Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Palette cleanser

I don't have anything to write today.

Really. Nothing.

I haven't seen a new movie in the past couple days that I want to tell you about. I haven't put my finger on a cinematic trend that I want to explore further. I don't even have something snarky to say about the misguided advertising campaign for this movie, or the unlikable star of that one.

No, I really just want to get Salo off the top of my blog.

So what you are reading right now is a palette cleanser.

Doesn't it taste nice?

In fact, let me write just one more paragraph so the subject of the previous post sinks below the horizon of my computer monitor.

There, that should do it.

Back in a day or two with something real to say.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Salo salvaged, savaged

Never let it be said that I don't try to expose myself to all the extremities of gruesomeness that cinema has to offer.

I have never yet refused to watch a film because I imagined it would be too grotesque. In fact, it's kind of the opposite. If I hear something is unimaginably grotesque, I want to see just how far it has pushed the bounds of what we would consider respectable cinema. I want to see just how far something can go and still be considered a film with artistic merit worthy of intelligent discussion, and not just a snuff film or pornography.

And so I definitely wanted to get my hands on a copy of Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, a film that had been banned in several countries (and remains so to this day in some of them; the actual country I live in was one of the ones where it was once banned, but is not any longer). This is Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 film that is basically two hours of rape, murder, torture, forced eating of human feces and just about anything else you can think of, short of bestiality and pedophilia (though it gets close on that latter front -- the victims seem only just barely of age). The actual plot relates to post-WW II fascist libertines capturing a bunch of teenagers and forcing them through four months of obscenity, humiliation, and physical and mental abuse.

It's something I've been aware of for maybe ten years now, maybe less -- not sure entirely. When I went for my Father's Day overnight hotel movie marathon, I made a conscious attempt to acquire it, as it felt like something I should watch without my wife or children around -- even in the same house, really. It was on that same hotel overnight the previous year that I had watched the film Martyrs, which is in a similar vein of incessant violence and torture but looks like a Care Bears movie compared to Salo.

So I went to the one remaining indie video store in downtown Melbourne, a place I thought might sell it. Yes, I was considering actually buying this movie, having no better idea how I might come into possession of it. Even though this is not the kind of place that would judge you for the depravity of your tastes -- it has an adult video area in the back -- I still felt embarrassed asking about it. It turns out they did once carry it, but they can no longer get their hands on it, or not with any regularity. It might not even be available in this DVD region. The woman did also mention the ban. It's not banned anymore, but I guess she thought she needed to give me more context because she heard my accent and she knows I'm not from here.

I figured I'd have to do something I never do -- pirate the movie on the internet -- if I really wanted to see it. But as I said, I never do that. So I let it fade back into the background again.

Imagine my surprise when I was at the library two weeks ago and found it there, of all places.

Not one copy, but two.

This is actually one of the least safeguarded places it could possibly be. The libraries are progressive enough here that you don't even need to interact with a librarian when you check your materials out. You just wave your card under a scanner and then your books/CDs/movies under that same scanner. It prints a receipt and you are on your way. So theoretically, my six-year-old son (who was with me at the time) could have picked Salo off the shelf and borrowed it, if he'd known how to check it out.

Funny thing is, I almost still didn't get a chance to watch it.

I threw it in the DVD player on Saturday night. I'd failed the standard of watching it with my wife and children under another roof, but as my wife has still been hanging on to the frustrating last vestiges of a chest infection, it was as close as I was going to get. She had been retiring to the bedroom after dinner for nearly two weeks now, so I figured it was then or never.

And it was almost never.

The movie was going along fine for 25 minutes, and had not even really shocked me yet -- or not much, anyway. But then the scratches on the surface of the DVD started to make themselves known, first in terms of pauses the disc had to fight through, and finally, through a fatal unwillingness to play a whole nine-minute stretch of the movie. It refused to play anything between minute 25 and minute 34.

If I was going to watch this damn thing, I was going to watch every last little bit of it.

But I knew I didn't have to give up. There was, improbably, that second copy of Salo on the shelf at the library. And when I got there on Sunday -- I had a whole mess of movies due back anyway -- it was still there, its playing surface as unmarked and shiny as a mirror. Guess I'm glad I'm not interacting with a librarian, because they would have seen me borrowing this movie not once, but twice. (And hopefully nobody will scrutinize my online rental history.)

So last night, I did indeed salvage the Salo viewing.

My my.

The tone may have been a bit different than what I was expecting. I guess I did envision it being more like Martyrs, with its near constant brutality and a numbing sense of relentlessness. In fact, Salo is quite a bit more jaunty, frequently playing more like an absurd farce than a non-stop horror show. Some people apparently even consider it a comedy. The tone seems to more closely resemble something like Caligula, though in the aftermath of Salo I've learned that the version I saw of Caligula was probably not the original. It was an R-rated version and more bad than shocking.

The other thing that tends to reduce some of Salo's shock value is that there seems to have been a conscious decision to keep us at arm's length from the victims, many of whom never speak, most of whom are not properly introduced, and some of whom seem not to react to all this terribleness in the way a normal human would. Certainly there are some moments where a victim is absolutely terrified or reduced to desperate pleading, but there are more moments when the victims just kind of go along with it. They are given no choice, of course, but often they go about this debasement with a strange sort of stoicism.

But when Salo does indeed dive into the depths of its depravity, it really dives.

I won't go into the details of all the things you see. It's not the images themselves that are probably quite so awful. They're awful alright, but I didn't see anything in Salo that I haven't seen in another movie before or since. (Movies made before or since Salo, I should say. John Waters' Pink Flamingos, another movie I greatly dislike, predates this by three years.)

No, what's so awful about Salo is that the images have no artistic justification behind them. Yes, this is a commentary on fascism, but it's so anarchic in its approach, and so disdfainful of conventional good taste, that it does not properly justify its existence. It feels like a movie made by a person for the sole reason of rubbing shit in the faces of prudes. Both literally, in terms of the characters, and figuratively, in terms of the people in the audience Pasolini imagines being horrified by this, whom he despises. Pasolini is the type of guy who, if he ever became president of a nuclear power, would launch nuclear weapons just because he could.

I guess I don't really know that much about Pasolini, never having seen another of his films. He may not deserve such an all-encompassing indictment of his artistic intentions. But I do think there are provocateurs who feel like their provocations are the only justification they need, and he seems like one of them. And that may just not be responsible, or if you want to entirely remove the notion of responsibility, it's morally reprehensible, and I don't have to stand for it.

Chillingly, Pasolini was murdered only a few months after this movie was released, and there's good reason to think that Salo had something to do with it. I've only scratched the surface of the issue as outlined in Wikipedia, but this is something I'd like to learn more about.

So I did indeed assign Salo the lowest available star rating on Letterboxd, a half star. It's not because I'm a prude. I gave Martyrs three-and-a-half stars, finding something extremely compelling about the reason behind all its brutality. One of the most horrifying images in Salo is of a woman being scalped, which you also see in the movie Maniac from a few years ago. The moment in Maniac seemed much more disturbing, and I gave that movie four stars.

I just don't buy Pasolini's motivations for making this movie, and I don't find a single thing about it to be enriching.

Now that I've finally conquered Salo, I feel like my next big fish is A Serbian Film. I pretty much know that there is no conventional means of watching this movie, but I do hope that I'll eventually have a chance.

If the library surprised me once, I suppose it could surprise me again.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

I liked Blair Witch when it was The Woods

Blair Witch has been out for more than a week now, but I haven't seen it yet. This despite the fact that the original was one of my top ten movies of 1999 and top five movie scares of all time, so if there was anything like a legitimate sequel to it (I understand Book of Shadows was anything but legitimate), I should be all over that shit.

I actually had a good chance to go on Wednesday, but decided on Yoga Hosers instead (and if you read yesterday's post, you saw how that turned out).

My enthusiasm for this movie died on the vine as soon as they changed its title, and the 46 Metascore hasn't helped.

You see, this movie used to be called The Woods. For all anybody knew, it was just the latest horror from Adam Wingard, the hot commodity who won people over (other people, not me) with You're Next and The Guest.

But then, in a clever bit of surprise marketing that took a page from the book of the original and the Cloverfield movies, we were told only like a month ago that this was actually a sequel to The Blair Witch Project.

And that the movie had a new name: Blair Witch.


I love the bit of marketing. I don't love the name change.

If you are trying to create viral hype around a movie and have presumably been successful in that goal, isn't it almost better to leave the title as it was? The Woods should not just have been a placeholder designed to fool us when it appeared on upcoming release schedules. The Woods actually makes a perfect abstract title for a Blair Witch Project sequel, with enviable simplicity.

Instead they made it simple in a bad way, in a dumb way. Just remove two of the words from the original title and voila! A new title. It's in keeping with a recent trend (see Fast & Furious, Jason Bourne, Rambo, etc.), but that only makes it all the more dispiriting.

If you want to know the truth, Blair Witch sounds like the placeholder. "We can't think of a great title for it, so let's just call it 'Blair Witch' for now. We'll get back to it."

They never got back to it. And now I'm not that interested in getting to it at all.

Sorry, Blair Witch. You're too much of a project for me.

Friday, September 23, 2016

That time I turned my phone on at the movies

It took a very special set of circumstances for me to turn my phone on during Wednesday night's showing of Yoga Hosers.

No, it wasn't some kind of medical emergency. There wasn't someone having a heart attack in the theater. In fact, there wasn't anyone in the theater at all. Other than me, that is.

That alone would not nearly have been enough reason for me to turn on my phone. I believe that the theatrical viewing experience is sacred, even if you are having the experience all by yourself.

No, it took the movie being goddamned godawful for me to turn the phone on just to try to survive it.

Rarely do you know from the opening seconds of a movie that it is terrible, but that was the case with Kevin Smith's latest, a misguided and ill-considered effort if ever there was one. I won't bother synposizing it for you, just as I barely bothered synopsizing it in my review, which you can find here.

I might still not have turned the phone on except that I had posted in my Flickcharters Facebook group, right before the movie started: "I'm the only one at Yoga Hosers. I think I will shout at the screen."

I did not shout, but I did turn the phone back on to see what people might have thought of that comment.

I guess I knew it would probably be terrible, hence the shouting at the screen comment. Although I hadn't read the thread very closely, another in that group stated that Yoga Hosers was probably going to end up as his worst movie of the year. After barely 20 minutes I was ready to agree. And I figured "How often do I get to check my phone in the movies anyway?"

I ended up being a good boy and not checking constantly, probably only every five or ten minutes. I mean, I was reviewing the movie and couldn't afford to lose track of too many of the atrocious things I wanted to point out. But having the phone also prevented me from falling asleep. That and the sense of seat-squirming physical discomfort I felt as I watched this movie.

So two really unusual things on Wednesday night:

1) Only guy in the theater.

2) On my phone.

I'm sure I've been the only one in the theater before, but I can't remember the last time and a specific title doesn't jump to mind. Sadly, it's probably a more common occurrence nowadays, as patrons are less and less likely to pay full price for a movie they think they might not like, when they can wait a few weeks and see it at home. Of course, neither would I, but I got in to Yoga Hosers for free with my critic card. So, there were no paying customers for my Wednesday night at 9:30 showing, which would have cost your average person $20.

Cinema Nova didn't pull Yoga Hosers for the start of its second week yesterday, though. They're going to give it one more red hot go, to borrow the Australian phrase. Though it is down to just two showings a day, plus an 11:15 showing on Friday and Saturday nights.

Maybe it looks better as a "midnight movie," but I doubt it. Some bad movies are destined to become cult classics. Others are just bad.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Remembering a skilled tradesman

Curtis Hanson made two films that I cherish in 1997's L.A. Confidential and 2000's Wonder Boys. But those aren't really the films I think of when I think of Hanson, and they aren't what I'm remembering today, the day after he died at 71 of what was believed to be a heart attack.

L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys are auteur type projects, projects suggesting a particular vision on the part of their directors. The more interesting proof of his abilities -- to me, anyway -- was his two very above average director-for-hire projects, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild.

Conveniently, we adopt and abandon the auteur theory as we see fit, calling certain directors intrinsic parts of certain films while saying they had little to do with the creative spark behind others. In truth, Hanson was credited as at least co-writer on both good movies (L.A. Confidential) and bad ones (Lucky You). But when it comes to Cradle and River, neither of which featured his input on the screenplay, they seem like for-hire projects because they were, very clearly, genre pictures. They were made for comparatively little money to make a tidy profit, and they basically just needed someone to yell "Cut!"

Hanson did a lot more than that. It's been at least 15 years since I've seen either of these movies, and probably closer to 20, but on my last viewing of Cradle in particular, I remembered what a tight little package it was, how it moved smoothly from to scene to scene in producing an intensely satisfying story about a psychotic nanny. Some of that credit likely goes to the lean script by Amanda Silver, but it takes a director with a particular understanding of the fundamentals of filmmaking to deliver a lean script into a lean film. In fact, I use Cradle as an unlikely go-to example of a movie where nary a scene is wasted.

But Cradle alone probably wouldn't have caused me to excessively ponder Hanson's merits as a genre filmmaker without being paired with The River Wild, a truly tense and harrowing spiritual successor to Deliverance in which Meryl Streep and David Straitharn play the parents in a family that gets kidnapped by Kevin Bacon and some of his redneck buddies on a rafting trip. I remember feeling a similar sense of the tightness of this film, the lack of fat, that kept things rolling along toward a satisfying conclusion. Again you might credit the screenwriter (this time Denis O'Neill), but taken in combination with Cradle, it really shows us what Hanson brought to that director's chair.

His very next film was Confidential, probably an unlikely successor, but the reward someone gets for doing a good job as a hired employee. He knocked it out of the park, and many think he should have won the best director Oscar in the year Titanic swept the Oscars. Instead he made another great film in 2000, Wonder Boys, which strayed further from his genre roots. 8 Mile was next, the returns diminishing only slightly.

Unfortunately, that was pretty much it for Hanson's time atop Hollywood. The returns started to noticeably diminish with In Her Shoes and especially Lucky You. It got so I didn't even see his final theatrical release, Chasing Mavericks, a project he had to leave halfway through for health reasons (ultimately being credited as a co-director with Michael Apted). It turns out Hanson also had Alzheimer's, a fact I did not know, and a possible/probable contributor to his death.

It's certainly the case that all directors have only a finite period at the top of their game, and almost anybody who makes five consecutive hits would have to be happy with that (if we are calling the two thrillers from the 1990s "hits"). And in truth, Hanson made some really good films before that, most notably the 1990 film Bad Influence, which I once loved but appreciated a lot less on my last viewing a couple years ago, else I might have featured it more prominently in this remembrance. Even the 1987 Steve Guttenberg film The Bedroom Window is a pretty solid technical achievement, if forgettable. (But let's not talk about the comedy he directed, the Tom Cruise vehicle Losin' It.)

But part of me thinks it's a shame that Hanson stopped making genre pictures. When people are really good at something that is considered less prestigious, they can get graduated out of it at their peril -- at our collective peril. Of course, never would I trade L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys for more River Wilds. But Hanson may have been a victim of his own success, as those movies basically disqualified him from making another River Wild. The result was some really limp, uninspired "auteur movies" (In Her Shoes and Lucky You).

The loss of Hanson is meaningful enough to me that I may indeed watch something to remember him. But it won't be Wonder Boys (which I watched again only a couple months ago) and it won't be L.A. Confidential (which I do want to see again soon, having most recently caught it in 2012). No, I want to see one of those two for-hire thrillers, to remind myself what a skilled tradesman can do if just given the basic tools of the trade he loves.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

No Audio Audient: The Big Parade

This is the ninth in my 2016 monthly series watching silent films.

I didn't intend to choose a three-hour-and-eight-minute movie as my September choice for No Audio Audient. But once again, the ineffable running times of silent films have come in to play. Wikipedia says King Vidor's 1925 film The Big Parade is supposed to run for 141 minutes. Unfortunately, the two different copies available on YouTube ran at lengths that were not that. The shorter, and therefore seemingly more palatable, was 116 minutes. The longer, and frankly unimaginable that I would actually sit through, was 188 minutes. The fact that there was a second on there that was 187 minutes seemed to lend legitimacy to this as the more standard version, but I started to watch the 116-minute version anyway. I'm just a working dad with other priorities, after all.

Fortunately, this working dad is also right in the middle of school holidays, a time of year in which there is far less to do at his job. So little to do that one can watch a bit of a movie here and there while at work, if one does not feel too guilty about it and if the movie is available through a site like YouTube. So when the 116-minute version was improperly framed, leaving an unviewable area around all sides of the image, and even preventing a complete reading of the title cards, I switched over to the three-hour version. I thought, maybe this is really the 141-minute version and there are some additional 45 minutes of tangentially related content tacked on to the end.

It wasn't the case, but in the end I didn't care. I damn near loved this movie.

I knew nothing about it going in. In fact, only from the YouTube description -- "A young American soldier witnesses the horrors of the Great War" -- did I even know it was a movie about World War I. Indeed, it now seems to be to be one of the great sweeping wartime romances I've ever seen.

But first let me tell you how I even came to the movie in the first place.

Its director, King Vidor, directed a movie that I loved, that I now feel like I might love in spite of myself. That's 1949's The Fountainhead, an adaptation of the Ayn Rand novel. When I watched it, I had only a dim sense of who Rand was, and nothing of her political proclivities. That's probably just as well, because if I love a movie, I don't want preconceived notions of its political intentions mucking it up. I'd like to think that a good movie is a good movie is a good movie. I'd like to think that even if Rush Limbaugh made a really great movie I would recognize it as such, without Limbaugh's idiocy tarnishing it before I even got a chance to judge it.

So when I heard Vidor's name come up in an episode of the podcast You Must Remember This that was dedicated to John Gilbert, I decided to throw the related movie on to my list of films to watch this year. The movie was, of course, The Big Parade, in which Gilbert stars. The episode was devoted to talk about Gilbert's uneasy transition to talkies, as Jean Dujardin's character in The Artist is often thought of as based on Gilbert. In truth, we learn, studio politics had more to due with his decline than his inability to work with his voice, and, poor guy, he was dead of a heart attack by 36.

In this movie, Gilbert plays a spoiled rich kid who learns about responsibility by deciding to enlist in the Great War. That decision seems a bit strange for his character -- he's accused by his parents of being a layabout, and really, he is -- but you should never discount the infectious power of a parade. It's during such a display of patriotism and American righteousness in its cause in the war that Gilbert's Jim Apperton feels his toe start tapping, and undergoes the realization that it's his duty to serve his country. Leaving behind a girl next door who is for all intents and purposes his fiancee, he ships off to France with two from his same city that he befriends, a bartender named Bull (Tom O'Brien) and a riveter named Slim (Karl Dane), and begin the long wait for action in a small town called Champillon. (And I mean long -- these sequences consume well over an hour of the movie.) There he falls for a local girl, Melisande (Renee Adoree), despite the fact that neither understand a word the other is saying. Their relationship develops through a number of cute set pieces before Jim and co. are finally called to the front.

Two things about The Big Parade immediately disarmed me and put me at ease. The first was the straightforward approach to the material. The silent movies I've seen this year can be divided into roughly two categories: comedies, and films directed by D.W. Griffith. There have been a few others of course, so I'm exaggerating, but the point is that the dramas I've watched have seemed represented by Griffith. Griffith, I now realize, is incapable of being straightforward, at least not in his title cards. One of the annoying things about the two Griffith movies I saw were the flowery title cards, which seemed written with abstraction in mind. I now realize that my mind started to wander a bit because Griffith was more interested in trying to be poetic than tell a story. These title cards, on the other hand, were all business. They establish the characters, move the plot, and deliver you where you need to be. I felt like I was in good hands.

The other thing I noticed was how well Vidor uses nascent film grammar. I may be giving him too much credit -- I mean, people had been making sophisticated narrative films for ten years by then -- but I really appreciated the editing, how nicely shots continued on action, how fluidly the narrative was conveyed. He made effective use of the rare zoom or tracking shot, close-ups were employed correctly, and overall, the film just flows.

After moving pretty quickly in its first 20 minutes, though, the movie slows waaaaaay down. It became easy to see how a 116-minute version of this movie could exist without basically losing anything. I began to wonder how much of the material I was watching was considered unnecessary for later cuts. Rather than losing individual scenes, though, I imagined it would have been easy to compress them, just by shorting shots that were 45 seconds to 25, by cutting scenes that lasted seven minutes to three. Or scenes that lasted 15 minutes to seven.

All this said, the fat was lovely. It meant I got to spend more time with the swoony romance between Jim and Melisande. In these scenes I felt like I was discovering both of these actors, because, well, I was. I'm not conscious of having seen a John Gilbert film before, and though Renee Adoree has a certain "1920s silent actress appearance" that in some ways makes her interchangeable with numerous others, something about her really distinguished herself to me. Appropriately for her last name, I simply adored her (and was sad later on to learn that she also died young, of complications from tuberculosis, at only 33). The two of them together made me pleased as pie, and by spending so long with them, their terrific parting scene surely had more emotional weight for me.

So let's talk about that scene. Jim and company are finally moved out to the front, though he and Melisande have already unwillingly parted because she finds out about his fiancee at home. (And I should pause to mention that for a moment -- as lovely as all their scenes are together, you can never forget that Jim is essentially cheating on a devoted love interest at home, one who has sent him multiple letters and a cake she baked. This does get resolved in satisfactory fashion by the end, but I was never comfortable with the idea that he was stepping out on her, and that detail surely would not have made it into the movie if it were being made today. Either that or the love interest at home would be an obvious harpy he was too decent to dump.)

Sorry, got distracted there. The convoys are shipping out of Champillon and Melisande rushes out to try to find Jim. It seems hopeless as troops and trucks are flowing by in impossible numbers, a barely controlled chaotic military sea in which it will be impossible to find her one fish. The look of stress and desperation on her face as she searches for him is priceless. When they do finally connect, they pour affection atop each other and have to be drawn apart by other soldiers. I'm getting chills just writing about it now, it's so damn romantic. She hangs on to his leg as the truck is pulling away, then on to a chain hanging off the back of the truck. I suppose something like that could almost be played for comedy, but in this moment it totally works. He blows kisses and tosses her two different trinkets to remember him by, promising to return. She finally stops and just looks after him. An hour later, she's still rooted to the spot, though slumped down on her knees now, as the streets are empty.

This kicked off my favorite section of the movie, which also includes an incredible first battle sequence while walking through the woods. I was really impressed by how well the battle sequences are filmed here, especially this first one. Unfortunately, the film does slow down again considerably in its last hour, particularly during one scene where the three buddies are tasked with the responsibility of trying to take out a German machine gun post. There's some nice stuff in these scenes -- the bonds between the three men are also conveyed wonderfully -- but it does slow things down again. I was impressed, though, by how a movie that had been largely amiable to this point took a genuinely darker turn in the end.

The movie really has it all, the horrors of war promised in the YouTube synopsis and plenty of light set pieces, some of which almost play like Chaplin or Keaton -- particularly the scene where Jim and Melisande meet, and he's peering at her through a hole in a bucket over his head. Three hours of Griffith were not a joy for me to watch, but I'll watch three hours of The Big Parade any day.

I should mention also the music. Although this was obviously not the same music that was used when the film was played in theaters, it became sort of an essential component to my viewing, as trumpets and cannon blasts and the like were incorporated into the score in time with the images. I had considered watching the movie without music because I was at work for part of it, and having an ear bud in your ear tends to draw attention, even if people can't see your screen. But I was really glad I listened to the music, because it helped sweep me up in scenes like Jim and Melisande's parting.

Okay! We've finally reached the one month in this series where I knew which film I'd be watching way back when I started. For Halloween I will be watching Victor Sjostrom's The Phantom Carriage from 1921. Not only does it make a good themed viewing for the month of October, but I think it's also the first foreign-made silent film I've watched for this series (Sweden).

Monday, September 19, 2016

Ryan Reynolds is out of his mind

Some of my favorite themed double features are the ones that materialize organically, as they are occurring.

Take Saturday night. I threw in Criminal, a movie whose generic title likely would have kept me far away from it if I hadn't caught a trailer for it before another movie I recently rented. It looked a lot more high concept than the title suggested, and the cast is just oozing with stars (not all of whom are still in their prime, but they're better than a straight-to-video cast). And it is a lot more high concept, though I suppose it's ultimately a bit hamstrung by its execution.

As I was watching it, I realized it had something in common with another movie I hadn't seen but had meant to, which was available on one of my streaming services. And as I was starting Criminal at about 8 (with my wife still sick in bed and not a factor in our viewing decisions), I did indeed have time to make it a double feature. That second movie was Tarsem Singh's Self/less, a flop that came out last year.

So what do these films have in common? Let me tell you. But there may be some spoilers if you really care. If the Rotten Tomatoes scores are any indication, you don't.

Both films involve an experimental transfer of memories/personality from one dead or dying subject to another live vessel, executed with lots of wires, tubes, rays, electrodes, mesh facial nets and hospital gurneys lined up side by side.

In both films, the subject who receives the transplant gets flashes of the life of the previous subject, either via implanted memories or attempts of the old personality to take control back of the flesh-and-blood body.

But here's the big one:

In both films, Ryan Reynolds is one of the guys.

In Criminal, he's a CIA agent who is killed while trying to broker a deal involving one of those gadgets that can remotely control missile systems -- you know, the MacGuffin that appears in every movie like this. Because he possesses a lot of classified information in that noggin of his, not to mention information that no one else knows, his CIA boss (a raving Gary Oldman) connects up his dead flesh with an experimental procedure pioneered by a Craggy Old Dude (Tommy Lee Jones) that will allow the transfer of his memories to take place. Those memories get put in Kevin Costner, a psychopath who qualifies as a subject because of a rare frontal lobe injury he suffered as a child (which also contributes to his psychopathy). So as Costner goes about (mostly on the loose because the CIA keeps allowing him to escape because they unwisely think they don't need him anymore and leave him in the hands of incompetent agents), he keeps getting flashes of Reynolds' memory, as well as his moral perspective, which allows this "criminal" to start distinguishing right from wrong.

Needless to say, Reynolds himself drops out of the movie pretty quickly, only seen in a mirror once (and in photographs on mantles) after the opening. In Self/less, he's the Costner, and it's Ben Kingsley who disappears. Kingsley plays a Donald Trump type (I wouldn't be surprised if the character was actually modeled after Trump) who has terminal cancer, and Walt Disney-style, wants to give himself life beyond the death of his body. He learns about a secret organization that will transfer his consciousness to a new body of a younger adult male they grew in a test tube. (It's a bit like the John Frankenheimer-directed Rock Hudson movie Seconds, if you've seen that.) Kingsley is given the new identity of Ryan Reynolds, which is a good body if you want to get back out and start banging babes again (which he does). However, he soon realizes by not taking the red pills he's supposed to take every day that he's remembering the life of the body's previous occupant. Not only was this guy not grown in a lab, but he may have had a family who thinks he died under tragic circumstance. As he has regrets about his own behavior toward a distant daughter, Kingsley's brain grows a conscience in time to try to help Reynolds' body get back to his family. He's a bit like Costner in that way, I guess.

It was quite funny to watch these two movies back to back. I almost imagined a Ryan Reynolds-shaped mobius strip of death and life and rebirth and death again that would run through these two movies.

Oddly, I actually sort of liked both movies, while recognizing that they are both sort of failures. Tarsem Singh, who I just wrote about a week ago, does have at least one moment where he applies what I would consider to be a "Tarsem touch." It's not ornate costuming or anything of that nature -- though the Trump-like penthouse Kingsley lives in is pretty ornate -- but it's a sharply edited montage that documents the billionaire's first few weeks/months in Reynolds' body. I'd almost say it's worth watching the movie for that reason alone, though I probably wouldn't -- both because there are some other good things (a few, anyway) and becaue it's probably not really good enough if you weren't planning to watch the movie anyway.

As for Criminal, well ... it commits pretty well to its premise. It's shot pretty well and makes reasonably effective use of its actors. I'm kind of enjoying late-stage Kevin Costner, kind of in spite of myself. Though really ... if the CIA made one more dumb decision related to his character, I was going to climb into my TV and slap Gary Oldman.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

My top five comedies of the 21st century

Laughing isn't something I've been very eager to do this past week. I missed an unprecedented (as far as I can remember) three days of work with a terrible hacking cough and related symptoms, which included chills, lack of energy, and rivers of phlegm. (Non-consecutive days, at that -- I went in Wednesday before relapsing Thursday.) This is also why you haven't seen a post from me since Tuesday.

You especially don't want to laugh when even small chuckles erupt into rib-bruising episodes that last 15 seconds. Fortunately, I watched plenty of movies not designed to make me laugh -- and one that was designed to make me laugh, but didn't.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about today. Today is project day. See, this week I also listened to Filmspotting's episode devoted to their top five comedies of the 21st century. That episode was inspired by BBC's recent critics poll of the top 100 movies since the year 2000, which is also something I'd like to tackle on my blog. But for now, I'll tackle it in a roundabout way, just as the Filmspotting guys did.

One of the responses to that BBC list was that it was almost totally devoid of pure comedy. Sure, it had films with comedy as one of their genres (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ratatouille), but hardly anything whose sole purpose was to make you laugh from start to finish. The Filmspotting guys decided to do their show as a corrective.

The thing is, their choices really disappointed me. Obviously comedy is pretty subjective, perhaps the most subjective type of film taste. But that doesn't mean you have to abandon objective critical discussion tactics when discussing comedy. And on those grounds I was inspired to come up with my own top five, to balance the injustices I saw on their lists. (Wouldn't you know it, though -- I had failed to listen to their #1 picks until during this very writing, and one of the hosts picked a movie that appears in my top five, removing just a bit of my righteous indignation.)

Before revealing my choices, I'll give you a bit of a sense of what I'm up against:

Josh Larsen:

5. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
4. Mean Girls
3. Songs from the Second Floor
2. Cedar Rapids
1. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazahkstan

Adam Kempenaar:

5. While We're Young
4. The Trip
3. Role Models
2. Shaun of the Dead
1. xxxxxx (I'll hold this one back for now)

Don't get me wrong -- this is not to say I don't like these films (all of which I've seen). Shaun of the Dead is one of my favorites. However, it being funny is not primarily the reason I like Shaun. Then there are those movies they chose that I am tepid to negative on, like Talladega Nights and Role Models.

To come up with my own choices, I went through my 17 individual Microsoft Word documents covering the years 2000 to 2016, which house a complete listing of movies I've seen in each year. To save time, I suppose I could have just reviewed my list of movies seen multiple times, since it's unlikely any of my choices would come from movies I've seen only once. But that might rule out something recent, and it would be interesting to know whether something I'd seen only once could still claim that kind of pull on me. In the end, all my choices were movies I'd seen more than once.

There were some other interesting patterns. For example, no year before 2004 yielded more than a single realistic contender, which means either comedy was going through a bad stretch around the turn of the century, or I just don't remember laughing very hard at the movies I saw back then because it was too long ago. In fact, I didn't shortlist a single film from 2002. The second half of the years in question were much more fruitful, with every year except for 2013 and 2016 yielding at least two contenders, and sometime as many as four. (Oddly, 2013 gave me zero contenders, wedged in between two other years that gave me at least three each. 2016 is still only half over, so its one contender was not such a surprise.)

One last bit of explanation. The five I chose were meant to represent a diversity of sensibilities, at least somewhat, though some clearly grew out of each others' sensibilities. I didn't repeat a director, in any case. This mostly occurred organically, anyway.

Okay, I think you've had enough preamble. I'll proceed with my top five, and then some honorable mentions in various categories.

5. What We Do in the Shadows (2014, Taika Waititi) - My #5 movie comes by its spot on this list rather unusually. It's a film I made the mistake of watching for the first time on the plane. Which doesn't mean I didn't find it funny, it just means it was not exactly a laughter-conducive environment. I ended up ranking it only 40th among my 2014 films. But my second viewing last year was with my wife, and it immediately primed me for my third viewing. This is just a delicious setup that consistently realizes its jokes, not to mention producing some actual blood and guts for horror enthusiasts and even some seamless special effects (made to seem all the more "real" by the mockumentary format). And part of why I wanted to get this on here was as a nod to the mockumentary as a form, though the 1980s and 1990s had far better examples of that form than anything worth honoring in the 21st century (other than this movie, that is). Favorite moment: When Waititi's main vampire Viago tiptoes down to the basement to wake up Petyr, the 8,000-year-old vampire who communicates only by bearing his teeth and making that "vampire hiss" that sounds basically like an exhalation of air. "Peeta! Peeeeeta!" he says in a sing-songy voice, as though calling forth a hiding infant.

4. The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005, Judd Apatow) - This was the one Adam chose as his #1. And I have to agree. (Well, not entirely -- it's my #4.) I have lately actually felt a bit of an aversion to this film that I can't really explain, which gives you some indication why I haven't seen it in nine years. But as I was coming up with this list, I just remembered the gales of laughter I unleashed in the theater as I was watching it. (And I also remembered that I ranked it my #3 film for the year.) It's no surprise the comedy pickings got better on my year-by-year lists after 2005, as Apatow's directorial debut put in place a new blueprint for comedy, one that has largely flourished (despite plenty of obvious examples of failures, and a likelihood that we'll totally burn out on it within the next five years). It was a grossout with heart, and it "went there" like few films I'd seen. I owe it a revisit, and at the very least I honor its role in our current comedy climate by including it here. Interestingly, this is the only film on this list I saw in a conventional theater environment. Favorite moment: As it's been nine years since I saw it, I'll just go with the one that came first to mind, that made me recognize I was watching something fresh and exciting: Seth Rogen's delivery of his story about seeing the woman have sex with the horse in Mexico. If the movie as a whole was an introduction of a new comedic voice, then within that, we were introduced to Rogen's distinct voice, which has arguably been nearly as influential as Apatow's.

3. Idiocracy (2006, Mike Judge) - Given the reputation in comedy circles this has built in the past ten years, it's hard to believe it was basically dumped, its studio having no idea how to market it. Tellingly, I was looking up movies to see at local theaters the week it came out, and even in the screening times listed on the website it had a placeholder name: Untitled Mike Judge Comedy. And I wasn't going to be that one person to go see it in the theater -- I had to discover it later on video. Fortunately, Idiocracy has made itself known in the intervening years, especially in our house, where my wife might call it her favorite comedy, period. Judge is underappreciated in terms of not only what he's contributed to the comedy world, but the different types of things -- Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill share more in common with their visual appearance than the actual content of their comedy, and Idiocracy is altogether different from both, though they all serve up satire in endlessly funny ways. Now that Trump is actually competitive in the presidential race, people are thinking of this movie as even more prescient than it already seemed even from the start. Favorite moment: When we see the changes to the outside of a Fuddruckers hamburger restaurant down through the centuries, as the name becomes increasingly more suggestive until finally landing on: Buttfuckers.

2. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007, Jake Kasdan) - If Idiocracy is the best satire of the last 16+ years, Walk Hard is the best spoof. It was another one that caught me by surprise, as I didn't prioritize a theatrical viewing. Once we queued it up at home, though, I couldn't get enough. I've seen it only twice, but only because I haven't had a natural opportunity to buy the movie yet. A sort-of third viewing came when I actually went with a friend to see John C. Reilly perform as Dewey Cox in a small nightclub in Los Angeles -- one of my truly cherished live performance experiences of all time. Kasdan makes by far my unlikeliest director to appear on this list, as even his best other movie (Orange County) is pretty middling as comedies go. This movie pierces the heart of its subject matter, the music biopic (specifically Walk the Line), and finds its comedy in a combination of parodies of the typical tropes of a music biopic, a handful of great impersonations, and some of the funniest songs written for a movie since This is Spinal Tap. I just grin from ear to ear as I watch this movie. Favorite moment: When Tim Meadows, as Dewey's band mate, warns him of the dangers of marijuana via many emphatically stated traits of the drug that should scare him: "It's not habit forming! It makes sex even better! It's the cheapest drug there is!"

1. Step Brothers (2008, Adam McKay) - And John C. Reilly is the star of both of my top picks. Narrowly the funniest of McKay's many collaborations with Will Ferrell (edging out Anchorman and leading the others by a wide margin), Step Brothers had me simply screaming with laughter. As my wife looked over at me while we were at the drive-in, she thought perhaps I was possessed -- she had never seen me laugh like that. And this makes four of five films I watched with my wife for the first time, while the other was one I watched with her the second. If I wanted to come up with a thesis on what makes Step Brothers my #1, as I've done with some of the other movies on my list, I couldn't. It's just the movie that made me laugh the hardest. It's also the comedy I've seen the most since 2000, as our fifth viewing was about a year ago. I also have a Step Brothers t-shirt. It helps that with my curly hair, I also look kind of like both Ferrell and Reilly in this movie. Also, it made my top ten of the year. Favorite moment: There are so many I could choose from, so I will just choose a little one, maybe the one that told me I was in for a wonderful ride: At their first dinner together as a joined family, Reilly's Dale makes some crude remark about Ferrell's Brennan, and Ferrell just gets this pained look on his face for a moment, which is completely unexpected -- it's a combination of disgust and genuine hurt. I don't know why but it may be the funniest look I have ever seen Ferrell produce.

Honorable mentions 

As a liberal, I'm a little displeased that my list couldn't include a female-driven comedy or a minority-driven comedy, but there were these two very strong contenders:

Spy (2015, Paul Feig) - The movie that turned me around on Melissa McCarthy, though I unfortunately must admit that the single funniest moments belong to Jason Statham. Feig deserves a mention given that he's also come through with Bridesmaids and The Heat.

Black Dynamite (2009, Scott Sanders) - Just saw this this year, and was laughing throughout. Reminded me of one of my favorite comedies of last century, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka.

There were a couple movies I laughed at incredibly hard the first time, but they didn't hold up as well the second time. They are:

The Dictator (2012, Larry Charles) - Sacha Baron Cohen absolutely needs a mention.

The Interview (2014, Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg) - The controversial film that many people hated the first time. I loved it the first time, but only liked it the second.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008, Kevin Smith) - It took until the third viewing last week for me to turn on this one. Maybe Seth Rogen doesn't age well.

I also highlighted some movies that really surprised me, given what I expected from them. I had no idea these movies would be as funny as they were.

Date Night (2010, Shawn Levy) - I was openly disdainful when I saw the trailers. The opposite after I watched it. One of my favorite lines of the 21st century, delivered by Mila Kunis: "Those nipple clamps hurt me!"

Hot Rod (2007, Akiva Schaffer) - Seen it only once and don't remember the details, but I laughed a lot.

Wanderlust (2012, David Wain) - I had been down on Wain (see my thoughts on Wet Hot American Summer) so this one took me totally by surprise. Paul Rudd practicing and then delivering his dirty talk to Malin Akerman (and her response) is comedy classic material.

Stone Bros. (2009, Richard Frankland) - Comedy featuring Aboriginal actors that we watched mostly because my wife's boss was a producer. We laughed hysterically.

Hall Pass (2011, Peter & Bobby Farrelly) - As this is "late Farrelly" I didn't expect much, but this just missed my top ten for that year. Laughs throughout. Worried about a potential third viewing though.

And finally, funny movies from the period that in many cases I like better overall than the movies I've mentioned, but the reason I love them is not primarily because they are funny.

Tangled (2010, Nathan Greno & Byron Howard) - Has one of my funniest single lines of this century: As the hero, Flynn Rider, engages in a duel with a horse holding a knife in his teeth, while he uses a frying pan, and they move closer to the edge of a cliff, he shouts: "You should know, this is the strangest thing I've ever done!"

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, Nicholas Stoller) - Hilarious, but the heart is what I really remember about this one.

Elf (2003, Jon Favreau) - Take comment on Forgetting Sarah Marshall and apply here.

Toni Erdmann (2016, Maren Ade) - Perhaps the hardest laughter I've ever experienced in a movie sustained over a ten-minute stretch, but the movie's profundity is what left me sitting in my seat in a pensive fugue state until the credits ended. (Sadly, this is also the only choice in this whole post directed by a woman.)

Okay, I thought I was done but here are just a few more honorable mentions that have no other category:

Team America: World Police
Napoleon Dynamite
21 Jump Street
Tropic Thunder
Zoolander (thought Ben Stiller deserved some love with these last two)
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (referenced but not actually singled out)

Okay! That was rather exhaustive. Turns out there have been some funny movies this century. Would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Tarsem's inspiration

If you've read my blog a lot you know that Tarsem Singh's 2000 film The Cell is a favorite of mine, the kind of favorite I revisit about once every two years. Which is pretty often, considering that two of my top four movies of all time are films I haven't seen once in the past ten years. (A discussion for another time.)

In fact, today happens to be the two-year anniversary of my last viewing of The Cell, meaning that it's definitely time for another one. And there could be no greater encouragement than having just finally seen for the first time Ridley Scott's 1985 film Legend, which now seems like an obvious source of inspiration for The Cell.

Some spoilers may follow.

The plots could not be more different. One is a fantasy in which a demon is trying to bring about eternal darkness by killing off the last of the unicorns. The other is a horror-thriller in which a psychiatrist must enter the mind of a serial killer to discover the whereabouts of his last victim.

But the imagery they use? Well, I'll let you be the judge.

Both movies feature a princess character who becomes hypnotized. In Legend she's an actual princess named Lily, played by Mia Sara. In The Cell she's the psychiatrist, Catherine (Jennifer Lopez), who is only symbolically a princess in terms of the role she takes while hypnotized in the kingdom of the killer. "Queen" might be a better description than princess. Anyway, here's how they look:

That's Mia. And here's J-Lo:

I suppose you could argue that one being influenced by the other is not a given, since the costumes are more suggestive of each other than replicas. They are both ornate "dark princess" outfits -- so what?

But then there's the evil ruler of this lair, who hypnotizes these princesses. In Legend he's named Darkness and played by Tim Curry:

And in The Cell he's played by Vincent D'Onofrio and named Carl Stargher. We need two images of him to get the full breadth of the allusion, and it definitely does seem like an illusion:

One has the pronounced nipples and chest, the other has the horns. D'Onofrio's multiple incarnations in The Cell are one of its chief pleasures.

Taken in combination, there's no doubt that Tarsem seems to have been inspired by Legend. Right? I'm not saying it's a ripoff. I'm saying it's a repurposing, and a damn effective one at that.

Both films even have another male character who is involved in a climactic ceremony -- played by Vince Vaughn and Tom Cruise -- though their functions are a bit different. Vaughn is actually having his guts twisted out of him while desperately trying to break through to Catherine, while Cruise is a bit more of an onlooker as Lily prepares to possible sacrifice the last unicorn.

And speaking of which ...

Both movies feature a horse (unicorn, same difference) in harm's way. While the unicorns are ultimately saved in Legend, things don't turn out quite as well for the horse in The Cell ...

Monday, September 12, 2016

Reversing 9/11

It might have been a coincidence that Clint Eastwood's Sully was released just in time for the 15th anniversary of 9/11, but probably not. After all, the first responders and other bystanders must have had that seminal New York City event in their minds when they saw a plane go down in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. How could you not. Airplanes flying too close to skyscrapers had been scarred in their memory. In our collective memory -- as a society, as a species.

The resulting rescue effort allowed heroes to arise, just as heroes arose (and sometimes gave their lives) on that September morning in 2001. The biggest hero that day did not "rise," but rather, descend, as Captain Chesley Sullenberger -- known to his friends, and soon to all of us, as Sully -- called on four decades of flying to assess (correctly) that a water landing might be possible after a bird strike knocked out both of his engines.

But what Sully's actions did that day were also to "reverse" 9/11, to give us a bit of wish fulfillment so unlikely that it seemed like it could only come from the movies.

Remember that unusual scene in Michael Haneke's Funny Games -- at least the American version (haven't seen the original) -- where the home invaders literally rewind the movie? Naomi Watts' character gets a leg up on one of them and shoots him, thereby steering the events toward a happy outcome for the tortured family. Instead, the other invader lunges for the remote control and rewinds the action to the point before she got that shotgun. This time, they don't slip up. Game over.

Sully operates like that, but in a positive way. The stuff on board the plane as it's going down is reminiscent of Paul Greengrass' United 93, in that characters recognize the fate that is about to befall them. As they did aboard flight 93 on 9/11, many hurriedly texted their loved ones what they assumed would be their final messages to them. Trying to look brave, but wiping away tears, and trying to wipe away their fear. Watching it, you are reliving that terrible fear all over again, the one Greengrass captured so poignantly.

But then ... they don't die.

None of them. Not a single one.

A couple sprained ankles and the like, and some near hypothermia in the river in January, but that's about it.

Which is of course the exact opposite of the number of people who died in each of the four planes that were hijacked on 9/11.

Well, it was enough to bring me close to tears on a number of occasions. Sully is the type of crowd pleaser that verges on the cornball from time to time, as might be expected from an 86-year-old conservative. Some of the execution and especially the music choices are reflective of an older person's mentality. But darned if this movie doesn't deliver on the exhilaration of surviving when you didn't think you were going to survive. The sheer emotional intensity of staring certain death in the face and not dying.

That story from nearly seven years ago was one of the happiest we'd seen in a decade, anywhere. It was fairly early on in my use of Facebook and I remember liking Sully's page. I used to get notifications about new material posted there every once in a while. Simply put, it was a story we wanted to keep reliving, to keep helping us heal from 9/11.

And we still are. I got emotional at the end of The Walk last year, as the very end is the only moment to draw an implicit connection to 9/11. And Sully got me too.

I wasn't in New York 15 years ago. But I was in New York 15 years and six months ago. I had lived there for nearly three years, part of which were spent working in the Wall Street area. In fact, I'd done some of my Christmas shopping in the mall that was under the World Trade Center.

We can't ever reverse 9/11. But movies like Sully help us deal with the grief and the psychological trauma that we -- collectively -- still hold close to the surface.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Effete, aggressive elocution

These were the best three words I could come up with to describe John Malkovich's particular speaking style in Dangerous Liaisons, a favorite movie of mine that I had not watched since the 1990s, for no good reason except a lack of availability. I never seem to see it in libraries, and in fact, when I did finally watch it again last night, I had to rent it from iTunes.

I had a little trepidation when I started to watch it, as you do with any cherished movie you are mildly concerned will not live up to the lofty standards you assigned it many years ago. Fortunately, I quickly realized I didn't have to worry about that with Stephen Frears' 1988 best picture nominee. Before long I was luxuriating in Christopher Hampton's cleverly nasty dialogue, just as I always had.

Much of that clever nastiness belongs to Malkovich. I'm pretty sure this was my first exposure to the actor, and what an exposure. He commands the screen like few others in this movie -- like few others in this movie, but like few other actors do in their own movies, period. It's not just those intricate linguistic gymnastics that make him sound like he's finely carving up a dictionary with a scalpel. It's also the intent and the intensity of that stare, which might make a person look away as they would the sun. He lacerates with both his tongue and his eyes.

In past viewings I had recognized Malkovich's Vicomte de Valmont as essentially loathsome, so obviously a person of brusque manners and no delicacy that I always wondered why Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) would ever fall for him. But this time I decided that his unmistakable magnetism might be transferable with charm. Or perhaps, his brand of charm was so different than the bland politeness of other society men that it might entrance a person. Or simply, women often fall for the bad boy.

One thing that makes his style of speaking so memorable is that it's Malkovich's own voice, not the British accent so regularly used in period pieces regardless of where they're set. Of course, Malkovich speaks so "fancily" that one might mistake his ordinary speaking voice with the equivalent of what Madonna does when she tries to sound British, but that's just the proof that he's so well suited for the part. All of the actors use their own speaking voices, but they just try to make them a tad ... "fancier." Interestingly, the choice to use normal speaking voices was repeated in Milos Forman's take on the material the following year, called Valmont, a film I greatly disliked. When I reviewed that movie for AllMovie about 15 years ago, I wrote "No one in either film speaks the novel's native French, but at least Frears opted for high-minded dialogue and sophisticated accents, both genre staples. Forman inexplicably favors a looser, less poetic, more American vernacular staging of events, and cast members Fairuza Balk and Meg Tilly are unfortunate byproducts of that decision." I guess Uma Thurman and Michelle Pfeiffer are just better with "fancy" American accents than Balk and Tilly.

I don't suppose I have any really new interpretations of this film from my most recent viewing. I did, however, wonder about the validity of a previous interpretation ... which I suppose could be a new interpretation.

In one of the final scenes, Glenn Close's Marquise de Merteuil tears up her chamber in a fit of weeping hysterics, then screams at her attendants to get out as she collapse to her knees, wracked with sobs. I had always interpreted this as sorrow over the death of Valmont, who she secretly still loves (or perhaps not so secretly, since she admits as much to him).

However, this time I wondered if she values her position in society so much that the actual circulation of her damning letters would be enough to reduce her to this state. After all, she must have figured that a consequence of revealing to Danceny that Valmost was sleeping with Cecile would be that Danceny would come after Valmont and try to kill him. But perhaps she was so many layers removed from reality, and considered both herself and Valmont so indestructible, that the only outcome she imagined of a Danceny-Valmont duel was the death of Danceny (which she also wanted, feeling spurned by him). And then there's always "don't know what you've got until it's gone" ... which I suppose could apply both to Valmont and to her public shaming.

Which do you think it is?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Lots of thoughts on lots of hotel movies

This is where I spent my Saturday night:

And these are the movies I watched, along with some thoughts on them, including a number of interesting ways they were related that I could not have anticipated. Please do not think of them as complete considerations containing the entirety of my thoughts on each film.

Oh, and this post will be somewhat long, but it should be easy to jump around in and flip through to find the parts that interest you.

Jane Got a Gun (2016, Gavin O'Connor)

I only really watched the last 20 minutes of this movie in the hotel. The rest of it was watched the night before, that morning, waiting for the bus and on the bus ride out. The reason for the erratic viewing schedule was that I started it too late on Friday night, but then had to finish it before the 24-hour iTunes rental expired. It was much better than five different sittings would suggest it is -- and all the advertising/handling by the studio would suggest it is.


1. I'm digging the "slow" westerns these days. I'm thinking primarily of last year's Slow West, but this fits that bill as well (in addition to having several other thematic similarities to that movie). I think I'm more into the intimate western with only a few main characters and a few settings, though Slow West in particular violates that last criterion. These might work better for me than what I think of as the big, sprawling western epic, though I'm hard pressed to give you an example.

2. During the last scene, I finally realized something very funny about this movie: Its three main cast members all appeared in the last two Star Wars prequels. As Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton all appear on screen at the same time for the first time during that scene, I was like "Hey, it's a standoff between Obi-Wan Kenobi, Padme and Uncle Owen!" I doubt it was totally a coincidence, and since Edgerton co-wrote this movie he may have been the one to call in a couple favors (though Portman was one of its producers).

Grimsby (2016, Louis Letterier)

Looking for something light to start things off in the afternoon in the hotel. A Sacha Baron Cohen film defintiely fit the bill. Its 79-minute running time was also attractive.


1. This marks the second straight year I've started in the hotel with a visually stylish spy movie featuring Mark Strong. Last year it was Kingsman: The Secret Service, in which Strong appears in a supporting role. Here Strong is one of the leads. In both cases there is gory violence (more there than here) and edgy humor (more here than there), and in both movies, a real American president or would-be president is either killed or given a fatal disease. (SPOILER ALERT) (Barack Obama's head explodes at the end of Kingsman, and Donald Trump gets AIDS in Grimsby after the spray of blood of an HIV-positive gunshot victim ends up in his mouth). Both movies were a lot more satisfying than I expected them to be.

2. And both movies had about the same amount of material, but in Grimsby it was all packed into 79 minutes. That was definitely to the film's detriment as it frequently felt rushed and all over the place. However, this movie has a scene where the two leads are getting violated by an elephant penis while hiding inside another elephant, then proceed to get covered in elephant semen, so that may be the decisive factor in comparing the two films.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn)

My most unpremeditated pick of the day. When Grimsby ended, I had my choice of 16 other movies, only three of which I knew I was saving for the evening (it was about 5 o'clock at this point). As I had only seen Bonnie and Clyde once and it was at least 20 years ago, the time felt right.


1. The opening scene of this movie floored me. And I'm just talking about that scene where Faye Dunaway rolls around in the bed restlessly. The way the camera ends by zooming in on her eyes, as she detects something outside that she needs to respond to (and that will change her life forever), was absolutely enthralling. Simply put, I love that shot. Dunaway in general really impressed me in this movie. Not that she hasn't in other instances.

2. I was surprised to see Gene Wilder pop up in this film. I guess it wasn't at the point that he popped up that I was surprised; I saw his name in the opening credits. But it seemed like quite the coincidence as we just lost him this past week, and I had no foreknowledge of his presence in the cast when I selected this movie. It was nice to get to appreciate him in a comedic turn as one half of the couple that follows the Barrow Gang after they've stolen his car, only to wish he'd never done so when the gang turns the tables on them and starts following back. As he'd just died, it was especially nice to see him emerge from his interactions with them unscathed.

3. The two leads change cars quite a few times in this film, but I knew it was getting close to the end when they carjack the "Bonnie & Clyde Death Car." A couple friends and I have a joke about this as the car they were killed in is displayed at a casino on the state line between Nevada and California, and we stopped there on the way home from a weekend trip a couple years ago. The casino is called Whiskey Pete's, and you can buy all sorts of Bonnie & Clyde Death Car-related paraphernalia.

Barton Fink (1991, Joel Coen)

I have never loved Barton Fink like others have, but I have decided over the years that I respect it, and again not having watched it in more than 20 years, it was time to see if I had more than respect for it. I bought it for like $2 at a fundraiser for my son's school back in March, so it was time to finally pop it in. This was the film playing during my pizza dinner.


1. I noticed right away that the film was in full frame rather than the proper widescreen aspect ratio. While this sucks, and kept me from watching a similarly deficient version of The Shining a couple years ago (and also a version of Meek's Cutoff, though I later learned that this was the only version as this film was actually shot in this ratio), I decided that I owned the damn thing so I might as well watch it. I was only distracted for the first few minutes, then forgot about it.

2. If seeing the recently deceased Gene Wilder in Bonnie and Clyde was total coincidence, then seeing the recently deceased Jon Polito in Barton Fink was not total coincidence. I'd been planning to watch Barton Fink anyway, so in that sense it was a coincidence that he died that morning, but once I heard he'd died, then the resolve to watch it become absolute. Strangely, I think of Polito first and foremost as his character in The Crow -- "Shit on me!" Also, had no idea he was gay until he died. It was good to get the chance to appreciate a memorable character actor, in addition to a lead like Wilder.

3. I was struck on this viewing how indebted Barton Fink seems to David Lynch's Eraserhead. It's not only the physical similarity of the lead actors, especially as John Turturro's hair is styled in this movie. It's not only the idea of going mad in the confined setting of a living area (there an apartment, here a hotel room). It's even the shots traveling down into the various fixtures and openings -- there the radiator, here the bathroom sink. Throw in a weird worm baby and Fink would be a full-on homage to Eraserhead.

4. Speaking of which, it was funny to watch this movie in a hotel room. I didn't start to go mad, but there was one point where someone tried to open my door. I think they had just come to the wrong room, but it was enough to spook me a bit.

5. I definitely more than appreciate this movie.

Natural Born Killers (1994, Oliver Stone)

Another movie I hadn't seen in 20 years. Sensing a theme? Also, this movie is grotesque enough that I thought it would be better to watch it away from my wife, so I wouldn't have to explain myself. This was a movie I always loved, but had not revisited in ages. I started at about 10.


1. Despite the long layoff between viewings, I remember a ton about this movie, and it's easy to see why: I own the soundtrack. This soundtrack was put together by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and included not only a couple of his old songs, but one new one ("Burn"). In fact, "Burn" may be the only song on the soundtrack that I didn't notice in the movie during this viewing, as the movie has songs going nearly beginning to end and the soundtrack has a ton of the movie's dialogue on it. So lines of dialogue were coming back to me from multiple listens to this CD in the late 1990s. Funny how that stuff lodges in there.

2. The movie did not disturb me as much this time. I remember the violence being bloodier than it actually is. I think the thing that always disturbed me the most still does: Rodney Dangerfield. Genious casting. Who knew this man could be so damn creepy.

3. The structure of the movie took me a bit by surprise. I didn't remember until this viewing that the whole second half of the film takes place in the prison. I would have though that would have been more like the last third, but 'tis not.

4. It was funny to see blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos from both Evan Handler (as a guy working behind the scenes on Robert Downey Jr's. show, American Maniacs) and Jared Harris (as a British youth talking about why Mickey and Mallory are so great).

I had the idea of watching one more movie -- it would have been Spring Breakers -- but I just couldn't justify starting a movie at midnight. Not when checkout is at 10 a.m. and I still needed to awaken early enough to watch one more movie in the morning. Which was ...

Ghostbusters (1984, Ivan Reitman)

I always finish in the morning with a movie I know by heart that is usually pretty light in tone. Past movies in this slot have included The Cable Guy, Raising Arizona, This is Spinal Tap, Almost Famous and Say Anything. I had lined up Back to the Future for this year, having just bought it (very belatedly) about a year ago, but then I realized that my copy is BluRay, meaning it won't play on my laptop. So Ghostbusters it was, for the first time in ten years, just about exactly. (And before seeing the 2016 Ghostbusters, which I will catch when it arrives on video.)


1. The connections to other movies I'd just watched were really funny here. The ectoplasm on the library card catalogues immediately put me in mind of the oozing wallpaper glue in Barton Fink. It was the same color and texture.

2. Weirder: The New York news anchor reporting on the activities of the ghostbusters identifies himself as Roger Grimsby. Grimsby was the first complete movie I'd watched the day before.

3. I didn't notice until this viewing that Dana has also bought a package of Stay Puft marshmallows on the same trip to the store where she bought the eggs that will fry themselves on her counter. The marshmallow bag appears right next to the eggs as they begin popping their shells.

4. I thought it was really interesting to note that Winston Zeddemore, already late to the party, tries to distance himself from the other ghostbusters. When they're jailed, he shouts about only having worked with these guys for a few weeks and he wasn't even there when it happened. He then talks about getting his own lawyer separate from them. Of course, he redeems himself by vouching for them to the mayor in the next scene and then being a team player from there on out, but it struck me as an unusual decision that they would not likely repeat today.

5. Reginald VelJohnson has a small role as a police officer. He would more famously play the role of an officer of the law in Die Hard four years later.

6. Try not to follow the logic of time in the last 24 hours plus of this movie. When Louis Tully gets turned into the keymaster and delivered to the ghostbusters, it's nighttime. No one is ever shown sleeping or anything, and it would appear they've just been examining Louis the whole time. Next thing you know, it's the next day when the EPA shuts down the power to the containment system, leading into the following night where all the shit goes down with Gozer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Oh, and then it's morning again during the closing credits. Not a big deal, but I did notice it.

7. By getting viewed again, Ghostbusters has jumped from the bottom of a particular list to the top. That list is my Letterboxd list of all my repeat viewings in order, back to when I started recording my repeat viewings in mid-2006. When a movie I've watched during that period gets watched again, I update the notes field with the most recently watched date and move it to the top of the list. So essentially, all this time, Ghostbusters has been the oldest movie that I haven't rewatched again since starting to keep track of my rewatches. Got that? In case you're wondering, it has now been replaced on the bottom of the list by Superman II, which I last rewatched in July of 2006. (When I first started, I only kept track of the month they got rewatched. The exact date was added at the beginning of 2008.) Also, I have rewatched 409 different movies in the past ten years and two months, some of them multiple times. There are nearly 200 more I've seen more than once, but longer than ten years ago.

Whew. If you are still reading, congratulations. You can stop now.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Daddy's not home

Well, I am right now, but I won't be for long.

Today is the start of my all-day pre-Father's Day movie marathon, and I can't do such a thing from home.

If a couple of the words in that last paragraph don't make sense in context, let me explain.

In Australia, Father's Day is not in June. It's in September. September 4th, to be exact. Well, this year, anyway. The first Sunday in September.

In many homes, Father's Day -- conceptually a day to let Dad do what he wants to do -- ends up being a day to celebrate Dad with the whole family. Which usually means some kind of special outing, which really requires no less of Dad than any other weekend outing -- and possibly more.

We may do a thing like that tomorrow when I get home. But today and the first part of tomorrow are all about me.

Ever since we started having kids, six years ago, my wife and I have been indulging in these little overnight getaways when we really need a break. "When we really need a break" usually aligns with some kind of Mother's or Father's Day or a birthday, since you feel too guilty to ask for the indulgence at other times. Not just because it costs money to go away, but because it leaves the other one with sole parenting duty for upwards of 24 hours.

But when it is one of those days, there's no guilt. You just do it.

Which is why I'm going to a hotel this afternoon -- check-in is at 2 -- and watching movies until my eyes bleed.

Realistically, it won't be more than five total -- four today, and hopefully one in the morning before check-out (though check-out is bright and early at 10 a.m.). But I'm bringing 16 movies with me -- some from the library, some from our own collection, some on iTunes -- so what gets watched will be left to my whims, how I'm feeling in that moment.

It's an exquisite sense of freedom, a hearkening back to when I had no responsibilities.

And then I'll be home by noon tomorrow to be properly feted by the family.

Kicking off this weekend on Friday night was a very thematically appropriate choice: Daddy's Home.

It would be an exaggeration to say that either my wife or I were looking forward to this one. We see everything Will Ferrell makes eventually, but we likely would have been happy to let "eventually" extend out several years before we prioritized Daddy's Home. Fortunately, iTunes prioritized it for us by making it the 99 cent rental this week. Which was actually just a coincidence, since we still use the American version of iTunes and it's not Father's Day in America.

I say "fortunately" because in the end we liked this movie. But it was a rough road getting there.

Simply put, this was the type of movie for which the term "uneven" was coined. It's one of the most uneven films I've ever seen.

It starts out amiably enough. Not particularly funnily, but amiably, and looking like it's going somewhere. Then there's a middle portion with not one, not two, but three outrageous set pieces involving Ferrell's character (the lame step dad) embarrassing or hurting himself in spectacular ways. None of these was funny, and in fact, they made us cringe. Perhaps even worse than the tone of these set pieces was the visual effects used to achieve them, which were just awful. I'm thinking of the scene where Ferrell accidentally drives a motorcycle through his house and the one where he accidentally skateboards off a half-pipe into an electrical wire. Just awful.

When we were about ready to write the movie off after the drunken scene at the NBA game, in which Ferrell hits a cheerleader and a boy in a wheelchair with errant throws, the movie did the most terrific about face I can remember in recent viewing history.

It starts with this great scene in Ferrell's office between Ferrell, Hannibal Buress and Thomas Haden Church which relies on the type of absurd "When you said that just now did you mean" humor that Ferrell does so well. It was one of the first real instances of that tone being pulled off correctly in the film. What follows is a really satisfying climax at a father-daughter dance that both is funny and has tons of heart, and an epilogue that calls back perfectly to some of the film's earlier jokes. Not since Night at the Museum do I remember a film that I hadn't been enjoying all that much finishing so strong.

And without giving anything away -- because you absolutely must have the twists and secrets of Daddy's Home withheld from you -- I'll say that there's a really funny bit at the end that ties in with Judd Apatow's Trainwreck ... I think unintentionally, since the movies were released only five months apart from each other. But if you really don't want to know what it is, why don't I just go ahead and give a SPOILER ALERT and you can stop reading, as this will be the last point I make in this post.

The epilogue features Mark Wahlberg's biological dad ending up with a new woman who also has an ex to whom he feels inferior, putting him on the Will Ferrell side of Ferrell's dynamic with him. That ex rides up on a motorcycle, and when he takes off his helmet we see it's Jon Cena.

Why does that matter? Because in Trainwreck, Cena's character, who is dating Amy Schumer's character, gets into a heated exchange in a movie theater with another patron. At one point the other patron calls him Mark Wahlberg, referencing his buff physique and general appearance, and Cena retorts "I look like Mark Wahlberg ate Mark Wahlberg."

Which is, like, exactly the same dynamic of comparative masculinity that is explored between the same two actors in Daddy's Home.

I'm not the first to notice that, I'm sure, but I'm definitely the first to write about it on this blog.