Wednesday, November 30, 2016

No Audio Audient: I Was Born, But ...


This is the penultimate installment of my 2016 series in which I am catching up with previously unseen silent movies.

For those of you coming here expecting Erich von Stroheim's Greed -- all none of you -- you're going to have to wait until December. There's a whole story that goes with why I didn't see Greed in November, full of twists and turns and developments that are interesting only to me, and maybe not even then. I'll save that for next month.

This month, it's all about my 11th hour substitute: I Was Born, But ... 

And it was literally almost an 11th hour substitute, as I began watching it at 10 p.m. on the last night in November my schedule would allow me to watch it.

The movie was on my Letterboxd list of potential candidates for this series, but I didn't imagine I'd get to it because I planned to watch Greed in November and then some silent Christmas movie (there must be some out there) in December. Well, the Greed debacle (I'm calling it a debacle now?) opened up an opportunity to go abroad for a silent movie for the second straight month after Sweden's The Phantom Carriage in October.

What surprised me most about I Was Born, But ... is how dissimilar it was to what I've come to think of as the style of the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. I've only seen one of his films, sadly -- that's Tokyo Story -- but I saw it twice back in college and actually wrote an academic paper about it, so I feel like I know it well despite not having seen it in more than 20 years. On first viewing I was kind of bored to tears, but something compelled me to revisit it -- I don't know what came over me as I surely could have chosen an "easier" film to write the paper about. I'm glad I did, because I loved it on the second viewing when I started truly dissecting its themes. In fact, given that experience, it's kind of amazing I've never gotten back to Ozu, and it was something I had already intended to rectify when I got the chance to kick off that effort with this movie.

So yes, Ozu's style tends to be slow and deliberate, with many long takes and the camera almost never moving. No evidence of that style is present in I Was Born, But ..., which he directed in 1932, 21 years before Tokyo Story. (In fact, well into the sound era -- not sure why he was still making silent films.) This film is almost frenetic with its editing, and his camera has none of its future sedentary ways.

Probably time to tell you a bit about the movie. It's essentially a series of episodes involving children in suburban Tokyo of the time, which would look a bit more like the rural outskirts of Tokyo except for the single train cars passing in the background almost constantly, suggesting a higher population density than there would seem. Two of the children, who dress like twins but don't look exactly alike, are brothers who have just moved there due to the job requirements of their father, a lower-level executive type in a big firm. Many of the episodes are comical in nature, relating to such things as tussles with local bullies, contracting the help of other kids to assist with their integration into the community, and the tall tale that the consumption of a sparrow's egg gives you additional strength. As the twins (let's call them twins) have a habit of doing everything in unison, a real charming element to the performance of the two young boys, even events that might not ordinarily be comical have a comedic overtone. Simply put, this movie is breezy and fun.

What little plot it does have comes to relate to the shame the kids feel toward the way their father must prostrate himself in front of one of his superiors, who is also the father of one of their new school acquaintances. The last 20 minutes or so relate to the kids grappling with this and coming to accept it, as their father imparts lessons about social dynamics in the workplace and in the world. Here we see the real roots of Ozu's future concerns, as Tokyo Story (I know for a fact) and many of his other films (I'm led to believe) deal with the type of low-level, non-catastrophic family issues we see here, specifically failures to communicate between the generations.

To suggest that this film is heavy in any way, though, is to misunderstand its main reasons for existence. It is sweet through and through, frequently funny and always amusing. The packs of kids interacting with each other, daring each other to do things and establishing power dynamics, reminded me a bit of the Little Rascals or something. The film also establishes a real sense of place in the neighborhood where most of it takes place, as Ozu builds up a community of familiar faces over the course of the narrative. The regular appearance of the train going back and forth in the background seems to both suggest a sense of transience, and to more firmly establish the stability and specificity of this particular locale, if that makes any sense.

Okay! Just one month left to go in this series. And I've got Greed downloaded from iTunes now -- all four hours of it -- so at some point over the next month I'm going to figure out how to cram that in to the 24-hour viewing window allotted by iTunes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

May-December release


You've heard of a May-December romance. How about a May-December movie release?

There is indeed a considerable age difference between the release of Jason Bateman's The Family Fang in the U.S. and in Australia.

The movie came out on May 6th in the U.S. It came out on April 29th in New York, actually, but that ruins my title for this post.

In Australia, it comes out on Thursday, which is the first of December.

The Australian release date of The Family Fang is something I've been tracking for a while, because I needed to remind myself to send the review I wrote of it to my editor at ReelGood.

Why had I already reviewed this movie if it hasn't even come out in Australia? Well that's the other funny way to measure the delay between its U.S. and Australian release dates.

The Family Fang had been out for so long in the U.S. that it had already popped up as the 99-cent rental on the U.S. iTunes store, where I still have access to pick up rentals. That means that it had already been available for rent at the normal $5.99, and then probably $3.99, before dropping down to 99 cents (though just for that one week). I may be wrong about this, but I think of Apple as using its 99-centals as a last ditch effort to capture some of the remaining buzz about a movie and move a few more units of it before it becomes just an old release like everything else in their library.

We watched it a month ago, and The Family Fang was actually on the verge of its 30-day window expiring when we got to it.

So I wrote a review, and even then had to wait a month before it could post on the site in order to be timely for the release. Which it has just done last night.

Now you get some sense of the agony of seeing movies like Moonlight released in October in the U.S. and having to wait until Februrary for them here.

Monday, November 28, 2016

All my reviews, all together!


Have you ever thought "I'd really like to see all of Vance's reviews together, rather than just the most recent three that he links to down to the right?" Vance being the name I used to go by before I lifted my veil of anonymity, and still a way to casually refer to myself on this blog.

Well, it's happened. I'm searchable.

And I don't just mean if you google me and the name of my website you'll find a bunch of individual reviews scattered across the search results. I mean there's now an easy place to come find all my review work packaged together in one convenient location. (All my work for ReelGood, anyway, which means the past two years' worth.)

That's right, part of the recent redesign of ReelGood (www.reelgood.com.au, come and check it out!) was to give each writer a warehouse for his or her own work. You can find my particular warehouse here, topped by my most recent review of Morgan. (Or some other movie, depending on when you read this post.)

It's pretty cool for me as this was never possible for the approximately 11 years I wrote for my previous website, Allmovie.com. In fact, I would sometimes send people a list of all the reviews I'd ever written as a way to allow them to decide which ones they wanted to look up individually on the site. (Bet they were sorry they asked.)

Now, it's much easier.

I mightn't have otherwise devoted a whole post to this, but I've been lacking inspiration the last few days and was kind of tired of the stern face of Krisha Fairchild staring out confrontingly at my readers every time you come to my site.

Anyway, come give it a squizz, if you want. (Translation: Come take a look.)

Back soon with new content, both here and there.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Everybody's worst Thanksgiving


And now for a little tonal shift from yesterday's message of hope ...

If you just can't get into a head space to give thanks this year, and just want to tear it all down, just want to watch a movie that languishes in the apocalyptic misery of everybody's worst family Thanksgiving, you could do far worse than Krisha, the film I watched last night as a Thanksgiving-themed viewing. ("Thanksgiving"  was yesterday in Australia -- meaning it was Thursday, November 24th, otherwise known as one of the last days of spring. We did eat turkey, but it was a turkey dish I invented that features ground turkey, grilled onions, grilled peppers, Tabasco, chilli powder, canned tomatoes, tomato paste and a layer of broiled cheese over the top.)

Any number of Thanksgiving films look into the disasters that result from long-estranged family members reuniting, possibly against their will, for a late November feast, and maybe also an olive branch. But Krisha has a special caustic edge to it, an unwillingness to compromise its vision of the most pessimistic possible incarnation of that Thanksgiving gathering. And it doesn't accomplish this with ridiculous, over-the-top set pieces, like you might see in National Lampoon's Thanksgiving Vacation. No, this is just straight up human misery.

A lot of liberals are probably calling this their worst Thanksgiving ever. But at least it's not as bad as the one Krisha has in this movie.

I won't go too much into what happens, but I will warn you: Watch out. This is not some happy Thanksgiving viewing for the family. As the poster would probably suggest to you anyway.

One thing I did want to point out: The filmmaker, Trey Edward Shults, has cast almost entirely members of his family to play ... well, members of his family. He plays a central figure in the movie, and Krisha is played by his real aunt, named Krisha Fairchild. Strikingly, none of them really comes off as an amateur, and there's some real heavy lifting in the acting department, especially by Fairchild. I don't want to contemplate how closely this may have been inspired by something that really happened in his family, and whether any of these people are actually playing a version of themselves that's similar to the real version. More likely, he just wanted/needed to make the movie on the cheap, so he cast actors he could get to work for almost nothing. Whatever the case, their status as actual family members works in a number of ways, from the less important (they actually look like each other) to the more important (they have a preexisting relationship that informs their performances).

Don't think there's much chance you'll feel more hopeful about the world after watching this movie, but maybe that's the Thanksgiving you want to have -- despairing, and reveling in it.

If that's the case, boy have I got a movie for you.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Giving thanks to the movies


A couple days ago, I had a day when I didn't think about Donald Trump once.

It seems impossible to imagine. The wounds are still too fresh, the news still too prevalent, both in the media and on my Facebook news feed.

But as I was getting in to bed that night, I nonetheless said to my wife, "You know, I don't think I thought about Donald Trump once today." Hence ruining the unblemished Trump-free day I was having, but that's beside the point.

There's life after Trump, or there could be. There is, or there can be, or there will be more days when we don't even give the man a single passing thought.

And I don't know why I'm choosing to credit movies with that, except that it's a movie blog and I can't rightly write a Thanksgiving post on a movie blog unless it in some way incorporates movies.

So here's my way to incorporate it: Movies are my normal, and they have allowed me to keep a sense of normalcy during a two-plus-week period that has been anything but.

I'm thankful that whatever happens during a day full of head-shaking cabinet appointments, childish Twitter rants, revelations about ways the election might have been stolen by foreign interests, and reports of hate crimes against minority groups, at least by night, I still have the movies to whisk me away to another world.

"But Vance," you say, "just two weeks ago you said that movies were no escape. I'll save you the trouble and link to the post right here. How am I inserting a hyperlink into a question I am asking you verbally? Don't worry about it. You're missing the point."

Yes, I did say that. And yes, as hard as it was to believe that I would ever have a moment free from thinking about the orange menace we elected president (well, not "we" -- a bunch of crazy people that I hope does not include you), that hypothetical scenario has indeed transpired. Especially helpful in that regard was a movie like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, cinematic escapism in its purest form. And indeed, on Sunday, escape myself away into it I did.

That wasn't the day I didn't think about Trump. I think it was Tuesday.

Most people of my political persuasion won't consider there to be much to be thankful about this Thanksgiving. A perfectly timed news story about a Jill Stein-prompted recount might give us a little hope, but in reality, we'll still know that nothing is likely to change the fact that Donald Trump is our next president. Blog posts giving thanks will be in shorter supply this year than usual, or at least, will carry a different tone to them, one that willfully tries to scrub away the horrors of the entire election season.

For me, though, I do see genuine reasons to be thankful -- good friends, loving family, health, the inspiration of good people intending to fight evil for a better world -- as well as more frivolous reasons, like the fact that I have movies.

Movies serve many functions for me, but one of their most positive is that they create a condition of ongoing optimism. As human beings, we thrive on what we have to look forward to next. If you're a political junkie, one that leans liberally, you may feel like you have nothing to look forward to. Or maybe you look forward to the challenge of ousting our new Republican overlords from office. But either way, your outlook, and what you have to look forward to, is conditional.

Movies, on the other hand, give us an unconditional sort of ongoing optimism. Even if you see a string of movies in a row you don't like, that doesn't tarnish that optimism. Even if you are dissatisfied with the trend of sequels and reboots, that doesn't tarnish that optimism. Each movies is a distinct case unto itself, and if you love movies, you know that there are hundreds and thousands of movies out there that you haven't yet seen and that you will love. The task is just to find the next one, and it's a task that you're forever on the verge of potentially accomplishing.

So thank you, movies, for giving me a sense of normalcy that involves a constant and ever-replenishing state of hope. I can apply that to my outlook on the rest of the world, even when it feels at its darkest.

And why did I include a picture of Barack Obama pardoning a turkey with this post?

Because that is my president, and I like to look at him, and I intend to cherish him as much I can while he still holds the title.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Breaching the unbreachable barrier


If you think the "unbreachable barrier" in the title of this post is the Underworld series reaching an unlikely fifth feature -- with one short thrown in there for good measure -- you'd have an excellent point. But that's not actually what I want to talk about today.

Rather, it's that this consummate January release is actually getting released in time for the holidays in other parts of the world.

Underworld: Blood Wars is, in fact, opening in Australia a week from Thursday, a fact I learned about because the editor at ReelGood is going to an advanced screening of it on Monday.

I guess a January release isn't what it once was, or at least, isn't what it once was everywhere around the world.

Even the early Underworld movies came out during the dead zones of the movie calendar, indicating the studio's lack of belief in them. The first one came out in September of 2003, and even though it was successful enough to spawn a 2006 sequel, the sequel was dumped on the 20th of January. The two subsequent sequels were nestled within days of January 20th in their respective years (2009 and 2012), and Screen Gems has shown even one less degree of confidence in the fifth movie, probably with good reason, moving its release all the way up to January 6th of 2017.

In the U.S., that is.

In others parts of the world, though -- like mine -- this Underworld movie is being accorded the same level of respect as, I don't know, Star Wars: Rogue One, coming out only two weeks before the movie that has a decent shot to be this year's box office champion. Underworld: Blood Wars shouldn't even be competing with Star Wars in the same box office year, but in some parts of the world -- a lot of parts of the world, actually -- it is.

I don't really know how to account for it. I suppose it's just a continuation of a recent philosophy to open a movie overseas before you open it domestically, to collect up some good box office numbers and, potentially, good word of mouth (foreign audiences tend to be less discrening toward/more forgiving of genre movies) prior to the U.S. release, which could create a more profitable release.

But the weird thing is it creates a situation where Underworld: Blood Wars is classified as a 2016 release on IMDB. That's the unbreachable barrier I'm talking about. January releases are typically branded with their release year, forever after amen, and though this doesn't mean anything in the abstract, it carries some meaning at a time of year when you are trying to discern what belongs where. Now there's the potential to confuse Underworld 5 with the awards contenders that receive a pre-Christmas release in New York and Los Angeles but stagger out to the rest of the country across the month of January. Now people will look at IMDB in future years and think that Underworld 5 might have come out in January of 2016, not January of 2017.

And that matters because ...

Well, it doesn't really matter. It's just something interesting to note. In part because it's another indication of a marketplace that is changing around us, muddying the meaning of previous assumptions and leaving us a new economy to puzzle over.

It also probably explains the existence of the movie itself. American audiences are probably done with the Underworld series -- and Lord knows Kate Beckinsale can't want to keep doing these movies -- but "they make money overseas," is how some studio exec justifies it. And when a studio's bottom line is the topic, little justification for making money is needed.

So yeah, Americans could well see an Underworld 6, an Underworld 7 and an Underworld 8 in 2019, 2022 and 2024 ... and the rest of the world, the year before that.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Something unexpected


In among all the umpteen sequels and prequels and reboots and preboots and re-quels we've gotten in the past ten years, most of us just humbly request for something, anything, to take us by surprise.

We recognize the need to reboot and preboot and sequelize. We've given up pressing the position that we should expect and demand new content involving unproven commodities. (Well, the realists among us have given up that fight, anyway.) But it is too much to ask just to get something a little unexpected?

In many cases, it is, as studios tend to err on the side of safety. But not always. And sometimes, just something small that's unexpected is enough to feel invigorating.

Warner Brothers is probably erring on the side of safety as well in its resumption of the Harry Potter series with a prequel set in the 1920s. (I guess it's not technically a Harry Potter movie -- it's "from J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World.") A lot of what's there is to cater to our comfort zone.

But there was also something unexpected that I found delightful.

That is the character of Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler.

Some mild spoilers to follow. 

When I first saw Fogler on-screen in the movie -- waiting in a bank to have a loan approved for opening a bakery -- I figured the character was likely to appear in one scene. A husky Polish baker with a thick working class accent is simply not likely to play a very prominent role in a Harry Potter movie.

Not only does Fogler end up playing a prominent role, but it kind of becomes his story, in a way.

Fogler is along for this entire ride, which I found quite magical in spots. And he is almost never used as I expected him to be. And he is almost always a joy to behold.

He's our surrogate, a guy taking a peek behind the curtain at a world of wands and wizards and witches that he never knew existed. Having been exposed to magic accidentally, upon picking up an egg that the absent-minded Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) left on the seat next to him, and then watching that egg hatch into a little blue snake, but more importantly, also being whisked across a bank hallway and through a wall just with a wave of Scarmander's wand, Kowalski is meant to be "obliviated." Fans of Men in Black will be familiar with the concept -- it's a way of making people forget the weird thing they just saw so they won't tell others about it. (And actually, it may have appeared in the previous Potter books and movies as well, though I don't recall.)

But for various reasons and at various different times, Kowalski avoids obliviation. He goes deeper down this rabbit hole, and a guy who seems like he would have been brought on for one scene -- even if he stole that scene -- is on board for the whole movie.

And so he doesn't just steal that scene, he steals the whole movie.

The things I love about his character are numerous. For one, the filmmakers didn't look at his portly frame and decide to play it for laughs. Yeah, there's the scene where he struggles to stuff himself into a suitcase (don't ponder that too closely until you've seen the movie) because his midsection catches on the sides of the case. But generally, this movie has no interest in turning him into a figure of fun. There's a moment when Scamander discusses the symptoms of being bitten by one of the creatures that escaped his case -- a creature that bit Kowalski -- and he mentions that among the first is fire coming out of his anus. I fully expected to see fire come out of Dan Fogler's anus at some point in this movie, because it was teased. But that never happened, and the movie was all the better for it.

Not only that, but this actually becomes a love story between Kowalski and the equally adorable Queenie, a gifted woman who can read thoughts. Alison Sudol plays Queenie, and she just makes your toes curl. They don't make for a logical couple, but they each amaze each other -- she's never met a Muggle (they call them Non-Majes in America) and he's never met, well, someone so beautful, but also someone who practices magic. A cute and, gosh darn it, believable mutual attraction develops between them.

But mostly I just like how Fogler plays this character. He's appropriately amazed at the sights that are being unveiled to him, but he doesn't waste more than the requisite amount of time asking whether he's dreaming or not believing his eyes. He incorporates himself into the wizarding world effectively and thoroughly. He's not the cowardly comic relief who is constantly afraid of what thing he never knew existed might try to get him next. He's a lover and a fighter, a man confident in what he brings to the table and how he can contribute.

Now a bit of a more significant spoiler.

But I think my favorite scene involving the character was his last one, or really, his second-to-last one (was it third-to-last? one of his final scenes, anyway). Having eluded being obliviated for the whole movie, Kowalski, under orders from the wizarding president, agrees to step out into the rain that's falling on New York, which has obliviated all the witnesses to what took place during the film's admittedly sort of comic book movie cataclysm finale. He desperately doesn't want to forget what he's seen or a woman he may love, but he's learned enough to know that these are the rules and he must abide by them.

And what does he do?

He cries.

Not big, blubbery tears, the kind that would stick him back in that category of hefty comic relief. No, just quiet, dignified, earnest tears, the tears that represent both his bravery and a recognition that he's losing something valuable to him. They're the tears of someone who doesn't want to let go of something great, but realizes he must.

As Jacob Kowalski kept surprising us up until the very end of the movie, and that meant the movie itself did as well, I kind of wanted to shed my own tears. I didn't, but the emotion of the moment was enough that I might have, under other circumstances.

So when someone tells you the new Harry Potter movie is yet another money-grubbing sequel made only for the profit of the studio, and lacks any sense of soul or wonder, don't believe them. Just go see the movie yourself.

You might be surprised.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

It's Clown's illusions I recall


I had a heck of a time doing my best Judy Collins/Joni Mitchell impersonation on Friday night as we were about to pop in the movie Clown, which I had purchased from iTunes as a 99-cent rental but which never got watched during Halloween season.

Swooping around my living room like an excessively earnest flower child, I sang:

"I've looked at Clown from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's Clown's illusions I recall
I really don't know Clown at all."

For those of you who aren't ancient like I am, that's a riff on the song "Both Sides, Now," which Mitchell wrote but Collins first recorded in 1967. It's Collins' version I first fell for back in college, though Mitchell herself did record it a few years later. The word in the original is not "clown," of course, but "clouds," probably leading most people to think the song is called "Clouds" rather than "Both Sides, Now." (Though Mitchell did actually choose Clouds as the name of the 1969 album on which she recorded the song.)

Anyway, I gave myself a laugh, something that's been in short supply the last ten days. My wife laughed too, so it was actually sort of funny, not just an insane delusion on my part.

After having a heck of a time with my dramatic and silly rendition of the song, I then had a heck of a time with the movie.

This was unexpected.

Unexpected because the movie looked, just from the poster above that was staring out at us forebodingly from my iTunes, like a grotesque exercise in anarchic horror, the kind of movie whose only goal is to scar you. I like a movie like that sometimes, but I would never recommend it to another person, like my wife, who might like a thing like that from time to time, but generally not.

So when the movie started with sort of a comedic tone -- but figured to eventually feature that rotting clown countenance in the poster -- I sat up and took notice. My wife did too, though she had already mapped out a different plan for her Friday night viewing and decided not to deviate from it. She later told me she wished she'd found a time to fit it in before the 24-hour rental window expired.

As well she should have. It was a hoot.

The movie is definitely violent and does go to some dark places, but in a mastery of tone, it stays light. It's not a comedy -- there are none of what you would actually call jokes -- but the movie has an overriding "good-time vibe." That's not to say it really celebrates what happens either, just that it keeps it in the realm of absurdity, rather than tragedy.

Oh, and if you need a further enticement: It's about a real estate agent who puts on a clown suit he finds in the home of a deceased client, needing to serve as an emergency fill-in for a clown who doesn't show at his son's birthday party. He then cannot take it off. And ... other stuff starts to happen.

Clown has really good performances from a cast that is largely unknown, and one of the best-ever uses of a delightfully unhinged Peter Stormare. Terrific camera work also by Matthew Santo, who has no other interesting credits to his name but should get plenty of work going forward if there's any justice.

But the real triumph here is that tone, which seems to have become a specialty of the movie's producer, Eli Roth. The tone is very similar to the tone in Roth's Knock Knock, which I also kind of loved. I suppose there's also something divisive about this tone, as both Clown and Knock Knock have their vocal detractors. But horror movies that flirt with the comedic and push taboo buttons are always going to piss some people off.

The film's other surprise was how it redeemed its director, Jon Watts. Watts actually got quite good notices from the film he made last year, Cop Car, which is technically a more recent film than Clown, as Clown had a very staggered release after first materializing in Italy in 2014. (In this case, staggered = dumped, probably.) However, I didn't like Cop Car at all -- in fact, it was in my bottom ten of last year, out of 143 movies I'd seen at the time of my ranking deadline. I didn't get what the affection was all about, so I was probably also a bit aghast that Watts was tapped to direct the Spider-Man reboot, a piece of information I processed when it was first announced and promptly forgot about. Well, now Watts is in my good graces, and I'm really interested to see what he brings to a movie whose existence otherwise leaves me non-plussed.

I guess the lesson is, when it comes to horror movies -- when it comes to any movies, really -- you can't always judge a book by its cover.

You have to look at Clown from both sides, now.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Caught in the middle


Every year around this time I start whingeing (to use the Australian term) about what films I'm not going to be able to see before my ranking deadline in mid-January (actually January 24th this year) because their Australian release has been scheduled for February or later.

Not this year. This year, I should miss nothing.

Or so one would suppose, since I will be in the U.S. for three weeks of the prime awards release viewing season, from December 21st to January 12th, and part of that time in Los Angeles, meaning I'll have access even to the limited releases that are only opening there and New York. And even once I get back, I'll have two weeks longer than usual to clean up the things I missed, meaning I don't have to prioritize the big holiday releases while I'm in America, because I can get 'em when I come back.

Or so one would suppose.

Actually, I might be in a position to lose a different set of movies this year: movies that will already be gone from U.S. theaters when I get there.

That's right, I could get caught in the middle, in that dead zone between the movies leaving American theaters and arriving in Australian ones.

Strangely enough, these movies follow a particular theme. And it's a theme Hollywood is going to be really paying attention to, meaning I've got an even greater incentive than usual for catching them.

This Oscar season is going to be the season we look inside ourselves and determine if we can nominate a movie with important black subject matter -- and not just for minor awards, but for the big ones. And not just one, but hopefully more than one.

Unfortunately, three of the top contenders have already come out in the U.S., and are still way off in Australia's future.

Possibly the current best picture frontrunner, especially in a post-#oscarssowhite landscape, is Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, a film that has received adulation from all corners. As you probably know but I'll explain anyway, it's the story of a gay black man growing up poor in Florida, at three different phases of his life between childhood and young adulthood. Especially with no other film garnering certain best picture support -- Sully, anyone? -- this could be the year Moonlight leaves the other films in the dust, representing the best chance to legitimately address the absence of African Americans among last year's nominees.

Oddly enough, despite the deafening roar of critical acclaim, Moonlight has no Australian release date that I can find. And if history is any indication, that means no earlier than late February or early March at this point.

Then there's Loving, Jeff Nichols' portrait of the Virginia couple who challenged that state's law against interracial marriage back in 1958. Ruth Nega is supposed to be amazing in this movie, possibly yielding another acting nomination in addition to the one or more that should be forthcoming from Moonlight.

I'll have to wait for February 9th for that one.

And then finally there's the one-time frontrunner, the movie certain to cure all our institutionalized racism ills until it created a whole spate of its own ills: The Birth of a Nation, the Nate Parker film that overwhelmed viewers at Sundance and got a historic distribution deal, only to be mired in controversy upon the surfacing of past rape charges against its director and co-writer (only one of whom was acquitted). People started to boycott Parker's dramatization of the Nat Turner slave rebellion, and then critics dealt it the decisive blow when they couldn't comprehend what all the fuss was about in terms of its quality.

That, I can't see until February 2nd.

There's a good chance I've just plain missed The Birth of a Nation. As it came out back on October 7th, there's little chance that a film that generally flopped will still be hanging around when I get there nearly three months later -- three months, because my only real chance to pick off some of these movies will probably be in the LA portion of the trip, which starts on January 2nd. And it might not be worth prioritizing this one anyway. I can say that I was on the right side of history with boycotting this movie, despite my impassioned pleas not to do that in this post.

But Moonlight and Loving represent slightly better opportunities. Moonlight came out only two weeks after Birth, but as its Oscar frontrunner status is currently being cemented, it figures to have legs. Even if its wide release has died down by the time I get there, I should be able to find it in a theater that hangs on to its movies a bit longer. Loving is the best bet in terms of still hanging around on its original run, having come out two weeks after Moonlight on November 4th, though its lower Oscar heat might also mean it won't last as long. Then again, there's also a chance I could get it in Australia, as IMDB lists its Australian release date as January 12th. I guess I'll have to reconcile my two release date sources and see which one is correct.

I suppose there's also a slim chance I get any one of these movies, most likely Birth, on the plane. If enough time has passed since they opened, they could fall into that hot new release category that planes sometimes enjoy, seeming to get movies just a tad before they reach BluRay or digital rental.

Whatever happens, I can't jam up my trip with going to the movies, so I've got to be strategic about this.

I've got friends and family to visit, ya know.

Friday, November 18, 2016

One doc I don't think I'll be able to watch


Identifying the narrative films I need to see each year is pretty easy. Many of them come with advanced hype, or with actors, directors or screenwriters whose next project I'm anticipating.

It's a bit different with documentaries. I want to have a decent number of them on my year-end list as well, but I tend to learn about them more by positive word of mouth, which is an inexact science at best. And as I've discussed in the past, some documentaries are difficult to classify as legitimate, theatrical documentaries, the type I usually include in my rankings. Even really good documentaries often debut on platforms that remove them from consideration according to the criteria I use, to a greater extent than their fiction counterparts do.

But each year there are a good half-dozen of what I will call "zeitgeist documentaries," which are documentaries that are just so generally known and talked about that I consider them must-haves for my list.

One of those for 2016, for example, is Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's Weiner, the account of the political downfall, attempted comeback, and second political downall of disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner.

In light of real-world events, though, I don't know how I'm going to be able to bring myself to watch it.

Certainly not by the middle of January, and possibly not ever.

You see, more than any other film that has come out or will come out in 2016, Weiner will be intrinsically linked to Hillary Clinton's surprise and still-shocking loss in the presidential election.

It's hard to say how much Weiner the man was directly responsible for that. But in a phone call to major donors last weekend, Clinton attributed her loss to the new investigation of her emails. The data told her team that that investigation played a major role in making up the minds of undecided voters in the final ten days of the campaign. It was an unrelated investigation of Anthony Weiner's laptop that gave FBI director James Comey the pretext he needed to cast a shadow of doubt over Clinton, at the worst time possible.

Weiner is, of course, the husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin, who is finally, wisely, tragically belatedly, cutting the guy loose. Her use of his polluted laptop provided the possibility that it contained damning emails in which U.S. security information was handled carelessly.

Anthony Weiner was supposed to be remembered as a joke. Now he will be remembered as a tragedy.

Weiner has always served as an embarrassment to Democrats from the first time his dick pics got him in trouble. But it was a funny sort of embarrassment, nothing that crushed our souls. We laughed him off as a disastrous politician, a disastrous human being, not a disastrous Democrat. Not a person who had the potential to play a role, however small, in bringing our democracy to its knees. We lapped up the jokes by talk show hosts and the clever puns related to his name, particularly clever in light of what he was accused of. We laughed at it in the moment and expected to always be able to look back on it and laugh.

Now that's all tainted.

And I argue that the context for watching the movie needs to be one of levity. I'm not watching Weiner in order to contemplate the unimaginable chain reaction stemming from one idiot politician so sex addicted that he can't stop sexting, sometimes to underage girls. I'm watching Weiner to gasp at a person's own self-destructiveness, and probably to keep going that good-time vibe of the talk show jokes and puns.

Now that Weiner has not only destroyed himself, but taken the rest of us down with him, I don't know that I can watch that happening on film. It's too damn depressing. I'm trying to escape from reality right now, not languish in its oppressive throes.

It's been a theme this fall, having to sacrifice future jokes that we thought we had in the bank. Think of anything ridiculous Donald Trump ever said or did during the campaign. Remember how much fun those were going to be to remember in a year or two? Wasn't that going to be great? Weren't we going to remember Alec Baldwin's Trump impersonations on Saturday Night Live with relish and joy? Once that orange fascist had been sent back permanently to his ivory tower, to lick his wounds?

Weiner is ruined, Trump's hilariously inept campaign is ruined, and frankly, our country feels ruined too.

Maybe when a new president is elected on November 3, 2020, a Democrat who promises to repudiate the hatred and awful policies of the previous four years, when it's clear we can pick up the pieces and go forward with a new majority coalition that will pave the way for a better world, maybe then I will consider watching this supposedly very good documentary.

Either that, or I'll just shrug and say "What the fuck" and watch it on my plane ride to America next month.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

A hack saw a ridge ...


I wouldn't have called Mel Gibson a hack before Monday. But then I saw Hacksaw Ridge.

Now, "hack" is about the only word that seems appropriate.

Have you seen this movie?

Yes, you. I'm talking to you.

It's an hour of maudlin, sentimental slop involving dull wartime romances, platitudes about personal beliefs, perfunctory training montages and about as much aw-shucks dorkiness from Andrew Garfield as a person can handle -- not to mention some pretty outrageous overacting by Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths -- followed by an hour of extreme violence that reaches nearly Kill Bill levels of comic absurdity, except it's not played as comedy.

Essentially, it's an hour of Gibson's heartfelt religious crap followed by an hour of Gibson's sadistic violence crap.

In order to follow through on the implications for the ellipses in my title, I might speculate that the reason Gibson wanted to make this movie was the titular ridge in Okinawa, which required U.S. soldiers to scale it using rope ladders in order to attack the Japanese. In my somewhat limited understanding of world conflicts, it appears to be a unique bit of topography to have to grapple with in order to carry out an attack. Reason enough for someone to make a movie, I think.

But who am I kidding? Gibson made this movie in order to keep drilling away on two long-standing obsessions: Christianity, and the outrageous suffering of the human body.

I won't get into a point-by-point analysis of what works (little of it) and doesn't work (most of it) about Hacksaw Ridge. Really, I'm more interested in how Gibson's filmmaking skills seem to have departed him in the ten years since he made Apocalypto, an enthralling, ambitious, original action movie that touched on some of his obsessions but was more interested in delivering a stupendously entertaining movie. Even when Gibson was making movies I did not particularly care for -- such as The Passion of the Christ -- he was showing off a truly advanced understanding of how to use the tools of cinema to make us feel. We may not have liked what we were feeling in Christ, but we couldn't deny its visceral power.

That has utterly dissipated in Hacksaw Ridge, a flat movie filled with stock characters.

Now before you get too up in arms about this statement -- since I may have gotten you wrong and you may have liked this movie -- I will grant you that the battle sequences do involve a high degree of difficulty. Bodies are catching fire and flipping in a ballet of chaos and destruction. Viscera is exiting bodies and heads are popping off. Penises are flying through the air. Okay, some of that stuff may not have happened. But Gibson is so fixated on corporeal dismemberment that I wouldn't be surprised if you told me they did. It would have been really hard to do, and to Gibson's credit, he does give us a good sense of the battlefield dynamics -- who is where, what's at stake, what were the unique complications of this particular battle. It's highly orchestrated chaos.

But to what end? The tools of cinema only serve us to the extent that they deepen the film's themes or tap into something essential about its narrative or the purpose of that narrative. Since Gibson's film does not do that -- and in fact runs contrary to that, as a queasy celebration of violence in a film about pacifism -- it seems like misplaced, and therefore superfluous, and therefore useless, and therefore even aesthetically unsatisfying, technique.

One other point I want to touch on about Hacksaw Ridge is its cast. There is a "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" quality to them. I'll explain what I mean by that in a minute, but first I'll tell you that I almost called this post "Give me your tired," as that would have also functioned as an indictment of the movie's cliched banalities.

What I mean by that is that it's a truly odd cast, composed largely of people it seemed like Gibson must have had to pick off the scrap heap. And before you take umbrage at that characterization, let me clarify it further. Few of the people Gibson cast are not A-listers, or at least, very recent A-listers. But they are so oddly chosen for their roles that they make it seem like Gibson, at this stage of his pariah-hood, only had a certain number of A-listers available to him, and had to fit those square pegs into round holes.

The most glaring in this regard is Vince Vaughn, who plays a drill sergeant -- and then, I guess, an actual sergeant. (Is there a difference? I don't know.) It's not that Vaughn cannot play drama at all -- one of my favorite Vaughn performances is a dramatic role in The Cell -- but that he is uniquely unqualified to play a drill sergeant. It's not that he can't yell -- anyone can yell -- but that he does not seem the least bit intimidating when he does so. As a clear sign of how Gibson did not know what to do with him, he includes an ill-advised comedic moment involving the character in which Vaughn mistakes one of his grunts for a Native American and proceeds to force the grunt to join him in that "traditional" Native American war cry involving repeatedly touching your open palm to your open mouth while making the cry. What's even stranger about it is that it might be literally the movie's only attempt at a joke.

Then what's noticeable about this cast is how many Australians it features. That can't just be a result of the number of Australians available in Hollywood. It must be a representation of either who has stuck by Gibson or who is willing to work with him. Not only do you have the aforementioned Weaving and Griffiths -- the latter of whom I didn't recognize at first, indicating at least how she's been off my personal radar, if not out of the public eye -- but also Sam Worthington and Teresa Palmer. Palmer is a lovely presence and I would call her A-list adjacent, but Worthington's brief heat after Avatar has long since cooled. To such an extent that he sticks out, even if his performance is not actually worth speaking ill of. To such an extent that I spent the whole movie trying to remember the actor's name. To think that I might not be able to remember the name of the star of Avatar, which came out only seven years ago.

Garfield is the most whole-heartedly A-list of the cast, in the prime of his career if ever there was a prime. He's 33 and figures to have as many exciting projects still ahead of him as behind him. But his was possibly my least favorite performance. He's all neck and teeth, a gawky southerner whose earnestness is only bested by his politeness. Those character traits do not automatically turn me off, but the way Garfield plays them is just so "aw shucks gee whillickers" big that it truly perturbed me. I wished Jim Cavaziel had been young enough to play the role, even though I don't like him much better. (That seems like who Gibson would have chosen in his perfect world.)

It's not that Gibson's films have always challenged the status quo, either. That's not what I needed to see. In fact, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto might have seemed like deviations from what started out as a pretty conventional directing career. His 1993 debut, The Man Without a Face, was a well-made, populist coming-of-age story, one that actually had an excess of humanism (and no violence, as I recall it). And Braveheart was high on the body count, but it did not feel indulgent in its violence, resulting in an incredibly popular film that went on to win best picture. These movies did not prove Gibson's daring, just his solid craftsmanship.

You could say that Hacksaw Ridge still demonstrates solid craftsmanship, in places. But its total lack of complication and daring is dispiriting, and undermines that craftsmanship. The Gibson we got in 2004 and 2006 with Christ and Apocalypto -- before he was rightly drummed out of Hollywood -- was a man making bold choices that only didn't work, if they didn't work, for reasons of tone or intent. Now that he's made another film like the two that started his career, at least in terms of their attempt to function as mainstream products, it feels like he's lost both his voice and some of his technical ability.

Because Apocalypto demonstrated such a command of the various elements that go into making a film, I really thought the next Gibson joint would be something astonishing -- and I longed for it, on some level, even as I grew to loathe the man himself.

Now that he's back, I feel like instead of a type of visionary, we just have another Hollywood hack.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

And now, a rant about Aubrey Plaza


Aubrey Plaza is the worst.

I'll just say it. She's terrible. She drives me crazy. And not in a good way.

This was not always the case. In fact, those who have not been paying much attention to Plaza and her recent awful choices might recoil from such a proclamation. But it's true. Find out for yourself, if you dare.

(And don't worry, that's just suncreen in the photo I've chosen.)

Plaza came on the scene as a comedy nerd darling when Parks and Recreation debuted back in December of 2009. If you saw Funny People in the theaters about three months before that -- which I did not -- you were introduced to her then, in a similar comedy nerd darling role. She was instantly pegged as a breakout star, though to be fair, nearly the whole cast of Parks and Recreation ended up breaking out. In fact, it's kind of astonishing how much that show was a wellspring for upcoming talent.

Something about her persona was a breath of fresh air. She was acerbic and ironic, irreverent and indifferent. She was like the waify indie version of the gruff man who could never reveal that he cared about or loved anything (a role actually played by Nick Offerman on the show). But of course, by the end of each episode, she would prove that she really did have a heart.

Unfortunately, that shtick kind of got old. April Ludgate's vascillations between false nihilism and false sentimentality eventually began to ring false themselves and become repetitive. Everyone knew she was really a softie, so all her anarchic bluster started to feel tired. You just wanted her to grow up and stop being snarky.

But both the small-screen version of Plaza and the big-screen version of Plaza remained charming for at least a few years. Smart movie choices followed the big splash she made in 2009, in the likes of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Damsels in Distress, 10 Years and Safety Not Guaranteed. I didn't particularly like Safety Not Guaranteed, but it was the right kind of role for her to take, and she was hardly that movie's biggest problem.

At some point, though, Plaza started making dumb choices. The first of these would have been A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III in 2012, though I only saw this a few months ago so her participation in it was not at that time a factor in my growing wariness toward her. Still, it was a movie directed by a guy with a certain vision (Roman Coppola), and Bill Murray was also in it, so I could see her looking past Charlie Sheen's involvement and giving it a go.

But the choices become less defensible as she moves forward. Twenty thirteen marked her big plunge into the crass, an impulse that has guided her since then. In that year she made The To Do List, which seemed promising at the time but was hated by a few people I respect. I missed this one until earlier this year as well, so this is also a bit of a retroactive analysis in where she started to go wrong, but the timing of that viewing helps put into perspective the rest of the awful experiences I've had with her in 2016. And boy was The To Do List awful -- gross and immature and utterly devoid of charm. (And before we get to 2016, I'll also mention that she swung and missed with Life After Beth in 2014, a comedy in which she played a zombie and was partly responsible for the film's uneven tone.)

I missed a couple smaller movies she did in 2015 -- had not even heard of them, in fact -- but she has come fill shit storm in 2016. The picture above is from Dirty Grandpa, which came out in January but which I only just saw this past weekend. And then in July there was Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.

What to say about these movies. They both also star Zac Efron. They both are slapstick, lowest common denominator movies. They both waste one really charming female romantic lead (Zoey Deutch and Anna Kendrick). They are both wretched, miserable experiences.

And they both feature Plaza as a rude, uncouth, brassy chick who drinks heavily and drops bawdy sexual innuendos.

In other words, she goes big and she goes sloppy.

This is the opposite of the Plaza who originally greeted us back in 2009. It was hard to say whether she would be sweet (Funny People, if memory serves) or sour (Parks and Recreation), but she could in fact be accurately described as a "comedy nerd darling," the phrase I employed twice earlier in this piece. She operated within a sphere of intelligence, a sphere of feminism and self-possession. If you watched her, you were proud that she had carved out a niche in which her particular brand of comedy would be rewarded.

Now?

She has decided that she needs to play Spring Break Girl, someone who has a drink in one hand and a dick in the other -- or at least, metaphorically a dick. In Dirty Grandpa, she decides she wants to fuck Robert De Niro. Plaza is 32. De Niro is 73. And in this movie, an incredible asshole.

But Plaza might be a bigger asshole. She's taken on the obnoxious female sidekick role with relish, playing basically the same character as Lenore in Grandpa and Tatiana in Wedding Dates. If, in an attempt to defend Plaza, you want to talk about having to take what Hollywood gives you upon reaching a certain age, just remember -- she's only 32. It's not like they are putting her out to pasture. In fact, in both movies she is regularly seen in a bikini, as if flautning that she is now castable as some kind of sexual object.

That instinct was totally anathema to the insticts she had five years ago. She was shy, closed off, protective of self in a good way -- she was as likely to tell you to fuck off as to fuck me.

And I don't know if she can ever get that back. For me, Aubrey Plaza has been ruined. I mean, I wasn't a gigantic fan of her in the first place, since her April Ludgate shtick wore on me quickly as well. But at least April Ludgate respected herself and was a fierce advocate for her own will. Lenore and Tatiana, on the other hand, are only fierce advocates for Jell-O shots and outrageous unprotected sex.

At least Plaza is leaving Daytona Beach behind in 2017. She'll play the title character in a movie called Ingrid Goes West, a mentally disturbed woman obsessed with a social media star. And The Little Hours, another comedy, finds her at a convent full of emotionally unstable nuns in the Middle Ages. Um, yes, I think you read that correctly.

Will this get her back in good with the comedy nerds?

Or will her emotionally unstable nun have a proclivity for fucking priests and drinking five times more mead than anyone else?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Nothing major


As I was starting my Christmas shopping in rather depressing fashion yesterday -- not because I was depressed, though I sort of was, but rather, because I was having no luck -- I kind of drifted through a particular book store, hoping for a spark of inspiration that I kind of knew was not coming.

I did see, however, a book advertised called The Wrong Girl, which I had heard about recently but couldn't remember why.

Looking at the cover, I figured it out: It's a major television series.

"What the hell is a major television series, Vance?" you ask me.

It's a television series. With the word "major" in front.

I instantly recognized the convention being honored, of course. When you do a new print run of a book that has been adapted into a movie -- Gone Girl, let's say -- you adorn the jacket with the phrase "Now a major motion picture."

Television, though, has no equivalent, maybe because books aren't usually adapted into television shows.

One option would be to write "Now a television series." But that sounds pretty bland. It sounds like you couldn't give two shits about its new spot in the pop culture landscape. You need that adjective.

Adding "major" in the front doesn't really solve the problem, because, as you asked before: What the hell is a major television series?

I'd probably go with "Now an exciting new television series," or something to that effect -- but if I wanted to do that, I'd probably have to go for a smaller font. And there's probably some theory on the optimal font size of this type of announcement as compared to the size of the title or the author's name.

I'd venture to say that in the U.S., they would figure out a reasonable solution. Yep, this is an Australian show (and I suppose also an Australian book). That explains a lot. I don't want to slag off my adopted home -- which may be my home for some bit longer with the election of Trump -- but let's just say some of the things they do here are goofy. They frequently use the patently ridiculous word "unmissable" when talking about a piece of entertainment you shouldn't miss, and the TV stations have a habit of not telling you when a show will actually be airing until right before it actually airs. Oh, they'll advertise it, but they'll say things like "coming in March," even if it's February 28th. My wife and I joke that they just want you to sit there watching the station constantly so that you'll get to see it when they do finally air it.

Oh Australia. But at least you didn't just elect Donald Trump.

He's definitely The Wrong Boy.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A timely dose of girl power


Women cannot be president of the United States -- not yet, anyway -- but they can be Ghostbusters.

This was the subject of infamous debate on the internet, in what now reads as an ominous portent of what was going to happen in the presidential election. We are a nation not only divided by ideology, unfortunately, but also by gender. If you didn't want a woman picking up a proton pack and particle thrower, you certainly didn't want her finger on the button. (And I don't mean you you, of course. You're cool.)

The reasons Hillary wasn't elected are surely more complicated than that. I'm not going to re-litigate that today.

What I am going to do is set the stage for our renting of Ghostbusters. We wanted something essentially silly to take our mind off the state of the world, but also something that would place women in a position of power, if only for a bit of symbolism about our ongoing liberal agenda. Well, that was my own rationale for suggesting it, anyway. The speed with which my wife agreed on the choice indicated it was sound logic.

The timing was also a bit fraught, though. What if we didn't like it? Or worse, what if we really didn't like it? It might make things worse. The thing we had chosen as a balm could end up squirting Tabasco sauce into our wounds.

Well fortunately, I'm a thumbs up on this movie. I just wish it could be a slightly more definitive thumbs up.

Whether or not women can be Ghostbusters -- or would seem natural as them -- never figured to be an issue for me, and I'm glad to say it wasn't. In fact, I loved the way this team came together. It felt natural and I was cheering on these likable characters. I even liked the choices made by Kate McKinnon, having written a post in which I described her as one of my biggest worries about the movie. When you really commit to a characterization -- and boy does McKinnon commit -- you are going to misfire sometimes. But she hit a lot more than she misfired, and it gave the movie a real additional dose of eccentricity.

Unfortunately, the problem with this movie is that after it has that promising beginning, it doesn't feel like it has a middle or an end. It has scenes that are playing the part of a middle scene, the part of an end scene. But the story is not constructed in such a way to give us the proper momentum toward that middle and end. I don't know how to describe it any better than that. The story of this villain trying to open a gateway to the spiritual world didn't do a lot for me, I'm sorry to say.

Only about 12 hours after watching it, I already don't remember big parts of it. We were both falling asleep a bit, so that's no doubt a contributing factor. Still, I wouldn't say I lost more than a minute of what was happening. Maybe my overall state of exhaustion -- it's been a long and tiring week -- contributed to a kind of fugue state in which I couldn't solidify an impression of the movie.

Or maybe it just wasn't that memorable.

What I do remember, though, is laughing. I laughed out loud at least a dozen times in this film, and many comedies cannot claim such a high success rate. The film looked better than I thought it was going to look and it was funnier than I thought it was going to be. So what if it wasn't perfect? It was a Ghostbusters movie that made me laugh. End of story.

The question I should probably address, in a post with this title, is whether the movie felt specifically empowering toward these women, whether it provided me a specific sense of inspiration. I guess the answer is that it did, but more in the sense that the movie was made at all than in anything textual. They are not better or worse Ghostbusters because they are women. They are not better or worse scientists because they are women. They are not better or worse people because they are women. They are just people, and in most other movies, they would be male people. That itself is something.

Of course, the fact that the movie was roundly rejected and is considered a flop casts a pall over all of this.

I'll close by briefly addressing three other talked-about aspects of the film:

1) The cameos from the original movie. A lot of people thought they killed the pace of the film and prevented it from being its own distinct entity. I didn't have that issue. With the possible exception of Bill Murray's usage, the scenes were all short enough not to feel like anything was being belabored. It didn't detract. But I don't really think it added either.

2) Leslie Jones. The worry was that the only character who isn't a scientist is the black transit worker. Would a truly progressive female Ghostbusters have made the black Ghostbuster one of the scientists? Maybe. But this film does right by Jones' character. The street sass that could have been played up is not. And she's pretty much always making the right decisions. I liked the character, and more importantly, I liked how the film treated her.

3) Chris Hemsworth as the bimbo receptionist. He made me laugh a lot, but only in proportion to the rest of the characters. So, the narrative that the "one funny part of the movie was a man" is also not something I agree with.

So the world may not have been truly ready for a female president or female Ghostbusters. But I'm not going to use the evidence of 2016 to discourage me. And I don't think the studios are either.

And ultimately, I don't think the electorate is either.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Why most biopics suck


I seem to have reviewed a fair number of biopics in the last year or so -- Brian Wilson, Miles Davis and Edward Snowden, to name a few -- and I always find myself either using or resisting the urge to use what has now become a cliched descriptor for them: "cradle-to-grave." The standard construction of a biopic is so very standard -- showing us the subject from early years to usually premature death -- that it becomes relevant to talk about it, no matter whether the movie in question is adhering to or deviating from those norms. Essentially, you're mentioning it every time, if you let yourself.

But there's another thing that makes the standard biopic dull, even when it eschews the subject's childhood and teenage years, as more and more are seeming to do.

Simply put, just watching a person jump in and out of marriages, drug addictions and fights is pretty damn boring.

That's the fatal flaw with the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light. The saving grace even of movies with that second blueprint is that they are at least supposed to give us good exposure to the subject's art or other contribution to society. But I must say I don't have that much better of an idea of Williams as an artist as I did before I started watching.

Yeah, you get minute-long clips of Williams singing this song or that, to add flavor. But the thing it's adding flavor to is bland, and the flavor added is also bland.

Tom Hiddleston does his best. So does Elizabeth Olsen. In fact, I Saw the Light provided the occasion for me to contemplate -- not for the first time, of course -- how good an actress Olsen actually is. She even makes thankless material sing. ("Sing" is probably the wrong term for this particular character, a would-be vocal accompaniment to her husband who just doesn't have the talent.)

The acting is not usually the problem in a biopic, since they usually get good actors to appear in them.

No, it's all that drinking, whoring and fighting.

Actually, I think there's only one fight -- one physical fight, anyway -- in I Saw the Light. But the scene is so contrived that it stakes a claim to a larger share of the film's overall triteness. It comes in the film's first ten minutes, when a random audience member decides to start talking shit about Williams even though he has done nothing to provoke it. When Williams finally responds with a comment that is totally innocuous, it angers the blood of the spectator so much that he rushes the stage and tackles Williams. Perhaps there really was an incident like that in Williams' life -- it's hardly an interesting enough incident to include in the movie, so its details hardly need to be correct -- but it is executed so poorly that it rings utterly false. On the other hand, in the wake of Donald Trump's election, a hick who gets angry for no reason and resorts to violence feels depressingly true to life.

From here it's a bunch of "I love you Hank, I don't love you Hank, I'm leaving you Hank, I'm giving you another chance Hank, I promise to stop drinking, I can't stop drinking, I promise to stop cheating, I can't stop cheating." Yawn.

It makes a person question the value of the biopic as an art form at all. This is probably an accurate depiction of what Williams' life was like. But it doesn't translate into compelling material. If we can't tell the truth about somebody's life (this movie) and we can't tell fiction about somebody's life in an attempt to make it more interesting (Miles Ahead), then what can we offer?

I guess some of it depends on the skill of the filmmakers. Maybe writer-director Marc Abraham is not all that skilled, despite being a producer on one of my favorite films, Children of Men. Perhaps Bill Pohlad and his writers on Love & Mercy, Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, are that much more skilled, giving Brian Wilson's life the dynamic treatment that Abraham couldn't for Williams.

I Saw the Light ends with one last reminder of the built-in problem of most biopics, and indeed, many films in general where the character needs a last scene but doesn't know it will be his or her last. Williams died of what was diagnosed as a heart attack while in the back of a car, being driven to a gig. His actual death appears off-screen, reported at the gig by a shaken promoter. But before he drives off, Williams parts from his loved ones (who don't love him much anymore by this point) with a long, sad, significant look in his eyes, a consummate "This is the last time I will see you" look. The character couldn't know that, but the actor, the director, and everyone else involved certainly did.

As I suggested, it's a problem of many films where characters die unexpectedly. But I guess the problem with biopics is that they tend to take on the most cliched elements of all films, and present them to us in one uninspired package.

In almost all cases, the subject deserved a better tribute.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

When movies are no escape


The feeling I have now is most similar to the feeling I had after 9/11.

Not in terms of the tragedy of the event, exactly. I mean, you could argue it both ways, that an incident in which thousands of people died is both more and less tragic than the election of Donald Trump. Less tragic because the election of any president does not directly lead to people's deaths (except when it does, and with Trump's finger on the button, it might), but more tragic because more people may be adversely affected in the long run. And because there's no common enemy to rally against, like there was with Osama bin Laden. The common enemy is ourselves.

But what I'm really referring to is that there's no escape from the sorrow, as there wasn't when the planes hit back in September of 2001.

Much was made back then about how soon was too soon to enjoy entertainment again -- specifically comedy, but more generally, any kind of entertainment. It was a fatal disconnect to imagine seeking out something that gave you pleasure, even as a distraction. Being able to extract pleasure from anything was anathema to how we felt. Sitting and staring at walls felt more appropriate.

And that's how I'm feeling right now.

I've watched parts of three movies since the election was called for Trump yesterday -- one in its entirety, one finishing off a viewing that had begun the night before, and a third in an (unsuccessful) attempt to combat insomnia during a sleepless night. Predictably, none has given me any pleasure, and it's not only because Mascots is an unfunny attempt by Christopher Guest to return to his old mockumentary stomping grounds, Borderline is a movie about borderline personality disorder that ends on a fatalistic note, and I Saw the Light (not yet finished) is a standard biopic about a musician I don't know much about (Hank Williams). It's because right now, it is impossible for me to derive pleasure from the source that can usually provide it for me, against all odds and under most circumstances, even when I'm at my lowest.

I'm not sure how long this will last, but my viewing schedule is nothing if not breakneck, and tonight, following a night when I slept for about 90 minutes, I'm supposed to be seeing Arrival, which under other circumstances might be a candidate for one of my favorite movies of the year. Now, I'll be lucky not to sleep through it.

I don't want to spoil my Arrival viewing, but life goes on. I've got to review it for the site almost immediately after the screening, then talk about it on a podcast three delays later. In short, I can't delay it to mourn.

But mourning I am, and mourning I shall be, and mourning will one day end, but I have no idea when.

And for now, movies are no escape from this grief.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A movie metaphor for election day


Hillary Clinton wants to create a world where elephants, donkeys, iguanas, parrots, whales, tse tse flies, giraffes, squirrels, tarantulas, kangaroos, storks, sharks, leopards, water buffalo, centipedes, seagulls, possums, lions, salamanders, emus, jaguars, moles, starfish, turtles, antelopes, ants, anacondas, chimpanzees, sloths, tuna, lobsters, cows, pigs, horses, dogs, cats, rabbits and foxes can live together in harmony.

Donald Trump wants to create a world where the elephants trample over everybody.

Don't just vote Tuesday.

Vote for the right zookeeper.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Amy Adams owns this Thursday


It's not often that an actress has herself as her primary competition, but that's what will happen this Thursday in Australia, when The Arrival and Nocturnal Animals open.

Amy Adams is the star of both.

They don't necessarily appeal to the same demographics, but there's enough crossover in their appeal, and little enough else opening this week, that viewers will indeed likely be confronted with the "Amy or Amy" decision when going to the movies this weekend.

Of course, in the U.S., neither opens on November 10th. The Arrival must wait an additional day until the 11th (in accordance with U.S. Friday release dates) while Nocturnal Animals bows a week after that in New York and Los Angeles, increasing to a "limited" release (though less limited than those two cities, I guess) on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving before a wide release on December 9th.

Both movies have been all over the trailers I've gotten before the last few movies I've seen, but my approach to them has been very different.

With Nocturnal Animals, I reluctantly watched the trailer, and then of course didn't bother to avert my eyes when it came up again. Which has been at least twice, possibly three more times.

With The Arrival, though -- directed by a favorite of mine, Denis Villeneuve -- I've been quick to cover my ears and close my eyes, so as to let as little about this movie seep into my consciousness as possible. I've still only managed to see the very beginning shots of the trailer (enough to alert me what movie it was) and a few isolated stills.

I won't be quick on to Nocturnal Animals, and not only because I now feel like I have a pretty good idea what I'll be getting from this movie. I'll see it in the theater. Probably.

The Arrival, though, I'll scoop up on the first night, and not only because we'll be discussing it on a podcast three nights later. No, this one truly feels in my wheelhouse.

It remains to be seen how much of a factor Adams herself will be, whether she will help each film or hurt it.

A couple years ago, the answer to that question would have been obvious. Adams' fresh face was a boon to whatever project she participated in, and I several times toyed with the idea of writing a post about how inherently sympathetic she was. In short, I thought it was impossible not to like her. And she was doing good work, too.

Her essential ability to associate herself with good projects remains unchanged (a few Superman movies notwithstanding), but some part of my enthusiasm for her has been lost. I think I may have breached an Amy Adams saturation point of some kind. She no longer feels fresh and she no longer is reason enough for me to be excited about a project. However, that alone probably doesn't mean she'll detract from it either.

We'll find out with The Arrival on Thursday night, and Nocturnal Animals probably about ten days later.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Insert requisite Cubs World Series post here


I am a baseball fan.

I am a movie fan.

So the day after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series -- a feat they had not accomplished in a by-now household knowledge 108 years -- I should be able to figure out a way to incorporate my love of baseball with my love of movies to honor Chicago's long-suffering team and their fans.

But the truth of the matter is, I'm drawing a blank.

I could call this post The Chicago Cubs' Century Off, a nod to Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I could call it Rookie of the Century, and reference one of the Cubs' great young players as well as the movie Rookie of the Year. I could even call it The Future Is Now and make a Back to the Future II reference.

But the fact is, I'm not feeling particularly clever this morning.

And the Cubs' win transcends movies. It transcends culture in general.

There was a thread in my Flickcharters Facebook group last night (well, it was day in Australia) in which people were chiming in with game updates -- their exquisite joys, their moments of temporary heartbreak, their sheer excitement about the spectacle they were watching. Meanwhile, others were continuing to post movie-related threads, seemingly oblivious to the historic and ridiculously exciting extra-inning game that was unfolding in Cleveland.

I pitied those who could not be part of the moment. I pitied those uninterested enough in sports that they didn't have a little room in their hearts or attention spans for being a part of history.

Me, I was maintaining four chats at once while also watching as much of the game as I could -- while also working.

Movies? I wasn't thinking about them much last night.

I was thinking about the Cubs, their fans, and how we all witnessed a sweet and long-overdue moment that will mean so much to so many.

Congratulations, Cubs. Chicagoans, take the next week off from work.

You deserve this.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Awash in self regard


The Neon Demon is a film about psychotic narcissism.

Which makes it a pretty good topic for Nicolas Winding Refn. Write what you know, they say. And Refn knows all about narcissism. I'm sure his house is full of mirrors -- metaphorical or otherwise.

Nicolas Winding Refn is pretty impressed with himself. He thinks he's pretty hot shit. The way he drapes his name all over his latest movie is proof positive of that.

I'm sure you saw this movie months ago -- it opened in the U.S. in July -- but we only just got it in Australia two weeks ago. In fact, I wasn't really in the mood to see it on Wednesday night, coming off a very busy week that included a music festival, a camping trip, Halloween, a public holiday on Tuesday, and the end of the six-month hiatus of my podcast on Tuesday night, in which we drank some celebratory whiskey. Wednesday night had all the makings of a quiet night in.

But Wednesday night was also my last chance to see The Neon Demon in the theater for free. The only theater where it's playing here in Melbourne is Cinema Nova in Carlton, and Nova only allows you to use your critics cards to see a movie in the first two weeks of its run. Today, Thursday, marks the end of those two weeks.

Well, I'm glad I went. I was lukewarm on Drive and I hated Only God Forgives, ranking it my least favorite movie of that year. I do like Bronson and Valhalla Rising, but those feel like older versions or Refn. Not the Refn we have now.

Not the Refn who loves himself so much.

But I'll get to that in a minute. First, the positives. The Neon Demon is clearly my favorite Refn movie so far, the most fully realized encapsulation of what is taking shape as his vision of the world. This despite some incredible miscalculations in the third act -- not on where the movie should go, necessarily, but on how it goes where it goes. In other words, I did want an off the rails finale that attempted to provoke, but I didn't like this particular off the rails finale that attempted to provoke. The rest of it, though, made up for the ending. Those triangles. THOSE TRIANGLES!

And now, the narcissism.

As far as I can tell, Nicolas Winding Refn's name appears six times in the credits of this movie. Six. Two before, four after. As far as I recall, they are as follows:

1) Listing himself as one of the people who "present" the movie, along with the various production companies that funded it.

2) Listing himself as the director prior to the reveal of the title.

And after:

3) Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

4) Story by Nicolas Winding Refn

5) Screenplay by Nicolas Winding Refn and either Mary Laws or Polly Stenham (there were only two screenwriters listed on screen, though Wikipedia lists three)

Those are the first three credits that roll. Then, after some other credits have rolled:

6) A Nicolas Winding Refn film

Really? You don't say.

Oh wait, you said it like 30 times.

But if just the navel-gazing love of how his three names sound together were all there was, I probably wouldn't have written this post. The kicker was his initials.

If you've been reading my posts on D.W. Griffith movies I've watched for my No Audio Audient series -- I've watched Intolerance and Broken Blossoms -- you'll know that Griffith displays one little bit of egocentrism that really irks me. For reasons known perhaps only to him, Griffith would include his initials, D.G., on the dialogue cards in his movies. (No W., though.) As there can be no semantic argument for their existence, they can be attributed only to his own massive sense of self appreciation.

But at least Griffith's commitment to his own personal glory can be written off as a product of a different time. Who knows, maybe there were even other directors who did it, enough that it was something of a convention.

The same cannot be said for Refn, who includes his initials NWR -- pointing down at an angle to the right -- each time the film's title is on the screen, which is at least twice. And perhaps also as the actor's names were appearing on screen, as well. Here, like this:


What a twat.

So even though I really liked this film -- loved 2/3 of it -- I still leave the experience with no better of an impression of its director. He has always struck me, maybe subconsciously before now, as a person full of himself, who thinks his cinematic vision is innately praiseworthy. He's a bit like Lars von Trier in terms of being an enfant terrible whose overconfidence is supposed to read as a sign of personal strength rather than his own immodesty. If you don't like his persona, you can just fuck off.

And it really does give him something in common with his characters. "Beauty isn't everything, it's the only thing," says a mysteriously uncredited Alessandro Nivola -- mysteriously because he appears in at least three different scenes and has plenty of dialogue. Refn sees his own vision as a thing of beauty, and it's really "the only thing" in a way -- he doesn't care if his story is full of holes (they usually are) or if some elements are downright disagreeable. In this way he would relate directly with the lead character played by Elle Fanning, the only character who sees herself as flawless. "No one likes how they look," a fellow model says to her. "I like how I look," she responds, with perhaps feigned innocence.

Refn likes how he looks, how his films look, how his name looks. And he's not afraid to show it.

As I was leaving the movie and fully in the midst of processing it -- wishing, though, that the first 80 minutes were the most recent impression I was mulling, rather than the last 40 -- I came across a truly disturbing sight downstairs from the theater. It was this one:


And then also this one:


The first one is the more disturbing, I think you will agree.

The two images were on the shade that gets lowered over the entrance of a fancy women's clothing store that was of course closed, it being 11:30 at night. At first I had no idea why the googly eyes were there, which made it all the more frightening. I later determined it was probably a prank played by someone for Halloween, or perhaps even something the store did itself in honor of the holiday (even though the holiday isn't nearly as big in Australia as it is in the U.S.). But at the time, the total lack of a reason for it, coupled with just having seen a movie about psychotic models with crazy eyes, chilled me to the bone. (For crazy eyes in the movie, see: Abbey Lee.)

That's all I have for now, but ...

Derek Scott Armstrong presents

A Derek Scott Armstrong post

Written by Derek Scott Armstrong

Conceived by Derek Scott Armstrong

Typed by Derek Scott Armstrong

Last two photographs taken by Derek Scott Armstrong

Derek Scott Armstrong is Great

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Halloween 1921, or No Audio Audient: The Phantom Carriage


For Halloween this year, I traveled 95 years into the past, viewing both a movie about how they saw themselves then, and a movie about how we see them now.

The movie I knew would be from 1921 was The Phantom Carriage, my monthly viewing from my silent movie series No Audio Audient, which I almost didn't manage to get in during the month of October.

The movie I didn't know would have anything to do with 1921 was The Awakening, a 2011 period horror starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West, which I chose as our Halloween night viewing.

Since only the first one was much good, and since the one that wasn't very good is kind of hijacking the other's spot on the blog, I'll spend most of my discussion on the silent Swedish film.

I'd tried to start The Phantom Carriage on October 30th at around 10:30 -- an ironic time to start watching it for a number of reasons, not least of which was that just last week, someone in my Flickcharters Facebook group specifically warned against starting a silent movie, and this silent movie in particular, at 10:30 at night. In a follow-up comment in that thread, anticipating my own upcoming viewing, I vowed to start it at 10:29 or earlier -- and lived up to that vow just barely, starting it at 10:28. In part because my previous night's sleep was fitful and almost nonexistent while camping, I was more compromised than usual in an attempt to start that late, and adding a final nail into my coffin was that neither version I found on YouTube had a score with it. It's kind of a miracle I made it the 40 minutes I did. With many silent films, that would have gotten me pretty close to the end, but this one was 106 minutes, leaving me well short. (I guess the last irony was that it was 10:30 on 10/30, which I'm only just now realizing.)

The lack of a score did help in my attempt to surreptitiously watch the rest of it the next day, Halloween day, a workday. It figured to be a slower day, a single workday sandwiched between a Sunday and a Tuesday holiday, and after lunch it finally became one. I ended up wrapping up the viewing at five minutes after five, and then headed straight home to take my kids out trick-or-treating. May not have been the ideal way to watch an atmospheric proto-horror movie, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

Actually, The Phantom Carriage isn't much of a horror movie at all -- which is not a bad thing. Sure, the basic premise is well within horror's broader wheelhouse, but if you're looking to tie this one in with a holiday, Halloween is not the first one you'd think of. In fact, Halloween might only be the third most relevant holiday with which to tie it in. I'll explain.

The story revolves around a legend (a real legend? not sure) that says that the last person to die in a calendar year is rewarded with/saddled with the responsibility of driving Death's carriage for the following year. I suppose it's actually the last sinner to die, since in the course of the story we see another December 31st death involving a godly person who is not a candidate for this task. But as this newly departed soul takes on the guise of Death, complete with shroud and scythe, he basically becomes the Grim Reaper for a year. The carriage is his mode of transportation. As the events of this story surround two consecutive New Year's Eves, New Year's Eve might be the most appropriately themed holiday.

But the story actually made me think of Christmas, as it very closely follows the themes and even story elements of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The main character in the movie is David Holm, played by Victor Sjostrom, the film's director. David is a drunkard who has fallen out with his wife and two children, who spends his time in ill repute with his friends. When we catch up with him he's drinking in a graveyard on New Year's Eve, regaling his friends with the legend of the phantom carriage, a story another friend had told him the previous New Year's Eve. That friend coincidentally died that night, and little does David know at the time, but his friend has been driving Death's carriage during the intervening year. David's about to find out, though. During a fight that breaks out with his friends when they try to take him to see a dying Salvation Army nurse who cared for him the year before -- and contracted consumption from him, an injury added to the insult of his ingratitude to her -- David is killed. When his soul leaves his body, he meets his friend from the previous year, who tells him he will drive Death's carriage for the next year. But first he must atone for the terrible life he has led, and travel with this apparition to visit and look in on others he has hurt, including the nurse who has asked for him on her death bed, and his wife and kids. Without spoiling the ending, I can tell you that it too is very Dickensian and Carolian. (Hint: David may not be dead dead, after all.)

But Halloween comes in third, and there are certainly some creepy things in among a story that soon takes the form of a morality play. At the time the film was lauded for its use of special effects, namely, the ability to overlay film such that the characters who are dead appear as transparent, ghostly images. It was actually a double exposure of the same film in the camera, and it was pretty revolutionary at the time. The effects are seamless and also creepy. When we first see this ghostly carriage arrive with Death as its driver, you do get a chill, even 95 years after the movie was made. Tod Browning's Dracula is pretty scary only ten years later, and I'm sure there are other examples of early scary movies, but this is probably the oldest movie that has actually "scared" me. I wasn't quaking in my boots or anything, but the appearance of that carriage was the equivalent of a ghostly caress of a finger along my spine. I think the lateness of the hour (at least I got to see the carriage for the first time when it was nighttime) and the lack of a score only contributed to the sense of sepulchral dread.

The film goes on to use those special effects quite profoundly, allowing David and his companion to drift through walls as they go about looking in on the living. The single "scariest" moment is probably when the carriage drives over the crashing waves of the coastline, creating an additional sense of the impossible that is one of the very reasons we go to see movies. I don't know why I found that image as effective as I did in terms of being scary, but I did.

The movie does abandon being scary pretty early on, though, so the portion I watched at work was more like the other silent movies I've watched for this series, which don't benefit from a nighttime viewing. And though I did use the Wikipedia plot synopsis as a crutch in being sure I knew everything that was going on -- the movie uses several flashbacks as well, though does not always delineate them from the thrust of the present-tense story, leading to the sense that you weren't paying proper attention or had missed a title card -- I did get quite engrossed in this man's story of attempted redemption. You can really see why this film is also credited as being an inspiration to Sjostrom's fellow countryman, Ingmar Bergman. Most obvious among these inspirations are the religious themes The Phantom Carriage shares with Bergman's work, but even that crashing waves scene I mentioned earlier made me think of the similar setting for Antonius' chess game with Death in The Seventh Seal. I got a lot out of watching another Swedish director who influenced Bergman (Carl Theodor Dreyer) and I'd say I got a lot out of this as well.

Okay, now for a few words on the other half of our 1921 double feature, The Awakening.

This is a fairly typical setup for a ghost story. Rebecca Hall plays a woman who debunks ghost sightings in post-World War I England (1921 to be exact, as listed in a title that appears on screen), though of course she has her own haunted backstory that the events of the story start to tease out. She is hired to try to either locate definitive evidence of or disprove the existence of the ghost of a child who died in a boarding school for boys. Events that initially seem to have nothing to do with her are ultimately entwined with her own history. There are startle scares and ghostly images of boys in photographs. That kind of thing.

It wasn't completely unworthy, and I do admit to having a weakness for ghostly images of boys in photographs. But it was far more valuable to me as a coincidental viewing to incorporate into this blog post than as an effective way to scare myself on Halloween night.

But hey, at least it disproves my recently expressed concern that I am scared by even the lesser entries in the horror genre.

Hope you've got some good scares in your North American Halloween night viewing, which should still be ahead of you as I type this.

Oh, and for the November installment of No Audio Audient, the penultimate installment, I'm looking at Erich von Stroheim's Greed, if I can fit its epic running time into my schedule.