentino's eyes are never more than a few moments away from bugging out, and it's even worse when they bug out in a way that is pregnant with innuendo. He spends a lot of time sneering and looking at Diana lasciviously, which makes it seem impossible that he will ever become the story's romantic hero.

Which of course he does. It is ultimately a Beauty and the Beast tale. Ahmed captures the beauty against her will, and she naturally rails against her captivity initially. Of course, the more time she spends, the more he has the opportunity to demonstrate some grace and kindness, and eventually she falls in love with him. And by "eventually" we mean "suddenly." It happens rather quickly that her Stockholm Syndrome turns her from prisoner into love interest, though of course that is accomplished by means of this story's Gaston character, a bandit named Omair (Walter Long), who also has designs on capturing Diana but intends to be treat her far less benevolently. And yes, the more traditional heroic aspects of Valentino do start to shine through at this point.

The Sheik is definitely the least technically progressive film I've watched in this series so far. It doesn't really have artistic ambitions with the form. It longs for nothing more than to be a romantic epic and a crowd pleaser. And in this way I did appreciate it, as a relic of another era of entertainment for the masses.

There are of course some significant problems with the handling of the Arab characters, but that's par for the course in 1921. None of the actors are actually Arab of course, but that's the last thing we would expect at that time. The worse problem is the way they behave, even the reformed scoundrel Ahmed. I suppose it's not entirely inaccurate in terms of how women are treated in Arab countries, but a movie made today would try to do better. The thing I thought was particularly funny is that (spoiler alert) at the end it's revealed that Ahmed is not actually Arab, but rather, the son of a Spaniard and a Brit, who died in the desert, leaving the boy to be raised locally by the kindly sheik who took him in. This piece of information arrives so late in the story, and with so little apparent narrative purpose at that juncture, that the only explanation for its inclusion seems to be to mitigate the taboo of Diana falling in love with an Arab.

One detail of the movie I did appreciate, which gives a window into the type of fourth-wall-breaking spectacle movies were at the time, is that as each character gets introduced in the story, a title card appears that also includes the actor's name. Very quaint and cute. You're supposed to be casting a spell on the audience at that point, and drawing attention to the fact that the character is being played by an actor seems to work in opposition to that. But I did enjoy it as a detail about how films were made in the 1920s.

Okay, on to August! I think it's time for me to wade back into the waters of D.W. Griffith. I didn't particularly care for Intolerance, as you might remember, but maybe Broken Blossoms will speak to me a little differently.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The man with the good choices

During one of the moments Swiss Army Man left me spellbound last night, I had a revelation that was only tangentially related to the movie:

Paul Dano may be my favorite actor.

If we define "favorite" as consistently appearing in movies that I've loved, and his presence alone making me believe a movie will be good, then I don't know who has a better claim to that title than Dano.

As I allowed myself to get momentarily distracted from the bizarre delights appearing before my eyes, I started to mentally review all the films I love that Dano has appeared in. The numbers started to stagger me. I'll list them below chronologically, followed by the percentage on my Flickchart where these movies appear:

L.I.E. (2001, Michael Cuesta) - 81% - Though to be fair, I didn't actually remember that Dano was in this movie until I just looked it up on IMDB.

The Emperor's Club (2002, Michael Hoffman) - 83% - Ditto about not knowing he was in this. Don't worry, we're getting to the point where I actually started to recognize him.

The Girl Next Door (2004, Luke Greenfield) - 92% - Where I first consciously learned who he was. I have a huge fondness for this movie.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris) - 67% - I don't love this how some people do -- or used to, anyway -- but I thought the percentage was high enough to mention.

There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson) - 99% - My #1 movie of 2007. He really did hold his own next to Daniel Day-Lewis.

Where the Wild Things Are (2009, Spike Jonze) - 97% - This is Dano's most similar film to Swiss Army Man in terms of the sense of wonder it produced in me.

Meek's Cutoff (2011, Kelly Reichardt) - 89% - Dano's role was more supporting in this, but it continues his string of smart choices.

Ruby Sparks (2012, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris) - 98% - My #1 movie of 2012. Dano holds the center of an unconventional romantic comedy/drama.

Looper (2012, Rian Johnson) - 91% - A memorable portrait of desperation by Dano.

Love & Mercy (2015, Bill Pohlad) - 87% - Dano kills it as the younger Brian Wilson.

And that's not even mentioning movies I like but don't love, like Prisoners, Fast Nood Nation and 12 Years a Slave. And sure I've left out some stinkers -- I'm looking at you, Gigantic -- but nobody's perfect.

What is it about Dano that continually enthralls me?

The short answer is probably "everything," but I'll try to go deeper than that. He is one of the most aggressively real-looking A-list actors we have. He might not quite be A-list, but he's a lot farther away than that from being conventionally handsome, or even unconventionally handsome. He's a weird-looking dude who manages to simultaneously look like a stiff breeze might blow him over, yet also possess a real vigor that comes across in the intensity of his performances.

To say that Dano is like you and me is not accurate either, since he really isn't. He's like an eccentric caricature of a regular person, which is not a description of his performance style -- at least not totally. Saying someone is a caricature is usually a criticism. What I mean is that his features have a certain extremity to them that makes him a perfect vessel for quirky characters. To Dano's credit, though, he has steered clear of playing exclusively quirky characters, and even his quirkiest characters don't deserve the backhanded compliment implied by the term "quirky."

In short, I feel like he's bringing something new every time out, even when he's undeniably calling on things he's done previously (which all actors must). He's growing as a craftsman, sure, but more than that he's figuring new ways to extract the truth from the characters he's playing. He does tend to do better when he's in a lead role, as it gives him the space to move around and explore the character he's been assigned to play. As one example, I think he might not have come off that well in a movie like 12 Years a Slave -- as I recall, he was petulant and a bit of an out-sized stereotype of an awful slaveowner. This was a supporting role. Then again, he haunted me in a similar-sized role in Looper, in which he gives one of the most palpable performances of fear I've seen in the past couple years.

Even if it's not possible to distill what works about Dano as a performer, the choices speak for themselves. Six of the ten films I listed above landed in my top ten for that particular year. Meek's Cutoff and (if I remember correctly) The Emperor's Club may have landed in the top 20. I didn't actually see L.I.E. in the year of its release, so who knows about that one. So not only does Dano have good taste, but he has the influence to get himself cast in the projects in which he wants to appear. Powerhouses like Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze have seen him and said "That's the guy I need to do this particular thing I'm trying to do."

And boy does he do that particular thing in Swiss Army Man. My affection for Swiss Army Man is such that I should probably devote an entire post to singing its praises. Instead, I'll refer you to my review, which is a bit delayed in posting but will probably be up with a link to the right within a few hours of this publishing.

Daniel Radcliffe may play the multi-functional tool in that film's title, but Dano is my multi-functional tool as an actor.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

My problem with one particular ghostbuster

I have not jumped into the Ghostbusters fray on this blog.

"The internet" (of which I frequently dislike to count myself a part) has gone all hater on the fact that the Ghostbusters reboot features female ghostbusters, not male. When this sentiment is not being put forth overtly, it's being encoded deeper into the bedrock of something somebody says. But more often than not it's been put forth overtly. "The internet" rarely feels any shame over being sexist.

When the first trailers for Ghostbusters were considered to be awful, "the internet" rejoiced at how correct it was that women cannot make a good Ghostbusters movie.

I don't know whether this is a good Ghostbusters movie or not, and I certainly don't think whether it's women or men has anything to do with it. I can't envision it being that much more enlightened with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum donning ghostbuster suits.

But I do know it has one strike against it:

Kate McKinnon.

I can't stand this woman.

When McKinnon first appeared on Saturday Night Live a couple years ago, it was about four episodes before Kristen Wiig (who also appears in Ghostbusters) left the show. As they bore something of a physical similarity and a definite similarity in their types of comedy, I figured they had tabbed her as Wiig's heir apparent, and I felt okay about that. If SNL definitely needed a Wiig type, McKinnon seemed more than capable of filling that niche.

But the more I watched her, the more she grated on me.

There's something about her comedy that is just so "loud." She can't play a character without PLAYING A CHARACTER. There's a lot of sneering and winking and blinking and bugging out her eyes and twisting her face into all shorts of shapes and sizes. Goofy voices are a given.

This kind of thing can be funny. Examples abound. But McKinnon's method of delivering it is less like a real version of that hammy acting style than someone ironically imitating a hammy acting style. So the winking was not just actual, but metaphorical. Her bigness was like a parody of bigness. Just give me actual bigness.

I say "was" because my wife and I stopped watching SNL just one year into McKinnon's residency. The show did not survive the move to Australia. Every once in a while I'd wonder what I was missing, which actors I was not now familiar with by not watching the show (and Ghostbusters' Leslie Jones is one), and I'd regret that we'd walked away from a show we watched consistently for our first eight years together. But then I'd see a viral clip with McKinnon contorting her body and face into some perverse version of broad comedy and I'd be just as glad I was no longer being exposed to that stuff.

But McKinnon did enter my viewing schedule in other ways. Although I have somehow managed to miss each of the six features she has appeared in since debuting on SNL -- finally breaking that streak with Finding Dory, though I didn't identify her contribution -- I did see her in the otherwise very funny The Spoils Before Dying. While the point of that show is to be a satire of melodramatic miniseries, and therefore a certain amount of going over the top is par for the course, her role as some kind of jazz floozy just screamed. Screamed what? Exactly. It screamed.

What I don't understand, both in regard to The Spoils Before Dying and to Ghostbusters, is why you bother to cast McKinnon if you've already got the real thing. If McKinnon is a poor man's Kristen Wiig, she need hardly be cast when you've already got Kristen Wiig. And Wiig does/did indeed already appear in both of these. That seems especially problematic when you have just four main characters and you want a diversity of personality types represented. Thankfully, Wiig seems to be playing a straight woman in Ghostbusters by comparison to this deranged loon.

Kate McKinnon may not actualy be a deranged loon, but she does play one on TV.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Like a MIFF in a candy store

I'll be going to a lot more films at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival than I ever have before.

In fact, I figure to be more than doubling last year's output.

While in 2014 I saw five films during the 18-day festival, last year it was reduced to four, in part because I had a friend visiting during that time (he attended two with me, but I didn't think we should spend all our nights watching movies). Both years, though, the financial considerations of $20 per ticket were also a factor, though we did score a couple free here and there.

This year, that's not such a consideration. This year, the sky's the limit.

Okay not really. But my wife and I both plan to go crazy.

When she bought me a gift card for two MIFF screenings back at Christmastime, little did we know how little we'd need them.

The biggest change this year is that I have access to the lion's share of a credentialed minipass. ReelGood, the site I write for, has gotten us a complimentary minipass, which entitles us to ten tickets for evening sessions and another three bonus for weekday daytime sessions. We have to review all the movies we see, but that's a small price to pay. My editor isn't interested in going except to three sessions of shorts, so I have seven other sessions at my disposal to do with what I like. (I could probably also go to the daytime sessions except that I'm back to working full time.)

My wife won't be working at all during the month of August, and all but four days of the festival fall during that month. So she has decided that we should buy an extra minipass, the cost for which can be defrayed by the gift card she'd already purchased. Plus she's already come into possession of some free tickets through her work.

So really, we're looking at this schedule and just licking our chops. It's the best program in the three years I've been here, in terms of movies I'd already been looking forward to seeing. Here's what I've already got on the schedule, tickets in hand (or in email, anyway):

Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade) - Alison Willmore of Buzzfeed (and Filmspotting SVU, where I know her from) came back from Cannes raving about this one, and that was enough to sell me. It's a 162-minute German movie about a father-daughter relationship where the father dresses up in unusual costumes and forces his daughter into improv scenarios, which she must play along with in order to save face around people she knows who are important to her. Alison repeatedly assures us skeptical viewers that the movie is infinitely more powerful than that premise sounds. Many critics thought this was going to win the Palme d'Or.

Christine (dir. Antonio Campos) - This is the movie about that television reporter, Christine Chubbock, who killed herself on the air. She's played by Rebecca Hall, of whom I'm a big fan. I haven't seen a movie by Campos before but have heard great things about him. (I guess he only has two movies, Afterschool and Simon Killer.)

Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch) - The new Jarmusch film about a bus driver living in Paterson, New Jersey, played by Adam Driver. Don't know anything more about it than that, but thought it was worth a shot just based on those elements.

Graduation (dir. Cristian Mungiu) - Mungiu directed a movie I ranked #2 for its year (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) and one I ranked #1 for its year (Beyond the Hills). Needless to say I was all over this, though I don't know anything at all about the plot.

The Salesman (dir. Asghar Farhadi) - Farhadi is in the same boat as Mungiu by having directed a #1 film for me (A Separation), and I was a big fan of his The Past (which I did not see in the year of its release in order to rank it) as well. I guess this has to do with the deterioration of a relationship during the rehearsals for a staging of Death of a Salesman.

And oh so many other great choices where I just haven't pulled the trigger yet.

My informal goal with movies I choose at MIFF are twofold:

1) Catch movies that will release late in the ranking year in the U.S., which I otherwise won't be able to see in time to rank them because they won't release in Australia until February. I haven't been particularly successful at this in the past, as I've either seen movies that ended up coming out in Australian theaters in September or October, or not coming out in any theaters until the following ranking year. Last year was a mixture of both -- The Lobster came out in Australia in plenty of time to see it last year, though not in the U.S. until 2016, and The Witch didn't come out in either country until 2016. I think a couple of mine are good possibilities to hit that sweet spot this year.

2) See at least one movie that is totally random that I had otherwise not heard of, preferably a foreign film (though I've already got foreign movies well covered with three of my five choices). Past choices have included White God; Black Coal, Thin Ice; and One Floor Below. Have not definitively fixed on this choice for this year yet. But you can bet I'll take the plunge on something that seems promising.

It's very possible that this will be our last MIFF while living in Australia. We don't know exactly what our future holds, though it seems likely we'll still be here a year from now. Nothing is definite, though.

So if there is a year to go hog wild, this is it.

All other hogs better steer clear of us.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The beloved dead character is all tell, no show

You know when your friends go on and on about some awesome person you've never met, and eventually all you want to say is "Al-right, al-right, we get it, he's great"?

Movies about dead characters we never meet are kind of like that.

And they're not all that uncommon. It's a pretty standard framework for a movie about loss and grieving to give us a character who has already died at the outset of the movie. Flashbacks can provide us a bit more about that character, but many movies opt not to do go that route, considering it maudlin and emotionally manipulative.

You can respect that choice, but then the problem is we're left to assemble the traits of that character only from what the other people say about him or her. And that's anathema to a medium that prizes showing, not telling.

The movie Tumbledown, which I saw Thursday night, perfectly exemplifies this problem. The fact that the deceased character is a musical prodigy and nascent rock star whom everyone idolized only makes the problem thornier. If it's hard to paint a portrait in words of someone who has warts, it's even harder to get a satisfying sense of someone whose shit don't stink. That makes him sound arrogant. Really, we should just be saying it's a portrait of a saint.

But what's most challenging is that movies like Tumbledown place most of the emotional weight of the story on this person who isn't there. The device is designed to be revealing about the person they left behind, the person who is probably the protagonist of this story, and that person's relationship to others in the movie. But it doesn't always work. When you watch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for example, all the talk about the character Skipper who committed suicide is supposed to illuminate the relationship between Brick (Paul Newman) and Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor). Well, it does and it doesn't. Sometimes, you just wonder why there's so much talk about this person we never met, the texture of whose impact on these characters we can't fully feel.

There are times where this works better than others. One of my favorite movies about grief is Rabbit Hole, in which characters played by Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman try to rebuild their lives after their son is hit by a car and killed. The child has died before the events of the movie, and most of the conversations are in some way about him. But here, how great the child was is not important -- as we know from various religions, all children are innocent and will get in to the afterlife. Here it's more clear that he's a symbol of something they've lost, a tremendous change on how they perceive the world, whether he was angelic, or the type of little shit who terrorized other kids. As a child, he has a privileged role in their relationship, and his loss really does tell us about his mother and father rather than him.

So I suppose Tumbledown is supposed to be about how Hannah (Rebecca Hall), as a person, is recovering from the loss of her musical prodigy rock star husband, a poet and a lover of life and everything else about him that makes his early passing all the more tragic. And how the guy who wants to write a book about him, played by Jason Sudeikis, insinuates himself in her life and ends up falling for her (and as much as I recognized this movie would follow this path, I did not care for that dynamic to their relationship).

But I guess I'm not that interested in the story about how a woman grieves the loss of her husband, if I don't get anything about the husband beyond the fact that he sang beautiful songs in falsetto, created a folksy brand of music that is considered to be timeless (think Jeff Buckley here), and had a lust for life that represented itself in a sprightly playfulness and emotional generosity. I've just described the idealized version of any character who has ever died in (or before) a movie. But I don't want him described. I want to see him and know why the wonderful things he did made him emotionally irreplaceable.

Flashbacks are not necessarily the answer. As indicated above, they tend to come with their own set of problems. Plus, only getting the snippets of the person does not give us a real person. It only gives us the details that have been idealized by the person remembering that person.

So what is the answer? I guess I don't know. I guess just to do it better. To rest fewer of the emotional stakes on demonstrating that a person was great, and more on why the person who is still around can't function without that person. Even trying to come up with the answer I'm not fully convincing myself.

Hey, I'm not a screenwriter. As a critic, I just tell them what they did wrong. It's their job to try and fix it.

Friday, July 8, 2016

You watch your mouth, Andy Bailey!

Typecasting is a pernicious thing. According to the very principles by which their profession is defined, actors pride themselves on being able to assume a multitude of shapes and sizes, personalities and proclivities. It's death to the actor -- or it feels that way to them, anyway -- to get pigeonholed as just one thing. Sure, that might allow you to get plenty of work from producers looking for exactly that one thing. But in the long term it's a recipe for career disappointment and early retirement. And not the good kind of early retirement.

As fervently as I believe this, I still can't watch the trailers for Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, which releases today in the U.S., and think anything other than "Andy Bailey, you watch your mouth!"

Andy Bailey is the cheerfully named character played by Adam DeVine on the show Modern Family. At least, I assume he's still playing that character, as we are at least a full season behind on the show. It's very possible they've moved Hayley on from that subplot.

Nonetheless, this is how I know Adam DeVine. He plays (or played) the nanny to Joe, the child of Jay and Gloria, and he's as squeaky clean as they come. He's so squeaky that his voice almost even squeaks when he talks. He's every parent's dream of the guy their daughter will fall for, though no daughter's dream of the guy they actually want -- until they get older, anyway, and nice guys actually start finishing first. He would volunteer with old people and probably sing in a chorus and dress like he's just walked out of a Banana Republic. He's that kind of guy.

And DeVine plays that character incredibly well. He's clean cut. He has an honesty about him. He doesn't look like he could hurt a fly. In fact, if he found an injured fly he'd probably try to take it to an insect hospital.

Enter Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.

That's the raunchy new comedy starring Zac Efron, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza and DeVine. I'm guessing it's a raunchy comedy with heart -- you can't get away with the raunch without the heart these days -- but it's raunchy nonetheless.

And DeVine is burdened with the lion's share of that raunch, if the trailers are to be believed. He's still clean cut, but any politeness has gone out the window. In fact, he tells a bride-to-be who has just received a facial contusion from the wheel of an all-terrain vehicle that she looks like the burnt waffle they throw out at the pancake house.

That stuff doesn't exactly conform to the definition of "raunchy." But how about this? At least in the trailer they've been showing here in Australia, he's talking about a sexual move that involves inserting an entire arm up a rectum and "pumping the pop," or something like that. (I'm at work so I'm not reviewing the trailer right now.)

And all I'm thinking is, "Oh, what happened to that nice young man who cares for that baby?"

I like raunch just as much as the next guy -- when it's done right -- but I guess I just like my raunch delivered by the people I expect to deliver it. Seth Rogen can serve me up as much raunch as he likes, the raunchier the better. Adam DeVine should keep the halo over his head.

Of course, if I were just a bit more familiar with DeVine's career I might not associate him primarily with Modern Family. DeVine also appeared in Pitch Perfect (and its sequel, though I haven't seen that). In that movie, which takes advantage of his singing abilities (you can just tell this guy is a singer), I believe he's a bit of a douche. If memory serves, he's the frontman of a rival singing group that thinks they're the shit. And DeVine personifies the team's arrogance.

So maybe Andy Bailey is the exception for Adam DeVine, rather than the rule. Maybe Mike and Dave's Mike Stangle is the typecasting of Adam DeVine, not the deviation. Maybe Adam DeVine was happy to get cast as Andy Bailey because he wanted to prove he could be a nice guy also.

Well, he's got one thing going for him that may just lead me to see Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates: he's an appealing presence.

Even when he's pantomiming sticking his hand up somebody's ass.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Deus ex octopus

One of the things I find less satisfying about Finding Dory than Finding Nemo -- like, 2.5 stars less satisfying -- is that I didn't feel that sense of impossibility.

When Gill and the other fish are trying to figure out a way to spring Nemo from the aquarium in the office of the Sydney dentist, you sit there and think "Uh uh. No way. They can't do it. They're just fish." As they size up the obstacles and challenges, the camera moves with their eyes from one obstacle to the other. Their eyes are your eyes. You, too, think there's just no way. It's all too big. It all requires too many opposable thumbs.

So then when they do find a way, by hook or by crook, to get themselves all out to the open ocean, it's just one of those beautiful moments of movie magic. They did it. Somehow, they did it.

The characters in Finding Dory don't have that problem. They have Hank the Octopus.

There are such a bewildering and dizzying array of set pieces in Finding Dory that I probably can't enumerate the instances for you, but I don't think I'd be exaggerating if I said there were ten times that a seemingly impossible pickle was resolved quickly by Hank fishing a tentacle into some sort of liquid or other and fishing out some combination of Nemo, Marlon and Dory. Maybe not quite the number of times Dory trails off mid-sentence, her eyes going blank as she remembers some part of her history, then races off like a crazy person, but almost that many times.

The characters were not left to figure out how to do what they needed to do. No, they had a deus ex machina.

Or rather, deus ex octopus.

Now, I do think Hank is a pretty good character. His fixation on a plastic tag that will be his ticket to a Cleveland aquarium notwithstanding -- a plastic tag that's way out of scale with his octopus-sized girth, and has no obvious place to affix itself to him -- he does make for one of the more interesting additions to the cast. I can't say the same for the two whales, for example. The sea lions are only slightly better.

But his almost superhero-like abilities -- to go in and out of water, to change his color to match the background, even to take the shape of some object he had presumably never before attempted to imitate -- just ruined it for the rest of them. Marlon, Dory and Nemo are all essentially along for the ride on the Hank Express. Nothing is impossible, and everything is possible.

And nothing is earned.

I'd had the misfortune of hearing two different podcast reviews of Finding Dory before I finally watched it, and both reviews mentioned the exhaustion factor of the daisy chain of set pieces and multitude of instances of fish being transferred from one body of water to another. But I'm pretty sure I would have felt that exhaustion even if I weren't steeled for it. I can tell you that my eyelids were certainly exhausted by the end of the running time.

I gave Finding Nemo five stars. I gave Finding Dory half that. It's certainly not Pixar's worst movie, but it may be Pixar's worst sequel. Yeah, I like Cars 2 better.

Finding Dory is a regrettable reminder of the era we are in, the era we are now returning to. Inside Out was a glorious anomaly within an overall Pixar sequel trend. The Good Dinosaur was also an anomaly, but it was not glorious. Now we won't get anything conceptually new from the studio -- outside of its wonderful shorts, like Piper -- until at least 2020.

I think I need an all-powerful octopus to curl one of his tentacles in and save me from Cars 3Toy Story 4 and The Incredibles 2.