Monday, July 24, 2017

First Hurt, now Heard

I don't know about you, but whenever I heard the names John Heard or John Hurt, I always had to
pause for a moment to remember which was which. One was an American appearing mostly in comedies and one was a Brit appearing mostly in dramas, so we wouldn't have mistaken them for one another based on their bodies of work. But their names, their similar ages and their similar times of coming to prominence (at least with me as a young viewer) made them forever interlinked.

That interlinking may continue in perpetuity, as we have now lost both of them in 2017.

John Heard was found dead in his hotel room in Palo Alto on Friday morning, where he was recovering from what was deemed minor back surgery. John Hurt lost his struggle with cancer back in January.

Although I always liked John Heard, his death may not have risen to the level of post-worthy on my blog if it didn't also give me the chance to pay delayed tribute to John Hurt.

But first, Heard.

John Heard was a staple of my 1980s comedy upbringing, sometimes as a villain (Big) but sometimes as a sympathetic character -- even if a forgetful one (Home Alone). To say he appeared "mostly" in comedies seems a bit inaccurate, as scanning his filmography on IMDB reveals far more dramas and thrillers than I would have guessed. But he became famous in films that tickled our funny bones, so I have come to associate him with that. And though he brought a definite smarm factor, which was why he was cast the way he was in Big, Home Alone also showed his capacity for warmth.

Of note: At the top of his page on wikipedia, it says "Not to be confused with John Hurt."

John Hurt has a bit bigger hit list, with classic features like Alien, The Elephant Man, A Man for All Seasons and Contact to his name, as well as a number of Harry Potter movies. But one of his most important functions for me was providing the narration in a personal favorite, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer -- his distinctly musical tones make it one of those rare examples of narration that seems indispensable. He had a certain craggy wisdom to him even when he was a younger man, and he feels like an extension of that great wing of elder British actors that included the likes of Alec Guiness, Ralph Richardson and Peter O'Toole.

Of note: At the top of his page on wikipedia, it says "Not to be confused with John Heard."

They were both in their 70s -- Heard early, Hurt late -- so their remaining contributions to cinema did not figure to be voluminous. But both were working straight up to their deaths, though Hurt had the luxury/burden of being aware the end was coming, while Heard presumably did not. We'll find out more about how Heard died in the coming days.

Goodbye, John H. and John H. You will be missed, and my memory of each of you will be distinct.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Thou shalt watch movies

I'm not sure if The Ten Commandments will actually be one of the movies I watch in the upcoming personal "film festival" I'm about to tell you about. It would suck up two nights all by itself, which is problematic. And though it was one of the original films up for contention, I now have 25 other films on my custom list on Letterboxd, and only ten nights of available viewing time. (Plus one long stretch on a Saturday afternoon, which may really be the time to do it.)

What is this I'm talking about? Why, I'll tell you.

A delegation from my family will be making a trip to the United States this week, but that delegation will not include me. In fact, it will be composed entirely of my wife. She's coming to a conference in Orlando for her work, and will be out of the country for a total of ten days.

While she's gone, I will watch movies.

Oh, I'll also go to work, do all the shopping, do all the cleaning, be a single dad to my two boys and all that that entails, and sleep.

But when I'm not doing those things, I will watch movies.

I pretty much do that anyway, of course, which is the only way to keep a pace of five to six viewings a week. The difference about the upcoming period is that I can start these movies just after my kids go to bed, not an hour later after my wife and I have watched some appointment TV together. (We're just wrapping up The Handmaid's Tale.) And that means I can tackle longer movies when I'm still fresh enough to watch the whole thing without falling asleep. Maybe not as long as The Ten Commandments -- not in one sitting, anyway -- but a 150-minute movie should be no problem on a given weeknight.

What makes it a "film festival," as such, is that I have been curating the films over recent weeks, in terms of library rentals, iTunes rentals and titles available on our streaming services. I'm not going to program which movie plays on which night in advance -- I'd like to leave it a bit more subject to my own whims and moods -- but I will indeed draw from this available list of titles on Letterboxd. (It's a private list, so don't bothering trying to check it out -- as if you would do that.)

And as in a real film festival, there will be no nights off. Each night between this Tuesday night and the following Thursday night will feature at least one movie, with themed double features hoped for on other nights. (Just a taste of that: The Shining paired with Room 237 and Trainspotting paired with T2: Trainspotting, the latter of which I have not seen in both cases.)

The Saturday viewing slot comes courtesy of my sister-in-law. She has agreed to take both my kids on a sleepover at her house the Saturday night my wife is gone, allowing me to remain home and lie around in my own filth for a day. (Not that kind of filth -- just the general mess that I like to leave when I'm home alone, for no other reason than that I can.) As I do when I have mini film festivals on an overnight hotel stay, I will try to fit four movies into Saturday (depending on when she picks them up) and one more Sunday morning before they return.

And yeah, I could use that afternoon slot to swallow The Ten Commandments whole, but who knows if that mood will strike me when I'm actually in that position. I've already got a perfect four other titles lined up for that day -- again, mood pending.

Of course, now I've gotten carried away and short-listed entirely too many movies, leading to inevitable disappointment. But, we shouldn't spend too much time worrying about things that are inevitable.

I will do my best to document all this viewing -- much of which will be revisiting -- on my blog. And because I like catchy titles, I will label these blog posts "Cat's Away," and then whatever title I consider appropriate following the colon. (Either the movie title or a little pithy comment about the viewing experience.)

It's not that I really am a mouse playing while my cat's away, since my cat basically lets me watch whatever I want, as long as I'm infringing on nothing other than my own sleep. But there is indeed a "mouse playing" mentality when you suddenly gain complete dominion over the television for a period of time, and I will undoubtedly watch some things that would require explanation to my wife -- not even necessarily because they involve sordid subject matter (though there will be some of those), but just because any time you watch something, another person in your house might ask "Why are you watching this?" And you feel like you have to give some answer that makes sense.

I also like this festival as a symbolic baton passing between the two distinct halves of my viewing year. As I have said elsewhere on this blog, I like to break my viewing patterns down into six-month chunks. From February to July, I focus on old releases and rewatches, with new releases sprinkled in. From August to January, I focus on films from the current release year, with old releases and rewatches sprinkled in. It's about to become August, so this festival will operate as a last binge of old releases and rewatches, probably with an emphasis on the latter.

Then the baton gets passed to a real film festival, which symbolizes my shift to focusing on new releases. The very day my wife returns, the Melbourne International Film Festival begins, kicking off another viewing orgy devoted to new releases. I'll be going to about nine films during those 17 days, though for the first time this year, that also includes one old release (but more on that when the time rolls around).

Will this intense viewing period over the next month exhaust me? Well, have you met me?

Here's to the start of a bunch of exciting film watching ... whether it involves Charlton Heston and stone tablets or not.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Christopher Nolan bombs, and other Dunkirk thoughts

There are plenty of times I have been out of sync with the Metascore for a movie. That probably goes without saying. I'll come home, go to the site, and think "Huh." Baby Driver is one very recent example, as 86 seems extraordinarily generous for a film that is entertaining but quite flawed. Then again, I knew its Metascore before I even entered the theater.

I can't remember a time feeling as shocked by this disconnect, though, as when I came home from Dunkirk last night.

Dunkirk has a 94 on Metacritic. I think it deserves less than half that.

In fact, the one score of 38 on there -- and I sighed in relief that at least one person agrees with me -- might even be too generous.

I ended up giving the movie two stars on Letterboxd, but I wanted to give it 1.5.

What's wrong with Dunkirk? Where to start. This is one of the most dramatically inert films in recent memory. For all the somber energy invested in meticulously recreating a famous World War II battle -- is it even a battle? -- Nolan couldn't give a whip about character development or even mounting tension. Hans Zimmer's bludgeoning score -- seriously, it's even worse than the one for Interstellar -- tells us that every moment is overloaded with dread, but otherwise we'd have no idea that anything was at stake. Images are disconnected from consequences, things are happening for apparently no reason, and the little character arcs that are meant to occur make no impression whatsoever. Oh, it's not that Nolan disregards the notion of human drama altogether in opting for something more abstract and expressionistic -- it's that the dramas he chooses are utterly uncompelling.

What went so wrong? Nothing, according to most of you. When I went on Letterboxd to log my two-star rating, I saw a five-star rating from a person I trust on the landing page. Of the film's 50 positive reviews on Metacritic, 29 are grades of a perfect 100, including three critics whose opinions I've held dear throughout my career: Joe Morgenstern, Dana Stevens and Richard Roeper, all three of whom I've spoken to, and the last two of whom I've had my picture taken with (including Dana Stevens just in May).

Why did I see such a different movie than most of these people? It's hard to say. When you are in the minority on a film, the inclination is of course to view it as a "you problem." You figure you must lack some essential component of your critical faculties that allows you to appreciate what the film is doing. Or, you demand a film to fit into a certain conventional box, the inability to fit into that box being what makes it great. Maybe that is indeed the case with me and Dunkirk.

But I don't think so. This film is a fucking bore. Christopher Nolan is so impressed with his ability to film fighter planes moving in space -- an undeniable strength of the film -- that he doesn't seem to care whether he gave us any characters to relate to. I don't mind that we don't know their names, as there are some great films out there where we never learn any names. I mind the fact that they don't have names or personalities. They are just pawns in Nolan's desire to mount a moving Life magazine photograph. And that's all he's done.

And that's not enough.

I look forward to engaging with other people on this, figuring out the deficits in my character that led me to have so totally missed the boat, so to speak, on this film. But I can't do that for now. In fact, I can't even read Dunkirk's one mixed review -- thank you, Rex Reed -- or Dunkirk's one negative review -- thank you, Jake Cole -- for now. The reason for this is that I'm recording a podcast about this tomorrow night, and I want my bile to be untainted by the bile a few others have already spewed on the topic.

A very few others.

Drunk-kirk

On this podcast, my fellow podcaster will insist that the reason I didn't like it was that I was drunk when I saw it. And the reason he will say this is that I told him I was drunk in a text message about 20 minutes before the movie started. And the reason I know he liked it, even though we don't usually share our opinions on the films before we meet for the recording, is because he pleaded with me to go the next day to an IMAX screening when I was sober, rather than seeing it on Friday night with four glasses of wine in me, at a theater that has no really big screens.

The four glasses of wine -- and a beer -- were courtesy of a volunteer thank you party for my contributions to the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (HRAFF) earlier this year (though mostly last year, when most of the heavy screening occurred). I had expected this to be a tame little affair that I could quickly skip out of -- it had been held in the organization's tiny office the year before -- and I planned to stay no longer than 30 minutes, leaving in time to watch a 6:40 showing of The Beguiled before my 9:20 Dunkirk.

But this year the party was held in a private room at a pretty cool bar, and when 6:30 rolled around and I was still enjoying myself, I gave Sofia Coppola's film with the middling reviews (at least among my friends) a pass. And got into one of those rambling, animated cinephile discussions with two women about films we love and hate, using the thinnest of connective tissue to jump from one film to the next -- the kind of discussions that are especially well lubricated by wine. I became so engrossed that I nearly didn't leave in time for Dunkirk.

Given my thoughts on the film, I am immensely glad I did not sacrifice that experience for the movie, and also that I did not shift around a Saturday with my family in order to see Dunkirk on IMAX (and pay for it out of my own pocket, something I wasn't having to do on Friday night on the smaller screen).

But the question is, did being "drunk" -- how far along on that spectrum I was is debatable -- impact my enjoyment of the film?

As I am biased here and predisposed to endorse my own decision making, I'm going to say "no." But I guess I can't really say for sure, because I can't see it for the first time sober as a point of comparison.

What I can say is that falling asleep was not a problem as I watched the film, which I always figure to be the biggest danger in a film starting at 9:20, whether you're drunk or not. As I said, I was bored, but it was not because the alcohol was making me distractable. It's because Christopher Nolan made a boring film.

I don't even think IMAX would have helped. I was able to appreciate this film's visual accomplishments just fine on the screen where I saw it, and I honestly don't think this is a case where those accomplishments, given a proper showcase, would have rendered some of the film's shortcomings less important. In fact, even in a state of somewhat compromised perceptions, I was glad to feel clear-headed enough not to be swayed by the sweet persuasions of impressive visuals. A film needs to either have a compelling story to be a success, or if not that, then just be a straight art film with no story whatsoever. Nolan's middle ground in Dunkirk is a bad place to be.

July 20th -- again

Methinks Christopher Nolan needs to concentrate more on making a good movie and less on making sure that movie comes out on July 20th.

And incidentally, how can July 20th fall on a Friday every single year?

July 20th was of course a Thursday this year, but movies get released on Thursdays in Australia, so the 20th was its release date indeed.

It may be a Warner Brothers thing, but Nolan's movies have long been perceived as a late-summer sort of counterprogramming, or maybe just a delayed infusion of prestige to a season that has already included its share of Pirates of the Caribbeans and Transformerses.

The July 20th trend got started in 2008 -- on July 18th. That's when The Dark Knight hit theaters. Its predecessor, Batman Begins, was a June release, but I guess The Dark Knight felt right in late July.

So right, in fact, that they duplicated the release strategy for Inception in 2010. It being two years later and without the benefit of any leap years in between, Inception could not land exactly on July 20th either. So July 16th was the chosen release date.

We finally get to an exact July 20th release date, with the benefit of a leap year, two years later for The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. That date may of course be etched into your memory for being the night of the horrific theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

Warner Brothers deviated from the strategy with a November 2014 release for Interstellar, but it's back with Dunkirk -- a film whose awards aspirations might have more logically dictated a November release date than Interstellar. Though I suppose some of these things have to do with when a film is actually ready to go to print.

What relationship does the release date have to the quality of the film?

None, of course. And I'm sure my criticisms of Dunkirk don't seem very substantive, since I haven't delved in to why I dislike it so much.

I could. Believe me, I could. But I guess I already feel like enough of a grinch for raining on the parades of readers who may have already bought their tickets for a screening at some point later in the weekend, but happened to do their Friday check-in with my blog before then.

But as a wise friend told me last night when I texted him my initial reactions and then apologized for shitting on a movie he was excited to see, "Maybe I will love it, maybe not. It will have nothing to do with you. When any movie comes out, there will be people who don't like it."

In the case of Dunkirk, just not very many of us.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Saoirse Ronan is a grownup

There's a scene near the start of Brooklyn, which I just saw on Wednesday night, where Saoirse Ronan's Ellis (pronounced Eye-lish) watches a friend walk off with a cute boy at a dance in her small Irish town. Her expression toward her departing comrade, who looks back to smile and giggle, is at first one of supportive encouragement. As the girl recedes into her dance, the expression becomes by degrees more hollow, slackening into disenchantment, then dissatisfaction, then disillusionment, then discomfort, then awareness of discomfort, then a resolve that it's time to walk away and do something else. In this one 20-second shot, Ronan has given us a mini master class on acting.

This is not how a 20-year-old acts. This is how a grownup acts.

In fact, when principal photography on Brooklyn began on the first day of April in 2014, Ronan was not even 20 yet. She was 11 days shy of that birthday.

Actors who show absolute command of the craft at a young age are not total anomalies. One family, the Fannings, even has two such actresses, with Elle possibly being even better than Dokata. But there is something so prepossessed about Saoirse Ronan that it seems to put her in a different category. She was an adult even when she was a child.

I remember my first experience with her in Atonement, which it's hard to believe was nearly ten years ago now. She would have been only 11 or 12 at the time that was filmed, and though she was playing a child making bad decisions -- fatal decisions, in fact -- she was making them in adult ways. Making them with a kind of prepossessed shrewdness, which made them seem calculated rather than careless. There was something old and wise about the look in her eyes, something that indicated she'd be better off tried as an adult than a child in a court of law.

Recognizing the unmistakable presence she brought to her work, Hollywood of course targeted her for a number of familiar type teenage roles in movies aimed squarely at that demographic, things like City of Ember and The Host. But many of her roles were in projects that were a bit more challenging, making a bit more unusual use of a girl in her teenage years, like The Lovely Bones, Hanna, Byzantium and How I Live Now. I haven't seen all of these movies and some I am judging on a vague perception only, but all of them, in their way, seem to require someone with a certain maturity and sophistication. A maturity and sophistication Ronan had long before she had any business having it.

In some of those roles, there is an explicit sense of adulthood to her character. In Hanna, for example, she has been raised as a lethal weapon, a fighter who can incapacitate an adult despite her tender age. In How I Live Now, she's a surrogate mother looking after younger siblings in a post-apocalyptic England. In Byzantium she's, well, a vampire. The oldest of the old -- eventually if not now.

In Brooklyn it feels hard to imagine her as anything other than a fully grown, fully blossomed human being. Ellis the character is no older than Ronan is, but she travels on her own to New York to start up a new life. Both the decision to go and the going by oneself are signs of adulthood, but it's the stolid way she handles everything that comes her way that truly distinguishes her as a grownup. This is not to say she doesn't succumb to the occasional bouts of overwhelming homesickness, which crack her professional facade at her job. But there's nothing childish about her homesickness -- it's the mature pangs of guilt and fondness over a sister and mother she left behind in the old country. When she begins a courtship with a handsome young Italian plumber (Emory Cohen), and begins progressing with him at a rate that might seem impetuous, she's making pragmatic choices here too. Even though she feels swoony, she behaves practically, at one point even telling him that she will commit to two movie dates with him -- "even if the first one goes terribly, I'll give it another go." Sensibility incarnate.

An argument might be made that the best young actors show us what it's truly like to be a child, remaining in close contact with the turbulent emotions of that age. There'll be time enough later for them to show us how grown up they can be. Hailee Steinfeld is an actress who excels at that type of thing.

But an actress like Saoirse Ronan reminds us, refreshingly, that young people are just adults who are not yet fully formed -- or sometimes, are fully formed. The truth in her performance is that she plays characters with a kind of preternatural wisdom -- a wisdom that we believe because it can be just as true to life as characters who are changeable and petulant.

It'll be interesting to see what she's capable of when she really is a grownup.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The temptation to scold Edgar Wright

Rightly or wrongly, a director who leaves a movie before its completion can assume a certain "holier than thou" aspect. Sometimes directors get kicked off movies, which is no fault of their own. However, sometimes they cite the ever-popular "creative differences" and depart a movie on their own terms, and rightly or wrongly, this opens them up to scorn.

Warning: The following argument comes dangerously close to taking the side of The Man. But hear me out.

Certainly, you'd think that if Edgar Wright left Ant-Man, it was because Marvel Studios wanted to control him and fit him into a tiny artistic box that he didn't want to occupy. He had sprawling, rambling ideas that consisted of a type of genius that didn't jibe with their conception of the movie. Fine. Leave the movie, Peyton Reed will finish what you started with something halfway watchable (but pretty bland compared to what you would have done), the movie will be reasonably warmly received and everyone will go their merry way.

But I'd be lying if a small part of me didn't say "What, too good for Ant-Man, Edgar Wright?" Rightly or wrongly.

Because it's a bit inevitable to perceive someone who leaves a movie -- leaves, not gets fired from -- as having a bit of an inflated sense of their own self worth. Some would argue that this is a very reasonable estimation of their own worth, as any person should stand up for themselves and not just accept being the puppet of some studio. But there's a certain element of standing up for yourself that seems like rocking the boat. Movies are made by people who become inextricably linked with one another despite inevitable compromises in how they imagined things going, and if you're a good soldier you just grin and bear it.

Wright wasn't a good solder, and some people would celebrate him for that.

I did, sort of, while also wondering what terrific use of his talents he was saving himself for. What thing would be worth not sullying his name or reputation by having a credit on an imperfect realization of his vision for Ant-Man.

The answer is: He was saving himself for Baby Driver.

Which makes it all the more disappointing.

I don't dislike Baby Driver, but let's say that in just 24 hours since I finished watching it, I have already rounded my 3.5-star rating down to three stars and am thinking of going lower. The movie doesn't stand up to even a little bit of scrutiny, and it's not even all that great when you don't scrutinize it.

But I don't want to litigate the strengths and weaknesses of Baby Driver in this post, though I could go on at length with nits to pick and parts that annoyed me, especially in the last 30 minutes. (And for a guy who prizes his own vision for a film, he felt awfully like he was channeling Quentin Tarantino in this movie, didn't he?)

Instead I'd like to concentrate on how Baby Driver is burdened by being an alternative choice to Ant-Man, though in reality, it likely would have been his next movie with or without the MCU film in his filmography.

If Baby Driver had just followed on the heels of The World's End, the 2013 Wright movie that I like even less than Baby Driver, it might have concerned me as a sign that a once-sharp filmmaker who made at least two bracingly original films (Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) was on a wayward path. But as is, it's what he's offering the world as proof of what he's capable of -- when someone isn't trying to pull his strings. With Baby Driver, Wright says to the world, "My shackles are off. Now watch me fly."

Or maybe, crash land.

In Wright's defense, he has established himself -- through no fault of his own, or to put it another way, "rightly or wrongly" -- as a creative talent from whom a lot is expected. He has a passionate cult of followers who worship his films. There's a lot of pressure on a person like that, a pressure to continually outdo yourself and be greater than you were last time. Even if only two of his now five features have actually earned him that kind of devotion.

So my under-appreciation of Baby Driver could just be a manifestation of my own frustrated expectations for the man's next work.

But I don't think so. I think I have had a love-hate relationship with Edgar Wright that is equally happy to be pushed in either direction. I look forward to his next film either because it will confirm he's great or confirm he's a hack, and I kind of don't care which. I can argue either narrative. (If you're wondering where the one film I haven't mentioned, Hot Fuzz, falls on the love-hate spectrum -- which is really a spectrum of "love" to "don't love that much" -- it's pretty much in the middle. I like it, but not overly.)

And I guess something about the Ant-Man debacle has kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Am I an apologist for a gigantic movie studio like Marvel, or to step out one level greater, like Disney? I don't think I am, but if I generally trust the things a company does -- and that's the case with Disney -- I do extend them a certain loyalty. I do think that someone should think of it sort of as an honor to be entrusted with a Disney product, and if they don't properly appreciate that opportunity, it's a them problem.

But still, had Baby Driver seemed like the inevitable next chapter in the cinematic universe inside Edgar Wright's brain, I would have been happy to argue his genius.

Instead, I'm yielding to that temptation to scold him.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The last scraps of 2016

If you can believe it, there's still one more movie with a 2016 U.S. release date that has yet to come out in Australia. It doesn't even come out until next Thursday, the 27th, actually.

Fortunately, due to the magic of press screenings, you can already read my review here.

I'm not sure why J.A. Bayona's A Monster Calls had such a slow progression to the Australian cinemas, but perhaps they just wanted to wait until it was the dead of winter and the movie could not depress us any further. (It's actually not "depressing" in the pejorative sense that one would usually use if describing a movie; it just happens to be about sad things.)

I do have a bit of mixed emotions about reviewing a movie like this, if only because I've mentally moved on by late July and feel like I want to be spending time on movies that count toward my 2017 list. I see 2016 movies at home, but in the theater it feels a bit weird. (Even the private critics screening room where I saw it.)

Then again, I love hearing myself talk, so if someone wants me to talk about a movie that had even its wide release more than six months ago in the U.S., I'm your man.

And though U.S. readers will have likely had the option to rent this for a good four months, Australian readers are advised to check it out in the cinema. It's worth the big screen.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Not this year's Jupiter Ascending - or so I hope

After Jupiter Ascending came out two years ago, I didn’t know if there would ever be another Jupiter Ascending again.

I mean, I didn’t want another Jupiter Ascending, per se, because that movie was awful. No sequels necessary. But I did want another “Jupiter Ascending.”

The difference indicated by those quotation marks is as follows: I wanted another movie that took the same risks as Jupiter Ascending, in a genre in which only sure bets are usually green lit. I wanted it still to be possible to have movies that fit that small cinematic niche of “big, imaginative science fiction movie with fantasy worlds and no established characters.” I didn’t want studios only to gamble on Star Wars movies, though that’s obviously no gamble at all. I wanted them to gamble on what might become the next Star Wars.

But after several recent major flops in this arena – Ascending, but more catastrophically, John Carter – it seemed less and less likely that we would see many, or even any, more of these. One cautionary tale is enough for most studios – two, and you have serious cinematic leprosy on your hands. No one wants to go anywhere near it.

So I guess the pressure is really, really on Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

When I was at the movies on Wednesday, I watched enough of the trailer for Luc Besson’s new movie to know that I didn’t want to watch any more of it. In a good way. I start avoiding a trailer once I get to that point where I say “Yep, I’m hooked, now leave the rest of it as a surprise.”

“Hooked” may be the wrong word for Valerian, because there are a million ways a movie like this could go wrong and only a scarce quantity of ways to do it right. So just because it looks nice – like really, really nice – doesn’t mean that it’s got anything going for it.

But if it’s great, I want to experience its greatness unspoiled.

And if it’s not great … well, we definitely won’t see another Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Cirque du Soleil: the one ideal incarnation for Avatar

While at the movies Wednesday night I saw an advertisement for Toruk, the upcoming Cirque du Soleil show inspired by Avatar. Whether it fits into the narrative of Avatar, or even has any narrative to speak of, is not certain. What is certain is that the acrobats are dressed up like Na’avi, and they do their leaps, twirls and somersaults through a stage manifestation of the Pandora forest.

What’s also certain is that this is a great way to use the world of Avatar.

In less than five seconds of this ad, I went from rolling my eyes about the concept (which I’d heard of only a few days before) to saying “Hell yeah, what a good idea.” I’d probably see Toruk, and not only because I’m overdue for my first Cirque show since the early 2000s, when I saw two in fairly close succession. One of those was the Las Vegas show called O, which involves a swimming pool built into the stage floor. It left an impression on me, and I still have a soft spot for the troupe despite the persistent suspicion that they might be sort of lame.

What’s also certain is that this is a far better way to use the world of Avatar than to have 11 more sequels coming out by the year 2030.

That’s only a slight exaggeration of how many more Avatar movies are on the horizon. Officially, it’s four. One would certainly hope James Cameron will have said everything he needs to say about this world after four more, but if the fourth still makes good money, who knows how much longer it could go.

And if the fourth still makes good money, I suppose we won’t have a problem. But that’s what I’m considering highly unlikely at this point.

You might logically say that Cameron had said everything that needed to be said after one Avatar movie. Some would argue that everything that needed to be said about Avatar had been said in Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas, calling into question the need for even a single Avatar. Though since the movie became the biggest box office hit of all time and stayed that way for six years (until Star Wars: The Force Awakens), it’s reasonable to conclude that there was a legitimate hunger for Avatar’s offerings, at least at some point.

But as I may have discussed on this blog before – and if not, I’m overdue – Avatar has endured poorly in our popular consciousness. Many of us (including me) only saw it that one time, and even those who loved it at the time do not really go to bat for it these days. You don’t hear anyone with an obsessive ongoing relationship with Avatar, like they have with something like Star Wars, for example. And while that’s an impossible standard for anything, it seems reasonable that a film that had made more money than any other movie, and has four sequels planned, would be one of the most capable of meeting it. In fact, would need to come close to meeting it to justify the expenditure on four more expensive sequels.

Part of the reason no one talks much about Avatar could be that the Na’avi themselves seem like a short-sighted creation. There are a couple reasons for this. One is the unfortunate white savior/exotic savage dynamic that’s intrinsic to their conception, with Cameron trying to cast Jake Sully (or himself) as the outsider who can come in and rescue a bunch of noble natives who are being abused by big corporations/military institutions. Even if it’s the good fight from a liberal perspective, it has bad optics. Then there’s the idea that the Na’avi just seem goofy, with their blue skin and big eyes. Maybe we got into bed with them only because they were part of a mind-blowing, sumptuous 3D experience, and we always would have preferred characters who were a bit less like humanoid lizards with mystical tendencies.

But what makes “us” want to disassociate ourselves with the Na’avi also makes them perfect for Cirque du Soleil. When we go to the circus, or the ballet, or any other art form that celebrates the physical movements of the human body, we want a world that’s a bit mystical and fanciful, where blue skin and lizard-like movements are a help rather than a hindrance. We want to see majesty on display, and we’re a little less beholden to the narrative utility of the majesty we’re seeing. It’s not important that the characters seem adaptable to other environments, as, for example, the Star Wars characters have been repurposed for umpteen other uses that have enabled the ubiquity that supports umpteen sequels.

So while I’m not at all sure the Avatar sequels will make their money back, I feel fairly confident Cirque du Soleil will do just fine. And they may be smart with their timing as well. It’s still a few years before we get Avatar 2, so in one sense this seems to be coming out of nowhere (out of the blue, har har). But it might be better now than after the movies come out, because it’s very possible we’ll become saturated with Avatar and may not respond well to that. There definitely won’t be any hunger for a Cirque du Soleil incarnation of Avatar if we’ve roundly rejected the cinematic version.

I like Avatar enough that I want it to endure as an institution, something that maintains a certain level of cultural cache rather than being consigned to the dustbin of cinematic history. But the way to do this is not by sequeling us to death, by releasing a bunch of merchandise of blue Na’avis who look enough like each other that we can’t really tell the difference between the girl one or the boy one, and our kids don’t want to play with either of them. The best way to do it is through something like Cirque du Soleil, which will encapsulate some of the things we liked about Avatar while excising some of its more problematic elements.

But there aren’t billions of dollars bound up in a traveling circus show, so fat chance of that. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A return to Spider-Man

Of all the major superhero movies, I've seen the smallest percentage of ones featuring Spider-Man. Until last night, it was just half of the movies that fit that description, and only that many because the character makes an appearance in Captain America: Civil War. If you include only movies with Spider-Man's name in the title, it was only two of the existing five. The number of years since I'd seen a movie devoted to Spider-Man is an even more astonishing figure: 13. That's right, 2004's Spider-Man 2 was the last I'd deigned to see.

To give you some idea how unusual this is, I'm missing no more than one of any other movie featuring any other superhero of any note. In fact, the only significant examples I can really think of are the second Thor movie and the third Iron Man movie, and ten years ago neither of these guys had even one movie to their respective names.

What's more, of the superheroes I have designated as "the big five," I've not missed a single of their movies -- no, not even the Incredible Hulk. The other four being Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman (only very recently a cinematic entity) and, yes, Spider-Man.

So why the Spider-Man drought?

It didn't feel intentional. I'd always expected to see Spider-Man 3, despite liking the first two movies only about 75% as much as most people did. But I heard it was bad and, well, perhaps that was a particularly busy summer for me. Then when The Amazing Spider-Man came around, I'm sure I intended to see that as well. But I passively participated in an unspoken boycott of it, probably because I thought it was too soon to reboot the character (and, well, I heard that one wasn't great either, and maybe I had a busy summer that summer too.) The Amazing Spider-Man 2? Well, if I hadn't seen the first one, why start now?

What finally brought me back was when Spider-Man was brought back home to Marvel -- and not until I was sitting in the theater did it occur to me the secondary meaning of the word "Homecoming" in the title.

Even the generally good taste of Marvel might not have been enough if I hadn't seen him in Civil War, where he combined with another character that I'd come to consider sort of a dubious property (Ant-Man) to comprise possibly the two most fun things about that movie. Civil War showed me Spider-Man could be done right -- even if I hadn't personally witnessed any of the examples of him being done wrong.

And it was a pretty happy homecoming for me, as it turns out. I didn't love Homecoming, but it's got some funny moments and some exciting moments, and it rests comfortably in the upper half of Marvel movies I've seen.

Interestingly, though, the reasons it worked for me were more or less the reasons Ant-Man didn't totally work for me, and that has everything to do with timing.

If you remember this Ant-Man rant, my biggest gripe about that movie was the awkward way it introduced the MCU. If memory serves, little to no mention is made of any other superheroes until about halfway through the movie, when Scott Lang says something along the lines of "The first thing we should do is contact the Avengers."

The who? Suddenly the spell of being in a world where Ant-Man was the center of the superhero universe had been shattered. I wanted that universe to last a bit longer before he was just another face in the MCU crowd. It left a sour taste in my mouth and started spoiling a movie that was only really all that interesting in the parts that Edgar Wright obviously contributed before he left the movie.

Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn't suffer from the same problem. The Avengers are in this movie from the very first moments on screen, when a child's drawing of Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Cap et al is rescued from the debris of the battle that mostly leveled New York at the end of The Avengers. Not only do we get a visual reminder of those characters (only some of whom we will actually see in the ensuing movie), but we're immediately reminded of a major plot point from their first movie. This is an Avenger world, and Spider-Man is only part of it.

And that's okay, if you do it right. In fact, it's probably inevitable, and again it's a function of that timing. Timing not only in terms of getting to other parts of the MCU straight away, but timing also because we've already seen Spider-Man in the context of the Avengers. We hadn't seen Ant-Man that way until after his solo movie, and that seems to have made all the difference.

I also dug Michael Keaton as the villain, who gives a fairly direct shout-out to his character in Birdman in terms of wearing a winged creature suit. (In fact, at first I wondered if he was supposed to be Anthony Mackie's Falcon ... until I saw him doing, you know, bad things. Especially since Falcon was the main link to the Avengers in Ant-Man.)

I don't know if I'll need a lot more solo Spider-Man movies, though if they're making a third Thor movie, I'm sure we'll get at least a couple more. I also don't know if I'll be inclined to circle back and catch up with the Spider-Man movies I missed the first time around.

But I'm glad to have Spider-Man back in my life -- back as a presence I'll be making excuses to see, rather than not to see.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

You can't have it both ways, Daniel

News has come out that Daniel Craig is coming back for a fifth Bond movie.

This after his comments about returning can be summarized as "not on your life, you asshole."

It might not have been quite an example of biting the hand that feeds him, but it's pretty darn close. While I'm not looking up particular quotations right now, his perspective on the subject seemed to be that he would sooner play the little orphan in the next remake of Annie than play James Bond again. (Just looked up an actual quotation. He said he'd "rather slit his wrists.")

Well, he's playing James Bond again.

Money would obviously be a motivating factor, though it would seem that Craig has plenty of that. Not only has he made those four Bond movies, but he's made plenty of other movies during the same period, remaining quite active throughout.

Dwindling relevance? I suppose that could be a factor too. Craig turns 50 next March, so no time like the present for a midlife crisis.

I wouldn't ordinarily fault an actor type or other Hollywood type for taking another job after saying he or she definitely, absolutely was not going to. Athletes do it all the time. Are you retiring or aren't you? It's something we live with in every sphere of entertainment. How many bands have promised this is definitely, absolutely, positively their final tour?

But something about Craig's attitude has made him a bit of a different case. It's kind of seemed like Craig has felt that Bond was "holding him back" for some time now, and that even returning two movies ago for Skyfall involved a lot of arm twisting.

Few people have evinced as much desire to leave Bond behind them, saving perhaps only George Lazenby, who made good on his promise and walked away after one movie. Bond has clearly been a stepping stone for Craig -- he'd be a successful actor without the role, but not a household name. Yet he's been eager to push that stepping stone down to the bottom of the pond and never look back on it, or so it has appeared.

Yet with this fifth movie, he will be becoming the longest running Bond behind only Roger Moore and Sean Connery. He's currently tied with Pierce Brosnan's four, so this would be putting him ahead of the erstwhile Remington Steele.

Is that an important consideration for Craig? Probably not.

What is his most salient consideration? Hard to say. The articles don't say anything about it.

All I know is, next time he says he's done, he better be done.

And, it might be nice to display a bit of gratitude toward this franchise that has thrust him into such international prominence.

Personally, I'm a bit disappointed. Only one of Craig's films is one I'm reasonably fond of (Skyfall), and I definitely thought it was time for some new blood. And I definitely though that new blood could be of a different race or even gender. That would have been a Bond film I'd like to see.

Craig's next, and presumably final?

Not so much.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

John Denver is having a moment

Ben Wheatley and Bong Joon-ho were undoubtedly making their respective 2017 releases, Free Fire and Okja, at approximately the same time.

So only a certain random felicitnousness could have led them both to use John Denver's "Annie's Song" in virtually the same context in their movies.

If you don't know the song -- and I didn't before I saw Free Fire -- it's the one that goes:

You fill up my senses
Like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in springtime

etc. etc. etc.

In both movies, this soaringly sentimental ballad is used as an ironic counterpoint to something going on on screen, and kind of a similar thing in both cases.

In Free Fire, it's playing on the 8-track player of a van that's making its way through the impromptu war zone that's popped up in a warehouse where an arms deal went south. If memory serves, the driver may have been shot, leaving the vehicle to roll to a stop of its own accord while the music blares.

In Okja, it plays directly over a scene of chaos, as police try to subdue animal rights activists in an underground convenience store after a super pig has plunged through it, knocking cosmetics and cold medications hither and yon. They shoot tranquilizer darts at the activists and the super pig, and the activists elegantly defend themselves by deploying umbrellas in the direction of the blasts -- which, indeed, are quite effective in stopping this particular form of attack.

The only fundamental difference in the way the song is used in the two movies is that the moment in Free Fire is quiet, by that movie's standards, as the Denver song is the only absurd interruption to a scene where everyone is on tenterhooks to see who will expose himself next or fire the next shot. In Okja, it directly scores an action sequence, similarly absurd for the combatants and some of the details of the scene, and similarly operating as a counterpoint to what's going on on screen. The action being in slow motion and devoid of its diegetic sounds means that it's also sort of "quiet" in the same way that it is in Free Fire.

Now, if a third 2017 movie also uses this song in even a remotely similar context, that will be really weird.

And if a 2018 or beyond movie uses it, that will be a ripoff.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Not the curmudgeon he thinks he is

I've been getting more and more examples over time that my nearly seven-year-old does not hate "baby movies," even though he professes to. But Sunday was the coup de grace.

First a little background.

We recently got The Lion King out from the library, I think at my instigation. However, unlike other recent animated classics I've successfully pushed on my kids, this wasn't one of those where I'd planned to sit down with them and watch it. That's in part because The Lion King has never been a personal favorite. I didn't see it until more than a year after its release, and I've only seen it that one time. (I remember the exact timing of my viewing, October 1995, because I watched it with a girl I was dating at the time.)

My own partisanship or lack thereof was not a decisive factor in it making its way into our DVD player, probably because the younger one (age 3) still loves anything with animals in it. He's as much of a stereotype for his age as the older one is with his love of Pokemon and anything where someone has a gun. But the older one watched and like The Lion King too.

At some point we also acquired The Lion King 2: Simba's Pride from the library, which I have not seen and would have not played a role in selecting, since I've got a bit of a bias against straight-to-video sequels, whatever they may be. It turns out my wife was responsible for this one, not because of any interest or experience with it (she never even saw the original) but probably because my younger one found it in her presence and she added it to the stack. I wasn't even aware it was among our 30 or so library videos (they let you take out 50 at once!) until the younger one said he wanted to see it. "There is no Lion King 2," I even said when he said he wanted to watch it, forgetting for a moment about Simba's Pride and thinking that the fact we didn't have it was sufficient enough to negate its existence entirely. He proved me wrong on both counts.

It didn't get watched the day he originally talked about watching it, but he did select it as "his choose" for Sunday morning TV time. Usually in this scenario, the older one suffers through 20 minutes of the movie (at most) before declaring it now time for "his choose," which is fair enough, as you shouldn't have to suffer through an entire movie you don't want to watch.

But this time it wasn't a problem. This time, in fact, the older one never even took a choose. This time, in fact, the younger one stopped paying attention to Simba's Pride while the older one sat there, rapt, watching it to its completion.

I still would have written this post if that were all that happened. But it gets better.

When Simba's Pride finished, the older one said "I want to watch it again."

With a bit of a laugh, I clicked the back chapter button until he was at the beginning again.

Now normally, I wouldn't really want my children to watch two entire features' worth of screens before we got going on our day. That's a bit too indulgent. But when it comes to movies, I like to encourage their interest, and besides, I was handing over to my wife around 9:30 so a friend could come over to watch baseball with me on his computer. (Yes, I have an Australian friend who not only likes baseball, he even pays for the baseball package.) Consequently, I don't know how much of his second viewing he actually got through, but the fact of it at all was what interested me.

I'm crazy for movies, and I can only think of two definite times I've watched the same movie twice in the same day, and only one of those instances can be described as roughly consecutive. Now, kids are a bit more obsessive in this regard than adults, but it's certainly something he's never done before in a good four years of watching movies.

I still would have written this post if that were all that happened. But it gets better.

This morning, when I was getting ready for work, Simba's Pride came on again. It's school holidays, so we're letting them watch TV on weekday mornings as well. I was escorted out of the house with that pretty beautiful song "He Lives in You" that plays over the opening credits.

I still would have written this post if yada yada yada.

When I got home from work today, the kids were having "quiet time," which is code for "mummy and daddy are exhausted from a full day of entertaining you and now you must watch TV." Again, it's an allowance on a weekday made possible by school holidays.

Guess what was playing?

So this is clearly the most obsessive behavior my son has ever displayed toward a movie. Even the ones he says he loves he probably wouldn't watch more than twice in a week, and not likely on consecutive days in any case.

So now I simply must see this movie myself.

Since we have both the original and the sequel -- at least until our renewals run out -- I talked about making it a double feature one night when my wife is out of town at the end of this month. I planned to do it on my own to further my cinematic education (a refresher on The Lion King is always useful), and to be able to relate to my son on a topic he loves. But when I mentioned I might do that, he said, "Can I watch it with you?"

That might keep him up until 11 o'clock at night, but how can I refuse an offer like that?

Sunday, July 9, 2017

How many directors do you recognize?

I was invited to participate in a Facebook event through my Flickcharters group that involved voting on the films of Frank Capra, and it included a picture of Capra as its artwork. This picture, in fact.

It made me realize how few directors I tend to actually recognize, even the important ones.

It's understandable why I might not recognize Capra, as he died in 1991 and looked much older than this in my 18 years of being alive to that point. A bit more shamefully, I have not sought out any old interviews with him or any documentaries that might look into his earlier years (something like Five Came Back, for example).

But it's not just older directors like Capra. Something came up the day before I saw this that prompted me to look up Tom Tykwer, a favorite of mine for having directed two of my top 50 films of all time: Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Tom Tykwer looks like this, but I wouldn't have known it:


Seeing the picture of Tykwer made me realize it was not the first time I'd seen a picture of him. But I clearly had not retained an image of him in my mind, as I couldn't produce this appearance when thinking about him. (And may not be able to the next time I try, either.)

But that's a rather fringe example as well, as Tykwer is not exactly a major director despite working regularly and having prominent examples of good films to his name. A more compelling example is that I have a hard time telling you exactly what Joel and Ethan Coen look like. They directed two films in my top ten (Raising Arizona and Fargo) and are some of the most celebrated directors working today. As you probably know, this is what they look like:


I knew they looked sort of like that -- like, I had the rough outlines of their appearance in my mind. But I guarantee you that if I ran into either of them on the street, I would not know it was them. If they were both together, maybe. If they were being followed by a group of people talking to each other in hushed tones and taking pictures, probably. But one by himself and without any fanfare? Highly doubtful.

It extends to others. Just thinking randomly of some of my favorite films by directors actively working, could I conjure a mental image of Alfonso Cuaron? No, no I could not. (I had a vague one, which I checked just now and was off a bit.) Guillermo del Toro? Closer, but not exact. Then again, I've got a perfect image of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (they are kind of the holy triumvirate of contemporary Mexican directors), but that may just be because he's won two directing Oscars in the past three years.

The point is, there's a strange disconnect for me, and for some other cinephiles I'm sure, between the extent that we revere the artistic exploits of these people and the extent that we'd be able to pick them out of a police lineup.

On some level it makes sense. We are not seeing them in front of the camera. And in the instances where we are, it helps tremendously. No one anywhere who knows anything about film could fail to recognize Orson Welles, for example. Or an example from my own recent viewing experience, Roman Polanski. He has that cameo in Chinatown, but he's the star of the Polanski film I just saw last weekend, The Tenant. Or an even more recent mention on this blog, Kevin Smith.

But if you're only behind the camera, you need to court media attention in some way to be recognizable, and I would say that the Coens do not particularly care for that. Someone like Christopher Nolan, however, is a lot more recognizable because you see him showing up to talk about his work pretty regularity.

I guess I'm not saying anything particularly profound here.

But I do wonder if it points to some kind of deficit in myself as a cinephile. It has occurred to me that although I continue to consume films at a ravenous rate, I may not be rounding out my knowledge of film history the way other cinephiles in my position -- or even more importantly, other critics -- would be. I almost never read about cinema in long form, for example. I read articles that I see posted on Facebook and the like, but I don't choose books on cinema for my next book the next time I'm looking for one. I think of this as a conscious form of counter-programming to my busy viewing schedule, but it means I'm not going in depth on the behind the scenes of these films, which I think is also essential to a well-rounded film education. I mean, most books aren't going to give you a better idea of what a director looks like, but they will create the greater all-around awareness of a person that is symbolized by the superficial element of knowing what they look like.

I won't think too deeply on it.

But I do wish that I had looked at that picture of Frank Capra and said "That's a picture of Frank Capra" and not "Who is that guy? Oh, it must be Frank Capra."

And it was interesting to me how Frank Capra did not look like Frank Capra -- or not how I thought Frank Capra would look, anyway. I think of Capra as a kind of reckless optimist, and this man looks too severe to conform to my preconception of him. Then again, Capra also directly The Lost Weekend so he can be just as dour as this photo implies to me.

What's perhaps worst is that I did not even know he was of Italian descent, another thing I discovered in just briefly looking up something about him now. Not that his descent is even particularly noteworthy, just that it challenges another wrong preconception I had about him, which was that he was born in America. A preconception I wouldn't have had if I had read up on this guy at all.

So, this just strengthens my resolve to do something I should have done a while ago: Make every other book I read be a book on film. Or I should say, at least a book that somehow deepens my understanding and appreciation of film. I guess if you are speaking cosmically you might say that every book does that, but in this case I'm clarifying because it will allow me to keep my planned next book on the docket, which is Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock (after I finish Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native). That'll be a worthwhile cinema-related reading experience as it will give me insight on how a film I love was adapted from its source material.

I'll become a better cinephile, dammit, one book and one director's face at a time.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Found footage vs. the aesthetic of found footage

I used to whinge about found footage all the time on this blog, the whingeing that can only be born of loving something and then living long enough to see it become corrupted and sapped of its essential life force. (And "to whinge" is the British/Australian equivalent of "to whine," only used in a more dismissive and crueler fashion.)

But I haven't had a lot of occasion to talk about it lately, as found footage has, without me even really noticing it, seemed to have sort of had its moment and gone away. Surely we are not far removed from the last major found footage film that's been released, but the fact that I can't remember what that would be is certainly telling.

So it seems like a good time for me to be confronted with a movie that does the genre, if you want to call it a genre, correctly. A movie that, in fact, helps clarify my own conflicted opinion on found footage movies.

That movie is Matt Johnson's The Dirties, a movie I thought was connected with Kevin Smith in some way, but I'm having a very hard time determining what that way is. (Wait, just found it -- he helped distribute it.)

Because of the Smith connection, and because I've turned on Smith a bit lately (only since Yoga Hosers, but that was enough), I hadn't really prioritized The Dirties when it came out a few years ago, having heard middling things about it (though I don't remember what exactly). But then I saw it at the library the other day and said "Huh, I was always curious about that."

With good reason. It helped me relocate those positive feelings toward found footage.

It helped me do that because it's a found footage movie in aesthetic only.

If you think about it, found footage has two defining characteristics: 1) A herky jerky, hyper-realistic style that's supposed to come from the fact that it's actually being shot by the real people involved with the story, and 2) The fact that it is meant literally to be footage found from their video camera, in its purest form because the people who shot it are missing, dead or otherwise indisposed.

I like one of these two defining characteristics.

I used to like both, I think. I mean, if you go back to The Blair Witch Project, it was all about the fact that this was actually the footage they had abandoned. I mean, it wasn't, and we knew it wasn't. But it was easy to dream ourselves away into that narrative, and there was just that small smidgen of doubt that it wasn't real.

But over time, I became hyper critical of the way the found footage genre got bastardized. Although pretty much all the footage in a film like Blair Witch could genuinely have been shot by the three intrepid/stupid filmmakers that trundled off into the Maryland woods, that standard quickly evaporated from the genre. Pretty soon found footage movies that wanted to capitalize on the popularity of Blair Witch -- as in, pretend it could have all been really shot with one camera that was recovered after some horrible event -- began playing fast and loose with the rules. How physically someone could have shot something, how it all could have been shot with one camera, how they would have known to have the camera on at some certain particular time, how they would be able to maintain battery life for the duration ... all these practical considerations that were considered in a movie like Blair Witch were tossed out the window. Who cares as long as it looks right.

That's fine. But then just don't pretend it's actually someone's found footage.

That's what I like about The Dirties. It doesn't go out of its way to call attention to the fact that there's a camera following around these two disaffected high school students, who are even aware of the camera and occasionally make reference to it. There's something artificial about the construct, but artificial in the way that any film is artificial -- it's a recreation of life being captured. The Dirties doesn't want us to believe that "this is the last testimony of so and so" or "we caught it all on film when x happened." It just wants to capture a compelling story in the highly realistic style of a found footage movie, a style which itself confers a certain truth and believability on the proceedings.

I should probably give you a little insight into what that compelling story is at this point. The Dirties follows Matt Johnson (also the film's director) and Owen Williams, actors playing high school characters named Matt Johnson and Owen Williams, as they shoot a short film for a class project. In this stylized project they imagine they are badasses coming to rid the school of its criminal element, also played by them, but highly analogous to a real scourge of bullies at their school, who regularly target the two. Matt, the idealogue, is constantly imagining his real life as scenes from movies he either knows or is imagining filming, while Owen, who was once a willing conspirator, has started to drift toward the non-bullied mainstream, through no real fault of anything but his own maturation. As the bullying toward Matt continues, he humorously develops plans to "really" shoot the bullies at the school, though this too he frames as a bit of ironic, self-reflexive text with a big pair of quotation marks around it. But he might not just be being ironic.

The Dirties is found footage in the way that The Office was found footage. The conceit of The Office is, of course, that a documentary crew is capturing the day-to-day happenings at a paper company, and it took pains to maintain that conceit for a while. But the showrunners quickly realized that to remain enslaved to that concept would either severely limit what they could do, or severely limit their ability to remain faithful to it. They smartly realized that they had really good characters that we wanted to watch and get to know better, and that was much more important. The style they had established was part of the aesthetic now, but we liked it because the hyper-real nature of it gave us the impression we were eavesdropping on the lives of real people, not sitcom creations. They still made occasional references to the existence of a camera crew, and the characters continued to give the testimonials that are now a staple of reality television, but they knew that the more often they reminded us of the original conceit, the more we'd be likely to pick away at it. So the original conceit just happily faded into the background.

The Dirties does basically the same thing, as the characters sometimes ask something of the cameraperson or make some other acknowledgement that they are being filmed. But the person doing the filming is not a character in the story, and in fact, is present in situations where he (or she, I suppose) never would be. In found footage as it was originally envisioned, this would be a cardinal sin. But The Dirties is not trying to follow those rules; it doesn't even pretend to. It says "The aesthetic is what we really like about found footage, and that's something we can give you while still telling the story we want to tell in the way we want to tell it."

There are meta elements to The Dirties that kind of confuse the whole thing, but in a good way. As Matt is always imagining his life as a movie -- a specific bone of contention between them as Owen starts to withdraw -- indeed that's kind of what's actually going on here. Matt's life is a movie -- someone is actually filming it. And because the movie also openly questions whether Matt might be a psychopath -- he's actually the one that poses the question -- it could be that only Matt is aware of this camera, and that indeed the whole thing is in his head.

So while we don't believe this movie could be "found footage" in the traditional sense, we do believe it could be real life. We do believe that the found footage conceit could be revealing something true about the fragile psyche of a guy who has been hiding his own pain behind a veil of humor, but is steadily detaching from reality.

This is what I want found footage to do. This is what I want any film to do.

I was concerned it might not have been appreciated, but it turns out, it sort of was. The film has a very respectable 65 on Metacritic, including one score of 100 and three others in the 90s. We won't worry too much about the two 20 Metascores.

And it turns out Matt Johnson has gotten to make another film in presumably the same style, as it also stars him and Owen Williams as guys named Matt Johnson and Owen Williams. This seems a bit more high concept as it involves the possible faking of the moon landing, but after The Dirties I'm giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt that he pulled it off. It's called Operation Avalanche and it came out in 2016. I'll be on the lookout for it.

When I knew I was solid on that 4.5-star rating was when the film ended, probably five minutes shy of what you would think it's actual conclusion would be, but all the better for that fact. It ends on a perfect note, actually, one that underscores the intermingling of comedy and possible tragedy that underpins the whole movie. The ending is also just ambiguous enough to have several possible interpretations, which is always a good thing. Most importantly of all, it's not heavy handed, allowing us to take in many implied messages while not being suffocated by any direct ones.

I guess because of its title, and because I know the way Kevin Smith's mind works sometimes, I thought this would be a movie with a lot of unsophisticated stoner or bro humor, with possibly a touch of homophobia and a decent amount of scatalogy. This is not to suggest that Smith is homophobic -- I think he's probably just the opposite. However, I also think that his comedy sometimes has an "anything for a laugh" quality to it that clouds his judgments.

But The Dirties has not only redeemed found footage for me, it's reminded me of the sound judgments Smith is also capable of making.

The Dirties is sound, and then some.

Found is sound. Who knew.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The delayed name exchange

The following may not seem the most interesting point of entry into a discussion of the masterful new film It Comes at Night, from Krisha director Trey Edward Schults. However, it does provide one of the reasons I don’t consider the film quite as masterful as some people do, namely my editor at ReelGood, who awarded the film a perfect 10/10 rating.

There are probably two schools of thought on why a film might be good, and the importance of these metrics may depend on the film. One is that a film needs to be based on a solid foundation of logical, believable action, which gives a sturdy structure for the themes and creates the conditions for profound truths. The other is that the profound truths exist in artistic flourishes or powerful moments, rendering some of the day-to-day details unimportant. And as I said, I judge different films by different criteria.

You could argue that It Comes at Night should be judged by the latter criterion, but I don’t. It’s a consummately realistic film, even though it’s in a genre that tends to be a bit fantastical – the apocalypse/post-apocalypse movie. Then again, in the era of The Walking Dead and numerous other examples, we’re in the habit of taking the end of the world as seriously as possible. It’s far more interesting to consider what would probably, rather than probably not, happen in this scenario.

It Comes at Night is a prototypical example of this trend. Which makes some of its choices on the day-to-day details all the more problematic.

Namely: Why do they wait so long to exchange names?

The rest of this post gets into the plot of the movie a bit, without including any really big spoilers, but if you want to go into it completely fresh you should consider this your SPOILER WARNING.

If you’ve seen the film, you know that Joel Edgerton’s Paul nearly shoots a man he catches breaking into the house he’s spent so much energy trying to safeguard. The man (Christophter Abbott) claims it was an innocent case of trespassing, as he did not think the house was occupied. We spend most of the rest of the film trying to determine if that, or anything he says, is a true statement – and “we” includes both us and Paul. In the short run, Paul can’t make that determination, so he ties the man up to a tree with a bag over his head, where he leaves him overnight. There may have been more humane ways to handle the situation, but when you’re talking about an infectious disease that prompted him to shoot his afflicted father-in-law in the head and burn the corpse in the opening scene of the movie, no preventative measure might be considered too extreme.

After a night tied to the tree, the man is given the chance to provide “truthful answers” to a series of Paul’s questions in exchange for water, and possibly, freedom. He passes the test well enough to convince Paul that he can trade him food in the form of goats and chickens in exchange for being able to return to the house some 50 miles distant where his daughter and son are staying. Paul and his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), discuss things and decide that both the most humane thing to do and the best thing for them is to retrieve the man’s family, along with their livestock, and have them all live here in this house.

So Paul and the man set out on the drive to the location the man says is where he’s been staying, with the man shackled on the back of Paul’s pickup truck. On the road they are ambushed by two guys with guns, and at first it seems as though the man may be in league with them, as he appears to jump off the back of the crashed truck and scamper into the woods while Paul is underneath, hiding from the incoming gunfire. Only after Paul neutralizes one of the threats do we realize that the man is neutralizing the other by punching him into oblivion.

Then, and only then, does Paul finally say “Hey, what’s your name?”

Will is his name, as it turns out.

Really? Wouldn’t have asked him this before then?

I know I’ve spent a long time writing us to this point for what may seem like a fairly trifling screenwriting crutch, whose necessity Schults could probably argue if he were pressed on the matter. But my point is to illustrate how much had really transpired between these two for them to still not know each other’s names. I suppose the point could be that in the kill-or-be-killed plague world they find themselves in, pleasantries like “what’s your name?” are a luxury no one can afford, or are simply not relevant. Still, it obviously struck me – as I would not otherwise be writing this piece.

And I probably still wouldn’t be writing this piece if a similar type of sin weren’t committed a few minutes later.

So (spoiler alert) Will turns out to be okay, at least in the short run, and they retrieve the family and integrate this family into their regular routines. Wife is nice, son is cute. Everything looks good. What would appear to be at least a week passes. Could be two weeks, though I supposed it could only be three or four days. One night Paul opens up a bottle of whiskey so he and Will can indulge in a kind of carefree enjoyment of one of life’s experiences that has been completely foreign to their new mode of existence. Adding credibility to Will’s case that he’s a good guy, he asks if Paul’s sure he wants to waste the whiskey on him. “You don’t have to open that,” he says.

Over the ensuing sipping of the whiskey, Paul casually asks him two questions that seem like they also would have come up before now: what he did before the plague started, and some basic details about his home life growing up – namely, parents and siblings, that kind of thing. Will’s answers to one of these questions is problematic and sends the narrative down a different path, but we don’t need to get into that part right now.

Now, I can understand there not having been the need before now to ask about his biographical family background. But wouldn’t one of the very first thing you’d ask somebody – after their name, actually – be what kind of work he or she specializes in? Especially when you’re trying to determine a) if you trust this person, and b) what particular skills this person might bring to the table in addressing an outbreak of a pathogen of unknown origin and communicability? I mean, if this person were a chemist, a doctor or a biologist, wouldn’t you want to know? If this person were a cop, wouldn’t you want to know? If this person gave a vague answer like “I did odd jobs,” wouldn’t you want to know that too?

Again, Schults probably needed this to come out only during this scene, and not earlier, so Paul could catch Will in a lie – or a possible lie, anyway. But I think there’s got to be another way of doing it. You don’t want to stretch the verisimilitude to the breaking point.

To say that this took me out of the movie would, of course, be a major stretch. And it’s unfair that by writing extensively on two very minor parts of the movie, I’m neglecting a discussion of the many, many things it does right. But I do think there’s a kind of core credibility that is threatened by such minor sins. And, well, you can never figure out what kind of movie – even a really good one – will inspire you to rant about a pet peeve on your blog.

And though this movie is worth praising – remember, I called it “masterful” in the opening paragraph – I guess it did not blow my mind as much as the 10/10 given by my colleague suggests it should have. My 8/10 is masterful enough. A movie it sort of reminds me of is last year’s The Witch, which was also exceptional in certain aspects and lacking in certain others, also earning an 8/10 for me. Thematically, it has a lot in common with The Witch as well, with paranoia and nebulous threats aplenty, never mind a similar remote woodsy setting.

But if I am just a tad underwhelmed by Schults’ movie – and I am – it could just be because we’ve gotten a lot of looks at the potential end of the world by plague in the last ten years, and It Comes at Night does not sufficiently differentiate itself from the others to be worth really dwelling on. It’s a very good version of that, but probably not a groundbreaking one.

However, if only the characters had introduced themselves to each other a bit earlier ... who knows.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A warm rush of sentimentality

Cinema Paradiso has long held a spot in my top 100 on Flickchart -- it's currently #87 -- but it's also been among the most long-neglected of the films with that hallowed ranking. It's joined some others I haven't seen in ages, like Stand by Me (#91), Schindler's List (#23), Field of Dreams (#20) and Do the Right Thing (#10). It had been since the 1990s since I'd seen all of them, and the others still remain on my list to rectify.

Unlike those others, I have seen Cinema Paradiso since then -- just not the right version.

That's right, in 2002 they released a director's cut of this beloved 1988 film, one which added nearly an hour to the running time. I had the opportunity of reviewing it at the time, as I was writing for AllMovie and they wanted some words on what was called Cinema Paradiso: The New Version. Well, as with most altered versions of beloved films, it was highly disappointing and richly deserved every bit of cutting its editor did to reduce a one-time 155-minute version down to the 122-minute version that has endured since 1988. However, this version was 18 minutes even longer than that original cut. Well, it sapped all the mystery out of the movie, and made everything unsaid said. The things that are unsaid in Cinema Paradiso are some of its finest elements.

Anyway, here's what I said at the time:

Like Star WarsE.T., and other movies that have been trifled with at their peril, a very different kind of film gets "corrected" with the arrival of Cinema Paradiso: The New Version, an update of Miramax's Cannes darling and Best Foreign Film winner. Unfortunately, the same motive of squeezing out a few extra dollars applies here as well, even if it's disguised as a restoration of the director's vision, rather than what it actually is: a compromise of the film's effectiveness. If this was Giuseppe Tornatore's original cut, it seriously calls into question the director's judgments as an artist. The importance of a judicious editor comes into sharp relief during this new three-hour version, which leaves the repeat viewer longing for the brisk pace of the original, and the first-timer grappling with why the film is so revered. The extra 51 minutes of footage bloat the previously poignant third act, drawing it out interminably and deadening its wonder. What made the ending of Cinema Paradiso so bittersweet is that it did not attempt to solve the riddles of lost love, which rarely get sorted out in real life. By providing an unjust and unwarranted explanation of the lovers' tragic separation, as well as a new epilogue, Tornatore brings his tale of nostalgic history thudding into the present tense. He also reverses the understanding of key characters, their motivations, and the ultimate vindication of their actions. The mostly untouched first two acts still burst with the joie de vivre of a small town invigorated and transformed by its communal love of cinema. But the last hour squanders the contagious momentum of the previous two, doing crucial damage to the emotional closing scene, a defining moment that has rightly assumed classic status. Instead of catharsis, the end now elicits a sensation that's regrettably contrary to that: relief. The date of 2002 on this film (which pertains only to the release of the extended version) explains the presence of actress Pupella Maggio, who acted in the picture in the late '80s but died in 1999.

Strangely enough, I did not write that last sentence and do not know who included it, or even if it was included at the time it was originally published. Pupella Maggio? I don't even know who that is, or why a long-delayed director's cut would require or even benefit from a clarification of who was living and who was dead.

So it was a relief on Tuesday night to get back to the movie I knew and loved, and had seen two or three times prior to 2002. It was a surprise how much of it I readily remembered. But it wasn't only the lines of dialogue, or the little character moments, or whatever else that makes a great movie great that I remembered -- it was the warm rush of sentimentality that the movie confers upon the viewer. In fact, I almost called this post "A warm rush of sentimentality," which come to think of it, is probably a more deserving name for a post about a movie I love. And, you know what, I am going to change it. (Old title: "Twenty years and one bad version later.")

One moment in particular I love underscores the missed connections that are part of the wistfulness of a movie like this. It's not the big missed connection, that young Toto doesn't get together with the love of his life and in fact, decades later, has still not settled with a soul mate. Rather, it's a little missed connection that stands in for the bigger ones that make up our lives.

Toto -- now properly called Salvatore -- is leaving Giancaldo, the town of his birth and entire upbringing to this point, for Rome. Never to return, if his mentor, the blind projectionist Alfredo, has anything to say about it. The train is leaving the station as a few well wishers watch him recede into the distance. One last one arrives out of breath, hollering his farewells. It's the priest for whom a young Salvatore once worked as an altar boy -- not the most important person in his life lately, but a familiar face who wants to send him off properly nonetheless. Salvatore seems unmoved by his belated appearance, his thoughts on other types of loss, but the priest seems truly disappointed to have missed the moment. "I was too late," he says to the remaining bystanders on the platform. "What a pity."

I can't say this for certain, but I believe he never sees that man again.

It reminded me of one of my favorite moments in Boyhood, when the youngest incarnation of Mason is pulling out of town in his mom's car, packed with all their earthly belongings. It's the first of many moves Mason makes, and in that moment, at that young age, he is unmoved by its significance in a way similar to Salvatore near the end of Paradiso. But next to his car as it rides out of town, he is followed a short ways by the kid who had been his best friend to that point, pedaling on his bike in an attempt to keep up with the car that everyone knows is vain and short-lived. Although Mason doesn't seem to realize it, the other boy recognizes that this is the end of an era. And indeed, that he will never see Mason again.

Boyhood and Cinema Paradiso both have significant quantities of sentimentality, without that seeming like the insult it invariably often is. Paradiso lays it on a bit thicker as a kind of emotional manipulation, relying heavily on music cues, while the sentimentality of Boyhood is more embedded into its unique structure, which allows us to feel like we are watching the passage of our own lives.

But let's be clear: sentimentality should not be something to disdain. When done effectively, as it is in these movies, it penetrates to the very core of our souls, the very thing that makes us human. Unearned sentimentality can quickly take you out of a movie, can in fact draw more attention to a film's shortcomings -- making us wonder why we're not feeling the things the film wants us to feel. But when done right, it's the very cathartic experience that makes us love cinema.

Love it as much as a little boy in a ramshackle theater in a small Italian town, eyes wide with the world's possibilities.