Sunday, October 30, 2016

Not only Shocktober, but also Choctober

As we busy ourselves each October with viewings designed to scare us, we tend to forget that Halloween also means candy.

Lots and lots of candy.

That might explain the choice of movie for the so-called "Sleeping Bag Cinema" at the Lost Lands Festival, a two-day family-friendly music festival in nearby Werribee at which attendees can camp out Saturday night (Sunday night too, since Monday is a single workday squeezed in before a holiday, meaning many people are taking it off). Not only can they, but we did, so my six-year-old and I decided to go to the movie, despite its 9:30 start time and despite the fact that we had both already seen Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory within the past year. He'd actually seen it twice, I think.

I don't worry so much about his repeat viewings, because he's a kid and they tend to obsess over things they like, but my own repeat viewings rarely need to involve seeing a movie I've already seen twice in the same year. If it's something new that I've just discovered and I can't wait to see it again, that's one thing. But if it's at least the second and third viewing of a particular movie, it often feels like overkill -- even something you love.

And I don't love Willy Wonka. I like it a lot, but it was not among the movies I watched regularly as a child -- in fact, I don't think I first saw it until I was an adult. That means I have no sentimental attachment to it, and judge it merely on the basis of its effectiveness as a movie. About which I have sort of mixed feelings, as you remember from this post, which I wrote only two days after last seeing it -- just seven months ago on March 29th.

So I was dragging my feet a little bit on actually attending, especially after a long day in the sun in which I had spread three-and-a-half beers over six hours. (So, really only enough to make me tired.) But the novelty of watching a movie in my sleeping bag under the stars -- with my son, no less -- won out.

As soon as the conveyor belts of chocolate over the opening credits came on screen, I knew we'd made the right choice. My son and I were not actually eating chocolate -- we'd opted for a $5 bag of hot buttered popcorn that someone enterprising entrepreneur had whipped up for us -- but the amount on the screen was enough to sustain us.

Unfortunately, not for the whole movie. He got scared by the boat scene, which indeed had thrown him for a loop last time but had not prevented him from finishing the viewing. Then again, that viewing was at home on our coach and easy to finish. This one was pushing past 10:30 and quickly becoming one of the latest times he'd ever stayed awake. Besides, he had to go to the bathroom.

His old man was perfectly fine with that. Despite some Coke to pep me up, I remained unpepped enough to doze off not once but twice, cozy there in my sleeping bag.

So I don't get to log it as an official repeat viewing. We heard Violet Beauregard turning into a blueberry from farther and farther away as we crossed the road back to the campsite and used the portable toilets. In fact, the sound from the movie was almost enough that we could have kept listening to it from our tents, but thankfully, sleep overtook us soon after we returned.

Not for long, as you might expect from camping. The kids actually did great, but my wife and I felt lucky to steal 45 minutes here and there, and it was the kind of sleep that was so unsatisfying that you couldn't have sworn for sure that it actually happened. I greeted the arrival of 5:30 with exquisite relief, as I could actually get up and start doing things and not keep pretending to try to sleep.

But that's another story. The story I want to tell you today is how my son and I bonded over chocolate, popcorn, Halloween, a past-your-bedtime movie under the stars, sticking the Scotch tape I found in my backpack on each others' faces, and hopefully, a dawning love of cinema.

And now I've just told it.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

A horrifying trend?

It's the just prerogative of a cynical cinephile to talk about how dumb a particular horror movie was and how little it scared them.

For this particular cynical cinephile, though, it's becoming increasingly less common.

And I can't tell if that's due to a decrease in my cynicism, or an increase in the quality of horror movies.

Or maybe I'm just becoming a wuss.

Anyway, the raw materials of this discussion is that I've noticed myself becoming increasingly receptive to horror movies, even the ones most people think are terrible. That probably requires some rephrasing. I've always been receptive to horror movies, as being scared is one of my favorite emotions to experience during a movie. But I've frequently been disappointed by horror movies' actual ability to do that.

Not lately, though. I'm not sure how far back this goes, but a couple prominent examples in recent months were what prompted me to start writing.

The first was Dark Skies, which I watched back on August 14th and ended up writing about here. I had known this one was not particularly well received, but I watched it out of a general curiosity and a specific appreciation for the work of Keri Russell. I ended up getting the willies scared out of me, in part because of the influence of another horror movie I watched last Halloween, The Nightmare (as discussed in more detail in that post). I gave Dark Skies four stars on Letterboxd, grading on the general quality of the film (it was good!) but particularly on the quality of the fear it generated in me. That was at least two stars more than anyone else gave it.

Then earlier this month I watched Sinister, another film I talked about (here) because of its generic adjectival name, which was a trend back in 2012. Sinister also threw me a loop. It features pretty standard ingredients for a modern horror movie, especially one produced by Jason Blum -- scary kids, old movie footage and a demon insinuating himself into those videos, the minds of the scary kids, and the hallways of the protagonist's house. Yet I watched this movie with what seemed like a constant chill. Again I gave this film four stars, and again that was an outlier in terms of the average critical take. Then again, the Blum-produced The Gallows really creeped me out last year, and someone I greatly respect selected it as his worst movie of the year. (Maybe it's because both films feature footage of someone being hanged on tape or in 8mm. Maybe that's one of my triggers.)

Then last Saturday night we started V/H/S, and I finished it in the wee hours of this Saturday morning. (And I'm talking really wee -- after I fell asleep on the couch from about 10:30 to about 2, I finished it between 2:30 and 3:30, which certainly improved the scare factor. Starting to have too many scary movies to watch before Halloween, and too few nights to do it.) I suppose the general critical reception for V/H/S is a bit better than to either of the previous two films I've discussed, but V/H/S has also seemed to get kind of lost in the recent trend of found footage and horror anthology movies (like The ABCs of Death, which in general I did not like -- which did not prevent me from laboriously ranking the 26 short films in this post. Meanwhile, the current post quickly becomes an anthology of my previous posts.) The quality varied very little in the five (or six, if you count the framing story) short films contained here, and each had something about it that I found pretty disturbing. This time I reined myself in and gave it only 3.5 stars.

Oddly, it was the prestigious horror movie I saw this month -- Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak -- that did very little for me. (And again, here's a link if you want it.) Though I did think it had a few scary moments in terms of the sheer effectiveness of the ghost character design.

So do I scare more easily than I once did? Or am I just more forgiving about films in general?

I've discussed a number of times how much more likely I am to give out ratings in the three- to five-star range than I am to give out ratings in the one- to three-star range. Part of that is, of course, self-selection. You never intend to watch bad movies -- except when you do, of course -- and I think the more movies you watch, the better you are at determining which ones will reward the decision to watch them. Most movie fans surely like more movies than they dislike, because curating your viewing experience is more likely to occur among people who are not critics and who are paying for every movie they see.

But horror movies have often been a genre where I opt in, even if I think there's a good chance the movie will disappoint me. So I should be seeing as many bad ones as good ones. Lately, though, it seems I'm seeing only good ones. And it's worth wondering if this is just a good period of selection for me, or a lowering of the bar for what I consider a good movie.

I suppose I require further research on the topic. Which means I'll have to keep seeing plenty of horror movies, even when it's not October.

I guess it's a good thing that I'm actually getting scares from the few horror movies I've seen in an October where I've ended up having a variety of non-horror demands on my viewing schedule. If I'm only going to see a few, best that it's a scary few.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Quit "probably butchering" things

This is a pet peeve of mine about society in general, but it seems to appear most regularly in discussions of films. Specifically, films by foreign directors ... or non-foreign directors who have foreign-sounding names.

Namely, I hate it when people -- my film podcasters, mostly -- say they are "probably butchering" a name, right before making a suitably game effort to pronounce it correctly.

On the surface this is a laudable instinct, an attempt to be respectful and deferential to another culture. But I find there to be something insidious about it, especially in situations where the name is really not that hard to pronounce.

Take the inspiration for this post, heard on a podcast this morning that was several months old, but I'd been saving for after I'd watched the film they discussed in depth. I won't go into detail about what podcast it was, because the point here isn't to point fingers at people. It's to point fingers at a bad habit.

The podcaster said she was "probably butchering" the name Rick Famuyiwa, the director of Dope. Which was not actually the film that was being discussed, but it came up in a later segment.

Now, far be it from me to tell people which combination of consonants and vowels should give them difficulty. That's a personal thing, and that's not really my point either.

But this name, in my opinion, is not that hard to say. Famuyiwa is a Nigerian-American director, which is news to me -- not the American part, but the Nigerian part. I thought his last name had a Japanese origin, and in fact, that he was a Japanese-American. But if you break it down into syllables, it's really not that hard: Fa. Mu. Yi. Wa. Each syllable sounds the same as it looks, and saying them together is not that hard. Plus, the guy has directed five films dating back to 1999 (including one that was made after Dope), so the podcaster should have had plenty of time to familiarize herself with him. Famuyiwa has also been selected as the director of 2018's The Flash, the DC Justice League movie, so we'll certainly be hearing more about him.

But my point, again, is not to get caught up on whether "Famuyiwa" is a hard name to say or not. It's to suggest alternatives.

1) Listen to the pronunciation online. Many directors whose names are difficult to pronounce have little videos on YouTube that are solely dedicated to the correct pronunciation of their name. If not that, you should be able to find some video where someone else speaks the name in the context of an interview or some such, and you can probably safely assume they did the homework you don't want to do. Or there's also ...

2) DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Even if you can't find an audio pronunciation, you can often find a phonetic spelling. It's not that hard. Or even just ask someone you think might know.

3) Just say the name the best you can. Even if you did not get it quite right, you tried, and you didn't just treat this person as "other."

And now we're getting to my problem with this. This is a way of "othering" somebody. To say that you are "probably butchering" his/her name suggests that the name is so outlandish and so anathema to the rules of the English language that it would almost not be possible to pronounce it correctly. I suppose there is an element of self-deprecation in it, like you are hopeless with pronouncing names and this is a flaw particular to you. But especially if you are a person who otherwise does your research -- and most podcasters are -- then it makes this failure to pronounce the name correctly seem like a deviation from your own normal level of preparedness. And then makes us wonder about the reasons for that deviation, even going so far as to assume things like racism or xenophobia even if that doesn't describe you at all.

Really, it's probably the result of an over-application of political correctness. You are so petrified of possibly offending someone by saying their name incorrectly that you have to include these two words to stipulate the likelihood of a mistake and thereby relieve yourself of the moral responsibility for that mistake. I get it, and it's completely well-intentioned.

But there comes a point when you have heard the same podcaster state that they are "probably butchering" a foreign name ten times in the space of three months when it just seems like there's a better way.

Look, there are those names that beat the best of us. Apichatpong Weerasethakul (spelled that without looking it up!) goes by the nickname "Joe" specifically because he knows people won't pronounce his name correctly. Even if they make the effort to break it down by syllables, some of the syllables aren't pronounced the way you think they would be. But one of my podcasters has made the effort to learn how to say his name, and even if it doesn't actually sound like he's saying it correctly, I admire the commitment to just choosing a pronunciation and going with it, rather than making a big deal of how foreign and difficult it is every time you say it.

Butchering should be left for serial killers, dictators and working with meat.

Which reminds me, it's October, and I need to start watching more movies where people are butchering each other.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Whoa! Avy Kaufman is a woman

When I saw Avy Kaufman's name in the credits of The Family Fang on Sunday night, I thought it was finally time to check IMDB and see how many credits this guy actually has. I told my wife it was surely the most number of credits anyone has on IMDB.

I may be right about that -- Avy Kaufman has 223 credits.

But I was wrong about Avy Kaufman being a guy.

I don't know why I assumed "Avy" was a guy's name. It can be a bit hard to tell with traditionally Jewish first names, unless you a) are Jewish or b) already know somebody else who has that name. I think I found it similar to another Jewish man's name, Ari, and just made my assumptions from there. Or maybe I was thinking Alvy Singer from Annie Hall.

But no, Avy Kaufman is a [??]-year-old woman (neither Wikipedia nor IMDB divulges her age) who looks like this:

Avy Kaufman is a casting director, which is part of the reason she's able to work so much. I don't know what a casting director does top to bottom, but I have to assume that his or her role is limited to pre-production. Once a movie starts shooting, the job is over -- unless of course a new part is written on the fly, in which case he/she clocks back in for maybe another week. 

At some point, for no good reason, I started to notice every time I saw Avy Kaufman's name in the credits of a movie I was watching. And because the casting director tends to have prominent placement in the credits, and I do tend to watch at least the start of the credits, it didn't take any special effort. She isn't getting lost in the long scroll at the end. She gets her own name on the screen, by itself, in the opening credits of any film that has them, and near the top of the closing credits if there are no opening credits. She's the be-all and end-all of casting directors, so I imagine her credit placement is a standard part of her contract, maybe even something dictated by a union. Is there a casting director's union? Hey, why not?

But does anyone other than Avy Kaufman even work in the industry? It's gotten to the point where it's more unusual to see a movie that wasn't cast by her than one that was. She's the Edith Head of casting directors. (Actually, Edith Head had almost exactly double her number of credits, with 444 -- so that means I was wrong in both of my two original statements about Kaufman to my wife.)

The little blurb about her at the top of her page on IMDB makes me laugh: "Avy Kaufman is known for her work on The Sixth Sense (1999), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and Life of Pi (2012)."

Several things about that are funny. For one, does a casting director have a "signature?" A signature that would allow her to be, say, "known" for something? She might argue that a casting director does, but she'd be having that conversation only with the seven or eight other casting directors who also work regularly (though a single other one I could not name). Only they really know the ins and outs of the profession well enough to recognize each others' work, and not think that any way to recognize the exact nature of their impact on a film isn't complete and total bullshit. (Which is not to say that you can't have good and bad casting directors -- obviously, Kaufman is a very good one. I just can't imagine someone watching a movie and saying "Uh huh, yeah. This looks like an Avy Kaufman cast.")

I was going to say that the other funny thing is that Avy Kaufman was also the casting director on The Bourne Identity, yet they emphasized one of the sequels instead in her blurb. But nope, that one slipped by her. That one was cast by some guy named Joseph Middleton. (See? No idea who that is.) Middleton has a mere 89 credits, the slacker. Though he did also cast Donnie Darko, so good on him. 

Making those 223 credits all the more jaw-dropping is that Kaufman has accumulated them in only 27 years. Well, 29 years, actually -- her first credit was in 1989, but she has credits on into 2018 on IMDB, which is not surprising for a person who is involved with pre-production. In fact, 2017 is set to be one of her biggest years on record, with a staggering 14 projects set for release next year. The 223 credits over 29 years comes out to an average of 7.7 per year, which is good but well short of the ubiquity I'm suggesting she has. Then again, when you consider that she had only six credits total in her first five years on the job, and didn't really pick up the pace until the 21st century, you start to really appreciate how prolific she's been recently.

To get some sense of the depth and breadth of her career, I'll start with the year in which she started casting multiple films per year and never looked back -- 1995 -- and give you her total for each year as well as my favorite film she cast that year.

1995 (3) - Home for the Holidays (dir. Jodie Foster). I actually don't like Home for the Holidays, but I haven't seen her other two films that year.

1996 (4) - Walking and Talking (dir. Nicole Holofcener). A female casting director working with the female directors! Love Walking and Talking.

1997 (5) - The Ice Storm (dir. Ang Lee). Steadily stepping up her output by one title each year.

1998 (6) - Monument Ave. (dir. Ted Demme). Kind of amazing how she is adding a project every year, isn't it?

1999 (7) - The Sixth Sense (dir. M. Night Shyamalan). And the steady march toward dominance contnues. 

2000 (3) - Dancer in the Dark (dir. Lars von Trier). And she falls off a cliff, down to only three films. What, did she have a baby that year or something? - D. Trump

2001 (9) - A.I. Artificial Intelligence (dir. Steven Spielberg). Baby is with the nanny and she's back in action.

2002 (5) - Moonlight Mile (dir. Brad Silberling). Terrible two's? I don't know.

2003 (5) - The Human Stain (dir. Robert Benton). Maybe we are starting to see a Kaufman signature after all. She cast Nicole Kidman in both The Human Stain and Dogville in 2003 ... and also in The Family Fang in 2016.

2004 (12) - Birth (dir. Jonathan Glazer). First double digit year and another Kidman movie in Birth.

2005 (12) - Brokeback Mountain (dir. Ang Lee). Another dozen, led by the should-have-been best picture winner. She's also Ang Lee's personal casting director as she worked with him on Hulk in addition to the aforementioned The Ice Storm (and aforementioned but not yet reached chronologically Life of Pi). Interesting, IMDB notes that in 2005, she was credited as "Amy Kaufmann" on Syriana. Would love to know the story behind that, unless it was just a spelling error in the credits -- in which case someone must have lost a job over that. That would have left me little doubt about her gender.

2006 (12) - 10 Items or Less (dir. Brad Silberling). She's establishing that she's comfortable with a one-movie-per-month pace. Weak year overall though in terms of quality. Another Silberling film after Moonlight Mile.

2007 (11) - American Gangster (dir. Ridley Scott). Another weak year -- I only decided I liked American Gangster at all upon a reappraisal. 

2008 (8) - Phoebe in Wonderland (dir. Daniel Barnz). Lowest output in five years ... a consequence of two years of not-great quality?

2009 (11) - State of Play (dir. Kevin Macdonald). Back in double digits again. 

2010 (11) - Let Me In (dir. Matt Reeves). Some stuff I haven't seen this year but the Let the Right One In remake is actually quite good.

2011 (7) - Shame (dir. Steve McQueen). I'm going to say she treated herself to a month-long vacation in the Maldives this year.

2012 (10) - What Maisie Knew (dir. Scott McGehee & David Siegel). Great year also includes Lincoln and Life of Pi, though I really consider Maisie a 2013 film.

2013 (12) - Europa Report (dir. Sebastian Cordero). Pickin's a little slim this year but Ain't Them Bodies Saints is also good.

2014 (19) - The Skeleton Twins (dir. Craig Johnson). And Kaufman goes crazy. Not only does she set a new high output for a year, but she also casts two of my top ten (Love is Strange along with Skeleton Twins) and two TV series, which seem like they might require more work. Interestingly, as I was watching The Family Fang I thought it had a bit of a Skeleton Twins vibe (so maybe more signs of a Kaufman signature?). 

2015 (10) - The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt). Numbers are reasonable again, although three of the films are actually ones I consider 2016 films (Green Room and A Bigger Splash along with Family Fang). 

2016 (13) - How to Be Single (dir. Christian Ditter). Second highest yearly total. Family Fang would beat this if IMDB counted it with 2016. 


Was Kate Bush's song "This Woman's Work" written about Avy Kaufman?

Actually, that song's about pregnancy, so unless we're talking about the 2000 Avy Kaufman, then no. (Um, I have no idea if Avy Kaufman had a baby in 2000.)

Well that was fun, getting to know this woman whose name I'd seen so many times, who I thought was a man. I'm glad to give credit where credit is due ... and also to give gender where gender is due.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Dubiously niche

In a couple days the British Film Festival begins at the Palace theater chain here in Australia. It'll play in six cities with a very small staggering of start dates, running for about three weeks. In fact, the only reason for staggering the dates at all seems possibly so that the same person can speak on opening night in each city. Who that is, I don't know.

It's just the latest in a bewildering succession of regionally specific film festivals hosted at Palace cinemas, which have included a Spanish Film Festival and an Italian Film Festival, among probably fewer others than would justify the word "bewildering."

It also feels a bit superfluous.

Not quite to the same extent, of course, but isn't having a British Film Festival kind of akin to having an American Film Festival? Instead of giving it its own name, you could just call it "going to the movies."

I suppose the real answer is "No, it's not the same, because the British film industry is not what it once was, and perhaps never was what it once was." It's not the equivalent of rock n' roll, where most of the best stuff came from England. Big breakout British directors are comparatively few, perhaps because they get so quickly subsumed into Hollywood that their status as coming from elsewhere is quickly forgotten or rendered unimportant. An actual "British film" is pretty different from a film directed by a British director, of which there are many -- but they are often just known as "Hollywood films."

Still, especially in a country like Australia, with its excessive amount of anglophilia, it hardly seems like we need to cast a special spotlight on the films of England. People will probably be seeking them out anyway, and they don't need their own showcase. Rightly or wrongly, because they are filmed in the English language, they assume a privileged or mainstream status with English-speaking viewers.

The argument for it, though, can be found in the details. While the festival does feature new British films like The Light Between Oceans, A United Kingdom, A Monster Calls and Palme d'Or winner I, Daniel Blake (though only two of those four directors are actually British), it also includes a smattering of classics, such as A Room With a View, Goldfinger, Sid and Nancy and The French Lieutenant's Woman. Although I have yet to expend any of my precious allotment of viewing slots on a classic film at any festival I've attended, I came close at this year's MIFF, and I've come to think of classics as a vital component of any festival.

In fact, as much as I'm slagging off the idea behind this festival (to borrow a British term), now that I'm looking at the schedule I may try to attend some of these myself. A Monster Calls, for one, does not even have an Australian release date yet, and its US release is smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, suggesting its high quality, or at least its perceived candidacy for awards. (And here I always figured it was destined for an October release in order to capitalize on a tie-in with Halloween, though I suppose neither of the other movies I once compared it to in my mind -- The BFG and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them -- had Halloween releases).

So in the course of writing this post I've gone from mocking the festival to thinking I might be an attendee.

And they say blogging serves no purpose.

Friday, October 21, 2016

And now back to my future

Almost exactly a year after I wrote a post in which I explained why I hadn't watched my second favorite movie of all time in more than a decade, I finally ended that drought.

The occasion was my 43rd birthday, which passed on Thursday.

An appropriate time to be considering "the future," though I'd say it probably stops at that superficial level. Sure, Back to the Future has some angst about what a person will become in their own future, but the occasion of my 43rd birthday does not happen to be bringing such angst upon me myself. Maybe it should be, but it isn't.

This is a resumption of a tradition of watching a favorite movie on my birthday, which I wrote about here. The tradition had to be skipped last year when I had a meeting scheduled for the night of my birthday, after which I saw a movie in the theater (Black Mass, bad choice). However, this year I was home with the family, with a Mexican dinner and with margaritas, so the tradition was back on.

Pulp Fiction -- another favorite I have not seen in more than ten years, really more like 15 years -- was considered, but my wife vetoed it for reasons of length. (We'll watch it soon, though, she promises.) So Back to the Future, shorter by an hour (is Pulp Fiction really three hours??), won out.

As I always am with these sacred cows, I was worried that I'd find something in Back to the Future this time around that just didn't sit well with me. Something that knocked it down a few pegs -- or more than a few pegs -- in my estimation. Yeah, I'm still a bit traumatized from my unexpectedly poor most recent viewing of The Empire Strikes Back.

Fortunately, Back to the Future was just as good as it ever is. In fact, it was so good that I spent the movie with my body in a constant state that can be described as somewhere between humming and chills. And I don't think it was just the margaritas.

Some isolated thoughts ...

Oh those rapey 1950s

My wife was only first introduced to Back to the Future by me in 2005, which was also my last viewing. She has never been a huge fan of it (for some reason she always compares it to Big, which I also introduced her to and which she likes much better), and so I probably shouldn't have been surprised that I'm never really going to bring her around to that opinion. Fishing for words of praise at the end got me some polite answers but no real enthusiasm. Fair enough. I can't recreate the experience I had of it, which was seeing it in 1985 when I was 11 and having my noodle fried.

One of the things she was most eager to discuss was Biff's assault of Lorraine in the car, and how gross it was. "So he was basically raping her," she pointed out, a bit discomfitted by the fact that the movie doesn't take it more seriously.

I'd probably dispute whether the movie makes light of it or not, but it is a curiously heavy -- to borrow a word that recurs in the movie -- development in the story. I mean, both of them are fully clothed, but do we really want to know what he was doing with those big meat hooks?

The moment I find stranger, however, is when the "Scram McFly, I'm cuttin' in" guy thinks nothing of some casual, open dance floor, Donald Trump-style rapey behavior. There are a couple odd things about this moment. For one, for no good reason, it almost entirely saps George McFly of all his confidence. You'd think that after just knocking out Biff and just being asked by Lorraine when he would kiss her, he'd have plenty of bluster. Yet instead he looks for a moment like all the gains he's just made have been lost, and all because he's obeying some outmoded form of dance floor gentlemanly protocol that requires you to relinquish the dance even when some totally creepy guy tries to cut in.

Then there's the absurdity of his behavior. He starts cackling like a supervillain as yet another man at this dance tries to breach Lorraine's inner sanctum. That's not sexy, man.

I think I excuse this on the grounds of the moment taking on a sense of surrealism and fantasy. The score becomes frenzied as Marty's hand begins to disappear up on stage, and the ridiculous cackling seems to be emblematic of how little hope there is that he won't straight up fade from existence right there. So, not quite as egregious.

I wonder what would have happened, though, if Marty had faded entirely from view, and then 15 minutes later George had gotten his nuts up and knocked that ginger out. (No offense to red-headed people, I'm just writing saucily at the moment.) Would he have been granted an abrupt physical reality once again? And would that still have been time enough to get to the clock tower?

I could go down a conundrum rabbit hole here but I won't.

Oh those murdery 1950s

The two consecutive attempted rapes may be one thing, but what about Biff actually trying to murder Marty?

Because that of course is what the outcome would be if you drive a human being on a skateboard into the back of a truck filled with manure.

Biff only describes it as "ramming" him, but "squashing/crushing" him would probably be more accurate.

Which sets up my next topic ...

The tremendous physicality

On this viewing I really appreciated how successful the physicality of this movie is -- both the physical comedy, but also just how the physical body is used as a dynamic object in general.

In that previous scene it would have been Marty stepping through the open convertible to emerge on the other side atop his skateboard, but the choreography in general is just magnificent in this film. I'll delineate it as thoroughly yet as briefly as I can:

- The great shot of Marty falling over while trying to pull up his pants

- Lorraine repeatedly turning toward the camera ("My God, it's my mother!" "Isn't he a dreamboat?")

- Doc's every spasmodic movement, but even his quieter moments, like slowly slumping down on the shrouded Delorean as he realizes their task to break Marty's spell on Lorraine will be ever more difficult than he guessed

- Marty's two incidents of bowling over spectators, first as he's leaving the diner and he dominoes Biff's henchmen, then a few minutes later when he skateboards into a couple professionals carrying and armload of papers

- Marty's tremendous stumble backwards into the barn after Old Man Peabody has taken a shotgun blast at him -- and the perfectly timed blasting of his mailbox a few moments later

- Doc's Harold Lloyd act as he tries to reconnect the downed lightning bolt conductor on the clock tower, specifically when that sharp bit hanging on his trouser leg tears the fabric and inches ever closer to falling, thereby ruining the whole enterprise

- And pretty much any moment involving Marty uncertainly running -- he is pretty much the king of uncertain running

Insufficient warning

"I've got a time machine, I've got all the time in the world! I can go back early and warn him. Ten minutes should be enough."

IN WHAT UNIVERSE WOULD TEN MINUTES EVER HAVE BEEN ENOUGH? (And actually, he randomly selects 11 minutes.)

Not the only funny bit involving the time circuit in the Delorean. At the start, Doc introduces it by saying "This is where you're going, this is where you are, and this is where you were." I may not have the order exactly correct there, but neither did they -- Doc lists which one is which incorrectly. As it of course didn't matter, they just left it -- if they even noticed it at the time of filming.

The teary moment

I've been finding when I go back and revisit these old favorites, I almost or actually cry in a moment where I had never noticed doing that before. (Raising Arizona is kind of my standard for that.) In this viewing it was the moment when George McFly punches Biff out and then delivers that quivering "Are you okay?" to Lorraine. She doesn't even need to answer.

What's your hurry?

At the end of the movie -- and this is probably a good time to wrap up this post -- it seems truly absurd that Marty, having just walked back from a near unsolvable time conundrum into a life that is a hundred times better than it was before, would be so eager to immediately leave that life and go jump into a time machine again. I mean, maybe at least take the truck out for that camping trip first?

Still love it though.

As the movie does give us that direct bridge into Back to the Future II, I wondered if I might put a viewing of II and III -- both of which I've seen only once -- on to my schedule.

But I think I'll hold off for now. I don't want to mess with the humming chills the movie gave me.

Though, I suppose, I could just drink some more margaritas.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Theatrical releases never looked so shabby

A movie I never heard of when it was released in the U.S. on July 29th was Equity, directed by a woman I'd never heard of named Meera Menon.

Not having heard of the movie or its director was far less of a consideration in my shock over its theatrical release than the poster you see here.

Simply put, how could this be anything other than a straight-to-streaming reject?

When I saw the poster up on the wall at Cinema Nova in the upcoming releases area, I was sure a mistake had been made. Somehow, a movie from a 1998 Blockbuster new release shelf had jumped in a time machine and arrived in 2016, where it surreptitiously tried to pass itself off as something new.

How else to explain the terrible font? How else to explain the monochromatic green color that makes everyone look vaguely seasick? How else to explain a cast where the leads were B-list even at their peak? (Sorry, Anna Gunn -- your contributions to Breaking Bad were invaluable, but they did not make you a star.)

And yet this is a real movie that really got released. In fact, it's a real movie that people really liked it. Its 81 on Rotten Tomatoes and 68 on Metacritic speak for themselves.

So I guess I must conclude instead that it is the worst job of advertising ever.

The poster seems to be trying to ride the 17-year-old coattails of The Matrix, yet it is also a movie about Wall Street, which that incredibly lame and un-clever tagline at the top tells us. (ON WALL STREET, ALL PLAYERS ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL)

And then the faces of the actors are blown out in these unnatural tones, making it somehow all the worse that you only recognize one of them. James Purefoy (heard of him, sort of) seems to be the lucky one in that he has almost crept completely off the side.

Anna Gunn fares particularly poorly here. God bless them for allowing a not-very-famous 48-year-old woman to be the star of their movie, but the makeup department didn't do her any favors. At least the other women look a bit gussied up. (And if this comment sounds a bit Trumpian, I am only expressing surprise in the sense that posters usually tend to glamourize their stars, even if it's not suited to the movie. This movie has failed to do that, utterly.)

Well, things start to make a bit more sense in terms of the strange phenomenon that is this film when I look at its box office haul. It made only $1.5 million in the U.S., a truly paltry sum. So yes, it's not like the world has just gone crazy and now this is considered a useful advertising strategy in getting people to go to a movie.

However, I should note that the film has been open at Cinema Nova since September 29th, which means it has survived not only one new release Thursday but two. I suspect it'll disappear this week, but three weeks is not terrible.

Means at least a couple Austrlians must have been intrigued by the idea of a nauseated Skyler White about to lose her lunch over the side of a boat.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


If you're a writer, you're probably conscious of any number of words whose definition you basically know, but which you don't quite feel comfortable using in your own writing because there's that small part of you that doubts your nuanced understanding of the word.

One recent example of that for me is "glib." When I hear the word in context I basically know what it means, and it's a word I tend to like. However, when the opportunity arises to use it myself, I shy away, because of some lingering uncertainty that I'll be using it correctly. Well, I kind of got over it this week when I used the word in my review of Cafe Society, perhaps because I used it in a broader sense and talked about something that was not glib rather than something that was. If you're interested to see if I actually used it correctly, check out my review here, but either way, it felt like something of a watershed moment for me. (So, keep it to yourself! Heh.)

I may not have been as conscious of my lack of comfort with the word "baroque," but as soon as I heard it in a podcast on Friday, I mentally added it to that list. Great word; sort of know what it means; unsure about using it myself.

After watching Crimson Peak on Saturday night, I think I'm good with baroque now too.

It was my first "horror movie" for October, about two weeks out from Halloween. I put "horror movie" in quotes because those who defend the movie claim that we were misled by what it was supposed to be, and it's more like a gothic romance than a horror. After watching it, though, I don't really understand anything about the perspective of "those who defend the movie."

The dictionary definition of "baroque" is as follows:

"Relating to or denoting a style of European architecture, music, and art of the 17th and 18th centuries that followed Mannerism and is characterized by ornate detail. In architecture the period is exemplified by the palace of Versailles and by the work of Wren in England. Major composers include Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel; Caravaggio and Rubens are important baroque artists."

Definitions like this drive me a bit crazy. I'm a guy who likes to follow recipes to a T when I am cooking, so similarly, I worry about using a word like "baroque" unless I can be 100% sure that the criteria outlined in this word's "recipe," so to speak, are being met. But the word does cast a fairly wide net in what it can relate to, and it's the "characterized by ornate detail" part of the word that speaks to the way we should use it in a general sense. Though I think art that evokes that period was the way the guy was using it in the podcast (about a movie that I would not otherwise characterize as baroque -- maybe he was using it wrong?).

Crimson Peak is strangled by its use of the baroque. This movie has ornateness upon ornateness, but it's shot by Dan Laustsen in such a stagy way (with such oddly poor lighting) that it dies up there on the screen. It feels two-dimensional, digital. Perhaps some of the baroque central mansion, with its hole in the roof letting a constant snowfall through, is actually digital, which is why it looks so bad. Actually, no -- Guillermo del Toro built a mansion just for the occasion, I'm reading.

What's especially strange about the strained and stilted atmosphere of this movie is that I normally love baroque movies. I tend to gravitate toward period pieces, and I've even given my own name to movies featuring the type of production design we find in Crimson Peak -- I call them "wax stamp movies." The name is inspired by the appearance of a letter sealed by a wax stamp, and one such letter does indeed appear in Crimson Peak. That gave me hope, but the hope was soon dashed.

"Baroque" would probably extend to the much-criticized overblown acting style of Jessica Chastain in the movie, as well. And though someone really should have reined her in, Mia Wasikowska is also pretty bad here too. Her lack of agency seemed really disturbing and made it impossible to cheer on her character. But before you think I only have a problem with the women in this movie, I'll say that del Toro really needs to stop throwing work to the bland Charlie Hunnam. Tom Hiddleston probably acquits himself best in the cast, as you might expect.

Before this post just devolves into a spray gun approach to random criticisms of the movie -- of which there are many -- I'll try to get myself back on track.

If this were just a boring, over-long ghost story it might be one thing. But the rococo stylings of this movie just bludgeon you, making what could have been a neutral experience actively negative. It manages to be both overwrought and flat at the same time. Some achievement.

When I was a radio DJ back in college, we played a series of public service announcements about seatbelt safety that consisted of comedic repartees between two crash test dummies. I still remember that in one of them, there was an exchange about architecture where one of them says "Is it baroque?" And the other says "I don't know, did you ba-reak it?"

Crimson Peak is baroque-en indeed.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Measures of duality

On Friday night I was reading my six-year-old from his series of books about Zac Power, the 12-year-old super spy, as we are wont to do. I've noticed the phenomenon I'm about to tell you about plenty of times before, but had occasion to contemplate it anew during the reading of the book Sand Storm, in which one of Zac's chief rivals appears.

The rival in question is a 12-year-old girl named Caz. Get it? Caz? Zac? Zac? Caz? Zac works for the good spy agency called GIB, while Caz works for the bad spy agency called BIG. Get it? BIG? GIB? GIB? BIG?

But you haven't heard all of it yet. Caz' last name is Rewop. That's right. Rewop. Power. Power. Rewop. Zac Power. Caz Rewop.

It'll go right over most kids' heads -- my son hasn't commented on it yet, anyway -- but for adults, it's a stupidly obvious application of the notion that the hero and villain are two sides of the same being. They're not opposites -- the opposite of the name Zac Power would not be Caz Rewop, but, I don't know, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Rather, they are mirror images of each other, having more in common than they have different. In fact, in extreme instances, you might argue that the only thing they don't share in common is their respective morality. Even then, though, the creator of these characters likes to emphasize the bad in the good character and the good in the bad.

It was interesting timing, then, that the movie I was watching that night also engages in a sort of literal exploration of the hero-villain duality.

Last Days in the Desert is the latest film from writer-director Rodrigo Garcia, and it couldn't portray a more symbolic struggle between good and evil if it tried. In the film Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus Christ and the Devil, who tempted him during his 40 days in the desert. Garcia makes the things they have in common manifest by having the same actor play both roles. If the side of Jesus that tempts him is personified as the Devil, I suppose to balance things out we'd also need to see the just side of the Devil as portrayed here. That complicates the duality a bit but I think the principle of the thing still holds.

If this were a children's story about super spies, I suppose his name would be Susej Tsirhc rather than the Devil, but I digress.

Garcia's rather on-the-nose choice is meant to allow one actor to explore both sides of a characterization, and theoretically give us something profound. McGregor is reasonably good in the film without quite attaining that level of achievement. So the film is worth watching but nothing extraordinary. McGregor might as well have a mini angel McGregor on one shoulder and a mini devil McGregor on the other, both advising him on what to do.

Perhaps the biggest "disappointment" about it, if you want to look at it that way, was the fact that it was shot by Emmanuel Lubezki and does not actually look mind-blowingly good. It looks good, but not mind-blowingly.

An interesting thing happened while I was watching it, though, that makes the thoughts I was already having about Zac Power and Jesus Christ and writing this post all the more eerie.

At about the halfway point of the film, I was getting really sleepy and I decided it was time for a bit of a sugar wake-me-up in the form of ice cream.

Not "about" the halfway point, though. At the halfway point.

Going over to my computer, which was tethered to the television via an HDMI cable, to press pause on iTunes, I then discovered that I had paused on exactly the halfway point of the film. There had been 49:51 that had already elapsed and there was 49:51 left to go. You could say I planned it, but when you're watching something in iTunes, the time remaining only displays when you run your cursor over the progress bar. There's no alternate method to track the minutes ticking away -- or none that I know of, anyway.

So I managed to split the movie right down the middle, into a duality of its own running time.

Even stranger was what happened about five minutes after that midway point. Another character who fancies riddles says to Jesus, "How far can a man walk into the desert? Only halfway. After that he's walking out." Probably just another way the movie is conscious of its own duality. But it had a special coincidental significance for me, given how I had just paused after walking exactly halfway into the movie, after which I was walking out of it.

I thought I'd leave you with five other explicit considerations of the duality between hero and villain, good and evil. Listed in the order I thought of them.

1) Oh God, You Devil! (1984, Paul Bogart) - The third in George Burns' series of Oh God! movies features Burns as both God and the Devil, much like in Friday night's movie. Though I don't think anything other than Borscht Belt comedy was being explored here.

2) Superman III (1983, Richard Lester) - Even at the best of times, Superman has a dual personality that includes another side of himself -- the Clark Kent side. Usually, both sides are good. In the third Superman movie, though, they explored an evil Superman, one corrupted by kryptonite -- and one who actually fights Clark Kent. I don't remember how they managed to get them into separate corporeal bodies -- I think there was a bit more suspension of disbelief than usual on that one -- but I do remember their extremely bizarre junkyard battle for control of their soul.

3) Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002, Peter Jackson) - There's also a struggle for the soul of the man once known as Smeagol, now the twisted troll called Gollum. To emphasize this, Jackson uses a technique whereby the two sides of the character -- one kind and one cruel -- have a conversation with one another on how to handle the two travelers Gollum has just met. Although only one being is actually present, Jackson gives a standard shot-reverse shot setup as though there are two conversing.

4) The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan) - Back to superhero movies, one of the most commonly referenced instances of hero-villain duality is between Batman and the Joker, though in this case they look nothing like each other. However, there's a direct symbol of the two sides of a character's personality within The Dark Knight, and that's the very brief appearance of Two Face, known as Harvey Dent before he is disfigured and corrupted. The coin flip that is part of his MO -- which usually decides the fate of a prospective victim -- could also decide which version of him you're getting. But truly, the Dent side isn't there anymore, only symbolically represented by the failure to kill somebody instead of killing them.

5) Adaptation (2002, Spike Jonze) - And though I should end with something from Hitchcock, I couldn't find anything that literalized the theme in the way I'm going for here. So let's finish with a movie I alluded to on this blog only yesterday -- giving us one final coincidence with the Zac Power reading/viewing of Last Days in the Desert. In order to literally explore the dormant half of his personality, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (appearing as a character here, played by Nicolas Cage) introduces a brother character named Donald, who is everything he isn't -- gregarious, mainstream, moronic, successful. In this case it's not really good and evil Kaufman is exploring, though -- he intermingles aspects of both in each personality, and toys with his own perception of which is which.

For more examples, check out, oh, the rest of western literature and cinema.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Quotidian solipsism is no longer my thing

Logically, I recognize that my year-end rankings from the 20 years I've kept such rankings constitute a snapshot of me and my tastes from a particular moment. Somewhat less logically, I actually think the contrary -- that my tastes haven't changed too much over the years. Once good taste, always good taste, right?

Well, taste that once was good might no longer be, and every once in a while I get a pretty clear indication that I'm not the same viewer I once was.

This year, it's been the realization that quotidian solipsism is no longer my thing.

What do I mean by "quotidian solipsism?" I mean the kind of thing that Steven Soderbergh peddles in Full Frontal, a movie most people never liked. I liked it quite a bit back in 2002, when I ranked it #13 (of 80) for the year. "Quotidian" meaning "commonplace" or "workaday," "solipsism" meaning "an excessive inward focus on the self." (Those aren't dicitionary definitions, but they are pretty much correct.)

I watched Full Frontal for the first time in 14 years last night and I didn't really dig it at all. I didn't hate it, and recognized some moments that certainly drew the 29-year-old version of me to it, but I'd be ranking it closer to 13 from the bottom of 80 films than 13 from the top these days.

I still like it more, I think, than Igby Goes Down, a similarly self-indulgent, navel-gazing look at self-absorbed people and their concerns about their personal selves. (And yes, the use of three different variations on the word "self" in the previous sentence is intentional.) I ranked Igby at #10 in 2002, three higher than Full Frontal, and when I watched that earlier this year for the first time since then, it dropped by more than 1,200 spots on my Flickchart.

I won't be forcing a re-rank of Full Frontal to get it off its elevated spot of #631/4343 -- not nearly as elevated as Igby's former ranking of #392 -- but I do have some complaints I want to make about it here, and explain a little more what I mean by "quotidian solipsism."

"Solipsism" is almost always a negative term, but I suppose there are certain people about whose selves we would really like to learn. They don't even have to be people we like. Donald Trump is a good example. Especially in the past week, I am addicted to news about Donald Trump. It's all so I can experience schadenfreude regarding his spectacular collapse, but that doesn't change the fact that I am soaking up everything and anything about The Donald. He's larger than life, and, let's admit it, he's interesting, even if for the wrong reasons.

The solipsism in Full Frontal and Igby Goes Down is about people who are not especially interesting. In Igby it's about a Holden Caulfield-type kid in New York and his group of insufferable associates. Here, it's about a group of people who are sort of appendages of the film industry -- some actual actors and other stars, but then also low-level writers, playwrights, even a masseuse to the stars.

The thing is, Soderbergh's film treats them as though they are inherently interesting. Part of his experimental form -- yes, this is one of his "experimental" films -- is to include snippets of dialogue over images of them going about their lives. But it's not narration -- it's responses to questions from a hypothetical interviewer, who asks them questions about themselves, what they were feeling at the moment in question, how their lives brought them to this particular point, etc. The film compliments itself that its characters are interesting enough that a person should want to interview them, even if no person actually would. More charitably, the film suggests that we are all interesting enough to tell our stories to a hypothetical interviewer.

But it's not that the film places such stock in the charisma of its characters, which I guess is something we would hope all movies would do -- why tell a story about characters if they are not interesting? It's the way that Soderbergh is gazing at his own navel here that makes things a bit more distracting.

One thing that kind of annoyed me -- though I don't think it would have annoyed me in 2002 -- was that in the scene where Julia Roberts is interviewing Blair Underwood on the plane, the camera takes a moment to look a few rows behind and see Terence Stamp as his character in Soderbergh's The Limey. It's meant to be just a wink to Soderbergh's fans, and today we might fawn over it as his attempt to create a cinematic universe. But I'm tired of cinematic universes and I am also tired of meta winks to the audience. Back in 2002, meta was still new. It wouldn't have felt hopelessly self-congratulatory, as it does now.

Then there's the more overriding meta aspect of the structure of this film. There are films within films within films in Full Frontal, frequently distinguished by two or even possibly three different film stocks. Soderbergh loves pulling a fast one on us, making us think one layer of reality is actually reality, only to pull out and show a movie crew shooting the characters in question. The film eventually assumes so many layers that it resembles a Russian nesting doll. And we don't care which one is the real one.

Self indulgence is certainly a subdivision of solipsism, even though Soderbergh would probably argue that the narrative tricks he's playing with are just an artistic endeavor and have nothing to do with his own selfhood. However, the mere willingness to pat yourself on the back for purported cleverness is what makes it a celebration of his own self.

I don't want to go too hard on the movie because I would still say I like it. I just can't fathom why it had such an impact on me back in 2002.

Unless, you know, I just wasn't the same self I am now.

The funny thing is that my #1 movie of that year was a movie that probably fits into the same category. It's Spike Jonze's Adaptation, and it's a movie about a person going down his own rabbit hole into his own neurotic soul. In a way it is the very definition of solipsism. And having revisited it about four years ago, I know I still love it. In fact, it's in my top 50 on Flickchart, just barely, at #49.

I think the difference is that Nicolas Cage's Charlie Kaufman -- playing the movie's screenwriter himself, how could you get any more self-involved -- is not interested in self-regard for its own sake. He's more about self-loathing. And he's not trying to convince himself or anyone else that he's interesting. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. He is repulsed by how uninteresting he thinks he is.

This is probably both an oversimplification and a rationalization. The better conclusion to reach might be that quotidian solipsism is compelling in the right hands, and banal in the wrong ones. And even someone as generally great as Steven Soderbergh can sometimes have the wrong hands.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Retirement of a movie character

David Ortiz is the reason I don't like sports movies.

He has to be seen to be believed. He has to be real to be believed.

If someone wrote a movie in which David Ortiz was a fictitious character, I would call bullshit on that movie. He wouldn't seem real.

But David Ortiz is real, making the crazy things he's done all the more wonderful.

For those of you a few steps behind here, David Ortiz is the long-time designated hitter of the Boston Red Sox, my favorite sports team. He began his Red Sox career back in 2003, when he almost vaulted his team into the World Series with an amazing second half and playoff run. He took that not one but two steps further the next year, when the Ortiz-led Red Sox won the World Series, ending an 86-year drought that began in 1918 with the ominous portent of trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees so the Sox owner could dump money into a failing Broadway show. Ortiz didn't care about curses. He helped the Sox win again in 2007 and 2013. And every two years when his contract was up, he signed a team-friendly two-year extension, one that paid him handsomely but nowhere near what he was worth to a team and a city.

We all hoped Ortiz, nicknamed Big Papi, would be able to bring one last ring to the Boston faithful in 2016, as he used perhaps the best statistical season of his career to bring his team back from a last-place finish in 2015 to a division title in 2016. "One last ring" because before the season even started, Ortiz announced that at age 40, this would be his final season as a player.

But the Red Sox had an ignominous finish to an otherwise positive season when they were swept by the Cleveland Indians on Monday. It happened at home, and after the game's final out -- at the urging of a crowd that refused to leave the stadium -- Ortiz came out to the pitcher's mound for a final acknowledgement of his fans, doffing his cap and wiping tears from his eyes.

If it all sounds too good to be true -- all except that ignominious finish, of course -- then that just makes David Ortiz seem all the more like some hack's idea of an epic movie character. That's an insult to that screenwriter, but of course, a compliment to David Ortiz.

He did things no one thought he would do, he could do. He had no fewer than 37 clutch hits that saved games for the Red Sox in the postseason alone. Okay, it was a bit fewer than 37, but Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees both ended on hits by Ortiz (when the Sox were facing elimination), and Game 2 of what was looking like a lost series against Detroit in 2013 was salvaged when Ortiz somehow hit an 8th inning grand slam to tie up the game. Playoff heroics aside, this was a man who announced he was done and then went on to have the greatest final season in the history of baseball, hitting 38 home runs, leading the league in RBIs, leading the league in OPS, batting well over .300, and giving himself perhaps his best shot ever to win a league MVP trophy, something that is utterly unheard of for a designated hitter and in fact has never happened before. In his last season.

If this were a movie, I'd be heckling the screen.

But I lived through David Ortiz. He was real. He is real. (He's still alive, and long live Papi.)

It's why I'll always love sports a lot more than I'll ever love sports movies. Sports movies -- the fictitious ones, anyway -- can't have David Ortizes in them. A David Ortiz in your sports movie is almost like having a deus ex machina in your regular movie. You don't believe a single character can save the day time and time again, yet that's what David Ortiz did. Or maybe you do believe that, but if you do, you know you are willfully suspending disbelief, believing in Harry Potter or Ethan Hunt or Superman or James Bond, someone who is always going to win and that's okay because you've bought into that.

But they don't make series of sports movies with recurring heroes, like David Ortiz, because it just doesn't have the ring of truth to it. Athletes fail more often than they succeed, in almost every venture but especially in baseball, where a successful hitter still only succeeds 30% of the time. Even if they made a really good movie about a fictitious athlete with the touch of gold, you'd be tired of him by the second movie. You'd think "Screenwriters ... what will they think of next?"

We Red Sox fans were lucky to be treated not only to a great first movie in which David Ortiz didn't quite win, but its very satisfying sequel in which he did, and then 12 more sequels of varying quality but always filled with smiles and heroic moments. We would keep watching those movies until Ortiz turned 50, and with the way he hit this year, he might still provide heroic moments for movies to come.

But the best movie series are the ones that quit before you get tired of them, not after. So I'm glad that David Ortiz hasn't decided to give us a bunch of subpar sequels as his skills deteriorate but we love him so much we continue to let him play. Big Papi is leaving baseball as a hero -- not a conquering hero in this case, but the type of hero who won our hearts.

And sure, retirement doesn't always stick. Sean Connery mocked his own supposedly final retirement from the aforementioned role of James Bond by appearing in a movie called Never Say Never Again. To say nothing of how Bruce Willis, who I have enjoyed trudging on this week, has continued sleepwalking through Die Hard movies into his 60s.

But that's not Ortiz. (At least, I hope it isn't -- check back with me next spring.) He knows when to quit. He knows when the feeling is right. Even if the feeling of never playing baseball again is probably so, so wrong. Even if it hurts.

David Ortiz has the memories, and those will sustain him through the peaks and valleys of retirement as he looks longingly out at that field and thinks of saving the day one last time.

I'm so glad he wasn't a figment of some screenwriter's imagination.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A poor man's Jennifer Lawrence, and other Girl on the Train thoughts

I thought Jennifer Lawrence was in both The Girl on the Train and The Magnificent Seven.

Turns out, she's in neither.

Turns out, it's some person named Haley Bennett.

Haley Bennett is not just "some person," you might say. You might say she's putting together a little bit of career momentum here, also appearing in this year's (poorly received) Hardcore Henry, in 2014's The Equalizer, and even in some older well-regarded films like Music & Lyrics and Marley & Me.

But that doesn't change the fact that she looks almost exactly like Jennifer Lawrence, and that's (presumably) why people are casting her now.

Here, consider it. Someone on the interwebs has done me the favor of putting them next to each other:

When you look at them side by side, you can (probably) tell which is which. But when you see only Bennett by herself in a movie trailer, you think "Is that Jennifer Lawrence?"

And then, "If that's Jennifer Lawrence, why isn't her name on the poster?"

This was a big flaw in my theory about Lawrence being in The Girl on the Train. As you can see from the poster above, only Emily Blunt was deemed famous enough to appear on the poster. Lawrence is more famous than Blunt, so that theory didn't work.

But it still took me looking at her a couple times on screen before I said "Oh yeah, that's not J-Law. That's that woman I've seen in that Magnificent Seven trailer about seven times."

I wonder if it occurs to Bennett that her resemblance to Lawrence is probably a boon to her career. I mean, she's pretty, so she probably would have succeeded anyway. And Girl on the Train demonstrates that she has at least some acting talent (though nowhere near Lawrence's class). But part of her has got to think "Well, they wanted a Jennifer Lawrence type, and I was cheap so they got me." I suppose there are worse people than a four-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner to be likened to.

Lawrence is actually the youngest actress ever to accrue four Oscar nominations, as she only turned 26 two months ago. That means she was born in 1990, and that creates an interesting (though surely coincidental) relationship to Bennett as well. But the following is a SPOILER ALERT for Girl on the Train, so if you haven't seen it yet (and care), stop reading.

The movie has occasion to show a tombstone for Bennett's character, and the inscription shows that that character, too, was born in 1990. Bennett herself was born two years earlier than that, in 1988. I only wish I'd had the foresight to check out the exact date on the tombstone, because choosing Lawrence's August 15th birthday would have been a cheeky inside joke about the similarity of the two actresses.

And forgive me for a little bit of the vulgar Donald Trump coming out here, but I couldn't help wondering if some kind of wish fulfillment related to Lawrence was a reason we see so much of Bennett's skin in this movie. The only traditionally defined nudity we get of Bennett is to see her bare bottom, but in a shower scene and some other scenes, we come pretty damn close to seeing everything else. Part of me wonders if the apparent fixation on the amount of skin she revealed was an attempt by the filmmakers to cater to our most prurient interests regarding Lawrence -- to kind of make us think we were seeing Lawrence in the buff. (Then again, actual nude pictures of Lawrence are available from one of those Snapchat hacks or whatever it was, so perhaps we didn't really need to fantasize about Lawrence via Bennett in the first place.)

And on to some other thoughts ...

Oh Emily

Emily Blunt is one of my favorite working actresses today. Period. Exclamation point.

But boy did she let me down here.

What was she thinking in that first half of the movie?

She gets better, as does the whole movie, as it approaches its climax. But I'll be much quicker to blame Tate Taylor, the director, for how she performs her scenes of drunkenness in its first half. Because I just can't think of Emily Blunt as an actress who makes bad choices. No, not even appearing in Into the Woods.

But if I'm being honest with myself, Blunt at least shares the blame for her performance in this film.

Playing a drunk is not an enviable task. Many actors and actresses have tackled it numerous times, so not only are you competing with a pretty thorough history in the annals of acting, but even the best of those performances usually seem mannered in some way. There is almost always something too big by half about playing drunk. It's kind of like when people play being stoned or sniffing cocaine -- they almost always exaggerate the effects. (Whereas taking cocaine can really look as subdued as Trump looked during the second debate. Sorry, I'm taking every occasion I can to slam The Donald these days.)

So Blunt is not immune to those traps. She does a lot of unfocusing of her eyes and blurring of her speech and ranting and raving. There are choices she makes within her choices that ring true, but the overall effect is somewhat less than natural. And Taylor makes it worse by holding her in extreme close-up for many of these scenes.

The plot of the movie turns on a lot of twists related to her being blacked out, so no doubt Taylor is trying to capture that with his camerawork and editing choices. But it just doesn't work very well. And Blunt -- even if she is the blameless victim I want her to be -- pays the price.

Gone Girl on the Train

The similarities of this movie to Gone Girl are obvious, and I think, intentional. I won't list them here. Instead, I will draw attention to the one that I thought was the most shameless.

No less of a hall of fame film composer than Danny Elfman seems to have totally ripped off Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

The Nine Inch Nails frontman and his frequent collaborator worked with David Fincher to create a memorable and indelible score for Gone Girl. Then Elfman seems to have parroted it almost exactly.

People who know more about music than I do will surely point out important differences, but I noticed at least two points of near total correlation.

The beginning passages of both films deal with the lives of the couples in question pre-incident, when there's some possibility they're okay despite obvious foreboding to the contrary. In both films I noticed a sort of warm synthesized blooping on the soundtrack. (See, I told you I don't know much about music.) There's a melancholy to the music in these scenes, but also an optimism that things might turn out okay. The music is, as I say, warm, and it does, as I say, contain "blooping." You'll just have to try to imagine what I mean because I can't do any better than this, apparently.

As things go to shit and the more sinister elements of the plot are revealed later on, the score develops a sense of electronic rot, an ominous kind of scraping sound that increases in intensity as the physical and emotional violence of a scene intensifies. GONE GIRL SPOILERS. I'm thinking of the scene in Gone Girl where Rosamund Pike slits Neil Patrick Harris' throat and kind of writhes around on top of his body as the blood and life run out of him. I don't know if you remember it, but Reznor and Ross' score becomes unbearably rotten and scrapy during that scene. (Sorry, I'm doing my best.)

I'm not sure if there is an exact corresponding moment in The Girl on the Train -- I mean, there's a moment that involves a man bleeding from his neck that could well have that part of the score, but I didn't notice it there. I did notice it in the closing credits, and thought "That sounds almost exactly like that signature moment from the Gone Girl score."

Maybe we should just be happy Elfman isn't giving us another one of those Tim Burton-sounding scores with the angelic singing voices.


There's one woman at the center of the plot that I have yet to mention, and that's Rebecca Ferguson as the new wife of Emily Blunt's character's ex.

As I was watching the movie, I thought, "That woman looks sort of familiar, but I can't quite place her." The closing credits clarified for me. Ferguson was the woman who got so much praise in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation.

Even knowing that, though, she still looked only sort of familiar.

It's clearly the same woman playing both roles, but her physicality is so different in the two roles, and they're such different roles, that I couldn't make the connection in my mind.

I'll dispense with the side-by-side photos here, because when I look them up on Google Images, they do look fairly similar. I mean, it's the same actress, so obviously they look similar. She's not wearing prosthetics or anything in either role. Her hair color does seem to be different, but that's only one minor reason she seems so different.

Really, she seems different because actors are supposed to seem different when they play different types of roles. Why do you think Vincent D'Onofrio looks different every time you see him? Because he really climbs inside the skin of the characters she's playing. He's a true chameleon. And from what I've seen of these two roles, Ferguson may be one too.

Not really enough for me to recommend you to go see the movie, though.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Movies as farts

I'm sorry if being greeted by the word "fart" on my blog offends you. Let's just say it's not the most offensive dirty word you'll be encountering with regularity this weekend. (Thank you, Donald Trump, for committing political suicide 11 years ago -- and then doubling down on your political suicide through two callous non-apologies.)

But I wanted to tell you about an epic thread in my Flickcharters Facebook group, and it's about farts.

This may be a meme going on elsewhere -- in fact, I'm pretty sure it is -- but the thread is 24 hours old and counting in our Flickcharters group, and still yielding creative and hilarious results.

The assignment is simple: "Describe your last fart using only a movie title."

This set us off quickly to work, and we haven't stopped. In fact, I may continue adding on to this post as long as the thread keeps going. We'll have to see. But I've got the time to write it now, so I won't wait until it finishes, which would ordinarily be the best idea.

Because there are so many, I will just give them to you in a large information dump, in the order they were presented, rather than ranking them or otherwise presenting them separated by quality. However, I will use a code to show you my thoughts on them. If I bold a title, I consider it a really good one. If I put a title in italics, I consider it to be lame. The other ones will be in the middle. To show you which ones I submitted, I will bold those and put an asterisk after them. Yes, I am going to imply that the ones I submitted are all "really good ones" (even though they probably aren't) just for the purposes of this system of classification. Lastly, I'll leave out the ones that were repeated, but I will tell you up front that three different people (who obviously hadn't read the thread very closely, but at a certain point that becomes increasingly impossible) offered up the icky title There Will Be Blood. (Icky but oh so great.)

Shall we start?

A Mighty Wind
Sweet Smell of Success
Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair
The Wild One
Bustin' Loose *
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Autumn Sonata
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs * (my favorite of mine - got eight likes and two comments)
The King's Speech
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
The Wind Will Carry Us
Something Wicked This Way Comes *
An Inconvenient Truth
Magnum Force
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (my favorite that somebody else did)
Pillow Talk
Gone With the Wind
The Saddest Music in the World
Duck Soup
The 400 Blows 
A History of Violence
Don't Look Back
Fire Down Below *
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Burssels * (leave it to me to do one that just makes a joke of the premise)
The Filth and the Fury
I Can Do Bad All By Myself
Death Blow
The Dark Knight Rises
Air Force One (this was an unusually good stretch)
The Wind Rises
Scent of a Woman
There Will Be Blood
The Sting *
Don't Look Now
A Monster Calls
The Sound of Music
The Great Escape
It Follows
Of Mice and Men
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Run Silent Run Deep
Don't Breathe
Blow Out
The Day the Earth Stood Still
It Happened One Night
From Russia With Love
Rebel Without a Cause
Some Like It Hot
Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls
Bringing Down the House
Deep Impact
Killing Them Softly
The Accused
The Fast and the Furious *
Louder Than Bombs *
The Stink of Flesh
The Force Awakens
Steel Magnolias
All Quiet on the Western Front
Despicable Me
Silence of the Lambs
Dawn of the Dead
Black Beauty
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
The Fugitive
Very Bad Things
The Dirty Dozen
The Big One
The Big Heat
Bringing Out the Dead
True Grit
Up in the Air
Hard Boiled
Force Majeure
Everybody Wants Some!!
John Dies at the End
The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears
Oliver! (there was a context for this)
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
The Fog
Black Cauldron
Joyful Noise
Dante's Inferno
The Parent Trap
The Mist
Mystic Pizza
Chariots of Fire
Nightmare on Elm Street
The Shining
Inside Out
Look Who's Talking
Hard Rain
Bring It On
Cruel Intentions
Coffee and Cigarettes
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
The Happening
What's Eating Gilbert Grape
Groundhog Day
Magnificent Seven
The Nightmare Before Christmas
It's a Wonderful Life
What Lies Beneath
Hot Fuzz
The Horse Whisperer
Lethal Weapon
Once Upon a Time in the West
As Above, So Below
Look Out Below!
Blazing Saddles
Return of the King
The Sum of All Fears
Wind Talkers
The Music Man
The Equalizer
Death to Smoochy
The Departed
13 Hours
Nutty Professor
Children of the Corn
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes
I Saw the Devil
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The Big Short
The Purge
The Enemy Below
K-13: The Widowmaker
Rear Window
The Hateful Eight
The Prestige
The Illusionist
Event Horizon
To Kill a Mockingbird
Wet Hot American Summer

One guy did about 75 of the last 100, and managed to effectively kill the thread.

Okay, enough of that.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Pulp Fiction has-beens

Move over, Nicolas Cage. You've got company.

Once the undisputed king of random straight-to-video movies you might stumble over at the Hoyts kiosk (think Redbox for you North American readers), Cage has since ceded his throne. Or, at least, scooched over his butt cheeks to make room for a couple more pairs.

And as it happens, they both appeared in one of the greatest films ever made (so says me): Pulp Fiction.

I've been following the freefall in selectivity by Bruce Willis and John Travolta for some time now, and thought it was finally time to write about it.

The inciting incident, to use a screenwriting term, was my decision to stop at the Hoyts kiosk on Friday night.

I didn't come away with anything to rent -- two phone calls to my wife went unanswered, and I decided that either selecting something she'd like or renting something for myself to watch when I was this tired, and she and I might watch something else together anyway, were both too great of a risk. But it did give me the chance to scroll through not one, not two, but three movies apiece by Mr. Travolta and Mr. Willis that I'd never heard of. Or really, that I'd heard of only because I'd scrolled through many of these Hoyts kiosk choices on other occasions.

Look, I'm not saying Willis and Travolta should be in the primes of their careers. The former is 61, the latter 62. I am saying they should be going more gently into that cinematic night with choices that are better than these:

Most legitimate element: Director Chuck Russell also directed such comparatively respectable films as The Mask and Eraser, though he hadn't directed a feature in 14 years, since The Scorpion King in 2002.

Least legitimate element: It steals its IMDB tagline from Pulp Fiction! "I lay my vengeance upon them." If only Samuel L. could be there to deliver it.

Verdict: Terrible.

Most legitimate element: It had a plum December 18th release date, meaning its producers surely thought it had a chance to pick up some Oscars. Plus, Gina Carano can actually fight and stuff.

Least legitimate element: I think Kellan Lutz was a guy once, maybe.

Verdict: Awful.

Most legitimate element: Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears (original), A Nightmare on Elm Street (remake)) directed this. Interesting. Though Dan Stevens' decision to leave Downton Abbey early is looking worse and worse by the year.

Least legitimate element: The script was written by a guy named Robert Lowell, who died 38 years before the film was made. (Look it up! The guy linked in IMDB could be the wrong Robert Lowell, I suppose. But still.)

Verdict: Unwise.

Most legitimate element: It co-stars Dave Bautista. After Guardians of the Galaxy, its upcoming sequel and Spectre, his career has got real heat.

Least legitimate element: This was directed by the same guy who directed Extraction.

Verdict: Not good.

Most legitimate element: At least there isn't a gun in the poster.

Least legitimate element: That beard is just ridiculous.

Verdict: Ill-advised.

Most legitimate element: None.

Least legitimate element: I understand Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Claire Forlani were once people. Plus, this was written and directed by the guy who wrote Extraction. Not the guy who directed Extraction -- he directed Marauders -- but the guy who wrote it. Are we clear?

Verdict: Why??

Of note: Christopher Meloni also appears in both Marauders and I Am Wrath. Maybe Nicolas Cage needs to gives those buttocks one additional squeeze tighter.

Yes, it's really true that you can walk up to any Hoyts kiosk in Melbourne and walk away with any of these six movies. But I wouldn't recommend it.

But before I paint too dire a picture of these men's fortunes, we should pause to recognize that John Travolta just won an Emmy for his work as producer on the terrific The People vs. O.J. Simpson, and was also nominated for his acting as Robert Shapiro, which may have been my favorite performance in the whole series.


Well, there's a rumor they're making Die Hard 6.