Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The remake that shouldn't have

They really shouldn't have made a remake of Ben-Hur.

Not because the material is so sacrosanct that it should never be remade. As a matter of fact, the Ben-Hur you think of as BEN-HUR -- the 1959 version directed by William Wyler -- is actually the third version, after a short in 1907 and a feature in 1925. I'd say the weirder thing, within the spectrum of film history, is how long it took to make another version, except there was actually a 2003 version, and also a miniseries in 2010. I guess the Hur-less period between 1959 and 2003 was the really weird period.

No, it shouldn't have been remade just because it just doesn't feel all that relevant to today.

We don't need to get into a discussion of religion. I'll concede that any story in which Christ appears as a character has a kind of eternal timeliness. There's always a way to tie in the themes to things happening today.

Rather, it just feels like a bit of a cinematic outlier. Like, "Where the hell did this new version of Ben-Hur come from?"

Learning that Timur Bekmambetov was the director, I had high hopes. Or rather, I knew there was at least a possibility there would be something cartoonishly stupendous about it. Bekmambetov's cartoonish stupendousness cuts both ways, but when it's on, it's on. It's not on in Wanted, but boy is it ever on in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

So that was the most disappointing thing about this new Ben-Hur. It actually doesn't have a lot of the outrageous awesomeness of AL: VH. In fact, it's played completely straight.

The next most disappointing thing?

Not a lot, actually.

If you want me to complete the thought in the subject of this post, it would be "The remake that shouldn't have ... worked. But somehow did."

That's right, I actually sort of liked this movie, and not even for the only reasons I figured I could like it.

Is it necessary? Hardly. Is it memorable? No, not really.

Is it sort of fun in the moment, and sort of poignant, and sort of good?

Yes, all those things.

The natural resistances anyone would feel toward a 2016 version of Ben-Hur kind of fell away as I was watching it, and I found myself liking the performances, and the grandiose production design, and the story itself.

I even liked Morgan Freeman and his awesome/ridiculous dreadlocks.

One nice thing about Ben-Hur was that it was not obviously the product of someone's digital playground. I'm sure there were plenty of digital effects in it -- one doesn't make a period appropriate epic set in the Roman Empire without some digital help -- but they were pretty seamless. And part of that comes from the fact that there was not some monstrous hydra or other creature that escaped from Clash of the Titans and into this movie. It was just a fairly straightforward telling of the story, with some changes to the plot to give it a happier ending. (But, spoiler alert: Jesus still dies.)

I don't know, maybe there's no good reason to like this movie. But I did sort of like it. And I don't really see a reason to talk myself out of that.

Does that mean you should go out and see it?


Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Star Trek mission with Star Wars robots

Hollywood has always operated on the core principle of finding a successful formula and trying to repeat it, and rarely has that seemed more evident than in The Black Hole.

In fact, I'm sure the reason my parents took me to see it back in 1979 -- making it one of the first five to ten movies I'd ever seen -- was because it had that kind of Star Wars, Star Trek feel to it.

Boy does it ever.

I watched the movie for the first time since then on Friday night, having still retained some images from it all these years later, but having no real idea what to expect. I knew it was fairly cheesy and nowhere in the same category as either of the sci-fi enterprises whose coattails it was trying to ride, but I also remembered that there were some things that had disturbed the six-year-old me. I wanted to see how objectively disturbing they actually were.

Answer: somewhat objectively disturbing.

But first, about the comparisons to the two Stars.

The most obvious influence is probably Star Wars, a huge hit from only two years earlier, and mostly in terms of the design of the robots. Yeah, there are laser battles, but as they look so much worse than those in Star Wars, it hardly feels worth dwelling on them. No, it's really the robots in particular -- and one robot in even more particular -- that feel like trying to recreate the Star Wars formula.

I'm thinking specifically of this robot, called Vincent:

There's more than a little R2-D2 in this little guy.

You wouldn't call him an R2-D2 clone, of course. They've taken pains to differentiate him. Vincent speaks English and he can fly, which is something R2-D2 did later but definitely could not do at the time. But R2-D2 was certainly an inspiration. Then again, George Lucas stole the basic design of R2-D2 from Silent Running, so it's not like there's every anything new under the sun.

Then there's this guy on the left:

He's called S.T.A.R. (oh yeah, Vincent is really called V.I.N.C.E.N.T.) and he's kind of a cross between a stormtrooper and those guys who control the Death Star's giant laser. If he reminds you a little of Darth Vader, it's probably not a coincidence.

But the real Darth Vader character in this movie is probably this guy:

He doesn't actually remind me of anyone in the Star Wars universe directly, though funnily enough, his character design is a bit mirrored in the emperor's royal guards from Return of the Jedi, which wouldn't come along for another four years. If anything he probably resembles the Silon Raiders from Battlestar Galactica (one year earlier), the Daleks from Dr. Who (more than 15 years earlier) or even that robot from Lost in Space (from around the same time as Dr. Who). If I'm going down this road I might as well also compare him to Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). And again we get into that everything-influences-everything-else territory. Sinister robots are frequently sinister in similar ways. (And all the robots I've listed here are not sinister, but I digress.)

The funny thing about Maximilian is that he shares a name with the actor who plays his master, Maximilian Schell. That's a chicken-or-the-egg scenario right there, if ever there was one.

I had at least V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and probably also Maximilian as toys when I was a kid. In retrospect, it seems unlikely that The Black Hole would have been popular enough for a toy line, but again, that's following in the Star Wars mold of merchandising. The way these toys moved was pretty cool, as I recall. Vincent (it's easier to just type his name that way) had a head that popped in an out of his body, turtle style, and I believe also had legs that could extend or not. I don't think Maximilian came equipped with whirring propeller blades, but I could be wrong.

So that's the Star Wars part. The Star Trek part comes entirely in terms of the plot.

Stop me if this sounds like an episode of Star Trek, or a Star Trek movie, or a half-dozen of each you've seen before: A seemingly deserted ship floats on the edge of some sort of space singularity, and to approach it may endanger our intrepid crew. But there could be survivors on board, and they have to figure out the mystery of what happened on that ship. When they do board the ship, they indeed find that it is occupied, most likely with a one-time alley who is no longer quite what he seems. And other ... sinister stuff. Before long, our intrepid crew is involved in an adventure with possibly cataclysmic repercussions.

Yeah, that's a Star Trek mission if ever there was one. In fact, even the most recent Star Trek movie from just this year has basically this same setup.

Of course, Star Trek *movies* were not a particular source of inspiration for The Black Hole. Only one of them existed at the time, and it had come out only months earlier. But the TV show had of course been in existence for some time, and it surely helped inspire this story.

But wait, we're not done.

The most unlikely influence on this film is 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's not unlikely because that movie is not good -- it's incredible, of course -- but because it's not commercial. Or not what we thought of as commercial in the post-Star Wars era.

The thing those two movies have in common are their endings. The entry into the black hole (spoiler!) is very similar to the Star Gate sequence that ends 2001, in that both are trying to visualize some interstellar phenomenon that is fundamentally unknowable ... and do that by producing visuals that almost certainly would not accompany such an event. 2001 of course has the whole surreal part about the old man in the bed, and The Black Hole's equivalent thereof is a cathedral-like crystal tunnel and a garish vision of hell in which Maximilian gets fused with his master while hooded figures look on. Both films end on what looks like the rise of a new planet, or could be interpreted that way anyway.

Okay, so on to what might or might not have disturbed me.

I was definitely disturbed at the time by the death of the character I now know was played by Anthony Perkins. Maximilian drills into him with his propeller blades (bloodlessly) and he falls down into a chasm in the ship and dies. I'm quite sure I found that too intense at the time. What I don't specifically remember, but probably horrified me, was the unmasking of one of the drones that are being passed off as robots, but are actually hypnotized/lobotomized humans. That was some pretty scary shit.

Overall, though, this is a pretty silly movie that has a lot more talk than action, and the action there is -- especially the laser shootouts -- is pretty cornball. Also, Neil deGrasse Tyson was right to criticize it as "the least scientifically accurate film of all time." There are parts where human beings are just floating in space without space suits and not dying. Yeah, it makes no sense.

Glad to have watched it again, though. There are few films I can say I haven't seen since the 1970s; now there is one fewer.

Friday, August 26, 2016

No Audio Audient: Broken Blossoms

This is the eighth in my series No Audio Audient, in which I'm watching one silent film per month in 2016.

When I first started this series, one of my concerns about silent films in general was how they don't make good apples-to-apples comparisons with modern films. I wasn't talking only, or even primarily, or even at all about the fact that they have no spoken dialogue and are black and white. No, I was talking about their length. I can compare almost any dissimilar dimensions of films, but length was a real sticking point for me. Simply put, I had a hard time considering a 45-minute moving picture to be a "film."

As soon as I saw Sherlock Jr. in February -- a 45-minute film (yes, film) I gave five stars -- I basically dropped that concern.

And now I want more.

At 85 minutes, D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms is kind of exactly the movie I was looking for when I started this series. It's a significant movie from the era while also having a run time that meets my idea of what a movie is. While also not being too long.

Except Broken Blossoms really is too long. It would have been much better off at 45 minutes.

I had a weird moment where I looked up at how much time had passed in the movie and saw it was 55 minutes, and felt that the movie was only just getting to its semblance of a plot. How is that possible? Where was the other time spent?

The story, such as it is, involves a Chinese immigrant to London (Richard Barthelmess) who does not find the welcoming home in the west he thought he'd find. (He "dreams to spread the gentle message of Buddha to Anglo-Saxon lands.") He has a shop in a wharf area, where one of the neighborhood girls (Lillian Gish) is beaten by her father, a drunken prizefighter (Donald Crisp). When one of his beatings leaves her seriously injured and wandering the streets, he takes her in and nurses her back to health. When the prizefighter discovers her whereabouts, all his instincts as a brute and a racist kick in to try to punish both the "Yellow Man" (ugh, that's how he is referred to) and the girl.

I imagine this seemed progressive at the time. There is no overt romance between the "Yellow Man" (also sometimes referred to as "the chink," and sometimes by his name, Cheng Huan) and Gish's Lucy, but the mere suggestion of an interracial affair between them would have likely been a pretty big deal. Unfortunately, knowing what we know about Griffith, it's difficult not to see elements of his racism here -- even when the movie is overtly fighting racism. I suppose referring to him as the "Yellow Man" ("chink" is usually reserved as an epithet used only be nasty people) would have been a fairly inoffensive crime in 1919, but nearly 100 years later -- and taken in combination with the values put forward by Griffith in Birth of a Nation -- it doesn't play particularly well. Then there's the fact that Cheng Huan is played by a white actor, which is probably obvious but is no less troubling, since they had to give him what we might call "yellowface" in order to make him look Chinese. (We would only use that term to play off the existing term "blackface," of course.)

But let's set that all aside and give Griffith the benefit of the doubt. One of the biggest problems with this movie is its slow pace and its scarcity of plot. This was again part of the style of the time, but things that seem like they should take place in a matter of ten or 20 seconds take more like a minute or two on screen to transpire. The whole movie is elongated in that fashion. One of the most comical is an interaction between Huan and the boxer, named Battling Burrows, where the two stare each other down for about two minutes, exchanging disdainful and suspicious looks. It reminded me most of the recurring bit by Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he and an adversary look each other over suspiciously from a distance of about two feet away from each other, for a period of maybe 30 seconds. Imagine that but taking two minutes.

The elongation of action is problematic in many other ways. I suppose before I tell you about them I should give you a spoiler warning, especially since I want to reveal one of my other problems about the movie and the only way to do that is to spoil it. So, SPOILERS ahead.

At the end of the movie, Lucy dies, because her father has raged so hard against her and beaten her so hard that the life simply escapes her body. We are meant to believe this is the result of her father's drunkenness and therefore is some kind of unpremeditated crime of impulse. Yet after the father corrals her at the end, there are two to three minutes of yelling, making threatening motions, raising and then lowering a whip, and muttering "Why I oughta" with the proverbial raised back of the hand before he actually descends upon her. If we are to believe that this father was so out of control that he was capable of killing his daughter, shouldn't we also believe that he'd be incapable of several minutes of preamble in which she is pleading for mercy? I suppose some of this can be excused by the melodramatic storytelling styles in fashion at the time, but not all.

And let's talk about this boxer. He is the epitome of the over-the-top silent movie villain. Would that the had a moustache to twirl. When I was watching the film, I failed to understand that he was actually the girl's father, which makes his behavior both better and worse. She calls him "Daddy," but I thought that was used in the way that you call your sugar daddy "Daddy." I thought this was a girl who was under this guy's thumb for some reason -- not that he was her pimp I guess, but someone he had the right to claim as his property. I thought his behavior was that of a jealous lout. Reading the wikipedia synopsis afterward, I discovered the actual blood relationship between the character. That he's actually her father makes his moral claim over her at least righteous -- a good father would want to save his daughter from being misused by someone -- but makes it far more unlikely that he would beat her to death. (And not seem to care that he had done so.) He's just so damn evil that it strains all credibility.

Then there's the movie's message. Huan's philosophy throughout has been that that he believes in peace and non-violence, even when confronting his enemies. By the end of the movie, he pulls out a gun and shoots Burrows. (Which leads to a hilariously prolonged chest-holding and staggering death.) I suppose this is Griffith's point, that he has come to such a state of despair the he has lost his core philosophies completely. Yet that point doesn't translate with any certainty, meaning that it seems more like carelessness and confusion on Griffith's part.

Technically speaking, the film does seem to have a few advances worth noting. In that prolonged scene before Burrows administers the fatal beating to his daughter, Griffith uses a close-up on both faces that's very effective, to illustrate the intensity of their interaction. The image also seems much clearer and in focus at this depth, and more use of it would have helped me become more involved in the film. But filmmakers were not yet ready to consistently shoot at a depth closer than mid level. I guess there are certain things I need to be patient on.

Gish is worth a special mention. She's quite good here, and it's easy to see why she became an icon whose acting methods engendered an entire legacy of acting for the screen. She does have some moments of silent-movie exaggeration, as Griffith would have directed her to do. But her more subtle instincts shine through, and she's heartbreaking.

I did find myself just a wee bit moved in the last few moments of the movie, when in spite of what I said earlier, I did recognize Huan's sacrifice and loss of idealism. Griffith is not an ineffective filmmaker. He just could have been more effective in this one, I thought.

Also, I'm still annoyed about how he includes his initials at the bottom of each of his title cards.


So having been exhausted by Intolerance (but rewarding it for its ambition) and with Birth of a Nation being what it is, maybe I'm just never going to be big into D.W. Griffith. I feel like I should watch Orphans of the Storm before reaching that conclusion once and for all, and that was a film I was considering seriously for this series. But it's two-and-a-half hours long, and really, I think I'm done with him for now. Two in this series is enough. That'll probably already be one more than anyone else gets, even the classic comedians like Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd.

Instead, in September I will watch the 1925 film The Big Parade, directed by King Vidor. This was on my radar from the You Must Remember This podcast, where it was mentioned briefly. Vidor is on my radar from a film of his I love, The Fountainhead, which I probably need to watch again now that I know more about Ayn Rand, to see what I'd think about it nowadays. But for now, The Big Parade.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ain't them dragons saints

In a year containing a bewildering number of reboots and remakes -- people say that every year, but 2016 really takes the cake -- the last movie I expected to distinguish itself from the pack was Pete's Dragon.

In fact, when I saw the trailer for it earlier this year, at first I mistook it for The Jungle Book. Or Tarzan. Or next year's Jungle Book movie.

The presence of Robert Redford and Bryce Dallas Howard in the cast made me momentarily curious, but they are by no means a guarantee of success -- or originality. I mean, I liked this movie more than a lot of people, but Howard was the star of Jurassic World, the rebootiest of reboots.

Then there's the fact that the original Pete's Dragon is not very good. Even as a kid I never liked it. Even as a kid I remember the animated dragon looking really cheap next to the real kid. And it felt like some kind of a weird misfire, even by the not-very-discerning standards of a really young person.

Well, I won't be able to judge myself for three more weeks -- Pete's Dragon comes out here on September 15th, timed for the next round of school holidays -- but all the sudden I'm really excited about it. People I trust are falling all over themselves praising it. Against all odds, it has poked its head above the din and asserted its right to exist.

And I'm wondering if we can credit that to David Lowery, the unlikeliest person to be involved in this whole thing.

If you don't immediately recognize that name, Lowery directed a movie a couple years ago called Ain't Them Bodies Saints. It was a bit of a Bonnie & Clyde story of two hicks swooningly in love who commit a robbery and get in a shootout with the cops, followed by one's jailing and subsequent epic quest to get back to his love.

The movie boasts an incredible amount of lyricism, but to say it connected with all audiences would not be accurate. Even among its target audience of indie film fans, it had a mixed reaction. I know one guy who listed it as the best movie he saw that year, but I know others who sort of shrugged -- myself included. It was both definitely beautiful and definitely alienating, and that's as it was designed to be. You didn't get the sense that David Lowery cared all that much about being particularly accessible.

Which makes his involvement with Pete's Dragon all the stranger. It's not just that this is a mainstream movie that needs to be accessible under threat of death -- the death of the director's career, anyway -- but that it's in a genre that seems so utterly different from Ain't Them Bodies Saints. We have a lot of examples in Hollywood these days of "How did this director get this project?" -- like, "How did the director of What We Do in the Shadows get chosen for the next Thor movie?" -- but even within that overriding climate, the choice of Lowery for this movie seems strange.

And then he just doesn't look like the director of a remake of a Disney movie:

He looks like the director of Ain't Them Bodies Saints.

But I suppose this is why producers hire directors who seems so far removed from the "logical" choice. The "logical" choice gives you a competent film that doesn't contain any obvious gaffes. It's low risk, low reward. An unexpected choice is the bigger risk, but if his or her unique sensibilities make the finished product fly, it's a much bigger win.

So I'm starting to think maybe this is a Spike Jonze/Where the Wild Things Are situation. We didn't necessarily see Jonze as the obvious candidate to adapt Maurice Sendak's book, though his track record certainly made him a more likely contender than Lowery. But once his vision was revealed and we saw the final product, we knew that the safe choice would have given us a bland movie. The risky choice gave us a masterpiece. From what I've heard, Pete's Dragon might be that kind of masterpiece.

I suppose the interwebs might tell me why David Lowery was a more obvious choice for Pete's Dragon than I'm giving him credit for. But a cursory search did not provide me the answer, and maybe I'd prefer not to know anyway. Maybe I'd prefer just to remain in the mystery of how just the right director is matched with just the right material to give us a felictious final product that we never would have imagined would be great.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Edward embargoed

There's nothing that makes you feel more like a critic than the E word: embargo.

And then, there's nothing that takes that feeling away more than having to sign someone else's name to get into the theater.

The advanced screening I attended of Oliver Stone's Snowden last night was probably the furthest ahead of the release of any screening I've ever attended in my capacity as a critic. It's pretty much exactly a month until the film hits theaters here in Australia -- a week before that in the U.S. -- and our reviews cannot be published until September 12th.

I think it's the first time I've been conscious of an embargo on a movie I was planning to review. I'll probably write the review today, as I want to write it while it's still fresh in my memory. That probably goes without saying. But I'll take the additional step of not even sending it to my editor until the embargo is about to lift. It's not that I don't trust him not to accidentally publish it early, but ... well, I don't totally trust him not to accidentally publish it early. Anyway, he can't publish something he doesn't have.

Unfortunately, there's already one rule I'm not following as I had to perpetrate a fraud just to get into the theater.

As the invitation of course came in his name, my editor signed himself up as the person attending the screening. He may even have initially planned to be the one going. Ultimately he had a conflict, so he offered it to me ... but never told them he was changing the attendee. They would have surely been fine with that, but once he didn't change it, I had to do what I always do in situations like this -- I had to give his name. Which is usually fine, but felt a bit fraught with danger especially with the E word floating around.

And especially when I saw that we were signing in as ourselves.

Not producing IDs, I was glad to see. That certainly would have been a plausible security measure for them to take. In fact, the security was almost lax in some respects, as they never even checked the printed tickets I had. Perhaps they figured that those are a bit fallible, as anyone can print out a ticket that arrived via email. (Which of course doesn't stop this from being a major part of how people get in to events.)

So I found my editor's name on the list and quickly scribbled a signature, knowing that when signing your name as somebody else, speed is more important that legibility.

Speed and confidence. I knew the way to be most confident about signing was to actually sign the name, even if a doctor's scribble would have had the benefit of ambiguity. If you're signing as a doctor would, though, you have to instinctively know how that looks. You have to know which part of the signature is a whip and which part a squiggle, and I don't think you can do that when someone's watching you without worrying about second guessing yourself halfway through. Easier just to sign the actual name, which I did, though I feel like it looked a bit like a child's signature because I could not sign an unfamiliar name quickly without making mistakes. Then again, just because you're an adult doesn't mean you don't have messy handwriting.

Essentially, I was assuming an identity to get in to a movie about spies.

Anyway, it wasn't an issue. The only way it might become one is if the site publishes the review before the embargo lifts, which makes it even more important that I keep it close to the vest until the 12th of September.

It was funny having a film about government secrets be shrouded in secrecy. I felt like I had become an extended wing of the intelligence agency, as having watched Snowden possessed me of a knowledge that I must safeguard. The more Snowden thing for me to do would be to break the embargo and share my feelings on the film with a public that has the right to know.

But true to the embargo, I won't tell you a thing about my feelings about Oliver Stone's movie.

I will tell you that the movie I saw afterward, Sausage Party, made a funny contrast. The CIA and the NSA are both full of men, so it was like going from a sausagefest to a Sausage Party.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Britches too big

I don't really know enough about War Dogs to make any assumptions about it, yet I'm going to do that anyway.

It seems like a movie starring two guys who have gotten too big for their britches.

Jonah Hill has big britches anyway. (Sorry, that was bad.) But Miles Teller, once an unassuming and likable John Cusack type, is starting to become an assuming and unlikable John Cusack type. You know, like John Cusack himself has become.

I don't know if you would know it from his screen performances alone, though I haven't seen a couple of his last few movies (ahem The Fantastic Four), but Teller sure came across as an asshole in a profile I read of him not long after Whiplash came out. It's possible that the writer just didn't like him and decided to make him look like a jerk, but the image he presented of Teller was of a guy who thinks very highly of himself, is easily perturbed, and wants to challenge anyone who has even constructive criticism of him.

So I can't help but think that those traits inform a movie like War Dogs, in which Teller plays one of two characters who gets involved with a bunch of swaggering and bling once they start war profiteering. Obviously this film will end up teaching them a lesson about whatever situations they get themselves involved in, but there's also a lot of slow motion and strutting image shots and the like, which celebrates the glamor of their pursuits. (Or at least, that's what I remember from my one screening of the trailer.)

As for Hill, I kind of feel like this is a natural offshoot of his role in The Wolf of Wall Street, which involved a very similar type of thing -- a schmuck becoming incredibly powerful and making it rain, or whatever the white guy equivalent of that is. If this is indeed any part of Hill's personality or screen persona now, it could very easily be because of that Oscar nomination he got for Wolf, which encouraged him that he wears this type of thing well. Some of you may agree, but me, I hated Wolf of Wall Street.

The poster only reinforces these concerns -- in addition to having the wrong actor name over the head of each person. (I get that Hill needs to come first because he's more famous, but then just design the poster differently.)

The other problem with this movie is that I generally hate comedy satires set around modern foreign conflict. Think Lord of War. That's obviously the most relevant comparison for a movie like War Dogs, as both deal with weapons sales, but other movies with tangential concerns (Wag the Dog, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, etc.) don't really do it for me either. Does War Dogs have that much hope of being different than their ilk?

I guess we'll see when I watch this on the plane to America in December.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Michael Moore is as old as his shtick

We watched Where to Invade Next on Thursday night, which was probably not really necessary in terms of Michael Moore completism. I'm not a Michael Moore completist, having missed Capitalism: A Love Story (although I did recently watch Canadian Bacon, the move of a Michael Moore completist if ever there was one). Even back then, in 2009, I knew I was tired of the way Moore was conveying his message (though not the message itself, with which I agree), and I just never prioritized seeing Capitalism.

For some reason, Where to Invade Next inspired me with more hope. Not because the trailers made it look particularly different or more interesting than his other movies -- in fact, it looked pretty much exactly like his other movies -- but because when Moore stopped making films, I noticed his absence. It kind of felt like a vital liberal voice had been snuffed from the political entertainment landscape, and I didn't want that to be viewed as a victory by his opponents.

Besides, it was the 99 cent rental on iTunes a few weeks ago, and I'll see anything for 99 cents.

Unfortunately, Where to Invade Next is easily Moore's least interesting film. Even while being very much the same as the others.

I guess it could be that he's lost the bite from his commentary in an age when Obama is president and he doesn't really have anything bad to say about him. Or rather, he probably has plenty bad he'd like to say, but he's not the type of liberal who will cut off his nose to spite his face. He sees the big picture, which is that the country is heading in the right direction in terms of who's in charge of it.

But really, I just felt like I'd seen all this before. In fact, I'd seen Michael Moore himself telling me all this before.

The premise of this movie is not military, actually. There's a bit of commentary at the start about how the U.S. has been in a non-stop series of conflicts dating back, oh, pretty much to World War II. But that's just the jumping off point. The "invading" Moore talks about here is not a scathing look inside how the U.S. decides the next fight it plans to pick. It's actually an invasion of friendly nations to take their best social ideas.

The primary symbol of this "invasion" is Moore carrying around an American flag, planting it in various places like the living room of Italians who enjoy their eight weeks of paid vacation, or a Slovenian university where tuition is free.


Same old Michael Moore. Same old shtick.

Emphasis on the word "old."

I noticed for the first time in this movie how old Michael Moore is really looking. He's 62, so it should not be such a surprise. But it's not just his chicken neck and general sense of sagginess. It's that the stuff he's doing seems so old -- so old-fashioned, and so tired.

One technique Moore has always used is to ask dumb questions. He's big on pretending he doesn't know the answer to a question and asking it in a way that sets up the interview subject to make his point for him. Like asking university students about their debt, knowing that they do not actually have debt. Like asking a Norwegian prisoner in an open prison plan how many times he's been raped in the shower. Like asking police officers where their guns are.

I get what Moore is doing, but my God has he done this so many times before. One of my favorite Moore films is actually Sicko, which is only two films ago for him. This movie is essentially like Sicko all over again, except focusing on things other than just healthcare.

And don't get me wrong, there are some interesting things in it. But we know by now that places in Europe have radically different approaches to work, to healthcare, to life, to school, to taxes than we do in the U.S. Michael Moore himself has told us this over and over again. Some of those approaches are probably applicable to the U.S. Some are not. And Moore conveniently overlooks the things that are not working particularly well in those countries. My wife characterized it best when she referred to it as "cherry-picking."

For the first time in his career, Moore seems to be merely engaged in shaming, rather than suggesting real solutions and alternatives. Does he really think a movie like this is going to allow the U.S. to institute three-hour school days and no homework (an approach that supposedly works wonders in Finland) and eight weeks a year of paid leave? At this point it just seems like a gratuitous nose-rubbing of all the ways America is broken.

And because he recognizes how to structure a narrative (though not how to cut 30 minutes out of a two-hour movie), Moore finishes up with a "happy ending." He acknowledges that many of the practices successfully put in place in far-flung areas of the world originated with American concepts that have fallen by the wayside. But honestly, this ending seems disingenuous.

I welcome Michael Moore back to the arena, I suppose. But just because you're old doesn't mean you can't learn new tricks. If Moore makes another movie and it's evident he hasn't learned any, I won't be watching it.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The skeletons of Nate Parker

It probably goes without saying that a private citizen has a greater entitlement to privacy than a public figure. It stands to reason that a person running for president of the United States has less privacy than a person running for president of the school council, who has less privacy than a person running for president of the local chapter of the Society of Dungeonmasters. In fact, libel laws are primarily in place to protect private citizens. The standard of proof for libel against a public figure is much, much higher.

The question, then, is whether Nate Parker's increase in public stature justifies the increased scrutiny into his past that has landed upon him this week. Are the skeletons in his closet our business? Are they relevant to his current standing in the community, both the entertainment community and the community at large?

The response to this week's news rankles me, and during the writing of this post I hope to articulate why.

First some background.

Nate Parker has been in the public eye for a good ten years. As an actor, his first credited role was in 2004 on Cold Case, but I first became aware of him in Denzel Washington's terrific film The Great Debaters in 2007. As he was one of the film's three leads -- along with Washington and Jurnee Smollett -- it could be argued that it was at this point that he really became a public figure.

Most people would still not have known who Nate Parker was until the buzz about him at this year's Sundance Film Festival became deafening. At Sundance this year, Parker premiered his slave epic The Birth of a Nation, which got snapped up for a record distribution deal and immediately announced itself as an Oscar frontrunner. Not only is the film supposedly very good, but it also would be a very convenient film to fete in a year following the controversy over the lack of African-American nominees at last year's Oscars. Nate Parker is both the director and star of this film, playing the similarly named Nat Turner.

Of course, most people still wouldn't know who Parker was because most people don't follow the news out of Sundance.

Most people become aware of someone when a rape allegation surfaces.

Yesterday for the first time I learned that Parker was tried and acquitted of rape 17 years ago when he was in college at Penn State. The facts of the case seem to be that Parker and his roommate Jean Celestin (who has a story credit on Birth) had sex with a classmate when she was unconscious. Parker had had consensual sex with the girl previously, and he insisted that this episode was consensual as well. As Celestin had no such prior relationship with her, that seems to have been the deciding factor in why Celestin was convicted and jailed for six months while Parker was acquitted. That's a bit flabbergasting and I don't know that a jury today would make that same decision, but in 1999, that's what they decided.

Some of this may have been known before. I'm not sure.

The "new" information -- though it's at least four years old -- is that the victim in this case died in 2012 of what seems to have been suicide. The victim's brother, who has come forward, said it was the end of a long line of pain for his sister that started with the rape. She dropped out of school not long after and he says her life began a downward spiral at that point. Him speaking out is what has brought this news to light. Apparently, Parker did not know until just recently that she had died.

My first reactions to this news:

1) Rape is a terrible crime. We should not tolerate its practictioners, who should be jailed for decades. People guilty of rape should be shunned in proper society.

2) Rape is also, sometimes, an ambiguous crime. Completely false accusations of rape are pretty uncommon, but it is a crime that tends to be characterized by its gray areas, gray areas the laws have been trying very hard to define over decades of increasing enlightenment on the topic. Whether a person is truly capable of giving their consent at a particular juncture is something that can't help but be open to interpretation. I mean, if a person is asleep, that's rape. But how confident can you be litigating degrees of grogginess?

3) Seventeen years ago? How young was he when that happened? He was 19. He was an adult. He is fully responsible for his behavior. But that doesn't mean he wasn't an idiotic dickhead with a lot of maturing to do. Maturing he may have done in the ensuing years.

4) The woman committed suicide thirteen years after she was raped. The rape may be related. Her life might have been ruined by this rape. But it may not be related.

5) Why is this information only coming out now? Oh yeah, it's because The Birth of a Nation is coming out.

This last is the most problematic piece of this whole puzzle. The timing. Timing that will give conspiracy theorists fits if they let it.

There is a heavily charged racial atmosphere in the United States right now. We see it at the Oscars and we see it in the streets. Not only are black people being killed in the streets by police officers, but they are not getting nominated for Oscars. Sorry, it's probably a tasteless joke to present that false equivalency. But I'm writing a movie blog so I'm focusing on the Oscar part right now, as the slightly less depressing representation of American racial norms.

In the very week that Oscar nominations are announced, a film debuts at Sundance that drops everyone's jaws. It's called The Birth of a Nation and it's fucking great. Making it even better is that it is directed by a black man, a guy who might be both a directing and an acting nominee, depending on how good his performance is. #Oscarssowhite "solved," right?

Not so fast.

This week information comes out that Parker was once acquitted of rape, and the details of the case are now being retried in the court of public opinion. The tragic fact that the victim subsequently committed suicide has been correlated to the alleged rape by a person (her brother) who is hardly disinterested in this matter. That's not to discount the fact that he may be correct, but it was 13 years later and a lot of other bad shit can happen in 13 years. This trial was 17 years ago and has been public record, but now it is deemed to be relevant because a man has made a movie with a certain moral rectitude implied in its subject matter, which is therefore considered to be hypocritical because he was once tried for rape. Never mind that he was acquitted. By his own admission he has regrets about what went down, so something sketchy happened, and that's bad enough.

And it is bad enough, probably. But what bearing does that have on the value of The Birth of a Nation? Especially at a time when Hollywood so desperately needs a voice like Parker's to make a movie that might mean so much to so many people?

It would be a little easier to see the correlation if Parker had made a movie about violence against women, and then it was revealed that he might have raped someone. But that's not what Parker's movie is about. It's about a slave revolt that had a very significant impact on American history.

Is it worth boycotting the movie just because Parker's not a good guy? Or was not always a good guy? Determining how much a person's past contributes to how we view them now is always a subject of debate, which gets into concepts of the possibility of changing one's ways and repenting. "Once a rapist, always a rapist" is probably a reasonable characterization of most people guilty of rape, but what if Parker says he was never a rapist? And a jury upheld that claim? Are we just going to throw that out because the details of his case are anything but clear? And isn't part of them being anything but clear at least the possibility that he did not actually rape this person?

Part of the reason why Parker's past is considered relevant to this movie is that its rollout is supposed to involve Parker going out to churches and speaking on issues of social justice. I can understand why that plan is now complicated, and maybe should be scuttled.

But the fact that there is now a taint associated with the whole movie has implications that are far greater than this movie itself. If this movie doesn't get nominated -- it doesn't have to win, but it at least has to get nominated -- then it will be impossible to tell if it's because people found Parker's past indiscretions too questionable to stomach, or if the allegedly racist tendencies of the Academy played a role. If you were a conspiracy theorist, you'd contend that this movie is being sabotaged.

And it already looks like people are talking about boycotting it. I only even became aware of Parker's accusations because the story was posted in my Flickcharters Facebook group, where the poster said this was reason enough for him not to support the movie. At least one commenter agreed. Several others name-checked the likes of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski in trying to separate the art from the artist, and I myself mentioned Mel Gibson. I suppose there are certain artists who could be so despicable that I would not watch their movies, but none of the people mentioned in this paragraph, not to mention Parker, are so unambiguously guilty of something that is so unambiguously awful that I would write them off completely. I suppose even if they were unambiguously awful, I would still consider seeing their movies because I'm a critic and that's what I do.

I should pause here to acknowledge that it's problematic to even refer to Parker's past as "skeletons in his closet." Usually when we talk about that, we talk about a drinking problem, a gambling problem, an affair that if made public would cause embarrassment. We don't talk about things like rapes and murders as "skeletons" -- it tends to underappreciate their seriousness. However, if you've been accused of one of these things and found not guilty, it does become a bit more like the so-called "skeleton" I'm mentioning here. If we are to believe that someone is not guilty of a crime, we must believe that he or she is 100% not guilty. And just being accused of a crime in which you were found not guilty is indeed a bit more like a skeleton. I wanted to address that, in case my wording makes anyone uncomfortable.

This whole thing makes us uncomfortable. And it should. We're talking about serious issues here, issues of life and death and personal safety and integrity of character. And we're also talking about sticky political issues. In a weird way this has the unfortunate consequence of possibly becoming a case of the rights of a race vs. the rights of a gender. You might see African-Americans on Parker's "side" and women "against" him. Which is really a shame, because both are marginalized groups whose issues have not been historically taken seriously enough.

I don't know that I've gotten any closer to a clear perspective on this week's events involving Nate Parker. I certainly don't like that he may have raped a woman and there may have been a direct chain of events that led to her suicide. But I also believe a person is innocent until proven guilty, and Parker was never proven guilty. The possibility that he behaved criminally toward a helpless victim is not enough for me to swear off what may end up becoming one of the most symbolically important movies to come out in the last five years. Even if it's a likelihood that he behaved criminally. He definitely behaved dishonorably, but he was cleared of actual guilt.

And the thing is, he admits he behaved dishonorably. Parker penned an open letter in the wake of this news that discusses his feelings on the topic. In it he says the following:

"I am filled with a profound sorrow."

"I look back on that time and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom."

"I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name."

"I have never run from this period in my life and I never will. Please don't take this as an attempt to solve this with a statement."

Nate Parker is trying. He wants to show us he's a better man at 36 than he was at 19. He's admitting some guilt without fully saying he was culpable. He's showing the maturity that he said he needed to acquire when he was that rambunctious, dumb, undoubtedly careless, possibly cruel 19-year-old.

You don't have to forgive Nate Parker. You don't have to like Nate Parker. Just don't use these as reasons not to watch his movie.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The second slump of Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck has already lived many Hollywood lives for someone who's only 44. In fact, Monday was his 44th birthday. Happy birthday, Ben.

The reviews of Suicide Squad couldn't have made a very good birthday present, but then again, he's not in that movie very much. It's not really "his" project. Actually, he's not even credited.

However, those reviews do impact him as a bellweather of the enterprise in which he has gotten himself so intricately entwined. Simply (and crudely) put, Ben Affleck is balls deep in the DC cinematic universe, about which nothing is currently going well.

So when I forecast a second slump for Ben Affleck, it's not that it's totally upon us yet. It's that we will be living through it for the next three to five years.

But let's first look back at his first slump. In fact, let's go back even further than that. Some of this is covered in this post, but just so you don't have to click on any links, I'll summarize it for you again.

Affleck was certainly around before then -- in fact, his first credited acting role was in 1981 -- but he burst on the scene in 1997 when Good Will Hunting forced us to recognize him and won him a screenwriting Oscar. This launched about a six-year period in which he could do no wrong -- or rather, the wrong he did do (like Pearl Harbor) did not stick to him.

Things changed when he got together with Jennifer Lopez. With Lopez he made Gigli and Jersey Girl, both flops, though his worst film of the ensuing period may have been 2004's Surviving Christmas. By 2006, Affleck somewhat involuntarily took a three-year hiatus from acting. Imagine that -- a big movie star being forced to step away from what he loved at the age of just 34. (However, it should be said that he did direct Gone Baby Gone in 2007.)

That period of infertility also lasted six years, if we want to define it as ending when he returned to acting in 2009 with a series of high-profile roles that were well received, plus two more successful features as director (The Town in 2010, Argo in 2012, the latter of which won best picture). There was no doubt Affleck was back, and perhaps the purest sign of that was Terence Malick casting him in 2013's To the Wonder.

But another six years have passed for Affleck, and things appear to be going south again. Twenty fourteen and 2015 were both relatively quiet for Affleck on the acting front, with just Gone Girl in 2014 and just "Brian Salty Flanigan" on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2015. (Hey, I'm just going by IMDB.) But that takes us to the end of 2015 without his fortunes really changing, which is convenient since I'm breaking down Affleck's career in six-year chunks.

Twenty sixteen appears to be the beginning of another Affleck downturn, and it all relates to his entrenchment in his new role of Batman. At the time of his casting it was viewed as just another feather in his cap, as there was every probability that another run of Batman movies would be both a critical and a financial success. But now that it has actually transpired and his name is signed on the dotted line for God knows how many umpteen more movies, we're starting to realize it may have been more of a curse than a blessing.

Simply put, the reviews for these first two DC movies he's appeared in have been devastating. Batman v. Superman was bad, but if possible, Suicide Squad has been even worse. The former has pulled down just a 44 on Metractric; the latter is four points lower than that.

So time for Affleck to reinvent himself again, right?


The number of additional movies with which Batman is involved or rumored to be involved is staggering. Okay, it's three, but given the reaction to these first two movies, that's still staggering in terms of useful ways for Affleck to spend his time. Two Justice League movies (both directed by Zack Snyder) are set to come out in 2017 and 2019, and Untitled Batman Reboot has also been announced. Of course, they can't just be making one standalone Batman movie. Plus, I have to think Affleck's contract stipulates that DC can use him for anywhere from three to 27 additional movies, should they see it fit to make them. And since Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad will both be financial hits, the bean counters will surely be into that.

The gray in Bruce Wayne's hair in the photo above will certainly be real by the time all this is said and done.

Of course, it's always possible he continues to do good outside work while he's playing Batman. Robert Downey Jr. has managed to keep up a fairly active parallel series of jobs even while playing Tony Stark for eight years now. Affleck already has Gavin O'Connor's The Accountant scheduled for release later this year, and his own fourth directorial effort, Live by Night, scheduled for next year.

But the more DC scrambles to course correct, the more likely it is to take up more of his time and spread its stench to him.

So the dimensions of Affleck's second slump may be a bit different from his first one. The first time around, he was actively killing, or at least not helping, his films' prospects at the box office. This time, no such stink of failure may be attached to him. But his critical stink will be a heavy one, and that may be what the current incarnation of Ben Affleck cares about more.

And how long before Affleck has any reasonable chance of pulling himself out of this projected slump?

Probably about six years.

At which point I will welcome his second comeback with open arms.

Even at nearly 50, Affleck will surely have several more Hollywood lives left to live.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

What movie would I watch on a blimp?

Grey Goose was one of the sponsors of MIFF this year, meaning that I saw one particular short movie/ad before nearly every screening.

Seeing something 11 times in two weeks gives you a lot of opportunity to think about it.

What happens in this ad is that a bunch of beautiful people dressed in the latest styles of the day get together for a blimp ride, on which they will sip Grey Goose vodka and watch a classic film. You can watch the whole ad here:

Before I get to the central question inspired by this ad, allow me a paragraph to rant about it a bit.

Look, this ad is pretty beautiful. But there's something so blase about the characters that never ceased to annoy me each time I watched it. Their apparent reaction to flying on a blimp is something like bemusement. Sure, they run at one point because inexplicably the blimp seems to be taking off without them (a strange choice by the pilot, since they are its only passengers), but beyond that, it's an event that seems like it might sooner induce yawns in them than a genuine sense of excitement. It's almost as though each one of them is saying "I'm beautiful, people present me with exotic blimp rides through various cultures and climates every day." As though merely being beautiful means that the world is your oyster, in laboriously luxurious ways that don't impress you.

But the ends justify the means, sort of. The beautiful people eventually gather the materials necessary to project a movie on the clouds? side of a mountain? I'm not really sure. Nor am I sure that a blimp can/would just hover there long enough to show a whole movie, or that the cloud formations would cooperate long enough to create a seamless viewing backdrop, or that a blimp would risk flying so close to mountains that would destroy it and leave no hope of any survivors making it down to the bottom -- not in the impractical shoes they are surely wearing, anyway.

Consistent with the whole glamorous production design of this ad, the movie they watch is a classic, naturally. I can't readily identify it, but that looks like either Gregory Peck or Cary Grant. The woman I can't as easily identify because, well, I'm worse at identifying classic actresses than I am at identifying classic actors.

I suppose I resent this ad a little bit because of how self-consciously hip it is, right down to the choice of movie. These people are in their late 20s, but instead of being interested in movies they grew up on in the 1990s, they're interested in movies that were made in the 1930s or 1940s. As good taste dictates, naturally.

Me? If I were up in the clouds in a blimp, not only would I be bouncing around in untold amounts of giddy excitement, but I'd probably be throwing on an old favorite. And by "old favorite" I mean something 30 years old, from my own childhood. Something in color, I'm sure.

But let's just say that my blimp movie had to be something where Cary Grant and a woman kissed, or the equivalent. Something swoony and romantic and classy. But something that I actually really loved -- not just something that made me look like a person of refined aesthetic sensiblities.

What would be my blimp movie?

Forthwith, the top five contenders in alphabetical order. They're choices of a certain age, meeting the criteria, and all from my top 500 on Flickchart:

1) Gone With the Wind - This gets there just on sheer epic scope and the grandiosity of its romance. A bit long for a blimp ride, perhaps.

2) North by Northwest - Romance is obviously not the predominating element of this movie, but I seem to remember some real sizzle between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. (And it actually has Cary Grant, like the movie they watch in the Grey Goose ad.)

3) Roman Holiday - Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn are lovely in this movie. My top choice on this list.

4) Singin' in the Rain - Since this is one of the movies I am most due to rewatch, I actually can't remember how romantic it is, but it just seems blimp-worthy.

5) The Sound of Music - Had the absolute pleasure of rewatching this last year for the first time since my childhood, and had forgotten how wonderful the relationship is between Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews.

Now, a list of choices if I were just going modern and throwing out worries about what everyone else would think of me:

1) Before Sunrise - Celine and Jesse. That's one romantic night.

2) The English Patient - This is my only really "classic" choice among the modern movies. There's something so elegant and adult about the romance between Kristen Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes.

3) Moulin Rouge! - Deliriously romantic. The music only helps.

4) Say Anything - Come on, you know it is. Lloyd Dobler. Diane Court. The backseat of that car. "In Your Eyes."

5) Titanic - I'm sorry. Remember, I said I was throwing out worries about what other people think of me. Leo and Kate 4 eva!

Honorable mention: Cinema Paradiso, just for the closing scene with all the kisses edited out of other movies.

Now excuse me while I go don a thousand-dollar shirt and set out in bemused search for the nearest dirigible.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Movies that make other movies scarier

If I had seen Scott Stewart's Dark Skies a year ago, I probably would have found the 2013 movie to be a pretty well-crafted little alien abduction horror movie. I would have given it a positive star rating on Letterboxd and maybe not thought much more about it.

But because I saw it this year instead, I think I'm going to keep on thinking about it, keep on allowing it to horrify me in the deepest recesses of my brain.

The difference?

Last Halloween I saw a documentary called The Nightmare, about a disorder some people experience called sleep paralysis. Without going into excessive detail about the disorder -- I did so in this post, if you want to read more -- I'll say that its symptoms are that you sense or even actually see a presence in your bedroom while you are trying to go to sleep, but you lack the ability to move your body to escape it. This is a dream, it would seem, but it's so realistic, and it's so little removed from your actual reality at the time, that it induces a kind of panic on the verge of madness. And it afflicts the same people over and over again, repeatedly, for months or even years on end.

What was probably most disturbing about it was that different people with sleep paralysis describe seeing the same types of creatures in their bedrooms -- and many of them conform to that traditional design of the almond-eyed alien, the one that appears so often in pop culture and really, throughout human history.

It's the same almond-eyed alien who appears in the poster above, though we don't really get to see it quite in that form in Dark Skies.

As a documentary, The Nightmare convinced me more than any fictional account would that these aliens have a legitimate claim to existing. If multiple real people explain seeing them in the same scenario, there's got to be something to that, right?

So this is not me coming out as believing in aliens. However, it is me acknowledging that there are things in this world (or other worlds) that we just don't understand. Evidence that is just too compelling to conform to some kind of so-called logical explanation.

The Nightmare, then, has made me suspectible to finding things to be scary that I would otherwise not have found scary. Like Dark Skies.

I should give Dark Skies a bit more credit than that, though. It's well shot, it's well acted (Keri Russell continues to remind me what a treasure she is), and it presents its familiar tropes with an undeniable technical skill. It's certainly a big step forward from director Scott Stewart's previous efforts, such as Legion (which I hated) and Priest (which I assumed was bad and did not even bother to see because I hated Legion so much). However, I should also acknowledge that even while making a very bad movie in Legion, Stewart still managed to present some frightening imagery that I will probably always remember.

Without The Nightmare, though, Dark Skies would not have burrowed down into my consciousness, would not have given me an extreme case of the willies as I walked down my darkened hallway to the bedroom after turning off the movie.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

My number two Mulholland Drive viewing

Before Friday night, I hadn't seen David Lynch's Mulholland Drive since I saw it in the theater back in 2001. That would make this my number two viewing of Mulholland Drive.

Yet that viewing was also a number two viewing, because I had to leave the theater to go number two.

That's right -- to this day, Mulholland Drive remains the only theatrical screening I can remember having to leave in order to take a shit.

I can't remember why I had to go. I mean, with these things there is not always a why, but what I mean is, I don't remember having drunk an inordinate amount of coffee beforehand, or being sick. But sure enough, I had an intestinal emergency and I had to leave, sometime in the first hour.

If memory serves, I did my business quickly and returned within five minutes. But ever since then, I've joked (in company with which I felt comfortable, anyway) that the reason I didn't get Mulholland Drive was because I missed five minutes in the middle.

Friday night I finally watched the movie for the first time uninterrupted, and of course, it didn't make all that much more sense to me. With this movie, that's to be expected. I did, however, feel more interested in it this time, enough to check out a few theories from this massive collection of them: I might even check out a few more in the coming days.

If pressed to tell you which part I might have missed the first time, I'd probably say it was the hitman scene, because I did not remember that at all. And if so, that would be a funny yet fortuitous scene to have missed, because it is the single scene that seems to have the least to do with anything else that happens. ("Seems to" is the key part of that phrasing -- I'm sure many of the theories make quite a bit out of that scene.)

The other unique thing about that viewing was that it was the only time I can remember seeing a movie with the guy I saw it with. I mean, we're still friends to this day, but never before or since did we go to a movie just the two of us. Perhaps Mulholland Drive scared him away from my suggestions.

I don't care to tackle any of the theories or present any of my own in this post, but I did want to share a couple random thoughts:

1) Mulholland Drive featured any number of actors I did not expect to see in this movie. Let's start with Billy Ray Cyrus. Huh? Totally random. Then there's Brent Briscoe, in exactly one scene I believe. I tend to think of this guy as the hick from A Simple Plan, so he seems out of place as an L.A. detective. I didn't think Melissa George came on the scene until years later, so seeing her as Camilla Rhodes was also a surprise. (Huh, she also played Terence Stamp's killed daughter in The Limey two years earlier.) There were some others, but those were the big three.

2) As I did recently with Se7en, I'm still struggling with this one on the proper typographic representation of the title. There I capitulated, as you'll remember, and started writing it with the numeral in the middle of the title. Here, though, I can't quite make the transition to writing the title as Mulholland Dr., which is how I see it listed more often than not. With Se7en I deferred to how the title appears in the movie itself, but I can't remember how it appears in Lynch's movie -- I know it appears on a street sign in abbreviated form very early on, but I can't remember if the title ever appears as a non-diegetic element. That argument would suggest I should start writing it abbreviated, and in fact I did at first when I included it in my Most Recently Re-watched section to the right. But then I saw it written out in full in a couple other places, and changed it back. Mulholland Drive it is.

Sorry if you came to a blog post about Mulholland Drive hoping to find a discussion that was a bit more profound. This is all I got.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Graduating MIFF

If you want to look at MIFF 2016 as a kind of university -- and I don't know why you would except for the purposes of my current metaphor -- then it's time for me to graduate.

No better way to do that than with a final film called Graduation.

That was the second film of Wednesday's double feature and my final for 2016.

I ended up seeing 11 films, not the 12 I had once expected. I had actually originally expected to see ten, but finding extra tickets here and there put me in line to see two more: The Lure, which I saw (and loved) last Friday night, and Suntan, which was to be my final film on the final full day of the festival this Saturday (tomorrow) night.

I didn't need to see either of those -- ten was already twice the total I'd seen in any other MIFF -- but once I'd gotten it in my mind that I'd be seeing them, I got a bit sad when the opportunity to see the last one dropped off the table. My wife had mistaken the number of tickets that were still remaining on her minipass, so we didn't actually need to spend one more for me to see the Greek film Suntan this Saturday.

The reason that was kind of unsatisfying is that a) there were still three full days of the festival remaining, and one half day, when I saw my last film, and b) I didn't really realize at the time it would be my last film, so I didn't have the chance to appreciate it as such. (Especially since I found it pretty disappointing, but more on that in a moment.)

I did, however, recognize it could be my last film -- I didn't yet have the Suntan tickets, though at the time I thought it was just a matter of going to the MIFF website to purchase them -- so after the double feature on Wednesday I did pay a visit to the Blackhearts Club, just to see how they'd done it up in 2016.

This club -- not always called the Blackhearts Club, but called that this year -- is a pop-up festival lounge in the ground floor of The Forum Theatre on Flinders Street. The Forum is where I had seen three films so far this year -- Toni Erdmann, After the Storm, and Wednesday night's Graduation -- but only part of it is devoted to screening movies. The smaller part, actually. This used to be a massive venue that could seat quite a large number of people to watch either a movie or a live musical act. Nowadays, they've divided it into two parts, so the downstairs still is set up as a performance space with a floor that can take temporary seating, then tables and booths sloping upward toward the back of the theater, in kind of that old-school configuration you see in movies like Goodfellas. The upstairs is a proper smaller screening room, though "smaller" is relative, as it still does seat several hundred people. The whole building is ornate and gorgeous and any opportunity to set foot in it is one I cherish.

On a random Wednesday during the festival, though, the Blackhearts Club was not particularly lively. They had some Dean Martin playing rather than a live act or a DJ, and though the ambiance was pretty nice -- sophisticated tables set up with some classy accoutrements and other martini-inspired atmosphere -- I was one of about only 30 or 40 people spread through the whole space. Feeling like I had to do something to appreciate this part of the festival, I bought a beer and read things on my phone while I drank it. Seemed a bit symbolic of the sadness of the end of the festival, even though I didn't know at that point that my 2016 festival was over. (I'd actually tried to go to a hoppin' version of the Blackhearts Club on Saturday night, to wile away the 40 minutes between the end of my 11:30 movie and a 1:54 a.m. train back to my house, but the party that night was not open to the public, the bastards.)

So, these movies.

I really liked Paterson, Jim Jarmusch's new film, which started out the night at the Comedy Theatre on Exhibition. Since I've got a review of it up that I'm pretty happy with, I'll just point you to that and move on, especially since I've got some wrap-up stuff I want to do at the end of this post.

Graduation was more problematic for me, possibly because my expectations were impossibly high. Romanian master Cristian Mungiu is a hard act to follow, even if he's the one following it. His previous two films were 2012's Beyond the Hills and 2007's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Both were five-star movies for me, and both could have been my #1 movie in the year they were released (or the next year, since they didn't come out in theaters where I could see them until the next year -- Beyond actually did take top honors in 2013, but 4 Months had to settle for #2 in 2008, though I think I like it better).

Well, this is still definitely a Cristian Mungiu movie -- it's got the long takes, it's got some of the mise en scene, it's got the moral ambiguity and the difficulty of assigning blame among a bunch of parties who display varying degrees of guilt. But it wasn't compelling, and I think the subject matter was the problem. The movie is about a series of moral compromises, cheats and favors related to a girl trying to get the grades to get a scholarship to a university in England and a man who can indirectly help her who needs to move up the list waiting for a replacement liver. It does have a fair amount to say about the current state of Romania (i.e. not good) and what steps may need to be taken to escape it, but I just never much cared about any of the characters and found myself falling asleep near the end of a long running time. I liked it, but only marginally.


There was a funny additional reason I wanted to see Suntan: I had a title all ready to go for the blog post that would have accompanied it. It would have been "MIFF: Ending in an N."

Perfect, right?

Only if you know what I'm talking about. Which I would have explained in the post.

See, something very weird happened with the movies I selected this year, totally randomly: Eight of the 11 titles ended with the letter N. Okay, seven, but the eighth ended with an N sound. If I had seen Suntan, it would have been nine of 12.

Here they are, in the order I saw them:

The Salesman
Certain Women
Toni Erdmann
Seoul Station

I noticed it happening as I went along, but it played no role in any of my decisions on which tickets to buy. Not even Suntan, the one that never transpired. Only After the Storm, The Lure and I, Olga Hepnarova deviated from the pattern.

I just think it's funny.

I suppose I could have used that title for this post, but the title Graduation already gave me other good titling possibilities.

One final piece of MIFF business. Since I saw so many films, I thought it was worthwhile to rank them. So here is my ranking for the films I saw this year at MIFF, most of which were pretty wonderful:

1) Toni Erdmann
2) Seoul Station
3) After the Storm
4) The Lure
5) Paterson
6) The Salesman
7) Certain Women
8) Christine
9) Graduation
10) Baskin
11) I, Olga Hepnarova

And now, at long last, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

MIFF: I've got Seoul, and I'm super bad

In case anyone is worried that the word "bad" is a useful adjective in describing this movie, don't be.

Can't a guy just make a simple James Brown reference combined with a pun?

Seoul Station, the first MIFF movie I'd seen as my only film of the evening since Certain Women on night #2, is the opposite of bad. In fact, it's pretty much awesome.

The funny thing about Yeon Song-Ho's animated zombie movie, though, is that it barely needs to be animated at all. Although the animation is nice to look at -- not top-notch, but close enough -- it doesn't do all that much for the movie except making the zombies easier to render. (No makeup budget.) The movie's strengths are its script, the cleverness of its zombie action and its characters.

In just this short amount of words I've already repeated about a third of my review, and since I've dawdled enough in posting this it's already up.

But I wanted to spend a moment to express my surprise and joy about how this movie gives us something new in a genre that would seem to be depleted. You'd figure that over however many seasons there have been of The Walking Dead (I lose track with all the half seasons and mid-season finales) and however other many zombie movies and TV shows there have been over the last decade, we'd have seen all the types of zombie endangerment that were possible. However, any number of the set pieces in Seoul Station were things I hadn't seen before. Granted, I'm a season (or is two?) behind on The Walking Dead, I haven't seen any of Fear the Walking Dead, and there are at least a handful of zombie movies that have escaped me. But I doubt any of these would dull the freshness I found in this movie.

Logistical difficulties in getting to this movie? Yes, there was one. The tram took forever to arrive, meaning I had to hoof it up a hill to get to the theater, rather than wait for the second tram that would have given me a ride. In the end, I and that tram ended up arriving at around the same time, but it wasn't something I could have known when I left. I didn't miss any of the movie, in any case.

I have another double feature tonight (Wednesday) and possibly one more movie on Saturday.


Monday, August 8, 2016

MIFF: Splatterfest

I had an and idea that Christine and Baskin would make a thematically complementary double feature, though to label it a "splatterfest" is probably taking it a step too far.

Still, one movie does end with a woman shooting herself on live TV, and the other is ... well, a splatterfest.

It definitely wouldn't have been a splatterfest at all if I hadn't made it to the second movie, my first-ever late-night (11:30 p.m.) MIFF screening. Which almost happened.

If you have been reading these MIFF posts, you're sensing a theme here.

I had been booking MIFF movies based on the assumption that any movie booked in a certain time slot would end early enough for me to make any other movie in the next time slot. So far this has been true. Bolstering that theory was the fact that they started Toni Erdmann a half-hour earlier, 6 p.m. rather than 6:30, presumably so that Toni's 162-minute running time wouldn't prevent viewers from getting to their next engagement (and also so that theater could be ready for its own 9:15 screening). And the theaters are all in Melbourne's central business district, meaning it's easy to get from one place to the next with relatively little drama.

The consecutive screenings of Christine and Baskin pushed this assumption to its furthest logistical difficulty, though. I got an idea it might be a concern when I happened to check the running time of Christine on my phone while waiting for it to start, and discovered it would be running a full 115 minutes. The Melbourne Central Hoyts cinema (where Christine was playing) and the ACMI cinema (where Baskin was playing) represented the northernmost and southernmost locations, meaning a walk of a good ten city blocks to get from one to the other. And with five minutes of ads from MIFF sponsors delaying Christine's start time, I'd be cutting it very close for an 11:30 Baskin indeed.

I had to resort to running -- the last thing I wanted to do at 11:27 on a Saturday evening -- but I did indeed make it to Baskin in what turned out to be plenty of time.

I'm starting to get the feeling they know I'm going to be late for these second features and are holding them just for me.

Unfortunately, both of these movies were a disappointment -- Christine a mild one, Baskin a major one. They were two of the movies I was looking forward to most, and neither really delivered.

I have a review of Christine forthcoming, so I won't talk about it too much here. I'll post a link when it's up. Rebecca Hall is great as the Florida news reporter Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself on the air in 1974. I've been a fan of this actress but had started to think of her performances as resembling each other too much. That's not at all the case in Christine. But it follows a bit in the tradition of a movie like Foxcatcher, which has great performances but is unable to conjure a lesson for us to take from the senseless real-life tragedy it depicts. But now I'm kind of repeating my review so maybe I'll just stick a pin in this until the review posts. Hall is terrific, though. [UPDATE: Here it is.]

Baskin. I'd been looking forward to this for something like a year, as someone posted a trailer in my Flickcharters Facebook group and talked about how grisly and gruesome it was supposed to be. Gore has the capacity to really unnerve you, and I got the sense that's what I had in store from this Turkish horror movie. It could have been the 11:30 start time, but it had more yawns in store for me than screams. It's really slow-paced, and the things it thinks it's building momentum toward mostly bored me. Maybe I'm desensitized, but these undoubtedly intense bits of grindhouse-style exploitation left me unfazed. Writer-director Can Evrenol doesn't make us care about the characters at all, which isn't always strictly necessary but usually helps. The things that happen to them, then, had little impact on me. There's an attempt at some shuffling of time periods and dream logic that's supposed to be kind of mind-blowing, but my mind was left perfectly intact by it all. It wasn't terrible but it was a major letdown.

Total stars for the double feature: 5.5. That leaves it likely to be my lowest ranked double feature with only one double feature left on Wednesday.

But before then, an animated Korean zombie movie on Tuesday night.

Maybe that'll be the splatterfest I'm looking for.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

MIFF: Six down, six to go

I've already seen one more movie than I've ever seen at MIFF, and I'm still only halfway to the finish line.

Suffice it to say, a little bit of burnout is starting to set in.

Not surprising after double features on consecutive nights, only one of which I'll actually discuss in this post. So as I'm actually writing this, I have eight down and four to go, but for the purposes of this post I'm pretending it's still Saturday morning.

I doubt you guys are devouring these posts anyway, especially as I have expended most of my word count on the logistics of getting to my screenings. Which is a little boring, but as I already started this post that way yesterday morning, I might as well not scrap what I've already written.

Forthwith ...

Food is getting me into trouble at this year's MIFF, and I can't seem to learn my lesson.

It hasn't caused me to miss a movie -- yet.

For Friday's double feature I envisioned myself getting two small dinners, which would equal one regular dinner.

The first was a thank you pizza party for the volunteer staff for last year's Human Rights and Arts Film Festival (HRAFF), of which I was one. The timing is a bit unusual as HRAFF is about to start up again for 2017 in just over a week, but that's neither here nor there. What it meant to me was a couple slices of free pizza and a chance to chat with a few friendly faces for 20 or 25 minutes before I had to get to the Forum on Flinders for Hirokazu Kore-eda's (or is it Kore-eda Hirokazu's?) After the Storm. Without my bike I wouldn't have had any hope of traversing the town to the HRAFF HQ by 5:30 and getting back to the Forum by 6:30, but fortunately, I'd just gotten the chain back on the night before and it was ready to go.

The second was dumplings at my favorite dumpling place on Swanston Street, which would be right near my second screening at Melbourne Central, the 9:15 showing of Agnieszka Smaczynska's mermaid movie The Lure. I should have at least ordered the smaller size, but in my haste I forgot.

Meandering down to the Forum from HRAFF was pretty much fine. I left early enough to make the trip, but unfortunately chose a dumb, traffic-clogged route along Flinders, which made it pretty hairy. It was a bit of slog but I ultimately made it in plenty of time.

I needlessly complicated getting to The Lure on time, though. I still had visions of Chinese food in my head from Wednesday's aborted attempt, even though I'd scratched that itch on Thursday. I guess I had an irrational worry that the pizza hadn't been enough or it had been too long ago, and I might starve to death during the second movie. Or maybe I just really wanted those dumplings. Anyway, this place is usually pretty fast, one of those places that likes to move people in and out, but I don't think I'd ever been on a Friday, nor had I ever gone when I'd had so little time before my movie. (That's usually when I go since it's near the theater.) Long story short, the food didn't come until within five minutes of the movie's start time, leading me to inelegantly shovel dumplings into my mouth in a flurry -- though I still insisted on using chopsticks. Hey, I'm not an animal. Some slightly more animalistic tendencies did kick in, though, when I sized up my remaining dumplings and my remaining time, and decided to throw three of them into the tupperware container I'd use to carry my hardboiled eggs to work that morning. I could have, should have just left them, but they did make for an easy enough snack in the theater a few minutes later. (And I thought smuggling a burger into the theater was bad.)

I weaved through the crowded Swanston Street sidewalks (footpaths) like a madman, but still somehow had several minutes to spare before the movie started once I'd found my seat.

This was a quality double feature.

After the Storm is from the director of my #2 movie of 2014, called Like Father, Like Son. It's very much in the same warm, humanistic spirit as that other movie, which I'm sure is also the same spirit as Kore-eda's I Wish (which I started to watch once but got through only two minutes before I decided it was too late at night). Anyway, I just love this man's movies. This isn't quite in the league of LFLS, but I gave that movie five stars on Letterboxd so that's not entirely surprising. It's about a struggling novelist with a gambling addiction who's had to take on work as a private investigator to make ends meet and pay child support to his ex-wife. Sounds like a hundred noir movies, but in Kore-eda's hands this topic is down-to-earth and quite lovely. He's trying to have a relationship with his son, who he sees only once a month, while also trying to convince his ex they aren't really through. His mother and sister also factor into the story, which revolves more or less around a typhoon about to hit the region, which puts them all in the same house unexpectedly overnight. Anyway, it's a real joy, even if it's probably lesser Kore-eda.

I don't even know how to describe The Lure. Fortunately, I did my best in the review I wrote of it, which I will link to in this post as soon as it goes live. It's unlike anything I've ever seen before, which is almost always a good thing, and which is at least 95% of a good thing here. [UPDATE: Here is the link.]

One funny bit of doubling related to The Lure has to do with a movie from Wednesday's double feature. When it started I thought "Hey, one of those two mermaids looks like Olga Hepnarova." I, Olga Hepnarova being one of two movies I saw on Wednesday. But then: "It couldn't be, because that movie is Czech and this movie is Polish." Well, later on IMDB I determined they are, in fact, one in the same -- actress Michalina Olszanska. So she's actually Polish, but the Czechs borrowed her for Olga Hepnarova. The EU -- what will it do for us next? (The countries border each other, so yeah, not much of a stretch after all.)

In this double feature, four stars for both movies, leaving the total at an incredibly solid eight. That's a full star higher than Wednesday's double feature, which had one five-star movie but then a two-star movie (the aforementioned Olga Hepnarova) dragging it down.

How did I do with Saturday's double feature? You better bet I will write a post about it, in which you will find out.