Thursday, June 22, 2017

Embracing the hard T

Yes, you counted correctly -- this is my fourth post about Wonder Woman in the month of June.

But at least this one is about Wonder Woman and not Wonder Woman.

Gal Gadot's name throws smart people for a loop. For the purposes of this argument, I credit myself as being one of those people.

We have a default way we imagine saying the name, which owes much to our understanding of French and the work of Samuel Beckett. But Gal Gadot is not French and she may never have read Waiting for Godot.

The first time I heard the correct pronunciation of her name, it was by my editor and co-podcaster, when he mentioned her in passing on our Alien: Covenant podcast. I just thought he was simple, poor guy.

The second time I heard the correct pronunciation of her name, it was by another podcaster, this one a bit more famous: Stephen Metcalf, one of three hosts of The Slate Culture Gabfest, whose podcast I saw recorded live here in Melbourne. I thought "Oh, what a shame, Stephen Metcalf has embarrassed himself in front of the world by saying her name wrong."

The third time I heard the correct pronunciation of her name, it was the same speaker as the first time, this time during our Wonder Woman podcast. This time, I called him on it. "Are you sure you're saying that right?" I said, a smart allecky condescension dripping from my voice.

"Yes, I am. I googled it," he responded. "It was a YouTube video which just had her name spoken over and over again for about 50 seconds, by different reporters and herself."

Pretty definitive proof.

Yes indeed, you say the T. It rhymes with "vote," though how much it rhymes depends on exactly how much you are trying to approximate an Israeli accent.

Part of the reason we gravitated toward "Gadot," rhymes with "snow," was because the only other alternative our dumb American (or possibly dumb Australian) brains could imagine was to say it as "Gadot," rhymes with "hot." But because our dumb American brains are trying as hard as possible not to sound like dumb American brains, we recoil at anything that makes us sound uncouth, and "Guh-DOTT" definitely would do that. "Guh-DOH" saved us from that problem.

But, it's wrong.

The thing is, Gal Gadot is going to have to become a lot more of a household name before anyone will really believe it's wrong, in any widespread way. Our ingrained European snobbery will still make us want to say it with the French silent T, if only because it sounds right, and we want to avoid having to explain ourselves in sophisticated company, who won't yet have been confronted with its correct pronunciation and will assume we're saying it wrong. Either that or we will need to double down on the kind of wanky over-pronunciation of the Israeli accent, like people who try too hard to correctly say Spanish names and geographical locations, which, while wanky, will also make it clear we're not just saying it wrong because we're yokels.

At least puckering up your lips and saying it in the Israeli way, which sounds a bit like the sound a drop of water makes when it drips from the tap, will sound fancy.

Maybe we can just call her Gal, like Cher.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Be careful what you ask for

I recently told my fellow podcaster and the editor of my site that he was going to lose his love of cinema if he only reviewed the most bloated summer (winter) blockbusters and nothing else.

Because those ones tend to make themselves available via critics screenings more often than the little independent films, he's been going to most of those, while leaving me to sweep up all the smarter, better fare, when I have to schedule the screening myself. Something I certainly don't mind doing, especially since it's free to me in both cases.

But I also don't want this guy to totally burn out on movies he's ranking 3 and 4 out of 10, so the other night, after we recorded our Wonder Woman podcast, I advised him to let me attend the next in-your-face spectacle while he took a much-deserved trip to the arthouse.

My timing couldn't have been worse. The next in-your-face spectacle was Transformers: The Last Knight.

He told me it would be, but I didn't necessarily think that actually meant I would be the one to review it. But a few days later he texted me asking me if I could go to that screening. He did say in the text that he couldn't make it, but given that we'd just had this conversation, I wonder how true that was.

Well, to soften the blow, it would mean my first IMAX movie since Rogue One, and my first non-Star Wars IMAX since Mad Max: Fury Road. See, I don't get IMAX for free through my critics card, so why pay a $5 to $10 markup on a film I can otherwise see for absolutely free? As a result, that format has basically become a stranger to me.

In a bit of an unusual movie, this critics screening was being held at the IMAX theater affixed to our museum, which proclaims itself to be the third-largest such screen in the world. There was a limosine colored like Bumblebee out the front and everything.

If I'm going to see Transformers bludgeoning each hour for well over two hours, at least they can be big.

But the movie was even worse than I imagined it would be, even worse than I remembered the third movie -- the last one I'd deigned to watch -- being. I considered momentarily watching the fourth one, in order to better prepare myself to review this one. But my God, that movie is two hours and 45 minutes long. No thanks.

I won't go on any further tearing this movie down in the body of this post, because you can read my full smackdown here.

Just know that IMAX did not make it better, just as the lame attempts at humor did not make it funny, and the bizarre choice to involve the Middle Ages did not even make it WTF enough to be good trash.

Next time I try to help save the cinematic soul of a fellow critic, remind me not to.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Planes for one kid, Cars for the other

A lot of my contemporaries might proudly talk about how their child's first movie in the theater was a Pixar movie.

I can only sort of do that, and it's not like these movies were Inside Out or Up or Toy Story 3.

Nope, our kids' first "Pixar" movies were a no-Pixar spinoff of what is popularly considered to be Pixar's worst franchise ... and the third movie in that franchise.

However, we couldn't have planned it with any more thematic symmetry if we tried.

In 2013, when he was just a month past his third birthday, we took my older son to the Sun Theatre in Yarraville, where we saw the Cars spinoff Planes. It's clearly from the world of Cars, but it's Pixar adjacent at best, emanating from the dubiously named DinseyToon Studios. You may recall it being discussed in this post. (Or not -- that was four years ago. And if you do recall it, what are you, stalking me?)

On Saturday, about five-and-a-half months after his third birthday, we took my younger son to see Cars 3 as part of an admit four advanced screening at the Village Cinemas in the Jam Factory in South Yarra. (Both towns even have a "Yarra" in them.) His attention span is not great, but the tickets were free, making it a lot more of an inviting prospect. I'm reviewing the movie, you see.

Another common factor: My wife played the role of running interference on both occasions.

The first time, when she had to chase the older one around the theater and out into the lobby for a total of maybe 15 minutes, she graciously deferred to my nearly fanatical need not to miss a significant chunk of the movies I see. (Something having to do with how much of a movie I can miss before it "counts" for my lists.) This time, I had firmer ground on which to stand. We wouldn't have been there at all if I weren't reviewing the movie, and it's my duty to my reading public not to render judgment unless I've seen every last minute. She probably missed about the same amount of time this time around.

As it turns out, both movies were tedious enough that I wouldn't have minded chasing around the kids.

Although I have a soft spot for the Cars movies -- I kind of love the first one and I appreciate the second -- I found this one a real grind. It's out of the spy game and back to the race track, with mostly boring results. I mean, do we really need another Pixar character who is fearing his own obsolescence?

But the big misstep this movie makes is to sideline Mater entirely. Yeah, Cars 2 was too much about Mater, but he was the Jar Jar Binks in Attack of the Clones of this movie -- in it for continuity reasons, but without much dialogue. I never could have guessed how much I'd miss him. But now I'm repeating my review, which should probably be available on a link to the side of the as you read this, or will be soon enough.

The kids really liked the movie, and not only, I think, because of the free popcorn (which would only appeal to the older one) and the free mini Cars toy they got at the gate. Them liking the movie is a lot more important to me than me liking it, since I'm trying to convince the younger one that going to the movies is good, and the older one that going to movies that he considers too babyish is good. (The older one, who whined about having to come at all, later on asked us if we could watch Cars 3 on Netflix. Yeah, that's not how it works, kid. But thanks for the vote of confidence and for providing a perfect example of your own short-sightedness.) I'll worry later about the fact that he thought the villain, Jackson Storm, was the best character.

But I couldn't blame them if just seeing it up on a big screen was impressive enough to win them over. Predictably, it does look great. Funnily enough, considering that this is a series I appreciate, this was my first Cars movie in the theater. I had to have little enough faith in the first two -- the second even after liking the first -- to have waited to watch them on video, and in the case of Cars 2, more than two years after it came out. When I finally get around to seeing one on the big screen, it's the worst one. (Some of you will like it better than Cars 2, or possibly even Cars. Good on you.)

If I'm taking the long view, and the snobbish view, neither kid will have a great answer when someone one day asks them their first movie in the theater. I mean, it can never compare to my own answer: Star Wars.

But who even knows what you would consider the 2017 version of that answer. It could be a Star Wars movie, of course. But in 20 years when they're answering that question, there'll be 15 more Star Wars movies and it won't seem all that special.

Planes and Cars 3 may not be special, and they may only be lesser Pixar and Pixar adjacent ... but they're not bad movies. At least they're good adjacent, and that's good enough for me.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Reacquainting myself with The Iron Giant

My kids' favorite movie these days is The Iron Giant.

What a marvelous turn of events.

I say that as though I had no role in it, which of course I did. Remembering the success we had with Tarzan (read about that here), I decided to try a "garage movie" with my kids this past Monday, which was a holiday. My wife had some work to do so I was left with the task of distracting them and keeping them out of her hair. I mean, I took them out until the mid-afternoon, but you can't stay out with the kids all day. What do you expect from me, exactly?

They enjoyed the movie, which I'd rented from the library, and I felt a satisfaction akin to "we got through that without any major disruptions to the movie or to my wife." I didn't have any idea it would linger in their consciousness beyond that day.

But boy has it.

My youngest, who is nearly three-and-a-half, has seen the movie approximately four times in the week since then. His six-year-old brother is only one viewing behind him. And in a telltale sign of how much they like it, beyond having watched it multiple times, they can often be heard zooming around the house as the Iron Giant himself after a viewing.

But what's been the most fun for me is how funny they think it is. For all my kids have enjoyed various movies in the past, even watching them on repeat, rarely have they ever isolated lines they thought were funny, and proceeded to quote them unprompted.

They quote two parts of the movie in particular, and they both involve Dean.

Dean. Hot damn. What a great character.

And to think there was a time in my history when I actively disliked Harry Connick Jr.

Here's Dean:

But wait, that's the second part they like. Let's do the first one first.

The first one is when we meet Dean, the beatnik -- probably the only beatnik in this small Maine town -- in the diner. It's a great character introduction, as Hogarth discovers him unresponsive behind his newspaper -- because he's sleeping. We aren't told why Dean is sleeping in the middle of the afternoon at a diner, what aspect of his beatnik lifestyle left him in this shape. I prefer just to wonder.

Anyway, the first thing we learn about Dean is that he's a co-conspirator. He takes an immediate shine to Hogarth, and perhaps because he'd never narc anyone out, he doesn't let on in a way that might get Hogarth in trouble with his mother (Jennifer Aniston), a waitress at the diner.

Let on about what? 

Oh, about the squirrel running up his pant leg. Hogarth's squirrel. Hogarth's squirrel his mother just expressly forebade him from bringing into the diner. 

When the squirrel digs its little claws into his leg to make the ascent, Hogart's mom is already at the table, so he can't give away the game. Instead he gets this crazed look on his face ... exactly the look you'd get if you were trying to conceal that a squirrel was clambering up toward your groin.

"Call me Dean," he says, through clenched teeth, eyes twitching. They quote that line regularly.

The second part is perhaps the indisputable comedic peak of the movie, when the monkey see, monkey do giant follows Hogarth's lead by doing a cannonball into the lake. Dean is sitting as pictured above, reading the paper in a director's chair, chewing on a toothpick.

Now, the water displacement of a giant metal robot doing a cannonball into a lake -- after a running start, mind you -- is massive. A tidal wave ensues. We don't immediately see what happens to Hogarth, though that's also a great punchline -- he's clinging to the top of a pine tree, cheering. We do see Dean observing the approaching wall of water with stunned horror, and then, not able to think of anything better to do, he hides behind the newspaper. Not for protection, really, but just so he doesn't have to see himself get hit in the face with a tidal wave.

When the water rushes through, and we see various forms of Maine forest life swimming through it, we also see Dean swirl around, still sitting in his chair, as though they were a single fused object. He lands softly in upright position out on a neighboring road. 

When the water clears, an old codger in a pickup truck drives upside the dazed hipster and sticks his head out the window. 

"Hey!" he says.

"Yeah?" says Dean from behind his crooked glasses, not turning.

"You're in the middle of the road!" says the codger.

"YEAH?" says Dean. I mean, what else do you say?

That exchange is great, and I can get them giggling every time I reenact it. Of course, then they want to reenact it themselves, and reproduce it spontaneously at a moment of their choosing.

I should say there's one other thing they quote that doesn't involve Dean. It's the line Hogarth says to the giant after he's first made his acquaintance, once he realizes the giant intends to follow him home like a lost puppy. 

"You stay. I go. No following!"

What I like about that is that moment is repeated back with the roles reversed in the film's emotional climax, which I won't reveal until after this SPOILER ALERT if you somehow still have not seen this movie.

When the nuke is headed toward the town and there's no reasonable hope for any of the people present to escape, the giant makes the decision to sacrifice himself by flying up into the stratosphere and intercepting it out of harm's way. And this line is his way of saying goodbye to his young friend.


Yeah, The Iron Giant turned me into jelly again at its climax, even ten years since I last saw it, and for probably the fifth time overall. My older son asked one of those simple questions that shows a true engagement with the material, that he's finally starting to process adult themes, and understanding the meaning of grand concepts like nobility and sacrifice. 

"Why is he going to fly after the missile, Daddy?"

"Because he wants to save the people," I choked out, somehow preventing my voice from succumbing to all-out blubbering. 

The reason it's great that my kids love The Iron Giant is not just because it's funny, or just because it's cool (they love it when the giant turns into a gun), or not just because they are again showing genuine appreciation of a film from another century. (What was it with 1999? That's when Tarzan came out too.)

No, it's because I know part of why this movie has resonated with them is because it has a wonderful message that they might not even know they wanted. But it's experiences like this that can give birth to a lifelong love of cinema.

Sometimes I don't like it when my kids start to regularly watch a movie I hold sacred. I don't mind catching snippets of lesser classics every time I walk through the living room, but there are some that should be special, whose shine might wear out with repeated exposure. For this very reason I've been very careful about dolling out access to recent favorites like Zootopia, Inside Out and Tangled.

But it's been a joy to walk through various parts of The Iron Giant, ranked above any of those movies on my Flickchart at #26. Instead of wearing out, it tickles me anew every time I walk by, and if I'm not careful, I might even feel myself getting emotional.

And every time that cannonball scene is on, I make sure to stop and watch. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

My first 100 reviews, and then some

Not of all time, mind you. I'm close to 1,400 if you include all the reviews I've ever written for one publication or another.

But this "milestone post" celebrates my one hundredth review for ReelGood, the Australian website that has engaged me as a freelancer since December of 2014.

My Cousin Rachel ignominiously claims the honor, or "honour" if I want to be Australian about it. "Ignominiously" not because the movie is bad, but because I've already forgotten about it five days after seeing it. (Not true, but I thought it was rather average -- meaning I still awarded it a 7/10. See other posts for my ongoing struggle with my personal ratings system.)

On the occasion of this milestone, instead of giving you a ponderous think piece about what it means to be a critic in our current world or what criticism means to me, I thought I'd do a "service" to potential future readers. (Hello, potential future readers! How has the future been treating you?)

That "service" will be to create a repository for all of these 100 reviews ... though unless you read this post within the next few days, there will be more than 100 in the list.

That's right, I'm going to create links to all of my ReelGood reviews, and add a new link every time a new one posts.

The purpose of this -- since I'm sure you're asking yourself that right now -- is to create a single location to point people who have asked to see some of what I've written. They can then choose from the whole list, in order to read a review that's germane to their own experience. I mean, if you want to see if I have valid film opinions and can argue them successfully, wouldn't you rather read a review of a film you've already seen, on which you already have your own perspective? With this post, you'll now have a chance to choose between all of them.

The way I used to handle this when it came up, which was maybe every other year, was to send them a flat list of all the reviews I'd written for AllMovie, the site that employed me from 2000 to 2011. By the end of my run there, it was more than 1,200 movies long. They'd then have to go to that site and search the title, if my disproportionate response to their innocent query didn't already shut them off to the whole idea of reading my reviews in the first place.

Now, technology is my friend and I can do this in a much easier way. Though to be honest, it's been more than a couple years since anyone's actually asked me this.

Never mind that it's now possible to search my reviews on ReelGood by clicking the hyperlink that appears on my name, something that wasn't possible until the site was redesigned about a year ago. So yeah, I'm about to commit to a fairly arduous undertaking that will also be essentially redundant.

But, I can't speak to how future redesigns may handle this functionality, so might as well.

Oh, and don't worry. I'll still keep updating my most recent three on the right side of this page. (I know you were worried.)

Reconsidering this list has allowed me to notice some funny things, like the fact that I reviewed The Assassin and Creed consecutively, and that five movies before that, I reviewed Justin Kurzel's Macbeth. A year after this, Justin Kurzel would direct Assassin's Creed ... which I did not review, nor see.

Okay. Probably don't need to bore you with any more preamble, although whether you'll continue "reading" at all after this is up to you. "Glancing" might be the better word.

Here we go, in chronological order:

1. Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
2. Foxcatcher (2014, Bennett Miller)
3. The Interview (2014, Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen)
4. St. Vincent (2014, Theodore Melfi)
5. The Wedding Ringer (2015, Jeremy Garelick)
6. Love is Strange (2014, Ira Sachs)
7. The Gambler (2014, Rupert Wyatt)
8. The Last Five Years (2015, Richard LaGravenese)
9. Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015, Mark Burton & Richard Starzak)
10. The Age of Adaline (2015, Lee Toland Krieger)
11. Clouds of Sils Maria (2015, Olivier Assayas)
12. While We're Young (2015, Noah Baumbach)
13. Gemma Bovery (2015, Anne Fontaine)
14. Woman in Gold (2015, Simon Curtis)
15. Spy (2015, Paul Feig)
16. Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter)
17. The Emperor's New Clothes (2015, Michael Winterbottom)
18. Freedom Stories (2015, Steve Thomas)
19. Love & Mercy (2015, Bill Pohlad)
20. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)
21. The Gift (2015, Joel Edgerton)
22. Irrational Man (2015, Woody Allen)
23. Everest (2015, Baltasar Kormakur)
24. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015, Marielle Heller)
25. Tangerine (2015, Sean Baker)
26. Sicario (2015, Denis Villeneuve)
27. Pan (2015, Joe Wright)
28. Macbeth (2015, Justin Kurzel)
29. The Walk (2015, Robert Zemeckis)
30. Mistress America (2015, Noah Baumbach)
31. Sleeping With Other People (2015, Leslye Headland)
32. Knight of Cups (2015, Terrence Malick)
33. The Assassin (2015, Hsiao-Hsien Hou)
34. Creed (2015, Ryan Coogler)
35. 99 Homes (2015, Ramin Bahrani)
36. Hotel Tansylvania 2 (2015, Genndy Tartakovsky)
37. The Night Before (2015, Jonathan Levine)
38. Truth (2015, James Vanderbilt)
39. Room (2015, Lenny Abrahamson)
40. Mississipi Grind (2015, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)
41. The Good Dinosaur (2015, Peter Sohn)
42. Suffragette (2015, Sarah Gavron)
43. Carol (2015, Todd Haynes)
44. The Big Short (2015, Adam McKay)
45. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016, Michael Bay)
46. How to be Single (2016, Christian Ditter)
47. Zootopia (2016, Byron Howard & Rich Moore)
48. Rams (2016, Grimur Hakonarson)
49. Midnight Special (2016, Jeff Nichols)
50. Eddie the Eagle (2016, Dexter Fletcher)
51. Green Room (2016, Jeremy Saulnier)
52. The Meddler (2016, Lorene Scafaria)
53. Money Monster (2016, Jodie Foster)
54. Hello, My Name is Doris (2016, Michael Showalter)
55. Miles Ahead (2016, Don Cheadle)
56. The BFG (2016, Steven Spielberg)
57. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016, Jake Szymanski)
58. Swiss Army Man (2016, Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert)
59. Star Trek Beyond (2016, Justin Lin)
60. The Salesman (2016, Asghar Farhadi)
61. Certain Women (2016, Kelly Reichardt)
62. Toni Erdmann (2016, Maren Ade)
63. The Lure (2016, Agnieszka Smoczynska)
64. Christine (2016, Antonio Campos)
65. Seoul Station (2016, Sang-ho Yeon)
66. Paterson (2016, Jim Jarmusch)
67. The Shallows (2016, Jaume Collet-Serra)
68. Don't Breathe (2016, Fede Alvarez)
69. Snowden (2016, Oliver Stone)
70. Pete's Dragon (2016, David Lowery)
71. Yoga Hosers (2016, Kevin Smith)
72. The Red Turtle (2016, Michael Dudok de Wit)
73. Deepwater Horizon (2016, Peter Berg)
74. Cafe Society (2016, Woody Allen)
75. Under the Shadow (2016, Babak Anvari)
76. Hell or High Water (2016, David Mackenzie)
77. American Honey (2016, Andrea Arnold)
78. Arrival (2016, Denis Villeneuve)
79. Morgan (2016, Luke Scott)
80. The Family Fang (2016, Jason Bateman)
81. Office Christmas Party (2016, Josh Gordon & Will Speck)
82. Little Men (2016, Ira Sachs)
83. Bad Santa 2 (2016, Mark Waters)
84. Hidden Figures (2016, Theodore Melfi)
85. Manchester by the Sea (2016, Kenneth Lonergan)
86. Lion (2016, Garth Davis)
87. The Birth of a Nation (2016, Nate Parker)
88. Fences (2016, Denzel Washington)
89. Loving (2016, Jeff Nichols)
90. A Cure for Wellness (2017, Gore Verbinski)
91. Life (2017, Daniel Espinosa)
92. The Lego Batman Movie (2017, Chris McKay)
93. The Fate of the Furious (2017, F. Gary Gray)
94. Raw (2016, Julia Ducournau)
95. Colossal (2017, Nacho Vigalondo)
96. Free Fire (2016, Ben Wheatley)
97. John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017, Chad Stahelski)
98. 20th Century Women (2016, Mike Mills)
99. Hounds of Love (2017, Ben Young)
100. My Cousin Rachel (2017, Roger Michell)
101. Cars 3 (2017, Brian Fee)
102. Transformers: The Last Knight (2017, Michael Bay)

If you've kept reading, congratulations! You get some stats, which will be written in June of 2017 and never updated.

In my first three calendar years writing for ReelGood, I reviewed my #1 movie each year: Birdman, Inside Out and Toni Erdmann, though since Birdman was my very first review for the site, I didn't feel comfortable giving it a full 10/10. So I opted for the 9/10 ... and in two-and-a-half years of hindsight, that's probably the appropriate rating for it anyway. (Is a person more likely to make a movie his #1 if he has written about it rapturously? Discuss.)

I have not reviewed three films by any one director among these first hundred, but I've reviewed two each by the following: Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent and Hidden Figures), Denis Villeneuve (Sicario and Arrival), Ira Sachs (Love is Strange and Little Men), Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special and Loving), Noah Baumbach (While We're Young and Mistress America) and Woody Allen (Irrational Man and Cafe Society). Come on guys (because you're all guys), leave some reviews for somebody else!

I have given 10/10 four times (Inside Out, Creed, Toni Erdmann and The Red Turtle) but 1/10 only once (Yoga Hosers). I've never given 0/10, though my editor did give Jupiter Ascending a poop emoticon as its rating, so I know less than 1/10 is possible.

Alright, you're free to go.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A distaff Very Bad Things

Remember when I used to write posts that consisted of my uninformed take on a new release, timed to its release date?

Haven't done a lot of those lately, but here's one.

In one of the more unlikely "female version of" movies to come along in a while, Rough Night is a distaff Very Bad Things.

You know, "Very Bad Things" as in that Peter Berg movie from 1998 starring Christian Slater and Daniel Stern, where a bachelor party leads to the accidental death of a stripper, and severely escalating repercussions from there. A pretty mean-spirited movie that I liked quite a bit, but I'd say I was definitely in the minority.

And you know, "distaff" as in "a stick or spindle on to which wool or flax is wound for spinning."

Sorry, make that "distaff" as in "of or concerning women."

"Distaff" is a pretty old-fashioned word, one we used to see in Shakespeare and the like. But it's still favored for occasional use by smart people like me, who happen to be looking for a synonym for "female."

I imagine this comedy will only take the basic premise from Very Bad Things, as many of the other things that happen in that 19-year-old film are a bit too black even for today's black comedy standards. Berg's film does indeed walk that fine line between edgy and "oh no you didn't," to mostly good effect. Don't see it happening in 2017 with a cast of pretty likable ladies.

A bit surprised, actually, that Scarlett Johansson is one of those ladies. Because she has made so many good choices lately, we tend to forget that Scarlett gotta eat too. And paying Scarlett's bills occasionally entails choices that won't leave critics aflutter. I hope she either elevates the material, or at least that it does not bring her down to its level.

Among the rest of the cast, you've got one more straight woman (Zoe Kravitz) and three camera hogs (Kate McKinnon, Ilana Glazer and Jillian Bell). If this is Bridesmaids -- and it seems like it pretty much is -- then all three of them are Melissa McCarthy. That seems unlikely to work.

And of those three, I'm pretty down on two of them. McKinnon has actually won me over a bit after appearing in the last big "female version of" movie, Ghostbusters, alongside Bridesmaids alums Kristen Wiig and the aforementioned McCarthy, but she still has a bit farther to go before I'm willing to say I look forward to her contributions to a movie. I'm kind of repulsed by the comedy of Glazer, for some reason, after seeing her and really not enjoying her character in The Night Before. That's also where I met Bell, who played Seth Rogen's wife. I am probably most interested in what she might bring to the table. (And yeah, I guess female comedy is a sadly small and incestuous club, as all of these women are either one or zero degrees removed from each other in the Kevin Bacon game.)

Then again, speaking of McCarthy, there was a time when I didn't like her either. Since then, I've loved her in The Heat, Spy and The Boss, not to mention that wicked impersonation of Sean Spicer. So none of these women is beyond reclaiming.

And I might actually see this movie. I'm currently scouting candidates for the second film I'll see Tuesday night after going to a critics screening of (God help me) the new Transformers. As we're in a bit of a lull for the release of new independent films, it's either this or The Mummy. And I don't know if I can handle two bloated and overlong action movies in one night.

Whether Rough Night makes that a really rough night, or gives me a necessary palette cleanser after 140 minutes of smashing and grinding metal, remains to be seen.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Wondering where to find my podcasts?

If you thought I just wanted another excuse to get a Wonder Woman poster on the front of my blog ... well, you're only half right. (Because I love the movie, not because I love Gal Gadot.)

I also wanted to put a pun in the subject of the post, and I also wanted to introduce a new gadget, as they call them, on the side of my blog, that gives you more places to check out my work. (So I guess you were only a third right.)

I've been a podcaster for nearly two years now, but so far, I have not spent much time pimping that part of my movie life on this blog.

But that's about to change.

As you will see if you look down to the right, below my "Most Recently Seen," "Most Recently Revisited" and "Most Recently Reviewed" lists, there is now "Most Recently Podcasted," which will contain links to the last three episodes of The ReelGood Podcast. That's the podcast I do with my mates -- to use the Australian term -- John Roebuck and Blake Curtis.

As it so happens, our most recent episode was on Wonder Woman, and it ends a string of discussions of movies I didn't like that all that much. (Spoiler alert, I guess, if you were planning to dig back into the archives.)

As each new one goes up, I will update the list.

Of course, even more preferable than this might be for you to subscribe on iTunes, where you could rate and review us if you felt so inclined. That's supposed to be good for us, or something.

So click, listen, and go see Wonder Woman goddammit.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Super Troopers

I like to use holiday weekends to catch up on beloved favorites.

I don't know why, exactly. But something about not working on a Monday -- this time, to celebrate the birthday of the queen -- makes me want to dig back into the archives, usually from my own collection, to reacquaint myself with movies I love but maybe haven't seen in several years.

It was six years in the case of the movies I watched Saturday and Sunday nights, only one of which I want to talk about at length here. (And more than 20 years for the one I saw on Friday night, Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, which I saw twice in either 1993 or 1994 as part of a film class in college, doing a visual project on a freeze frame from the movie. Did you know the color red appears in every shot in the film?)

The two movies were supposed to make for a double feature on Saturday night, as they are both in the sci-fi genre featuring various degrees of technological speculation (small amounts in the first, large amounts in the second) -- they even both contain scenes of men watching video messages where women break up with them. But Airport ended up being our second half of Saturday's double feature (as discussed here) and the second movie got shifted to Sunday night.

The first movie was Moon, my #1 movie of 2009, which I love dearly but which did not inspire me with any fresh blog-worthy insights on this viewing.

The second one was Starship Troopers, my #4 movie of 1997, and I've got a whole host of subheadings about this movie if you're ready for them. Spoilers ahead, of course.

The effects still look great

One of my most regular talking points about Starship Troopers over the years is that the visual effects still look great, even as the movie is now celebrating its 20th anniversary. However, I hadn't actually seen the movie since New Year's Day of 2011 in order to be able to sure if my words still held water.

I'm glad to say they still do -- for the most part.

I wouldn't include that last qualifier except I think I saw a few moments (perhaps only because I was straining to see them) where the outline of the effects looked barely visible against the humans and real backdrops. Though really, only barely, and even mentioning it countermands my argument in ways I don't think are really fair.

Not only do these bugs still look terrific, but they have actual weight in the physical space, which has been a serious deficiency of our current digital era. There are plenty of examples throughout the movie, but my favorite example is the one when the troopers are trying to prevent the arachnids from getting inside the fallen base as they wait for a transport to evacuate them. They've already breached the perimeter on into the landing that runs the circumference of the wall, where the troopers had just been standing moments before in their desperate attempt to stave off the attack. One of the bugs falls to ground level inside the base in his death throes, and when he does, he scatters a bunch of large, heavy metal cylinders probably used to hold propane or something, like bowling pins. Not only does that profoundly emphasize that creature's presence in the real world, but it shows just how dangerous they are -- you might die just from being hit by something they dislodge when they fall. (Or merely by their body falling, as underscored earlier when an out-of-control winged bug smears Mashall Bell's body across the pavement. Did I tell you I once said hello to Marshall Bell in Los Angeles?)

Anyway, the apparent realism of the bugs was always what made this movie indelible to me, and I'm glad to say they still look good. (Much better than the cheaper version made for Starship Trooper 3: Marauder, which I still haven't seen but whose trailer appears on my Troopers BluRay.)

The gender politics are good

Although much is made of how Troopers is a parody of Nazi propaganda -- and indeed, that's one of the many things this movie is doing -- it's actually anything but fascist in terms of its social, ethnic and gender politics. (For the purposes of this subheading, I'm focusing primarily on the gender politics.)

The two main female characters, Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) and Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), are both strong -- but different types of strong. Many action movies use "can kick your ass" as a metric for whether a female character is strong, and Dizzy does fit that description. But Carmen is mentally strong and incredibly agile, her high marks earning her a trip to cadet school, where she quickly becomes one of the fleet's best pilots. Her recklessness has a kind of precision to it. Not only does she clear the wall of the docking bay by mere meters when taking the starship out (for the very first time!) and not only is this narrow margin totally intentional, but she also later detects a gravitational pull that allows them to avoid being destroyed by an unseen asteroid. Reckless as she may be in a superficial sense, though, she's so committed to protocol that when her starship has been blown in half later on, she doesn't immediately rush for the escape pods -- she sends a mayday signal that the Roger Young is going down. In fact, she even says "I repeat," and begins to give the message again. Her commanding officer has to physically pull her away from the communications device.

And speaking of that, Brenda Strong in that role is only one of several women we see in really senior roles. The new sky marshall -- in other words, one of the most powerful humans alive -- is not only a woman, she's also African. (I'm inferring she's African from her name more than her skin color -- it's Tehat Meru.) The high school teacher who teaches them alien biology is played by golden girl Rue McClanahan, and the Roughnecks corporal who gets her arm burned off by that giant ant-like creature is also a (black) woman. Even when Ibanez goes out flying for the first time, the other trainee pilot is also a woman, played by Amy Smart.

What is so miraculous about these gender politics -- which might logically figure to be retrograde if you considered only that the actors are alums of shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place -- is how unobtrusive they are. No one even makes anything of how women are just as good or as tough as men -- it is just accepted as a given that they are. There may be nothing that underscores this concept more than that men and women shower together during basic training, as if it was nothing. In this strangely utopian future version of our world, the genders truly are equal.

In terms of ethnicity, you do have blacks in prominent roles throughout, though not among the main five or six characters unfortunately. But Seth Gilliam of The Wire and Walking Dead does play the role of hero at the end. And more than black-white politics, I'm interested in the fact that the world has truly become a blend in which ethnicity and country of origin have become a big melange. Some people complained about how the three main characters are from Buenos Aires yet they do not appear to be Latin American, ethnically. They do have Latin surnames, but otherwise they appear to just be white. A cynical person would (possibly correctly) attribute this to the impossibility of casting minorities in the lead of a film with a $105 million budget (and that's $105 million in 1997 dollars). (Not that the people they did cast were exactly household names.) I'd rather embrace the world this film gives us and attribute it to the ethnic diaspora pervading earth at the time, where anybody lives anywhere because there are no longer the strictly drawn prejudices we live with today.

The acting is not actually bad

One of the biggest knocks about this movie is that the actors are not good. When we say that -- and I do NOT include myself in that "we" -- we are basing it on their aforementioned soap opera origins.

But you know what? I defy you to find a truly false note in these performances.

I once thought that false note was the reactions, or lack of reactions, of the three leads to the fact that their home and everyone they know has just been wiped off the face of the map. Indeed, these reactions are, shall we say, muted. But I watched those scenes with special interest this time, and I don't find them to be as devoid of humanity as I once did. When Richards delivers the line about pretending it happened to somebody else, and the fact that she can't stop crying when she does think about it, I saw a legitimate pain behind her eyes, and it's a true method of coping that anyone who lost someone in 9/11 is probably familiar with. Starship Troopers is not about us watching people engulfed by grief, especially not if the intention is to make Carmen and Dizzy seem as strong as the film does. Richards also does a fantastic job acting out having an arachnid talon impaled through her shoulder, while Meyer's death scene is believably wild and panicky.

But what I was really noticing this time was the small choices made by Casper van Dien, who may have more of a reputation of limited range than any of the others. He has a dozen little moments that strike me as inordinately human. Like the way his expression changes, and he looks at his mom for confirmation, when his dad offers him a trip to The Outer Rings ("Zegema Beach!") rather than signing up for military service. Like his smile of realization of his own change of feelings toward Dizzy after she kisses the tank where he's convalescing (for three days!) from his arachnid leg injury. Like the subtle way he takes in the realization that he's going to get some when Richards whispers in his ear that her father isn't home. Even the moment of high humor when he calculates that 20 minutes is enough time to have sex with Dizzy before the fleet takes off. "We can do it," he says to her, then immediately starts shimmying out of his pants.

And all the rest

Like, every moment in all of the "Do you want to know more?" video segments that are interspersed throughout the narrative.

Like, the insanely gruesome violence, which gives as forthright a notion of the true violence of war as any film you are likely to see, and which continues to make me call this one of my all-time favorite war movies.

Like, the basic training sequences, which have a gee-whiz quality while also including some of that insanely gruesome violence.

Like, the fact that you can see Neil Patrick Harris' reflection in the bulbous eyeballs of the "brain bug" when he reads its mind at the end.

Like, the individual great lines of dialogue, such as my favorite ("We can ill afford another Klendathu!"), the most badass ("They don't look like much when you're scraping them off your boot.") and the most gloriously cheesy ("They sucked his brains out.").

This love fest could probably go on and on, but I'll spare you.

I'll just conclude by saying that I love this movie a little more each time I see it, and suggest that if you were one of those who originally thought you hated this movie, I advise you to see it again. It's chock full.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The prequel to Airplane!, the prequel to Elizabeth Hurley

On Saturday night I watched a movie you'd think I would have seen ages ago. After all, when you really love a parody, you have a natural curiosity about the thing that inspired that parody.

The parody I love is Airplane! (called Flying High in Australia -- true story!), and the thing that inspired it is Airport, George Seaton's 1970 disaster movie. It's one of the famous 70s disaster movies with an all-star cast, alongside something like Towering Inferno. I saw Inferno way back in college, but it took until I was a 43-year-old man to finally see one of the granddaddies of the airplane-in-peril genre.

Although more plot elements of the original Airplane! are out of Airport '75 (or is it Airport '77?), there's no doubt that this movie provided the template for the jokes in the Zucker-Abrahams spoof classic. That's especially so because those other two movies were direct sequels to this one. Actually, in a bit of counterintuitive logic, Airplane II: The Sequel actually derives its plot about a crazy bomber directly from the first Airport movie ... with the notable change of the bomb in the suitcase being on a space shuttle instead of an airplane, of course. Sonny Bono memorably plays the bomber in Airplane II, while here the role is essayed by an actor named Van Heflin. But the details of the execution are almost identical, from both actors being twitchy and refusing to stop clutching their briefcases (called an "attache case" in Airport) to the rest of the passengers gathering behind Dean Martin and/or Robert Hays as he tries to talk the bomber down (having the passengers in the parody lean so far in as to actually absent-mindedly fondle Ted Striker while waiting to see what will happen).

I laughed repeatedly during Airport, but not primarily because of the hokey writing and dated pacing (it takes a full hour before the plane in peril even gets off the ground). No, it was laughter inspired by a new appreciation of how spot-on the parody in Airplane! is, including white courtesy vs. red courtesy phones, stands at the airport that sell life insurance policies, the self-serious air traffic controller jargon that makes excessive use of the word "niner," and the domestic entanglements/squabbles of the various professionals brought in to address the crisis.

All that said, I'm not entirely sure I can recommend Airport because of just how slow it is. For the first hour of the movie you'd think that the greatest crisis they have on their hands is a snow storm, and whether one particular flight from Chicago to Rome is going to get off the ground. Nowadays, flight cancellations are as commonplace as airline peanuts -- or perhaps more so, as many airlines have moved away from actual peanuts. (And in Airport, one passenger actually complains about a package of those freebie snacks being stale.)

Perhaps the single most surprising element that originated in this movie is the slapping of hysterical passengers, one of the most memorable scenes in the Zucker-Abrahams parody. There are two different instances of a hysterical passengers being slapped in this movie, though one is certainly played for comedy, as it's a priest doing the slapping. That was really the only moment in the whole movie where they appeared to be winking at us.

There's also a hilariously long amount of time spent on a subplot about a little old lady who flies airlines without buying tickets, as a stowaway. In the days after 9/11, it is simply inconceivable to us that there could have been a time when security was so lax that people without tickets could get on planes. A variation on this character shows up in Airplane! as well. Then again, when it's the guy who actually bought a ticket who tries to blow up this plane with a bomb, maybe little old lady stowaways should be the least of their security concerns.

Now for the other half of the title of this post. There are a lot of big names in this movie, from Martin to Burt Lancaster to George Kennedy to Maureen O'Hara. But there was one I hadn't seen in anything for so long, I had sort of forgotten what she looked like, especially since I'd never seen her in anything when she was this young.

Well, what she looked like was a lot like Elizabeth Hurley.

That's Jacqueline Bisset I'm talking about, and once I saw it, I couldn't un-see it. It doesn't hurt the comparison that she's also British, like the model-turned-actor who was once Hugh Grant's love interest.

I'll let you judge for yourself:

It's not only that I could see Elizabeth Hurley playing her in the remake -- if the remake had been made 20 years ago -- but part of me wondered if Hurley had actually jumped in a time machine and gone back to 1970 to star in the original.

They've both got aging well in common, as Bisset still looks beautiful at age 72, while Hurley might not even need the hypothetical Airport remake to have been made 20 years ago in order to star in it -- she just turned 52 yesterday and is still stunning:

Friday, June 9, 2017

An independent respite

My last four films in the theater had been Wonder Woman, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, John Wick: Chapter 2 and Alien: Convenant.

That's summer for you.

Add to that recent posts on this blog about two older Alien movies and Guardians of the Galaxy, and I've been surrounded by summer lately -- even as it has become frigidly cold in Australia.

Thursday night, it was time to get back to the arthouse.

That was resoundingly the case with Hounds of Love, a distinctive kidnapping thriller from Australian director Ben Young, making his feature debut. It's a rather familiar story told with a real knack for creeping us out and creating memorable imagery.

I won't say a lot more about it right now because I'm still trying to figure out exactly what I'll say about it in my review. Since my editor doesn't typically post new stuff on the weekends, it looks like I'll have the weekend to think about it.

It's the rare Australian film that "counts" -- in other words, can also be found in theaters outside of Australia. ("Counts" = is worth adding to my list so it can potentially make an apples to apples comparison with the year-end lists of American critics.) In fact, IMDB tells me it had a limited release in the U.S. a few weeks back, so maybe you -- assuming you are an American reader -- can actually find it at your local arthouse cinema.

For me, it was nice just to be reminded that not all movies seen in the month of June -- summer there, winter here -- involve explosions and familiar characters being hauled out for the umpteenth time.

Of course, I'm still walking on air a bit after Wonder Woman, so far be it from me to cast aspersions on all big budget fare.

Sometimes, though, you do need an independent respite, and I'll do my best to keep alternating little movies with big ones from here on out.

Up within about the next month: Una and The Beguiled.

And, you know, probably The Mummy and Spider-Man also.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Origins of greatness

We've seen the origin story of Batman enough times that people actively joke about the inevitable shot of Martha Wayne's pearls falling to the ground.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, you should. When young Bruce Wayne's parents get killed by that thug (a pre-accident version of the Joker) in an alley outside that theater, Martha Wayne is inevitably wearing pearls, and those pearls inevitably cascade to the ground after she is killed, as a kind chaste yet fairly indulgent signifier of her off-screen death. The most recent time this occurred was in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, when Zack Snyder actually has this punk (it may not always be the Joker) pull the pearls away from Martha's neck with the barrel of his gun before delivering the fatal shot (again, off screen). I'd almost say this was a case of winking at the famous Batman-specific trope if I thought Snyder had a sense of humor.

And maybe you knew that but hadn’t heard anybody joke about it. If so, you aren’t listening to The Next Picture Show podcast on the Panoply network, in which they joked extensively during the episode pairing Tim Burton’s Batman with The Lego Batman Movie that there were “no pearls harmed during the making of this movie,” and so forth. The book is out on Martha Wayne and her pearls, in any case.

I tell you all this to draw the following striking contrast: While a character like Batman can have his origin story told so many times that elements of it can actually become clichéd, I had to wait until the late date of 2017 to even know the broadest strokes about the origins of Wonder Woman.

I suppose I knew the broadest strokes, but most of those details were things I’ve forgotten. In fact, I’ve forgotten enough about the origins of Diana Prince that I thought of her more as a Batman (a superhero who has cool gadgets but no superpowers) than a Superman (a god). Well, gadgets like the lasso of truth and the invisible jet aside, Wonder Woman is not a Batman – she’s actually, literally, a god. In fact, in a fight between Wonder Woman and Superman – which we may get in the DCEU if we wait long enough – I don’t even know who would win.

And I tell you this because I’ve just seen Wonder Woman on Monday night, and it is quite simply one of my favorite superhero movies of all time.

The fact that this is a character whose origin story I didn’t even know is, frankly, shameful.

Not blaming myself here folks. Blaming Hollywood.

Given the outcome of Patty Jenkins’ movie, I might argue that it’s good we didn’t get a Wonder Woman movie before now, because then we wouldn’t have gotten this exact Wonder Woman movie, which I would never want replaced with another one. Even if getting an earlier WW movie would have meant that the studio bosses had been enlightened enough to give one of the world’s most famous superheroes a cinematic showcase before now.

Then again, arguing in the abstract about the regrettable delay in bringing Wonder Woman to the big screen is not mutually exclusive with being glad that this exact moment in the history of cinema has delivered us this exact Wonder Woman movie.

For one, if they’d given it to us earlier or later, Gal Gadot would probably not be Wonder Woman. Five years ago, at age 27, we wouldn’t have really known who she was yet, and the casting directors who had seen her only as eye candy in Fast & Furious movies might not have envisioned her in an iconic role like Wonder Woman. Five years from now, at age 37, she’d be too old. So only because Wonder Woman was made in 2017 did we get the Wonder Woman we deserve. There’s a lot of talk about just desserts in this movie, and whether we actually deserve the iconic hero Gadot has given us, I’m so glad we got her.

The love I feel for both Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman is strong enough that I feel like I could splinter this post off into a dozen subheadings, each of which could touch on a different reason why this movie is great. Instead, to rein myself in a bit I’ll just try to jam the things into this one paragraph, and only some of the things. 1) I don’t know how Gadot managed to be both powerful and vulnerable, fierce yet unspeakably kind, mature yet disarmingly innocent, and at every point absolutely beautiful, but she pulled it off, and it’s a damn fine trick that results in one of the best heroes I’ve ever seen on screen. 2) Chris Pine is also trafficking in opposites here, displaying perfect comic timing but also gravitas, strength but also a traditionally female need to be saved, moral courage and yet bearing the guilt of a legacy of cowardice. 3) The action set pieces are as rousing as any I have seen in a superhero movie since the MCU was created. 4) The period setting is even more perfect than the similarly appealing period setting of Captain America: The First Avenger, and bless this movie for having the courage to stay in it. 5) I never full-on cried, but I did tear up twice in this movie.

As I said, I truncated that paragraph. Heavily.

One other origin of greatness I am wondering about (pun not intended) is that of Patty Jenkins.

While being overjoyed that I didn't end up being that male critic that did not like Wonder Woman, I'm complicating this gender politics win by having a hard time fully crediting Jenkins for its success. I'll try to explain why.

Jenkins has directed only one other feature, which is Monster back in 2003. There's no doubt Monster is a good movie -- not a great one, but probably a very good one. It won Charlize Theron an Oscar, after all. But it's completely different than Wonder Woman, as different as two movies could get, probably. Which certainly makes it fit right in with the strange directing choices particularly for movies in the MCU, most of which do end up working out. The choice of Jenkins has been possibly the most successful of all of these.

But why Jenkins? Why did it take her 14 more years to get another movie, and why was it this one? And more importantly, was it her influence as an auteur that made this movie great, or should we actually credit the creative vision of DC, finally getting something right after so many misfires?

If you prefer to look to the screenwriter, well that's a head-scratcher too. As much of a headscratcher as anything is that it's only one screenwriter. His name is Allan Heinberg, and though he has a history with DC comics, his only history writing for the screen is in television, on shows such as Party of Five, Grey's Anatomy and Scandal. He was also involved with the Wonder Woman pilot shot for the CW back in 2012, but that was not even picked up.

For the sake of simplicity let's set Heinberg aside and focus only on Jenkins. It would be tempting to say she was installed only because of her gender, and worse, that this particular woman was hired because she does not have a body of work that would cause her to demand greater creative control, and DC could easily manipulate her. That would also be following the MCU model of directors who are willing to toe the company line.

I, of course, want to give Jenkins all the credit but am just trying to find the path to doing so. If this movie looks and feels nothing like Monster, and if it in fact does resemble other DCEU movies in substance, style and approach -- the difference being that it does everything right with these choices rather than everything wrong -- and if Jenkins has not made another film in 14 years, are we really crediting the right person if we credit Jenkins? Or is DC really the auteur here? Or is it some perfect marriage of studio and individual sensibility?

Perhaps there is a third option: Jenkins is a great director with an incredible understanding of the nuance of how to make a great movie, and it's only because Hollywood is a horribly sexist institution that she is only just now getting her chance to make a second movie. (I'm reading now that she was actually hired by Marvel to direct the Thor sequel but was dismissed after less than two months for that eternally vague but extremely common reason: "creative differences." Is it possible that DC is actually less sexist than Marvel? Or maybe just less controlling.)

Whatever the reality is, I'm so thankful to the two women who seem to be most responsible for this -- yes, I'll say it -- masterpiece.

The timing was right for Gadot and Jenkins, and as a result, it's right for all of us.

Go see this movie.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

I continue to be so over James Gunn

You may recall that when the first Guardians of the Galaxy came out and was a huge success, and
director James Gunn started showing up everywhere to "humbly" accept the praise and to poke his head into the spotlight, I got really annoyed with the guy. I posted about it here. (You can't see the hyperlink? That's because I was sure I posted about this, but apparently never did. Maybe I just complained about it loudly in my Flickcharters Facebook group.)

During the run of the sequel, I hadn't had occasion to notice the same kind of behavior from the director, maybe because the sequel is not as much of a hit with critics (though still a massive hit financially), or maybe just because my head is a bit more in the sand in general these days.

But you can't keep a narcissistic man down, so it figured that Gunn would eventually show up to take credit for something again.

Perhaps the most conversation-worthy element of the sequel, if it's not Kurt Russell, is Baby Groot. You know, the re-growing tree man who was reduced to a bunch of kindling at the end of the first movie. There may be other conversation-worthy elements, but I still haven't seen the movie, so I'm not a part of that conversation.

Anyway, Twitter was James Gunn's favorite outlet of "humble" self-promotion, so it shouldn't surprise me that he took to Twitter to post this video:

For those who don't want to follow the link, it's a GIF of Gunn dancing. The exact dance moves were then used to animate Baby Groot dancing.

I can see why he posted this GIF, which is kind of the epitome of the way people use Twitter. And I'm sure there are a lot of Guardians fans who eat this up.

But I am not a Guardians fan, so I can be more critical.

To me this video says "Not only am I the man with the unique combination of instincts and characteristics to make two great Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but I can even choreograph dance moves."

Or even "No one can interpret the potential dance moves of Baby Groot like I can."

Or even "My dance moves are so great that the only possible outlet I could think of that would showcase just how great they are is having this adorable regrowing version of Groot dance them."

Never mind that adult Groot never danced, so there's really no explanation for why Baby Groot would. (Or maybe there is. As I said, I haven't seen the movie.)

When I went on ad nauseum about why James Gunn bothered me three years ago when the first movie came out, my Flickcharters Facebook group -- most of whom loved the movie -- were not a very receptive audience. They thought I was "jealous," or something -- which is a bit ridiculous, as I don't aspire to the same things James Gunn aspires to, and am not operating within the same arena. And if I'm looking at it objectively, I'm sure Gunn's version of social media savvy self-promotion is not very different from that of dozens -- nay, hundreds -- of other Twitter-using celebrities. What's more, the studio surely loves that kind of promotion of its product.

But sometimes a person just strikes you as fatuous, as insufferable, as hogging the spotlight under the guise of some kind of "aw shucks" modesty. For me, James Gunn is that person.

Gunn ends the tweet by telling his followers to go see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 "again," making another arrogant (though probably correct) assumption that they've already seen it once.

People like Gunn make me not want to see their movies the first time.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Winona Ryder can't play a synth, and other Alien: Resurrection thoughts

In watching the two most recent Alien films, I've thought that the synthetic characters are the subject of an unusual amount of focus.

Rewatching Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection over the past few days, I've realized that focus was there all along.

Synthetic life makes only a brief appearance in Alien 3, in the form of a half-version of Bishop being resurrected (Synth: Resurrection?) for about five minutes, but it makes its return in a big way in Alien: Resurrection.

At first I thought it was Ripley herself. As the movie is 20 years old now and I only saw it when it first came out, I thought for a moment that the Ellen Ripley we get in this film is some kind of synthetic reproduction of Ellen Ripley. Then of course I remembered that she's actually a clone. Tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to.

But the actual synth in this movie is played by Winona Ryder, who displays nary a moment of synth-like behavior in the whole movie.

My first instinct is to blame Ryder, by giving her the counterintutive criticism that she has too humanistic instincts as an actor to play a scene robotically. However, I then have to realize that the synth we're seeing in this movie is 200 years more advanced than Bishop, the last synth we've seen in the timeline. Bishop is clearly robotic, but he's supposed to be an advanced model of Ash from the original Alien, who is human enough to pass for human to the rest of his crew. Maybe we really only know Bishop is a synth because the crew knows it from the start, so there's no surprise.

I guess my point of comparison, then, in criticizing the way Ryder plays a synth is Michael Fassbender from the new movies, an impossible reference point for Ryder when researching that performance. And of course, Fassbender is less sophisticated as a synth than Ash, not quite able to pass for human (unless it's the "evolved" David rather than the compliant Walter, I suppose).

In other words, synths have been nearly passing as human for almost the entirety of their existence, so why should I be concerned about Ryder's inability to pass as a synth?

I guess it's just that I feel like there should be something in her performance that signifies that she's not human, and I just don't see it. Even if the point is that synths have grown in sophistication to the point that they are effectively more human than human, especially among a group of rogues and mercenaries, I still want to see a creative choice in Ryder's performance that demonstrates her "otherness." And I just don't see it.

Maybe I should "blame" Jean-Pierre Jeunet?

In transitioning to my next "thought," I'll say that I like that Jeunet brings his own distinct touch to this the same way that Fincher brought his to Alien 3. If I was noticing the slowly creeping camera, the perfect framing and the moral bleakness of Fincher, then I'm noticing a more frenetic, whipping camera here that favors the zoom in to a sort of "grotesque" close-up. Also, some much-needed humor after the extremely dour Alien 3. Jeunet also brings with him a cast of regular collaborators (Dominique Pinon, Ron Perlman) who both fit perfectly into the Alien world. There's a sort of cyberpunk quality to Jeunet films like Delicatessen that also naturally translates to this world.

As I suspect we will discuss in our Alien-themed podcast tonight -- I'm writing this on Sunday but will publish on Monday, after we've recorded -- the Alien franchise makes interesting raw materials for any director to leave their own imprint. There are series where the sensibilities of any particular director are purposefully muted -- I'm thinking the MCU -- and then there are series like this where the director is allowed to run with the material, as we saw first with James Cameron in Aliens, then with Fincher and finally with Jeunet.

Which makes it kind of disappointing, then, that in his old age Ridley Scott has gotten greedy and demanded that he alone be the auteur informing the future direction of this series. How much might you like to see what someone like Darren Aronofsky would do with an Alien movie? Or Guillermo del Toro? Or even someone like Kathryn Bigelow, James Cameron's ex?

We will never see these Alien movies, and that's a shame.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The impact of Netflix distribution - on the director

I listened to an episode of The Slate Culture Gabfest this week that was recorded a couple weeks before that, in which they interviewed Adam Leon, the director of one of my favorite films from a couple years ago.

In 2012 Leon directed a small indie slice-of-life called Gimme the Loot, which featured two teenagers on an Odyssey-like trip through New York's outer boroughs. It played festivals in 2012 but was released properly in 2013, landing it among my top ten films of that year.

That may be Leon's last film with a "proper" release.

The subject of this interview was how Leon's new film, Tramps, has gone straight to Netflix. Tramps isn't very dissimilar from Gimme the Loot in subject matter or scope -- it also features a young man and a young woman on an Odyssey-like adventure in New York and New Jersey. The budget would have to be comparable, even with the presence of a known actor, Mike Birbiglia.

The big dissimilarity is the change in the cinematic landscape since 2013. Nowadays, films go straight to Netflix with such regularity that it almost doesn't even undermine their credibility anymore. (Almost -- I think they're still shaking off some of the stigma of no theatrical release, and will be for a couple more years.) But when Martin Scorsese's next movie is expected to have a day-and-date premiere on Netflix (while likely also having a theatrical release for awards consideration), you know that the whole model has shifted.

Leon discussed how that model has shifted, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of this shift. It was an interesting conversation, and I'd invite you to listen to it, except that I doubt you will go and pick up a new podcast just for this reason, so I'll summarize it here in just a moment.

The other reason a post about this is timely is because the Slate interview prompted me to put Tramps on my Friday night schedule, having been the thing that made me aware of the film's very existence. Watching it only 48 hours after first learning about it also underscores one of the benefits of the business model. Instead of having to try to find this in an indie cinema somewhere near my house -- and probably not finding it here in Australia at all -- I can get it with a click of the mouse on my computer, or in this case, a touch of the remote control on Netflix through our TV.

So yeah, Leon talks about how it's great to have a wide array of people tweeting about his movie just days after it premiered on Netflix, from all around the world. He talked, for example, about how there were a lot of people in Guatemala who seemed to like it. (Or was it Venezuela? Some Latin American country ending in A.) If it had been released theatrically, no one in Guatemala or Venezuela would probably ever see it. Now, they're seeing it immediately, and they're tweeting about it. And he's reading the tweets, resulting in instant warm fuzzies, instant validation of what he's done. (And of course some people dissing it, but that's the internet -- you take the bad with the good.)

That's the good news. The bad news is, he has no idea how many people have actually seen his movie, and probably never will.

In response to a direct question from one of the hosts -- Leon probably wouldn't have ventured this information himself -- the director said that Netflix would probably never tell him how many views his movie gets. Netflix is notoriously secretive, so this revelation is not some kind of violation of a confidentiality agreement between Leon and the company. One of the best known things about Netflix is how it refuses to show the man behind the curtain of its wizardry. Netflix has never provided an open accounting of anything, from its famous algorithm to its number of views to its profitability. They're a bit like the Donald Trump of streaming services, refusing to show us their tax returns.

But it really sucks to be a filmmaker and have only a vague sense of how many people have actually seen your movie.

Then again, I suppose the history of cinema has been a story of progressively less certainty about the number of eyeballs you're getting. In the olden days, when a movie theater was the only place you could see a movie, you got a pretty good idea just from the number of tickets sold. You could probably add another one or two percent for sneak-ins, and that would be your real total. But with video rentals, you couldn't be sure if that movie was being watched by one person or five, and with streaming and especially pirating, now you really have no idea. Especially if companies like Netflix refuse to tell you.

So the issue is, how does Leon convince somebody to give him money for his next movie, if he can't demonstrate that the last one was a hit?

If it's just making their money back, he can tell a studio that Netflix bought his movie for x amount more than it cost him to make it. But a movie like Tramps can never really be revealed as a "smash hit," a little indie that could, if it only plays on Netflix. Maybe the point, the tacit acknowledgement, is that in this day and age, nothing could make Tramps a "smash hit" so the vagueries of its success don't matter anyway. But sometimes, studios want to hire a director around whom there is a buzz because he took a small property and made it huge. Maybe Adam Leon is simply never destined to direct the next Ant-Man movie based off that kind of success.

But one gets the impression, to hear him talk, that Adam Leon doesn't care about things like that. He's content to make small character studies that deliver on their simple premises in really satisfying ways.

And I do hope he gets to make as many of them as he likes. He did also list that as a benefit, that without studio notes he can make a movie however he wants. And without having to travel the world on press junkets to promote his film, he can just get right to making the next one. However, I do imagine this is another good news/bad news situation. Sure, press junkets can be tedious. But there's probably also something exciting about them, especially if you are unaccustomed to them, and especially because it exposes you to a segment of your public face-to-face, and not just over Twitter.

Since I know that Adam Leon does thrive on Twitter mentions, as perhaps the only real currency available to him and in the absence of anything else, I hope that he also sees blog posts like this one. Because here's another voice in the crowd praising his work. I don't love Tramps quite to the extent that I love Gimme the Loot, but that's an incredibly high standard, as I chose Loot as my eighth favorite film out of the 128 I ranked in 2013. But it's more than a worthy follow-up to that film, and I wasn't the only one in my house who thought so.

I'd been wanting to show Loot to my wife first, and had actually planned to do that on Friday night, having heard Leon say it was also streaming on Netflix. Well, that would be American Netflix. It's not on here, but that's okay, because my wife suggested we just go straight to Tramps. Since she was a bit tired (the 82-minute running time was a real draw for her), I wasn't sure how much she'd liked it when we finished, and ventured only "That's a really nice little film, isn't it?"

"That's a great little film," she returned.

Here's to great little films, and I guess, also to Netflix for providing us the exposure to them.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Perfect pauses: Alien 3

I rewatched Alien 3 (hate that I cannot write this film's title correctly, to the third power) on Thursday night, in preparation for a podcast Sunday night in which we are discussing all the Alien movies. Our emphasis will be on Alien: Covenant, of course, which would have felt a tad more fresh if we'd recorded the podcast two weeks ago, as we were meant to do. But technical difficulties postponed that podcast. I was in favor of moving on to a new movie, but the other two were not. Majority rules.

Anyway, I didn't need to rewatch Alien 3 because we will probably touch on it only briefly, if at all. But I decided to go full bore and also rewatch Alien: Resurrection, a viewing that will be forthcoming tonight. I happen to have seen Alien and Aliens in the last few years anyway, and of course Prometheus is only five years old and I watched it twice that year. (Not realizing until the second viewing that I don't really like it all that much.) So after tonight I will be conversant in all of them in time for tomorrow.

As I was watching, soon after my kids went to bed, my younger instigated one of his multiple bedtime diversionary tactics by asking for more milk. And this was the corresponding pause, which I suppose is a spoiler for a movie that is now 25 years old, so look away if you really don't want to know anything about Alien 3. And the rest of this post will be filled with SPOILERS.

This is the exact moment when Alien 3 announced what type of movie it would be -- the type of movie that repudiates the very notion of happy endings.

So having randomly paused on it -- the inspiration for this periodic series Perfect Pauses -- made me take special note of it this time.

Actually, I've always taken special note of the fact that Newt died at the beginning of Alien 3. Newt, whose salvation gives Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley her entire motivation for strapping on a mech suit and fighting the xenomorph at the end of Aliens. The happy ending of Aliens, then, is entirely eradicated in one stark, chilling on-screen graphic.

Oh but it's not just the graphic. What I hadn't remembered, or possibly did not even notice the first time I saw it, was that you also get a brief shot -- just a second after this pause, the beginnings of which are already visible above -- of Newt's frozen death scream. So not only does the child die, but you also get to see that she died horribly. She wasn't struck on the head or impaled by some support column, like her unfortunate fellow traveler who is revealed as a bloody mess of viscera about ten seconds after this. No, it's possible the girl was actually scared to death.

Yep, and then later they do an autopsy on her body as well. And you actually get to see inside her.

This was not in keeping with my memory of Alien 3 at all, so I guess it's good I watched it again. I thought it had basically been off screen, like "Hey, Newt died," Sigourney Weaver crying for a minute or two and then on with the plot. But not only is there that autopsy, there's also a funeral for her and the guy who got crushed by the support column, before their mummy-style corpses are cast out into space.

It's all pretty hardcore, a real turn in philosophy from what is already arguably a bleak enough series. During this opening we also learn that the beloved synth Bishop (Lance Henriksen) has also been rendered with "negative capability" (chilling phrase) by this crash. Though Bishop does have a momentary comeback later on, in another sad scene. At least he gets a proper farewell.

Happy endings are something we rely on as lovers of film, and Alien 3 has the balls to take all the steam out of them. I mean, you could argue that the ending of Aliens is not a "happy ending" now at all because Alien 3 reveals that it wasn't an "ending" at all. In traditional terms, an "ending" would mean that the people's lives basically progress onward now in a boring state of happiness until they die 50 years later, having lived fulfilling lives. We can only call something an "ending" if we don't know what else happens in the story, and are left to believe that it's all happy (even though life is never all happy). So the "ending" of Aliens is only such because that's where James Cameron chose to stop telling his story. As it turned out, David Fincher picked up the story only like a day later, or however long it took them to crash on that prison planet (and if they were in hyper sleep anyway, then perhaps it only seemed like moments later to them). So not only does Alien 3 invalidate the happy ending of Aliens, it recontextualizes it as not an ending at all.

This made me mad the first time I saw it. Twenty-some years later -- I don't think I saw this until 1993 or 1994 -- it's probably my favorite part about the movie.

It takes the perspective of two more decades to recognize just how bold, how unusually despondent, the opening of Alien 3 is, especially in the grand scheme of the cinema that followed. The cold and clinical audit of which passengers are dead (three) and which alive (one) is the kind of shock to the system we just don't get in movies. Alien 3 is one of the weirdest third movies you are likely to see in a successful series, and it's certainly not something you would see today. Screenwriters David Giler, Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson would never be able to get away with killing a beloved child character from the previous movie at the start of the next movie, and they would certainly not be able to kill off the series' main character at the end of the movie, though that of course did not prevent (a version of) Ellen Ripley from returning in Alien 4.

Those kind of ballsy decisions pervade the first half of this movie. As I was watching, I felt myself immersed in a state of awe about how much I had underappreciated this movie. I hadn't hated it, of course, but I had subscribed to the conventional wisdom that the movie was hopelessly flawed, using the death of Newt as one of my primary examples of its wrong-headedness.

This time, I really appreciated the craft of David Fincher, then a nascent feature director (this was his first), but already boasting the wandering camera, perfect framing and moral bleakness of his later work. I love the setup and the choice for this movie's group of "expendables," the prison colony with a skeleton custodial staff of shaved-head religious fanatics. I loved some of the characters within that group, specifically those played by Charles Dutton and Charles Dance, and the leader, who always calls Ripley "leftenant." I loved that Sigourney Weaver spends at least the first third of the movie with a burst blood vessel in her eye, a probably unnecessary bit of realism that in most movies would be rejected by the star purely for reasons of vanity. All of this stuff was conspiring to make this a truly vital and not only underappreciated, but possibly flat-out great, entry in the Alien series.

Unfortunately, the second half of the movie is shit.

I can draw the line pretty much exactly with the (premature) death of Clemens, the doctor played by Charles Dance. Maybe this film just could not handle one more non-traditional narrative choice, but when he's grabbed by the xenomorph about halfway through, in a manner that is typically unimaginative (the deaths are not a strength of this movie), I thought "No, not him!" I really wanted this guy to be around for the finale. But no.

And after that it just progressively falls apart, to the point that Fincher's craft does not even seem impressive anymore.

All that running around in the shafts of the prison underbelly, trying to lure the alien here or there, gets repetitive and is not very impactful. I did not find it interesting at all to view the events from the perspective of the xenomorph, either. But I found it even less effective to view the xenomorph itself. Unless it's in the close-ups involving practical effects -- as in the iconic shot of the alien "kissing" the side of Ripley's bald head -- the alien looks absolutely terrible in this movie. That's because the moments of digital "magic" and green screen place this movie squarely in the year 1992. The alien looks distractingly awful as it scuttles through these subterranean passageways, just because it wasn't possible to make that kind of thing look good in 1992. In retrospect, they should have relied only on practical effects, though I suppose to a 1992 audience those sequences probably seemed reasonably impressive. Today, they are laughable.

And the film's ending, with Ripley's Christ-like back flop into a distant fire pit with the alien bursting out of her chest ... well, first of all, how far down is that fire pit? She seems to drop for no less than 15 seconds. What has otherwise been realistically rendered as a prison on a desolate planet has now become something out of Star Wars, bottomless pits of fire and all. It's all pretty laughable. (It's laughable here, not in Star Wars.)

So I guess my perspective on Alien 3 was not 100% salvaged by this viewing, but I do have immense appreciation now for its first half.

Maybe on my eventual third viewing, that's all I'll watch.

We'll see how my viewing of an insufficiently remembered Alien: Rescurrection goes tonight, post possibly (though possibly not) forthcoming.