Monday, February 29, 2016

Insanity incarnate, and other Oscar thoughts


I haven't done my usual amount as a lead-up to the Oscars this year on my blog. In fact, I've done almost nothing.

So I thought I'd get in a couple quick thoughts in case you came to The Audient to prime yourself for this year's awards.

First off, the image you see next to you.

This is an event my friend Ross from my Flickchart discussion group on Facebook is attending. It's at the AMC 14 Georgetown in the D.C. area. (He's currently about to start The Revenant as I type this, but I'm posting it much later than I'm typing it, so you can't read this and still go try and catch the 5:10 a.m. showing of The Martian. Sorry.) That's right, all eight best picture nominees during a 24-hour period, with only short breaks in between. They charge $65 per ticket.

While on the one hand I think he's totally crazy -- especially since he's already seen all the movies, some of them more than once -- on the other it's something I totally would love to do some year. I'm curious how seeing all the nominees in such close proximity would change my thoughts on their respective merits.

I'd also love to be the one programming it. Specifically, the one deciding which films belong in which time slots, and whether that would reveal your own personal biases. Whoever did it this year has done a pretty good job. Brooklyn (the only one I have yet to see) seems like a nice soft introduction to the experience, a film that is totally suitable for a morning time slot. This could also reveal the biases of the programmer, as the first one is obviously the one everyone will be freshest for. The Big Short seems to make a pretty logical follow-up, keeping things at least comedic if not light throughout, then Room hits you with a bunch of depressing shit mid-afternoon. The Revenant keeps you down at that level to such an extent that Spotlight, even though it's about child molestation by Catholic priests, seems like a comparative ray of light. Spotlight is also in what's considered the most traditional time slot for a centerpiece, though as the fifth film it's debatable whether that really matters at that point. Mad Max of course makes a terrific midnight movie (it's essentially the most critically acclaimed midnight movie of all time). Bridge of Spies gets kind of the short shrift I suppose, but one hopes that residual energy from Mad Max would give it something of a boost. Then The Martian, well, this is when you really sleep I guess, if you weren't already doing so during Spies. But being the last movie also gives it something of a position of program prominence. You'll feel like Matt Damon just trying to survive at that point.

I don't ever expect to live in the D.C. area, but maybe one of the theaters will do this in a city where I do live someday.

Michael Keaton vs. his former director

If conventional wisdom holds and this is a best picture race that boils down to The Revenant vs. Spotlight -- though I'm told not to count out The Big Short -- then one of two creative people will be a repeat winner from last year.

Actually, there are probably any number of creative people Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu used on both Birdman and The Revenant, most prominently cinematographer (and likely three-time winner) Emmanuel Lubezki. But for the purposes of simplicity, let's boil this down to Michael Keaton vs. Inarritu.

Keaton was of course the star and one-time frontrunner for best actor in Birdman, and when he lost to Eddie Redmayne, I at least hoped that appearing in the best picture winner would serve as a nice consolation prize. Now he's up for just the latter prize this year with Spotlight.

Inarritu, on the other hand, won best director for Birdman. If The Revenant wins best picture, it will be the first time in history that the same person has directed consecutive best picture winners. Another best director win would just be icing on the cake, and both of these things might happen, even though The Revenant has earned its share of backlash.

I guess I'm rooting for Keaton to come out on top in this battle.

Although I didn't see Spotlight in time to rank it with my 2015 rankings, it would have been a contender for my top ten for sure. What's more evident as time goes by is that I would not rank The Revenant in my top ten if compiling my rankings today, even as amazing as the movie looks. It got my #9 spot, already falling from the #4 spot where I had initially inserted it after seeing it. Given another week it might have been down around #15 or even #20. I still think it's a very good film, but I also think that at its core, it's pretty empty. As is, though, it's my highest ranked best picture nominee, so I can't say I'd be entirely disappointed if it won.

How we almost didn't see the Oscars

The Oscars will of course play live while we are at work on Monday, so we'll need to stop checking the internet as soon as Sunday at 5:30 PST/8:30 EST rolls around. (Which will be right when my lunch starts, so at least I'll get in some morning internetting).

It airs on Australian TV both live, and delayed to start at some weird time at night, like 9:45. We obviously want to record the live one so we can start watching it with our dinner, though even then my wife might not make it through the whole thing. (She didn't last year.)

But any and all plans came within about 24 hours of being scuttled.

Until around Sunday morning at 9:30, we didn't have any idea why we weren't getting any TV channels on our TV.

Since neither we nor our kids tend to watch much on live TV these days, we hadn't troubleshot it very aggressively. But as the Oscars snuck up on us this year, we realized only recently that we needed to get it sorted out prior to Monday, or else it wouldn't be possible to either record the show or watch its delayed broadcast.

We'd tried restarting our Fetch box, our intermediary device that offers us on-demand and queues of free programming, mostly television shows. The on-demand was working fine, but not the TV channels. I'd also felt to the back of the TV to see if the antenna was plugged in, and it surely was.

By Sunday morning I was really worrying. It was too late to get a vendor involved or to try to replace a malfunctioning Fetch box. I started wondering if the Oscars were the kind of thing you could catch on YouTube, or even buy somewhere on the internet.

Fortunately, my wife -- the real brains of our operation -- had the good sense to check the other side of the antenna, the wall side. It was here that it was unplugged, likely by one of our kids.

Now we have the Oscars set to record and can be fairly certain that they actually will do so.

Whew.

Enjoy the ceremony, and check this space for my obligatory post-Oscars recap. Even though I was slack on pre-Oscars posts, I do (sort of) commit to providing you one of these.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Should we protect our children from spoilers?


We live in an age of excessive spoiler awareness, whether it comes in the form of trying to avoid having things spoiled for you, or watching your own behavior to guard against the inadvertent perpetration of spoilers.

It's not surprising, then, that these tendencies spill over even into areas that sort of don't make sense, like the example I'm about to give you.

But that doesn't mean I'm even sure that my instincts shouldn't have kicked in to prevent spoilers from reaching their targets.

One of my very best and oldest friends (who will actually probably be reading this) sent us a late Christmas package that we only just opened, more than two weeks after it actually arrived at our house. This friend and I joked about how it was truly telling that it took me two weeks to open a box we'd received in the mail -- not because that reflected badly on me, but because it was in some way a realistic assessment of how busy we both consider our lives to be. (His share of that, I suppose, was sending us a Christmas package in late January.)

We finally set aside a Saturday morning to open the package, Saturday having been chosen as the best possible time for the contents of the package not to distract our kids from another imminent task, like going to school or going to bed. So after morning TV we finally turned our attentions to it.

It was a great and very generous package of five total gifts, only one of which I will focus on today: It was a six-book collection of Little Golden Books, that classic children's series with the distinctive gold spine, with a Star Wars theme. Upon removing the shrink wrap, I discovered that the number of books was no coincidence. Each book contained an encapsulation of the plot of one of the six Star Wars films prior to The Force Awakens.

Great present, right? Especially for little kids with an inborn interest in Darth Vader and stormtroopers?

Yes and no. Don't get me wrong, dear friend who is probably reading this, I love the present. But I can't deny that my first thought upon seeing it was:

"Well, there goes the surprise of the great 'No, I am your father' moment from The Empire Strikes Back."

See, my kids have not yet seen any of the Star Wars movies. It's a subject of some debate in our house. I myself saw the original in the theater when I was not yet 4, so I've got one son who is currently 18 months older than that and has yet to see it. This may tell you what side of this debate I come down on, but I'll admit that I myself was taken aback by The Force Awakens, particularly, you know, that part when that thing happens. You know, the thing. That thing seemed too traumatic for my son to handle -- it was nearly too traumatic for me to handle, and I'm 37 years older than he is. So in that moment I became glad I hadn't succeeded on my plan to binge watch those movies with him in time for us to see The Force Awakens in the theater. (I just binge watched them myself instead.)

But what this does mean is that although my son is quite familiar with the names of these characters and knows some basic traits about them, he still has no idea what actually happens to them. I have thus been preserving these films as surprises to be unleashed upon him when that moment finally does arrive.

That's where these Little Golden Books become problematic.

As they are Star Wars-related content actually aimed at him, he's sure to go through all six within our first 24 to 48 hours of owning them. He'll know that Darth Vader is Luke's father from a little book with a golden spine, not from having one of the late 20th century's great cinematic surprises revealed during an actual viewing.

What I'm trying to tell myself as I prepare for the now-inevitable is that the value of preserving a movie's secrets for a child is pretty minimal anyway.

For one, I'm not sure that he doesn't already know those secrets. We do have a Star Wars book in which characters like C3PO and Chewbacca are introduced, not in story format but with short descriptions and arrows pointing at various features and little infographic boxes that say things like "Did You Know?" That book doesn't spoil anything, I don't think, but what about that little Lego Star Wars video we borrowed from the library a few months back? It wasn't one of the Lego Star Wars movies, and now that I think about it I'm not even 100% sure it was Lego. I think it was a parody-style adventure of characters from the Star Wars universe aimed at children -- and by that I mean something meta and inside jokey, where Darth Vader might make wisecracks about the trials of being a parent. You know, the type of thing that might sail over a child's head but is basically a spoiler incarnate.

And oh yeah, then there was one of the other presents in the package:


Yeah, that pretty much takes care of it without even having to read the Little Golden Book of Episode V.

As you're reading this post, those of you who aren't my friend are probably thinking "Remind me never to get you a present, Vance, if this is how you thank a person," and those of you who are my friend are probably thinking "Oh shit, I really fucked up." Nonsense. I do love the presents, and what I'm really doing here is grappling with the notion of how we are expected to preserve the purity of our child's viewing experiences when society is basically conspiring to spoil things for them all the time. Darth Vader and Son is actually displayed prominently at a number of bookstores we visit, and I've had it in my hand and flipped through its pages a couple times (which is one of the reasons I was so glad to get it). But that also means that this bookstore has no regard for a child who may have already seen Star Wars but not yet Empire, and who can reasonably recognize that little tyke in the picture as a snowcone-eating Luke Skywalker. Society no longer considers it reasonable or even possible to preserve the "No, I am your father" moment. Even by writing this post I am assuming you don't need to have that secret kept from you.

And it's nothing new. Many spoilers have become so normalized in culture that it's just assumed that people now them by this point. I mean, surely many of us saw Citizen Kane already knowing that Rosebud was a sled, or saw Soylent Green already knowing that (yeah, I already didn't spoil that in a post earlier this week because I actually did spoil that for my wife before we both watched it for the first time). Interestingly, I'm noting right now that Citizen Kane came out almost exactly the same number of years before I was born (32) as Star Wars came out before my son was born (33). God, that really makes me feel old.

So the point is, there are certain movies that come pre-spoiled, and I think Star Wars (or more correctly, The Empire Strikes Back) is probably one of those. When my son does finally watch The Empire Strikes Back, maybe as a present for turning six in August, it won't matter to him that he already knows the film's big surprise. He'll just love that he's seeing lightsabers and blasters and ships and stormtroopers. A spoiler involving a moment of soap opera melodrama would probably be lost on him whether he knew it beforehand or not, and he certainly won't be sophisticated enough to perceive it as a moment of ruined surprise that should cause him disappointment. In fact, you really only deal with that being an issue when someone becomes a blase early teenager, and all they want to do is express disdain and contempt over the fact that they were supposed to be surprised by something but were not. "Yawn, boring, already knew that," this teenager might say.

Well, my son will not be a teenager when he sees these movies for the first time. And the dopey grin he will wear will probably be unchanged by knowing that Darth Vader's sperm created Luke Skywalker, or even that Darth Vader was once a shitty little pipsqueak running around on Tatooine a long time before that.

In a way these books might even pave the way for an earlier viewing. Once he has grappled with the deaths of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn and the likes in these books, the revelations of those plot elements in the actual movies will not shock him. It'll just be the glorious moving realization of that giant neon concept in his brain known as STAR WARS.

Maybe I'll convince my wife we don't even have to wait until he's six.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

No Audio Audient: Sherlock, Jr.


This is the second in my 2016 series No Audio Audient, in which I catch up with one silent film per month.

I've been chastising myself lately for being too indiscriminate with my high star ratings on Letterboxd. I'm desperately trying, by hook or by crook, to recalibrate my personal rating system, so a wider range of the available star ratings can be used to fairly describe my feelings about the movies I see.

But if I can't give five stars to one of the most delightful and imaginative silent films I have ever seen, I don't know when I can give it.

And even watching it late at night, after I'd tried to go to bed but tossed and turned for 20 minutes before giving up, didn't damper my appreciation of it.

Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. was one of the films that prompted me to choose this as my series for 2016, and it was what I meant to start with last month before a separate movie challenge led me to select the Harold Lloyd vehicle The Freshman instead. If I'm not mistaken, Chicago film critic Michael Phillips chose it as one of his ten films to submit to the Sight and Sound list in 2012 -- either actually, or as a theoretical ballot composed just for his appearance on Filmspotting for their Sight and Sound-themed episode. I hadn't had all that much familiarity with it prior to that, but quickly stashed the title away in the back of my mind for future use.

It's a 45-minute "feature" (remember, I'm expanding my usually rigid definition of what constitutes a feature for the purposes of this series) from 1924, involving a projectionist (Keaton) who is studying to be a detective (as the poster above shows you). He's also in love with a girl and is trying to buy her a fancy box of chocolates that will help woo her, but is poor and can only afford a $1 box of chocolates. His rival, the "local sheik," is also poor, but steals the girl's father's pocket watch in order to pawn it and buy her a $3 box of chocolates. He slips the pawn ticket into Keaton's character's pocket in order to frame him for the crime once it is discovered. Keaton's own amateur detective work to find the culprit leads to himself, and he's banished from the girl's home. Upon returning to work, he dreams himself away into the film he's watching, replacing the actors with people from his life and trying again to solve the crime on celluloid.

Although the film ultimately ends up having a fairly well defined plot, Sherlock, Jr. is as close as I've seen to a film that exists purely to celebrate the possibilities of cinema and their inherent joys. This film is full of lovely optical tricks, which had to have been comparatively simple by today's standards, but whose actual mechanical details still sort of escaped me as I sat there watching them. The proof in the pudding of their success was that I didn't want to try to figure out what they'd done. I just wanted to sit there, reveling in it.

The most notable instance of this is probably when Keaton first tries to join the film in his dream, and he actually runs up to the screen and dives forward into it. That in itself is impressive, but it's only a prelude of things to come. As is always the case in the silent films of Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, the hero must be constantly challenged by changing circumstances out of his control, and in this case, that couldn't have a more literal interpretation. The image on the movie screen keeps changing to scenes from different movies, such that the item he's sitting on in one scene will suddenly be gone; he'll be on dry land one moment and standing in the water the next; he'll be alone, and then moments later he'll be joined by tigers, which pass before him in the foreground to prove it's not just some visual trick. (I mean, it is a visual trick, but it invites you to believe it isn't.)

This type of sensibility is demonstrated throughout. There's a part where Keaton is being chased, and he meets a strange man in alley with a briefcase. The man seems to be offering him a way out. Before we know it, the man has opened his briefcase in front of him, in the classic position of a peddler showing you his wares. But instead of wares, it's some kind of portal to another dimension -- or simply to the other side of the fence, I guess. We see Keaton run forward and dive into the briefcase, still held at chest level for the man, so not only is he diving in to the briefcase, he's diving into the space where the man's chest should be. Only later is it revealed that he's on the other side of the fence. Again, how they did it had to have been fairly simple -- by today's standards. But I don't want to know, because the illusion was so damn pleasing on its own terms.

Then there's the part where Keaton is driving in a car with the woman and the car goes through all kinds of transformations as it's going along, losing its top, losing its bottom, driving over surfaces it should not be able to drive over, driving over surfaces that are present only for the very moment that the car is passing. As ever, Keaton and his passenger are completely stone-faced. Keaton's ability to underplay a zany moment is perhaps unparalleled in cinematic history.

Then there's the scene where he's playing pool with a #13 ball that is rigged to explode, only he doesn't know it (or does he?). It's actually incredibly tense as we watch him execute one shot after another that miraculously does not involve any incidental contact with that particular ball. This took some incredible trick shooting on Keaton's part, and it's not a feat we should just take in stride -- though by making it look so easy, Keaton does indeed invite us to do that.

I also love the moment when he perfectly rides one of those wooden arms that prevents cars from crossing train tracks, down from the top of the building to the back of a passing convertible. It's not a trick in this case, just one of Keaton's famous perfectly executed stunts.

I could probably go on, as I feel like I have not even scratched the surface of what's stuffed into these 45 minutes. But let me instead end by discussing the final scene, and if you really want a spoiler alert about a movie that is 92 years old, well here it is.

Sherlock, Jr. does end happily for its protagonist, who wakes up from his dream to discover that his girl has gleaned the true identity of the thief and has come to reconcile with him. It's then that we learn that as with his detective aspirations, the projectionist has modeled all his behaviors and goals on the cinema. He looks up at the screen to discover that characters in the movie are also having a romantic reconciliation. Clueless how to do this on his own, he simply mimics the behavior of the movie's romantic lead. And here we are reminded of one of the main philosophical underpinnings of the study of art and culture, which is that life imitates art. And the comparatively young medium of cinema is the perfect way for that occur.

Watching Sherlock, Jr. was also highly informative in the wake of listening to the episode of You Must Remember This on Keaton, which discusses his disastrous decision to sign with MGM and give over creative control on his movies to the studio. When Keaton was at Metro in the 1920s, he was allowed to do whatever he wanted because it was always a financial (and critical) success. But once sound came in, which more or less coincided with the signing of his MGM contract, Keaton became creatively castrated, and he promptly stopped being able to create things with this seemingly effortless sense of artistic joy and imagination. And so I felt like I watched this movie with an extra layer of sentimentality, as I knew that Keaton's days as a genius free to frolic within his element were numbered.

If that's not a five-star movie, I don't know what is.

Next month I'm inclined to start diving into some of the three-hour silent epics I've been meaning to watch for years, but I expect March to be a particularly busy month for me, so let's instead jump back in time ten years from the first two films I've watched in this series and check out the 72-minute Regeneration from 1915. I know nothing about it except it was recently recommended in my Flickchart group on Facebook, and that it's available on Youtube.

Friday, February 26, 2016

No smuggling snacks on a first date


I knew a 9:30 showing of Hail, Caesar! would be a difficult proposition given that I was coming off a night of wicked insomnia.

The fact that decorum and propriety prevented me from smuggling in any snacks made the prospect even more daunting.

I should not have gone to the movie at all. But you see, this was a first date, so I could not possibly cancel.

No ladies, I'm not back out on the market. In fact, this was a date with a man.

No gentlemen, I'm not newly out of the closet. This was a "date" with the father of one of my son's friends. Our families have gotten together on a couple occasions, but this was the first time he and I were getting together solo -- and because this is a friendship I'd like to encourage, I wasn't about to let the first ticklings of a cold or a terrible night's sleep send him an ambiguous message about my interest level.

And because you like to make a good impression on a first date, I couldn't be seen lugging in my backpack stocked with my usual selection of sodas and sweets that are intended to keep me from falling asleep, now could I?

So I reluctantly coughed up the money for an ice cream cone (they call them "Choctops" because the cones have a layer of frozen chocolate coating to keep them from becoming prematurely misshapen) and a large Coke, knowing that these would likely both be gone sooner than they could really be of any use keeping me awake. I mean, you're lucky if an ice cream cone even lasts you the trailers. The Coke was gone by the movie's 35-minute mark.

And that's when the fight began.

Oh, the fight.

My eyelids were too powerful. They were as heavy as dumbbells. I'd never willingly succumb to sleep in a theater, and even less so when sitting next to someone that I actually know. But the need was strong. Oh so very strong.

And I still had an hour left in this silly, disjointed movie.

As sometimes happens, I feel like I watched Hail, Caesar! in kind of a fugue state -- I was technically awake, but my recall of plot details was shoddy, and I'd have failed a pop quiz if one had been given to me. When we got out, I had to ask my date how certain key plot points had resolved themselves. I discovered that although I was watching the images, it appears my mind was not correctly computing the meaning behind them.

And without having dug my way nearly to the bottom of a tin of cinnamon Altoids, I wouldn't have had even that.

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that my date also did not like the movie. "It left me cold," was his response to my query if he'd liked it. "It left me out cold" would have been a good rejoinder on my part.

So at least the fact that Hail, Caesar! was genuinely uninteresting and misguided played a role in the stupor in which I found myself. It would have been a real shame if I'd missed out on something great, rather than something mediocre. I think Hail, Caesar! is just one of the Coens' jokes I don't get, and believe me, there have been a lot of those in the past 15 years. (Inside Llewyn Davis being the notable exception as one of my favorite films of 2013.)

Better yet, when he dropped me off we discussed the timing for a second date.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Traumatizing animal movies of our childhoods


For the generation before my wife and me, Old Yeller probably would have taken the prize as the movie about animals that most traumatized its young viewers. But in 1957, our parents were still in high school, and to this day I still haven't seen the movie.

However, we do each have one for children of the 1970s, though I didn't discover what mine was until watching hers.

But first, I had to read the book.

I came across Watership Down pretty much as I've come across a lot of the things I've read over the past couple years since moving to Australia -- I picked it off the shelves of my wife's books that we got out of storage when we moved back here. (Or rather, she back, me for the first time.)

Of course, I'd known about it since I was a child. I still distinctly remember discovering it on a shelf in one of my elementary school classes, and not believing someone when they told me it was about rabbits. I thought it must have to do with some sort of naval military battle, and the disconnect between the title and what it was actually about kind of fried my noodle.

Spoiler warning -- I am about to talk freely about plot details from Watership Down.

At that time, I only learned that it was about rabbits. Over the years, I gained the knowledge that it was about rabbits fighting each other in rather gruesome ways, and that it was not for the faint of heart. In short, I learned that things did not come good for these rabbits. (Erroneously, as it turned out, but I'll come to that in a moment.)

When I showed my wife that this was the latest book of hers I had chosen -- this was last May or June -- a look of horror fleeted across her face. She admitted to me that that look was more derived from the film than the book, she having been subjected to the film at a very early age -- too early of an age. I can see someone blindly prescribing it to her as just some harmless animated fluff about rabbits, and her little seven-year-old mind getting scarred by the images before her. (She was actually seven in 1978 when the movie came out, though I don't know if she saw it then or later on.)

And so I read this book with a sense of extreme foreboding about what was to come, similar to the foreboding I felt when I watched Suspiria, having heard it discussed as the scariest film of all time. As Richard Adams developed his rabbit characters wonderfully, my dread increased, suspecting that many if not all of them would die horrible deaths. This was something confirmed by a friend of mine, who upon hearing that I was reading the book made some comment about all the rabbits dying. Apparently he didn't think of it as a spoiler since he thought it was just one of those things that was common knowledge, like the fact that the food in Soylent Green is made of _______.

So you can imagine my surprise when I reluctantly waded into the book's final pages, steeling myself for a bloodbath, and discovered that not only do almost all of the rabbits we care about live, but the one who dies does so years later in old age, looking proudly over the prosperous warren he helped build.

Huh?

On the one hand I was a bit relieved. I didn't want Hazel and Fiver and Bigwig and Blackberry and all the rest to have their throats ripped out by the evil General Woundwart. But part of me felt like I had been duped. Hard lessons about life as a rabbit were meant to be delivered by Adams' book, and that simply did not happen. Or not to the extent that I was led to believe, anyway.

Since finishing the book (and really, loving it) I had been eager to watch the movie, and the opportunity arose the other week when I was at the library and saw it there among their collection. I got it on the schedule this past Tuesday.

I didn't still have the foreboding about mass rabbit extermination with which I had read the book, but I did know this movie had sort of traumatized my wife, so I was immediately looking for the ways in which it might have done that. At which point I realized that I was unlikely to get that from a movie made in 1978 and featuring a theme song by Art Garfunkel. Those were different times.

Don't get me wrong -- there are traumatic elements in this film. There's the scene (done rather abstractly) where all the rabbits in the old warren are killed when men fill in their runs after sending poisonous gases down to kill them. (That's not just man being nasty; that's man preparing to erect a building.) There's the brief and rather bloodless death of a rabbit that gets grabbed by an owl in the early going. There's the scene where Bigwig gets bloodied from a snare, and they think he's dead. There's the scene where Hazel gets shot (but also survives). Then there's the real carnage at the end, when Bigwig and Woundwort cover each other in their respective gore, though neither is killed in this scene. The real bloodbath is when the farmer's dog, having been unleashed on Woundwort's attacking rabbits when the good rabbits gnaw through the rope that had tethered him to the shed, kills about four rabbits (including Woundwort, though that's off screen and unconfirmed). But those are the bad rabbits, who might deserve to die under certain brands of morality.

But I certainly didn't experience these as traumatizing at the ripe old age of 42. I don't think it's that I lacked the ability to imagine how a young child would experience watching Watership Down. Rather, I realized it was because I had something from about that age that pushed the envelope farther in terms of animal-on-animal violence.

That movie was Don Bluth's The Secret of NIMH, which caught me at age eight or nine in 1982.

And now it's time for some Secret of NIMH spoilers.

The stories bear some striking similarities. Both deal with timid creatures whose homes are threatened by the oblivious progress of man, as Mrs. Brisby and her family of mice must flee the plow in its first run through the fields after the frost. She enlists intelligent rats, who were part of an experiment at the National Institute of Mental Health, to help move the home. Both stories even feature the unexpected assistance of a bird, as Jeremy the crow works with Mrs. Brisby much the same way that Kehaar, the injured seagull the rabbits help in Watership, returns the favor by helping them smuggle does out of Efrafa, the domain of the ruthless Woundwort.

The difference between the two movies, beyond the ages at which I saw them, is that NIMH seems to go for it more in terms of the cruelty and violence the rats display toward each other. As this is a bit more of a fantastical realm than the comparative realism of Adams' work, the rats engage each other in sword fights and actually try to murder each other for power. (Woundwort isn't quite a murderer -- he's merely a tyrant who seeks to control his people, and only attempts murder for vengeance. Subtle distinction I know.) Anyway, I remember how taken aback I was by the evil rat Jenner making hay from the death of their spiritual leader, Nicodemus, who is crushed under a pulley system that flies apart when the rats are trying to move the Brisby home during a storm. Not only does he try to kill the heroic Justin, leader of the guards, but he does kill his sidekick Sullivan when Sullivan objects to the depths of Jenner's malevolence. Jenner himself eventually dies as well. Not only all this, but we know from the beginning that Mrs. Brisby's son, Timothy, might die if he's forced to move before his pneumonia is cured, that Mrs. Brisby's husband was killed by the farmer's cat, and that NIMH may be coming to kill the rats that escaped.

Pretty heavy stuff for an eight-year-old, yes?

And yet The Secret of NIMH was a cherished favorite that I watched repeatedly, probably upwards of a dozen times in total. (We had a video tape recorded off The Movie Channel, which made repeated viewings that much easier.) The intense violence governing the lives of these animals got under my skin, but in a way that drew me in rather than repelling me.

I suppose if I want to keep this theme going, my next project will be to see one of the two versions of George Orwell's Animal Farm, which I actually did read in junior high, and which has film versions from both the generation before mine (1955) and the generation after (1999).

From the looks of them, neither version figures to be very bloody, and there are certainly no sword fights.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Like old times


Ever since I got my critics card last July, sneaking into second halves of illegal double features has become a thing of the past.

That tradition was revived last night in a scenario borne of necessity.

At 6:45 I attended a critics screening of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, which only just opens here on Thursday. I call it a "critics screening" to make it sound a bit fancier than it actually was. I was there because I'm a critic and had been invited for that reason, but for most of the others it was simply an advanced screening. As such, we got free popcorn and a soda. (Score.)

This was a perfectly timed screening as it would allow me to emerge from the 144-minute movie just in time for a 9 o'clock showing of How to Be Single, another movie I would be reviewing. In fact, depending on when you read this, links to my thoughts on both 13 Hours and Single should appear in the column to the right.

I had intended to use my AFCA card to secure a ticket to Single, as Monday is one of two nights (along with Wednesday) when the card is actually accepted at the Hoyts chain after 5 p.m. But as I spent enough time eating a couple of slices of pizza at the food court downstairs -- a dinner that seemed a bit superfluous once I realized there would be popcorn -- I forgot to go to the box office to pick up that ticket.

I thought I'd still have time to go pick one up, but when I powered on my phone after 13 Hours, it was already 9:13 p.m. I knew Single would still be in trailers or possibly even ads, but I also knew that descending an escalator and potentially waiting in line for my turn at the window would endanger the start of the movie. I never like to risk that, but when I'm reviewing something it seems like even less of an inviting proposition.

So I called on my old school instincts and began the hunt to find what screen it was playing on, since they don't post the movie titles outside. In fact, so concerned was I about missing the start that I didn't even use the bathroom -- despite having a lingering need to relieve myself that dated back to even before the start of 13 Hours.

Naturally, Single was the last one I tried. (Well of course it was the last one I tried, since I stopped looking after I found it, but it was also the last choice.) Before that I walked in on two foreign movies in the middle of their running times (Hoyts is devoted exclusively to blockbusters -- and to movies from Bollywood and Asian cinema), two empty screening rooms, and another movie that was about to start that turned out not to be How to Be Single. When I asked a guy in there if I'd indeed arrived at the right movie, he said, "I don't think so, no." Of course, he didn't tell me where I had actually ended up, so that will remain a mystery.

And naturally -- to anyone familiar with the elongated advertising block before your typical multiplex movie -- I still had two full trailers and part of a third to watch before the movie actually started. Fortunately, my bladder obliged me until the end without too much difficulty.

I felt a bit funny having to resort to my old criminal ways, those that were designed to let me see as many movies as possible in the theater without overly taxing my wallet. I mean, I'm legit now -- movie don't cost me anything without having to cheat the system. But then again, for that very reason, it wasn't really a criminal act after all. I wasn't going to pay for How to Be Single anyway; Hoyts was never going to collect and entry fee for me. The only difference is that now, there's no paper trail of my attendance in the form of a signed voucher.

But as funny as I felt, there was also something enjoyable about it. I used to love the comparatively victimless crime of a free second movie in a double feature, always assuaging whatever guilt arose by the knowledge that they'd be showing the movie whether I was sitting in one of the many empty seats or not. And I liked the minimal level of cleverness it required -- locating where the movie was playing without looking like that's what I was doing, walking confidently past various theater employees while secretly wondering if they identified me as a guy whose paid ticket had been ripped two hours earlier, and so on. It felt like a perfected trade skill, a professional necessity for the modern, unpaid film critic.

And one day I won't live here anymore, won't be able to flash a critics card to get me into movies for free.

Gotta keep those skills fresh, don't I?

Sunday, February 21, 2016

I finally saw: [REC]


In the fall of 2008 I saw and loved Quarantine, which made 2008 kind of a watershed year in terms of imaginative new ways to use found footage. That's because Cloverfield kicked off 2008. That movie blew my mind enough that I saw it twice in the theater and ended up ranking it in my top ten for the year.

Of course, both of those films were indebted to the Spanish horror film [REC] from 2007 -- one minorly, one majorly in the sense that it was actually a remake of [REC].

As sometimes happens, though, I never circled back to watch [REC], perhaps because I worried that by having seen its remake, Quarantine, I didn't expect much about it to surprise me. So even though I figured it was probably the superior film, I didn't make the time for it until last night.

Even last night, though, I carried in the same concerns. It's that worry you get about feeling like you cannot properly assess the quality of something whose tricks you have already seen copied ad infinitum. We live in an era in which the found footage horror has gotten pretty devalued, and even though I have been pleasantly surprised by more recent entries than I have disliked, it's still a genre with a lot of baggage. Even one of the granddaddies of that genre felt like it might not offer anything fresh, through no fault of its own.

But [REC] is only just over 75 minutes long, so committing to finally seeing it was ultimately a pretty easy decision.

And I'm certainly glad I did.

Although it's true that I was not surprised by any of the developments in the movie, Quarantine having copied those developments pretty much exactly (even down to using most of the same shots), I was glad to see that I was able to let my critical mind go free, and put myself in the shoes of audiences who saw this for the first time nine years ago. At the time, it had been eight years since The Blair Witch Project put found footage on the map, and the genre had yet to be used in a truly interesting way since then. It was easy for me to imagine last night the thrill of seeing something like [REC] roll off the screen at me, even if I wasn't experiencing those thrills with quite the same sense of freshness as those audiences did.

The trouble was how to provide this movie a star rating.

The experience I had watching it was probably a four. I can't deny that knowing how things were going to turn out dissipated some of the shock scares that the movie relies on. But in this case I felt like I had to award it an extra half star for the sheer ingenuity it demonstrated, not to mention its impact on future movies in the same genre. I have no doubt that the 2007 version of me would have given either 4.5 stars, or the five stars I gave Cloverfield.

But here's something interesting. As I check Letterboxd to ensure that I did give Cloverfield five stars, I see that I didn't. I see that I didn't even give if 4.5 stars. I see that I gave Cloverfield "only" four stars. Four stars to a film I saw twice in the theater.

Now of course, that was not a 2008 star rating. That was a retroactive star rating assigned sometime in 2012, when I first got started on Letterboxd. This provides an interesting window into how much my idea of how to provide star ratings has changed in just four years. It seems inconceivable to me that a film that I ranked in my top ten for a year could have gotten less than 4.5 stars from me. Perhaps in 2012 I was undergoing a slight lull in my appreciation of Cloverfield. As a matter of fact, looking back now, I saw Cloverfield for the third time in May of 2011, within a year of when I would have been providing that star rating. And I do remember being slightly less enthralled with it.

Well, it's definitely a different me now. Chalk up yet another 4.5-star review on Letterboxd. I'm hopeless.

But at least this means I'm seeing a bunch of good movies these days. And making up for the fact that I should have seen some of them long ago.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Mission accomplished


I scratched an old itch tonight.

When I finally watched The Mission, it was the fulfillment of an intention to view that was nearly eight years old.

About now, eight years ago, it was the home stretch before my April 12th wedding. My regular flow of rented discs through the mail had proceeded pretty much unabated to that point, but eventually something had to give.

That something was The Mission.

It had made it to the top of my queue out of a general desire to see it, rather than a specific time-sensitive need to sit down and watch it. And as the date of our wedding approached, it became clear that The Mission was not a part of our current mission. I couldn't imagine the scenario that would allow me to sit down and watch a 125-minute movie about Jesuit priests trying to convert native South Americans to Christianity while fending off the advances of the Portuguese.

So instead of just sitting on it until after the honeymoon, I returned it unwatched, enabling me to secure one of two movies that seemed more honeymoon-friendly: The Brothers Solomon and Death at a Funeral. Light comedies was what I was looking for, but I couldn't have guessed how bad they would also both be.

Since sending The Mission back to Blockbuster (yes, it was those days) without watching it, I've always sort of felt I needed to get back in front of it sooner rather than later. It took nearly the entire Barack Obama administration (which had not yet begun at that point), but I finally converted on that mission.

Was it worth the wait?

Yes and no.

It's a well-made and impressive film, but as it turned out, I could only give it half my attention. See, my Thursday night was also spent finalizing my wife's birthday present, which involved cutting and pasting and coloring. (The present came out pretty well, though.)

So was it the right way to finally watch The Mission? Probably not. But I did give it four stars on Letterboxd. So there's that.

But when Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, uttered the now-famous phrase that serves as the subject for this post, he too was premature in declaring an achieved outcome.

Oh well. I guess someday I can make up for the o-Mission.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Valentine's Days with Daniel Radcliffe


If you're getting a sense of deja vu from this post -- and, let's be honest, you're probably not -- then it might be because I wrote a post this time last year called "Valentine's Days with Zoe Kazan."

That post was to acknowledge the funny "trend" that saw me watching a movie starring Zoe Kazan on two straight Valentine's Days. In 2014 it was Ruby Sparks (for my third time) and last year it was What If.

If we can stay in the suspect arena of flimsy trends, this year Kazan is handing the baton off to her What If co-star, Daniel Radcliffe. This year we dropped the romance theme for our February 14th viewing, but we still scheduled a viewing, and it was the 2012 horror The Woman in Black -- which also stars Radcliffe.

The romance theme was abandoned, though Woman in Black does cover matters of the heart, in that it deals with Radcliffe's character pining over the death of his wife in childbirth (though it was a good six or seven years earlier), as well as other characters broken hearted over the wrenching loss of family members. But speaking of flimsy, that's a pretty flimsy connection to Valentine's Day. What can I say. It's not always that interesting to be predictable in your choices. (In fact, if you put it that way, it never is.)

Interestingly, though, its release was more or less timed to Valentine's Day, on February 3rd of 2012 in the U.S., and a week later in the U.K.

Even more interesting is the character the then 22-year-old Radcliffe was playing.

I said earlier that Radcliffe's character now has a six- or seven-year-old son as a byproduct of his wife's death, which would have made him, oh, 15 or 16 when he got her pregnant. That would have been unusual even in the early 20th century, when the story takes place.

But what makes it all the more unusual is that Radcliffe came of age playing one of the most famous boys of 21st century cinema, Harry Potter. In fact, he'd only just finished playing Potter seven months earlier when the final installment of that series was released. The choice to cast him as the father of a not-very-young boy seems odd given that history, unless Radcliffe just wanted to do whatever possible to distance himself from Potter as quickly as possible. Which, to be fair, is something we've definitely seen with kids who grew up playing a signature role.

It's the first but not nearly the only bad decision in The Woman in Black. Although I will cop to getting the chills from this movie from time to time, they were the cheapest type of chills imaginable, ones that left me feeling guilty even as I could not deny their physical actuality. This is about as boringly straightforward as horror movies get, though I refer primarily to the scare mechanisms and general milieu of the story. The plot itself was pretty convoluted, which serves only as a further detractor from the proceedings.

If I want to keep this baton-handing trend going next year, I guess I'll have to see something with one of Radcliffe's Woman in Black co-stars. I don't know, Ciaran Hinds?

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The folly of remaking something unique


I'm away for the weekend and supposed to be taking a small break from blogging, but the wifi is strong where I'm staying, and I've got a moment alone with my computer and my morning coffee on a balcony, so ... instinct took over.

Last night at this resort where we're staying near Phillip Island (about 120 k from Melbourne), I finally got started on some personal viewing at around 11 p.m., so I sought out the shortest thing I'd brought with me -- which happened to be the original 1973 version of The Wicker Man, borrowed from the library. It clocked in at a brisk 84 minutes, so it was easily the winner.

Having seen the Nicolas Cage/Neil Labute remake almost exactly eight years ago -- to honor the 366th day of 2008, February 29th, with something notably awful -- I'd always harbored a curiosity about the original, and whether the seeds for what went so wrong in the Cage/Labute version were visible there.

They were, but not in the ways I had expected.

It wasn't that the original was so deliciously campy and that Labute had either deliberately or accidentally brought the same tone to his remake. Rather, what was wrong was the decision to remake it in the first place.

I was riveted by this odd movie, directed by a guy I'd never heard of named Robin Hardy. I'd never heard of him because he didn't make another movie for 13 years after The Wicker Man, and then it was 25 more years before his next (and most recent) directorial effort ... though he's still going at age 86, and has a project on wikipedia whose release date is listed as TBA.

Well, if I'd been a film industry person who'd seen The Wicker Man in 1973 (which would have been tricky as I was being born that year), I would have given Hardy his next job right away. It's strange and mysterious and discomfiting, while also being kitschy in just the right ways -- and while also sort of being a musical.

A musical? Yes, there are about five different songs in this movie, sung by the actors. They're front-loaded, as that kind of thing drops away in the second half, but they are honest-to-goodness songs, some sung diagetically, some sung as apparent commentaries on the action. Some are gloriously cheeky early 70s flower children songs, and some are gloriously cheeky early 70s flower children songs with a sinister undertone. All work perfectly in terms of orienting us in the film's time period and all make the action a bit more chilling than it would be on its own.

The action? It's like the plot of Labute's remake in many ways, if I remember correctly, which is certainly to be expected. But so different from it in key ways.

One difference that I found unaccountable, and even more damning of Labute's project once I know about it, is that Labute chose to make the central pagan group (religious sect? cult?) into an entirely distaff affair. This key choice to have it an organization composed entirely of women is simply not present in Hardy's film. There are certainly powerful women who appear here, but no more centrally then some powerful men, notably Christopher Lee as the group's leader (called Lord Summerisle, named after the very beautiful Scottish isle on which this movie was shot). There's also one chilling scene where a female teacher is instructing a class of entirely girls on the phallic symbolism of the maypole, a scene that was recreated in the remake (as I was reminded by watching an awesome five-minute "best (worst?) moments of The Wicker Man" video on youtube). There's definitely something provocative about the fact that they are all female in that class. But Hardy's movie does not go on to suggest that the women have a dominant position in this society, and that makes Labute's choice to extrapolate that reading all the more problematic ... especially when their ungodly sacrificial tendencies are so feral, so unambiguously evil. This also majorly complicates the gender dynamics in any scene where Cage is forced to punch one of them out (this happens multiple times) and even, in one case, fell one with a karate kick. These scenes are simultaneously comical, which gets at exactly the moral complexity of what goes wrong in Labute's film, which certainly invites charges of misogyny when taken in comparison to the original.

The other thing that humorously weighs Labute down is his decision to fixate on bees. Some of the moments of greatest humor from that five-minute youtube video involve Cage's reaction to having a mesh chamber that resembles a fencing helmet placed over his head, and having bees poured into that helmet, which attack Cage's face and inspire some of his most outrageous acting. (Though I'll be damned if I remember that actually appearing in the film version -- I wonder if it was a deleted scene.) Labute incorporates bee imagery into some other allegedly disturbing images he includes in his film. That's not in the original either. Although this pagan group wants to make a sacrifice to return its harvest to its former glory, it's a harvest of produce, particularly apples. Maybe Labute just thought Hardy would have made his movie about bees if it were possible to create digital bees in 1973.

Another thing I found particularly striking about the original is that Edward Woodward's police detective is a man of strong Christian faith, which sets him up in opposition to the pagans (and makes him an ideal candidate for sacrifice in their view). That may have been present in Labute's film as well (eight years and more than two thousand films has a way of clouding the memory), but it didn't register much to me at the time, or if it did it was also in that realm of the unintentionally comical that suffuses the whole movie. Woodward seems like a true believer, which lends extra conviction to everything and makes the contrast all the more powerful.

In a way, it was a stroke of cinematic good taste for someone to have seen a film like Hardy's The Wicker Man and imagined that its eerie goodness should be brought to a modern audience. But especially with the film's indispensable flower child quality, it isn't really translatable to 2006 without losing a good portion of the mood that gives it its power. Also, it should have been perfectly evident to this person of good taste that this is a singular movie, one that maybe never should have existed in the first place, and certainly shouldn't exist twice. The same good taste that served them in recognizing the greatness of Hardy's movie abandoned them in informing their judgment about a possible remake.

As I am trying to be a bit more measured in my praise of films in terms of their star ratings, I gave The Wicker Man four stars on Letterboxd, though I toyed with that additional half star. It's a treat for anyone who likes those niche horrors that seemed to have jumped out of the 1970s and escaped our universe altogether. That sense of being untethered from what we know and have seen before is absolutely a good thing.

And absolutely something they never could have captured in a remake.

Though I probably shouldn't close this piece without acknowledging that Labute did give us something completely out there, in the sense that his Wicker Man has become something of a modern classic in terms of movies that are so bad they're good. I shouldn't close this piece without acknowledging that there's some value in having done that -- in fact, great value. I'm glad I live in a world where this awful version of The Wicker Man exists, a version we can all laugh about together.

And without that awful version, I might never have discovered the chilling original.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Everything is awesome/everything is boring


Wednesday was a day of two movie-watching extremes for me, even though the two movies had a deceptive amount in common.

And even though I only watched one of the movies.

I'll explain.

That afternoon my kids watched The Lego Movie when we got home from our day's activities early (because daddy left his wallet on the kitchen counter). I didn't watch it, but of course certain familiar parts seeped into my consciousness through osmosis as it was playing in the background. First and foremost the main song, which my older son was then singing for the rest of the night.

Then that night I went to see Anomalisa, which was just released here last Thursday.

Superficially, they couldn't be more dissimilar. One movie is a colorful celebration aimed at children. The other is a dour meditation with profanity and puppet sex. However, mechanically, they are very similar. Both use stop motion animation, even if for very different purposes.

Then there's the big contrast in their world views, which has a rather literal component to it.

The Oscar-nominated song from The Lego Movie was of course Tegan & Sara's "Everything is Awesome." The outlook on the world of Michael Stone, Anomalia's main character, is "everything is boring," as quoted in an exact line of dialogue. One movie bursts with color, one movie has almost literally had the color drained out of it. (As a prime example of that, please note how the poster above blends almost perfectly into the gray background of my blog.)

And yet there are other themes these two films share. The Lego Movie concerns itself with the idea of conformity, of becoming indistinguishable from your neighbor as you consume your way to a kind of anesthetized bliss. There is a literal element of conformity to Anomalisa, as Stone sees and hears (almost) all the other people in his world as only slight variations of each other. Their voices are exactly the same, and their faces have an eerie doppelganger quality even as they have surface differences, accounting for gender and hairstyle. (Actually, not even really accounting for gender.)

This would be the part of this post where I take my specific observations and provide you a more profound, generalized view of how these films relate to each other and what they're Saying with a capital S. However, in reality, this is the part of the post where I need to wrap things up to get ready to go out of town for the weekend. And yes, that means I'm leaving you without my assessment of the successes and failures of the latest from Charlie Kaufman, one of my favorite creative talents in the movies -- in part because I am still trying to figure out exactly what I do think of Anomalisa.

So, without any further ado ... wrapping up this post riiiiiight ... now.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Audient Auscars Extended: Gandhi


When I announced in December that I was extending my Audient Auscars series for three more months to get in the last three best picture winners I hadn't seen, I fully expected I would watch Gandhi in January.

And I did start to watch it. I watched 25 minutes of it, in fact.

The other 158 did not come until yesterday.

What can I say -- it was a busy month.

And though I'm usually pretty anal about sticking to the schedules I establish on my blog, we're a bit outside the box here, extending a series by just three months. So I let the other priorities of my life dictate when I could get back to watching this three-hour movie. (In fact, I probably would have put it off even longer if it weren't due back at the library today.) I often skip January in my movie series anyway, just because it's so busy with other viewing priorities (like wrapping up the previous viewing year) that I don't have the time. I suppose that was more true when my viewing series used to involve multiple movies a month.

Anyway.

The 1982 best picture winner was what I expected in a lot of ways. It was not what I expected in some other, smaller ways. Like, who would have thought John Ratzenberger -- Cliff from Cheers, and the guy who has loaned his voice to nearly every Pixar film -- would show up here? (And that he wouldn't use his own voice for some reason? Martin Sheen, who also appears in the movie, dubbed Ratzenberger's voice.)

What was legitimately unexpected was learning about the key events in Mohandas Gandhi's fight to kick the British out of India -- though I use the word "fight" very loosely. Gandhi was of course opposed to violence in any form (even philosophically debating whether violence would work against Hitler), and believed that civil resistance was most effective when it provoked using persistence and public displays, not guns and swords. One of my favorite moments in the movie comes near the beginning, when some South African troops charge a group of Gandhi's protesters on horseback. They're seeking not to be treated like third-class citizens, including needing to be fingerprinted and the like. Instead of standing their ground, where they'll be beaten and cut down, or scattering to the winds, where they'll also be beaten and cut down, the protesters simply lie down on the ground, at Gandhi's behest. It's a brilliant tactic, as the horses are unwilling to trample the supine protesters, even if their riders show no such reluctance. So the horses rear up and the troops are forced to retreat. What's most brilliant is that Gandhi seems to have gotten this idea in the moment -- a reflection of his nearly preternatural ability to imagine the most productive method of effecting change in any given scenario.

Productive? How about convincing his followers who had strayed from his principles to abandon violence by going on hunger strikes? Not once, but twice? The people came to love him so much that they would rather eschew their violent impulses -- in other words, to calm a nearly unquenchable rage -- in order not to see him die for their human frailties. As frail as he was in stature, in all other aspects Gandhi seems to have been one of the strongest men who walked the earth in the 20th century.

That was a big takeaway as I was watching this -- that we don't seem to get great human beings like Gandhi anymore. Or at least, great human beings don't capture the imagination of the whole world like Gandhi did. Paradoxically, in a world where worldwide communication has become all the easier through the internet, we are perhaps all the more pushed into our own little corners of that world, seeing only the things that most directly pertain to us. Maybe there's a Gandhi out there today -- maybe there are plenty of them. Surely there are. But we're not hearing about them to the same extent, and that's a shame.

Although the casting of a non-Indian actor to play the title role would have been too controversial today, it's hard to imagine anyone playing Gandhi other than Ben Kingsley. He's pretty phenomenal. It's not a showy performance, as you might imagine, as Gandhi was a fairly understated person. But its every detail feels true. I think especially of Kingsley's physicality as the Mahatma, particularly the positioning of his legs as he sits on the ground, sewing his own clothing (another thing I didn't know about Gandhi). Kingsley was not yet 40 when he played the role, yet his fragility as the older Gandhi is something that makes us easily forget that.

I also didn't know anything about the Amritsar massacre in Punjab, in which British soldiers opened fire on a massive gathering of peaceful demonstrators and kept firing until hundreds, possibly more than a thousand, Indians were killed. I was hoping to learn that the colonel who ordered the strike -- "They've already been warned," he told an underling -- was hanged for this callous display of might and disregard for life. But Reginald Dyer was only removed from duty, and in fact became a celebrated hero in certain sections of England. Any time you need a reminder of how awful men can be, this is a good example. At least Dyer only lived eight more years before a series of strokes felled him.

For a movie this long, Gandhi is actually fairly lean -- starvation pun intended. There weren't any sections that I thought begged to be removed, and Sir Richard Attenborough keeps the pace moving pretty quickly all told. In fact, Gandhi's first hunger strike -- being one of the events for which he is most famous -- seemed to be over in a flash. I guess this is just a sign of what a full life of consequence and wisdom he had, so much of which was worth telling us about.

Okay, only two left! I've got Platoon in March before finishing up with The Last Emperor in April.

Assuming I don't get too busy, of course.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Attention spans > seasonal appropriateness


A person in one of my film discussion groups on Facebook noted today that the February 23rd DVD release date for The Good Dinosaur seemed to serve as a particularly swift response to its underperformance at the box office. As you might imagine, the discussion that followed revealed that a three-month journey to video was pretty typical these days.

That led to the larger discussion of delays that violated that ever-shrinking three-month window, and I brought up Christmas movies. Last time I noted it, Christmas movies were still taking more like ten months to arrive on video, the thinking being that you want to have your big video unveiling at a time when people are actually thinking about watching Christmas movies.

That, too, seems to have changed.

I gave as my example the fact that I expected The Night Before not to release on DVD and BluRay until late October or early November. I had to provide an addendum to that comment when a quick internet search revealed March 1st as the date for its video/digital release.

It's a depressing concession to a reality we have willingly acknowledged elsewhere in our lives: Any particular phenomenon's window is extremely short-lived, and if you don't capitalize on that window, it will just disappear into the ephemera along with everything else we pause on for a moment before discarding.

Not that The Night Before is worthy of gaining a solid foothold in our cultural legacy. It was a disappointment. And even though some people in my audience were laughing, I don't see them collectively conferring the movie a new-classic status. Movies like Elf only come along infrequently. Elf was 13 years ago, and we're still waiting for something else like it to really captivate our hearts.

But I sort of liked the past scarcity of the Christmas movie. If you missed it one Christmas, you had to wait until the next one -- at least upon its initial release. It was like egg nog in that way.

Given what else I know about our society, I'm kind of surprised you can't actually get egg nog year round. Sure, it would make it less special, but what do its manufacturers care? If it meets a craving, people will buy it. And if that craving were being satisfied by something else, you'd think egg nog purveyors would take note and take corrective action.

I don't really have a point, I guess. If I sound disappointed by what I've learned today, it's probably a small case of devil's advocacy. More than anything it's just interesting to note that the thinking has changed on this topic. I don't usually follow these types of things, but I'll try to make a note of how The Night Before sells on video (physical and digital) when it releases on a date when most people symbolically start to think about spring -- which is actually the first day of autumn in Australia. (They change their seasons on the first of the month in the southern hemisphere -- Lord knows why.) More likely, I'll forget to do that.

More than anything, I just wanted to get a new post up so that Zac Efron and Robert DeNiro would not continue to greet the visitors to my blog.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The bad taste of Charlotte Rampling













Charlotte Rampling has been leaving a bad taste in my mouth for a lot longer than her major PR blunder a few weeks back, when she made light of the Oscars' failure to nominate any actors of color. Which was obviously a dumb thing to say no matter what the circumstances, but even dumber under her particular circumstances. She suggested that maybe the black actors did not "deserve" to make the shortlist -- while she herself did make this list for the movie 45 Years.

So that experience was kind of gratifying for me, as it allowed me to attach a legitimate reason to the nebulous dislike I have always felt for her.

Not liking her has always been problematic for me, because I have never been able to pinpoint why I didn't like her.

Secretly, I was worried it was because I wasn't attracted to her, which would be a shallow reason indeed. I've never doubted her abilities as an actress. She's always good. But I always don't really like her, and I wondered if it was something about not liking her appearance.

And I've concluded that it is, but not in the way you might think.

My wife and I often talk about how we don't like someone's face. That's not to say they're ugly, or that they have an objectively disagreeable face. Just that we don't like it.

Her go-to example is Australian actress Melissa George. There is almost no doubt that Melissa George is objectively attractive. But my wife doesn't like her face, and her intangible logic has swayed me. Now, I don't like Melissa George's face either.

My same-gender go-to example is probably Eddie Redmayne. Never liked his face. Probably never will.

But Charlotte Rampling is one of a dozen or so I regularly think of when considering this issue of nebulous distaste. Now I can attach something concrete to it, with these casually racist comments from which she has tried her best to back away.

Because it's a quintessentially subjective thing, I'll probably have a hard time describing what it is about Rampling's face I don't like. But since it's probably worth more than just me wimping out on that challenge, let me try.

She has a schlumpy face. She's got a very pronounced pout, and as she usually plays characters who are at least somewhat disagreeable, her face spends a lot of time schlumping and pouting. You'll get some idea of what I'm talking about from that bathtub scene above.

She also always seems irritable. Her eyes drooping at the sides, mirroring her droopy mouth and ready to show her irritation with anyone who crosses her path.

So now is it ageism I'm guilty of? Rampling is 69. When you are knocking on the door of 70, things droop.

But no. See her here. Even when she was "objectively beautiful," she still had a droopy tendency on the sides that contributed to something about her face I don't like.


The funny thing about Rampling is that she's in a lot of films I love, making her a bit like the Andie MacDowell of her age group. (Andie MacDowell being another example of a person whose face I don't like. Actually, Rampling is only 12 years older than MacDowell.)

I haven't seen a single film she appeared in before 1982. But that 1982 film, The Verdict, is a classic. Others since then I cherish are Lemming, Melancholia and Never Let Me Go, and I really like Angel Heart, Swimming Pool, The Mill and the Cross and Young & Beautiful.

Well whatever. I don't like that droopy face and I don't like those comments she made, and somehow, I feel vindicated by all this.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The type of reporter I could never be


There's a moment in Spotlight, which I saw last nightwhen Rachel McAdams' Sacha Pfeiffer knocks on the door of a retired Boston priest, and seems a bit surprised to see the man himself actually answer the door.

When she confirms his identity, for a second a look flashes across her faces that seems to say, "Okay, this is happening" before she launches into her question:

"We have information that you molested kids while serving as a priest. Did you molest kids?"

That's not an exact quote -- unlike a good reporter, I don't take notes when I watch movies -- but it's along those lines, and it's that direct.

In fact, this moment illustrates perfectly why I could never fully give myself over to journalism as a career.

Oh I was on that path. I worked as the reporter and interim editor of a newspaper in Rhode Island from 1996 to 1998, and in 1999 I attended Columbia Journalism School, where the brightest journalism prospects in the country -- dare I say, even the world -- go to take the next steps in their careers. (As well as the ones who can fool them into thinking we fit that description, like me.)

But even before starting at Columbia, I think I knew I didn't have that killer instinct, that courage, that unwavering belief in what is right that distinguishes the kind of journalists we see in Spotlight.

It's not so much that I feared the moment of awkwardness that results from asking an interview subject the question that cuts to the core of their own innocence or guilt. It's rather that I feared the moment of rage at the gall I was displaying at even asking. How dare you ask a question like that? How dare you intrude on the inner sanctum of my own protective shell as a human being who wants to be treated with decency?

Of course, I never dealt with anyone as guilty and as downright despicable as the Catholic priests of the Boston archdiocese, who turned out to be just the first publicly reported among hundreds and thousands of priests the world over who displayed those tendencies. The biggest fish I had to fry were local politicians dancing around some of their own double speak. When I had a story about a police chief who had an unregistered car on his property, it nearly gave me fits.

So just imagine the courage necessary to take on the Catholic church, an institution that counts half of your readership as loyal followers, and accuse it of hiding evidence that priests sexually molested young boys.

I appreciate that kind of courage even more because of my past as a reporter, and it makes seeing a movie like Spotlight all the more rewarding for me. What Spotlight doesn't do is make me wistful for a career path I could have had if I'd made a couple decisions differently. I never had what it takes to stick a microphone in someone's face, either literally or metaphorically, and it was useful to realize that before I threw myself into an arena where I was destined to fail. I suppose it's better to succeed at what I do now, to the extent that I do succeed at it, than to have failed as a reporter.

But that doesn't change one bit my conviction that someone needs to stick those microphones in those faces, and movies that celebrate these proud professionals make me proud to watch them.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Tom Brady before Tom Brady was Tom Brady


It's been a bit of a melancholy ten days or so, as my Patriots did not make the Super Bowl, ending what might be Tom Brady's last, best shot at another ring. We don't need to debate Brady's ethics and personality for the moment, nor do we need to recognize that he won a nearly unprecedented fourth ring just last year, further cementing an already fully cemented hall of fame resume. For the purposes of my own melancholy, the only relevant factor is that I'm a sports fan and I like to see my teams win whenever possible, especially when they are this close to getting to the championship game.

So the timing of watching John Stockwell's Blue Crush for the first time since 2002 last night was interesting indeed, as this movie contains a character who is basically Tom Brady.

When Blue Crush came out, Tom Brady was already Tom Brady, but only just barely. When it was released on August 16th of 2002, that was less than eight months after Brady won his first Super Bowl for the Patriots, ending a highly improbable season in which starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe suffered a season-ending injury during the game that dropped the team to 0-2. That elevated no-name Tom Brady to starting QB status, a title he has yet to relinquish more than 14 years later.

So the character in the movie that resembles Brady -- Matthew Davis' Matt Tollman -- could not really have been based on him. It would have been too soon.

But consider the resemblance. Here's Brady:


And here's Davis:


Which probably just suggests that Brady has that "prototypical quarterback look," and the same sensibilities were used in casting Davis in the role of an NFL quarterback visiting Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. That's a place Brady has been quite a bit, as he has been selected to participate 11 times. In fact, he might have actually been in Hawaii for this year's Pro Bowl when I watched the movie, but he declined to participate -- probably since it's hard to get up for that type of exhibition event when you're still sulking over not making it to the Super Bowl.

That's the other thing -- someone quotes a date early in the movie, and it's Wednesday, February 3rd. I watched the movie on Tuesday, February 2nd, meaning that not only was it almost the exact same day on the calendar, but the days of the week were even lined up correctly.

All of this wouldn't be such a coincidence if I'd watched the movie last Tuesday, Australia Day, as I was initially expecting to do. But we ended up somehow deciding we had the stamina to watch The Wolf of Wall Street, even though we'd been to the beach that day. In fact, going to the beach was what put me in mind of finally rewatching Blue Crush.

I say "finally" rewatching Blue Crush because I've actually owned this DVD for more than two years. I didn't buy it, but rather, took it from a curbside, where a homeowner had left a bunch of stuff that had gotten water damaged either because their home had been flooded or because it had been left out in the rain, which was now "free to a good home." Sure, the paper lining for Blue Crush was waterlogged -- sort of appropriate, given the movie's surfing milieu -- but that had no effect whatsoever on its ability to properly play in a DVD player.

Anyway.

I remember loving this movie when I first saw it. In fact, it came in at a lofty 17th out of the 80 movies I ranked in 2002. And though I still saw its charms and it was perfect for the mellow mood I was seeking last night, the only thing I still felt very strongly about on this viewing was its cinematography, especially the surfing stuff. The rest of it was fluffy and agreeable but generally forgettable.

If they film Tom Brady's life story now, Davis could still play him -- at retirement age. Davis is actually only nine months younger than Brady, born in May of 1978 while Brady was born in August of '77.

Which means hey, Brady still has one whole NFL season where he'll be "only" 39.

Maybe he still has a ring or two left in him.